Saturday, May 13, 2017

To Serve and To Give

5th Sunday of Easter

Cycle A

Ever since Easter Sunday we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles, hearing about how the early Church sought to live out the mission that Jesus had given them. We have no record of Jesus giving the disciples instructions on how to organize themselves into Church. It is interesting how they chose to do so. From the very beginning we see them putting into place an attitude and a structure of service. First and foremost service to one another, and then expanding to service of the entire community.

We will be listening the next few weeks to verses from the Gospel of John from what is called, “The Last Discourse”. This passage today comes immediately following the story of the washing of the feet we heard on Holy Thursday, where Jesus told his disciples, “If I washed your feet – I who am teacher and Lord – then you must wash each other’s feet. What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do.”

This is where the Church received its marching orders from Jesus, and we are beginning to see how they chose to live out those orders. This took on a very practical orientation. From the very beginning the Church ordered itself in practical ways to carry out its mission of service. This attitude of loving service, of subordination to each other, was what attracted so many people to Christianity.

The Church addressed both the spiritual and physical needs of its members. The role of the apostles was to preach and teach the gospel. They also governed the community. When they found themselves being bogged down with the temporal needs of the people, they set aside certain people to take on that role.

We hear today the story of the ordination of the first deacons; the very name means servant in Greek. Their job was to take care of the poor and the sick and the needy, just like today. They were the servants at table, both the dinner table and the altar of the Eucharist. It may seem that the Apostles were delegating the dirty work to lesser men, but in fact service at table is what Eucharist is all about, isn’t it?

Archbishop Niederauer, whose motto was “To Serve and To Give”, liked to say that Eucharist happens under the table as well as on top of it. We gather around the table to share in the banquet on the top, but we serve down below. Because foot washing happens under the table. If we are to be people of Eucharist, we must be foot washers for one another.

“Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,” Jesus said, “and will do greater ones than these.” Jesus in his earthly ministry fed the hungry, healed the sick, raised the dead, taught his disciples, gave himself in Eucharist to us, gave his very life for us. As his disciples we are called to do the same. Jesus did all these things himself, because he was giving us example. However, we aren’t called to serve God’s people all by ourselves; we are called to do our part as members of the larger Body of Christ. Some of us feed the hungry, some of us heal the sick, some lead us in Eucharist, still others teach, but all of us are called to give our lives for others, not necessarily literally, but we are called to live our entire lives in service.

Service is not an option; it is what we are compelled to do through the Holy Spirit. If you have the spirit of God within you you will do great works. That is how you know you have the Spirit. When the Spirit came down upon Jesus at his baptism, he didn’t just go off somewhere to study or to keep this power within him. He didn’t keep it just between God and himself. He immediately went throughout the entire countryside spreading the gospel he had found. He was driven into the desert by the spirit and then from there spent the rest of his life in service to God’s people. He didn’t work a year or two and then say, “Well, I’ve done my part, now it’s time for someone else to take over.” He was serving unto his death. He was obedient to the will of his Father unto his death. Only when he went back to the Father did he hand over his ministry to his disciples. To us.

It really is all about stewardship. We have all been given great gifts from God. Everything we have – our health, our relationships, our children, our jobs, our material possessions – ultimately come from God. We have been given so much, and we have an awesome responsibility to take care of those gifts.

As stewards we understand that while we have so much, we do not really own anything and nothing really owns us. We are here to nurture and grow the gifts we have been given, to increase their worth and give them back to the creator who gives them to us in the first place. The greatest gift we are called to take stewardship of is one another. By serving one another we help each other to grow and become the people God intends us to be.

It’s fitting that we celebrate Mother’s day this weekend. A mother is a natural steward. Motherhood is a vocation of service, of nurturing, of giving tirelessly of self for the benefit of others. There is something about having a child that brings out this selflessness. We fathers also feel this need, but a mother’s love begins in the womb, with a baby’s total reliance on her for sustenance. The connection between mother and child is both physical and spiritual. And once born, a mother’s selfless service to her family only grows deeper and stronger.

The Church is a lot like the womb in that regard. One of the strongest images we have of the church is as mother. Mother Church we call it. As Church we look out for one another. We take care of the spiritual and physical needs of others, whether they belong to our community or not. We see each other as special gifts from God, and we offer up our own unique talents for the benefit of all.

Because that’s what love is and that’s what love does. Jesus gave us our mission. “Love one another as I have loved you.” And then he gave us his example of humble service to show us how to live that love.

A good friend of mine posted today on Facebook,

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, "I have nothing left, I used everything you gave me."

To me, that says it all.



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?