Sunday, February 25, 2018

If God is For Us... (Lent 2B)

I often talk with the music teacher at St. Anthony’s School about getting me a role in a school play.  Ever since I played St. Joseph in the Christmas pageant—costumed in a cozy bathrobe that I still wear—I’ve been hoping for another chance to get on stage.

What I really hope is that the school will perform the musical Oliver!, because I’m dying to appear in this adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. As a youngster I auditioned for the role of Oliver, but the director quickly decided I looked too well-fed for the role. But in high school, I played the lovable villain Fagin with considerable success, if I do say so myself.

However, there’s no chance of my dream coming true until the copyright owners re-write the play, because the story ends with the violent murder of the heroine, Nancy.  And we can’t have the children watching that.

At least that’s the way modern thinking goes. As kids we read Grimm’s Fairy Tales—and they were certainly grim. We heard a witch threaten to eat Hansel and Gretel, a wolf threaten to eat Little Red Riding Hood, and a king threaten to cut off a girl’s head if she won’t marry the goblin Rumpelstiltskin—but somehow we survived.

Children have a way of filtering out the scary bits of familiar stories.

But today I wonder whether adults do that, too—and whether it’s a good thing when it comes to the Word of God.

I watch the faces of the congregation whenever I read the story of Abraham and Isaac, and no one ever looks shocked or appalled. Yet find me a tenser moment in the whole Old Testament than when Abraham takes up the knife. If we really listened, we’d gasp in horror.

The second reading today helps us stop and think about the meaning of the first reading—about how Abraham’s sacrifice connects to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Not only that: it helps us understand how the enormity, the awfulness, of Calvary should affect each of us in a personal way.

After hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac, we haven’t a shred of doubt that Abraham loved God more than anything in the world, even his son. We understand why he is called our father in faith, and how he is a model of obedience for all time.

But St. Paul tells us that the Crucifixion should convince us that God loved us with an incomparable love, and that this love is still being poured out on us and for us. Paul’s question says it all “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”

The translation is a bit difficult. Listen to the more flowing words in the Jerusalem Bible: “Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give.”

From my bedroom window in the seminary in Rome, I could see the front of St. Paul’s Basilica. At the very top of the church is a cross and the words “Spes unica”—the cross our “only hope.”

To be a Christ-follower means wrestling with the mystery of the cross. For some, as St. Paul says, the cross is a scandal, an obstacle; it’s as if Abraham had killed Isaac. How would we like hearing the story if that was its unhappy ending?

The fine Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge says that Jesus on the cross, atoning for our sins with his sacrificial death, will cause offense in every generation. Some make the mistake of picturing a wrathful God, condemning his innocent, victimized Son. Rutledge says “This mistake must be strenuously resisted.”

And so it must, for as she says “At the heart of the mystery of the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God is the fact that the Father’s will and the Son’s will are one. This is an action that the Father and the Son are taking together.” (The Undoing of Death, 122)

And there is the fundamental difference between the sacrifice on Mount Moriah and the sacrifice on Calvary, where Christ was both priest and victim.

A traditional way of looking at our Gospel today is that Jesus let his glory be seen in order to prepare his disciples for the scandal of the Cross—to give them a glimpse of his Resurrection so that they would not despair at his death.

For too many of us, there’s no scandal in the Cross. Like children listening to fairy tales at bedtime, we’ve heard the story so many times that it fails to engage the deeper level of our emotion or our intellect. We haven’t thought long and hard enough about all that the saving sacrifice of Jesus means and all that it reveals about God’s limitless love.

But this Sunday the Word of God leads us to an unavoidable conclusion—that there can be no terror, no condemnation, no ultimate defeat, for those for whom the Father gave up his Son.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Walking With Jesus in Lent (Lent 1.B)

I’d like to begin this homily with a simple questionnaire. Don’t worry—it’s anonymous! I got it on the internet!

(In fact, I got it from a wonderful site that my readers would do well to visit: A Concord Pastor Comments. The author of the blog, Father Austin Fleming, is as much a poet as a preacher, and his meditations are exquisite and inspiring; he also posts audio of his homilies. You can sign up to have something in your in-box each morning. )

Check all that apply:

(a) I knew that February 14 was Valentine's Day…. but I had no idea it was Ash Wednesday, too!

