The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Homily: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Readings: Ex 22:20-26; Ps 103; 1 Thes 1:5c-10; Mt 22:33-40

Remember last Sunday’s Gospel passage? Sure you do. You remember…the Pharisees tried to entrap Jesus by asking if it were right to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. Their scheme, of course, failed because Jesus' only concern was God and God's Kingdom. He turned the tables on His accusers by saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Well, in today's passage the Pharisees once again tried to entrap Jesus. When they asked Him, “Which commandment of the Law is the greatest?” they were far from sincere. Jewish scholars of the Law spent their lives pondering this question, and few agreed. Yes, the Pharisees hoped to demonstrate publicly that this upstart from Galilee was an ignorant country bumpkin. How could He hold His own against these experts in the Law? Jesus’ answer would only demonstrate his ignorance. 

Or so they thought. Once again Jesus surprises them by quoting two passages from Scripture, and in effect tells them that all God’s teachings are based on these two commandments. The first, from Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love your God with your whole heart, your whole mind and your whole soul.”

God wants it all. He wants us to turn every dimension of our lives and our being over to him. He wants our whole minds. He doesn't want us to think about Him only when we need Him and then forget about Him. He doesn't want us to fill our minds with powerful distractions that obscure or erase His presence. He doesn't want us to misuse our minds, filling them with evil thoughts of greed, jealousy, anger or lust.

"Give me your whole minds," Jesus says to us. "Are you distressed? Do you despair? Have your children or your parents hurt you? Remove the hatred from your minds and let my love take over. I’ll transform your thoughts and give you a new understanding. I’ll give you wisdom." 

Jesus also tells us to give God our hearts, our whole hearts. He tells us to love him with every part of ourselves, with every way there is to love. We are called to imitate God, to return the love He gives to us. But God’s love is total love, sacrificial love, the love we see on the Cross. Are we ready to love God sacrificially? Are we willing to give our hearts, our very lives for God, as so many others have?

And Jesus tells us to love God with our whole souls, our immortal souls, that which separates us from other creatures. We have the ability to think and to love. We have the ability to choose, to imagine, and to express ourselves. 

We are unique reflections of God – made in His image and likeness. And what is God’s image? What is His likeness? St. John tells us clearly: “God is love.” Our ability to see meaning in life, to recognize purpose to existence, is directly proportional to our willingness to reflect the presence, the love, of God. We each have a capacity to reflect God’s presence, our own unique way to bring His love into the world.

The other passage Jesus chose was from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is the second great commandment, Jesus tells us. 

If we love God as He calls us to love Him, we then must love ourselves; for we were created out of His love. If God loves each of us so much, then, of course, we should love ourselves.

I remember a story about a young mother who was trying to help her little boy understand this commandment. “God put us here to help others,” she told him. He thought for a moment and then asked, “What are the others here for?” The little lad would have made a good Pharisee.

God wants us to love Him by loving each other; and to love each other completely not just now and then.

He tells husbands to love Him by loving their wives, and wives to love Him by loving their husbands. Love, true love, is God's presence. The sacrament of marriage is the union of God's love to the love of husband and wife for each other. 

We cannot love God if we love only with a selfish love, a what’s-in-it-for-me love. We cannot claim that something is love, when we are in fact just using another person. We cannot love God if we nurture a hatred for another in our hearts. 

 “Love me,” the Lord says, “by loving your neighbors, your spouse, your children, your parents, your relatives, your colleagues at work, the kid who mows your lawn …everyone.” 

You see, Jesus’ definition of neighbor differs from that of the Pharisees, who applied this commandment only to other Jews. Jesus changes this. Recall the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which He expands neighbor to include strangers, even our enemies. And this, brothers and sisters, ain’t easy. 

But even more shocking to those who resisted His teaching, Jesus goes on to include sinners and all kinds of other folks. He includes the prisoner, the criminal, the drug addict, the prostitute. He includes the homeless, the panhandlers. He includes the dying, the disabled, the mentally ill. He includes those we haven’t met and those we don’t know. He includes people from the farthest corners of the globe, people from our inner cities, people whose cultures and ways of life are alien to us. 

Among our neighbors are the unborn infant, the lonely and forgotten one in the nursing home, the convict on death row, the terrorist. He includes not only those who are hard to love but those it’s easy to ignore or forget.

Do you remember a dozen years ago when the Washington DC area was plagued by the pair of snipers who were shooting people indiscriminately? Well, one of the later victims was seriously wounded as he and his wife left a Virginia restaurant. His wife refused to be interviewed by the media, and instead asked a hospital representative to read a statement. In it, she thanked those who were praying for her husband, and asked for their continued prayers not only for him but for the person who shot him. She didn’t scream for vengeance…she didn’t cry out for revenge…she didn’t plead for closure. No, she asked only for prayers.

