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.