(b) I knew that February 14 was Ash Wednesday…. but I forgot!

(c) I remembered that February 14 was Ash Wednesday…. but I was too busy to get to church.

(d) I went to church on Ash Wednesday.

(e) I went to church on Ash Wednesday and have been faithfully praying, fasting and serving the poor for three days now.

(f) I went to church on Ash Wednesday…. but haven't thought much about it since….

And finally…

(g) I think I've already given up on Lent this year.

No matter which one(s) you checked, you can be sure of 5 things:

1. The Lord loves you...

2. The Lord welcomes you to the season of Lent...

3. The Lord has something in mind for you this Lent…

4. The Lord wants to help you make this a season of growth, a springtime of peace within you...

5. The Lord isn't going to give up on you this Lent!

I got those from the internet too! But I assure you that all five of these things are found in the scriptures we’ve just heard.

God’s love and care for us is clear even in the story of Noah and the Ark. One word jumps out from these seven verses in the Book of Genesis: covenant. Five times God speaks to Noah about the covenant he is establishing. And five times God speaks to us, promising that the covenant with Noah is a covenant with all humanity, with all future generations.

For several years our parish rallied around what we called the Covenant of One. Each parishioner was challenged to promise God one extra hour of prayer, service, and wages—to share more generously their time, talent, and treasure. But the Covenant of One wasn’t ‘good resolutions’ like we make at New Year. It was our response to the covenants that God has made with his people, from the time of Noah and Abraham and Moses, to the New Covenant in the Blood of Christ.

Everything we do—in Lent and at all other times—we do because God loved us first. We don’t earn his love, even by prayer, fasting, and serving the poor. He loves us when we keep our Lenten resolutions, and he loves us when we don’t.

The Lord welcomes us to Lent. Lent is really an invitation not a demand. We welcomes us to journey toward Easter as brothers and sisters, but he also welcomes us to walk with Him.

Seeing Lent as a long walk with Jesus can change our attitude to this season. I had a great 60th birthday, with one disappointment. My plans for a walking tour of Sicily with a dear friend fell through. I’d got very excited about it—not so much to see Sicily, beautiful though it is, but because having all the time I wanted to talk with a friend who’s a busy as I am really appealed to me.

As I said earlier, the Lord has something in mind for each of us this Lent. Ideally, he hopes we will use the traditional means of prayer, penance, and good works. These are proven paths to prepare for a great Easter. If all goes really well, we will experience forty days of blessing that can be summed up by the words of the prayer of St. Richard of Chichester, which many of us know also from in the musical Godspell: “to know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”


But if God has something in mind for each of us this Lent, he better have some ideas for those of us who ticked the wrong boxes in the questionnaire. If he wants to make this a season of growth, and a springtime of peace, I hope he has a plan B, at least for me.

Happily, the entire history of God’s covenant relationship with his people is a history of plan B—and plan C, and plan D, and so on. God was patient with the disobedience of his children while Noah built the Ark; he was patient with the disobedience of Israel—as we pray in the fourth Eucharistic Prayer: “Time and again you offered them covenants, and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation.”

And now, in this final era, we are given the eternal covenant, the covenant into which we enter through baptism and which we celebrate with the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Whether or not you came to church on Wednesday, whether or not you broke your Lenten resolutions on Thursday, there’s nothing you can do that will make the Lord revoke his covenant.

When we get the video projectors installed in the church, I hope to show you a short film where a father says this to his young son, who’s been caught in a lie: “Nothing you could ever do would make me love you less.”

With his covenant, God says “Nothing you could would make me love you less.” But He also says that nothing we could ever do would make him love us more. We don’t use our Lent to impress Jesus but to share the forty days he spent in the desert—to imitate him because we love him as our brother, and trust him as our model.

This season of growth, this springtime of peace inside us, is not a burden but a blessing. If you missed the boat on Wednesday, or it sunk on Thursday, just remember “The Lord isn't going to give up on you this Lent!”

I began this homily with something lighthearted that I stole from the internet. But the internet is also has spiritual treasures for those who want Lent to be more than giving something up for a month and a half. I've been using a Lenten retreat called Journey to Jerusalem; it comes from the Institute for Priestly Formation but it's good for anyone. Bishop Robert Barron at Word on Fire offers a wonderful daily Lenten reflection.

