Sunday, September 29, 2019

Year C Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 6:1a.4-7; Ps 146:7-10; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

In our second reading from 1 Timothy, we are urged to “Lay hold of eternal life.”1 Translated a bit more literally, we are urged, “lay hold of the life of the Age.”2 This refers to the age to come when God’s kingdom will be fully established.

What it means to “lay hold of the life of the Age” to come is to live in such a way as to make yourself fit for that age. This reading also gives instruction on how to do this: “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”3 Baptism and confirmation are alluded to when the inspired author reminds his readers of the faith they professed before witnesses, which commits them to “keep the commandment without stain or reproach.”4

What is the commandment to be kept? It is nothing other than the commandment to love: loving God with your entire being by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. In our Gospel this week, Jesus teaches us in startling terms the importance of living this way. According to Jesus, your neighbor is the person whom you encounter who needs your help. You don’t have to go to Calcutta, India and spend time with the Missionaries of Charity to find people who need your help. There are plenty of people right here in our community who need your assistance.

In our first reading, the prophet Amos rebuked the wealthy of the Northern Kingdom for putting their comfort and luxury before the needs of the poor. Jesus echoes this prophetic call in today’s Gospel. His teaching is a provocation. Keep in mind that “provocation” is a compound word: pro- meaning “for”- + vocation- meaning “calling”- = for your calling. This refers to your God-given calling. A genuine provocation, then, is one that helps you fulfill your calling.

For Christians, there is essentially one vocation, one call: to become holy by becoming like Jesus Christ. You received this call when you were baptized. It was confirmed when you were confirmed. This call is renewed in every Eucharist. At the end of each Mass, you are sent forth to fulfill your divine calling. As Jesus’s disciple, one of the primary ways you do this is by helping those in need.

In the Confiteor, which we said together at the beginning of Mass, we expressed sorrow for “what I have failed to do.”5 These are “sins of omission.” Sometimes it is not so much that we choose what is evil as it is that we actively choose not to do good. Today’s readings are as straightforward as they are challenging; they don't require a lot of interpretation. As Christians our lives should bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In anticipation of his glorious return, rather than drowning ourselves in an ocean of recrimination for our sins of omission, let’s each of us prepare ourselves and the world for the Age to come by committing to help those in need on an on-going basis.

Among the things you might consider are volunteering at the Bountiful Food Pantry or with the Ladies of Charity. You may also consider becoming involved with our Council of Catholic Women or Knights of Columbus council. Perhaps you can become an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, taking Communion to the sick and home-bound. Maybe you can sing in the choir. This, too, is service to others for the sake of God’s kingdom. If you can, in addition to supporting our parish, commit to financially supporting local, national, and international charities on an on-going basis in a sacrificial way.

By sacrificial, I mean something like taking your lunch a few times a week or doing without that nice cup of coffee and donating what you would spend on those to help people in need. Perhaps you can help someone in your neighborhood or in our parish with yard work, fall clean-up, etc. Taking time to serve others comes at the sacrifice of not being able to engage in other activities you’d like to pursue. This prompts the question, What are my priorities? As Christians, it’s important to find ways to put the needs of others before your own comfort and luxury.

In light of these readings, it seems good to be reminded that as Catholics we observe Friday as a day of penance. Just as every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, each Friday, excepting those on which a Solemnity falls, is Good Friday. Friday is the day Christ sacrificed himself on our behalf, thus giving us a model to imitate.

As Catholics in the United States, our bishops teach us that we observe Friday as a day of penance in two ways: by abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals, which is obligatory on Fridays of Lent, or performing a charitable act. Performing a charitable act means something like going out of your way to help someone in need at some inconvenience and/or cost to yourself.

Traditional Catholic practices, like observing Friday as a penitential day, are time-tested ways for living as Christians. Adhering to these practices in your daily life is how you strive to make yourself fit for the age to come; it is how you make God’s kingdom a present reality; it is how you turn the “not yet” into the “right here and now,” thus giving hope to a world that desperately needs it.

That Amos was a farmer and Jesus was a carpenter (in Greek tekton) lend credibility to the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.”6 As someone who adhered to the Rule of St. Benedict, the watchwords of Bernard’s life were, Ora et labora (i.e., “Pray and work”). This lovely three-word summary of life in Christ is made more explicit by these words of Pope Francis: “A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother [or sister] — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, [someone] in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer...”7

Just so, worship that does not lead to service, to diakonia, is not Christian worship.

