Monday, September 18, 2023

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Two very old friends, Leo and Frank, were visiting together. Frank said, "Please do me one favor: when you get to heaven, somehow let me know if there's baseball there. Leo replied, "If it's possible, I will." 

Shortly after, Leo passed away. A few nights later, Frank was awakened by a blinding flash of light and a voice calling, "Frank...Frank…”

"Who is it?" asked Frank sitting up suddenly. “It's Leo.” "Leo! Where are you?”"In heaven," replied Leo. "I have good news and a little bad. There's baseball here, we can play all we want, and we never get tired.” 

"That's great!" said Frank. "What's the bad news? "You're pitching Tuesday."

The word of God brings us the wisdom of Sirach, one of Israel's many spiritual guides on how to live well. Today the author challenges us to seek forgiveness in our relationships with God and with one another. God forgives us to the extent we forgive. 

Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Rome acknowledges God's complete sovereignty over life and death.  He urges us to live for others. Imitate God, live a God-like life. Paul emphasizes that we belong to Jesus Christ. Christ lives. And because he lives, we live forever. 

In the Gospel, Peter asks Jesus if he has to forgive a person who has wronged him “as many as seven times.” In other words, when do we start getting even. Jesus responds with a more stunning number: “77 times.” 

e makes his point with a parable. Worker #1 owes a huge amount (say a million). The king forgives his debt. Then worker #1 runs into worker #2 who owes him a small amount (say $50). #1 grabs #2 by the throat and says, “Pay now or I’ll put you in jail.” When the king hears of this, he summons worker #1 and says, “I canceled your debt. Shouldn’t you have done the same?” 

The lesson is simple: God forgives so much; why can't we forgive so little. Forgiveness is a decision to will the good of the other even though we may still harbor negative feelings. It's a decision to let go of wrongs and move on with our lives.

The readings today also bring us face to face with our mortality.

Death is a fact of life. A best seller titled “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” questions whether extending length  of life at the expense of quality of life is the right thing to do.

Dr. Atul Gawande describes three patterns. With an incurable disease, treatments may lengthen life but eventually the body wastes away rapidly. In the second pattern, a chronic disease is treatable but relapses siphon the life out of that person. And finally there’s the pattern of old age called “frailty”: the gradual decline of bodily systems.

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

Many of us are familiar with Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book describing five stages through which many dying patients pass: Simply put, they are:

-Denial: “No, not me.” Typical reaction if a patient learns he/she is terminally ill.

-Anger: “Why me?” God may be a special target for anger. OK, God can take it.

-Bargaining: “Yes me, but.” The patient accepts death but bargains for more time.

-Depression: “Yes, me.” The person mourns things not done, regret things done.

And finally,

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

These stages, while not absolute, are a useful guide in understanding behaviors. They may relate to any big change, be it the death of a loved one, job loss, divorce.

Dr. Kubler-Ross wrote another book titled “Death: the Final Stage of Growth.” The title leads me to the Christian understanding of death. The foundation is Good Friday/Easter. Hidden in the death of Jesus was the glory of his resurrection.

Our faith challenges us to remember that the light of our resurrection will shatter the darkness of our death.

The story of Jesus did not end in the tragedy of the cross but in the triumph of the God-man Jesus transformed into an indescribable heavenly reality. The Risen Christ anticipates what we one day will become.

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.”

Many pass through the stages Dr. Kubler-Ross describes. There is a darkness about death that even Jesus cried out against. Yet, in the Christian vision, we expect that the Spirit of God, who continually amazes us, will surprise us in the moment of our own dying with a new heavenly reality, an evolutionary leap into a new kind of spiritual embodiment.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

You may have heard the story of a police officer who stopped a motorist speeding down Central Avenue. “Officer,” the driver began. “I can explain.”“Just be quiet,” the officer snapped. “You were driving twice the speed limit.”

“But, officer...” “I said be quiet! You’re going to jail! The chief will handle you.”

