Sunday, November 16, 2014

Parable of 5 talents

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time Year A, 2014
That last line of the gospel is not too cheerful is it?  Wailing and grinding of teeth doesn't sound too good.  The stakes are high in this parable.
This parable of the 5 talents seems simple at first. The master gives talents, the first two people invested them to get a return, the third guy buries his talent and he gets in trouble. So, Jesus is reminding us that we are to use our gifts to spread His kingdom in our world.
But, where I think it gets tricky is to figure out what these talents are?  The word “talent” throws us off right away.  When we think about talents we think about our skills or unique things we can do.  I play guitar.  You could say I have a talent for playing Dave Matthews Band or Van Halen songs.  I also have a talent for golf, I have a single digit handicap and I love playing golf.  These are some of my talents.  Can I use these to advance the kingdom?  Are these the talents Jesus is talking about?
I remember learning in the seminary that our English word “talent” is based upon this word from this passage of scripture.  Originally, talent did not mean our skills or abilities.  Rather, “talent” was a unit of money.  So, I spent some time this week researching how much a talent was worth.  This was really eye-opening.
First of all, a talent was actually a measure of weight.  It was the approximate weight of the amount of water that filled a standard measuring jug of the time called an amphora.  The Greek talent, therefore, weighed in at about 57 pounds.  This standard unit was used to measure precious metals, like silver or gold.  More than likely, the talents to which Jesus refers would have been talents of silver.  A talent of silver was roughly equivalent to the wages of a skilled laborer for 9 years.  Hear that again, 1 talent equals the amount of money a skilled laborer would make for 9 years.  Put into today’s figures, imagine a person makes 30,000 dollars, multiply by 9 and you get a sum of… a lot!  (270,000). All of a sudden this parable seems to take on new significance.
Thinking about my “talents” at music or golf seems somewhat insignificant in the face of the sheer amount of money we are talking about in this parable.  The man with the 5 talents was given over a million dollars.  This was a huge investment on the part of the owner.  What kind of equivalent can we find in our own lives?  What are the really massive gifts that God has given us?
Let’s start with life itself.  Can any one of us really say that we deserve it?  What did I do to earn such an amazing gift?  You could say that the gift of life was given by our parents, but where did they get it, who gave it to them?  The gift of life is the single most important gift anyone of us has ever received.  Ultimately, this gift comes from God who bestowed it upon the human race.  If it weren’t for God, none of us would be alive.  Now, when we see Christ, he will ask us: “what did you do with that gift?” 
Our first reading reminded me of other gifts we receive.  It talks about a worthy wife… I think we could also talk about worthy husbands, children, family members.  It is no secret that very often we face difficulties and tensions within our family.  But, do we ever stop to see them as the amazing gifts that they are?  God has invested in us greatly by bestowing upon us life, and also the lives of those people around us. 
I was thinking a lot this week about the tremendous blessing of this parish community.  I’m constantly amazed at the faith, good-will, kindness, and generosity of this family.  And now I have to ask God’s help to see how I can invest all these gifts I have received for the growth of his kingdom.  Not to mention gifts like the Eucharist or the sacrament of confession.

This parable is difficult and unsettling in some ways.  Here Jesus tells us that he expects a return on the investment he makes in us.  But, before we know how to put his gifts into action for the spread of the kingdom, we have to be able to recognize how God has blessed us in our lives.  This week, either as individuals, or maybe together as families, make a list of the “talents” or amazing gifts that God has given you.  Next, find a way to turn those gifts into investments for the spread of the kingdom of God.  We all want to hear the same thing when we meet our Lord on the last day: “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Saturday, November 8, 2014

