Wednesday, July 27, 2016

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!”  These are the words that open our first reading this Sunday, and are a stark reminder of what should hold importance for us as we live our lives.  While we may be familiar with the saying, and my give credence to the sentiment, our modern lives are often mired in vanity, and we can use a sharp reminder as to what is really important:

The Word for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
Luke 12:13-21

Our first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  The word “Ecclesiastes” is a rough Greek translation of the word of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, to whom the book is attributed.  This is not so much a name of someone, however, as it is a title… that is the “assembler” or “collector” of wisdom.  Like all wisdom literature in the Bible, this book is a collection of sayings and parables intended to remind us of what is important.  Here the author uses the word “vanity” as a recurring theme… but what is vanity?  In this case, it’s the translation of the Hebrew word “hebel,” which is defined as a sense of “emptiness, futility, or absurdity.”  In other words, those things that are pointless.  Also in the context of scripture it refers to those things or activities that are selfishly temporal, focusing on physical wealth or status as opposed to spiritual salvation. 

In our passage for this Sunday we are reminded that there are greater things than just working to survive.  It suggests that we can get so caught in our day-to-day routine that we can find ourselves wondering what this is all for?  Why are we doing it?  If that were not enough, the author suggests that this “poor, poor, pitiful me” realization is itself an exercise in vanity.  Why?  Well, we’ve been told, over and over again, what should be important… our relationship to God, our family, and our neighbors.  But we children of God can be a stubborn lot, not always ready to accept this teaching.  To this problem our Psalm reminds us, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.”

Our Gospel from Luke continues on this idea of vanity and of what is really important in this life.  Here Jesus gives us a warning against greed and earthly possessions.  The passage opens with a man asking Jesus to tell his brother to share his inheritance.  This is indeed an interesting situation.  By Jewish tradition, the eldest son inherits everything, so naturally the brother is feeling slighted.  Jesus has preached on the importance of sharing, so this man thinks his brother needs to hear this lesson from Jesus.  But Jesus doesn’t take the bait stating instead “who appointed me as your judge?”  Jesus rightly does not want to get caught up in this dispute, and instead gives the crown an admonition against greed.  He then supports this idea with the Parable of the Rich Fool (unique to Luke’s Gospel) which reminds us that our preoccupation with storing up Earthly riches does not prepare us for eternal life.

Our second reading concludes our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  Here Paul puts this whole situation in perspective by reminding us that we need to “seek what is above.”  He says “put to death the parts of you that are earthy.”  Vanity of vanities indeed!  Never lose sight of the fact that our time on this earth is all too brief and shouldn’t be squandered on things that, in the end, can’t bring us to Heaven.

Final thoughts:

Our modern society teaches that money can bring happiness.  Is that true?  After all, with money we can secure those things that are often a source of stress… be it food, shelter, healthcare, leisure, or freedom.  While studies have shown money is a factor in happiness, those same studies have also showed that it was then non-material things that provided more happiness.  Our personal well-being and our relationships with others.  Further, studies have shown that those who attend religious services on a weekly basis were happier overall when compared to those who attended less often.

It seems to me that these studies only prove that the wisdom of Qoheleth is just as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago.  Jesus was right to teach us that physical wealth cannot bring us happiness or eternal life.  Rather, it is our relationship with God and with others that is more important.  Our lives here on Earth are, after all, only temporary.  Understanding that bigger picture helps us to see that there is much more to life, both here and beyond.

Summer of Mercy video series - Week 6

Feature Film:  Calvary  (2014, 1 hr 41 min)

About the story:
Set in the present day (circa 2012), Fr. James is a parish priest in the small fishing village of Easkey on the Northwest cost of Ireland.  The film opens with Fr. James having an extraordinary experience in the confessional, forcing him to spend the next week examining the brokenness around him… within his parishioners, within his family, and within himself.  Like Christ on his journey to Calvary, Fr. James finds  himself making his own journey toward the cross, unsure where it will ultimately lead him.

Like the apostles who journeyed with Jesus, we the audience are taken on this journey with Fr. James through this pivotal week in his life, and like those same apostles, we are left with the challenge of making sense of the situation in light of Jesus’ teachings on mercy and love.

