19TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

The symbolism in this Gospel passage leaps out at us. The boat is the church; the persons in it are the members of the church, including you and me; the darkness and the rough waters are the troubles that make life sometimes so hard for us. Jesus is both with the occupants and not with them: he is far away and yet prays for them and then takes action to save them in the crisis that ensues. Their faith in Jesus is still mixed with fear and doubt, not fully confirmed yet.

It’s so clear that the whole story is a description of who and what we are today: a people called into a community of faith, responding to the one who is forming us — and at the same time experiencing fears and doubts and always having to struggle against the inadequacy of our faith.

As Matthew’s Gospel unfolds, it makes several statements of faith in Jesus recognized as the long-awaited Messiah. In this connection, I think first of the words attributed to Peter at the foot of Jesus’ cross: “Truly this was the Son of God!” Matthew is thereby letting us know that, even to persons for whom belief in Jesus would seem to be impossible, the gift of recognition and belief is given, so convincing is the evidence of Jesus’ life, what he taught, and what he did.

We are among those fortunate recipients. Our lives include occasional storms and scary darkness. For example, who can know for sure whether a cancer will disappear or linger and deliver a deadly blow? No one. At such a time, we wait in darkness and fear. The helplessness and hopelessness of the poor, the terror of war-torn countries, the anxieties of the abused and the unloved — how natural, how perfectly understandable that when we human beings are afflicted we respond first in fear and doubt. God then seems as far away as Jesus was from that threatened boat.

I was 7 years old when my 2-year-old sister was apparently dying from whooping cough. My father was called home from his place of business — I can still see his white shirt and Navy blue tie as he clutched me and my 4-year-old brother and said, “Dear God, please make my little daughter well. We love her so much.” He led us in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Never before, and never since, until he himself died, did we ever pray that way at any other time. But I learned from it what it meant to feel helpless and hopeless and to trust in the saving presence of God and the compassionate Jesus.

The response to our prayer cannot always be what we want it to be — or what God wants it to be! But when we are disappointed in that way, God and Jesus provide us with strength and wisdom and new hope to move on to calmer seas and brighter skies.

TRANSFIGURATION, 2017

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A priest in my home diocese was assigned many years ago to the church in which I was pastor. Everyone loved him for his natural goodness, his humility, his generosity. To this day, I respect him highly and think of him as a good and loving priest after the heart of Jesus. When he became a pastor himself many years later, the bishop sent him a young priest assistant. However, that young man was ultra-conservative and from his very first day there was troubled by what he was seeing and hearing in the pastor’s theology and ministry.

At one Sunday Mass, at which my friend was presiding and preaching, the assistant barged into the sanctuary, raised his hands and shouted to the congregation, “Don’t listen to this man! He is not giving you the Gospel of Jesus; he is giving you his own gospel, his own opinions, and you must not accept them!”

Of course, that very week the young priest was removed from the parish, and what has happened to him since I do not know in detail.

But why, you may be thinking right now, am I beginning today’s homily in such a way? The answer is simple: every Monday or Tuesday, as I begin the long and difficult process of writing a meaningful homily for the coming Sunday, if the readings contain something like what we heard just minutes ago (in this case, Jesus lighting up like a neon sign), I agonize over how to speak of it. Aware that different minds in the congregation react very differently, I wonder how I can reach everybody with an interpretation that all can accept.

If I answered, “That’s not possible,” I would be forced to say nothing — just let it pass without comment as though it had been heard by no one.

So, for all the years that I have been with you, I have tried my best to speak to you in carefully measured words, giving you, each time we have been together, just enough to think about as you try to understand these ancient writings through 21st century eyes and ears.

And that is necessary because with the passage of 3000 years we humans now know that God doesn’t cause rain by sending angels to open the portals that will allow the waters above the earth to irrigate our fields and fill our reservoirs. But that totally unscientific idea — and hundreds of others like it — are part of what you find in the bible.