St. John Lateran, Mater et Caput

Dedication of Lateran Basilica, 2014:
Today we celebrate an interesting feast day.  This is the feast of the dedication of the Lateran basilica.  The Lateran basilica is a fascinating building with a storied history.
Very often this church is called “The basilica of St. John Lateran.”  I remember one time looking up “St. John Lateran.”  I had never heard of that saint before.  What I found out is that this is no such person as St. John Lateran.  Actual, Lateran is the name of the place where the basilica is located.  According to tradition, in ancient times it was owned by the Laterani family.  The basilica and palace eventually belonged to Emperor Constantine.  He gave the palace to the Church in 313 so that a council could be held.  Eventually the whole complex was given to the Church and in the year 324 the basilica was dedicated.  This makes the Lateran Basilica the oldest Christian Church in the West.  The popes lived at the Lateran and his chair of office was placed inside the Lateran basilica.  To this day, the basilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome.
So, maybe we can start to see why this feast day is celebrated throughout the whole world.  This is the oldest Church in the Christian West, it is also the chief Church, outranking even St. Peter’s basilica, because it is the cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome.  The Basilica of St. John Lateran is known as the “mater et caput,” which is Latin for Mother and Head.  It is not an understatement to say that this basilica is the most important Church in the Catholic Church.
I have always been fascinated with Churches.  I love to visit Churches, spend time in Churches, read about Churches.  I think Churches are great.  To me, Churches are more than just buildings.  They are places where we can meet God.  One thing I have noticed is that in the days following the Second Vatican Council there was a shift that took place.  Emphasis was no longer placed on the importance of the Church building.  Rather, the attention was given to the congregation.  I heard many talks and homilies saying, “we are Church, or we are the temple; we are called to be Church, we are the living stones.”  I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this line of thinking.  St. Paul speaks this way.  But, one sad thing that happened as a consequence was that the importance of the church building was often downplayed. 
This is not the time for an architecture lesson, but let’s just say that the Church building is not unimportant.  The church building is not just a worship space, a place where the congregation can gather.  Rather, the Church building is living theology.  It is the place where heaven touches earth.  Just being here in this church is a miniature lesson in Christianity.
When you walk through the main doors of the Church, you are greeted by the baptismal font.  This is a reminder that it was through the waters of baptism that we all gained entrance into God’s holy Church. 
As you look around it is easy to see that the altar is the high point and focus of the Church from everywhere.  As I said a few weeks ago, this altar is the mountain where God and humanity are brought into contact.  Right here is where heaven and earth meet.  It is certainly possible to connect with God anywhere in his creation, but we know for sure that we connect with God here in a concrete and tangible way in the Eucharist.
In a sense, you could say that while we are here in the Church it’s like being in heaven.  Up on the walls we have statues of Mary and Joseph, in the back there is the statue of St. Jude.  Here in this Church we are surrounded by the saints.  Behind me there is the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies where the presence of God can be found.  Behind the altar we see the crucifixion of Christ, the saving sacrifice that makes all this possible.  Right here in this Church we meet God.

The Lateran Basilica is an amazing building, with beautiful artwork and a glorious transcendence.  But, if you go to that basilica you will find many of the same features: there is a baptismal font, an altar, statues of saints, the tabernacle.  St. John Lateran might be a lot more impressive and it’s art more amazing.  Believe me, I hope that all of you get the chance to visit Rome and to see the beautiful basilicas there.  But, it is ok if you cannot make it, because those Churches have the same goal in mind as our Church: this is a place where we meet God.    

