Thursday, July 21, 2016

When being big hearted isn't good

In the gospel today Jesus quotes the condemnation of the Prophet Isaiah. 

You shall indeed hear but not understand  you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people, 

No, he is not using gross in the current American sense of disgusting, or revolting. Here gross is used to mean fat, thick, or obese. It comes from the same verb used to describe pitching a tent. Yes, it is crass. But prophets often smack us in the face with reality we would just as soon not face.  

In this country over half of adults are overweight. For guys my age more than 3/4 are overweight or obese.  But that is merely one symptom of the problem. How many of are holding on to stuff that we do not need, stuff that we never use? I wonder if we don't like watching shows like Hoarders so we can reassure ourselves-"At least I'm not that bad."

There is a space in ever human being that can only be filled by God. But allowing God to fill the space is not as simple going to Church.  There are people who go to church all the time and are still ravenously hungry. They have eyes but do not see,ears but do not hear. 

Real faith is not simply believing in God. It requires trust of God. St. Paul gives us the measure in his letter to the Philippians. 

For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance 

Part of the problem is that I don't think we really want to be content. I'm not sure we see content as a virtue. Even many ministers like to rail. Perhaps that's why we need an entire section of the liturgy dedicated to peace. 

It is not easy for us to relax enough to trust God, open our hearts and let him be the one who fills it. But we should never cease try. And my guess is that if we were to only eat or buy when we were in that content space, we would consume less. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Family Reunion

One of the principal images we use to describe the Church is family: the Father, the Son, Mary the Mother.  We speak of how in baptism we become the adopted children.  But in today's gospel Jesus opens another door. 

Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother."

From this we derive our teaching regarding the possibility of salvation for those who are not baptized Christians.

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. (Catechism, 847)

This is a very carefully nuanced middle between the two erroneous extremes: those who would say only baptized Christians get into heaven, and those who think that just being nice gets you into heaven.

Following today's gospel the Church teaches that the person seeks God and tries to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience.

For Christians as well the key to our salvation is striving to do God's will. 

If we occupy ourselves with that we won't have time to try and figure out who is and is not part of the family. That judgement is left to God. In the meantime we strive to do God's will today, and perhaps our example will bring others into full communion with the family. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Why is it better?

In today's gospel we see Martha and Mary, a very familiar story. Often we will talk about the need to imitate both and the need for proper balance. But it is not about balancing two equally valuable choices, the active and the contemplative. Jesus does say that Mary has chosen the better part.  To this, the Marthas in the group always say, "if we all followed Mary's example, we would starve."  

They miss the point. This gospel is not about the mundane practicalities. This gospel is addressing a deeper reality, the essence of love. 

The Greek language has four words for love. Martha is the example of philia. We can think of this a horizontal love, person to person, love between equals. It's Barney the dinosaur, "I love you, you love me..."

Mary is the example of agape (in Latin caritas). As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, it is "the friendship of man for God", which unites us to God". It is that vertical love that reaches up toward God. As Jesus reminds us, this unity with God is the one thing that is needed. From it will flow everything else. 

Agape will always lead to philia. But philia does not necessarily lead to agape. Sometimes people reach philia and stop, they are good kind people. But that is not enough. To be part of the kingdom you have to have agape, love of God, the hunger for oneness with God. 

Martha is so close, literally, she is running all around God. Jesus is, after all, God. But she is too busy to stop and enter into a personal relationship with God. Mary has indeed chosen the proper  starting point. She sits in awesome silence in the presence of God. Will she at the appropriate time act? of course. But first she must love God. 

We tend to measure life and value by accomplishment. What did I get done today?  This gospel reminds us that action for the Christian must be grounded in a love of God; not some actions, but all our actions. God must be the starting point of every day of our life. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Part of something larger

Many of the things our parents said, and we thought were crazy, turn out to be true. One f those was that as we get older time passes more quickly. Now in my mid-fifties, weeks hardly exist, and months fly by as well. If times seems to excelerate as we get older, we can begin to imagine what time is like for God who is eternal. 

In the Gospel today we see how the Prophet Isaiah foretold what Jesus would do. St. Jerome said that he was more an evangelist than a prophet for just this reason. But he was 7 centuries before Jesus. What Isaiah prophesied, he would never live to see, at least not on earth. He was part of God's plan, but in a story arc that would span 7 centuries. 

