Saturday, November 18, 2017

Investment Advice


Investment Advice

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

A majority of Americans invest money in the financial markets in some way, either through owning stocks directly, through mutual funds, 401k and IRA accounts, company retirement plans, etc. This is usually part of an overall investment strategy, and many people use professional financial planners to help them manage their investments. The most important question investors ask themselves is what are their investment goals. What kind of return do they want to receive on their investments over what period of time, and what level of risk are they willing to assume. Those things determine how much a person should invest and where.

Today we hear the famous parable of the talents. Each servant is given by their master an amount of property to steward while their master is away. The master gives to each according to his abilities. But he never tells them what to do with it. The property is not theirs, it is not even a gift. It remains the master’s. But the servants know that their master is a man who expects a lot of his servants. They know that they are expected to do something with his property, and so, like any good investor, they begin by setting their investment goals. What do they think the master expects as a return?

One servant, the one who had been given the largest amount, invested aggressively. He immediately went out and doubled what had been entrusted to him. The second servant did likewise. They kept their eye on the end goal based upon what they thought the master expected of them. But the third servant, the one who the master had judged to have the least ability, let his fear overcome him and did nothing with what had been entrusted to him. He may have had as much investment savvy as the other two, but he was afraid of failure, and so he played it safe.

What kind of an investor are you? This parable today talks about talents, and we tend to think about talents as abilities today. What are our personal talents that we can contribute to the community. But in Jesus’ time a talent had a monetary value. The talent typically weighed about 75 lb. At today’s price of gold, a talent would be worth over $1.5 million! With that in mind, how would you react if someone suddenly gave you almost $8 million dollars and told you to invest it?

Would you be an aggressive investor, seeking the highest return in the shortest period of time? Would you be a growth investor, looking for a steady, safer return over time? Would you be afraid that you will lose your principal if you invest at all, and so do nothing, conserving what you have? Which type of investor does the Lord seek? Which does he consider to be a good and faithful servant?

As servants of the Lord we are all His stewards. Everything about our existence – who our parents are, which country we were born into, our material goods, the food we eat and the clothes we wear, the very air we breathe and our next heartbeat – are not ours. We did not create them and we did not create ourselves. Everything we have and everything we are is not truly ours. They have been given to us by our creator, and we are expected to do something with them. The master does not tell us how to invest them, but the expectation is that we do something with them, to increase them for the benefit of ourselves and the people of God.

God expects a return on his investment in us. What do you invest in?

You are wonderfully made, and God has created you to be totally unlike any other person the world has ever seen or ever will see. He has made you, you. The human person is the summit of all creation. All the amazing elements of creation, from the smallest atomic particle to the stars themselves, are not made in the image and likeness of their creator. But you are. How do you invest first of all in yourself?

What do you do to increase the talents the master has given you? How do you invest your time? You only have so much of it, do you use it wisely? How much do you waste? How much do you use on busy work or meaningless tasks? How much do you spend in prayer or contemplation? On study? On scripture? On other people?

How do you view your body and how do you take care of it? It seems that society today does not view the human body as being a temple or a gift, but something to exploit. It’s my body and I can do with it what I will. That is true to a certain extent, but what does the master want you to do with it? Is the body simply for pleasure? Is it to be neglected or protected? Is it really yours or is it to be used for the benefit of others? We have been given both body and soul, and both are of equal importance. We should not neglect the body and emphasize our souls, and vice versa.

What of your soul? How often do you even think about your soul? Our souls image God, are connected to God, are one with God. Is your investment strategy for eternal life one of hope, or is it based upon fear of the consequences if you fail? Do you feed your soul or bury it in the ground? Do you look forward with joy to the promise of salvation, or do you just fear going to hell? Do you take advantage of all the gifts God has given you to grow your soul, such as the sacraments, prayer, and your church community? It’s not the mind that’s a terrible thing to waste, it’s the soul.

And what of your mind? How aggressively do you invest in your intellect? What do you read and how do you expand your horizons? Is your entire understanding of the world just what you see on television? Do you think for yourself or just parrot the ideas of others? Do you inform your conscience or do you allow society to do it for you? Did you stop growing and thinking in high school or college? What truly original thought have you had lately?

How do you invest in your family, especially your children? This goes hand-in-hand with investing in your soul. It’s not about you, after all. You grow your soul when you grow the souls of others. How are you stewarding your spouse and your children? We heard in the first reading from Proverbs today that the worthy wife brings her husband good, and not evil, all the days of her life. Obviously, that applies to the husband as well, and to both of them as parents of their children. We have been given each other to steward, to cherish and nourish, with the ultimate reward being eternal life in heaven. How is your family set up to get all of you to heaven, together?