Monday, November 3, 2014

Eternal Rest, Grant to them O Lord

Commemoration of All Souls 2014:
All Souls day is one of the great days of the year.  It is one of the reasons why I am so glad to be a Catholic.  It’s a day where we remember all those people who have died.  All the Souls who have gone before us.  You might be wondering why I think it is such a great day.  It can be a day of grief and morning.  This can be a day that is sad.  But, I think it is a great day, because, as St. Paul says, we do not grieve like those who have no hope.  We do have grief, and pain, and sadness, but we do not grieve like those with no hope.  We know that sadness is turned to joy.  We know that while we suffer here and now, while we experience the pain and anguish that death might bring, this is not the end.  Not even close to the end.  Christ came to set us free.  All Souls is one of the great days of the year because it helps us to remember the very heart of the gospel: Jesus Christ died so that all of us might live.
It has been a longstanding tradition in my household to “offer it up.”  My mom always encouraged us to “offer it up.”  Mom I hurt my arm: offer it up.  Mom we’re out of milk: offer it up.  Mom, I broke my leg and it is only hanging on by a thread: offer it up.  As a kid, I guess I never really knew what I was offering it up for.  This longstanding tradition comes from offering pains and sufferings for the poor souls in purgatory.  There are many prayers and customs in the life of the church aimed at praying for the poor souls in purgatory.
Nowadays it is not too popular to talk about purgatory.  Why would God make us suffer after we die?  But, that is the wrong question.  God is not the one who needs purgatory.  Purgatory is not a place where God inflicts his wrath upon sinners, don’t have that idea.  Rather, purgatory is the place where sinners can go to receive the purification they need to be in the presence of God.  Say for instance I stole 100 bucks from someone.  I went out and spent it on something foolish like golf balls or something…  But, then I started to feel bad about stealing the money.  So I go and I ask for forgiveness.  Now the person instantly forgives me.  But, no matter how much the person forgives me, I will always know that I had stolen from him.  I won’t feel right in his presence.  I would want to make it right by trying to pay back the 100.  I think purgatory is like that.  God forgives our sins.  But purgatory is the chance for us to be purified so that we can stand being in the presence of God.  One of my professors in seminary explained purgatory this way.  When you die, God welcomes you into this large spacious room.  He is seated on a nice couch and has a big bucket of popcorn.  He invites you to sit down and join him.  There is a big screen TV on the wall: what are we going to watch?” we ask.  God says: oh, this is the story of your life.  We are going to see how your sins impacted others around you, then we are going to see all the good you didn’t do.  All of us would have a long video to watch.  God doesn’t show this video to embarrass us or to shame us.  But, this video helps us come to grips with the forgiveness we have received, helps us come to grips with our imperfections and our weaknesses.  After we watch a video like that all of us are like the good thief in the story today: Lord we deserve this condemnation, but please remember us.  Then Jesus says: Today you will be with me in paradise.
This is why we pray for those who have died.  We pray that God would forgive their sins.  We pray that they become the kind of people who are able to say with all their heart: remember me Lord when you come into my kingdom.  We pray for those who have died because it is a way to remember that they were not perfect people, but that God is full of mercy.
For some reason people are hesitant to pray for the dead.  I notice this very often in my pastoral ministry.  I’ll say: let’s pray that God will welcome them into heaven.  Very often the response I get is: “Oh Father, my mom is already there.”  Well I certainly hope so.  But, we need to pray.  Very often these days people have “celebrations of life,” instead of funerals.  I think this is because it is difficult to come to grips with the loss of those that we love.  If we focus on the great things of their life, it makes it easier to deal with the sadness of their loss.  So, in one sense, I get it.  But, when I die I don’t want people to celebrate my life, I want them to pray for me. I want them to beg almighty God that I might be made worthy to share the lot of the saints.  I want them to beg God to be merciful on me, because I know I’m a sinner.  Don’t celebrate my life on earth, pray for my life in heaven. 
The beautiful thing about praying for those who have died is that they will, in turn, pray for you.  If our prayers and sacrifices help a brother or sister enter into the heavenly banquet they will certainly pray for you.  Fr. Bob said to me the other day: as a priest we send many people to heaven, I hope they are praying for us there.  How true! 
So, today, on this commemoration of All Souls, pray for those who have gone before us.  Really, we should pray for them all the time.  Tomorrow marks the 8th anniversary of the death of my uncle Louis Tippmann.  He died at the age of 34 from skin cancer.  It was a tough loss for all in my family.  It was one of the first times that someone so close to my own age died like this.  I think about him often.  Every time I do, I pray that God would welcome him into his kingdom.  Over the years I have added other names.  As a priest I very often celebrate funerals in difficult situations, I carry those names with me too: Jimmy Langin, Joe Becker, Ray Sanfrey, I pray for these people all the time. 

