Sunday, July 14, 2019

Won't you be my neighbor

The scholar of the law asks Jesus: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"   This is a question many of us might like to ask Jesus:  What do I need to do, what are the rules, maybe even what is the least I can do to sneak into heaven?

So, Jesus asks him what the law says, and he responds correctly as you would expect from a lawyer: love God and love your neighbor.   Then, he asks Jesus the tough question:  "Who is my neighbor?"   He was probably thinking that he was willing to love his family and his friends but he certainly didn't want to love his enemies or the downtrodden. 

So, Jesus responds with the well-know parable about the Good Samaritan.  The priest and the Levite passed by the man on the opposite side.  But, the Samaritan was moved with compassion at the sight of the man who had been beaten and left half- dead.  The Samaritan treated the man's wounds, took him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper to care for him.
People hearing this story would have made excuses for the priest and the Levite. The victim was left half dead we are told. If they touched the man and he were dead they would have become ritually unclean and not allowed to officiate or participate in Temple worship, which their positions required. Others will defend the two men saying they were alone on a notoriously dangerous road. This could have been a set up, a trap for a solitary traveler.

Jesus does not condemn the two who passed by. But he refocuses our attention on one person, a foreigner, the Samaritan, who crossed over to the other side and took a chance to help the victim.   What is it that makes people reach out to others in their time of need? 
When my children were growing up, they often watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  Mr. Rogers always sang the song: "Won't you be my neighbor?"   I couldn't help but think about that song as I reflected upon today's Gospel.  How neighborly am I?  How often do I reach out to someone I barely know? 
As a nation, we are becoming increasingly divided.  It seems to me that we are more divided now than we have been at any time during my lifetime, except maybe during the Vietnam War.  And this division has caused some to hunker down and not reach out to others, especially those who aren't like us.  When we ignore others and don't reach out to those who need our help, we are like the priest and the Levite who pass by on the opposite side. 
As Christians, as disciples of Christ, we should share his love and compassion with our neighbor.  One way to express love for one’s neighbor is to perform works of mercy.  There are fourteen such works, seven spiritual and seven corporal.  The spiritual works of mercy are: to convert the sinner; to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to comfort the sorrowful; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive injuries; and to pray for the living and the dead. The corporal works of mercy are: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; to visit the imprisoned; and to bury the dead.  At first, this list may seem to be daunting.  But, we don't have to do all of them.  We can just begin with one or two works or mercy to share Christ's love with others.

We may get discouraged by the problems that we see in our world today because we cannot do much to fix them.  We cannot have much of an impact on the abandoned and sick at our borders.  We probably cannot even do much to assist the beggars that we see when we attend a football or baseball game in Cincinnati.  While we can give them some money, we're not even sure if we are helping or hurting them by doing this. 

So, what can we do?  There are lots of people in Lebanon and even in our parish who are hurting physically, emotionally, or spiritually.  There are older people who need a helping hand or a friend.  There are young adults who might appreciate the wisdom and friendship of a senior citizen.  We can attend funerals of parishioners to support the family and set an example of Christian charity.  And there are many volunteer opportunities for us to reach out to others in our community or our parish.  We would be helping those in need through spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

We can welcome strangers in our lives as well, even those we don’t particularly care for.  When we take the time to get to know our neighbor, we will normally find some things about him or her that we can relate to.  We have a responsibility as Christian people to invite the refugees in our midst as our brothers and sisters.  Christ passes no one on the roadside.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Suffering and spiritual warfare