The family is the domestic church, and cannot be separated from the church as a whole. How do you invest in your church? We are not saved alone, but in community. How important is your church in your life? I recall one mother, when signing her children up for religious education classes, declared that her children would miss about half of the classes and class Masses that year due to all the other activities on the calendar. When the teacher commented on her priorities, the mother said that church was about fifth on their priority list. What number is it on your list?

The best way we invest in our church is to come to Mass. The best way to invest our time, in our minds, bodies and souls, is to come to Mass. The best way to invest in our families is to come to Mass. The Mass is the source and summit of who we are as Catholics. We are called as servants to worship our master, and Jesus told us how to do that. Do this in memory of me. If we simply concentrate on the Mass, learn and understand what it truly is, participate fully and actively each and every Sunday, and truly give of ourselves as part of the sacrifice, all our other investments will flow and increase from that. It’s a simple strategy for success.

Jesus said that those who have much will grow rich and those who have little will lose what little they have. This may or may not have referred to wealth, but it does apply to faith. It’s all about the return on investment. If we invest the talents we have been given well they will increase, but if we bury them they will not stay the same, they will wither and eventually die. If you are trustworthy in little things God will entrust you with greater things. You will be that good and faithful servant.

And you will share your Master’s joy.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Aliens


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away. How many of you have a tradition at your house to invite people to Thanksgiving dinner who don’t have family or friends here? We always seem to have a place for someone who was planning on spending the holiday alone. We like having new and different people at our table. We don’t do it out of pity or some sense of obligation. We want to share the joy of the day with others, no matter who they are. Usually the invitation is given at the spur of the moment. You don’t have plans for Thanksgiving? Then why not come over to our house? At first the opportunities just came up every year, but now it’s sort of a tradition, and we actively think of people we can invite.

I guess part of it is that we don’t want people to be unhappy, and to us, spending a holiday like Thanksgiving alone would make us unhappy. Maybe some folks like to be alone on Thanksgiving. Maybe being without family or friends at that time brings up painful memories of a loss or of a broken relationship. Maybe they are estranged from their families or have had bad experiences around the dinner table. I never think of those things. Doesn’t matter. I usually just jump in and invite anyone who will come.

To me and my family that’s hospitality. It’s hard to nail down the definition of hospitality. Part of it is cultural, I guess. I grew up with lots of different people around the dinner table. I was raised to believe that it is better to give than to receive. And, I basically just like people. But is it more than that? Is hospitality a matter of faith or just a social construct?

To the people of the ancient Near East, at the time the book of Exodus was written, hospitality was more than a cultural thing, it was often a matter of life and death. Recall the story of Abraham, who was sitting in the entrance to his tent one day when three strangers approached. Abraham jumped up, greeted them heartily, and insisted they stay for a meal. He treated them as important people. He killed some goats and prepared a big meal for them, after ushering them into his tent where it was cool. Turns out they were angels, and they told Abraham in return for his hospitality his wife would bear a son in her old age. Who knew?

In the desert, food and water was in short supply. They were wandering Bedouins, and oftentimes the only way you would eat that day is if you came upon another wanderer who gave you some food. Hospitality was necessary for survival, and people gave it without question, because they knew that someday they themselves would have to rely on the hospitality of someone else.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Is it as simple as extending hospitality to one another? In scripture, God talks a lot about reciprocity. Love your neighbor as yourself. You will be forgiven to the extent that you forgive. Welcome the alien because you were once aliens. Abuse the widows and orphans and I will make your wife a widow and your children orphans. That whole Golden Rule thing is about getting what you give, in similar proportions. Treat people as you want to be treated. And there seems to be a built-in quid pro quo. We do it because we want to receive something in return. But is that really love?

Do we extend hospitality because someday we want to receive it? Is that how it should be?

Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? St. Luke has this same story in his gospel, but it is not the Pharisees who were questioning Jesus but a righteous man. Remember that the man wanted to justify himself, so he asked snarkily “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan extended compassion and mercy to the man beaten by robbers without asking who he was, or what tribe he belonged to, or what his politics were or how much money he had. He didn’t help him expecting to ever be repaid. He offered hospitality even though he knew he probably would never need the same help himself. Jesus said that is what a true neighbor is. 

We heard in our first reading today from the Book of Exodus, “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” We talk a lot about aliens in this country these days, don’t we? And there are strong feelings on each side, each with valid points of view. If hospitality is just a social construct, then it is easy to look at the quid pro quo of immigration, legal or illegal. We must protect our borders. We can’t keep on spending so many resources on people who are here without permission. We need to concentrate on our own people first. We can’t just open the door to everyone. Valid arguments.