Today is one of the great days in the life of the Church because it is ok to pray for those who have died, it is ok to be sad, to mourn their loss.  But, we do not grieve like those who have no hope.  Even our prayer of grief today is lined with hope.  We know that the God to whom we pray is full of love and mercy.  Eternal rest grant to them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Give to God what belongs to God

29th Sunday of OT year A 2014:
Today Jesus is put into a real tough spot.  Should you pay the census tax or not?  It is important to know a little bit about the background.  Remember that Jesus was living in a land that was under the control of the Roman Empire.  The people of Israel felt oppressed by this external ruler.  When it comes to paying the census tax, the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus.  If he says it is ok to pay the census tax, the Pharisees would have said he is not being true to the independence of the people of Israel.  But, if he were to say it was wrong to pay the tax, he would have been called a dissident or a revolutionary.  But, Jesus doesn’t get trapped.  Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But, give to God what belongs to God.
            But, for me the statement of Jesus leads to a question, one that each of us has to answer: what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?
In the gospel, Jesus asks a simple question about the coin: whose image and whose inscription is on it?  The coin was stamped in the image of Caesar and his words were written on it.  So, the coin belonged to Caesar.  What is made in the image of God?  What has his words written on it?
Of course the answer to that question is all of us.  We are made in God’s image.  We have his words written on our hearts.  God has made us in his own image and likeness.  He has given us the gift of his Holy Spirit in baptism.  So, not only are we created in God’s likeness, we are recreated by him by the sacraments.  We came from God; we are recreated by God through Grace.  Everything we have comes from him; everything we are comes from him.
I find it interesting that the Pharisees are trying to pull Jesus into a political squabble and he changes everything.   Rather than answer a relatively small question about the census tax, he reminds them that our whole being belongs to God.  Everything belongs to him.
This phrase has been good for me this week.  It has given me a good chance to do some praying about my relationship with God in my life.  If everything belongs to God, do I live like that?  Do I spend my time for his glory?  Do I give my best effort in all that I do as a repayment of what God has done for me?  Do I seek to build up God’s kingdom by what I say and do?  Do I make a return to God for all the blessings he has bestowed on me?  Do I use the goods of this earth for God’s glory?
I would like to invite all of you to do the same this week with this passage.  Listen again to the words of Jesus.  Give to God what belongs to God.  Our whole lives belong to God, nothing should be separate from him.  Let’s think about marriage as a good analogy.  What if I had a couple who came to me looking to get married.  They tell me they got engaged and they want to have their marriage here at St. Jude.  The only thing is, the groom tells me that he doesn’t want to be married on Tuesdays.  All the other days of the week he wants to be married and be committed to his bride.  But, Tuesdays would be off limits.  Tuesdays he would be single, the rest of the week he would be a married man.  We would all say that is crazy!  Being married means to give yourself completely to your spouse, to hold nothing back.

What about our relationship with God?  Do we hold something back?  Is there a place we need to grow, something we need to let go of?  I know that when I prayed about this over the last week I saw places where I need to grow.  I think it will be the same for all of us.  So take this phrase with you this week and don’t be afraid to give your life over to God: give to God what belongs to God.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The banquet on the mountain

