28TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME 2017

Does it happen to you, as it does to me, that, as you look back over your past life, you see that certain encounters, happenings, statements stand out as having had an enduring influence on your own thinking, your values and behavior? As I settled on a theme for this homily and was struggling to compose the introductory words, I experienced just such a recollection, something that I had not consciously thought about in many years.

This is what it was: some 40 years ago, I was being treated by a chiropractor in northern New Jersey, a good Christian man, not a Catholic but a younger than middle age married man with several children. On one of my visits, in a moment of confidence, he told me that his practice was booming; he had so many patients that he could hardly keep up with the demand. (Among them, by the way, were two priest friends of mine, both of whom were absolutely convinced that the man was a healer who, more than anyone else, had helped to make them well enough to resume their recreational athletics.)

But, in that conversation, that my memory has held onto all these years, the chiropractor told me that a few years into his practice he had, as he put it, made a pact with Jesus that he would never turn anyone away who could not afford even the modest price of a treatment. And so, he said, he knew almost nothing about the finances of the practice, which he left completely to his office staff.

At the other end of the pact, he said, was Jesus, who, he was certain, was assuring him, “You take care of the poor that come to you, and I’ll take care of you.” And that’s the way it’s gone ever since, he told me. “I’m a wealthy man,” he said, “although it’s never been my goal to be that.”

Now, if I had heard that story from someone else, I’d be suspicious and even doubtful, because it sounded like the magic of the fundamentalist Christianity that I despise – “Send in your generous donation and within 9 days your petition will be miraculously granted…”

But my brain has preserved the memory of the chiropractor’s confession of faith for more than four decades. I know that it frequently sheds its light on the process of my personal decision-making. This makes me think that I saw something in it that was important for me to hang on to and to share with others, as I have just shared it with you.

The important point I see it illustrating is this: our religion should not be allowed to remain merely academic or intellectual or a matter of ritual. It has to be intensely personal, a relationship between the living Jesus Christ and ourselves. Prayer should be a kind of on-going conversation between us and him. A real Christian cultivates an awareness of the presence of the risen Jesus in his or her daily life and communes with him.

In the second reading, St. Paul, who suffered cruel imprisonment, brutal physical torture, and virtually every hardship the human being can experience, ends up by assuring us that God will supply whatever we need through Jesus.

So, unlike the ungrateful, unresponsive invited guests in Jesus’ parable about a king’s wedding reception for his son, we must not ignore the offer of Jesus to take part in our lives in a minute-by-minute working relationship that can only enrich us in every conceivable way.

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27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

For the many years that Deacon Joe and I have been presiding at the Sunday Radio Mass, I send him to the lectern, the reading stand, to proclaim the Gospel passage for the day by placing my hands on his shoulders and saying, “Joe, may the Spirit of God lead you as you announce to us the Good News of Jesus”.

Like most things that we do and say routinely, I haven’t questioned that ritual; I just know that it is truthful and that Joe accepts the blessing with sincerity and deep faith. I know that his prayer is that all his hearers, present here in the hospital chapel and wherever else throughout the world they may be, will open their minds and hearts as eagerly as they can to welcome and then to ponder what they have heard.

But lately I’ve been wondering if there are persons here or out there who actually want and expect that something will be said that will give them the light, the assurance, the peace that they crave and have not yet found. That’s what “good news” means! It’s the words that “command” our poverty — in whatever way we are poor — to leave us and then to lift us to new heights of joy!

That welcoming of the Good News is like the experience of a person condemned to death awaiting the court’s decision on an appeal — and living to hear that the death sentence has been overturned!

You know what that’s like from your own life: your missing child found alive and uninjured, the diagnosis that you are cancer-free, that warm letter sent by a person you’ve been estranged from for years, and so on.

As Christians we believe that not only Jesus’ encouraging words, but his very life — especially his death and resurrection — is the Good News that changes our lives for the better always. The ultimate cause of all our worries and fears and sadness and depression is our inescapable awareness that we are on our way to death — every one of us without exception. And the Good News is that on the other side of death is happy life such as no human being has ever experienced it in this earthly existence!

Again, that’s the Good News that Jesus brings and the Good News that he is!

No, we can’t prove it in any empirical or scientific way; that’s why we speak of it as a matter of faith. We choose to believe it especially on the testimony of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.