1 1 Timothy 6:12.
2 1 Timothy 6:12 from The New Testament: A Translation, trans. David Bentley Hart, 422.
3 1 Timothy 6:11.
4 1 Timothy 6:14.
5 Roman Missal, "The Order of Mass," sec. 4.
6 Found in Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, by Richard Foster, 126.
7 Pope Francis, Sunday General Audience, 21 July 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul

Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching at the weekly Mass for our parish school. It was the obligatory Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul. For pastoral reasons, we use the first reading, responsorial Psalm, and Gospel of the upcoming Sunday. In this instance, there are no readings in all the lectionary that would be more fitting for the Church's remembrance of this great saint.

I began by asking the children some questions. Because I am uptight like that I put the answers in brackets. Anyway, what follows is my homily. It's important for me to laugh at my own uptightness.

So I don't leave you with the wrong impression about being uptight, I don't exactly follow the script. I add to or change things while preaching depending what I perceive as the assembly's response. In this instance, the dialogue at the beginning went very well. So I expanded it a bit. I am relieved it went well because I am not great at preparing homilies for children.


Readings: Amos 6:1a.4-7; Ps 146-7-10; Luke 16:19-31

How many of you love Jesus?

Knowing your faith should inform how you live your life. Catholic children used to learn our faith by memorizing answers to questions. So, this morning I am going to ask you guys a few questions, okay?

How many commandments did God give to Moses? [10]

How many commandments did Jesus give us? [2]

What two commandments did Jesus give us? [“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”- (Luke 10:27)]

Saint Vincent de Paul

What was Jesus’s main point in the Gospel reading we just heard? [importance of serving the poor]

How you love God is by loving your neighbor. It’s important to know that your neighbor isn’t just the person sitting next you or the people who live next door. Jesus teaches that your neighbor is the person you encounter how needs your help. Elsewhere in the New Testament we learn that if we say love God whom we have not seen and do not love our neighbor we are dishonest. In fact, if this is our attitude, Scripture says we are liars (1 John 4:20). So, in today’s Gospel Lazarus was rich man’s neighbor. How did the rich man treat Lazarus? Did he treat him like a neighbor?

Today the Church remembers a great saint: St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660). St. Vincent was a saint because he loved Jesus by loving his neighbors. As a priest, St. Vincent recognized that his neighbors were the poor people of Paris. As a result, he set about serving them, working to ensure they had food, clothing, and shelter. He organized other Christians to assist the poor, not just in Paris but in many places.

It’s important for us to remember that St. Vincent had an influence on St. Olaf parish and school. Vincent founded a religious order of men: the Congregation of the Mission, or Vincentians. He also founded a religious order of women: the Daughters of Charity. It was the Daughters of Charity who started St Olaf school. The Daughters of Charity served at our school for many years. It was their concern to hand on the Christian faith to young people right here in Bountiful, Utah so that the love of Jesus would continue to be shown to those in need everywhere.

In his care for the poor, St. Vincent gives us the counterexample to the rich man in today’s Gospel, who ignored Lazarus as he suffered day after day right outside his door. In this St. Vincent shows us how to love Jesus by loving our neighbors, keeping in mind that our neighbors are those people who need our help.

Friday, September 27, 2019

"Sing His praises once more"

When/if we ever start Charismatic Masses in English again in our local Church, Rich Mullins's "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" would be a good opening or closing song. Of course, this would require plenty of enthusiastic pre-Mass praise and worship to warm-up. If you don't like charismatic expressions of Christian faith, this probably isn't the post for you.

Another dreamy aspiration would be to assist Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, as he presides at such a Mass! Of course, Rich & Brennan (Manning) would be jamming with us ragamuffins in the communion of saints.

Listening to Amy Grant sing this song this week recalled to my mind that moment in October 31 years ago when, kneeling before a crucifix, I gave my heart to Jesus. In that moment I said to Him something like, "Lord, I want to follow you wherever you lead me." You see, I was lonely and miserable in that moment. Jesus met me in my need in a way I can't describe. He's been with me ever since. I can say without hesitation, if He were not with me I would not be writing this or anything else. While nothing changed right away, it's amazing what happened over the next two years.

