Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pay Attention

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle C
I was giving a talk a while back on stewardship, and how to me, stewardship was not about fundraising and money, giving of your time, talent and treasure. I figure that most folks support what they love, and so stewardship is all about falling in love with Jesus again, and by extension, His church and the parish. As I was talking about falling in love with your parish, I saw a man in the front row becoming more and more agitated. He was actually getting angry.
And so I stopped and asked him what was wrong. He said, “But what if you don’t love your parish, especially your priest? What if they have not been there for you when you needed them? What if they have just blown you off and don’t really care about you?” He then went on to tell me that he was suffering from cancer and had reached out to his parish priest. It took the priest a couple of days to even call him back, and then when they did talk the priest made some flippant remarks and said maybe he’d have time to visit the next week.
The man said that he was a Knight of Columbus and he had just finished doing some repairs on the church building. He was very involved in the parish and now felt that he had been abandoned in his time of need. How could he fall in love with something like that?
And you know, I didn’t have an answer for him. Whatever the situation truly was – I was only hearing one side of the story – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that this man was hungering for something and he wasn’t being fed. He longed to feed  on the scraps of his priest’s free time and didn’t even get that.
Did the priest truly not care? Was he really more concerned with his own life than that of his parishioner? I have no idea. All I know is that Lazarus was being overlooked again.
It’s tough being a priest, and I don’t want to single priests out. I am just giving an example. However, we expect our leaders to be there for us when we need them, and we feel betrayed or less than worthy when they don’t give us what we want. I am probably very guilty of this myself. I have no idea when I have made a passing remark or been too involved in my own world to see when people are reaching out to me. Major issues such as a health scare or marital problems usually get my attention. It’s the small things, the little cues people give off, that I sometimes miss. It is not indifference, it is more inattention. But people notice.
I think people have more of a problem with indifference than outright hostility. I can deal with it if you have a problem with me openly. I know what that is and I can figure out a way to handle it. But indifference is more subtle. You really don’t know why someone seems to be ignoring you or minimizing what you are saying. We don’t often know the person’s intent, and so we assign it to them. Most times we think the worst and then keep it within ourselves, and the other person doesn’t even know there is a problem.
The man in my seminar never told his priest how he felt. He just let it stew within him until something I said brought it bubbling to the surface. And that man, who had been a leader in his parish, transferred his distrust of his priest to the entire parish, and he ceased to do anything there anymore. He just went to the early Mass on Sundays because it was quiet and he could sit there without anyone bothering him.
That was the rich man’s sin today. In none of these readings today do we hear that wealth is evil and poverty is a virtue. Jesus isn’t saying that all the rich will go to hell and all the poor will go to heaven. This is not pitting the rich against the poor and vice versa in class warfare. This is all about watching out for one another. It is about being attentive, not being indifferent.
The rich man never directly hurt Lazarus. He never oppressed him or stole from him. The rich man’s sin was that he never even noticed Lazarus!  The sin of the rich man was not that he was rich, it was that he was not a good steward of the gifts he had been given. He had grown complacent in his prosperity to the point where he assumed it would always be there. His complacency blinded him to the need of his fellow man right outside his door.
We have no idea whether or not the rich man was a good man or if Lazarus was a bum. We don’t know why Lazarus was in his state or how the rich man got his wealth. Not important. All we know is that Abraham says that each was in the position they received from God.
We are all given gifts from God in some measure or other. Some people are given much, some virtually no material goods at all. Some are given great talents while others just enough to get by. We can argue about the fairness of it all some other time. What’s important is not how much you are given; it is what you do with what you have.
Recall what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 25, on how we will be judged. Those folks who wouldn’t be going to heaven didn’t even know they were doing anything wrong when they ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the poor. Didn’t matter.
Turn the story around. What if the rich man had come down with leprosy or some other horrible disease, and Lazarus knew about it but did nothing? Or even worse, didn’t care because he was so wrapped up in his own situation? Would their places in heaven be reversed?
There are plenty of good rich people and plenty of bums. But all of us are rich in some ways and poor in others. I love one of the Prayers of the Faithful options in the marriage rite that prays for “the hungry rich and the hungry poor”. We are all hungry, aren’t we? We are all at times the rich man and at times Lazarus. And most of us are spiritually poor, especially when we are materially rich.
Paul speaks to Timothy today about using the gifts he has been given. “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” Those are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and we will all be judged on how we use those gifts.
We hear a lot about giving back. People who have wealth or fame seem to have a need to give back to society or something. That may be a worthwhile thing to do, but what are they giving back to? And why think of it as giving back, as if there’s some sort of quid pro quo involved in success. No, it must be seen as gift giving. We receive the gift from God and then pass it on to others because that’s what a gift is.
I think that most people would give up many of the things that make their lives easier if they just had more time with the important people in their lives. I know our children would really rather spend more quality time with their parents than have all the toys and electronics and stuff we give them. Even if it doesn’t seem like it.
I know that the most important part of my ministry, and Fr. Stan’s and Deacon Bob’s, is our presence to our people. Just being there for you and with you is what matters. Yeah, we’re going to screw up sometimes and say something careless or disappoint you, but heck, that’s what all that forgiveness stuff is for. I think all of us intend to do good, and so I try not to think ill of anyone. Try to think the same of us. It’s hard sometimes, but I think that’s the best way to live as a steward of the gifts we’ve been given.
Because the greatest gift God has given us is one another.