Our Christianity obliges us to reach out to others, to the poor, the sick, the defenseless…and even those the world expects and encourages us to hate. But Christian charity isn’t motivated by humanitarianism. It’s motivated by love, by a desire to do God’s will, a desire to be Christ-like.

Quite simply it’s the work of evangelization. People who are starving first need food before they can hear God’s Word or praise His Name. Those who are ill need to experience God's mercy and compassion in others if they are to make sense of their sickness. Those locked in a prison cell, who’ve never known love, never heard a kind word, need to experience another’s love for them before they can accept the perfect love of God.

And let’s not forget, as we approach Election Day, that we can give to Caesar only what is his. And one thing that is not his is God’s gift of life. Life, brothers and sisters, belongs to God, and to God alone. No government has the right to take innocent life, to support such inherently evil acts as abortion, infanticide, and assisted suicide. As true disciples we must resist these evils…just as we should resist capital punishment which so often hinders a person’s redemption.

Every good law, every law that makes any sense, is implied in the Lord's simple answer to the Pharisees: “Love God with your whole mind, your whole heart and your whole soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

As we celebrate the sacrifice of Jesus, as Jesus re-presents on this altar His eternal act of love for us on the cross, let’s each take a moment to ask God for the courage to be the people he has called us to be, people who return all they have and are to God – people of his Kingdom. 

Jesus wants you, all of you! He wants it all!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Sign of the Times

Earlier this morning I came across an article that should cause all Americans to shudder. The likelihood that it will have little effect on most people is perhaps even more disturbing.

Mayor Parker
Annise Parker, the openly lesbian major of the city of Houston, Texas, has had the city issue subpoenas demanding that several of the city's pastors turn over any of their sermons addressing homosexuality. The issuance of these subpoenas is, of course, completely unconstitutional since it violates the pastors' clear First Amendment rights, both to freedom of religion and speech. As you might expect, the mayor will not state why she wants the sermons, but one can only believe that she hopes to be able to prosecute one or more of the pastors because of "discriminatory" statements they may have made. You can read more about this in an opinion piece here and in a local news story here.

For several years now I have joined many others in predicting increased pressure on the Church to be silent in the face of political correctness imposed by various levels of government. We have already seen this in a number of states where the Catholic Church has been prohibited from facilitating adoptions because it will not permit homosexual individuals or couples to adopt children. We've also seen it in Obamacare as it relates to the provision of "health" services involving both contraception and abortion. 

Among those on the political left there seem to be two issues that trump everything else: homosexual "rights" and abortion. One is no less than a direct attack on the sacrament of marriage with the goal of destroying the traditional family, and the other is an attack on the sanctity of life. Both, of course, are at the same time direct attacks on the Church, and in particular, the Catholic Church. Once the Church and its moral objections are removed, the state can claim its complete authority over virtually all aspects of private life, even life itself.

Cardinal Francis George
In a post written a few weeks ago I quoted Cardinal George, the now retired Archbishop of Chicago, who once stated: "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die in the public square.” Many who heard the Cardinal say this probably dismissed it as a gross exaggeration, as an example of episcopal hyperbole; but given what is now taking place in our nation and elsewhere in the world, I suspect they may be reconsidering their doubts.

As for myself, I can't recall ever preaching against homosexuality per se, since the Church does not teach that a person's sexuality is, in itself, sinful. The Church, however, does teach that living a homosexual lifestyle and all that it entails is indeed sinful. Homosexual activity is sinful just as heterosexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. And since the Church clearly defines marriage as a sacrament that can be received only by a man and a woman, any homosexual activity must take place outside of marriage. On several occasions, therefore, I have preached against the homosexual lifestyle. To date, however, no politician -- mayor, governor, president, or dogcatcher -- has demanded copies of my homilies. But since I post most of them on this very blog, they really won't have any trouble finding them.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Homily: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Readings: Is 5:1-7; Ps 80; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21: 33-43

About 30 years ago, after the United States Navy once again transferred me from one coast to the other, Diane and I bought a home in a quiet neighborhood of a then-rural suburb of San Diego. It was the perfect home for our growing family, and beyond the back fence we were blessed with nothing but empty hills. Among its selling points were several mature navel orange trees. It also offered a small corral in the event one wished to own a horse. Why anyone would want to do such a thing has always escaped me.

Anyway, on the fence that circled the corral grew a grapevine. Now this vine intrigued me because it actually had a few bunches of grapes hanging from it. As I examined it on that first day I heard the voice of my neighbor who was peering over the fence.

“Don’t bother,” he said. “Grape vines demand too much attention, lots of pruning and care. And those grapes aren’t very good anyway. But your orange trees are healthy. Just make sure you water them.”