28th Sunday of OT year A 2014:
Today we get to hear one of my favorite readings.  In fact, this first reading from the Prophet Isaiah is one of the options for the funeral mass.  I have often said that I want this reading read at my own funeral mass.  Mostly, because it talks about the great banquet of the Lord.  Doesn’t it sound amazing: on the mountain the Lord of hosts will provide a banquet full of rich foods and choice wines.  You have to imagine that if God, the maker of heaven and earth, was going to throw a banquet, it would be a great feast.  Not simply rubbery chicken served in a buffet, but rich foods and choice wines.  I love this reading, mostly because I love food.  I imagine this feast serving up thick slabs of prime rib, mashed potatoes, and finished with cherry pie.  Mmmm, sounds good doesn’t it.
But, no matter how nice that meal sounds, and it sounds great.  It pales in comparison to the next promise the prophet conveys.  Not only will the Lord set a wonderful banquet for us on the mountain, but next he is going to destroy death.  If we start to think about that great feast, it still follows the normal rules of our earthly existence.  But, God has much more in store for us than simply a nice meal.  Rather, this meal will lead into a new existence.  God will destroy death.
No wonder joy follows.  It says that God will wipe away every tear.  I can certainly see that happening.  We get this amazing banquet and God is going to destroy death.  No wonder the tears will be wiped away. 
It is helpful to remember that this message was proclaimed around 500 years before the time of Christ.  So, even before the birth of Christ, the prophet was preparing the people for something amazing: God is preparing to destroy death.
As Christians, we know that Christ is the fulfillment of this prophecy.  In Christ, we have the amazing banquet.  In Christ, we see death destroyed.
It is easy to see the Cross of Christ as that mountain, that peak where God reaches down to touch the human race.  We see Christ lifted up on the cross, standing between God and Man: God reaching down to pull up humanity.  On the cross, Jesus destroys death.
Of course, the banquet that Christ gives us is a foretaste of that eternal banquet.  This is not a feast of beef and potatoes, but a feast where Christ gives himself to us.  Right here in the Holy Eucharist we see this prophecy of Isaiah being fulfilled.  Right here on this mountain, the Lord prepares a banquet of rich food and choice wine. 
You notice that the folks who designed our Church had the mountain in mind.  Notice how the altar is placed on the highest peak in the Church?  This is the mountain where God feeds us the banquet of the Eucharist.  On this mountain, we live again the saving sacrifice of Christ, where death is destroyed.  This mountain helps us to wipe away our tears, helps us to find the strength we need to face whatever life might throw at us. 

There are many of us facing difficulties right now: sickness in our families, financial difficulties, sadness, or grief.  It seems like the news is always dire: ebola, terrorism, financial uncertainties.  It is a good thing we have this mountain.  Just as the people of Israel were given hope by Isaiah when he told them about this mountain, when we approach this altar, when we climb this mountain, we find God, we find hope, we find strength.  Here we find a place where God wipes away the tears from our eyes.  Right here at this altar we can repeat the words of the prophet: “behold our God, to whom we looked to save us, let us rejoice and be glad.”

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Christ, the great teacher of humility

26th Sunday of OT year A 2014:
We hear some interesting words from Jesus today.  He is trying to convince the chief priests that conversion is necessary for salvation.  It can hardly be doubted that the point of Jesus’ parable is that it doesn’t so much matter how you start out, but how you finish that is important.  But, one thing I find really interesting is that we only hear two choices, and neither choice is perfect.
First, there is the son who says he will not do his Father’s will, but ends up doing it.  Second, there is the son who agrees, but ends up not doing his Father’s will.  Clearly it is better to end up doing the Father’s will.  But, there is no option of a son who agrees to his Father’s will and does his Father’s will.  In fact, we know that the only Son who both agrees with the Father’s will and carries it out is indeed Jesus Christ himself.  Remember how he says at the end of his life: not my will, but yours be done.  The rest of us clearly fall into one of the other groups.
I can certainly speak for myself in that I more often end up in the second category.  I mean, I know what is right, I know what God wants me to do, but I don’t always live up to that calling.  I don’t always treat others with love and respect, I don’t always say or do the right thing.  Every day I tell God that I want to do his will, but then I don’t quite get there.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Jesus tells us that our actions are more important than our words.  It might seem like a high bar that he is setting for us.  How do we get our actions to better correspond with our words, our beliefs?
I think St. Paul had this kind of situation in mind when he was writing to the Philippians today.  His solution: have in you’re the same attitude that was in Christ.  Though Jesus was in the form of God he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at; rather, he emptied himself.  The key is to have the same attitude as Christ.  We need the heart of Christ, the mind of Christ.  We need to humbly acknowledge that we are not perfect, that we are sinners.  But, even though we are sinners, Christ calls us to follow him.  He doesn’t call us simply to say nice things.  But, he is calling us to do his Father’s will.