St Paul tells us in the second reading that: "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."
We do have peace to some degree in our life—but with tribulation. Therefore, the peace attainable in this life does not consist in the contentment of someone who wants to have no problems, but rather in the resolute hope of someone who manages to rise above suffering and stays faithful through endurance. Suffering is necessary for us, because it is the normal way to grow in virtue.  And it leads to joy and happiness.
Paul teaches that acting like Christ in the world through the Spirit, fixes our gaze, not only on the present world, but on the future glory we will share with God. Paul knew, from the trials he underwent and in the suffering of Christians he visited, that we would need guidance, strength and endurance from the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s Christian communities faced persecution from their Roman oppressors and their own Jewish community.  And Christians also suffered discord among their ranks.
In the context of so much pain, Paul is encouraging the Christians to accept their suffering and see it as a proving ground for their faith and a sure sign that God has not abandoned them, but is still loving them and pouring out the Holy Spirit upon them.
As some of you know, recently our grandson Eli had a skateboarding accident and suffered a severe concussion.  When we visited him in the hospital on the evening of the accident, he was heavily drugged and was frequently flaying his arms and legs.  When he was awake, he just wanted to leave.  Of course, the nurse told us that this was all normal and was a good sign.  Fortunately, he is doing well now and will just have to be careful and take it easy this summer.  Your prayers  were reassuring to us and to his parents during this crises.  I'm certain that your prayers helped him to recover quickly.  Thank you for praying for him.
In the days following Eli's accident, I reflected on my reaction to the accident.  I must admit that I was afraid.  I was afraid for Eli, that he might suffer some permanent physical damage as a result of his concussion.  And I was afraid of the long term impact that this might have on our family. 
Then, I began reading "Fearless, a Catholic women's guide to spiritual warfare".   It told me not to be afraid, to trust God, to submit to his will in all things, and that he is in charge.
I needed to be reminded of these things.  I like to tackle problems head on, to do something, to find a solution, to fix things.  Sometimes, I just need to let go and let God.
In the book Fearless, the author tells us that fear comes from the devil not from God.  She tells us that fear is a matter of spiritual warfare.  But, we have a guardian angel, the Church founded by Jesus, and the sacraments he initiated to help us through these crises.  She encourages us to look to scripture for answers to these problems.  And she mentions several instances in her life where she did this.  While I read scripture, often I am slow to turn to it for answers when I face either physical or spiritual crises in my family.  In the future, I plan on looking to God's word more often when I am struggling with a crisis.  And I plan to talk to God about my fears and my worries. 
To fight fear from the evil one, we must put on the armor of God and strengthen our faith which is the critical shield in our armor.  Then, our spiritual backbone will be prepared for the inevitable next crisis.  But, if our faith is weak, we will be vulnerable to the attacks of the devil.
 The devil loves to attack families.  He especially tries to get us to question our faith because of the difficulties we are facing.  It may be our physical suffering or that of our family members.  Or he may attack us through problems that we are facing at work, in our marriage, or in raising our children.  He also attacks us through the faith, or lack thereof, of those closest to us.   He attacks us by encouraging us to worry about problems in our nation and our church, which we have virtually no control over.   
Today is Fathers' day.  Fathers have a special responsibility to protect their families from both physical and spiritual harm.   So, I encourage all fathers to put on the armor of faith and to defend their families from the wickedness and snares of the devil, namely, the lies that our society is selling, to all of us and especially to our children.   Do not be afraid.  Turn to Jesus and to his Church.  Trust that your family will find peace and joy in Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

True love

Last week I watched a movie on Netflix titled “Her only choice”.  It is about a young married woman who has been trying to conceive for several years’.  Finally, she is pregnant with her first child.  But, she also finds out that she has an aggressive form of breast cancer.  Her doctor, her husband, and even her parents encourage her to have an abortion so that she can begin cancer treatments immediately and save her life.  She wants to keep her child.  When she is explaining this to her mother, she asks her mother: “Would you be willing to die for me?”  Her mother answers that she absolutely would.  Then, the woman explains: “I feel the same way about the baby inside of me.  I am willing, if necessary, to die for that baby.” Eventually, she receives some treatment while she is pregnant, has a healthy baby and survives breast cancer.
I thought of that movie as I was reflecting on today’s Gospel.  Jesus tells us: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”  Jesus died on the cross for us.  He sacrificed his life for us to give us eternal life.  This is the type of sacrificial love that we should have for each other.
We, as followers of Christ, should be recognized by our love. Jesus says, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”.  We must ask ourselves: Does the world plainly see us as people who reflect Jesus' love? Can it be said of us what was said of the early Christian community, “See how much they love one another”?

Our culture encourages love, but this love is a wimpy love, a love which is based upon a feeling, a love which is there in the good times, but not when times get tough.  Our culture says that it is OK to fall out of love, that’s what no-fault divorce is there for.  Our culture says that it is OK to kill the baby in the womb even after that baby has a heartbeat.  Our culture says that it is OK to terminate a life when suffering is involved.  Our culture doesn’t know what love is all about.  Now, I’m not condemning those who have fallen for the lies of our culture.  Like the devil, our culture can make these actions seem attractive.