As it turned out, these few words from my nosy neighbor formed the foundation of my future agricultural efforts. Afterwards I often looked at that vine, but since I didn’t prune or water it, or really do anything for it, it produced little, just a few sour grapes. But its mere presence sometimes got me thinking about what Scripture had to say about vines.

Indeed, today we heard a lot of words about vines and vineyards, about good grapes and bad, and about violence and responsibility and love. It all began with the words of our psalm in which we see how God’s chosen ones had long seen themselves as a cherished vine planted by God:

“A vine from Egypt you transplanted; you drove away the nations and planted it” [Ps 80:9].

Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed - Is 5:6
Then in our 1st reading, as Isaiah begins his prophetic ministry, he speaks poetically to God’s People. We heard an inspired Isaiah agreeing with the psalmist, telling the people they are the vine in God’s vineyard, a vineyard he nurtured with care. But Isaiah’s poem is wrapped in a warning because the people had rejected God’s loving care for them. They were unjust and lawless, and so Isaiah prophesies the destruction of the vineyard. Israel will be no more; its people sent into exile.

If only they had been more attentive to God’s will for them…

If only they had been just…

Yes, if only…they would then have been fruitful.

As St. Paul instructed the people of Philippi in our 2nd reading: “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious… think about these things” [Phil 4:8].

This, friends, is how we are called to live. Not as the Israelites did. Not in fear and anxiety. Not in violence and hatred. Not in anger and revenge. Such things should have no place in our hearts. And once we allow God to prune us, once we allow Him to remove those unproductive branches, then, as Paul reminds us, “…the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” [Phil 4:7].

And then, in our Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus takes Isaiah’s image of the vineyard and vine, and applies it to the chief priests and those who exercise their authority over the people.

In His parable, Jesus describes a vineyard owner whose servants are sent in advance to remind the tenants of all they owe the owner. But the servants are beaten and killed. And believe me; those listening to Jesus knew what He was saying, for that’s exactly what happened to the prophets.

Jesus goes on to predict His own death; for in their willfulness, their lust for power, the tenants commit the horrendous act of killing the owner’s son. Our Lord then asks His audience of chief priests and elders, “What will the owner do to those tenants…?” [Mt 21:40] Prophetically they reply that the owner will punish them and bring in new tenants to replace those motivated by violence and greed. And with that, Jesus turns their own words, their own prophecy, against them: “…the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit” [Mt 21:43].

And so, it’s through the sacrifice of the Son that the Father makes a relationship with new tenants. He does so by establishing a New Covenant. The Father, you see, doesn’t give up on the vineyard into which he had invested so much. No, the vineyard will endure, but it will be tended by others, tended by a Church that will appreciate all that the Father has done for His people.

Incidentally, I've actually heard Christians use this parable as justification for condemning the Jews. Such thinking goes against all that the Church teaches. As Pope Benedict told a delegation of Jews, the Catholic Church is “called to respect the Covenant established by God with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She also places herself… in the eternal Covenant of the Almighty, who does not repent of his plan and respects the children of the Promise, children of the Covenant, as her beloved brothers in the faith.” In the words of Pope Pius XII, “To be anti-Semitic is to be anti-Christian.”
The kingdom of God will be given to a people that will produce its fruit - Mt 21:43

This parable, then, isn’t a story about winning or losing. To think so is to misunderstand it. No, it’s about how we must tend the vineyard God has given us. For as the vineyard’s new tenants, we are called to care for it as we wait for the harvest. Unlike me, who did nothing to tend my California grapevine, we are called to be waterers and weeders, pruners and feeders.

Interestingly, brothers and sisters, when we tend the vine and make it fruitful, we do the same to ourselves. You see, my neighbor’s words about my unproductive backyard vine brought to mind the words Jesus spoke to the apostles the night before He died. Remember those words?

“I am the vine, you are the branches” [Jn 15:5].

Well, looking at that backyard grapevine of mine, one thing was obvious. The vine wasn’t at all like one of my orange trees with its trunk and the branches growing from it. No, as I looked at the grapevine I could see that the branches and the vine were one. Indeed, the branches are the vine! You can’t separate them.

Just consider what this means. Through the Incarnation, Jesus became more than just one of us. He became us! That’s right He became you and He became me! This is how He can say so emphatically: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” [Mt 25:40].

Just think of that! You and I and Jesus are one. And so to exclude another from your life is to exclude Jesus. To exclude another, to exclude Jesus, is to exclude yourself.

The good news? Jesus works right alongside us as we labor in the Father’s vineyard to usher in the Kingdom. Yes, in doing the work of the Father, Jesus does all the heavy lifting. We need only do as He asks.

And, brothers and sisters, the Kingdom bears fruit because the Church – and that’s you and I – is called to be merciful and just, as the Father is merciful and just. The Kingdom bears fruit because, as Jesus promised us, “I am with you always until the end of the age” [Mt 28:20]

And that day is still to come.