Monday, September 20, 2021

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time


This week autumn returns: a season to harvest our memories from another year. Those from the Northeast will see colorful foliage. All of us can enjoy this special season of change as we approach Thanksgiving and the winter holiday.

The word of God takes us back to the wisdom literature of ancient Israel. The author speaks about a person who always tries to do the right thing. Yet some evil-doers want to murder him. Why do bad things happen to good people?

The author of the letter of James asks: why do some people choose evil? Yes, why do some people at times choose wrong over right. Christianity calls this human condition “original sin,” the fall from grace described graphically in Genesis, chapter 3. But God so loved us that he sent his only Son so everyone who believes in him might have eternal life. In baptism, we become by grace what Jesus is by nature: sons and daughters of God our Father, called to live a life worthy of that status.

 In the Gospel, Jesus speaks about his own mortality. He challenges us to be servant leaders: serve one another even if it costs us dearly.  Then Jesus predicts his own passion and death and resurrection. This mystery reveals our true destiny: to be in relationship with God forever in a new, transformative life.

Jesus brings us face to face with his and our own dying.

The experience of death today is different from 100 years ago when people may have died in their 40s or 50s, often in their homes with family and friends. Today some people may die in their 90s or 100s in hospitals or nursing homes, and perhaps alone.

A best seller “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” questions whether employing medical technology to lengthen life at the expense of quality is the right thing to do.

The author describes three patterns of decline. With an incurable disease; treatments may lengthen life but eventually the body wastes away. A chronic disease, such as emphysema, is treatable but repeated relapses eventually siphon the life out of a person. And finally, there’s the pattern of old age called “frailty”: no life-threatening disease but a gradual decline.

The question for the author, a surgeon, becomes when to “let go,” when to stop offering treatments that likely don’t work. The doctor asks: why submit the dying to the full panoply of medical procedures only to see them merely exist in institutions and lose their independence.

Many know the five stages through which dying patients and loved ones may discern. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined them:

         -Denial: “No, not me.” A typical response if one is diagnosed with a                 life-threatening illness.

-Anger: “Why me?” God may be a target for anger especially if one is young. But it's ok, God can take it.

-Bargaining: “Yes me, but.” The patient bargains. I'll do this or that, God, if you lengthen my life.

-Depression: “Yes, me.” The person realizes he or she is not getting better; and there are regrets for things done or not done.

And finally,

- Acceptance: “My time is running out but it’s all right.”

 These stages are not absolute but can be a guide. And similar stages can apply to major life changes like job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one.

 Dr. Kubler-Ross wrote another book titled “Death: the Final Stage of Growth.” The title segues into the Christian understanding of death. The foundation is Good Friday/Easter. The story of Jesus did not end in the tragedy of the cross but in the triumph of the Resurrection. Our faith challenges us to remember that the light of our resurrection will shatter the darkness of our own death. God will transform us into a new kind of spiritual embodiment.

Let’s be honest. Most of us do not long with St. Paul “to be free from this earthly life so that we can be with the Risen Christ.” But death is a fact of life.

We've heard often enough the motto “be prepared." The beatitudes can be our guide in making that motto our own. Here’s one paraphrase of the beatitudes:

“If you look for God in your daily life; if you readily spend time listening and consoling others who seek your guidance; if you manage to heal wounds and build bridges among people; if others see in you goodness, graciousness, joy, and serenity; and if you can see the good in everyone and seek the good for everyone, blessed are you."

 

 

 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Many of us remember where we were 20 years ago yesterday, September 11. Firefighters, police officers and emergency medical teams risked their lives to rescue people from the tragic events at the World Trade Center, Shanksville and the Pentagon.

 I knew around a dozen people who were killed at the World Trade Center, including fire chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge, a fellow Franciscan and a victim of that tragedy.

 So, let us pause for one minute to remember the nearly 3,000 victims of that tragedy and those who lost loved ones and pray for them in this liturgy.

The word of God today takes us back to the 6th century before Jesus. The second section of the Book of Isaiah describes a mysterious servant of God. This servant, despite all kinds of physical and verbal abuse, carries on the mission God entrusted to him

The early Christian community saw in this servant Jesus, the suffering Messiah. The author may be inviting us to persevere in our life of discipleship despite the “noise and dissonance” that may surround us.

The letter of James challenges us to practice what we believe. Our faith in Jesus should compel us to reach out compassionately to others, to generously give time, talent and yes, some of our treasure to those in need.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” He begins to confide in the disciples about his ultimate purpose: he must suffer the agony of the cross so that he can experience the ecstasy of the resurrection. When Peter balks, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Nothing will prevent Jesus from fulfilling God's purpose for him: re-connecting us to God.

