Saturday, May 14, 2016

Let 'Er Rip

Feast of Pentecost
Cycle C

Last year I got to travel to Paris on business. I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and took the train to the Gare du Nord. My hotel was only a few blocks from the station, but when I got off the train I saw signs for at least six exits, all with different street names. I had no idea which one would take me in the right direction, so I just picked the closest one and went outside. I fired up my handy GPS on my phone to get directions.

It wouldn’t work. Must have been because it didn’t speak French. So I pulled up the hotel’s website. It had one of those little street maps on it with the location of the hotel. I pulled that up and expanded it. There it was, so easy to see. So I set off down the street in the direction I thought I should go. But as any of you who have been to Paris know, the streets run in every direction with no logical order. I was soon lost. I would walk in one direction hoping to run into a street I recognized on the map, but when I didn’t hit it I figured I’d gone in the wrong direction, so I turned around and went the other way. No luck there either.

After about an hour of this, I did something I never do. I asked people on the street for help. Now, Parisians are known for being friendly, helpful and polite, especially if the only words of French you know are parley vous Anglais. All I got were stares, some blank, some amused, and some hostile. They all brushed me off in their perfect French, and I was more lost than before.

Finally, I went into a small hotel, thinking that surely somebody there would be able to speak the international language of English. Negative with the front desk clerk. Negative with the manager. But finally they pulled someone from the back office who in her broken English pulled out a little tourist street map, circled where I was and drew a line directly to where I needed to go.

Finally, someone who spoke my language! I got it. I understood. It made sense to me. I was lost and now I was found.

It says in the story of Pentecost that after hearing Peter’s exhortation that day some 3000 people were baptized and became disciples. 3000 people! About one percent of the population of Jerusalem at that time. In one day! Wow. That’s some sermon. What caused such a response? What attracted them to the apostles that day and what was it about Peter’s message that changed their lives so dramatically?

They came to the spectacle. They heard the noise of the rushing wind and gathered around the house. Suddenly they realized that they were each hearing the apostles preach in their own languages. At first they thought the apostles were drunk, but then they realized that something amazing was happening. They understood what they were saying. And it wasn’t that the apostles knew a bunch of languages, people standing right next to each other heard the same words being spoken, but each in their own language simultaneously.

The message got through to them because finally somebody was speaking their language. They were not preaching at them, they were speaking to them. The message was universal, no matter what language it was spoken in. But now it was personal. Now they got it. They had been lost and now they were found. And it says they were shaken to the core.

It wasn’t the message that attracted them at first. It was the messengers. The excitement, the enthusiasm of the preachers attracted them. Initially they were confused; at first they discounted and ridiculed the messengers. Most of them had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth, they were from other countries. But then they listened and were able to understand because someone was speaking their language. They came for the excitement, they stayed for the miracle, and they were changed by the gospel.

Something drove the apostles out into the street. Something gave them great power in their speech and bolstered their confidence. Just that morning they had been a bunch of illiterate men cowering in a borrowed room in a borrowed house. Suddenly they were out in the street preaching fearlessly. They had no idea what they would do or say. They just let it rip. They were in the grip of the Spirit and they just went with it.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever just let ‘er rip? Has something ever gotten you so worked up you just had to tell people about it, and you didn’t worry or care about what you would say?

I think that we all have experienced that to some extent during our lives. A marriage proposal, the birth of a child, a new job, a political position, anything we’re passionate about. We have those major moments in our lives where we have a feeling of deep joy and excitement that compels us to share it with others.

It’s the same with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is within us every second of our lives. We wouldn’t exist without Him. But sometimes the Spirit moves within us in much deeper ways. Sometimes we feel His presence almost physically, and we feel compelled to share it with others. We don’t worry about what we will say, we just have to say it. The sacraments are like that.

Last week and today/yesterday we celebrated first communion here at St. Mary’s. I think we’ve all been to a first communion for the little ones. They were all sitting here up front so shiny and scrubbed and beautiful. The girls in their white dresses like little brides, the boys with their shirts untucked and ties askew. They were excited, you could see it in their eyes. They had been preparing for this for so long. At last they would be able to experience what had been denied them their whole lives. At last they would be like everybody else in church. They would receive Jesus.