Later the officer looked in on him and said, “Lucky for you the chief’s at his daughter’s wedding. He’ll be in a good mood when he gets back.”

“Don’t count on it,” the prisoner answered.  “I’m supposed to be the groom.” Yes, it's important to listen so that "every fact may be established."

 The Word of God takes us back to the prophet named Ezekiel. The 6th century BC was a catastrophe for the Hebrews. Babylonia conquered the southern kingdom, mowed Jerusalem down, destroyed the Temple and deported many Hebrews. 

God calls Ezekiel to be a “watchman” for the spiritual well-being of the Hebrews. Ezekiel’s job is to exhort them to do what is right and true and good. And the author urges you and me to do the same. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. How relevant here are the words of the 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

Paul in his letter to the Christian community in Rome simply reminds us: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Yes, we love God to the extent we care for one another. And who is our neighbor? The person at home, in the workplace, in the community. 

In the Gospel, Jesus challenges us to settle our differences, not by complaining to everyone else about the other people whose misbehavior annoys us -- but by going directly to them first to resolve our problem.  Conflicts are inevitable in human relationships. If dealt with constructively they can create even better, life-long relationships. 

I can imagine Jesus saying to us in light of this Gospel passage: focus on the behavior, not the personality; avoid negative name calling. Seek common ground. Manage your own emotions. Always stay positive; never go low. Be trustworthy, open, fair and calm. 

St. Paul wrote centuries ago: “Love does not brood over injuries.” All of us must be willing to forgive so-called “injuries” done to us and work to create positive relationships. Forgiveness is a primary characteristic of discipleship with Jesus. 

There’s a folk wisdom that says: “forgive and forget.” But sometimes we can’t forgive deep hurts unless we remember! Perhaps we may even have contributed to a rift. We have to forgive ourselves as well, so we can move forward with our life. 

In a favorite book of mine, The Hiding Place, the Dutch author describes how her family hid some Jews from the Nazis during the 2nd WW. She tells about the sufferings of people in a particular concentration camp where her own sister perished. Corrie ten Boom later lectured throughout post-Europe about the need to forgive one another. 

Following one of her talks, a man came up.  She recognized him immediately—he had been a guard at the concentration camp.

She wrote about this encounter in her book:

The SS guard said, “How grateful I am for your message. To think that, as you say, Christ has forgiven me for I am truly sorry for what I did!” 

Suddenly, the memories flooded her mind: the so-called shower room, the laughing SS, the heaps of clothes on the floor, the frightened face of her sister. This former SS guard extended his hand to shake hers. And she, who had lectured about forgiveness, kept her hand at her side as she began to have angry, vengeful thoughts. 

And then she remembered: Jesus Christ died for this man; and forgives him. Lord Jesus, she prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. She tried to smile, to raise her hand. But she couldn’t. So again she breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I can’t forgive him for what he did. Give me your forgiveness.   

Corrie Ten Boom went on to recall that as she then took the man's hand she felt an “electric current” pass from her into the hand of this SS guard and she felt a love that almost overwhelmed her.

Forgiveness depended not upon her, but upon God’s grace. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he gives us the grace to love, to forgive those who are truly sorry.To forgive as Christ forgives is sometimes impossible to do on our own. But Christ doesn’t ask us to forgive on our own. He simply asks that we participate in his gift. God has already forgiven those who are truly sorry. Forgiveness is possible when we trust in God’s grace to bring about healing and reconciliation. 

God is never satisfied with broken relationships, and neither should we be. As God constantly searches out the lost, so should we; and as God always welcomes back the stranger, so should we.

Forgiveness frees us to move forward. Focus on our destiny.

Today the Word of God invites us to stand up for what is right; to love one another; to participate in God's gift of forgiveness. And I pray that God will give all of us the grace to participate in the forgiveness of Christ, so that we can be at peace with ourselves and one another, true disciples of Jesus.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Happy Labor Day weekend.