About the film:
Though the film is a work of fiction, it does capture well the zeitgeist of present day Ireland and its struggles with faith, the Church, and a growing secularism in society.  Originally filmed in late 2012, Calvary made its debut in January 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival where it was picked-up by Fox Searchlight Pictures for distribution.  It was an award winner at the Berlin International Film Festival (Prize of the Ecumenical Jury), the Irish Film and Television Awards (Best Film, Best Lead Actor, Best Screenplay), and the British Independent Film Awards Best Actor).

While the film deals with the severe wound of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, it is also a testament to the virtue of forgiveness, demonstrating how the need for forgiveness and mercy is necessary to eternal life.  It is a powerful film that challenges our perceptions of the Catholic faith and the priesthood, as well as our understanding of Christian mercy as demonstrated by Jesus on the cross at Calvary.

Bishop Robert Barron’s review of the film notes that it “shows with extraordinary vividness, what authentic spiritual shepherding looks like and how it feels for a priest to have a shepherd's heart." 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Ask and you shall receive.”  These are the words Jesus teaches us in this Sunday’s Gospel.  Yet far too often we let our “Catholic guilt” get in the way of this teaching.  We’re so attuned to serving God and others that we sometimes forget that God also owes a duty to us, as our readings this week will show:

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
Colossians 2:12-14
Luke 11:1-13

We open with a passage from the book of Genesis.  Here Abraham is on his way to the city of Sodom (most likely because his nephew Lot and his family are living there).  As God is walking with them he asks Abraham if he has heard of the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah.  He has heard and fears the Lord will “sweep away” the cities as punishment for their sins.  So he confronts the Lord, most humbly, if he will destroy the city if he can find 50 innocent people.  The Lord relents, saying the city will be spared.  So Abraham presses the Lord further… if he can find 40 people, 30, people, 20 people, all the way down to 10 people, and each time the Lord says he will relent.

So what is this supposed to teach us?  To our Catholic ears this dialog seems dangerous.  Who are we to challenge God?  Well… that is the point.  This is, after all, a “covenant” relationship:  “You will be my people and I will be your God,” says the Lord.  We Christians sometimes forget that this is a two-way relationship, that for all we owe God, God also owes us.  We’re very good at remembering what God expects of us (loving him and loving our neighbor), but what are God’s expectations in this relationship?  In this case, Abraham is asking that the city be spared, and with just cause.  It teaches us that we have a duty to question authority, even our Lord, if the cause is just.  The rules that bind us also bind the Lord.  This idea is not lost on our Psalm as we sing, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.”

These ideas are more fully revealed in our Gospel from Luke.  Here our story continues a little ways from where we left off last week as Jesus continues his long trek to Jerusalem.  The disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.  Jesus then recites what we know as the Lord’s prayer (the Our Father).  But as is typical for Jesus, he wants to make sure they understand what he is teaching, so he gives us the Parable of the Friend at Night (unique to Luke’s Gospel).  He asks them to imagine a friend coming to their house at midnight asking for 3 loaves of bread.  Of course, you would be reluctant, but the friend is persistent and so you comply, even at the late hour.  Jesus then teaches, “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you will find.”  Like the friend who provided the 3 loaves of bread, the Father will certainly hear your cry and answer with blessings befitting his children.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  Here we are reminded that our Baptism links us with Christ… not only to his death, but to his resurrection.  Through Christ we are forgiven our transgressions.  Looking back at the Lord’s prayer, where we petition for God’s forgiveness, Paul tell us that through Christ, that prayer is answered.

Final thoughts:

As Catholics we’re good at praising God and giving thanks to God, but we sometimes feel bad about the idea of asking God for something, especially for when it is for ourselves.  Through our history we Christians have developed this sense of “unworthiness” in the eyes of the Lord.. an unworthiness that grew out of the late middle ages with the heresy of Jansenism which grew through the Reformation.  This heresy took our idea of a “sense of wonder and awe of the Lord” (what we used to call the gift of “fear of the Lord”) to a dangerous extreme, completely diminishing the innate grace within us and the mercy our God shows to his beloved children.  Find a copy of the Lord’s prayer and read it… slowly.

“Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses…”… a prayer of petition.  Just like the prayers of the faithful during Mass (and aptly placed after the Creed).  It’s not only OK to ask God for things… it’s expected.  It’s our right as the children of God.  Is there a catch?  Of course… continue with the Lord’s prayer, “… as we forgive those who trespass against us…”.  In other words, “do as I do,” says the Lord.  In fact, if we meditate on the Lord’s prayer, it’s easy to see that the whole teaching of the Gospels flows through this prayer.

Summer of Mercy video series - week 5

Fr. Michael Gaitley's Divine Mercy:  The Second Greatest Story Ever Told
Episode 5:  Proclaim This MessageFrom the Augustine Institute:  In a certain sense, God’s School of Trust culminates in Church History with the mission of Pope St. John Paul II as he proclaims the message of Divine Mercy to the world.
Episode 6:  FatimaFrom the Augustine Institute:  Against the backdrop of a world engulfed in war, the prophetic drama surrounding a small town in Portugal captures the minds and hearts of believers and unbelievers alike.
Our last episodes took us on a journey through Poland's history, across Soviet Russia, over to Nagasaki Japan, and eventually to Washington D.C. where Fr. Jarzebowski was entrusted to spread Sr. Faustina's message of Divine Mercy.  This week we look deeper at what Pope John Paul's mission of mercy, and recall the events at Fatima in Portugal during the First World War, as we continue to piece together this convergence of people and events that brought us this devotion to mercy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Last week’s readings reminded us of the importance of loving our neighbor.  Out of this love of neighbor comes our long standing tradition of hospitality, which we see as a thread in this week’s readings:

Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
Colossians 1:24-28
Luke 10:38-42

Our first reading comes from the book of Genesis.  Here we meet up with Abraham (no longer Abram) as he has an encounter with the Lord.  Only this is no ordinary encounter.  Three men who have been traveling through the area have come to Abraham’s camp, and immediately Abraham insists that they stay, rest, and have some food.  This might sound unusual to us, but we need to remember that Abraham is living in a desolate area.  Travelers are not common, and when they are encountered, it is the long standing custom to be hospitable.  In fact, it wouldn’t be incorrect to connect this passage from our readings from last week about showing love to our neighbor.  Abraham’s hospitality aside, what is really important is what these travelers have to say… that his wife Sarah will give him a son.  No some may argue that Abraham recognized these  travelers right away as the presence of the Lord, while others may argue that Abraham didn’t realize it until their prophecy came to fruition.  Regardless on when Abraham made this connection, this passage teaches us that no matter who it is, a certain hospitality is owed, to our neighbor, and to the Lord.  That message is reinforced by our Psalm when we sing, “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

This custom of hospitality is also evident in our Gospel from Luke.  Continuing from where we left off last week, Jesus has traveled to the home of Mary and Martha.  Martha, as is customary, is playing host to Jesus and the other disciples… but Mary, rather than helping her sister, has taken a seat next to Jesus to listen.  Mind you, this is highly unusual thing given that he social norms of the time, where women were expected to play host and not sit and listen like a disciple.  Martha is understandably upset, and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help serve, but Jesus doesn’t believe this is right.  Instead Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better course of action.  How so?  Sometimes as we go about doing what we think is right (in this case, playing host) we lose sight of the bigger picture… of what is more important at that time.  Jesus knows that his time is short, so better for them to stop and spend time with him than worry about more trivial matters.  It’s more than just a matter of perspective… it’s a matter of what’s more important.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, picking up where we left off in his opening salutation.  There are times when Paul’s prose can rouse a community to cheer, or make a man weep with compassion.  There are other times, however, with his long, run-on sentences and meandering trains of thought, where it can be difficult to understand what he is telling us.  This week’s passage falls into this latter category, and requires us to spend a little extra time unpacking it.  Paul says he is rejoicing in his sufferings… a reference to the fact that he is in prison, and his suffering, like that of Christ, is for their sake.  Paul considers himself to be a “keeper of the word,” and he wants to make sure the Colossian community understands that the Gentiles are entitled to God’s glory, regardless of what some other false teachers may have told them.  That everyone is perfect in Christ.