What a journey He's taking me on. Sure, sometimes the road goes through the Valley of the Shadow Death but Jesus, who is the Lord of that and of all valleys, is with me. He never says, "Come on, Scott, you're falling behind." He patiently walks back to accompany me. Sometimes we sit on the side of the road while I recover. At such times we just sit together. I don't mind saying, He often lets me rest my head on His shoulder.

Our Friday traditio is from "back in the day," as it were. We were young and loved Jesus. Hey- "The Life goes on and so must the song." I don't want to go back and be a young, idealistic (perhaps overly idealistic) and immature Christian again (not that I am a fully mature Christian yet). No, re-listening to songs from my early days of belief allows me to gain a whole new appreciation for my faith, the miracle of it, and that enthusiasm I had. I hope of all those wonderful experiences have borne some fruit over 30+ years. Listening to songs like "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" is like coming back after a journey of some distance, one that took awhile. It's my recognition that somehow, by the grace of God, I have not forsaken my first love, at least never entirely (Rev. 2:4). In my own weak and faltering way, I striven to remain faithful to this vow.

As the song exhorts: "You gotta sing, again, the song born in your soul when you first gave your heart to Him."

I love the mash-up at the end. Of course, we didn't call it that back then, but it's pretty great.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Who do you serve?

Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Ps 113:1-2.4-8; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

It's important to keep in mind that the Old Testament and Gospel readings in the Lectionary on Sundays during Ordinary Time are harmonized. This Sunday our Old Testament reading is from the Book of the Prophet Amos. In true prophetic fashion, Amos's prophecy has little or nothing to do with foretelling the future. What Amos's prophecy is concerned with, as are the prophecies of most of the other prophets, is calling Israel back to fidelity with the Covenant God established with them. It is adherence to this Covenant that makes Israel God's chosen people. The essence of the Covenant is Israel's care for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor.

In our first reading Amos rebukes those who "trample" over the poor and reserves particular venom for those who cheat while selling grain, thus making bigger profits from those who already have very little. Being the prophet par excellence, Jesus takes up the prophetic mantle of Amos and the other prophets. Jesus amplifies the message of the prophets, making it universal. The Law was given as a means to the ends of loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Nonetheless, for many the Law is made into something quite antithetical, something complex instead of simple. Christians do the same thing by making the Gospel primarily about individual salvation freely given quite, thus seeking to separate it from how we live our lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was quite right to call this "cheap grace."

Our Gospel this week is one that is very easy to misinterpret. How this misinterpretation usually works is by making the assertion that Jesus urges his followers to be like the dishonest steward. Up front, it is important to note that there is no question about the steward's dishonesty. He is identified from the beginning as dishonest, as unrighteous, as a bad steward who takes advantage of his master. He cheats his master from beginning to end. It is not just the steward who is dishonest, however. Jesus calls all "mammon" dishonest. What this likely refers to is that by placing your trust in material possessions and ordering your life to acquiring wealth, being primarily concerned with your own comfort, fostering the illusion of self-reliance, you separate yourself from God and other people in violation of the two great commandments. Especially in the U.S. and other advanced Western societies, this is perhaps the major thing that afflicts the Church.

According to Eric Franklin, the perspective of the story is a worldly one. The steward is not a good steward. He is not a person worthy of the trust placed in him by his master. As a result, his master dismisses him. The steward responds to his dismissal in a vigorous and one might argue creative way. Even though he was defrauded, the master, who himself sees all of this from a worldly perspective (i.e., the master is neither Jesus nor God the Father), commends his fired servant's initiative. Note that the master does not reinstate the steward as a result of the way he settled his accounts with his debtors. It can't be lost on anyone who reads this story that the dismissed steward's settlements were entirely self-serving, aimed at securing future employment at his current employer's expense. In my view, Jesus's words about being trustworthy in small things speaks directly to the dishonest steward's lack of character.