The writing of the Sacred Scriptures is a never-ending process. It is going on even as we speak. What we call the Word of God is not forever fixed and static; it is a living masterpiece that is carried from generation to generation, century to century, and requires constant updating. Its many languages, so long unspoken, have to be better understood; its understanding of the universe has to be brought up to date; the bits of historical data it contains must be constantly checked and double checked to certify their accuracy.

You and I may not be literary scholars or scientists or trained theologians; but we possess common sense enough to at least suspect that what is passed on as objective truth may indeed at times not be that at all. The message the Scriptures contain is infallible; the literary device that carries it is not.

Now that I have used up every minute allotted for this homily and have said nothing about the Gospel passage for today, but have chosen to speak instead of what underlies it, let me conclude by assuring you, as best I can, that there is profound meaning for each of us in that passage that would render us the poorer if we were to miss it; and it is this: the Transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain top is far more about us than about Jesus. It tells us that we must seek and allow a change in us, not in him, in order that we might recognize him beyond his humanity that was obvious to anyone and to recognize, to see clearly and appreciate, that he is the perfect image of the invisible God and, therefore, that to know him is to know God!

17TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

It’s quite obvious that most of the praying done by us Christians is prayer of petition – asking God to grant favors or work miracles or support us in our plans. That’s quite natural: we are always in need of more than we think we can accomplish on our own and so we appeal to God, as pagans appeal to the forces of nature or to their invented gods, or as others resort to lucky charms and superstitious practices. It can’t be wrong to ask God to act on our behalf: the history of the human race’s relationship with God is filled with such requests. Even Jesus left us, his followers, an asking prayer, the “Our Father,” as we call it and which we’ll be saying again together in just a few minutes.

However, while recognizing the legitimate place of petitionary prayer in the life of a Christian, we must emphasize that its most perfect expression is what we find in that beautiful prayer of King Solomon, which we just heard in the excerpt from the Hebrew Book of Kings. Solomon asked but one favor of God, and that was the power to know always what would be the right thing to do in order to serve the people well and to please God. Solomon was overwhelmed by the enormity and the complexity of the kingly office he had inherited from his father, King David, and saw himself as too young, too inexperienced, too lacking in knowledge to rule wisely. And so he begged, not for personal riches or for victory in battle or even for a long and healthy life, but for wisdom and understanding so that he could rule with justice and compassion. To this day he is honored for that remarkable goodness of character.

Have you ever been told by someone that he or she has prayed for you for a long time? I have, often. I remember that, when I reported for my 20-year assignment as pastor at St. Brendan’s in Clifton 39 years ago, among the lovely greetings of welcome I received was that of a woman who told me that she had prayed for me every day of the previous eleven years, ever since the day we first met. I can’t tell you, as I couldn’t tell her way back then, how much that meant to me. Many times since, I’ve wondered how much of the strength and wisdom that job demanded came through the caring prayers of people like her.

Was it Plato or Aristotle or some other Greek (I can never keep those sages straight) who said that we do not achieve wisdom until we reach the age of 50? But we pray, and others pray for us, and we ask the Spirit of God within us to guide us in the way of wisdom even before we have attained it sufficiently ourselves. We ask to be able to interpret the events of our life more objectively, freer of personal prejudice. We ask to understand the meaning and eventual purpose of everything we experience. We ask to remain confident, patient, peaceful, especially in times of great personal stress and bewilderment, in times of sorrow and fear and disappointment. Prayers like these are answered always – but we have to trust enough to voice them.

The Gospel passage today is about the Kingdom of God – hidden among and within us, found by persons of faith — the Kingdom about which Jesus said, Seek it first and everything else will be given to you. How do we pray? What do we ask for? The Kingdom of God is recognized wherever there are justice and mercy and kindness and forgiveness and peace and patience and love. Our prayer should always reflect those concerns above all others. Jesus assures us that every particular need of our own complicated lives will be provided if we ask first for wisdom and understanding as the underpinnings of justice and love.