The recent storms and hurricanes and earthquakes have given us here in the northeastern United States of America new reason to be grateful for our material blessings. We know ourselves, maybe more clearly than ever before, to be rich. But that’s why we can also be partly or totally deaf or indifferent to the Gospel as Good News. “Sitting pretty” as we are, who needs “Good News”?

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Because the rich die also. Because the richest among us can be at the same time the poorest with regard to relationships and love and beauty that alone can bring joy to their hearts.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we have our hands on each other’s shoulders and we are saying, “May the Spirit lead you to hear with enthusiasm and to pass on the Good News of Jesus!”

26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME 2017

Every time I read a Gospel passage that contains one of Jesus’ scathing references to tax collectors, lumping them, as he does, with public sinners, I wonder if there are any in the congregation I’m speaking to and how they must be reacting. What they have to know is that Jesus lived in a country occupied by the Romans, who employed Jews to collect taxes by strong arming their own people. He wasn’t condemning taxation per se; he was condemning the collaboration of his fellow Jews with the Roman government and getting paid for it.

Well, that said, let’s shift gears and consider what makes a good Eucharistic celebration, a good Mass. On the one hand, a good liturgy can mean a beautiful setting, inspiring music, a meaningful homily, the devout service of many ministers, the reverent participation of an enthusiastic congregation, and so on.

On the other hand, a good liturgy may be said to have taken place when, not too long after its conclusion, the participants feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, and welcome the homeless. In other words, when ritual devotion is followed by charitable action.

I think good liturgy always includes both; but, if we had to make a choice between the two, I believe it would have to be the latter: a really good liturgy is one that goes beyond words and sends all the participants, all the yes-sayers, into effective action among the needy and the poor — starting with members of their own households!

The first son in Jesus’ story today had the words right – Yes, Dad, I’ll do what you asked me to do. But the yes didn’t get translated into action. The second son, for whatever reason, said the wrong words but finally did the right thing, as his heart and mind directed. The danger we constantly run is not so much that we’ll at first say the wrong thing, but that we’ll be satisfied at having responded to God perfectly in word – and then leaving it at that.

However, neither should we make the mistake of running from church and trying to implement everything we’ve expressed or assented to there. The late, brilliant, contemporary theologian Monica Hellwig used to caution us that, while we can be radical in all our thinking, it is simply not possible for us to be radical in all our actions. The noble words and thoughts inevitably outnumber the deeds. But it is absolutely essential that we do something with and after every liturgy that gives flesh & blood reality to our firm statements of faith and our bold pledges of charity. If this is not generally the case, we have reason to question how sincere and truthful our praying and our worshiping have been.

In this connection, I remember a very touching story – fictional or factual, I still don’t know. At a party, a famous actor was asked by an elderly gentleman to recite the 23rd Psalm for the guests. The actor agreed, but only on condition that the old man would follow him with the same recitation. The actor began, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” and continued in such an awesome fashion that at the end of the piece the people rose to their feet in thunderous applause.

“Now it’s your turn,” the actor said, as he turned to the old man. In a creaky voice and with none of the orator’s skills, he recited the Psalm. When he was finished, there was not a sound in the room, only stillness and tears. The actor broke the silence as he said, “I know the Psalm – this man knows the shepherd.”

25TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Let’s start with the last reading, Jesus’ story as told by St. Matthew and that we just heard. I think no one would deny that the agreement between the boss and the workers is logical. It’s honest and just. They agreed to be paid a certain amount of money for a decided-upon number of hours of labor. And both they and the boss kept their word at the end of the day. No problem there.

But, enter the latecomers, who began to work pretty near closing time. For whatever personal reason, the boss decides to pay them the same as he was paying those who worked much longer hours . All emotional feelings aside, who can say that the “early birds” were being in any way cheated? Really no one.

On the surface of the issue, it does seem at first that the charge of unfairness can be defended; but deeper analysis reveals that, strictly speaking, the boss’s generosity to those who were hired late in the day has nothing to do with what he owed those those who had worked longer.

(I must, though, add parenthetically that this is no way to foster peace and harmony among the workers!)