Sunday, August 21, 2016

Jesus Yes, Religion No?

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It’s always on a bumper sticker, isn’t it? It said, “Jesus yes, religion no”. Today’s readings made me think of that bumper sticker.

I think a lot of people feel this way. It’s that whole, “I’m spiritual but not religious bit again”. And I can sort of understand where they’re coming from. But, can you have one without the other? I think the people who make this claim come from a couple of different mindsets. First, they are mostly ignorant of history and of the bible. They have a one-sided or incomplete or inaccurate view of what the Church is and what followers of Christ are called to do. They have been told for their whole lives that most of the wars and violence in the world have been perpetrated in the name of religion. All religion does is try to force an antiquated moral code on people. Religious people are so intolerant. They are bigots. They are judgmental. We are so far beyond that today.

Second, I think many people just don’t want to be told what to do. Even deeper, they don’t like the fact that religion sets a higher standard for us to live by. It oftentimes tears off the veneer and the masks we wear and forces us to see our lives for what they really are. And we don’t like what we see. Religion requires something of us. It’s not so much that religion is judgmental; it’s that religion forces us to judge ourselves.

Why wouldn’t Christianity be attractive to everyone? If you take the teachings of Jesus by themselves, I don’t think a single person would disagree that they are noble and a great way to pattern your life. They would probably also agree that if everyone lived those teachings the world would be a great place to live. In theory. But when I am challenged to go against the common wisdom, when I am called to put myself on the line, when the teachings of Christ contradict the way I want to live my life, that’s when Christianity is attacked.  

We love Christ, its Christianity we have a problem with.

Are the teachings of Christ impossible to follow? Is the doorway too narrow to enter through?

The heresy of Universalism is very widespread today, both in society and within the Church itself. Universalism says that if God is a loving and merciful god, then how could He ever condemn any of his creatures to an eternity outside His presence. Therefore, everyone is going to Heaven. This supposes, of course, that there is no hell. There are no consequences to our actions here because everyone is saved. Jesus welcomes everyone and all behavior is tolerated. That’s a really comfortable way to believe. That’s an easy Jesus to follow. That gets me off the hook.

We don’t want the narrow gate. We want the super highway.

So, logically, if everyone is saved, then it doesn’t really matter what religion you follow, or whether you follow a religion at all. They’re all the same and they’re all usually pretty bad. Unless it’s something exotic and “spiritual”. Then that’s pretty cool. If my salvation is assured, I can do pretty much what I want with no consequences. Don’t judge me because I am my own judge, and I’m pretty lenient on myself.

I don’t want to strive for salvation. Will few be saved? Will you be one of them? Is it so difficult to do? Why do we have to strive so hard? Well, because everything worthwhile is worth working for. We think nothing of striving for success in our careers, in sports, in our relationships. We work hard at what’s important to us. Just look at the Olympic games the past two weeks. We love to hear the stories of athletes who have worked so hard for so long to succeed, especially those who have to overcome broken homes, physical injuries, and repeated failures. Some prove strong enough and some don’t.