Most of us want to see the answer to our prayer now. We might give God 7 day, or if we really stretch we might give him 7 months. But particularly when we feel we are unjustly suffering, we want our vindication NOW. Few of us are willing to accept that we may never see it in our lifetime on earth.  And yet time and again the Bible shows us that that is exactly how God works. Good always triumphs over evil, but the triumph may be generations even centuries away. 

Isaiah understood what we are sometimes afraid to embrace. If we give our lives over to God we become part of something that is immeasurablely bigger than ourselves or our short little life on earth. We become part of the Kingdom of God, a story arc that stretches from the first coming to the second coming of Christ, whenever that may be. Precisely how the little piece that is one of our indivual lives fits into the whole, we cannot know. Why some particular suffering we experience is necessary, we cannot see. Like a single drop of black paint on a large canvas, alone it has no beauty. But faith enables us to trust that God see the enormous masterpiece as a whole, and why both dark and light colors are essential. 

For our part, the best we can do is wake up each morning and try to do God's will this day. And if we are truly wise, we will catch glimpses of the Kingdom, the masterwork God is creating right this very moment. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Acts of God

In today's gospel Jesus is seen condemning entire town, each with the same formula:

For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in ...

They are being condemned not for something they have done, but for something they have failed to do. God has done mighty deed but they have failed to see them. 

Even in our own time how often do people look for God in the bad and not the good.  When the hurricane hit New Orleans, how many were calling it punishment from God? Even in law an "act of God" is an event with and unforeseen cause ( eg. earthquake, tornado, flood). Nothing good is a legal act of God. 

I think part of our problem is that if we see any human envolment we exclude the possibility that something is an act of God. We forget that as Christians we believe that the Holy Spirit that is God dwells in human beings and therefore can act in concert with human beings. 

In the Gospel entire towns a are condemned for not recognizing the marvelous things God has done in their midst. When we stand before God do we want to face that same condemnation. This sin is easy to avoid. All we have to do is look around. We don't have to look far to see God's marvelous deeds done in our midst.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Making room for the supernatural

The rectory where I live is beautiful. A year ago before the new pastor and I moved in, they painted it all, they put in all new carpet and furniture. They spent thousands making it look better. What they didn't do was look at the infrastructure: the plumbing, the electrical, the HVAC. Unfortunately this can be a metaphor for our own Christianity. 

Today we hit one of the most difficult passages in St. Matthew's gospel.

I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 

This seems to run contrary to how we like to think of the message of Jesus, all about love and family. And it is.

We like to think of Jesus as someone we can turn to in time of trouble, someone who has come to help us.  St. Matthew reminds us that Jesus did not come to make you a better person. He came to destroy. Jesus did not come to improve us but to replace us. In each of us Jesus wishes to destroy the old self and replace it with a new self. As Ezikiel reminds us he wants to take away our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. He doesn't want to make your old life better, he wants to give you a new life. 

Most of us, deep down, want the impossible. We want both things. We want the new life and the old life. We want to hold on to our old self. We like our old comfortable stuff.  We know how it all works. Some of the old stuff is quite pleasurable. It makes us happy. We enjoy it. We want Jesus to come in and redecorate a little. He wants to gut the building and redo it all. And he wants to do it according his plans, not ours. 

When he had finished rebuilding us will we still love our family and friends? Of course. As a matter of fact we will love them better than we ever have. But they may not like us. We may set boundaries on people who to date have had none. We may speak out loud those truths that have been known for years, but gone unspoken. We may show real love, by challenging someone close to us to deal with a problem. 

But remember the first step is letting Jesus into the deepest part of us, and allowing him to rip out the old heart, the old self. And this is never a painless or easy process. He will show us things about our self that we do not wish to see. 

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Too often all we want Jesus and to do is help us with the first part, help us to find a happy comfortable natural life— which in the end we will lose. Jesus challenges us to intentionally lose that natural life, and here and now let him give us a supernatural life. 

Are we really ready to let Jesus in. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Embracing the sacred

As a gift from God, every human life is sacred from conception to natural death. The life and dignity of every person must be respected and protected at every stage and in every condition. The right to life is the first and most fundamental principle of human rights that leads Catholics to actively work for a world of greater respect for human life and greater commitment to justice and peace.

So says our Church. But how willing are we to truly embrace it?

All to often I will hear certain people try to narrow it from all human life to all innocent human life. Here we must distinguish innocent in the legal sense and innocent in the moral sense. 

Which of us is morally innocent?