And sitting right behind them were their parents, grandparents, family and friends. They had traveled from all over to be there for this very special day. And I was struck at the contrast between their faces and postures and those of the children before them. They were not, how should I say it -as enthused. Rarely did they open their mouths to join the children in prayer or song. It was as if they had forgotten why they were really there.

I know that at their own first communions they were as precious and innocent and excited as those children in front of them. And perhaps they did feel the joy that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit, but their faces didn’t show it. Sadly, I see those same looks when I look out every Sunday.

What happens to us as we get older? What changes in us that we oftentimes forget the joy and wonder of our first holy communion? Have we been worn down so much by our everyday lives that we cannot recognize and rejoice in the wonderful gift we have been given? Does the Spirit work less in us as we mature? Do we lose sight of Him in the routine of coming to Mass every Sunday? During any relationship, we feel closer to the other sometimes more than others. We get comfortable with one another, and oftentimes we take each other for granted. Can we take the Holy Spirit for granted?

For the little ones it is new and wonderful. What can we do to keep the joy within us everyday throughout our lives? It’s hard to maintain that enthusiasm. It’s easy to see the workings of the Spirit in the major events of our lives, but like anything, with repetition it can seem stale and routine. We lose the joy we had at our first communion.

How do we get it back? How do we maintain it? Can we increase the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, or does He just come and go as he wishes?

Yes, we can increase the Spirit’s presence, simply by asking for it. Why not just ask? The Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us just as He did with the apostles that first Pentecost. Why are they any different from us? We are all disciples, we all lack confidence, we are all scared from time to time, none of us really knows what to say or do most of the time. Jesus told the apostles to wait for the advocate who would give them understanding and power and guide them. Don’t we all need that? And Jesus has given us the mechanism for being closer to Him, he has given us the way to increase the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He has given us the sacraments.

Peter told those 3000 people that day to be baptized and they would receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus told his disciples to do this in memory of me. He said what sins you forgive are forgiven them. At every Mass at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer the priest asks the Holy Spirit to be present in the gifts of bread and wine so that they will become the body and blood of Christ. At the end of that prayer he asks the Holy Spirit to come upon us, His people, so that we will be changed and prepared to take the gospel out into the world.

Our little children know that. For them the Holy Spirit is someone special. He has touched their hearts and souls by making them receptacles of Jesus Christ himself. They understand how special the gift is, even if they do not understand the theology behind it.

Our children are apostles to us, their parents and grandparents, family and friends. Jesus said that unless we become like the little children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those 3000 people that first Pentecost were not converted by the apostles arguments but by their enthusiasm. We will not be changed by our children’s arguments, but by their enthusiasm.

Maybe if we listen to them better and see their joy we will be able to enter into that joy again ourselves. Maybe we will be able to reclaim the wonder and innocence of our own first holy communion. Maybe we can experience the wonder and enter into the mystery of every Mass, every sacrament, every time we celebrate together. And maybe, just maybe, driven by the Spirit we will reclaim the enthusiasm that was so attractive in the beginning and will renew the face of the earth.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Are You Saved?

4th Sunday of Easter
Cycle C

Who will be saved? Are you saved?

That has always been a confusing topic for me. In some places in scripture, such as in our second reading today, it says that the number of people who are saved are too numerous to count. But then there are so many other places in the gospels where Jesus talks about how difficult it is to get to heaven and how few will make it there. St. Paul is all over the place on the topic. How can we be sure we are saved, and what exactly is salvation?

We Catholics understand salvation and it is part of our sacramental prayers, but for some Christians salvation is the key focus of their faith. It seems that’s all they talk about. Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your own personal savior? Once saved, always saved. I think most of us have heard people say these types of things. Is everyone going to be saved? Is it how Revelation says today? Or is it as the Calvinists say, that the number is limited and pre-determined, therefore it doesn’t make a difference what we do here; it’s all set.

