Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why seek Jesus?

The first thing I thought of as I meditated on this Sunday's gospel was, "Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he..." Now, if you don't know that song from your childhood then I think your catechesis was sadly deprived. That was the first thing I thought of, but the second thing that came to my mind, through my prayer and through my reading, was why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus?

Why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus? What was going on inside him? Was he just following the crowd, trying to see what was going on? Or was there something more going on in his heart? I think there might be more going on, but to understand what that is, to understand why Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, we need to look at the context, where this is situated in the overall story of Luke's gospel, and we need to look at some grammar. 

First off, as far as context, this story is near the end of the gospel, so we have to read it with a bit of urgency. Most of Luke's gospel is arranged as one big journey. For much of the gospel, Jesus is on his journey from Galilee in the north, his homeland, down to Jerusalem, which historically is where the prophets go to be killed. Today he is passing through Jericho, which is one of the last cities before Jerusalem, so things are building towards a climax. Things are moving and shaking. Jesus doesn't say, "Zacchaeus, when you have some time I'd like to stay at your house." No, he says, "Zacchaeus, hurry up, I need to stay at your house today."

Second, we cant read this story in isolation. We also need to understand one story that came a little bit before it, and that story is the story of the rich ruler. Remember, the rich ruler came to Jesus and said, "What must I do to inherit eternal life." Jesus told him, "Keep the commandments: do not commit adultery, don't lie, don't steal, honor your parents." He said, "I've always done these things" so Jesus said, "Only one thing more: sell everything and follow me." The rich ruler left sad because he couldn't part with his nice things. He let these things be roadblocks to Jesus entering into his life.

So again, why was Zacchaeus looking for Jesus? When we see the Zacchaeus story in contrast with the story of the rich ruler, an answer starts to emerge. Zacchaeus wasn't attached to the things of this world. The rich ruler did things right on the outside, but inside he was all a mess. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, was a mess on the outside, working with the Romans and being despised by everyone, but his internal disposition was better than you could tell from the outside.

To understand his internal disposition, what was going on in his heart, we have to discuss verb tenses. I know, grammar is never exciting, but it will help us get a deeper answer to the question of why Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus. In the Gospel as it's translated here, Zacchaeus says that he will give half his money to the poor, and if he has cheated anyone he will repay them fourfold. This, unfortunately, is a poor translation from the original Greek and it changes the whole meaning of the Gospel. The Greek words for "give" and "repay" are in the present tense, not the future tense. Zacchaeus is telling The Lord what he already does. So a better translation is "Lord, half of my belongings I give to the poor and if I cheat anyone I repay them fourfold." He seems to be talking about something he already does.

What is the point of this? How does this help us see why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus? When Zacchaeus's words are in the future, it implies that he is going to start being generous and honest. It implies that he was inspired by the sight of Jesus to start being generous and honest. But the better translation, when his words are in the present, suggests that he was already a generous with his belongings even while he was working for the hated Romans.

So when we realize that Zacchaeus was already generous with his belongings, while working for the Romans, we have to compare that to the rich ruler who kept lots of commandments but couldn't be parted from his belongings. Jesus couldn't enter the rich ruler's heart because the rich ruler was attached to his roadblocks, to the things of this world. Jesus was able to enter into Zacchaeus's life because Zacchaeus's wasn't attached to the things of this world. 

So why does Zacchaeus seek to see Jesus? Because Jesus was first seeking him. That's what the end of the Gospel tells us. The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost. This is a point where our current translation is very good. The beginning of the gospel said Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus. Then the end tells us that the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost. The word "seek" at the beginning and the end is intentional. We seek God only because he first seeks us. God had already begun working on Zacchaeus's heart and drawing him to himself, and God usually works on a person's heart slowly. This gospel today is a beautiful story of two people that had been seeking each other for a long time, and we get to witness that encounter. And today, Jesus seeks you in that same way. Today, Jesus says, "Come down from that tree, from your attachment to possessions, your attachment to sin, your attachment to these roadblocks. Come down, because today I must stay at your house."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Persistence and a Red Ryder BB Gun

This weekend I had the opportunity to preach again at St. Augustine's in Brighton, so I thought I'd share with you my homily from October 20th's readings.