It was decades ago that I began to suspect that Jesus was deliberately trying to upset his hearers, both those in his own day and us today, as a way of making us all think more deeply about life. And I have developed that line of thought into four possibilities of what he had in mind and intention:

That whether life has been kind or cruel to us, we are fortunate to have lived at all, because life is ultimately beautiful and unending beyond our deaths.

2. That we are not created to live in isolation — unnoticed, unwanted, and unrelated to others; no, we are called by the God of Life into relationship with God and our fellow humans, from which we are destined to gain a share in the eternal life of God.

3. That however competitive our progress in the present world must be, there should be no competition among the people of God. All are beneficiaries of God’s boundless mercy and love.

4. That God does not give us merely what is our due: God goes far beyond that always, gifting us with wild generosity and forgetting our offenses. There are no rules or restraints, no limits to God’s love, no conditions.

It seems to me that this Gospel story is aimed at our tidiness, our self-assured sense of justice, having all the “ducks” of our life in neat little rows. We are the ones who impose limits and all kinds of regulations which are perceived as putting us in good favor with God. But the truth is that God’s love is unmeasured and unchained. We have only to receive it with gratitude and joy and pass it on generously and forgivingly to others.

Jesus, with attractive stories like this one today, is coaxing us into a more reckless way of life patterned after the life of the one he called Father. He says, over and over again, “Just live, do good, be kind and generous and forgiving — and let happen what happens.”

The simple truth is that God will happen!

24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

I think that there must be as many mental images of the unseen God as there are human beings who have such thoughts. There is one attribute that ought to be common to all, but actually is not, namely, that God is always forgiving. My good mother, faithful Catholic that she was, was never convinced that God is unconditionally forgiving. She lived in fear of divine punishment.

Her image of a vengeful, punishing God had everything to do with her having been raised by a very strict father who constantly lectured his 9 children about the evil of sin and the certainty of severe punishment by God. She paid dearly for what had been done to her, mostly in mental breakdowns that were always preceded by multiple confessions of imaginary sins.

How are we to understand the threatening, vindictive statements we read in the Bible when we know that, in his parables, like the one we heard in the gospel today, Jesus described God as unconditionally forgiving?

I have long thought that many Christians prefer to hold on to ideas of a God who curses sinners. That has been confirmed for me many times by the comments of a few hearers after I have spoken about the boundless mercy of a compassionate God. They say things like, “But that’s not fair. Unrepentant sinners should be punished just as the good should be rewarded. God has to be just.”

And I answer, “By whose standards? True, it seems necessary for us humans to punish – and many think even to kill – for the sake of order in society. But what makes it inevitable that God should act in the same way? Didn’t Jesus refer to the difference between human reasoning and the mind of God? Don’t the scriptures say that God’s ways are infinitely above human ways?”

Since no one sees God as we see each other, how we imagine God is for us to decide. I don’t mean, of course, a physical image, which most people, you can be sure, do have — invariably an elderly male. Movie makers have helped to perpetuate that childish myth. No, I mean more what we think God is and what God does, God’s presence in this fantastic universe we occupy. And to make progress in that direction, we have to shift from imagination to intelligence, from emotion to reason — and be satisfied with not much of a picture at all.

I suppose the best we can do is to understand that God is the Creative Spirit present in everyone and everything in the entire universe. That the Spirit does not observe and judge and decide from a heaven beyond the universe, but rather experiences its life from within its every detail – including every moment of your life and mine.

A question that may be on many minds today is, “Why did God not prevent the disaster of the recent destructive hurricanes?” My answer is that the Creative Spirit experienced the hurricane as the Spirit experienced World War II and the crucifixion of Jesus and the Big Bang and your sins and mine…

And because of that abiding presence, people of faith go on, still hoping and believing in a happy eternal future. When people say that it was their faith that got them through this or that crisis or tragedy, what they are saying is that it was the presence of the Spirit of God and their awareness of that presence that gave them the strength and the will to continue.

There is no God who either causes or prevents anything that happens to us, good or bad; but there is a God, the Creative Spirit, who lives within and among us, enabling us to stay the course when the going is difficult and exhausting.

23RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, 2017

In a paint store within the parish I served in the 80s and 90s, I saw one day a posted letter written in a child’s studied hand. It read, “Dear Mr. R. I broke your garage window with a baseball. I’m sorry. I’ll come to see you tomorrow.” It was signed with the 8-year-old’s name.