Why are we so willing to strive for earthly success but think we won’t have to strive for eternal life?

God does not make it hard for us to get to heaven. We do. We are the ones who fight and claw and do everything we can to avoid doing what it takes to be saved. We have been shown the path; we have been shown the way. We know the way but don’t want to accept it. Partly because it goes counter to how we strive for material success. In that realm we try to do it all by ourselves. We know we have to sacrifice and toil and work really hard. That’s not what Jesus tells us to do. Jesus tells us to be like him. The last two lines of the gospel today sum it up.

Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.

Jesus didn’t strive for earthly things. He humbled himself and took on the role of servant. When you let go of your attachment to all the stuff and success the world promises life actually gets easier. Are you strong enough to let go of it all. Are you strong enough to persevere until the end? The ones the world thinks are important are not really so, and those the world discards are the ones that really make a difference.

Jesus says there will be many who strive to enter but won’t be strong enough to do so. But he says that people will come from all over to recline at the banquet. So, which is it? He warns against making the assumption that you will be saved just because you know about Him. It takes more than that. Assume nothing. Strive to serve and Jesus will do the rest. Switch the focus off yourself and onto the Kingdom.

I think the most lasting image of the Rio Olympics won’t necessarily be Michael Phelps winning more medals than anyone in history. I don’t think it will be Ryan Lochte’s antics. I think it will be the image of Abby D’Angostino and Nikki Hamblin, who collided in the women’s 5000 meter race, and then stopped and helped each other up so they could try to finish the race. Two women who had been striving to win with all their being, but when given the choice, they chose to serve one another. They came in last in the race, but first in the hearts of the world.

After the race, D’Angostino said, “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way… This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. 
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

What a wonderful metaphor for our race to God. That’s the narrow gate. Never tire of doing what is good. Never take your eyes off the prize. Never take your eyes off the needs of others. Not because it is easy, but because it is difficult. Everything worthwhile usually is.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Eye on the Prize

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

The summer Olympics are here again. Did you watch the opening ceremonies last night? One of my favorite things is the parade of nations. Every Olympics it seems the TV commentators have some inspiring story or other to tell about some of the athletes. One runner last night from Africa used to train barefoot because his parents were too poor to buy him shoes. Another woman in a wheelchair carried her country’s flag in. She had begun her career in taekwando, but after a car accident left her paralyzed she took up archery and made the Olympic team. And to make it more inspiring, she was competing on the Iranian team, which has very few women. Saudi Arabia also had some women on its team this year.

I love these stories of perseverance and courage and sacrifice. My favorite line from last night was that, for most of those athletes, the opening ceremonies are their Olympics. They have little chance of winning a medal, so just the fact that they qualified to be there is all they will take away from years and years of struggle and preparation.

What sets Olympic level athletes apart is not only their talent but their unwavering focus on the prize. They never take their eyes off the goal, even if that goal is to just participate. They are ever vigilant. That’s what our readings are about today.

When we are focused on the goal, it’s easy to be vigilant. We watch out for what is important to us. As parents, we never really stop worrying about our children. We are ever vigilant of them. When they are little we always keep one eye on them, to make sure they are safe. We do this because we love them and we don’t want anything to happen to them. We never want them to suffer or need for anything.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

But I also think we are so vigilant of our children because we couldn’t bear it if something happened to them. We couldn’t live with ourselves if something we did or didn’t do caused our children pain. And we are terrified of losing them.

Why do we feel this way about our children but not about our souls?

Shouldn’t we watch out for and protect our very souls? Shouldn’t that be what we are most vigilant of? After all, that’s what will be going to heaven.

There are so many dangers to us in the world today. We need to keep an eye on so many things. Physical dangers at home, in the workplace, in public. Sadly, we have been forced to train ourselves to be ever more aware of what is happening around us in public, due to the danger of terrorism and violence. Even in our churches there has been deadly violence lately.

And there are so many spiritual dangers to our souls. The breakdown of the family and many of the institutions that used to provide us with safety and stability. The lack of trust between the people we look to to protect us and the people who they protect. The dismal regard in which we hold our government. The failings of leadership in our own Church. And the constant bombardment of immoral influences through the media and the internet. Our very culture seems to be falling apart sometimes.