Let's start with the Gospel. Jesus gives a short parable about a judge and widow. Jesus describes the judge as "a judge in a certain town." That description means he's a pretty generic character; Jesus isn't talking about a specific person. A judge like this was a town judge who settled local disputes, so he was a decently important person in his area. But this judge is revealed to be pretty selfish, because he "neither fears God nor respects men." If love doesn't motivate you to do good, then at least fear and respect should. If you don't even have that, like this judge, then there's no really no kindness in you at all.

And then there is the widow. Throughout the Bible, the widow is the image, the icon, of the most helpless in society, and Judaic law called for special care for widows because they had no way of taking care of themselves. She begs for a just judgment from the selfish judge, but he refuses even though it wouldn't have cost him anything.

As we follow this short story, theres even a bit of comedy if we know where to find it. It should make you laugh a little bit that this mean old judge, who neither fears God nor respects man, actually does the right thing because when faced with this helpless old woman, because he is afraid of her hitting him. One translation I read said he's afraid of her giving him a black eye! He's afraid of getting hurt by the little old woman!

This selfish judge gives the widow what she deserves because of her persistence, and then the point of the story becomes clear for us. If a selfish man like this judge eventually gives justice, how much quicker will God the Father give justice? Be persistent in asking for what you need. God the Father is the most unselfish judge and giver there is, so ask him for what you need. That's the point that Jesus draws from this parable! He tells us that his Father will do great things. He says "Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily." Jesus is guaranteeing us that justice will be done for us by God, we just have to be persistent like this widow.

But then at the end there's a twist. In the very last line of today's reading Jesus does something a bit unexpected, and it deserves our attention. The last thing Jesus says to us in this Gospel passage is, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” So what is this about? Here at the end of a lesson about perseverance in prayer, he throws in this line about having faith. What he is doing, it seems to me, is connecting perseverance in prayer with faith. If you have faith, you are persistent in asking for what you need from God. Our faith gives us the confidence to ask for whatever we need from God.

But when I talk about asking for what I need for God, I'm talking about what I really need, not what I think I need. Sometimes I really think I need a Red Ryder BB gun, but God promptly reminds me that "No, Brian, you'd shoot your eye out." No, even more than I need a Red Ryder BB gun, I need mercy, I need love, and I need salvation. These are the things I really need from God. He could give me a Red Ryder BB gun, and he may, but that's not what I really need.

And yet we all know that sometimes we ask for really big things from God and we don't get them. We ask for things like health and safety for our loved ones, and it still doesn't happen. When things like this happen, it takes monumental faith to believe that when God doesn't grant health or safety, he still loves and he still has mercy, and those remain far more important. Again, when God doesn't give things we need from our human perspective, like health for loved ones, we have to have faith that he is giving the things even more important than that.

So this faith, which is often very difficult, cannot be just a thought or feeling. If we have faith that shows itself in persevering prayer, this faith also has to show itself in action, and this is what Saint Paul teaches us in his letter to Timothy. We've been hearing from this letter in our second reading for a couple weeks now, and today he gives Timothy some solid advice about how faith and perseverance should manifest themselves in his life. Primarily he's teaching Timothy how useful the Scriptures are to him. We can use just the end of this reading to understand what Paul is getting at and how it applies to us. At the end of the reading he says "Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching." So now, along with being persistent to God in our prayer, Paul tells us to be persistent in our proclamation of Jesus Christ. Paul understands human weakness so he says "be persistent whether convenient or inconvenient."

When we proclaim the word, when we proclaim Jesus, it should be by our words and our actions. Our actions- living a good Christian life, keeping the commandments, loving others-provides a necessary foundation. But then sometimes we have to point to Jesus by name and say that he's the one! He's the motivating factor behind everything I do! He's the one who saves me from my sins!