Now, Jesus may be asking us: who is Jesus for me? What do I mean to Jesus?

The early Christian community initially saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes of ancient Israel. And so, they called him the Messiah, the Christos, the anointed one.

But the more they reflected, the more they saw Jesus not only as the fulfillment but the foundation of their hopes. The eternal Word! The Gospel according to John captured this magnificently: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 Yes, Jesus was the foundation and fulfillment of their hopes and ours as well.

 So, who is this God-man Jesus seeking our friendship? He was a real historical person, flesh and blood. He experienced, as we do, fatigue, hunger, satisfaction, joy, friendship, anger, disappointment, loneliness.

 He was a teacher, a prophet preaching that the kingdom of God was breaking into our lives. He worked signs and wonders, proclaiming that good ultimately would triumph; he possessed authority to forgive wrongdoings; he promised eternal life.

 He had a unique relationship with God; in fact, he was one with God, true God and true man. He was crucified, died and then raised up in glory. And he is alive in our midst today.

Jesus taught that we can share in this kingdom of God by living a life of discipleship.

How? By living prayerfully in the presence of God (Our Father); by seeing in Jesus the Word made flesh, the face of God's Son (hallowed be Thy name); by recognizing that our lives do have an ultimate purpose (Thy Kingdom, Thy will); by reaching out generously with our daily bread; by experiencing the presence of the living Christ in the Eucharist (forgive us our trespasses, illuminate us in the scriptures, and transform us in communion); and by being ready to let go of our earthly life so that we can be one with God in glory forever.

 

Our compassionate God is always near each day to guide us.

 Jesus then challenges us to “take up our crosses.” To this end, I share an old story about a mother in China whose only son died suddenly. In her grief, she pleaded with a renowned monk: “With what prayers, what magic, can you bring my son back to life?” The monk told her: “Find a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use that seed to drive the grief out.”

So, the woman set off in search of such a seed. But wherever she looked, she found one tale after another of misfortune. She became so involved in helping these other people that she forgot her own grief. Her quest and relationships had driven the heartbreak out of her own life.

We, like Jesus, will experience the gamut: love and friendship, pain and disappointment.

Jesus challenges us to follow him, to become the kind of person today that Jesus was in his day. He tells us his yoke is easy. We may face our doubts, but let's follow him. For the only Gospel some people may ever know is you and I and how we live our lives.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time


 Happy Labor Day weekend! It's interesting that God put the protection of Jesus and Mary in the hands of a common laborer, Joseph, a carpenter. No matter who we are, no matter what we do, all of us, from a Christian viewpoint, have a mission to fulfill in life. Whatever our work is, do it well!

Also, at sunset on Monday our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their celebration of Rosh Hashanah , the start of their New year. The holiday is a time to reflect on one’s priorities for the upcoming year. 

First a true story. President William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address was the longest ever. He spoke for over two hours, on a wintry day without hat or coat. He got pneumonia. A month later he was dead. So the lesson for speakers is: be brief.

So let's plunge right into Word of God for today. 

Isaiah speaks about a new age in which the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the rivers will flow. Yes, the Messiah will come. God’s word today asks us to remember that in times of darkness, God is our light; in times of brokenness, God is our healer; and in times of discouragement, God is our hope.

The operative message in this passage is to say to those whose hearts are frightened: "Be strong, fear not!"

The victims of the Ida storm and power outages in Louisiana, and flash floods in the Northeast need to hear these words.

And so too do the Americans and our Afghan friends left behind in Afghanistan, whose hearts are frightened: "Be strong, fear not!"

The Letter of James urges us to practice two fundamental principles of justice.

“Show no partiality”: treat everyone with the same respect for life, from beginning to end. We are made in the image of God. The other principle is “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Jesus says we will be judged by our response to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the prisoner. In other words, what we do to others, we do to Jesus Christ. The so-called poor are "rich in faith." That's a profound connection.

In the Gospel, Jesus meets a deaf man, and takes him to a quiet, safe place. Jesus then “puts his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touches his tongue.” Notice: no exam gloves! Jesus doesn’t just use a fleeting word. By his touch, Jesus enters this person’s life and brings hope and healing.

The Aramaic word “F-fatha” can mean “be open” or “be released.” Jesus releases the man from his disability and also from his isolation: bringing him back into his family and community. It’s awful to feel isolated, isn’t it? Mother Teresa – her feast is September 5 -- said, “The poverty in the West … is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. People hunger for love as well as for God.”