True love embraces suffering and sacrifice.  True love cares more for the other person’s needs than for your own.    When times get tough, the couple in love accepts the challenge as the woman in the movie did.  When times get tough toward the end of our lives, we offer up the pain and the suffering that we endure, we don’t run away from it.  When a couple has a surprise pregnancy, they accept the challenge of the child and quickly grow to love it.
In the first reading, Paul tells the members of the early church: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  That statement was true in the first century and it is just as true in today.  At times, life is hard.  But, today’s hardship is short and the kingdom of heaven is forever.  The second reading tells is that in heaven: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.”  As we struggle with hardships, we must always keep the goal, eternal life in heaven with the Father, in mind.
The new commandment of love also offers an antidote to our human tendency to withdraw when our feelings get hurt. We are commanded to stretch ourselves, all the way to the cross, if necessary. We are commanded to go beyond ourselves, even when it may mean being hurt again. Unless we do this, real love is unable to flourish. We cannot forget the uniqueness of what we have been given: a covenant with Christ himself. By our efforts we keep that covenant alive and vital: we keep the sign of love ever visible to our world.

Jesus’ love is a model, a gift, and a challenge.  Jesus provides the ultimate role model for us.  He shows us what love is all about.  His love is a gift.  He loves us each unconditionally – sinners and saints.  And it is also a challenge.  We can never love Jesus as much as he loves us.  But we can try given our own limitations. 

We all carry our own unique crosses.  Our crosses aren’t as heavy as Jesus’ cross was.  But, at times, they can seem overwhelming to us.  Let Jesus help you with your cross.  Don’t put down your cross; carry it proudly.  Eventually, this cross will lead you to heaven where all tears will be wiped away.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The woman caught in adultery

Jesus is being tested by the scribes and Pharisees.  They brought a woman to him who had been caught in adultery.  If Jesus says that the woman should be stoned, he would suffer the wrath of the Romans who forbade the Jews permission to execute.  If Jesus tells them to free her, then he can be accused of breaking the law of Moses.  Instead he puts it back on the accusers, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  
Jesus actions provide a model for all of us.  He responds in mercy and love.    He tells those who are without sin to cast the first stone.  So, he doesn't condemn either the woman caught in adultery or the those waiting to stone her. 
Biblical scholars have long wondered what Christ was writing on the ground as he bent down during this encounter.  Some say it was the sins of all the accusers.  Others say that he was merely giving them a chance to reconsider their position so that he wouldn't have to embarrass them.  In any case, the fundamental lesson is clear: we are all in need of God's mercy; we all have sinned and forfeited God's glory. 
Young and old, the accusers walked away.   And so the adulteress was free to go.  Everyone is in need of God's mercy.  Realizing that we need God's mercy enables us to forgive others and treat them with the love that Christ requires. 
We experience God's mercy and love many times in our lives.  We especially experience it in the sacrament of reconciliation.  He is always willing to forgive our sins, no matter how serious they may be.  Jesus is waiting for us in the confessional.  He isn't there to condemn or stone us.  He is there to remove the burden of sin from us and to return us to his graces.
Jesus tells the woman: "Go and sin no more."  Notice that he doesn't tell her that her behavior was OK.  He acknowledges that she has been sinning and he tells her to stop it.  Her sin is not accepted or approved by God.  It is important that she stop sinning because eventually she will face the consequences of her sin.   Our God loves us so much that he gave us a free will.  He loves us, even when we sin.  But, if we continue to turn away from him by sinning, not loving God or our neighbor, he will condemn our actions in his judgment of us after we die.
Have we ever been tested?   I suspect that most of us are being tested all of the time.  We might be tested by the behavior of some of those close to us - our friends, our neighbors, our children, our grandchildren, our siblings.   We might be asked to accept their sinful behavior.  And, if we do accept it, eventually this acceptance becomes approval and maybe even support.  If we do not accept their sinful behavior, we might be viewed as judgmental or even worse.
 I see many examples of the love and mercy of God in the Gospels.  These would include the prodigal son, the good shepherd, and many more.  But, we also have many examples of the judgment of God such as the rich man, the narrow gate, and sheep or goats. 
Our society affirms the love and mercy of God but rejects the idea of him judging us.  Is Jesus loving and merciful or is he a just judge?  He is both.  If we reject his love and turn away from him by sinning, he will accept our decision on judgment day and will give us our just due.  If Jesus weren't a just judge, our behavior wouldn't matter.  Our free will would be meaningless.  God  respects our decisions.   
As we witness the confusion which divides families and paralyzes our nation, today's Gospel provides a model for is.  We, like Jesus, must always respond in mercy and love.  It is not appropriate that we stone others either by our actions or our words, no matter what they have done.  And, it also isn't appropriate that we accept or support sinful behavior.  We love the sinner by condemning the sin.
Jesus, give us the courage to defend your truth.  Holy Spirit, give us the words to say in the midst of difficult conversations or encounters.  Fill us with the Holy Spirit, Lord, so we can be your faithful and true disciples.   

