Tuesday, August 30, 2016

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

“For everything there is a price.”  This idea is so ancient and so well known that there’s no one person to whom this quote or idea can be attributed.  In fact, it’s an idea that’s built into our human nature and human condition.  Put another way, there’s always a trade-off we have to make when making decisions.  We can’t have our cake and eat it too.  When we elect to follow Christ, not only to accept Jesus as our savior but to adopt the Christian way of life, there is a cost.  Our readings this week remind us that following that Christian way of life is not going to be easy:

Wisdom 9:13-18b
Psalm 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14-17
Philemon 1:9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

Our first reading comes from the book of Wisdom, a work that dates back to some 50 years before Christ.  Given its date and origins, we can consider this to be a contemporary work for Jesus and his Apostles.  Like last week’s first reading from Sirach (dating about 200 years before Christ), the book of Wisdom not only acts as an early catechism for the Jewish people, but speaks very powerfully to the early Christian community, in part because it addresses a persecuted minority.  While the book of Wisdom is fairly clear in its teachings, there are times, as with this week’s passage, where we can get lost in the language of the text, and find it difficult to discern what it is trying to teach… so don’t get discouraged if you don’t “get it” after just one reading.  Read it several times, and then see if you see what I see…

The passage opens with a rhetorical question… “who can know God’s council?”.  Not us, for as the text continues, we are just mere mortals, and our human needs often cloud our understanding.  In fact, it is “with difficulty” that we understand what the Lord wants.  This is why God sends us Wisdom from the Holy Spirit… and it by following this wisdom from the Spirit that makes our path straight.  Put more simply, just follow what the Lord says and all is good.  This faith in the Lord’s goodness is echoed in our Psalm when we sing “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.”

Trouble is… just following what the Lord says isn’t always easy.  This is exactly what our Gospel from Luke is trying to teach us.  Here we see Jesus being followed by a great crowd, and he’s at a bit of a loss in understanding why.  Jesus knows is mission is going to end with his death.  Jesus also knows, as he has told his disciples, that the they could face a similar fate.  So now Jesus is forced to confront the crowd and explain that they too, by following him, will have their own crosses to bear.  Jesus explains that there are costs to following him… personal costs, to being one of his disciples, and it would be foolish to do so without understanding what the costs will be beforehand.  Caveat emptor.

We round out our readings with a passage from Paul’s letter to Philemon.  One of the shortest books in the New Testement, and certainly the shortest from Paul, this Letter to Philemon is only one chapter with 25 verses.  The letter concerns a slave named Onesimus, whom he met in prison, converted, and is now being released.  Paul is asking his owner to welcome him not as a slave, but as a “brother in Christ.”  This letter is nothing short of astounding.  With brevity and cautious language (which is uncharacteristic for Paul, who’s letters are generally verbose and bold), Paul is telling us that slavery is wrong.  That within the Church, the body of Christ, there is no room for cast.  There is no master and slave, but rather, we are all slaves for Christ, brothers and sister in a common cause.

Final thoughts:
This Sunday we celebrate the canonization of Mother Teresa… St Teresa of Calcutta.  And how fitting we celebrate her canonization with the readings for this week.  In St. Teresa we have someone who knew and understood the cost of her commitment to Christ.  And still she persevered… she still got up every day to be of service to people in need.  There were times she had serious doubts about God’s existence, admitting that she often felt emptiness and darkness...  That she had been abandoned by God.  Not unlike how Jesus felt on the cross.  But like Jesus, she followed through with her mission… she continued to serve those in need, and showed the world what it really meant to be Christian.  To be a true follower of Christ we must follow her example and recognize that salvation begins when we stop thinking about ourselves, and start serving others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Humility.  As Christians we are taught that we should be humble before God, not only recognizing God’s greatness, but also recognizing that no one of us is any better than the other.  This is a difficult concept for us, however, because our human nature seems to push us toward exceptionalism… whether it’s by putting others up on a pedestal, or by fighting to get on that pedestal ourselves.  But our readings this week suggests a different path:

Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Psalm 68:4-5, 6-7, 10-11
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Our first reading comes from the book of Sirach.  Though this book in not included in the Jewish and Protestant canons, Catholics have included it as inspired.  The work dates back to the second century before Jesus and is attributed to Yeshua ben Sira, a notable sage who lived in Jerusalem.  Like most wisdom literature in the Bible, it no doubt served as a kind of catechism for the faithful, and was likely known to Jesus and the Apostles.  Our passage this week is simple:  Conduct your affairs with humility… for those who do will find favor with God.  It’s teachings like this that lead us to loving our neighbor, recognizing that no one is above another.  Further, that those who are poor, who are without, are in greater need of our humble, neighborly love.  This is further emphasized in our Psalm as we sing, “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.”