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward, by Marinus van Reymerswaele, ca 1540

Franklin goes on to assert that perhaps Jesus is addressing this parable to his disciples who were tax collectors and sinners. He asserts that Jesus needs to confront them, to provoke them, thus bringing about their repentance. So, he encourages them to use "dishonest wealth" to make friends with the poor. This puts Jesus's teaching in line with our reading from Amos. Rather than profit at the expense of the poor, these followers are to use dishonest wealth, wealth that comes at the expense of others, to help the poor even while eschewing and opposing unjust systems that generate dishonest wealth. In the story of Zacchaeus a few chapters on we see clearly what the repentance Jesus hopes to bring about looks like in reality (Luke 19:1-10).

Returning to Franklin's exposition of the tale of the dishonest steward, it seems the message of the story is that the crisis facing Jesus's hearers is similar to that of the steward's being fired. Like the steward, the crisis posed by the imminence of the age to come portends the loss of all your money, wealth, and luxury. Jesus inaugurates this age, the "already" his followers are to live in the midst of the "not yet." You do this by attending to and caring for the poor and needy, who will be first in God's kingdom.

Hence, you should respond to the looming crisis in an energetic and decisive way. It's important, again, to recognize that far from being a sure sign of God's blessing (a tiresome trope of American Christianity), wealth and material possessions often constitute the biggest obstacles to making yourself fit for the age to come. It is the coming of that age, the realization of God's kingdom, that foments the crisis to which everyone who hears and believes Jesus's message must respond. Refusing to respond is a response. Pope Francis frequently decries our indifference to the suffering of the world's poor.

In the words of a Bob Dylan song: "You Gotta Serve Somebody." Do you serve God or mammon? Do you serve the Lord or the devil? Is your life about making God's kingdom present here and now, bringing the future into the present, which is what it means to be a person of hope, or are you intent on seeking satisfaction in those things that can never provide it, ignoring the needs of others? To end by pointing out the obvious: you serve the Lord by serving your neighbor. Who is your neighbor? The person in need who you are in a position to help whether nearby or far away in this interconnected age.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Ramblings mental and physical

A bit later this morning I am headed to New Mexico to lead a retreat for some of my brother deacons who serve in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. If I am honest, I find it a bit nerve-racking. So, I would appreciate any prayers you might utter on my behalf, especially those to the Blessed Virgin. Perhaps consider saying a Memorare for me?

The retreat is taking place at Our Lady of Guadalupe Benedictine monastery in Pecos. The reason for my nervousness is that I have only led one deacon retreat prior to this. It was four years ago and for my brother deacons of my own diocese.

Chapel, Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, Pecos, NM

In both instances I was asked to lead the retreat on short notice because the original leader had to cancel. This retreat I agreed to do it on two weeks notice. This is not a complaint. Once I get over myself, which usually takes some doing, I am happy to step up and let myself be challenged. 

Beyond the retreat- though partially impacted by my decision to lead it- it's been a really difficult couple of weeks. I pray that this weekend's break in my routine might prove helpful in this regard. If nothing else, these past few weeks have reinforced the message I plan to deliver to my brother deacons: spiritual discipline is very important.

Our Friday traditio is a lovely Gregorian chant version of the Salve Regina. It bears noting that today the Church remembers and celebrates the Korean martyrs Saints Andrew Kim Taegon, Paul Chong Hasang, and Companions.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"This man welcomes sinners..."

Readings: Ex 32:7-11.13-14; Ps 51:3-4.12-13.17.19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

Today's Gospel is about how God, being the Good Shepherd and, more importantly, the Good Father, goes in search of those who are lost, those who are broken, those who need healing. In other words, God seeks out people like me. In our rush to get to the Parable of the Prodigal Son we often over look the context of the three parables that comprise our Gospel reading for this Sunday.

The context is the scribes and Pharisees, noticing how Jesus draws the "tax collectors and sinners" to himself, complain. Their compliant? "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." It is the importance of welcoming sinners that prompts Jesus to teach three parables in succession. Each of the parables presents a different way of explaining why he welcomes sinners. It is with the Parable of the Prodigal that importance turns into necessity. It becomes necessity because welcoming sinners and inviting them to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb is the very nature of God.

There's probably no passage in all of the Sacred Scriptures that provides us with a more beautiful, that is, truer picture of God the Father than the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is God, the God of Israel. This is the One God, living and true. The God who is love (1 John 4:8.16). Worshiping any other God is rank idolatry. The God worshiped by those who think they earn God's favor through what they call obedience is perhaps the most pernicious idol there is, making the Golden Calf from our first reading seem benign by comparison. God loves you as you are because God loves that you are. After all, God made you out of love in order to love.