15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

You may recall that last Sunday the homily theme was the optimistic spirit that is rooted in our Christian faith. When I began preparing today’s homily early this past week, my mind was drawn to an extension of the same theme when I read these words in the first scripture reading: “(My word) shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it…it shall not return to me empty…”

We know now that the “word” is a person, Jesus, who lives among us to carry out God’s plan for the reconstruction of our world. We can be certain that the Anointed One – Jesus – will not fail, no matter how dark and hopeless things may appear at times.

Who has never wondered how the world and the human race will end up? Big question – and one that preachers are fond of treating with sweeping pronouncements about either doom or eternal glory.

We all need a frame of reference to make sense of what often appears to be a senseless and self-destructive world; the daily paper and the TV newscasts can be relentlessly depressing. “What’s happening to us?” we ask. Some answer that we are destroying the planet. Others say we are in the process of killing each other off. I have heard the judgment that civilization is actually regressing despite the obvious progress of technology.

But back to that ancient proclamation: my word shall do my will, achieve the appointed end, and not return to me empty.

We heard St. Paul say today that the world will ultimately be freed of its slavery to corruption, that the upheavals of the present time can’t begin to compare with the perfect order that lies ahead, and that the turmoil we are witnessing is in part a kind of labor pains of a new world’s birth.

I think you have to know Jesus pretty well to be able to orient your life around such optimism – or else you have to be a Pollyanna.

But how can it possibly happen, this final victory of life and love? As I see it, today’s Gospel contains the answer. Most of the seed, Jesus tells us, falls on hostile, uncongenial soil and adds nothing of value to the life of the earth. But some seed falls on good ground, not only managing to survive, but multiplying itself in enormous proportions.

And that’s how it will happen – how it is happening now. The word of God doesn’t depend on impressive numbers; it produces numbers. Its goodness takes root and grows constantly in power and effectiveness. That growth is not always immediately obvious; sometimes it seems to have been snuffed out until, like the stubborn blade of grass in a concrete crack, it surfaces again, bearing the new seeds of its own future!

We’re supposed to let that conviction show in our lives by our basic optimism, our open love of life, our attitude toward suffering and setback, our willingness to risk what we have and share what we own, our prayers of praise and gratitude, our belief that the smallest good we do or say or think contributes mightily to the rebirth of the whole human race.

That word in good people of any or of no faith will not return empty to the one he called Father. He will ultimately achieve the purpose for which he lives within and among us. Much seed is germinating in good soil even as we speak.

Look around you! Even better: look within you!

Beach Mass

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We will have our first-of-the-year Beach Mass on Saturday, July 22, 5:30 p.m.

Directions: South on Route 35 through Point Pleasant to the traffic light at Kittiwake Avenue in Lavallette. Turn left, proceed through next traffic light and go one more block to the beach road (Seacrest Drive). Turn right, proceed past 7 beachfront houses to the beach ramp. Mass is at the top of the ramp. Parking can be difficult. Space may be available at Dick Rento’s house, 33 Murray Lane. Bring a beach chair.

14TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, 2017

A man by the undistinguished name of Robert Kent, who had worked for the same company for 33 years, was given several years ago a grand dinner party upon his retirement. At that celebration, several of his co-workers noted that what they loved and admired most about him was his optimism. In an article in a Connecticut newspaper he wrote, “If indeed I am optimistic, I got to wondering where that sense of optimism came from.”

After noting that the firm had gone through some very difficult times, he went on to say, “I finally concluded that whatever sense of optimism I have comes from my Christian faith. Christianity, at least as I understand it, is rooted in optimism. We are optimistic that God is with us and loves us; we are optimistic about life after death; and we are optimistic that God will be with us in good times and in bad. It seems to me that having a life based in faith leads to an optimistic attitude. Without faith, I don’t know how anyone can be optimistic. One of the reasons I like to go to church is that I meet the most wonderful people there. By and large, they are optimistic and caring people, filled with love and concern for their fellow humans. Each Sunday our faith and optimism are renewed through our liturgy…”

It was the enthusiastic exhortation of this Sunday’s first reading, those few lines from the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, that inspired this homiletic approach and the following commentary.