Jesus takes this lesson on humility a step further in our Gospel from Luke.  Here Jesus is dining at the home of one of the leading Pharisees.  During the dinner Jesus noticed how the other guests were jockeying for places of honor at the table.  In seeing this as a “catechetical moment,” Jesus tells us a parable on the conduct of invited guests and hosts:  He told the story of a banquet where a man chose a position at table, only to be embarrassed by being asked to relinquish that spot as it had been saved for someone else.  Rather, Jesus suggests, one should take the lowest position at table, and wait to be invited to a higher position.  In other words, we should not assume our place at table (or the heavenly kingdom), this is for our host (God) to decide.  Going back to our lesson from Sirach, we should let humility be our guide.

But Jesus doesn’t just stop there.  He pushes his point further by noting that throwing a dinner party for one’s peers is tantamount to returning a favor.  To truly embrace humility in the Mosaic tradition, one should through a dinner party for those who cannot return the favor.  For it is how we treat the underprivileged (the widow, the foreigner, the orphan), is how we will be judged.  In Christian theology, we call this “a preferential option for the poor.”  Those in need require our special attention.

And what of our second reading?  Here we conclude our study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  As we near the letter’s conclusion we are reminded that through Christ, God is made accessible.  No longer should God be feared (as it was with the Israelites in the time of Moses), but instead, wants to be near us and with us.

Final thoughts:
Black lives matter.  There’s been much ado about this phrase in the media, with some claiming instead that it should be "all lives that matter."  To focus on only black lives, they say, would seem to give a preferential treatment to one group where it should more justly be given to all groups.  Sounds only fair, right?  But is that what Jesus taught us?  Those who want to diminish the black lives movement in favor of all lives are missing the point… the same point that Moses was making when he taught us to give special consideration to the poor, and the same point Jesus was making when he says in today’s gospel that we should invite the poor to our banquet.  There can be no escaping the fact that black Americans have been systematically marginalized for generations.  The core of the black lives matter message isn’t looking for privilege, it’s looking for parity… wanting to even the playing field.  Is it preferential to bring parity to the marginalized?  Perhaps… but this is what our faith teaches, and it takes humility to recognize that.  Black lives matter.

Summer of Mercy video series - Week 10

Our Summer of Mercy video series concludes this week with the feature film:  Chocolat (2000, 2hrs, 1 min).

About the story:
Vianne Rocher, a “free spirit” and her young daughter find their way to the small French village which is led by a very traditional mayor, the Comte de Reynauld.  In fact, he considers it his duty to make sure the village maintains its traditional values, even preparing the new young pastor’s sermons.  Deep down, however, this seemingly idealic town has a number of problems, and they learn the hard way that you just can’t ignore them in the hopes that they will fix themselves or just go away.

It takes the outsiders, Vianne, and later the Gypsy traveler Roux to reveal these problems, forcing the various townspeople to confront them for what they are.  In the meantime, Reynauld sees things getting out of control, and when tragedy strikes, finds himself unable to turn the situation back to the way it was.  Fear of change drive the characters until they must admit the truth of their situations, eventually realizing that mercy, love, and forgiveness are what they need most of all.

About the film:
Released in 2000, the film sports a number of then rising stars along with some established talent, including Juliette Binoche, Dame Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, and Johnny Depp.  The film was generally well received and garnered quite a lot of attention in awards circles, receiving nominations from the Academy, BAFTA, and Golden Globes.  Ultimately, however, owing a lot to the competition that year, it garnered only a handful of awards.  Still, for a modest $25 million dollar budget, it was a commercial success bringing in some $152 million worldwide.

Shot in a contemporary style, the film used a historical backdrop (France countryside in 1959) to tell a story that is relevant both to then and today.  Though it uses a light touch, it reminds us of the problems that ensue when we seek to follow the letter of the law without giving consideration to the spirit of the law and the context of life that surrounds a given situation.  The film thrives in the gray areas between what we preach and what we practice, and the conflict that ensues when these two elements come into contact with everyday life.  Particularly for a Catholic audience.