If it’s once saved always saved, then it doesn’t matter what you do the rest of your life after you’ve said the magic words. However, if it’s something you earn, then what if you do all the right things for your entire life but at the end you commit a mortal sin and die before confessing it? Will that one act wipe out a lifetime of good works? And who is keeping score?

Will everyone be saved? Universalism, the common belief today that everyone will go to heaven, is actually a heresy. Salvation begins with the assumption that we have the need to be saved from something. But what? Our own individual sinfulness? Original sin? Can we have any say in our own salvation?

There is a difference between redemption and salvation. As we know, from the beginning of humanity we’ve been going against the will of God. We were not created to be separated from God. We were created to know and love Him here on earth and be with him forever in heaven. Somewhere along the way somebody made the choice to sin, and that threw all of creation out of whack. It actually changed human nature and led to suffering and death. The gates of heaven were closed to us because we were not in right relationship with God. Only God could set things right again, and he chose to become a man, to suffer and die so that our relationship could be restored.

Jesus’ death on the cross redeemed the entirety of creation. It set right what was wrong and allowed us to be saved. Jesus paid the ransom for our sins on the cross. As we hear in Acts today, Jesus came to redeem all mankind, but we are all given the choice of salvation. Redemption is an act, salvation is a choice. There always have been and always will be people who reject salvation. The Jews rejected the gospel, and so Paul and Barnabas preached it to the gentiles instead. Just as all humanity had suffered the effects of sin, so too all humanity was redeemed and given the chance at salvation.

What does that mean for you and me as everyday Christians?

There is a relationship between faith and works. We can never earn our way to heaven. Jesus redeemed the entire world and our final salvation is a gift from God. However, Jesus was also pretty clear that we will be judged by how we treat other people, and that the actions we take are also necessary for salvation. We aren’t just to sit back and let Jesus do all the work. We are called to be workers in his vineyard. St. Paul told the Philipians, “With fear and trembling work out your salvation.” We are to actively choose or reject salvation. That is God’s ultimate gift to us. He himself has chosen to give us a choice, and he has laid out for us His plan for us to follow if we choose to be with him. We are in this together; with God and with one another.

Remember the two greatest commandments, the ones from which all the others flow? Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself? That’s how it is all connected in God’s plan of salvation. We cannot love God and not love our neighbor. If we truly love God we will be compelled to spread that love throughout the world, just as Jesus did. It will be automatic and that is how Jesus said the world would recognize his disciples – by how they loved one another.

But how do you know that you really love God? I oftentimes have a hard time imaging God. God is spirit, and for me it’s sometimes hard to join the thought of God to the reality of God. I know that I love my wife and family and friends, all to different degrees, because of what I feel in my heart, how I feel when I lose them or I am separated from them. I can see the things they do for me to show me they love me, and vice versa. But how can I feel that way about a supreme being whom I have never seen, in whom I believe exists mainly through faith?

I can see the results of God’s love for the world in the beauty of the world. I can experience God in His creation. I can use my intellect to “prove” the existence of God, as Thomas Aquinas did. I can see miracles, small and large, and attribute them to God. I can actually feel the Holy Spirit within me; I can feel a special sense of peace that I believe comes from the Spirit, but does that all mean I love God?

I expressed these feelings to my wife once and she said something very wise. She said that just as we cannot love God without loving our neighbor, we love God when we love our neighbor. We cannot embrace God, but we can hug our children. We cannot feed Jesus, but we can feed the hungry among us. Whatsoever you do for the least of my children you do for me. So, we may not feel the same connection to God as we do to those we love, but that is how we show we love God, by loving one another. So don’t worry so much about feeling the same type of love for God that we feel for and show to one another. Just love one another and loving God will take care of itself.

And that’s what salvation is all about, I think. We’re all in this together. St. Augustine said that one man is no man. We are not saved alone. We are saved in community. When we are in proper relationship with one another we are in proper relationship with God. We are all just beggars helping one another to find bread. It is in our closest relationships that we are honed and polished. It is in our mistakes and pain that we are prepared for heaven. That is where we are slowly perfected.