By welcoming and dining with tax collectors, who were the lowest of the low for cooperating with and profiting from the occupying Romans, and sinners- prostitutes and other such folks- Jesus was demonstrating in reality what he taught in parables. These days it's even worse. The Lord goes even further than merely welcoming and dining with sinners. He invites such people, like me, to partake of his body and blood. We call this Eucharist. Thank you, Lord, for inviting a sinner like me to your table. Moreover, thank you for letting me serve at your table. What a privilege it is. I could never be worthy. Both my participation and service are graces.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-1670

The essence of my main point is captured in our epistle reading: "This saying is trustworthy and worthy of all acceptance: that Jesus the Anointed entered the cosmos to save sinners, among whom I am foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15- from David Bentley Hart's New Testament: A Translation). There is a reason we enact the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass (the vast majority of the time- the rest of the time the Sprinkling Rite still reminds us we need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb). There is a reason we all say out loud, just prior to receiving Holy Communion:
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed
Jesus is the healer of your soul and my soul. The Eucharist is the medicine with which we are healed.

It's true that neither of these penitential rituals has the efficacy of the sacrament of penance, but sincere repentance is a matter of the heart. My heart is only known by God and by me. While always known to God, my heart is opaque to me at times. I can go to confession, make a good confession, and yet not be truly contrite or have a firm purpose of amendment.

Yet, I can be at Mass and have a moment of genuine repentance, feel contrition, and resolve, in my weakness, to strive to change what I need to change. By receiving the Eucharist, I seek the help I need, the medicine for my soul. In any case, I am in no position to judge the inward disposition of anyone else, ever! Neither are you, my friends.

Pope Francis asserts that Holy Communion "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." Lest someone accuse the Holy Father (yet again) of straying from the Tradition, consider these words of St. Ambrose of Milan: "If, whenever Christ’s blood is shed, it is shed for the forgiveness of sins, I who sin often, should receive it often: I need a frequent remedy."

I think it beautiful that our Psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 51. This psalm is also known as the Miserere. It is the first psalm of Morning Prayer each Friday of the four week Psalter. This psalm provides the words of the Invitatory with which the Liturgy of the Hours begins each day: "O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise" (Ps 51:17).

Even now Catholics are to observe each Friday, except those on which a solemnity falls, as a day of penance. This makes opening Morning Prayer with the Miserere very fitting. The verses of Psalm 51 that compromise our responsorial for this Sunday note that all I have to offer God by way of sacrifice "is a contrite spirit" (Ps 51:19). I make it in the confidence that God won't reject my offering of "a heart contrite and humbled" (Ps 51:19). Anyone who thinks s/he has more to offer God than this is an idolator. In the words the late Philip Roth placed in the mouth of his literary character Mickey Sabbath: "Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked."

Friday, September 13, 2019

"But to stand there it takes some grace"

Well, the week started out fine enough. In truth, it's coming to an end quite nicely too. However, the middle was a bumpy ride. More opacity, I know. Suffice it to say that the black dog came out of the bushes and jumped me Wednesday evening. For those who do not know, "the black dog" refers to depression. As I confessed to a friend, prior to this episode I was starting to have "illusions of progress." By that I mean since roughly the first of this year I had been doing pretty well. I made a lot of changes in terms of lifestyle: diet, exercise, prayer, quitting alcohol, again. Since I quit for 15 months in 2015-2016, I hadn't been imbibing much. But a little is too much for me. People prone to depression don't need depressants, at this one doesn't.

As a friend reminded me, Satan means accuser. Without going into excruciating detail, the nadir of these episodes most of the time is arriving at the conclusion I am no good and that everyone would be better off without me. Not only does this become believable, it grows very convincing. I wonder, "Why can't I just get on with things like everyone else? Why am I so needy? Why can't I accept that it's unfair to expect others carry the weight of my need? Why does life often seem so pointless?" This line of questions starts to make me feel like I am going to explode. Eventually, I run out of steam and find sleep. When I awake I am often struck by what I've been through and start to shame myself and to feel embarrassed. The reason for this is that it all seems so self-centered. Anyway, those are the Cliff Notes.