It is easy to become numbed by all these negative influences. Our souls seem to shut down as a protection mechanism. We oftentimes just want to throw in the towel. That’s what I think Jesus is talking about today when he tells us to be vigilant. We can’t just give up. We have to keep hoping and praying and working for the kingdom of God. We have to remain the bulwark against the evils of the world. We have to make it a habit to remain conscious of the world, not because we fear it but because we are called to change it.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be vigilant out of fear. Fear that we’ll miss out on heaven if we don’t watch out. He wants us to be vigilant because he loves us and wants us to be with him forever. He wants us to be vigilant because it’s good for us. We don’t want our children to be safe and healthy and happy because we fear the consequences. We want them to be safe and healthy and happy because we love them and couldn’t imagine life without them.

This gospel passage is usually interpreted to be referring to Jesus’ second coming or to our deaths. We are to keep ourselves in a state of grace because you never know when the next moment will be your last, and that’s a very wise way to live. However, I see it sometimes in a different way. You never know when Jesus will want to come into your life in a special way. You never know when the grace of the Holy Spirit is there waiting to help you or fulfill you. You never know when true happiness is there available to you. Therefore, be on the lookout for it. Keep yourself open to God. Don’t harden your hearts to His presence.

We need to be aware of when Jesus comes to us in other people. Not just in the poor and needy that we are called to serve. But also in the people who are called to serve and help us in our time of need. Jesus comes to us in thousands of little ways every day; in an unexpected phone call from an old friend, in a smile at the checkout counter, in the simple things that make us smile and remember for a moment what is truly important. We need to stay vigilant for those moments as well, because they can break through the negativity and give us a glimpse once again of the promise of Christ.

It’s tough sometimes to do that. There are so many things that can blind us to God’s grace. Unless you are locked up in a monastery somewhere praying 24/7, it is so easy to forget to watch out for your soul. All the stresses and problems in our lives make it hard to keep our eyes and hearts on God. And if we don’t keep God in the center of our lives He will usually fall by the wayside.

It is a lot like taking care of your health. If you are in the habit of taking care of yourself, then sickness oftentimes can be avoided. Sometimes that habit is forced upon you by your circumstances. For example, I have been blessed by very good health my entire life. Therefore, I tended to take it for granted. I ate and drank whatever I liked and exercise was a bad word for me. However, three years ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Suddenly I had to check my blood sugar several times a day. I had to take meds, which for a guy who never took more than an aspirin was tough to get in the routine of doing. I had to watch what I ate and drank. And I had to start exercising. Now my health is something I am vigilant of. I have gotten into the practice and habit of tracking my progress and getting better at taking care of myself. I read up on the science of diabetes. I download recipes.

This would seem natural for me. I mean, the consequences of not doing it can be fatal. I do all these things because not only do I want to live a long and healthy life, I want to feel better now. Taking these preventative measures helps me to feel better now. I do not do them out of fear of what could happen. I do them because I am happier when I do.

It’s the same with your spiritual health. We should not fear death nor the second coming of Christ. But we should make our spiritual health as important to us as our physical health. We should get in the habit of actively being aware of the state of our souls. We should build practices to strengthen our spiritual health. Not because we are afraid of the consequences but because if we do we will feel better. We will be happier because we will be aligning our spiritual selves with the Holy Spirit Himself.

To those who have been given much, more will be required. Reaching the Olympic games does not mean things get easier. They get harder. And if you have a record of winning, like Michael Phelps, you can’t rest on your laurels. The world expects even more of you. You have to push yourself even more. You have to stay motivated and focused.

It’s the same in our lives as Christians. We have been given the great gift of God’s grace. We have been given the truth and we will be expected to do something with it. We have the fullness of the revelation of God to the world, and we can’t just keep it to ourselves. With that knowledge comes great responsibility. We are required to live our lives to a higher standard, because the world is watching us.

And our vigilance should be born out of hope and joy in the promise of Jesus. We are vigilant not because we need to be but because we want to be. We look not at the consequences but to the prize. Those thousands of young people in Rio de Janiero right now have struggled and persevered not because they fear failure but because they see the prize within reach. For some of them years of preparation will be over in mere seconds, but they are willing to endure the struggle for the glory that awaits them.

Isn’t the glory that awaits us so much more? Keep your eyes on the prize.