Saturday, October 22, 2016


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

Sir 35: 12-14,16-18

2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18

Lk 18:9-14


It matters how you talk to people, doesn’t it?

Someone introduced me to a man the other day at a party. At first he seemed an interesting sort, and I was asking him about himself. He was more than willing to comply. But after a few minutes I started feeling uneasy, because of the way he was talking about himself. Especially his accomplishments. The more he talked the more the conversation became more and more one sided. He wasn’t outright boasting, but he wasn’t actually being humble either. I could tell he had a healthy dose of ego, and it turned me off to him. After we parted, I realized that he had never asked me anything about myself. I was doing all the asking and all the listening, and he was doing all the talking. And you know, I don’t really remember what he said.

Oh, no, wait a minute. That was me.

It’s easy to talk about ourselves, isn’t it? And the people we like to talk to the most are the ones who are interested in us. It’s easy to find ourselves talking more and more about ourselves and our accomplishments when someone is encouraging us to do so. How often have you walked away from a conversation and thought, “I really don’t know much more about that person. I did all the talking.”

I don’t think that’s boasting, necessarily. It’s natural. Our favorite subject is ourselves. It’s easy to get carried away about ourselves. Most of us are not egotists, but we all know some people who are. They are just as annoying as the tax collector in today’s parable.

There are some people who never really listen to you, they are just waiting for their turn to talk. I think we all do that from time to time. But the really great conversations are the ones where we encourage each other to talk because we are truly interested in what the other has to say. We want to know more about them and they want to know more about us. That’s stimulating, not annoying. That type of relationship is not one-upmanship. That is one of mutual interest and understanding.

God’s the same way. God doesn’t want us to talk to him only about ourselves. God knows all about us. He knows our accomplishments and He’s proud of them, more proud than we are ourselves. He also knows our failures, and that’s what He wants to talk to us about. He wants us to be grateful for what we have and for what we have done with what we have. He also wants us to recognize where and when we have fallen short, ask for forgiveness, and then move on.

We pray to God because we need to say it and we need to believe that he likes to hear it. We need to know that we’re ok with God. We need to know that we have ultimate value, that we are accepted by our creator, even though we don’t really deserve it. We need to have that hope and know that there’s a purpose to life, with all its joys and sufferings. It is through our prayer that we keep our relationship with God in focus.


But does God answer prayers? Ah, the great question. When we ask it we are usually referring to prayers of petition. We ask God for something and then sit back and wait to see if we get it. Sometimes we do get what we ask for, but rarely does God answer us boldly and loudly, so we can easily recognize it. Rarely do we get that miracle we’ve been hoping for. But then, we never got that pony we asked our parents for for Christmas, did we? And I think we oftentimes make excuses for not getting what we asked for. “God knows best, and I guess I really didn’t need it. So I guess I’ll try to word it a bit differently next time.” Or, we look back and try hard to see how God really did answer our prayers. “Yeah, that was it, right there. It really did work out ok in the end, even if it wasn’t the way I expected it or planned it.” We desperately need to believe that God hears us.


But what about those prayers of hopelessness when we are enveloped in deep suffering and poverty of body and spirit? When we are not asking for things but just for an end to our pain? What about the millions of people who go to bed hungry every night, who aren’t asking for a better job or a new car but just to survive? Sometimes their prayers are never answered with the alleviation of their suffering. Does that mean they weren’t answered? Does that mean that God has abandoned them?


St. Paul experienced this. Many times he prayed that he be relieved of an unknown physical ailment, only to get the answer that sorry, he had to put up with it. He came to the conclusion that it was only when he was weak and had to rely totally on God that he was actually stronger. But that still didn’t make him feel any better. And today we heard that even after an entire career of bringing the Good News to people the world over, he was still alone and abandoned by them in his time of need. Just like Jesus. But even when he looked back on his life’s race and saw all the times he’d stumbled and fell, he still kept his eyes on the finish line. He never lost hope.