As I've noted before, my greatest insecurity is believing that if someone, anyone, really knew me s/he would not like me. Let's face it, we all care about what others think about us. This is not the problem, however. The problem is twofold: caring more than you should about what others think and assuming everyone, or most everyone, thinks poorly or negatively of you. Chances are there people in your life who think the best of you. Believe it or not, among those people are at least a few who think the best of you despite having seen you at your worst!

Some 40+ hours later, I am not quite my old self (whoever the hell that is). I am seeing things a bit more clearly. I am more in my right mind and not in the midst of panic, being battered by tidal waves of self-doubt and beaten bloody by mental self-flagellation. But I am tending the wounds by spending the day largely on my own doing small, manageable tasks. I went to the Church and did about an hour-and-a-half of sacristan duties, getting things ready for Sunday Masses, which I loved.

Once again, I see there are people close to me who care, who are pained by my suffering, who reach out persistently even as I balk at being helped, seeing myself as beyond their well-meaning ministrations. One of those people, somebody quite unexpected, shared her own story with me, which humbled me. In other words, these people are caring and compassionate, not merely sympathetic or sorry for me. Once again, I am determined not to wait for the crisis to seek support and to make sure I am supporting others. It's mutual thing because it's a human thing.

I am firmly convinced that God gives me more than I can handle. It's how I learn to rely his love and the love of others. Love is life.

Why do I share this publicly? Well, because I've lived to tell about it. To validate the legitimacy of my experience instead of beating myself up for not being able to always handle things. To express gratitude for my life and to the people who love and care about me and who I sometimes take for granted. To encourage other people so afflicted to open up and lighten up, to acknowledge their need for help and forge stronger bonds with others (hard, I know). To offer some companionship. And because it helps me to write about it, even if poorly. As I have long insisted, if I derived no benefit from blogging I would stop doing it.

The late and still dearly missed Rich Mullins's "We Are Not as Strong as We Think We Are" seems a more than fitting traditio for this Friday. Hey, Rich, put in a prayer for the rest of us Ragamuffins.

We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Year C Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 9:13-18b; Ps 90:3-6.12-14.17; Phmn 9-1.12-17; Luke 14:25-33

We are again reminded at the beginning of our Gospel reading that we are journeying with Jesus. The inspired author of St. Luke’s Gospel notes that at this stage of his journey, the Lord is accompanied by “crowds.”1 Probably many in these crowds wondered where Jesus was headed. You may sometimes wonder where the Lord is leading you, especially when the road takes an unexpected turn, or bypasses the route to a destination you desire.

But being Jesus’s disciple requires you to overcome a certain naivete about where you are headed by following him. As Jesus makes clear in our Gospel today, his destination is not only Jerusalem but the cross. This is why he says, again- “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come me… cannot be my disciple.”2 The reason that such a person cannot be Jesus’s disciple is because s/he refuses to journey to the destination, thus refusing her/his destiny. The fruit of our meditation on the fifth Mystery of the Blessed Virgin's Holy Rosary, the Crucifixion, is perseverance.

To refuse the cross is to reject the Gospel. As we heard three weeks ago in one of our readings from the Letter to the Hebrews: “preferring the joy that lay before him, [Jesus] endured a cross, disdaining its shame.”3 Like our Master, we should prefer the joy that lays beyond the cross: God's kingdom.

Jesus invites you to follow him. He does not compel, coerce, or manipulate you. Our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon gives us an idea of what extending Jesus’s invitation to others looks like in reality. Too often, in my view, we tell stories about the Scriptures at the expense of the stories we find in the Scriptures thus often obscuring the overarching story the Scriptures communicate. As the Bible translator and Church father St. Jerome insisted: “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Only once in the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings do we read from Philemon, which letter conveys a compelling real-life set of circumstances.

In his approach to Philemon, a Christian slave-owner, Paul is very Christ-like. The crux of the matter is that a slave of Philemon’s, named Onesimus, left without permission to journey with Paul, who was being taken as a prisoner to Rome.