The always-interesting Matthew Kelly and Dynamic Catholic continue to offer us a Best Lent Ever reflection every day, and as I've already mentioned, A Concord Pastor Comments is a daily joy during Lent and any time--and everyWednesday he posts a text from God!

The Lord has something in mind for you… that’s for sure.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Pastoral Care for the Sick (6B)

Today is the World Day of the Sick, a good day to talk about some things that have been on my mind for a while.

Let me start with a true story from a hospital in Colorado. A chaplain was visiting an elderly African-American woman, her face worn by age and illness.  They talked about coping with suffering.

The chaplain was young and didn’t have much to say to the old woman. He had studied theology, so he knew that only good things come from God, but he couldn’t explain that in a helpful way. But the patient had something to say to him.

Sitting up in bed with her shoulders bent over, she looked him straight in the eye and said: “People say, ‘God gave me cancer’. But that’s nonsense. There ain’t no cancer in God. How can God give me something He doesn’t have?” *

And there’s the first point I’d like to make today. Suffering does not come to us from God.

Even if the chaplain wasn’t as brilliant as his patient, the story also makes my second point: the pastoral care of the sick is important, and an important part of the Church’s mission. Suffering can lead some people to turn away from God, but they can grow closer to God if they are helped to meet Jesus in their suffering.

Suffering does not come from God, but it is used mightily by God to bring about good. As the YouCat Catechism says, when human suffering is united with the love of Christ, it becomes “part of the divine power that changes the world for the better.”

It also changes us for the better. If we believe the media, suffering is an absolute evil. And yet suffering is part and parcel of following Christ, who, St. Peter says, suffered for us so that we would follow in His steps.
Christians should not seek suffering, but when it can’t be avoided, it can become beautiful; it can teach us many lessons; it can unite us with Christ.

But we often need help to turn to God in times of illness. Embracing our suffering in union with Jesus is not exactly the first thing we think about when we’re in pain. We need spiritual support to make use of what we already know, or need to know, about how God works to bring good out of evil.

Pope Francis speaks of the art of accompaniment. Who needs spiritual accompaniment more than those who are gravely ill, and those who are worried for them? We need help in thinking clearly about our situation, so that we can pray properly.

The whole front page of the bulletin this week talks about what parishioners should do to ensure they have spiritual guidance and the blessing of the sacraments in times of serious illness. The practical side of it is nothing new to anyone of my generation, but perhaps younger Catholics have not been taught what to do when they or a loved one face illness; and maybe some of the older Catholics are forgetting what they’ve learned or just afraid to bother the priests for the sacraments when in hospital.

I’m not going to repeat what’s in the bulletin. But I will tell you that not letting us know you’re having surgery, not calling when a loved one has been rushed to hospital, is not only the wrong thing to do, it’s also no favour to the priests! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten back from Lions Gate Hospital only to bump into someone in the parking lot who asked me if I knew that Joe Blow had a heart attack last week – which, of course, means turning around and heading straight back to the hospital. Not to mention some unkind thoughts about Joe Blow!

And there’s my third point: the Church can’t help you to face illness if you don’t ask. We are not automatically informed when a Catholic is admitted to hospital like we were in the good old days.

Mary Kim, a lovely parishioner whose funeral I celebrated on Wednesday, got things right. She gives us an example of how Catholics should prepare for serious surgery and of the blessings that come to the sick from the sacraments of the Church.

Some weeks ago, Mary Kim learned that an illness she had dealt with for some time would require surgery. Well before her admission, I was called to her home, where she and I celebrated the sacrament of Penance. When we were finished, other family members joined us as she received the sacrament of the sick and Holy Communion. We prayed for her and with her using the lovely words provided by the ritual.

Sadly, the surgery did not go well, and her condition became grave. Immediately, the family called us and Fr. Giovanni went to the hospital to celebrate Last Rites with her. Please notice that the sacrament of the sick is not identical with the Last Rites as once it was.

A few days later, as death approached, I went to the hospital and said the powerful Prayers of the Dying by her bedside, joined by her husband and children. When it came time to celebrate her funeral, it came as the natural conclusion to a time of preparation and prayer.