Ultimately the film gives us an opportunity to judge what is right, based both on the teachings of our faith and how those teachings need to be applied.  If we are to look at the situations of the film through the lens of mercy, we can see that it’s not so much a more secularization of the township that occurs, but gracious acceptance of failure, the need for forgiveness, and an opportunity to evaluate how to be a true Christian.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Judgment Day.  Christian teaching tells us that at the end of our lives, or at the end of days, we will be called to account for everything we’ve done (or not done) in this life.  This has lead to some very powerful sermons (particularly from our Protestant brothers and sisters) on the need to repent and follow the Lord.  While we Catholics tend to shy away from this kind of fire-and-brimstone preaching (seeking instead to focus on God’s ever-present mercy), the truth remains that not everyone is going to be welcomed into paradise:

Isaiah 66:18-21
Psalm 117:1, 2
Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13
Luke 13:22-30

Our first reading comes from the final chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah.  The reading itself seems pleasant enough… a story of bringing the nations together under the Lord.  What we miss, however, is the larger context from which this passage comes… which is from Isaiah’s “Final Judgment” discourse.  Note that the passage says, “I will send fugitives to the nations…” In this case, these “fugitives” are those who have escaped the Lord’s wrath against those who do not follow his command… a reminder that what happened to Jerusalem under the Babylonians can happen again.  But these fugitives will go far and wide to gather in those who do believe, making them priests and Levites… leaders of a new chosen people that include all who proclaim God’s glory.  This call to action is echoed in our Psalm as we sing, "Go out to all the world and tell the Good News."

Our gospel from Luke continues our journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem.  As he travels someone asks if only a few will be saved.  But as is typical, Jesus doesn’t give him a straight forward answer.  Instead, he tells him that not everyone will be strong enough… that there will be those who say they know him, but instead will be left out where there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth.”  For you see, the man asking the question is like us… good, law abiding citizens who follow religious teachings, wanting to get some affirmation that they will see paradise.  But remember last week’s gospel, where Jesus said he came to stir things up, wanting to break us out of our complacency.  Jesus isn’t going to say to this fellow, “Sure, you’re OK.”  Instead, Jesus wants to know what you’re going to do for him today, and tomorrow, and the next day.  This isn’t to say that what you did yesterday wasn’t good… but that’s the past.  What are you doing for Jesus now?  What are you going to do for Jesus tomorrow?

Our second reading, a continuation of our journey through the letter to the Hebrews, sums this up another way.  The author teaches that, For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines.”  All relationships come with some element of heartache.  All parent-child relationships, like our relationship to the Father, includes some things that we don’t find pleasant or convenient… but in the end help build character and perseverance.  To take what we learned today, and build on that for tomorrow.  To never stop growing.

Final thoughts:
Jesus came to challenge the status-quot.  To shake us out of our complacency.  To stir us to action.  The Second Vatican Council taught us that we need to be active participants in our faith… not just watching on the sidelines, but getting into the game.  Our readings this week shouldn’t cause us to be afraid or discouraged, they should be reminders to always push us forward, to do better, to rouse us to action.  Does God expect perfection?  No.  Is God willing to forgive us our sins?  YES.  But God also wants us to learn from our mistakes and move on.  The past is the past… not only for our sins, but for our accomplishments.  What have you done for God today?  What have you done for your neighbor today?  This is the ongoing challenge of the Christian life.  But the beauty is that we don’t travel this road alone.  God and our neighbors are with us… we’re on this journey together.

Summer of Mercy video series - Week 9

Fr. Michael Gaitley's Divine Mercy: The Second Greatest Story Ever Told

Episode 9:  Mary’s Knight
From the Augustine Institute:  In the mix of people and events surrounding the Second Greatest Story Ever Told, one man emerges for his instrumental role in conquering Polish hearts for Mary Immaculate, including the heart of Pope St. John Paul II.

Episode 10:  The Final Question
From the Augustine Institute:  The historical reality of the Second Greatest Story Ever Told includes every one of us—if we’re willing to enter the story. Father Gaitley concludes the series with inspirational and practical tips to show us how.

This week our journey through this Divine Mercy series comes to a conclusion.  Fr. Gaitley takes us through the devotion's final journey to acceptance... but now what?  Fr. Gaitley tells us how we can practice Divine Mercy.