Paul’s arrest, his arraignment before the Roman governor Felix, who imprisoned him in Caesarea for two years, then before Felix’s successor, Festus, who turned the matter over to King Agrippa, is chronicled in the final 8 chapters of the book of Acts. Both Festus and Agrippa wanted to acquit and release Paul, who was charged with inciting riots by preaching what some fellow Jews considered to be heresy, namely Christianity. It is ironic that this is what Paul formerly persecuted Christians for, beginning with his instigating the fatal stoning of Stephen. Because Paul already invoked his right as a Roman citizen to have his case adjudicated at the imperial court in Rome, they did not acquit him.

Realizing Onesimus left without Philemon’s approval, Paul sent him back with a letter. In the letter, Paul urges Philemon to deal gently with Onesimus, noting that their relationship as brothers in Christ trumps their master/slave relationship. In and through Christ, Paul insists, they are equals. Hence, Philemon should treat Onesimus as a brother, not punish him as a runaway slave. Far from endorsing slavery, this letter gives us a glimpse of the subversive nature of Paul’s radical message about the equality of all people in and through Christ.

Icon of Saint Onesimus, Wikipedia

Instead of invoking his apostleship to keep Onesimus, whom he describes as his “child,” and his “own heart,” with him, Paul avoids forcing Philemon’s hand. 4 The apostle does not present Philemon with a fait accompli, lest Philemon’s “goodness” be something imposed on him. Rather, in his pastoral concern, Paul sends Onesimus back and gives Philemon the opportunity to act in a genuinely righteous way toward his slave for the sake of the Gospel.5

Paul’s insistence that who they are in Christ by virtue of baptism overrides the master/slave relationship between Philemon and Onesimus sheds light on what Jesus says about prioritizing following him over everything and everyone else. As he does quite often, Jesus in this passage uses hyperbole when he enjoins his hearers to “hate” their spouses, parents, children, and even their own lives.6

It is by experiencing the love of God in Christ and responding to God’s love that you come to love yourself justly and form healthier, more loving attachments with your spouse, parents, children, friends, whomever. In other words, a relationship with God through Christ makes you less emotionally needy, less prone to crush others under the weight of your needs, of your insecurities, your fears. We often recite the Prayer of Saint Francis, in which we pray:
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
In today’s Gospel, Jesus urges anyone who would follow him to calculate the cost of doing so. Following Jesus does not merely require some inchoate something. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself whole and complete. In return, he asks you to give yourself to God completely.

It’s “a thing” among some Christians to choose a “life verse.” A “life verse” is a Scripture verse that succinctly captures for the one who adopts it what it means to follow Christ; a verse that inspires and challenges. If I were to adopt such a verse, it would almost certainly be the opening verses of the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
Therefore, I implore you, brothers [and sisters], by God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God… do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect7
Were today not Sunday, we would celebrate the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the model Christian disciple. Our Blessed Mother’s fiat (i.e., the words with which she accepted the call to bear God’s Son), when translated with a bit more precision than we usually encounter, serves as a great summary of God's word today: “See: the slave of the Lord; may it happen to me as you have said.”8

1 Luke 14:25.
2 Luke 14:27.
3 Hebrews 12:2 in The New Testament: A Translation, trans. David Bentley Hart, Yale University Press, 452.
4 Philemon 10.12.
5 Philemon 14.
6 Luke 14:26.
7 Romans 12:1-2 in The New Testament: A Translation, 311.
8 Luke 1:38 in The New Testament: A Translation, 105..

Friday, September 6, 2019

"Imagine something... you can have and hold"

I try avoid using the same song more than once for our Friday traditio. It's not unusual, however, for me to employ a few songs by the same group or artist in short succession. Last Sunday afternoon I was home alone, working on a few things and listening to the radio. As I worked and listened "Dreamin'" by Blondie came on.

Given some of what's been going on in my life the past several weeks, "Dreamin'" seems especially apt as our traditio this week.

The events to which I refer have not been unpleasant, just a bit disorienting for me. As a result, I have had to do some serious heart-work, some deep digging. Hey, I'm a work in progress. Progress isn't always pretty and doesn't always feel good. What I've realized is that it's important to be grateful for what I have even while, being human, I can't help but sometimes think about what might've been. Maybe this mental exercise isn't as fruitless as I insisted it was last Friday. Yeah, I don't claim to be infallible either.