God does not guarantee that when we ask for things from Him we will necessarily get what we request. He only guarantees that we will receive His mercy and through that mercy, hope. Prayer is always answered with mercy.


And mercy is all about hope. Can you imagine what the world would be like if God were not merciful towards us? What if he left us to our own devices in our evil and sinfulness? Without God’s mercy there would be no good on the earth. Because we sin we need to ask for and receive forgiveness. If God in his mercy does not forgive us we are doomed to destroy ourselves. Without the possibility of forgiveness we would go insane. Without God’s mercy we would have no hope. Because the opposite of mercy is despair.


And true mercy requires the one who receives it to accept it with humility. Not in humiliation, but with an understanding that even though our actions require forgiveness, we still have great value. Mercy is accepting our true place in the scheme of things and knowing what our true relationship is with our creator. Have mercy on us sinners. We need to accept that we are only the creatures, and we don’t have all the answers. Sometimes it all makes sense and oftentimes it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean we give up in frustration.


So, does it matter how we talk to God? Is our attitude towards prayer more important than the words themselves? It does in today’s parable. One man went away justified, the other didn’t. And it wasn’t because of what they said, it’s how they said it.

God doesn’t want us to do all the talking. God doesn’t want us to focus on ourselves. He wants us to focus on him. He wants us to stop talking and just listen sometime. He wants us to be curious about him, to ask lots of questions and get to know him better.

Your God wants to have a conversation with you. One on one, person to person. He likes to hear from you, he finds you infinitely interesting, and he loves to be with you. Do you feel the same way about him?