That's never convenient, because the world doesn't want to hear it. But that's what we are called to do. We are called to be persistent in our prayer to God, and in our proclamation of his good deeds to the world. Persistence gets tiring, so we have to turn to the holy Eucharist, where God perseveres in his love for us far more than we could ever persevere in our love of him.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Prodigal Son

This Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching at my new parish, St. Augustine's in Brighton, Colorado. Along with the excitement of getting to know a new community, I was especially excited to preach because of the parable of the Prodigal Son, becaus the Prodigal Son is one of the most loved in all of the gospels. And sometimes scholars like to use this particular parable as the paradigm or the model parable. This parable about the Prodigal Son shows so clearly how Jesus takes our conventional values and turns them on their head, and how in a few short lines he can show love for the poor and downtrodden and offer a warning to the rich and comfortable.

So with a parable this rich in meaning, I had to limit myself, otherwise the kind parishioners of St. Augustine's never would have gotten to leave. The older son and the father provides lots of lessons on forgiving others, but I focused on the younger son and the father, which teaches us about God's love and about how to receive forgiveness.

So were going to walk through the interactions between the father and the prodigal son and see what lessons there are for us through the whole thing. The first thing we need to notice in this parable, and anytime we hear Jesus speaking in the gospels, is who he is speaking to and why, because that influences how he speaks. Today, the beginning of the story tells us that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and the scribes, the rule-followers and the "in-crowd", and he is addressing them because they're unhappy about the tax collectors and sinners, the "outsiders," trying to be a part of the crowd. So the whole story is meant to rebuke the cold-hearted pharisees.

This younger son does a lot that we know to be bad, yet if we look a bit closer, we might see ourselves a little bit in this prodigal son. So he asks his dad for the inheritance. This money and the freedom that comes with it is the only "good" the son can see. He can't see the good that would come from years of laboring on his father's property, the tough love that his father could give him. All of that is a "bad," and he wants to avoid it.

And, side note: inheritances only come once the parent is dead, so the younger son is in a way telling his dad, "I wish you were dead."

The father knows that the son is just going to hurt himself, but he also knows that he can't explain that to the son, and he values the son's freedom. So he gives him what he wants, he lets him have the money. Similarly, when we want to abuse the freedom God the Father gives us, and when we aren't interested in the rules God puts in place to protect us, God respects our freedom so much that he lets us go. He wont force us to stay with him or follow his commandments, because he loves us too much to force us.

Once he has his money, the prodigal son leaves. Here we need to keep in mind some cultural details of Jesus' audience that sometimes we miss. The story tells us that he went to a far off land, which is faux pas number one. This parable was addressed specifically to the scribes and Pharisees, and in their rigid interpretation of Jewish life, Jews should live in Israel, they shouldn't be going to foreign lands to live with foreign people. Then, once he burns through his money, he is forced to feed pigs. Remember, Jews don't eat pork, it is an unclean animal, so to feed pigs for a non-Jewish employer is just about the ultimate self-abasement.

But he got what he wanted! He got the money, and he got the freedom from his Father! This should be great! Similarly, when we wander far from God the Father, when we ignore the rules and commandments he has set for us and fall into patterns of sin, we don't do it looking for misery. We do it because we think it's going to make us happy, happier even than if we follow his rules and commandments. But God loves us enough to let us have this freedom, and he also understands stubborn human nature well enough to know that just telling it's going to hurt won't stop us, we have to find out on our own. It's like telling someone the stove is hot, now they have to test it for themselves.

But our prodigal son, just like most of us when we fall into patterns of sin, eventually has a moment of clarity when he realizes that nothing is working out like it was supposed to. So he gets the idea to go back home, but there is still some confusion in his thinking, because he thinks that after what he did there is no way he can be restored to his former position. The best he can even hope for is to be a servant. He didn't understand his father's love before, so he left, and he still doesn't understand it now.

So he starts for home. But as soon as the father sees him, the father moves towards him. That's what God the Father does for us after we've sinned. Once we start moving towards him, he moves towards us too. He doesn't stand at a distance making us work for him, making us earn him. No, after we've wandered far from his love, once we make a movement back towards him, he moves towards us too.

But even after the father meets him, hugs him and kisses him, the son is still convinced of his own unworthiness, so he tries to spit out this prepared speech about how he has sinned, not worthy to be a son, treat me as a servant etc. But the father doesn't care about any of that. As soon as the father hears the words "father" and "son" he cuts off the son's humiliating speech because he wants to bestow huge honors on him. The son is back, he has returned! Whatever came before doesn't matter, because his son is home again!