The Labor Day weekend, for many people in the United States, signals the end of summer and the start of school.

Which reminds me of a story about a college-bound student, a doctor, a lawyer, and a Franciscan friar, in a small private plane. Suddenly the plane's engine conked out. The pilot grabbed a parachute, told the passengers he had a family of six to support and bailed out. Unfortunately, there were only three parachutes left. The doctor grabbed one, saying, “The medical profession needs my specialty skills,” and he jumped out. The lawyer said, “I’m one of the smartest litigators in the country so I’m taking this parachute,” and he jumped out. The friar said to the student, “You’re a student and have dreams to fulfill. Take the last parachute.” The student replied, “You take it. I’ll use this one. The smartest lawyer just jumped with my backpack.”

Moral of the story: we may not be as smart as we think.

Seriously, Labor Day is an invitation to take pride in our work. Whatever our life’s work, do it well!

Isn’t that what holiness is all about: doing our life’s work as best we can. You've heard the biblical wisdom that says God sends each person into this life with a special message to deliver, a special song to sing, a special act of love to bestow. Yes, each one of us has a purpose in life.   

The word of God today takes us back to the seventh century before Jesus (the 600s). Jeremiah is not happy. “God tricked me,” Jeremiah says, into prophesying doom and gloom about Jerusalem.  You’ve heard the saying, “If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger.”

That’s precisely what the Hebrews did. They beat up Jeremiah badly. From now on, Jeremiah says, he will keep his mouth shut. But he can't. The word of God is like a fire that consumes Jeremiah, burning him up if he doesn’t shout out God's word.  

We might ask ourselves whether we speak up when we see wrongs done. If not, when will we? And if we don't, who will?

St. Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Rome urges us to dedicate our lives—our talents and energies—to God. In light of Paul’s letter, we might ask whether our everyday attitudes and behaviors are pleasing to God.

In the Gospel, Jesus predicts his passion, death and resurrection. Peter shouts: “God forbid. No such thing will happen to you, Lord.” But God’s ways are not ours. Out of the cross, the central symbol of Christianity, will burst forth new life. Our faith proclaims that hidden within the mystery of Jesus’s death is the glory of his resurrection. And so too hidden in our death is our resurrection, life eternal.  

Jesus continues, “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” 

The 19th century Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote a book titled “A Confession” in which he describes his own search for purpose in life. Yes, “where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” “What is my life all about?” Tolstoy discovered that many ordinary people were able to answer these questions through their faith in Jesus: their way, their truth and their life.

So, what am I living for? There are as many answers as there are people. We cannot adequately answer and yet we cannot help but answer by how we live and what we do.

On the one hand we are finite and mortal. On the other, we are free, within limits, and accountable for the way in which we live.

The Catholic answer to “why are we here?” acknowledges the brevity of human life. It also acknowledges our freedom to choose good over evil, right over wrong, the true over the false. Hence all of us are responsible for the way in which we choose to live. 

Tragically, people do sometimes choose evil over good, wrong over right. Why? The Book of Genesis highlights our brokenness, our fall from grace. The Catholic tradition calls this “original sin.”

There’s plenty of evidence in this world that things are broken. The coronavirus has upended the global economy. Millions of refugees are fleeing violence. Wildfires and hurricanes have devastated communities. Yes, human beings cry out for freedom, peace, justice, salvation!

But who can save us? Some people have looked for answers in things, in other persons, in “isms” of one kind or another.

The Catholic tradition looks to a power beyond ourselves. This awesome and overwhelming power – God -- is a compassionate God who became flesh in Jesus and is alive in our midst by the power of the Spirit—alive especially in the community of disciples we call the Church; and especially alive in the sacraments. 

Yes, we possess within our fragile selves the incredible treasure of God’s life. We are in relationship with God by virtue of the life-giving waters of Baptism. But we must continue to struggle, as the prophet Micah said centuries ago, to do right, to love goodness, to walk humbly with our God.  