Final thoughts:

When we think of the “Word of God” we tend to think of our scripture readings at Mass, or we might think of the Bible itself.  But are these the only vehicles to hear the voice of God?  Far from it.  God speaks to us in many ways, but we’re often too busy to hear it.  Or sometimes we hear it, but don’t recognize it as the voice of God right away.  We need to take the time to stop, look, and listen for God’s voice. 

We can't hear the Word of God if we're too busy doing other things.  We can't serve God if we're too busy to look and see what is genuinely important at the moment, as we see with Mary and Martha.  Sometimes what we think is right might be wrong at that moment.  It’s the difference between following the “letter of the Law” as opposed to the “spirit of the Law.”  Martha thought she was right by following what is customary, but Jesus teaches us that sometimes that can lead us astray.  Our lives are not static.  Situations change all the time and we need to be responsive to those situations.  As Christians we recognize that life is not always “black and white,” so Jesus helps us stop, look, and listen for God’s voice as a guide to help us navigate the gray areas and do what is right.  Stop.  Look.  Listen.  Using that great gift from God, our minds, our intellect, and our reason, to figure out with what is important both in the big picture and the context of the moment.  It's not always easy to figure out, which is why we need each other as Church to help guide us as the Spirit intends.

Summer of Mercy video series - Week 4

Feature Film:  Dead Man Walking  (1995, 2 hr-2 min)

About the story:
Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) has been on death row in Louisiana for the past 6 years.  As his execution day comes closer, he writes to Sr. Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) for help with his appeal.  Sr. Helen reluctantly meets with him, initially finding him arrogant and unrepentant.  Still, she manages to find a lawyer who will help him file for a final appeal to avoid his death sentence.  Over a series of visits she develops a certain rapport with him, while also getting to know something about the families of his victims.  Sr. Helen soon finds herself caught between providing spiritual advice to a criminal, and seeing a need to comfort the families of his victims.

About the film:
Released in 1995, the film is a fictionalized account of the stories from Sr. Helen’s experiences as described in her book of the same name which was published 2 years earlier.  It stars Susan Sarandon as Sr. Helen Prejean and Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet, a fictional character based on Sr Helen’s experiences with real life death row inmates Elmo Sonnier and Robert Willie.  The film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Song) with Sarandon taking home the Oscar for her portrayal of Sr. Helen.  At its release the film received critical acclaim for both Sarandon and Penn, and for a story that must balance between all the facets of good and evil in both the crime and the punishment.  It is a riveting film that still resonates with audiences today.  Through this film Sr. Helen’s work with death row inmates was brought into the popular culture as she continues to advocate for abolition of the death penalty.

About the Sr. Helen Prejean:

Helen Prejean, CSJ (Congregation of St. Joseph) was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1939, and at the age of 18 joined the sisters of St Joseph.  She received a BA in English and Education from St. Mary’s Dominican College in New Orleans, and a Masters in Religious Education from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada.  While serving the poor in the Thomas housing project in New Orleans, Sr. Helen began her prison ministry in 1981 when she became pen pals with death row inmate Patrick Sonnier, and later became his spiritual advisor.  She did the same for Robert Willie, another death row inmate.  Her work with both these inmates inspired her to write the book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, which was selected for the 1994 American Library Association’s Notable book list, and was a New York Times best seller for 31 weeks.  Sr. Helen has given countless talks and interviews, and continues to advocate for abolition of the death penalty worldwide through her Ministry Against the Death Penalty.  Her most recent book, The Death of Innocents:  An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions was published in 2004.

