Sunday, April 2, 2017

Will Jesus Cry When I Die?

5th Sunday of Lent

Cycle A

Will Jesus Cry When I Die?

I attended the funeral of Deacon Ricardo Arias on Friday. Ricardo and I were ordained in the same class, and he is the fifth of my class that has died. He had suffered from cancer for a long time. The funeral Mass was held at the cathedral, and the bishop presided, along with dozens of priest and deacons, and the cathedral was filled with people who came to pay their last respects.

The bishop spoke of Ricardo’s quiet, unfailing love for and service to the church. He spoke of his dedication to God’s people. He had been a good and faithful deacon. Ricardo had obviously touched a great many people. Many wept.

I preside at a lot of funerals. Many of them are for people I have never met or known. Many times the only Catholics in the church are myself and the person in the casket. I hear a lot of stories about the deceased, how he or she has touched the lives of their friends and family. Some are good and some not so much so. Some are pretty vacuous. Most people don’t live heroic lives. Many lives are defined by the activities they contained rather than how they affected the lives of others.

Funerals often make me think about what my own funeral will be like. What will I be remembered for? What will people say about me? How many people will be there out of respect for me or my family, and how many will be so perturbed at losing me that they will weep? How many lives will I have touched and influenced? How many have I led to Christ?

Like Lazarus, will my life, and death, be for the glory of the Son of God?

This was not the first time Jesus had raised someone from the dead. He had raised Jairus’ young daughter, and the son of the Widow of Nain. He had done so out of compassion for the grieving parents, and he did so in privacy. Lazarus was different. Jesus didn’t cry when those young people died, but here we hear those famous words written for the first and only time in the gospels – “And Jesus wept.”

For Jesus, Lazarus’ death was personal. Outside of his apostles, Mary, Martha and Lazarus are the only people named as his friends. I imagine that Jesus often went to their home just outside of Jerusalem to rest and get away from the crowds. Jesus had a special place in his heart for them. He was very close to them, and so it is understandable that Jesus would be upset when his friend died.

Jesus weeps for his friends. Jesus weeps for them because they are not just some people he meets on his way. Jesus happened upon Jairus and the Widow. Jesus had a personal relationship with Lazarus. Jesus wept for Lazarus because he was his friend. He was his family. He loved him because he was loved by him.

Will Jesus cry when I die?

Will I just be another disciple among the crowd, or will he consider me his friend? His close friend? His family? Will I have invited him into my home? Will we have broken bread together often? Will I have sat at his feet while he taught me? Will I have thrown myself down before him in shame and have asked for his forgiveness? Will Jesus know me so well that he will be perturbed when I suffer?

Today’s gospel is the promise. This is what it is all about. This is why we believe and this is what we hope for. Without Jesus’ promise of the resurrection from the dead why should we bother? Jesus’ resurrection really means nothing for us unless it points to our own destiny. Why should you change your life, why should you become His disciple if it were not for the reward of everlasting life?

Those are the fundamental questions we ask ourselves sooner or later. We all want to believe that there’s something after this life. We all want the promise. That’s why Lazarus’ story is our story, because we all have that promise.

Jesus didn’t just say he was the resurrection and the life, he proved it. He rose again to a new kind of life, a glorious life, and he promised that we would have that same life, too. That’s why this story is for all of us, because Jesus came so that all may have everlasting life. The promise he gave to Martha is the promise he gives to us.

May we all live as children of the promise.





Sunday, March 19, 2017

Don't You Understand?

3rd Sunday of Lent

Cycle A

Do you understand what you believe? Do you believe what you understand?

Jesus challenged the woman at the well on this. She had questioned his nationalism. "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" She questioned his veracity. "Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water?” She questioned his authority. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” She questioned his piety. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain; but you people say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem." To Jesus, none of that mattered. She needed to understand.

If you only knew who was sitting here with you and to whom you are speaking. And he proceeded to open her eyes.

It is through reason that we understand with the head. It is through prayer and contemplation and worship that we understand with the heart. If all you have is book learning then your faith has no motivation. If all you have is emotion, your faith has no roots. It is like the person Jesus said builds his house on sand. When trials and tribulations blow there is no conviction there to keep it from being torn down.

Conviction comes from the heart. Why is it that sports teams that have the most talent do not always win the championship? Every player knows the rules of the game, and all of them possess great skills. It is what is in the heart that makes them champions. It is the heart that gives them the strength and courage to go further, to excel, to conquer in the face of great adversity.