May God grace us so that we can lose our life for his sake, and in doing find eternal life and internal peace.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

How many of you play golf? 

Conversations on the links can bring bits of wisdom. A friend noted, “life is too don't fret...make the best of each day.” He then emphasized his point: “In 1923, Charles Schwab was president of the largest U.S. steel company; Edward Hopson, president of the largest gas company; and Jesse Livermore, the ‘Great Bear’ on Wall Street. One died broke; the second lost his wits and the third killed himself."

In the same era, the greatest golfer was Gene Sarazen. The first to win a modern Career Grand Slam (the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship), Sarazen made his primary residence in Naples, Florida. He enjoyed golf into his 90s and had a keen intellect until the day he died at age 97. My friend concluded: stop fretting and start playing golf. I think there’s a lesson in Sarazen’s life for all of us.

The word of God today focuses on a prophet in the eighth century before Jesus. Isaiah denounced a royal official who abused his office. The official most likely compromised his integrity. The king replaced him with someone who had integrity, an ethical conscience. The author challenges us to try always to do the right thing. Good advice for all of us.

Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Rome marvels at the awesome wisdom of God whose saving grace abounds everywhere. Our God, Paul proclaims, is a God worthy of our worship. 

Paul invites us to live in awe at the wonders of God--for example, the glorious sunrise and sunset framing each day we are given, the beautiful bayfront and bayous, and the exquisite creatures -- birds, manatees, Florida panthers, palm trees -- every living thing nourishing us, and nourished by us as good stewards of God's creation. This all flows in the liturgy. Yes, our doxology song rings: Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Thank God for the gift of life, of freedom, of pursuing happiness amidst our many blessings, especially family, faith and friends. 

In the Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples: who do people say I am? Peter by the grace of God recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the hopes of ancient Israel, the anointed one, the Christos. Jesus then makes Peter the rock, the leader of his community of disciples, the church: today a 1.2 billion + global faith community, of saints and sinners.   

Who is this Jesus to whom we give our ultimate allegiance? The early Christian community saw Jesus as the fulfillment of hopes. And so, they named him the Messiah. 

But the more they reflected on who he was, the more they saw Jesus not only as the fulfillment but as the foundation of their hopes. They named him the eternal Word. The Gospel according to John captures this magnificently in the prologue: "In the beginning was the Word...He was in the beginning with God." Yes, Jesus was the foundation and the fulfillment of their hopes and our own. 

Jesus was a real human being, flesh and blood like ourselves. He experienced fatigue, hunger, joy, friendship, disappointment, loneliness, and death. He was a rabbi, a teacher, a prophet preaching that the kingdom of God was breaking into our midst.

Jesus worked signs and wonders proclaiming that good will triumph over evil. He possessed authority to forgive wrongdoings. He promised eternal life. He had a unique relationship with God; he was one with God; truly human yet truly divine. He was crucified and then raised up, transfigured into a new heavenly reality. Jesus is alive in our midst. And because he is alive, we are alive by God’s grace & favor. 

Jesus taught that you and I can share in the kingdom of God by living a life of discipleship. 

How? By living prayerfully in the presence of God; by recognizing that our lives have an ultimate purpose; by seeing in Jesus the Word made flesh, the face of God; by reaching out compassionately with a helping hand to those around us; by experiencing the presence of the living Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, sacramentally and mystically in mass; and by being ready to let go of our earthly life, so that we can be in relationship with God forever. Yes, even in death is eternal life. 

Jesus taught that God is our Father: a compassionate God, always near us each day to guide us on our journey to our heavenly home.  

I invite all of us to rededicate ourselves to Jesus Christ and to ask him to grace us anew, so we may grow ever more deeply in our relationship with God and manifest ever more clearly the glory of God in our everyday attitudes and behaviors.