That’s how we actively participate in our own salvation. Not by sitting back and waiting for it to happen to us, but by living fully human lives in relationship with one another. Let God do the rest. That’s His part – mercy. The missing piece to all this is God’s mercy. We will always screw things up. We will never completely understand or follow His plan for each of us. But that’s ok, because God knows that. That’s how he created us. He wants to be generous. He wants us to experience the absurdity of his generosity. He wants the opportunity to show us the wonder of his mercy. All he asks of us is our acceptance of that mercy.

So, does it matter how many are saved, if the number is large or small, random or pre-determined. Not really. The only number that truly matters is one. You are ultimately responsible for your salvation. Not by what you do but by your acceptance of the gift. Archbishop Niederauer told the story that an evangelical Christian once asked him if he had accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal savior. He thought about it a minute and then said no. Jesus isn’t just mine, he said. Mine is not a personal faith, and yet it is. Ultimately it will be just me and Jesus, face to face, but here on earth it’s got to be both. God and my neighbor, my neighbor and God. I see God’s face in my neighbor’s, I guess.

And the wise Archbishop went on to say that salvation is not a past event. It’s also a present and future thing. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All we can affect right now is the present. I know that salvation is a process, a journey through life here on earth towards eternal life in heaven. I cannot change what I have done in the past and I should not worry about what will happen in the future. I have been given a choice for today, for this moment only. How I choose to live today, in this moment, is all that counts. If I get that right, if I do what I can as a disciple and have faith in Jesus’ promise, then I think my future salvation will take care of itself. I choose to not live in false confidence or fearful anticipation but in joyful hope.



Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mob Mentality

5th Sunday of Lent
Cycle C

That was some mob that day. They had her dead to rights and the bloodlust was rising. I imagine there were three types of people in that mob that day. There were the self-righteous Pharisees all puffed up with moral indignation, trying to trap Jesus. There were the law-and-order types who felt it was their duty to uphold the law, especially when the case was cut-and-dried. And there were the majority who heard the commotion and got caught up in the moment. They joined the mob for the same reasons people join in looting and rioting everywhere. Because in a mob you can get away with anything, even murder.

It’s easy to hide in a mob. You can be anonymous in a crowd. It’s exciting to feel the rush of emotion in the shouting and shoving. It’s exciting to feel you’re part of something important, something big. Mobs and riots make for great stories afterwards, don’t they?

In any case, nobody in the mob really cared about the woman. She was just the catalyst, the tool, the excuse. It could have been anyone, any reason, any excuse. She was just the one who got caught. She didn’t matter to anyone…except Jesus.

Sadly, we have been experiencing mobs a lot lately, haven’t we? Just this week there has been a lot of pushing and shoving at campaign events. Racial protest groups interrupt gatherings and hold demonstrations in the streets. Student groups protest all sorts of things on college campuses these days. We haven’t seen protests like this since the 1960’s.

We are dragging people out into the public square for judgment a lot these days. But the mobs are not just in the streets, are they? And the violence is not all physical, is it? Today, if we disagree with someone’s politics or religion or even their Pinterest choices, we can easily let them, and the world, know about it. We have become social detractors. We no longer simply disagree with a person’s positions, we have to attack them personally. We have to drag them out into the open, throw them down into the dirt, and pick up our stones.

We detract from people all the time, don’t we? The mob today is often not in the streets but on social media. We can hide in the mob online. We can post whatever we want; we can comment on things we know little about, going along with the crowd. We hold up the person caught up in a moral failing, no matter how small, to derision and mockery. But just as often the person holding to a moral principle is also dragged out into the public square and mocked for being so out of touch. Things have been turned upside down. The person espousing high moral values is often shouted down, called a bigot and a fool, while the person living an openly scandalous life is held in esteem, someone to be admired and emulated.

Detraction, like its counterpart gossip, is actually a sin. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses it.

“Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”

That last phrase is the key. “So that he may be saved”. The job of the Christian is not to detract or to condemn. The mission of the Church is to save souls, and we approach each and every person from the standpoint that they have inherent dignity and worth. We are not to automatically think the worst of people but the best. We are to give each person the benefit of the doubt and not jump to conclusions or question their motives. Because we love them. We are called to strive to understand their intentions. Because we love them. We are called to gently correct them when we see that their beliefs and actions may jeopardize their salvation. Because we love them.

That’s what we do with our children, isn’t it? If we see that their behavior will cause them harm, we correct them. Not because we have the power to do so but because we want what’s best for them. Jesus treated the woman with mercy. His condemnation would have cost her her life. All the mob was waiting for was a signal from him. He had power over her very life, and he showed her mercy.

His simple statement, “he who has no sin throw the first stone”, showed mercy not only towards the woman but to the mob as well. He taught them a very important lesson when he shifted the focus back on them. They were shamed by his comment, and because of that were saved from committing an even bigger sin.

Mercy is holding power over someone and not exercising it. Mercy is not punishing someone even when it would seem like justice to do so. Mercy is compassion. Mercy is treating someone with dignity just because they are another human being. We often think of mercy in terms of crime and punishment. Spare someone their life when they are helpless. Not treating them as they deserve to be treated.

But most times it’s the small mercies that make the most difference.

Mercy is when you keep your sarcastic comments to yourself, even though you think they’re really clever. Mercy is letting it slide when someone says something that offends you, because your relationship with them is more important than having the last word. Mercy is giving them a hug and forgiving them when they apologize. Mercy is not posting that comment on Facebook or Twitter, just to make yourself feel superior. Oftentimes mercy is not what you do but what you don’t do. Sometimes it’s showing restraint.

Mercy is letting go of your stone.

Mercy is a gift we give to one another. Mercy doesn’t always require the sinner to make the first step, but there must always be repentance. The woman never asked for forgiveness. She never asked for mercy. She seemed resigned to her fate. Jesus never addressed her particular sin. He wasn’t concerned with her past, only her future. He was concerned with her salvation, and that required her to change her behavior.

Many people have used this passage to say, “See, Jesus didn’t condemn her adultery. Jesus isn’t about sin, he’s all about love,” and they use it to rationalize all sorts of bad behavior. Because to them, love means accepting people, no matter what they do. But Jesus did acknowledge that what she had done was sinful. He said, “Go and sin no more”. But he wasn’t talking just about her adultery. He didn’t say, “Don’t do it again”, but a more general “Do not sin anymore.” He was requiring a lot more than the avoidance of this particular vice. He didn’t want her to sin in any way anymore. He was calling her to repentance and conversion. He wanted her to change her life. He was accepting of her as a person, but he wasn’t accepting of her life choices. Jesus is all about love, and love is oftentimes telling people that what they are doing is jeopardizing their chance for salvation.

We can show mercy to ourselves as well. And we should. Mercy is moving on and not dwelling on the past. As we heard in our first reading today, “Remember not the things of the past. See, I am doing something new!”

And from St. Paul,
“forgetting what lies behind 
but straining forward to what lies ahead, 
I continue my pursuit toward the goal, 
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”

Showing mercy to yourself means you don’t hang onto your mistakes. Just as we shouldn’t hold grudges against others, we shouldn’t cling to our guilt. We must forgive ourselves and always look forward.

Experiencing Jesus Christ in our lives, especially when we feel the lowest and most worthless, is an uplifting thing. He never condemns us, but he knows how we feel when we sin. He knows our shame. He more than anyone else knows the reality of sin and how deadly it can be. He gently corrects us and sees beyond our behavior, because that’s what you do when you love somebody.

He takes our face in his hands and lifts it up to his. He looks into our eyes and shows us the depths of his love. Think of how that woman must have felt that day. Think of how Jesus’ mercy must have not only have saved her life but transformed it. Think about that the next time you are given the opportunity to show mercy to someone. Will you be Jesus to them?

Think about that the next time you require mercy. Will you be willing to change?