Wednesday, December 27, 2017

It's All About the Children


Christmas Eve
 

There’s a saying that Christmas is for children, and I guess in many ways it is. I was sitting in front of the Christmas tree while writing this homily, and I got to looking at all the ornaments on the tree. Nancy and I only put ornaments up that have some significance for us. No generic bulbs for us. Most of them are handmade from early on in our marriage, when we couldn’t afford to buy ornaments. Many of them have our children’s names on them, along with the year they were acquired. You know, baby’s first Christmas, things like that. And as I was looking at the ornaments I was remembering what my children were like at those various stages of their lives, and it brought me closer to them and to the spirit of Christmas.

There’s something about children at Christmastime that makes it what it is. If we adults were in charge it would lose a lot. To us old folks Christmastime is often full of stress, with so many things to do and plan. We have parties to host and attend, presents – and not just any presents, but just the right ones – to buy, wrap and give. And we have so many responsibilities around Christmas that we have to weave in and around the whirlwind of our everyday lives. Many of us dread Christmas because of this. We have so many expectations of what the perfect Christmas should be that we get all wound up in the stuff of Christmas while forgetting what Christmas was for us when we were children.

For children, especially little children, Christmas is so much simpler, so much easier, so much more wonderful. Little children have not yet been spoiled with the expectation of presents. For them it’s not about what they expect to receive that is so wonderful. It is all the sights and sounds and smells, especially around the baby Jesus. There’s something about a newborn baby that captivates us all, but especially for the little children.

I love to see parents each year bringing their little ones up to see the holy family statues here. You see it at every creche. Moms and dads clutching little hands, bringing them up close to see the manger scene, pointing out the baby Jesus. Telling them the story of that first Christmas. When I was young my job was to set up the creche in our home. I would carefully unwrap each porcelain figurine and gently place it in its particular place in the creche.

After everything was just right we would then as a family read the story from the gospels of that Christmas night. Many of you have similar traditions, or I hope you do.  That is one of the first lessons in faith many children receive from their parents, the reality of the baby Jesus. Silent night, holy night. Calmness, heavenly peace, shepherds and angels on high. Peace on earth, goodwill towards men. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? For one shining moment, the entire world is focused on one single event in history, on one single person, on one single baby.

Children understand what Christmas is really all about. That is, until we spoil it for them. They understand the reality of what a baby truly is. A baby is hope. A baby is the ultimate proof that God exists, with its perfect little fingers and toes, in its wonderful complexity and simplicity. We don’t remember what we were like as babies, we must see in our children what we once were.

Jesus was once like that. Have you ever stopped to think about just how radical the Christ child is? The very thought that this little baby, so vulnerable and innocent and perilous, is God himself? The most radical and cataclysmic event in all of human history, the incarnation, God becoming man, started out in such a simple way? God chose to become one of us in the same way he chooses to have each of us enter the world. And the result of that is peace on earth, goodwill towards men, glory to God in the highest. In a newborn baby we see the goodness of the world, the rightness of creation, even for a brief moment. That’s how we all started and how we should all view ourselves, as goodness and right. As persons of hope.

Jesus said that unless we become like little children we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Unless we become like the perfect child, Jesus Christ, we will not and cannot be one with him forever in heaven. Because that child, who started out so innocent and calm, shook the world to its core and set up a choice that has divided the world for 2000 years.

You see, the entrance of God into history as man demands a choice for every human being. We have no choice in how and when and why we are born. But we are all ultimately confronted with a choice. Will we follow that perfect child? Will we model our lives after His? Will we submit to the will of the Father has he did, and can we live with the consequences of that choice?

That child grew up and lived an unconventional life, a radical life. He cured the sick, raised the dead, admonished sinners, set the existing religious order upside down, challenged the status quo in every individual heart, and had a simple message. Come, follow me. He demanded of us no less than what he himself did. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners, care for the poor and the marginalized, go out and make disciples of all the nations, spread the good news that God himself has become one of us so that we can become one with Him.

Do you see that man in the creche before you? Do you see the choice before you tonight? Can you see that beyond all the sentimentality of the scene and the season is the awesome reality that that child was born to die? His very reason for living was to die…for you. The quiet and peace and innocence of the baby’s nativity was to end in the horrible violence of the cross. Do you see that just as we enter into the remembrance of his birth we must also enter into the reality of his death and what that means for each of us? The hope that began with Jesus’ birth continues in the hope of his resurrection and his promise of eternal life.

It is good that we become like little children at Christmas. It is good that we enter into the sights and sounds of the season in order to reconnect ourselves with the simplicity and innocence of the manger scene. It is good that we, for one brief moment every year, look upon the baby Jesus and see ourselves, what we can become, what we are called to become.

The message of Christmas is one of renewal. Our children are our hope for the future and each newborn baby is a sign that things will continue. Each newborn baby is a regeneration, a renewal for our families and for our world. I think that is one reason we are all drawn to them, wonder at them, and make such a fuss about them. And I think that is why Christmas is for the children. Because it is about the children. It’s about the children we once were, and about the children we can become again.

It’s all about the children.  It’s all about the child.

 

 

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.