For those of you who may have missed some or all of this series, we will be showing it again later this Fall... watch this space for details. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

The battle between good and evil.  Today’s society has, to a certain extent, marginalized evil.  Yes, those things that are truly horrendous are recognized as evil, but we’ve grown somewhat complacent to how some lesser evils can lead one in the wrong direction.  Our readings this week try to stir things up to point us in the right direction:

Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10
Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18
Hebrews 12:1-4
Luke 12:49-53

Our first reading is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, as we may remember, is that great prophet who foresaw and witnessed the beginning of the end for Jerusalem.  Our passage this Sunday takes place shortly before the fall.  King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah (placed there by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar himself) has always had difficulty with the aristocracy of Jerusalem.  Here the “princes of Jerusalem” are tired of Jeremiah’s continuing cries against them and his predictions of the ruin of Jerusalem.  Zedekiah is put between a rock and a hard spot, so in a move similar to how Pontus Pilot dealt with his troublesome prophet, told the princes to deal with him themselves.  So, they have him thrown down into a muddy cistern… a dry well.  One of the court officials, Ebed-melech, sees this and tells the king.  Zedekiah promptly tells him to have Jeremiah drawn out of the cistern, because even for all the trouble he’s caused, Zedekiah fears what might happen should the prophet of the Lord die on his watch.  Our Psalm echoes what we could imagine to be Jeremiah’s prayer while down in that well, “Lord, come to my aid.”

Our gospel is a continuation of our gospel last week from Luke.  Jesus has just given his disciples instructions on how to be vigilant and faithful servants, but now he’s telling them that he has “come to set the world on fire,” declaring that families will be divided.  Wait, what?  Did we hear that right?  Is this the same Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek?  Jesus says he’s not here to bring peace, but instead to bring division and discord.  Strong words from the “prince of peace.”  What’s going on here?

This is a passage where we need to take a step back, pause, and pray.  There is much more going on below the surface with this passage.  Among other things, Jesus is fighting against the status quo, and the only way to fight this kind of complacency is to stir things up.  Jesus did come to create discord… to be that agent of change.  The “baptism of fire” he talks about is a reference to his coming death on the cross.  The task before his disciples is to join him in becoming those agents of change… to shake the people from their complacency and rebuild a relationship with God.  Jesus needs his disciples to understand that this mission is much more than a fight against the Sanhedrin or the Romans, it’s a fight between good and evil.

So how do we win against evil?  Perhaps our second reading holds the key.  Continuing our study of the letter to the Hebrews, the author teaches that we should rid ourselves of every burden, and keep “our eyes fixed on Jesus.”  If the power of God can help Jesus from death to resurrection, then consider how he can help us through our struggles.

Final thoughts:
The discord Jesus is talking about is that necessary disturbance to wake us from our complacency, like an alarm clock for our salvation.  Evil and darkness are real, but it doesn’t necessarily show itself right away.  Evil’s gasp is slow and seductive and methodical.  It starts with all good intention, or at least good excuses, but if left unchecked, not recognizing it in time, we could find ourselves in a place where it seems too late to turn back.  How do we fight this?  By “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.”  If there’s one thing our experience of the Gospel teaches, is that there’s always a chance to turn back to God.

Summer of Mercy video series - Week 8

The feature film:  Unbroken  (2014, 2 hr 17 min)

About the story:
Louie Zamperini was born January 26, 1917 in Olean, New York to Italian immigrant parents.  The family moved to Torrance, California in 1919, and attended Torrance High School where we became a star distance runner.  His performance on the track won him a place on the 1936 US Olympic Team, making him the youngest American to qualify for the 5000 meters at the age of 19.  After the Olympics he attended USC, setting a collegiate record in the mile run that stood for 15 years, earning him the nickname “Torrance Tornado.”

In 1941 Louie enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and was eventually sent to the Pacific as a bombardier.  While on a search-and-rescue mission in 1943 his plane developed mechanical problems and crashed into the Pacific.  He and two others survived the crash, but were stranded at sea for 47 days until they were picked-up by the Japanese Navy.  He spent the remainder of the war as POW, regularly subjected to beatings and other abuses.

After the war he was liberated from the POW camp and returned to his family, eventually getting married to Cynthia Applewhite in 1946 and giving him a daughter and a son.  His return also brought severe post traumatic stress, but he eventually found relief in 1949 when his wife encouraged him to attend one of Billy Graham’s Crusades.  This experience reminded him of his commitment to his faith through which he found the strength to forgive his captors.  During the years after the war he made efforts to visit many of the guards to offer his forgiveness in person, except for Watanabe, who refused to see him.  He ran a leg of the Olympic Torch relay during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, running near the same area where he was once imprisoned.