Who in the Church today would want to miss these blessings because we prefer to remain in denial about the seriousness of our condition, because we don’t want to suggest the sacraments to a loved one, or even because we don’t want to bother the priests?

Nothing like pastoral care was offered to the lepers we meet in the Gospel this morning. The First Reading gives us a pretty ugly picture of the misery of leprosy and of the community’s fear of the disease. Isolation can be the worst part of illness or a hospital stay. We need the support of our communities—our families, our friends, and our church.

And we need to pray—and to pray with understanding. Let’s look at the meeting between Jesus and the leper in today’s Gospel. Although St. Mark says the man came begging Jesus, the leper’s words are a statement of faith: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”

And Jesus gives the simplest possible response: “I do. Be clean.” On the one hand, we could read this passage and fall right into a trap. We might pray, “Jesus, if you want to, you can heal my cancer” and then become deeply unhappy that we’re not healed. Doesn’t he want to heal me, or my loved one?

I have spent years thinking about this. If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he continue the healing miracles that Jesus performed on earth? The answer to the question would take much longer than a Sunday sermon allows. But to put it simply, the guarantee of miracles on demand would mean the end of faith on earth. People everywhere would figure out that freedom from illness was the jackpot offered to every Christian.

I don’t want to be flippant, but the world would be stacked ten feet deep with people, because we’d all be praying our aged loved ones back from the brink of death every time they came close.

Jesus is still a healer. But in the first place He’s a healer of souls. His meeting with the leper is presented in the very first chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, at the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus uses healing as a way of proclaiming the Kingdom of God; they were not ends in themselves.

The Dictionary of Christian Spirituality points out that Jesus sets the pattern for Christian healing. There’s always two expectations: first, healing from the immediate illness or problem, and second, healing to bring about closer union with God in the circumstances of one’s life.

“The priority is always the health of [our] relationship with God, no matter what other kind of healing may be needed.” (pg. 467).

About ten days ago my niece, Ali, fell off a small cliff while hiking in Vietnam. Between the distance and the problems of communication, her parents spent a night of sheer terror unsure whether she would live or die.

As things turned out, her injuries were not life-threatening, and she was able to have surgery even in the provincial city near where the accident occurred. She’s now recovering in a very nice hospital in the capital, attended by a very, very, relieved father.

Needless to say, the Smith family did a lot of praying and it’s hard not say those prayers weren’t answered. But what would I be saying today if things had not gone well? Would I tell you that our prayers were not answered? Or would I just keep silent?

I’d like to think I would tell you my prayers had been answered whatever the outcome. I’d like to think I would tell you that God works for good in all things for those who love Him. And I’d like to think I would give priority to the health of my family’s relationship with God, no matter what other healing happened or didn’t happen.

Even now, I hope that I and my family will thank God more for the spiritual blessings emerging from those dark days than we do for the wonderful way things have turned out.

Pope Francis talked to priests on Wednesday about our homilies.  He said “Please be brief … no more than 10 minutes, please!”

I almost never speak more than 10 minutes, so I don’t feel too bad that today’s homily is so long.  It’s been a long time coming, because I’ve been getting more and more concerned about whether we are forgetting the help the Church can offer the sick.

Please read the bulletin carefully this week. Tell your family you want them to call a priest if you’re suddenly taken ill or have a serious accident. Don’t hesitate to ask for the sacraments before major surgery or if your health starts to fail.

But I do apologize for such a serious and lengthy homily!  Father Giovanni could have made it funnier and shorter. At dinner last night he said “I’ve figured out that ‘the CtR way’ is to let the parish know when you’re in hospital—after you’ve been there two weeks. Or not.”

That may be the CtR way, but it’s not the Catholic way. We don’t deal with illness alone, but with the help of Christ and his Church.

*Nicholas Senz, “God Can't Give You What He Doesn't Have,” Catholic Digest, January/February 2018.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Unbound II (5.B)

Recycling makes me nervous. I’m always afraid I’m putting something in the wrong box, especially in a public place. At least I don’t live in Japan, where you get a red sticker of shame if you don’t separate things properly—and in some places there are as many as twelve categories.