About Debbie Morris:
Author of the book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking:  Only One Woman Can Tell the Entire Story (with Greg Lewis) published in 2000.  Ms Morris is the real life victim of Robert Willie, and who’s testimony helped to send Willie to his death by electrocution.  Her story is a journey of faith and forgiveness in the face of brutal crimes committed against her and her boyfriend.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Summer of Mercy video series - Week 3

Fr. Michael Gaitley's Divine Mercy:  The Second Greatest Story Ever Told
Episode 3:  The Suffering ServantFrom the Augustine Institute:  If an entire nation can be “God’s Suffering Servant,” then Poland served that role throughout history by helping to save the civilized world through its fidelity to its Catholic faith.
Episode 4:  Faustina and the Spread of Divine MercyFrom the Augustine Institute:  The tumultuous history of Poland set the stage for a remarkable woman to become the catalyst of the main drama of the Second Greatest Story Ever Told, a drama involving the modern message of Divine Mercy and its popularity following World War II.
These two episodes continue the story from where we left off back in Week 1, driving us even deeper into the story of Divine Mercy and the grace that brought us to this important devotion.  Like last time we will view Episode 3, have a discussion, take a break, and resume with Episode 4 followed by discussion.

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What does God want of us?  It sounds like a daunting question, but it’s really not.  All of the 10 Commandments, all of the Mosaic Law, all of the teachings of Jesus, come down to just two things:  Love God.  Love you neighbor.  But to quote the Lord from Exodus, we are a “stiff necked people.”  Our readings this week remind us that loving our neighbor is our ticket to salvation.

Deuteronomy 30:10-14
Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36, 37 or 19:8, 9, 10, 11
Colossians 1:15-20
Luke 10:25-37

Our first reading is from the book of Deuteronomy.  This is the book that most scholars believe was presented by King Josiah during the 7th century BCE in his attempts to reform the people back to the Lord.  In this passage, we hear Moses telling the people of Israel that God’s wishes for his people are not some remote or inaccessible dream, but are instead quite obvious… Love your neighbor.  Moses reminds us that we know this already, in our minds and in our hearts.  We just need to carry it out.

The lectionary gives us an option for the Psalm this Sunday, but whether we sing “Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.” or if we sing “Your word, Lord, are Spirit and life,” the message is the same… in God we find life.  Life that is ours for the taking, so long as we can find it in ourselves to follow God’s command and love our neighbor.

Our Gospel from Luke continues this theme.  Here our passage has a “scholar of the Law” questioning Jesus about what it takes to inherit eternal life.  True to form, Jesus turns the question back to the scholar, who answers, in short, to love God, and to love your neighbor.  But this “scholar of the Law” is the equivalent of a modern day lawyer, and we all know that any good lawyer not only knows what’s in the law, but what’s not in the law.  So this scholar poses the question to Jesus, “who is my neighbor?”  Jesus then give us the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a well known story unique to Luke’s Gospel.  A man is robbed and beaten on the highway and left for dead.  Both a priest and a Levite (both obviously Jewish) go to some effort to avoid the obviously injured man, but a Samaritan (a non-Jew) sees the man and helps him.  At the conclusion of the story Jesus asks the scholar who it was that was a good neighbor to the man on the road.  The answer is obvious, and instructs him, instructs us, to do likewise.

Our second reading begins a four week study of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and actually serves as a nice complement to our other readings.  Here the new Church was struggling with Jesus' role within the cosmos (not surprising given the pagan practices of this region in the heart of modern day Turkey), which in Paul’s mind was keeping them from the real work of the Gospel:  to love one another.  In this introductory excerpt, Paul addresses these issues up front in an effort to put them to rest… quite simply, that Jesus is at the center of everything.  From there, he is now free to explore what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ.

Final thoughts:
Who is my neighbor?  The scholar of the Law was trying to test Jesus by exploiting what he thought was a loop-hole in the Law.  In other words, if you’re not my “neighbor” then I don’t owe you anything.  Jesus, rightly taught us otherwise, but we, like this scholar, seem to consistently want to narrow our definition of who is “my neighbor.”  A “neighbor,” after all, is someone who’s “close” to us.  Someone who lives near us, someone who looks like us, shares our beliefs and customs.  It’s this narrow view of “neighbor” that allows us to discriminate, to marginalize, and to avoid.  But Jesus, through this parable, teaches that we are all neighbors, differences and all.  That we owe a duty to those who are different from us.  That those neighbors are also God’s creation and deserving of the same love that we would grant to those who are closer to us.  In a nation and a world that seems more divided than ever, it would do us well to remember this parable and live as the Lord has taught us… difficult though that may be, but it will lead us to salvation.