But if hospitality is a matter of faith, what are we called to do? How did Jesus offer hospitality? Did he ever discriminate against anyone who came to him? Jesus never rejected anyone who wanted to follow him, even though he was often rejected himself. He offered lifegiving water to the Samaritan women at the well. He invited himself to dinner at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector. He forgave Peter his betrayal. He spoke in parables of the absurd generosity of the Father.

Jesus offered hospitality to everyone because of the way he viewed them. He saw each and every person as being special, as having an inherent dignity just because God had created them. Every person created is a reflection of the Creator. Every person images God, and so has God within him or her.

If God showed up at your door on Thanksgiving, would you let him in? Would you notice his race, look at the way he is dressed, how well groomed he is, determine his social status? Would you ask yourself what God could give you in return if you let him in? Or would you welcome him in just because he is who he is?

The hospitality of faith transcends all the complicated social, political, economic and racial arguments, and narrows the criteria for acceptance down to one simple reality – your neighbor really is yourself. If God has offered you his hospitality just because you are his son or daughter, you must do the same, because we are all His sons and daughters. All that matters is that God made you. And he made us all for himself.

God shows us the ultimate hospitality. He shows us the ultimate dignity. He dignified humanity to the point of becoming human himself. He showed the value of every human life by dying on the cross for each and every human being ever created. He showed the value of the lowest of the low – he was condemned to a traitor’s death – in his very self. It was when he was brought low that he was raised up high.

The hospitality of faith and the hospitality of society are not exclusive of one another, but build on each other. Social mores and laws are necessary for the survival of our culture. But as we determine what they are to be, we, as Christians, must begin with the reality that each and every human being has inherent dignity because we are Children of God. It is not quid pro quo. It is just because.

We don’t create just laws because of what we will get in return. We don’t decide how to treat other people based upon what they can or cannot contribute to us or to society. Who are we to decide the worthiness of another person’s life? Jesus Christ has already settled that on the cross. We create just laws because they are just. Because God is just.

And it goes beyond laws and social norms. It goes to all our relationships. The alien is anyone who is different from us. Aliens are treated with suspicion. Aliens are not part of us. They can be scary. They can force us out of our comfort zones to perhaps take a different look at ourselves.

Aliens disagree with you. Aliens belong to a different political party. Aliens belong to a different religious group, or hold no religious beliefs at all. Aliens have physical or mental disabilities. Aliens have tattoos and piercings. Aliens are the old and frail who can no longer contribute to society. Aliens are the inconvenient unborn in the womb. Aliens are conservative, aliens are progressive. Aliens are older than you. Aliens are younger than you. Aliens have less money than you. Aliens have more money than you.

You are an alien, and I am an alien. And together, we are wonderfully made.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Who Am I to Judge?


23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

Who Am I to Judge?

That seems to be the theme of our civilization today. Who am I to judge?

The media and a lot of people have taken part of a quote from Pope Francis and have turned it into an excuse for tolerating any type of behavior. Whatever the crisis of the day is, whatever moral norms are being turned upside down, it doesn’t matter, because we are not to judge, are we? It’s a wonderful, all-encompassing excuse for not taking any responsibility for our actions or the actions of other people. It’s not my fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not anyone’s fault. We must be open and welcome and accept, even celebrate, any behavior in anyone, because to do otherwise is to be judgmental, and that’s bad.

It’s not only bad, it’s really hard to do sometimes, because if we are seen as judgmental we risk a lot. We risk ridicule, usually on social media, loss of friends, our jobs, and sometimes outright violence. Nobody wants to be seen as judgmental. As long as what you do doesn’t infringe on my rights, go ahead. It doesn’t affect me.

But is that true? Am I really my brother’s keeper?

What do we hear in today’s readings? The people of the prophet Ezekial’s time believed that the consequences of offending God was often death, physical death. They didn’t have the same concept of the afterlife that we do. Therefore, the worst that could happen to someone was for them to die. We have a similar understanding of the consequences of sin, however, ours is based upon our understanding of eternal life. If we live a life of sin without repenting, and die in that state, then we will suffer not only physical death but spiritual death as well, separated from God forever.

So, as St. Paul says, the wages of sin is death. The stakes are really high. The Lord tells Ezekial that it is his responsibility as a prophet to warn people about those consequences, and try to turn them away from their sin, so they will not die. If he does not, then not only will the person die anyway, but Ezekial will be held responsible. That’s a high price to pay for not being judgmental.