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pay Attention

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cycle C
I was giving a talk a while back on stewardship, and how to me, stewardship was not about fundraising and money, giving of your time, talent and treasure. I figure that most folks support what they love, and so stewardship is all about falling in love with Jesus again, and by extension, His church and the parish. As I was talking about falling in love with your parish, I saw a man in the front row becoming more and more agitated. He was actually getting angry.
And so I stopped and asked him what was wrong. He said, “But what if you don’t love your parish, especially your priest? What if they have not been there for you when you needed them? What if they have just blown you off and don’t really care about you?” He then went on to tell me that he was suffering from cancer and had reached out to his parish priest. It took the priest a couple of days to even call him back, and then when they did talk the priest made some flippant remarks and said maybe he’d have time to visit the next week.
The man said that he was a Knight of Columbus and he had just finished doing some repairs on the church building. He was very involved in the parish and now felt that he had been abandoned in his time of need. How could he fall in love with something like that?
And you know, I didn’t have an answer for him. Whatever the situation truly was – I was only hearing one side of the story – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that this man was hungering for something and he wasn’t being fed. He longed to feed  on the scraps of his priest’s free time and didn’t even get that.
Did the priest truly not care? Was he really more concerned with his own life than that of his parishioner? I have no idea. All I know is that Lazarus was being overlooked again.
It’s tough being a priest, and I don’t want to single priests out. I am just giving an example. However, we expect our leaders to be there for us when we need them, and we feel betrayed or less than worthy when they don’t give us what we want. I am probably very guilty of this myself. I have no idea when I have made a passing remark or been too involved in my own world to see when people are reaching out to me. Major issues such as a health scare or marital problems usually get my attention. It’s the small things, the little cues people give off, that I sometimes miss. It is not indifference, it is more inattention. But people notice.
I think people have more of a problem with indifference than outright hostility. I can deal with it if you have a problem with me openly. I know what that is and I can figure out a way to handle it. But indifference is more subtle. You really don’t know why someone seems to be ignoring you or minimizing what you are saying. We don’t often know the person’s intent, and so we assign it to them. Most times we think the worst and then keep it within ourselves, and the other person doesn’t even know there is a problem.
The man in my seminar never told his priest how he felt. He just let it stew within him until something I said brought it bubbling to the surface. And that man, who had been a leader in his parish, transferred his distrust of his priest to the entire parish, and he ceased to do anything there anymore. He just went to the early Mass on Sundays because it was quiet and he could sit there without anyone bothering him.
That was the rich man’s sin today. In none of these readings today do we hear that wealth is evil and poverty is a virtue. Jesus isn’t saying that all the rich will go to hell and all the poor will go to heaven. This is not pitting the rich against the poor and vice versa in class warfare. This is all about watching out for one another. It is about being attentive, not being indifferent.
The rich man never directly hurt Lazarus. He never oppressed him or stole from him. The rich man’s sin was that he never even noticed Lazarus!  The sin of the rich man was not that he was rich, it was that he was not a good steward of the gifts he had been given. He had grown complacent in his prosperity to the point where he assumed it would always be there. His complacency blinded him to the need of his fellow man right outside his door.
We have no idea whether or not the rich man was a good man or if Lazarus was a bum. We don’t know why Lazarus was in his state or how the rich man got his wealth. Not important. All we know is that Abraham says that each was in the position they received from God.
We are all given gifts from God in some measure or other. Some people are given much, some virtually no material goods at all. Some are given great talents while others just enough to get by. We can argue about the fairness of it all some other time. What’s important is not how much you are given; it is what you do with what you have.
Recall what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 25, on how we will be judged. Those folks who wouldn’t be going to heaven didn’t even know they were doing anything wrong when they ignored the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the poor. Didn’t matter.
Turn the story around. What if the rich man had come down with leprosy or some other horrible disease, and Lazarus knew about it but did nothing? Or even worse, didn’t care because he was so wrapped up in his own situation? Would their places in heaven be reversed?
There are plenty of good rich people and plenty of bums. But all of us are rich in some ways and poor in others. I love one of the Prayers of the Faithful options in the marriage rite that prays for “the hungry rich and the hungry poor”. We are all hungry, aren’t we? We are all at times the rich man and at times Lazarus. And most of us are spiritually poor, especially when we are materially rich.
Paul speaks to Timothy today about using the gifts he has been given. “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” Those are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and we will all be judged on how we use those gifts.
We hear a lot about giving back. People who have wealth or fame seem to have a need to give back to society or something. That may be a worthwhile thing to do, but what are they giving back to? And why think of it as giving back, as if there’s some sort of quid pro quo involved in success. No, it must be seen as gift giving. We receive the gift from God and then pass it on to others because that’s what a gift is.
I think that most people would give up many of the things that make their lives easier if they just had more time with the important people in their lives. I know our children would really rather spend more quality time with their parents than have all the toys and electronics and stuff we give them. Even if it doesn’t seem like it.
I know that the most important part of my ministry, and Fr. Stan’s and Deacon Bob’s, is our presence to our people. Just being there for you and with you is what matters. Yeah, we’re going to screw up sometimes and say something careless or disappoint you, but heck, that’s what all that forgiveness stuff is for. I think all of us intend to do good, and so I try not to think ill of anyone. Try to think the same of us. It’s hard sometimes, but I think that’s the best way to live as a steward of the gifts we’ve been given.
Because the greatest gift God has given us is one another.




Sunday, August 21, 2016

Jesus Yes, Religion No?

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle C

I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It’s always on a bumper sticker, isn’t it? It said, “Jesus yes, religion no”. Today’s readings made me think of that bumper sticker.

I think a lot of people feel this way. It’s that whole, “I’m spiritual but not religious bit again”. And I can sort of understand where they’re coming from. But, can you have one without the other? I think the people who make this claim come from a couple of different mindsets. First, they are mostly ignorant of history and of the bible. They have a one-sided or incomplete or inaccurate view of what the Church is and what followers of Christ are called to do. They have been told for their whole lives that most of the wars and violence in the world have been perpetrated in the name of religion. All religion does is try to force an antiquated moral code on people. Religious people are so intolerant. They are bigots. They are judgmental. We are so far beyond that today.

Second, I think many people just don’t want to be told what to do. Even deeper, they don’t like the fact that religion sets a higher standard for us to live by. It oftentimes tears off the veneer and the masks we wear and forces us to see our lives for what they really are. And we don’t like what we see. Religion requires something of us. It’s not so much that religion is judgmental; it’s that religion forces us to judge ourselves.