The woman at the well was faithful to her understanding of her beliefs, but that alone would not ensure her salvation. It was not until she had a conversation with her God, one to one, face to face, did she begin to understand. And that conversation was brutal and honest. It brought into the light what had been going on in the darkness.

I think it’s the same with many people today, maybe even with most people today. Why do you worship the way you do? Why are you Catholic and what do you really understand about your faith? How much have you studied what your Church teaches you? How much time have you spent in contemplation and prayer to try to ascertain why those teachings are necessary for your life? How has that brought you face-to-face with Jesus? Are you inspired by your beliefs? Do they change you? Do they change the people around you?

I think we cradle Catholics oftentimes worship out of a sense of obligation or fear or habit, without ever trying to understand the what or the why. When you come here on Sunday, do you really listen to the readings as they are being proclaimed? Is that the only time in your week that you experience the scriptures? Is the weekly homily the only time you think about what the scriptures are trying to tell you, to change you? Do you fully participate in the Mass every Sunday? Is this the only time you pray?

I think the reason I am Catholic is that I have studied and contemplated my faith and it makes sense to me. It’s reasonable. I believe I have a good understanding of what I believe and therefore can see its relevance in my life and its place in the world. I can also explain it to others in a logical way. But that only takes me so far. Like the woman at the well, once she gained a better understanding of who the person before her was, she was able to not only change her own behavior, but bring others to Christ.

I’ve said many times before that unless you can internalize the intellectual you cannot make it personal. Unless you have an actual encounter with Jesus yourself all you will have is a bunch of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding can help stoke the fire within you, but it is not the fire itself. Knowledge does not drive people to be greater than they were. Knowledge is only the starting point for conversion.

It takes looking into the very eyes of your Savior.

The apostles had a good understanding of their faith, but what compelled them to leave hearth and home and become the most influential human beings in history was their personal relationship with Jesus. He was not just an intellectual exercise to them. He was their friend and brother.

For over 25 years I have had the privilege of walking alongside hundreds of adults who have answered the call to become Catholic. Each of them has a unique story of their call. Some are dramatic. Some have gone through some horrific experiences. Some have battled some pretty strong demons. But all have one thing in common: they all were looking for that personal encounter with God. Something had called them to the Church, but it wasn’t until they experienced the touch of Jesus that they felt they had made the right decision. It wasn’t until then that they felt at home.

We may call these encounters conversion experiences, and they are, but for most of us our conversions are much more subtle. We encounter God in the stuff or our everyday lives, many, many times, and each encounter requires a response from us to God’s outreach.

Most of us experience God in the simple things all around us. A newborn child, a lover’s kiss, the awesome beauty of a landscape, a sunrise or sunset. Most of us don’t have life shattering encounters with our God. Most of us encounter Him in countless little ways throughout the days of our lives. I think actually those encounters are the most lasting and the strongest. Because they build upon one another.

You know what we call these daily encounters with God? Grace. Grace is simply God touching our lives in some way. Sometimes His grace is strong and obvious, like on your wedding day or when you held your firstborn for the first time. Sometimes it hits you over the head like a rock. We can be shaken when we encounter God for the first time. It can be life-changing and can re-direct our lives in ways we never imagined.

Has that ever happened to you? Has something soul-shaking ever happened to you? I often see it in families who have suffered the sudden loss of a loved one, or who have sickness thrust upon them. Times like that force us to focus on the fact that we are ultimately not in control of our lives, no matter how much we want to believe that. But what usually happens is that when we finally release our grip God takes over.

Lent is the perfect time to encounter the risen Christ. How have you been preparing for that encounter? Have you taken the time to pray, fast and give alms this Lenten season? Have you taken advantage of the most awesome example of God’s grace, to see the Lord face-to-face in the confessional? You see, the most obvious result of saying yes to God’s call is to change your life. We are all called to repentance, each and every day. Conversion requires repentance. We must first see ourselves for who we truly are, coldly and honestly, before we can accept the burning fire of God’s love in our lives.

And while that conversion experience is a very personal one, it will also affect those around you. Like the woman at the well, once she said yes she changed. She changed her view of herself, she changed her view of God, and she then went out and changed the world.
Will you do the same?


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Broken Windows

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Sir 15:15-20

1 Cor 2:6-10

Mt 5:17-37


I guess I must have been about 13 years old. I can’t remember exactly what I had done wrong, but my dad had caught me red-handed and I was sitting on my bed waiting for him to come in for “the talk”. You see, whenever I did something wrong, first my dad would send me to my room for a while to “think about it”. Then, after he figured I’d been softened up enough, he’d come in and we’d talk about it. Usually he talked and I listened. Those were some of the most profound learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Anyway, on this occasion I must have done something particularly heinous, because he proceeded to explain to me that what I had done had actually broken each and every one of the ten commandments. Each and every one. And he walked me through all ten in order and explained how I had broken it.