While I'm at it, why not go literary as well?

Ever since I first read these words, written by C.S. Lewis at the beginning of his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, they have resonated with me. Far from appropriating his observation on false pretenses, these words capture something important for me and about me: "My father's people were true Welshmen, sentimental, passionate and rhetorical, easily moved to anger and to tenderness; men who laughed and cried a great deal and who had not much talent for happiness."

I apologize for the opacity of this post and last Friday's. I will try to get back to being more transparent next week. If nothing else, you were able to watch and listen to the opening song for Blondie's 1979 concert in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Hey, say a prayer for me if you don't mind.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Following Christ requires poverty and humility

Readings: Sir 3:17-18.20-28-29; Ps 68:4-7.10-11; Heb 12:18-19.22-24a; Luke 14:1.71-14

Humility, what a concept! More than a concept, humility is viewed by Christians and non-Christians alike as a virtue. To invoke the Seven Deadly Sins again, humility is the contrary virtue to the vice of pride. This makes humility very important because pride is at the root of a lot of sinful behavior. Like most virtues, we make too much and too little of humility at the same time. You make too much of humility by seeing as unattainable. Because it's unattainable, it requires nothing of you. We make too little of it by not valuing people who are truly humble. Because they're humble, it's easy to overlook them.

In today's Gospel, Jesus, our Master and Teacher, gives us a very straightforward lesson both on the importance of being humble and how to be humble. I really don't like the phrase "fake it 'til you make it." Nonetheless, when it comes the virtues, you have to start somewhere. This makes Jesus's teaching in our Gospel today very practical: it is by practicing humility that you become more humble.

The other focus of today's Gospel, as well as of responsorial Psalm, is poverty. Like humility, poverty is a virtue. This ties in very well with the Lord's teaching that warns us about placing our trust, our hope, in money, power, or material things. The virtue of poverty does not necessarily require to sell all you own and give everything to the poor. However, you should not be too hasty to rule out that option completely! It does require you not to hold on too tightly to what you have or to foolishly think things like, "I've been successful. I've accumulated enough money to live on easy street. I need not worry about anything." To be comfortable, to invoke Newman once again, is to be unsafe.

All of us must ever bear in mind that when it comes to what really matters, we're nothing more than paupers, than beggars. Death is the great equalizer. In his goodness, God has mercy on us beggars. God invites only beggars to the wedding feast of the Lamb. God invites only people who can never pay him back. It's true, nobody can pay God back for what he has done for us in and through Christ. Acquiring and cultivating the virtues of humility and poverty are our tickets, our invitations, to the heavenly feast. We must present these at the door. Hence, active and continuous service to those who are truly in need is an important harbinger of God's kingdom in the here and now.

Thinking about the virtues of poverty and humility caused the Joyful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary to pop into my mind. These are the mysteries that help us to meditate on the Incarnation of God's only begotten Son. Humility is the fruit of the Mystery on which we focus as we contemplate the first Joyful Mystery, which is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel that she was to bear God's Son. Bearing God's Son makes her the Mother of God. It's difficult to think of a more exalted calling. As in all things, Mary is a model disciple. She receives this astounding news with great humility. As I did last week, I turn again to her Magnificat, to the opening lines of this canticle:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him... (italicizing and emboldening emphasis mine)

The third Joyful Mystery- Jesus's Nativity- bids us to meditate on his birth in an animal abode, likely a cave, his being wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough (his being put in a feeding trough has serious Eucharistic overtones). The fruit of this Mystery is poverty. For our sakes he became poor so that we might become rich. The great Kenotic Hymn St. Paul uses in his Letter to the Philippians sets forth the marvel of the Incarnation by pointing out that Jesus Christ,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross
In the verse that precedes the Kenotic Hymn, Paul urges the early Christians of ancient Philippi and by extension us: "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). Like most of Jesus's teaching, this is easy to comprehend and difficult to do.

The virtues of poverty and humility can be nicely tied together by something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." Let's bear in mind the wisdom of Sirach: "Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins" (Sir 3:29).

Monday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hosea 2:16.17c.18.21-22; Ps 145:2-9; Matthew 9:18-26 Our Gospel today is Saint Matthew’s version of events first written about ...