I would like to think that the word of God today is urging us to have a heart. Within each one of us is the heart of a spiritual champion.

Some of you may have heard of Seabiscuit: “Horse of the Year” in 1938. The story of Seabiscuit eventually became a national best seller and a movie.

Small, with crooked legs, Seabiscuit began his career with 16 losses. But a trainer was convinced Seabiscuit could be a winner. The trainer persuaded someone to buy the horse. The two hired a washed-up prizefighter as the jockey. Somehow, these three people saw a greatness that had eluded everyone else. The team worked. Seabiscuit began to win and win, and charmed our country in the midst of the Great Depression.

The story is really a story about “F-fatha” (the Aramaic word in today’s gospel). It's an “openness” to greatness. And that spirit is contagious.

In the waters of Baptism, God breathes his Spirit into us and the Spirit enables us to continue the work of Jesus: to be instruments of God’s compassion and generosity and love and forgiveness. And the result of spiritual greatness is moral character.

Our challenge is to be our best self. As the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle put it, “Excellence is never an accidentchoice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

Our prayer in light of the scriptures may be that we be released from our fears, and from a self-centeredness that makes us “deaf” to God and “mute” in responding to someone in need.

Let us ask for God's grace to be open to the possibilities for spiritual greatness. Every day, opportunities to do good open up to us. Seize these opportunities! With God's grace, let us pray to "do all things well." Amen.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time


Back-to-school month is winding up. Educators have a tremendous responsibility to develop in young people skills of mind and habits of heart so that they can live a life of integrity. Albert Einstein summarized the challenge, saying this: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a
fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

Each student has different "doors" through which learning the basics can be accomplished. Yes, multiple approaches, like different styles and parables in scripture, can "speak" to someone and encourage growth in their own way: true to themselves, true to God.

What does the word of God bring to us today? Well over 3,000 years ago, Moses pleads with the Hebrews to be faithful to their promises. Yes, God promises blessings if they keep God’s laws, i. e., worship God and treat their fellow human beings fairly. This challenges us to be faithful to our promises.

Then, the Letter of James says boldly that there shouldn’t be a discrepancy between faith and action. In other words, do we walk the talk.

The Gospel according to Mark holds a similar theme. Jesus distinguishes between external behaviors and internal attitudes.

The scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites, Jesus says. The word “hypocrite” basically means an actor, who says one thing but lives differently. Hypocrites pay lip service to God but internally they’re thinking immorally, e. g., greedy, dishonest, envious.

Jesus asks us: are we saying one thing and doing the opposite? Do we try to live a life of integrity?

The biblical passages indicate that human beings are a bundle of contradictions. Who really are we? 

Russian author Leo Tolstoy discovered that many ordinary people were able to answer this by virtue of their faith in God. They had a relationship with God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. That friendship with God sustained them. Jesus was indeed their way, their truth and their life.

      Daniel Levinson’s book “The Seasons of a Man’s Life” is about the cycle of human development: from young adulthood, through middle years, to old age. As we go through this, we will face crises of one kind or another. “Crisis” has a twofold meaning: it can be a disaster or an opportunity.

 

      We constantly let go of our past so we can move forward. We of course believe we’re moving toward a life with God forever: that's our true destiny. We have to let go of friends, loved ones, perhaps health or job. Ultimately we have to let go of our own earthly life. We trust in God’s unconditional love: that He will catch us in our final leap of faith into the darkness of death and bear us away within himself.

 

      The Catholic answer to the question “why are we here?” acknowledges the brevity of human life, and also our freedom to choose good over evil, right over wrong. Hence each of us is responsible for the way we live. Tragically, some people choose evil. The Book of Genesis highlights this brokenness. The Catholic tradition calls this “original sin.”

    Human beings cry out for freedom, peace, justice and truth. But they cry out even louder for healing, for redemption, for salvation! Who can heal us, save us? Some have sought human solutions: in the world of things, in demogogues, in “isms” of one kind or another.

    The Catholic tradition looks to an awesome and overwhelming power beyond ourselves -- God -- who is not indifferent to our human situation. This compassionate God became flesh in Jesus and is alive by the power of the Spirit in our midst today—alive in the community of disciples we call the Church; and alive especially in the sacramental signs.

    We possess within our fragile selves the incredible treasure of faith in God. But each of us must continue to struggle to do right.

    The Letter of James today encourages us, “keep oneself unstained by the world.” So that the God who transformed the earthly Jesus into a new heavenly reality can also transform us.

    The great 16th century Carmelite reformer, Teresa of Avila, got it right, “Let nothing upset you, Let nothing startle you, all things pass; ….. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone is enough.”