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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lord, Help Me

Today we hear one of the more interesting, and even unsettling, passages in the gospel.  First, Jesus seems to ignore this poor woman.  Then, it seems like Jesus insults her.  If someone called you a dog, how would you take it?  What is Jesus getting at here?
We have to try to put ourselves into the biblical mindset.  Remember where Jesus was coming from.  He was born into the house of David, he came as the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament.  God chose Israel to be his own special possession.  The woman from the gospel was a Canaanite, these were the people who inhabited the Land before Joshua led the chosen people into it.  Throughout the Old Testament we see the Israelites and the Canaanites in conflict.  The biggest issue that divided them was their belief in God.  Canaanites worshiped their own pagan gods, while the Jewish people worshiped the Lord.
Jesus seems pretty harsh; he was summarizing all of the animosity between the Jewish and Canaanite peoples.  But, we notice that when the woman worships Jesus and shows her faith in him, Jesus grants her request.  Christ came as the fulfillment of the promises to Israel.  But, he came for the whole world.  This Canaanite woman is among the first non-Jewish people to come to faith.  I find it interesting that even though they come from wildly different backgrounds, her words to Jesus seem a lot like those of St. Peter from last week.
Remember last week, Peter was out walking on the water.  He started to sink and he yells out, Lord, Save me.  This week, the woman is struggling in the midst of the crowd and her daughter is afflicted by a demon, she cries Lord, help me.  Almost the identical words, and the response from Jesus is almost identical.  In both cases, Jesus responds by saving Peter and answering the woman’s request.  So, here we have two people who couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds and yet both asked for help, both received it from Christ. 
We are all different.  We all have different upbringings, different backgrounds, different hobbies, different strengths, and different weaknesses.  But, there is one thing that unites us all: our common faith. 
As a priest I get quite the privileged seat here in church.  From up here I get to see just about everyone, although this fan shaped church makes it hard to see all the way back in the corners.  I am happy to say that after a year I have gotten to know many of you.  So when I look out I know many people.  And it is certainly true that we come from different lives.  We all have different joys and struggles, but look at us.  Here we are, joined by our common faith, our common crying out to Jesus: lord help us.  And he does help us.

Christ came for everyone.  Next month we will be beginning our RCIA once again.  The RCIA is the process by which non-Catholics enter into the Catholic Church.  We meet on Tuesday evenings as well as on Sunday’s after the 9:00 Mass.  RCIA is definitely for people who want to become Catholic.  But, it is also a great place for people who want to learn more about the Catholic faith.  I have already had a few people talk to me about going through RCIA next year.  But, I want to ask everyone at St. Jude to invite one person to join RCIA.  We will only be living up to our calling as a parish if we are sharing the faith with the world around us.  Inviting someone to RCIA, inviting him/her to learn more about the Catholic faith is a great way to do this.  In your conversation use today’s scripture passage, it shows that Christ came for everyone, no matter the background or life history.  At the heart of being a Catholic Christian is one fundamental truth: as Catholics we worship Christ and we all say to him from our hearts: Lord, help me.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jesus feeds us

18 Sunday of OT year A:
Today we hear about one of Jesus’ great miracles.  Today we hear that Jesus took some bread and fish and was able to feed a huge crowd of people.  Jesus took simple elements and fed a multitude.  Of course this was not just one event that took place a long time ago, it is something that Christ has continued to do down through the ages.  Right now he is doing it.  This is what the Mass is all about.  During our worship of God at this Holy Mass, Jesus feeds us.  He gives himself to us in the Word of God with the Scriptures, he gives himself to us in his Holy Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  All those years ago he fed the 5000, but today he is feeding millions throughout the world with the Word and the Eucharist.  So, this story is our story.  That is why I find the circumstances so interesting. 
It says that the people had followed Jesus to a deserted place.  I find this to be quite fascinating and beautiful.  Is it so different for us?  We have heard the voice of Christ, we are following him.  But, we realize he does not always lead us down paths that are easy.  The road that Christians walk is filled with suffering, self-denial, and persecution.  How can it be otherwise?  To be a Christian means to follow Christ, to be like Christ.  The same Christ who died on the cross for the salvation of the world asks us to bear our crosses in his name.  Sometimes this feels like we are in deserted place.  Maybe we feel isolated or disenchanted with the world around us, maybe we fear violence, terrorism, and war, all of which seem to be more and more prevalent in our days.  Yes, it feels like a deserted place sometimes. 
Jesus is not unaware of our difficulties.  It says in the gospel that when Jesus saw the people, his heart was moved with pity for them.  His heart is still moved with pity for all those who suffer, all those who fear, all those who struggle, who suffer, those who are persecuted.  Jesus is still moved with pity and he still wants to feed us.  Christ feeds us here at the Holy Mass.  Don’t be afraid to bring your difficulties, your pains, your sufferings.  Bring your ups, your downs, your whole life.  Here at the Mass we join them to the sacrifice of Christ and we find that strength we need for living our lives of faith.  Even if it feels like we are in the deserted place from time to time, Christ is here, his heart is moved with pity, he wants to feed us.
But, I find another aspect of this passage quite interesting as well.  While we know that Christ is the one who feeds all the people, he is not the one who actually gives the food to the people.  Notice, Jesus took the bread, he blessed it, broke it, and gave it, not to the people, but to the disciples.  It was the disciples that passed out the bread and fish to the people.  Again, is it so different with us?  As I mentioned earlier, Christ feeds us here at the Holy Mass, he tends to our needs, even if we feel like we are in a deserted place.  But, once we have received such an amazing gift, how do we respond?  Do we find ways to share this gift with others? 

I bet that some day this week every one of us will find one person who is hurting or afraid.  We will find one person who is lost or hungry, one person who is in a deserted place.  Maybe this person will be hungry in a physical way, or maybe hungry in a spiritual way.  The words of Jesus to his disciples are the same words he speaks to us today: you give them something to eat.  My friends we are gathered here at Mass to hear the Word of God and to be in his presence in the Eucharist.  We are here to be fed.  But having received, we are then called by Christ go forth from this Mass and to find those others who are hungry in this world so that we can give them something to eat.