We have a great teacher in humility.  We look here to Christ on this altar.  Right here he continues to humbly empty himself, pouring himself out for our sustenance.  Right here we see Jesus.  We learn from him what it means to say these words: not my will, but yours be done.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Pope: the rock for our trying times

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time:
It is no secret that Pope Francis is one of the most interesting and engaging persons in our time.  I was born during the short reign of John Paul I.  I lived most of my life with John Paul II as my pope.  I spent most of my seminary and priesthood under Pope Benedict XVI.  I can say without a doubt that I would not be a priest if it were not for John Paul II.  His beautiful witness to the truths of the faith was compelling to me as a young man.  I can also say, that Pope Benedict was a huge influence on me in a theological way.  Having read a number of his books, his theology helped to shape the way I think about the truths of the faith.  John Paul II and Benedict were great popes and good men.  But, they did not seem to generate the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm as Pope Francis, especially among non-Catholics.  It will be exciting to see how Pope Francis continues to lead and guide the Church.
But, these men all had one thing in common: the held the office of Bishop of Rome, they were popes.  I have always found the papacy to be an interesting aspect of Church history.  There have been great popes, there have been sinful popes.  There have been crusading popes, there have been peaceful popes.  There have been brilliant and scholarly popes, there have been simple and humble popes.  Yet, all of these men are successors of St. Peter.
The papacy is quite controversial really.  I know that most non-Catholics probably think of Pope Francis as a spokesperson for the Catholic Church.  But, he is ever so much more than that.  He is the supreme teacher of Christianity in the whole world.  He has all the legislative authority in the Church.  Pope Francis has direct and supreme authority in all matters in the Church everywhere in the world.  He would never do this, but if he wanted to, Pope Francis could call me up and tell me to go to a different parish or a different country for that matter.  Throughout history, this office of the papacy has caused some divisions and problems.  One of the major issues separating the Orthodox Christians in the East is the role of the pope.  But rather than being a source of division, I think the office of the papacy is a wonderful gift from God that provides the Church with unity and stability.
Today in the gospel we hear Peter professing his faith in Christ, and we hear Jesus say: you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.  I think the office of the pope is important for precisely these two reasons: the proclamation of the faith and the rock established by Christ.
First, the task of the pope is to proclaim the faith.  At the heart of the whole Christian message is this fundamental truth: Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.  Yet, this truth has to be presented to new generations from the time of Christ until he comes again.  Rather than simply leaving us a book, Christ left us a voice.  The pope is, for us, an authoritative voice telling us the truth of the faith.  Since he is guided by the Holy Spirit, we can trust that the Holy Father will lead us and guide us and that he will always be faithful to the fundamental proclamation of the faith.  John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis all have different styles, but they are believers in Christ and they guide us in the faith.  Rather than seeing this as a limit to my human freedom, I find having the pope as an authentic guide is truly liberating.  I don’t have to make up the truths of the faith on my own, I get to receive them as a gift from the Church.
Second, the pope is a rock.  We certainly live in trying times.  I know that many of us are quite disturbed by the many crazy things going on in our world.  Whether it be the Ebola outbreak, war in Israel, violence and riots in our own country, the terrible execution of that reporter in Iraq.  Sometimes it seems a bit too much to take.  And yet Christ knew that we would need a rock.  He knew that we would need something solid.  This is the Church.  No matter what we might face in this life, we have the Church as our true home.  We have the pope as our leader in the faith.  Though the wind and the waves might rock us from time to time, we have a rock foundation that will never collapse.  I find great comfort in this.

The pope probably has the most difficult job on the planet.  If it were merely a human institution it would have failed eons ago.  His office was established by Christ, and he fulfills his mission by the power of the Spirit.  My friends we have a grave responsibility to pray for the Pope.  Ask God to strengthen and guide him.  But we also have a wonderful gift in the pope, he is our rock that will proclaim until the end of time: you are Christ, the son of the living God.