I’m particularly nervous about recycling my homilies. One of my professors did that in the seminary chapel. It must have been a good homily, since we all recognized it from four years earlier!

Today I’m not trying to fool anyone.  If you were at the 11 or 5 Masses last Sunday, you’ve already heard  much of what I’m going to say. But since most folks who come at 9 come regularly, I want you to hear the same message I gave to the rest of the parish.

It’s not because I’m completely ready to launch something new. But I feel the Lord is calling us to something new, and I need you to be thinking and praying about it.

The something new is called ‘Unbound’ ministry. I spent a week in California learning about it, and was very convinced—and personally blessed—by what I heard.

But before I could be convinced, there was something I had to get over. Unbound is a way to pray for deliverance. And I found deliverance a scary word.

It didn’t take long for me to sort out my problem with deliverance.  I only needed two books: the dictionary and the Bible.

The dictionary made me realize that deliverance is the noun for which deliver is the verb.  You know: “…deliver us from evil”—the words we use every time we say the Our Father.  So unless the Our Father’s scary, praying for deliverance isn’t scary. It’s normal.

But even if it’s normal, we don’t really know how to do it.

Yet we all need deliverance—freedom from the things that oppress us, hold us back, or lead us to sin. 

Let me give you an example.  Every Catholic understands repentance.  We repent when we sin. And we all try to resist temptation. We fight not to commit sin.

But there’s something missing. Let’s look at someone with a very short temper.  It’s not a sin to have a short temper. When we start to get angry, we resist the temptation. If we lose our temper and act in anger, we repent.

But where did the short temper come from? What’s the source—and what can we do about it?

The retreat in California was led by Catholic layman Neal Lozano and based on his book Unbound: A Practical Guideto Deliverance. It says that we must, of course, repent of our sins. But we must also renounce the spirits—evil spirits, by definition—that lead us to sin.

Renouncing evil spirits is what many of us have been missing in our search for spiritual freedom.

As I said, having a short temper isn’t a sin. It’s only a sin when we fail to control it. But what if there’s a persistent spirit of anger that doesn’t go away even when we repent?  And maybe there’s a spirit of pride that fuels our anger, or a spirit of fear. We dont repent of those spirits, since in themselves theyre not sins unless we deliberately welcomed them—rather, we renounce them, in the name of Jesus.

Unbound presents five keys to praying for greater spiritual freedom.  Renunciation is the one I found most remarkable.  It’s like saying, “I’m done with that!”  It means you are taking your life back, and you make no place for sin, deception, or the power of darkness.
And of course it’s straight out of the Bible, since St. Paul says “We have renounced secret and shameful ways” (2 Corinthians 4:2).  And it’s entirely Catholic, since at Baptism we say “I renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty promises.”  

“Renunciation,” Unbound says, “is a declaration that you no longer agree with the lies that have been buried in your heart.”

Of course there’s more to it than that. We don’t renounce in our own weak name; we renounce in the name of Jesus.

I got back from the retreat convinced that virtually all of us need to pray for greater spiritual freedom. There were 42 priests of every shape and size and age and attitude on the retreat, along with one bishop, and I think every one of us were deeply touched by the teaching of Unbound.

Still, I didn’t intend to say anything to you after my one-week experience.  I wanted to think, and pray, and read some more.  But the Holy Spirit seemed to think otherwise: last Sunday, a day after I go back, the Gospel was about Jesus casting out unclean spirits.

Then this Sunday we have Job. He’s not a sinner, but boy he is oppressed by evil. He’s listened to a lie that many of us have heard as well: “I’m never going to see good again.” In modern words, “life is a drag and it’s never going to get any better.”

And what happens in today’s Gospel?  Jesus is casting out demons again. Many demons.

I’m not identifying the evil spirits we need to renounce with the demons that possess people; that’s a rare thing indeed. But the Gospel clearly shows that Jesus heals not only physical ailments but spiritual and psychological ones as well.

I’m still putting the pieces together from the retreat, but I hope to share more about Unbound ministry down the road and that we can talk about finding greater freedom and peace in Christ by prayer with the five keys of Unbound.

I’ve put a summary of the five keys in the bulletin this week so you can see for yourselves what they have to offer.