Why wouldn’t Christianity be attractive to everyone? If you take the teachings of Jesus by themselves, I don’t think a single person would disagree that they are noble and a great way to pattern your life. They would probably also agree that if everyone lived those teachings the world would be a great place to live. In theory. But when I am challenged to go against the common wisdom, when I am called to put myself on the line, when the teachings of Christ contradict the way I want to live my life, that’s when Christianity is attacked.  

We love Christ, its Christianity we have a problem with.

Are the teachings of Christ impossible to follow? Is the doorway too narrow to enter through?

The heresy of Universalism is very widespread today, both in society and within the Church itself. Universalism says that if God is a loving and merciful god, then how could He ever condemn any of his creatures to an eternity outside His presence. Therefore, everyone is going to Heaven. This supposes, of course, that there is no hell. There are no consequences to our actions here because everyone is saved. Jesus welcomes everyone and all behavior is tolerated. That’s a really comfortable way to believe. That’s an easy Jesus to follow. That gets me off the hook.

We don’t want the narrow gate. We want the super highway.

So, logically, if everyone is saved, then it doesn’t really matter what religion you follow, or whether you follow a religion at all. They’re all the same and they’re all usually pretty bad. Unless it’s something exotic and “spiritual”. Then that’s pretty cool. If my salvation is assured, I can do pretty much what I want with no consequences. Don’t judge me because I am my own judge, and I’m pretty lenient on myself.

I don’t want to strive for salvation. Will few be saved? Will you be one of them? Is it so difficult to do? Why do we have to strive so hard? Well, because everything worthwhile is worth working for. We think nothing of striving for success in our careers, in sports, in our relationships. We work hard at what’s important to us. Just look at the Olympic games the past two weeks. We love to hear the stories of athletes who have worked so hard for so long to succeed, especially those who have to overcome broken homes, physical injuries, and repeated failures. Some prove strong enough and some don’t.

Why are we so willing to strive for earthly success but think we won’t have to strive for eternal life?

God does not make it hard for us to get to heaven. We do. We are the ones who fight and claw and do everything we can to avoid doing what it takes to be saved. We have been shown the path; we have been shown the way. We know the way but don’t want to accept it. Partly because it goes counter to how we strive for material success. In that realm we try to do it all by ourselves. We know we have to sacrifice and toil and work really hard. That’s not what Jesus tells us to do. Jesus tells us to be like him. The last two lines of the gospel today sum it up.

Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.

Jesus didn’t strive for earthly things. He humbled himself and took on the role of servant. When you let go of your attachment to all the stuff and success the world promises life actually gets easier. Are you strong enough to let go of it all. Are you strong enough to persevere until the end? The ones the world thinks are important are not really so, and those the world discards are the ones that really make a difference.

Jesus says there will be many who strive to enter but won’t be strong enough to do so. But he says that people will come from all over to recline at the banquet. So, which is it? He warns against making the assumption that you will be saved just because you know about Him. It takes more than that. Assume nothing. Strive to serve and Jesus will do the rest. Switch the focus off yourself and onto the Kingdom.

I think the most lasting image of the Rio Olympics won’t necessarily be Michael Phelps winning more medals than anyone in history. I don’t think it will be Ryan Lochte’s antics. I think it will be the image of Abby D’Angostino and Nikki Hamblin, who collided in the women’s 5000 meter race, and then stopped and helped each other up so they could try to finish the race. Two women who had been striving to win with all their being, but when given the choice, they chose to serve one another. They came in last in the race, but first in the hearts of the world.

After the race, D’Angostino said, “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way… This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. 
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

What a wonderful metaphor for our race to God. That’s the narrow gate. Never tire of doing what is good. Never take your eyes off the prize. Never take your eyes off the needs of others. Not because it is easy, but because it is difficult. Everything worthwhile usually is.