Intrigued by the well-written letter, and especially by its contents, I inquired about it. “Mr. R.” told me he had found the note slipped under his door on a Sunday and that, as promised, on Monday the young child came to see him and face the issue. The owner told me that he said to the child, “I know from your note what a good boy you must be. So I’m going to make a deal with you. If you promise me that you and your friends will not play near the garage anymore, and if you keep that promise, I will never ask you to pay for the new window. If you don’t, I will demand that you make regular payments until that expensive window is completely paid for.” I checked several times over the following months and learned that the boy and his friends never violated the agreement.

To me, that is an example of what I call “creative mercy” or “creative reconciliation.” It goes beyond simply forgiving; it’s a pact forged in generosity of spirit and in giving a chance for new life. And not just a chance for a reconstructed life, but also the means to build that life.

How extraordinary that is: that the one who is offended becomes the one who lifts up the offender! Who can act that way? It is really an example of “Kingdom Behavior”, a way of acting that is simply not usual or typically human. It’s a kind of behavior about which observers are inclined to say, “But people just don’t act that way!” And yet it’s behavior that would be ordinary, commonplace, if everyone were living in commitment to the Kingdom of God established on earth by the Gospel of Jesus.

How can we not think in this connection of the Amish people of Pennsylvania, 11 years ago, who cared tenderly for the family of the man who had just shot to death their 5 little school girls? Does anyone know of a more striking, compelling example of what Jesus means when he is talking about forgiveness? I don’t.

Jesus says, if you really want to be my disciple, my follower, you have got to be willing to go to anyone who has hurt you with a heart full of forgiveness and good wishes for his or her future.

Imagine what life for all of us could be if we could think and act that way consistently!

This is an aspect of Christian love that requires more & more of our attention — that we forgive quickly, easily, completely, with a genuine concern for the one who hurts us, a challenge that is central in the gospel of Jesus.

22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

When I was 22 years old, a senior in college, I finally decided that I would study for the priesthood. My father expressed reservations about my plans and said much about my having led a rather sheltered life. He suggested that I take some time off for a long trip to see the world or for a work experience or anything that would have the effect of maturing me in the ways of the world and the realities of life. I remember understanding his point of view while at the same time being very sure that this was the thing for me to do and that now was the time to do it.

My father was motivated, in giving me that advice, by the desire to help me avoid making a mistake in a matter of importance — my future. More than that, I believe he thought of the priesthood as a life of personal denial and lack of freedom that, although entered with romantic idealism, could eventually leave me regretful and unhappy. He was doing his job as a parent to protect the oldest of his children from harm.

It seems to me that Peter was acting like a protective parent toward the young Jesus in the incident we heard proclaimed today. Along with Jesus’ other disciples and apostles, Peter had an idea of what being the Messiah meant, and he was absolutely certain that it could not possibly involve suffering and death. How could it? Messiah is savior, conqueror of evil forces, bringer of life. “Suffering Messiah” is a contradiction in terms.

All Jesus’ many references and predictions concerning future suffering for him and his followers escaped their comprehension. As we’d say today, “They just didn’t get it.” Eventually, but only when they experienced it themselves, they did learn that there’s an inevitable price attached to being Messiah — and to following Messiah.

And so must we learn the same.

It is misplaced kindness to discourage those we love from what the Spirit of God is moving them to do when we think we see more clearly than they do that there are sufferings ahead. It is the right thing to do, instead, to discern with them what they are probably facing and to encourage them to trust that, if they believe that this is really what God wants them to do, then God will provide for every future conflict and difficulty.

Just being a faithful Catholic is going to involve pain and suffering.

We all run the risk of being called extremists and fundamentalists if we speak and act boldly when we feel that our government or society itself is taking the wrong stand in a moral issue of our day.

To resist the madness of out-of-control-consumerism can mark us as hopelessly out of step with our fast-paced society.

To belong to one political party or another and oppose, on grounds of Gospel principles, some of what it stands for takes courage and firm commitment.

We don’t need, any more than Jesus did, to be talked out of our moral principles; we don’t need to be saved from hurt or loss. We need to encourage each other to consider prayerfully his mind and heart and to act accordingly, certain only that at precisely the right time support and confirmation will be given us — as it was given to him.