From conception until baptism we carry original sin and after the age of reason personal sin. 

By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins. (CCC 1263)

So the infant from baptism until their first sin after the age of reason would be innocent. The person who just received absolution would be innocent until they sin again. But most of us cannot claim to be morally innocent. 

Thankfully the Church does not teach that only the innocent lives are sacred. Every human life even the life of the sinner is sacred. 

We see that sacredness most clearly manifest in those loved ones who mourn: the families of those killed and the families of the killers. Does the mother of a criminal feel less pain when her child dies? A parent's grief is the perhaps the most perfect reflection of  God who rains on the just and the unjust without distinction. 

Today in place of the usual morning prayer I prayed what we call the Office for the Dead for all the dead. 

Until we embrace the belief in the sacredness of every human life, we may never find a way out of the cycle of violence. We will continue to find excuses  for the inexcusable on all sides.  

What is required is an individual change of heart, one person at a time. Every single human life from conception until natural death is sacred. In the deepest part of our conscience we know this is true. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016


In today's first reading from the Book of Hosea we hear once more how despite all that God has done for his children, they continue to turn away. And yet God cannot bring himself to unleash his "fierce anger."  

Why because his heart is filled with pity.  The word Hosea uses comes from the verb nakham which means to sigh.  It is the sigh of the parent whose kids has done something stupid and dangerous. It is the sigh as you throw your arms around the child simultaneously relieved that they are safe, but still wanting to kill them for being so stupid. 

Ben those of us who are well into the second half of life, can still all to often be foolish children. Sometimes we wander off the path because we a easily distracted. Other times we make a headstrong choice to go our own way. The good news is that God's love remains unchanged, he does not unleash his blazing anger. And you have to love the answer to the question why. Why doesn't God unleash anger?

For I am God and not man

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Does the truth even matter?

In Matthew chapter 9 one sides sees miracles, the other the work of Satan.

He drives out demons by the prince of demons

Each sides witnesses the same events, but sees what corresponds to their already fixed opinion of Jesus. Neither was at that point in Matthew's Gospel able to see the Truth. Jesus is God, but one was certainly closer to the truth than the other. 

By shear providence I and my high school government teacher both live here in the Richmond area and I still run into him from time to time. I  am reminded of the things I learned so long ago about our country and how it should work. In those days public schools taught not only government and history, but civics. Pittsylvania County School a very traditional curriculum. 

We were taught that one of the bedrock principles that set our country above others was the presumption of innocence:

In America, a person is presumed innocent until they are found guilty in a court of law. 

A person had to be judged on the law and the facts. 

Today that presumption no longer exists. If anything, it is reversed. A person is presumed guilty until proven innocent. In a world where anyone can self-publish on the internet, the so-called court of public opinion has replaced the legal system. 

How many people writing about Hilary Clinton today have seen the evidence or even taken the time to read and understand the relevant federal statutes and precedent in order to make a reasoned argument? I certainly have not. We read what our favorite news outlets tell us and we judge the person guilty or innocent long before the matter ever reaches a court of law. And even when a person is not found guilt, or a guilty verdict is overturned by a higher court, we don't care very much. We have made our personal determination and we will not be swayed. 

Like the two groups in the gospel we see what we want to see. If we like the person, they could not possibly have done it. If we don't like them, they are guilty. It is not about law and facts; its about which side posts the most.

When non-believers follow the culture down such a path it is bad. When Americans who are also Christians behave in the same way it is scandalous. For Christians words like truth and justice are supposed to mean something. We are supposed to love our enemies. We are supposed to be in the world and not of the world. As Americans, principles like the presumption of innocence should not be empty words. 

The next four and a half months are going to be a real test of the Christianity of us all. The hateful speech and accusations from both sides are going to only intensify as election day draws nearer. We will all be tempted to become the Pharisees, interpreting the actions of those we don't like in the most negative way possible.  We cannot stop the vitriol but we don't have to participate in it. 

Whether one supports Donald or Hillary, we should all be able to see the humanity in each of them. Let us truly be Christian and find something to love in each of them. God does.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Step Two

Today we celebrate the signing the Declaration of Independence. We Virginians feel particularly proud thinking of the role that Jefferson played in the writing and approval process.  But what we can forget is that the Declaration did not make us a country, nor did the subsequent war, all they did was separate us from England. It was a great first step.