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Love your enemies

In today’s first reading, King Saul has been stalking David, his rival, who has been hiding in the desert.  Saul had already tried to kill David several times.  This time the king has gone out to the desert with a party of three thousand men to search for David.
Saul realizes that David has won the hearts of his people, who sang, “Saul has killed his thousands but David his ten thousands.”   And, Saul also knows the hand of the Lord now rests on David. 
Saul and David have become deadly enemies.  David crept into the camp of Saul and his three thousand men.  He stands over the sleeping king, looking down on him.  His loyal and ruthless kinsman Abishai whispers to him: “God has delivered your enemy into your grasp this day.  Let me nail him to the ground with one thrust of the spear.” 
But David will not allow it.  He says: “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?”  David has a chance to kill his enemy.  But he doesn’t kill him.
Instead, David takes Saul’s spear, the symbol of the king’s authority and power, used in battle.  He goes a distance and calls across to the camp.  David says to Saul: “The Lord will reward each man for his justice and faithfulness.  Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.”
This incident provides an example of what Jesus is asking of us in today’s Gospel which is from what is called the Sermon on the Plain.  We find in these few verses an agenda for transforming the world. 
This Sermon on the Plain  is included in three  successive Gospel readings.  Last week we heard of God’s love for the least: the poor, those who weep, who hunger, who suffer for Jesus’ sake.     Next week the emphasis is on loving those inside our camp, those who agree with us. This week’s reading directs our attention to those outside our camp, those who disagree with us.
If we have any enemies, either as individuals or as a community, we are to love them.  In this light, David is offered to us as an example of such love in action.   Jesus' words are demanding—seemingly impossible at times.  But it can be helpful to realize that  this command doesn’t speak about transforming an enemy into a friend.  It says to love your enemy precisely as enemy.  That is, you are to love the one who hates you.
Often, it is easy for us to criticize and maybe even hate those we disagree with.  This is especially true, as Christians, when we witness the actions of those who are openly disobeying and maybe even ridiculing God's laws.  But, instead, we are meant to pray for, even bless them.
He or she may be a politician who consistently supports abortion or a movie star who openly attacks the Catholic church.  Or maybe we see a posting on Facebook which attacks our beliefs.  If we choose to respond, can we respond in love and not hate?
All of us should focus on breaking the cycle of hate which seems to be prevalent today.  If we  lash out at those who disagree with us on sensitive topics, we are likely to unleash a torrent of hate.  These skirmishes can sting, cause harm, and provoke vengeance in return.
Such moments also have an impact on us, they transform us.  A certain kind of dislike can harden or fester within,  resulting in an ongoing habit of striking out as a method of coping.  It releases a poison into our system, settling into our heart and changing it.  A heart can become cold or hard over the years. 
This cannot be the heart of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus tells us to "Do to others as you would have them do to you."  Violence and destruction are only brought to an end by those who refuse to participate, by those who will not return evil for evil.  Violence will cease only with those who are willing to absorb the impact of the blow so that it stops here and now, not going any further.
Does this mean that there is no room for hatred in life?  No, there are things to hate.  We can hate
a system that allows a young child to die in an abusive home; a cultural attitude that fosters hatred for any group—whether on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, religious faith, or gender;  policies that allows  the killing of innocent people, especially the unborn and the elderly.

We might, at times, tolerate these systems, and even inadvertently support them.  Systems can be worthy of hatred. So can policies. And cultural attitudes and values.  And the things people do can also be worthy of our hatred. 

But as for the people: Love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, pray for them.  The old saying is:  love the sinner, hate the sin.
Sometimes transformation does come. At the end of the story, after David speaks to Saul, Saul’s final words to David are: “Blessed be you, my son David.  You will do many things and will succeed in them”.

We witness transformation whenever we come here: bread and wine changed into the Body and Blood of Christ.  May all of us, as disciples of Jesus, grow in love, for each other and for all others, especially our enemies.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Baptism of Jesus