And Jesus builds upon this understanding of responsibility in the gospel. He lays out a detailed process for dealing with people who sin. If someone does something wrong that you are personally aware of, you have a responsibility to talk to them about it. Sometimes people are unaware that they have hurt you or that what they did was wrong. A young person asked me once if something is a sin if she didn’t think it was a sin. At first I thought that yes, there are some actions that are always sinful, in and of themselves. Then after a while I came to the conclusion that that may be so, but there’s a difference between thinking something is a sin and knowing it is a sin, and doing it anyway. I think we have raised entire generations that have no awareness that some things they think are natural and good are actually wrong. It is our responsibility to inform them of reality, as we have been taught by Jesus and his church. And, as Jesus tells us today, not just the responsibility but the authority to do so.

But what if they don’t listen, or outright reject our message? Jesus says we are to bring in backup. Take a couple of witnesses with us and try again. In Jewish law, all it took to establish a case was to have the collaborating testimony of two or three witnesses. If even that fails, take it to the church. To the church? What have they got to do with it?

Jesus clearly states here that the church has both the responsibility and the authority to judge questions of faith and morals. When we sin, it affects not only our relationship with God and with those we hurt, it affects everyone. It affects the church, the people of God. It affects the entire world. Wow, when I steal that candy bar from the 7 Eleven it hurts people in China? In a way, yes. Sin, especially unrepentant and unforgiven sin, does hurt everyone. Like George Lucas said, there’s a disturbance in the force. If only we could feel something when somebody else sinned, maybe we would be more aware of the seriousness of sin.

There are sins that individuals do not commit that affect their lives profoundly. When someone hurts us, it obviously affects us personally. But how can what one person does to another that we are not even aware of affect us personally? Well, how many of you own slaves? How many of you are sexual offenders? None of us own slaves, but we are all affected by the sin of slavery in this country that was ended over 150 years ago. Every day we see the effects of racism, and it hurts us all and paints entire populations with the same brush, because of the actions of others. And as Catholics, we are all affected by the actions of a few clergy, aren’t we, even though we would never dream of acting that way ourselves.

And if we are all affected by the sins of others, we are also responsible for trying to correct and forgive those sins.

When he told his apostles, “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven” he gave them the authority to judge actions and establish laws that apply here on earth that are backed by the authority of God himself.

Finally, Jesus proclaims judgment on the unrepentant sinner. Treat them as you would treat a gentile or tax collector. And we know how the Jews treated those folks. They had no contact with gentiles and they ostracized and abused tax collectors. That’s pretty harsh, and doesn’t really paint a picture of a merciful Jesus.

But it’s not judgmental to give someone a chance to repent. Several chances, in fact. And how did Jesus treat tax collectors? He ate with them. One of them was actually an apostle. The door was always open, but Jesus never pulled any punches with sinners. He always called them to repentance and always forgave and welcomed them back into relationship with him.

That’s what people do when they love each other. Jesus wasn’t laying out a legalistic process for judging sinners. He was giving them a lot of chances. He was telling us to be persistent and gentle in calling people back into relationship. And most of all, he is telling us to try, at least try. I think that many of us don’t even take that first step when someone hurts us. We don’t have the courage to tell the person how we feel and reach out to them. Most of us would just let it go and write them off.

We must always treat sinners with compassion, because we are all sinners who need and want compassion ourselves. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means we treat them as we want to be treated, and nobody wants to feel condemned and outcast. We correct our children all the time when they do something wrong. We also punish them when necessary. We do that out of love for them because we do not want them to suffer any long term harmful consequences. That is not being judgmental, that is being responsible parents.

We are our brother’s keeper. We are all responsible for one another. Remember that admonishing the sinner is one of the spiritual works of mercy, along with instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and bearing patiently those who wrong us.

We are all just beggars looking to be fed. And so we must be there for one another. Just as we provide for the physical needs of people we must also look out for one another’s spiritual needs. We do it out of love. We do it because we want to be loved. The most loving thing you can do for someone is help them get to heaven, to be with the God who created them. To correct someone who sins is to show them the ultimate compassion.

It is to lead them to the thing that will bring them the greatest happiness.

Happiness does not come from doing whatever we want to do. Happiness comes from living as we were created to live, according to the commandments of the Lord. Those commandments are not just a set of arbitrary or oppressive rules. God set them up for us to guide us to him. Jesus said that we are his friends if we keep his commandments. He then gave us the responsibility and authority to help one another keep them.

That’s not being judgmental. Only God will judge us. One day each and every one of us will stand before the Lord, alone, and there will be judgment. That is the moment when we will feel the effects of the gentle corrections we had received during our lives here on Earth. How we reacted to those corrections will make all the difference. At that moment we will also experience the consequences of how we responded to those times we were called to be loving to our neighbor. And that includes when we were called to show mercy to the sinner.

For we will be shown mercy to the extent that we show mercy.