At first I was incredulous. I thought he was exaggerating. Surely I hadn’t killed anyone or anything like that. I don’t think I even knew what “covet” meant at the time, but I’d broken those two also. But, like Jesus in today’s gospel, he showed me how there were the seeds of my transgression that day in each of those ancient commandments. Dad was trying to tell me that I need to see further than do’s and don’ts.

He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad…well, maybe a little. He wanted me to be able to make decisions based upon more than just a set of rules. He wanted me to expand my awareness of right and wrong. And obviously, since I still remember it, that event has helped direct my conscience throughout my life.

Why was Jesus addressing this with his disciples that day? He had just finished preaching the Beatitudes to them. He had just told them that there was a new, proactive way of following the law. The ten commandments were mostly prohibitions. Necessary for any society to order itself, but full of “thall shalt nots”. The Beatitudes were a new way of looking at the world and the relationships among people. They were more about attitudes than actions. Was Jesus issuing a caveat here? Was he reminding them that this new way of acting and thinking was just a natural extension of those ancient prohibitions? Was he also trying to expand their awareness of right and wrong?

Or when Jesus said things like the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath, did some of his disciples think he was throwing out the old for the new, and so they weren’t bound by the law anymore? Were they trying to find loopholes in the law, those exceptions that gave them a free pass in this or that situation? They had done it with the law on divorce. They did it with how they treated foreigners and strangers. They were always looking for exceptions, for reasons the law didn’t apply to them. I think we all look for loopholes when we don’t want to keep the law because it is difficult or inconvenient to do so. We do it with the laws of society and the laws of God.

I don’t think Jesus was using hyperbole here. Jesus was talking about the sin of complacency. He was warning about getting bogged down in the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit of the law.

I’ve never killed anybody, so I’m off the hook with that one. But how many times have I murdered someone’s reputation through my gossiping?

I honor my father and mother, so that one doesn’t apply to me, either. Most of us honor our parents. But we can also honor the stranger amongst us.

Most of us are honest most of the time. But we can all work to be more transparent with those we love. How often does our yes mean yes and our no mean no?

Jesus wants us to see beyond the do’s and don’ts, to look beyond the law to the person who fulfilled it. But to Jesus it’s not just the spirit of the law that is important, but the letter as well. “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

You’ve probably heard of the “broken window” theory of law enforcement. I believe it started in New York City in the ‘80’s. The thought was that if police tried to stop the simple petty crimes such as graffiti and vandalism, more serious crime would also be reduced. Clean up Times Square and other crimes would diminish. They even got rid of those guys who came up and tried to wash your windows while you were stopped at a light. Instead of spending all our resources on the big stuff… sort of a top down strategy…spend time also on the little stuff, because usually those people who committed the big crimes started out by committing little crimes. And it worked. Major crime was reduced drastically, and New York City is considered one of the safest major cities in the world today.

The letter springs out of the spirit. The letter is how we act out the spirit. It must be both. If it is just the spirit of the law then we will always rationalize a way around it. If it is just the letter then we will become rigid and unmerciful.

Originally the Jewish people saw the law as a very positive thing. It was written by the very hand of their God and given to them as a sign of the special covenant God had made with them. If they kept God’s law God would protect them and make them prosper. If they broke the law usually bad things happened to them. But over time the law itself became the most important thing and not the covenant it represented. It is sometimes easier to focus on the action and not on the meaning behind it. It can become blind obedience, not life changing behavior.

Christianity is not a completely new faith that sprung up on Pentecost two thousand years ago. Practically all of the teachings of Jesus can be traced to their roots in the Judaism he practiced. And if we truly believe that Jesus is the Word Made Flesh that has been with the Father since the beginning, then Christianity has been around since then also. St. Paul says today, “We speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory”.

If something is true it’s true. God does not change, only our understanding of God changes. Only the way we follow God changes. God set up the law so that we could live as we were created to live. The law is to guide us to God. It isn’t supposed to be about punishment, it is supposed to lead to our salvation. “If you choose to keep the commandments, they will save you.” The law is not intended to imprison us but to set us free.

We do not follow the law because if we don’t bad things will happen to us. We follow the law because it leads to so much more.

What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard,
and what has not entered the human heart,
what God has prepared for those who love him.