The other date which every Amercian ought to know is June 21, 1788, the date that the US Constitution was ratified by New Hampshire and The Untied States of America, the nation, was born. Here another Virginian must be remembered, John Marshall. Marshall understood what many did not. As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court he understood that we could never be, as we say today, one nation under God, if each state could simply ignore those laws it did not like. He understood that without institutionalized unity there could. be no nation. It would take the better part of a century, a civil war, and the death of more than 600,000 Americans  to resolve this debate. 

For the Church that unity is also essential. That is why in the creed  one comes first even before holy. That is why in chapter 17 of John's Gospel Jesus prays "that they may be one, as we are one...that they may be brought to perfection as one"  In order to preserve her unity the Church also needed a constitution, not human words on paper, but a structure established by Christ himself. Jesus knew that  if the Church was going to survive it needed a structure that could survive the ages and assure the faithful transmission of His message. 

Most Catholics know we trace the role of bishops to the apostles, and the role of Pope to Peter. But many have never asked where the priests come in.  If you were at mass yesterday you heard how Jesus, in addition to the 12 chose another group, 70 or 72 (manuscripts vary).  This was in perfect continuity with what God did for Moses.  In the Book of Numbers we read how a warn out Moses, asked God for help in governing the complaining people, and God had Moeses choose 70 elders, on which God placed some of the Spirit he had given Moses. 

God is unchanging and so with his new covenant in addition to Peter and the other apostles, Jesus who is God repeated the choosing of elders to assist the apostles. The Greek word for elder is presbyter, the title to which we are ordained even today. Common English uses the word priest as the translation.  

Because the hierarchical constitution of the Church was given by Christ not even the Pope can change it. He can tinker around the edges. He could allow Latin Rite priests to marry, women to be deacons; there is a biblical foundation for that. But no human can alter the fundamental structure of the Church. That constitution is not ours to amend. 

Independence from English rule is a wonderful thing to celebrate. But we should not confuse that with the self-centered notion of independence so rampant today. Even less should we think that this notion of freedom void of responsibility toward others is Christian. The first thing the Bible teaches us about humans is that we were created to be one. 

As we celebrate our freedom let us also call to mind our responsibility and let us pray as a Church and a nation for unity. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Control that mouth

One of the most difficult commands in the Bible comes from Ephesians 4:29 where St. Paul commands us regarding speech.  He tells us what we are to say and what we are not to say.

On th positive side we are to say 
-good (Gk. agathos). 
-words for edification, words that build up
-words that a needed

On the negative side he tells us to never let go from our mouths words that are in Greek sapos. It comes from the verb sepo from which where we get words like septic, or sepsis. It means to putrefy, to rot.  

It is interesting that he doesn't use the verb speak, he uses the verb to let go or release. The image is that we have both kinds of words in our mouths. But we are only to let out the good ones, the ones that build up, the ones that people truly need. The rotten ones, the ones that tear down, the ones of no benefit to others. the ones no one needs to hear we should keep to ourselves. Just swallow them. Or better yet, don't let them form in your mouth. Stop them when they are just little thoughts. 

But St. Paul knows human nature, those septic words and thoughts are going to form at some point in all of us, first in the mind, then in the mouth. If we are Christians, we filter. We let out of our mouths only the good words, the ones needed to build up.  It takes incredible discipline. But there is no such thing as an undisciplined disciple. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

The truth about saints

Today we celebrate St. Junipero Serra y Ferrar, the Franciscan founder of the first of the Cakifornia missions who was canonized last year. Those who protested the canonization seem not to understand some basic truths of the faith. 

Firstly, moral sin, that sin which separates us from eternal life with God requires not only that the action be gravely wrong, but that the person knows it to be wrong, and freely chooses to do it. One could agree that his treatment of the native peoples was at times wrong, and simultaneously  say that it was probably not a sin because he did not understand it to be wrong. We should always be careful not to retroject 21st century standard onto persons of prior ages. In every generation we can only work with the information that we had. 

More importantly, we miss the point if we think that by declaring a person a saint, we are saying that they were without sin. Apart from Jesus and Mary (because of th unique gift given her) we are all sinners. Of course, Junipero Serra was a sinner and so are all of us, but we also hope to be saints like him one day. 

While we acknowledge his imperfection, today we celebrate not only the good that he did, but the good he has inspired and continues to inspire in others. We believe that by God's grace he stands with all the holy men and women around the throne of God, and we pray that we will have that same passion for spreading the Good News.