We celebrate Mass every Sunday not to make installments on a spiritual insurance policy, not to beg God to forgive our sins and wrong-doing, and not because we are required by Church law to do so.

No, Sunday Mass is is simply our time-honored way of thanking God for what we are and what we have, of being renewed & strengthened for the next lap of our earthly journey, and, as St. Augustine so well put it, of receiving more of what we already are.

But what are we? We are the body of Christ in the world of our time & place. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.”

When we receive Holy Communion, it is not to be understood as reward for good behavior; it is not essentially an act of adoration we are performing. We are receiving into our hearts, minds, and entire lives more of what we already are – nothing less than the body of Christ! We receive his person, his Spirit.

The question arises then: What does my being the presence of Christ demand of me, do for me? It demands of us that we act in all circumstances as he would have us act. It requires us to be open to the direction and empowerment of the same Spirit that directed and empowered Jesus.

Think about that, please. Let it obsess you. Can you imagine how peaceful, how loving, how beautiful our homes and our lives would be if we were increasingly acting according to his example?

Let’s pray that a wave of change pass through our community, transforming every heart and every home precisely as needed!

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

As we all know, not very many young men and women are entering seminaries and novitiates these days to prepare for priesthood and vowed religious life. But, at the same time, other forms of service to the needy and the poor have emerged. Not very long ago I was visiting the grandfather of a beautiful young woman who had entered the Peace Corp and would spend two years as the only Westerner in a little village in Benin, East Africa. She would sleep in a mud-floored hut, eat what the natives ate, and assist especially the children and their mothers with the skills she took with her.

When I attended her departure party, I asked her about her long-term dreams, which she quickly identified as including a husband and children and a house with a white-picket fence and an SUV in the driveway! But for now, she said, this Peace Corp mission was what she had to do. Somehow she knew beyond all doubt that this was her present vocation, her call from the condition of the world at that time and her ability to respond to it in a helpful, life giving way.

When Jesus says, “Come, follow me”, he means now. It’s an invitation to a journey that may not relate directly to my vision of the future.

What does anyone get in return for following those Gospel invitations, those subtle directives from the Holy Spirit that the receiver can hardly explain to him- or herself, much less to others. At first, oftentimes, a lot of trouble: confusion, disturbance of mind, sleepless nights while trying to arrive at a yes or a no. An interruption — possibly an abandonment — of one’s most cherished plans and dreams. The discomfort of putting up with what people are thinking. Upsetting changes in one’s lifestyle.

The new life we take on in Baptism is for the most part lived out in quite ordinary circumstances, but it requires us to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the process of growing out of the natural selfishness in which we were born, and lived as infants, and into loving and caring relationships with our fellow human beings. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”

In the stark, almost harsh words in today’s gospel excerpt, Jesus is not asking us to despise or reject or betray our parents and relatives, but to make our most fundamental pledge of loyalty to him. In other words, our total, uncompromising attachment to him, to his teachings and his values and his ways, is to make possible in us a higher form of behavior and response. It is not enough that we be loyal to our race or our sex or our nationality or our church; we must discern what is the will of God for us now, at this moment, and pursue that as best we can.

We are to forgive everyone, to give to those in need, to welcome the foreigner, to shift constantly between two economies — the one by which we acquire and save and enjoy the good things of life; the other by which we risk and sometimes lose what is dear to us as we do what Jesus would do at any given moment.

That cup of cold water Jesus spoke about isn’t asking much of us at all — it’s almost nothing. But it can take many other forms of increasing value. We are to remain always alert to whose desperate thirst Jesus wants us to slake in his name and how we shall go about doing that.