About the film:
The film is a true story based on the 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.  Released in 2014, the film was directed and co-produced by Angelina Jolie.  Universal Studios distributed the film, which had held the rights to Zamperini’s story since the late 1950’s, and purchased the book rights in 2011.  The film was a commercial success for a lower budget feature, but drew mixed reviews from the critics.  Still, it was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, and selected as one of the top 10 films of 2014 by the American Film Institute.  Much of criticism dealt with what was not shown in the film, primarily, his troubles after the war and how rededicating his life to Christ allowed him to forgive his captors.  Still, the film stands a testament to Louie’s unbreakable spirit, even in the midst of the atrocities of war and the severe mistreatment of prisoners of war.  Louie’s life is also a testament to the power of forgiveness, and how mercy can bring even greater grace.

Film starts at 7:00 pm in the Religious Education Center

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Faithful servants.  This is what we are called to be as Christians, but do we fully understand what this means?  Our readings for this 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time explores both what it means to be faithful, and to be a servant:

Wisdom 18:6-9
Psalm 33, 1, 12, 18-19, 20-22
Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 or 11:1-2, 8-12
Luke 12:32-48 or 12:35-40

Our first reading is a short passage from the book of Wisdom.  As always when we read from the book of Wisdom, it’s helpful to remember that for Jesus and the Apostles, this was a contemporary work, having been written only some 50 years before Christ.  It was also popular because it comes from a people who were being persecuted… the Jews of Alexandria in the final throws of the Seleucid Empire, expressing feelings that the Jews of Jerusalem likely felt under the Romans.  In our short passage this week, we are reminded of the Exodus story… how those who trusted in the Lord celebrated the Passover and were delivered to freedom.  Not only had these people dedicated themselves to God, but God had dedicated himself to them.  A covenant was being born, and our Psalm rejoices by singing “blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.”

Our Gospel also reminds us of this Passover covenant.  Like Moses promising that God would deliver them, here Jesus reminds his small band of followers that God is pleased to give them the kingdom.  But as he tells them this, he also reminds them that they must be vigilant servants.  They have been left to care for their master’s property, but they should be prepared at any time for their master’s return.  In other words, they should never grow complacent.  They should always be prepared.  While the shorter version of this gospel gives us plenty to consider, the longer version has Peter questioning Jesus, wanting to know if this parable is meant for everyone or just for them (he and the rest of the 12).  Jesus continues the parable reference by teaching them about the “prudent steward” whom the master has put in charge of his servants.  This part of the parable is clearly pointed at the Apostles, as Jesus reminds them that they will be held responsible for how they care for the master’s servants.  In other words, given their position of authority, they have that much more to lose if they are unfaithful in their task.

Our second reading begins a four week study of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Perhaps one of the more important observations of this letter is that though it is in the Pauline style, it is not attributed to Paul himself.  Still, the lessons being express are just as important.  Here we are reminded that “faith is the realization of what is hoped for .”  In other words, by putting our trust in God, we can trust that what God promises will be fulfilled.  To reinforce his point, the author reminds us of the story of Abraham, who time after time, against all odds, is shown that his faith in the Lord is justified… that the Lord has delivered what was promised.

Final thoughts:

What does it mean to be a faithful servant?  When Jesus taught, he had an amazing way of connecting the lessons of his teachings to everyday life.  Unfortunately, most of us today don't have any experience living as a servant, or of having servants.  The days of Downtown Abbey are well past us, and while our day-to-day jobs might feel like a form of service, for the most part it’s not the same as having to devote one’s entire self to the lord of the manner and the care of his property.

It would be easy for us to think that being a faithful servant to Christ was the realm of the clergy and committed religious brothers and sisters, but we would be wrong.  Being a Christian is not a part time job on Sundays and special occasions… it is a full time commitment for all of us, every day.  Being a faithful servant can take many forms.  So long as we commit to loving God and loving our neighbor, we can be assured our hope for salvation will be fulfilled.

Summer of Mercy video series - Week 7

Fr. Michael Gaitley's Divine Mercy:  The Second Greatest Story Ever Told
Episode 7:  The Secret of Divine MercyFrom the Augustine Institute:  In a certain sense, God’s School of Trust culminates in Blessings from blood, victory through suffering, designs of mercy amidst desperate situations, such are God’s hidden ways of mercy, ways that triumph over evil.
Episode 8:  God’s Master PlanFrom the Augustine Institute:  Through Pope St. John Paul II and the triumph he helps inaugurate, God reveals a beautiful plan that amazes and blesses the whole world.
Our most recent episodes have shown us all the different lives that were involved in revealing God's Divine Mercy to us... from St. Therese, to St. Faustina, to St. John Paul II.  But what does it all mean?  In this Thursday's episodes we begin to look deeper at this devotion and what it really means, to us personally and to the entire world.