In today's Gospel, we hear about the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.  Luke tells us that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.  Then, everyone heard the voice of God the Father saying: "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased."  God the Father is a proud father introducing his son. 
After His baptism, Jesus began his public ministry.  Next week, we will hear about Jesus' first miracle, converting water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana.    Jesus public ministry continued for three years.  During this time, he selected and taught twelve disciples who he prepared to lead his church.  When it was time, he went to Jerusalem where he was crucified and died.  After rising from the dead three days later, he appeared to His disciples several times over the next forty days.  Finally, Jesus ascended into heaven.  His final words to his apostles were:  "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  The apostles went into hiding for several days.  Then, at Pentecost, tongues of fire descended on each of them and our church was off and running.  They followed Jesus directions and baptized 3000 people that day.  That is enough to fill this church four times over.  Isn't that amazing!
When we were baptized, we were welcomed into God's family.  Most of us were baptized as infants.   I'd like you to think about your baptism.   Do you know the date of your baptism?  Who was present there?  You probably wore a white garment signifying your freedom from all sin after baptism.  Your father was given a candle which he lit from the Easter candle.  Do you still have this candle?    After giving the father the candle, the priest or deacon says: "Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly.  These children of yours have been enlightened by Christ.  They are to walk always as a child of the light.  May they keep the flame of faith alive in their hearts.  When the Lord comes, may they go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom."
Sometimes we forget our baptism, aren't aware of its meaning, or even ignore it.  But, as baptized Christians, our calling is to live as beloved, as one who pleases God.  This call is not due to anything we’ve done; for we have not earned it.  It is pure gift.  We are sons and daughters of the Father.   We have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  We are the body of Christ in the world, sent to bring justice and compassion, to be a light in our world and bread for the hungry.
At our baptism, we received an indelible mark on our soul marking us as a child of God.  Like the apostles, in our adult life we are meant to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  We are to make disciples of all our children, friends, neighbors, and even enemies,  just like Jesus told his disciples before he ascended into heaven. 
How are we doing in our mission of making disciples?  We may look at others: our parents, our children, our friends, our fellow parishioners, and maybe even our deacons, priests, and bishops, and see that they are failing at their mission.  But, on judgment day, we aren't going to be held accountable for their actions, only for ours. 
Like Jesus, we all want to hear the words of God the Father: "You are my beloved son or you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased."  I encourage you to listen to the Holy Spirit.  Is he calling you to repent?  What mission does he have in mind for you? 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

What is Christmas all about?

Mary, a young teenager, has learned through the Holy Spirit that she is to bear a child.  She sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who in her old age has also conceived  a child—John the Baptist. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth says, “the infant in my womb leaped for joy”.   John the Baptist leaped for joy because Jesus the Christ was there. 

Luke’s story of Mary, the perfect disciple, has several important lessons for us. The story has a clear sense of urgency to it. Luke says that Mary proceeded in haste. There was no time to waste. The good news had to be shared. And so it is with us on this final Sunday of Advent. There is a spirit of urgency in the Church’s liturgy today.  If we have heard the message proclaimed on the previous Sundays of Advent, then we are right on the edges of our pews awaiting what is to come in a few days. We have heard John the Baptist urge us to make straight the way of the Lord, to clear away everything that keeps us from receiving the good news.

But urgency must not be confused with “frenzy.”  We could use the word frenzy to describe  preparation for the holiday season. That is not what we are doing. For Christians, we are preparing for Christmas and we have a sense of “make haste slowly.” We will hear today in the media that there are only two days until Christmas, meaning we have only two days to buy more and more. I urge you to practice a little gentle resistance when you hear that urging. Remind yourselves that there are just two days left of Advent.  We are to use these days to prepare to receive the good news.

Mary teaches another important lesson for Advent preparation. We are reminded of the importance of believing. Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled”. Our own inability to believe in the good news may be one obstacle we face at this time of year. In many ways our Western consumer-oriented society conditions us to trust in material things and not in the good news of Christ’s coming. We get flu shots this time of year to protect against influenza, when the real affliction we have to guard against is affluenza—the urge to be affluent, the desire to buy more, bigger, and seemingly better things. Jesus is the perfect medicine for affluenza. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, believe that Jesus is the right answer.

Mary, the perfect disciple, also teaches us that Christ is the perfect gift. Luke speaks of no material gifts that Mary brought to Elizabeth. She brought only her trusting presence and, by being fully present, revealed Christ.

There are signs that something is stirring in our culture about the real meaning of this season. The Christian Science Monitor reported a survey showing that 70 percent of Americans would welcome less Christmas spending and gift giving. The article reports that “from Seattle to Washington, D.C., growing numbers of families are giving more thought to focusing on what makes Christmas meaningful to them.”

We can make Christ present in the greetings we send and in the purchases we make or don't make. And, we can be fully present in listening to God’s word and in receiving the Eucharist.  Be fully present to those around you these final days of Advent, trust in the good news, and you will find Christ, the perfect gift.

The purpose of Christmas is not for us to be happy;  rather, it is for us to make God happy, even jubilant.  It's not  about what we "get for Christmas," but what Jesus, the Son of God, gets for His birthday.  We give Jesus what He wants  and make Him happy by giving Him ourselves, our lives, our love, and by  inviting others to do the same. 
Let us prepare to joyfully celebrate the birth of Christ.