Similarly, when we come back to God after sinning, we often don't think that we can have the same relationship that we had before. We think "Can I really go back to God, back to Church, after what I've done?" And the answer is yes, you can! So you say, "Ok, fine, but surely I can't be as loved as I was before." But again, yes, yes you can be! This is good news for each of us, because even if we've never wandered far from God and his Church in a visible way, each of us are sinners, and we have wandered far from God in our sins. But once we go to Confession, God completely forgets our sins. He doesn't just set them aside and ignore them. He forgets them entirely! You could ask him about your past sins that you've confessed and he wouldn't know what you are talking about!

So wherever you're at in your personal walk with God, resolve today to turn towards him even more, because each of us can always do better in that regard. Pick a sin, something that bothers you, and tell God today that you want to give that up. And then when you fall into that sin again, pick yourself up, go right back to Confession, and begin again. Turn to God time and time again, and he will take you back time and time again. The Prodigal Son teaches us just how endless his mercy really is.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Who Then Can Be Saved?

As we work our way through the second half of Matthew's gospel in today's readings, we find Jesus taking care of some of the "details" of the Kingdom he is establishing. He is reassuring the apostles that those who follow him, and suffer for it in this life, will find rest and peace in eternal life.

But before that we have the recurring lesson that I can't reach heaven by my own efforts. In the discussion about camels pass through needles easier than the rich enter heaven, The disciples say: “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responds, “For men this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Self-reliance, a virtue Americans in particular love ( "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" sort of mentality), fails us when it comes to getting to heaven. Jesus knows that we want to be self reliant, and so he continues to repeat this lesson that this doesn't work. You can't earn heaven. You can't work for heaven. You can only accept heaven as a gift from the God who loves you more than you deserve. 

But nonetheless, work and do good. Do good for God by doing good for others. This is the proper response to God's love for you. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Peace or the Sword

All the readings today point to the cost of discipleship. For Jeremiah in the first reading, the cost of following God was almost his death at the bottom of a well. Jesus in the Gospel lays out clearly the cost of discipleship. The cost is division, and maybe even the loss of everything we want to hold onto. And then, sandwiched in between the story of Jeremiah almost dying in the well and Jesus' promise that parents and children will be turned against each other, we find the letter to the Hebrews saying, if I may paraphrase, "Come on, you still haven't even shed your blood yet. You call yourself a disciple?" Wow! Apparently following God involves more than butterflies and unicorns, so let's take a look at what this is all about.

Let's focus on the Gospel first. First off, notice who Jesus is speaking to today. This lesson isn't addressed to the crowds or to a big group like some of his lessons are. This lesson is given only to the disciples. This lesson, that he came to set fire to the earth and to cause division, would be a terrible opening line if he were trying to convert people to his cause, but it works great to teach people who are already converted about the true cost of following him. So this lesson is to teach the disciples of his day, and us also, what the cost of following him is going to be.

To understand the reading today, we need to have a sense of how the Gospel is arranged. At this point in Luke's Gospel, things are starting to build to Jesus's crucifixion and death in Jerusalem. A couple chapters before today's reading, near the end of the ninth chapter, we passed a watershed moment in Luke's Gospel where Jesus "set his face to go towards Jerusalem." We heard that reading back on June 30th as we slowly work our way through Luke's Gospel this year. From that point forward, everything in Luke's Gospel has Jerusalem as the background. Everything from that point forward has Jesus's pending suffering and death, and ultimately his victory, as the background. So we have to read today's reading with Jerusalem, and the suffering it represents, as the backdrop.

So with Jerusalem as the background, Jesus wants to warn us today that following him may come at a cost. For some people, it may not. For some people, they are Christian, all their family are Christians, all their friends are Christians, and they go through life pretty unchallenged, without ever having to sacrifice for their faith. Blessed are those people. But for most of us, discipleship comes at a cost because not everyone understands why were Christian. Most of us have people in our life who have rejected this Christian faith that means so much to us. And when you have people disagreeing on such fundamental things as religion, you can't help but have division in the world.

And yet, even while Jesus promises division in today's reading, we know that in other places he has promised peace, he has told us to work for peace, and we even call him the Prince of Peace. How do we reconcile these two things? I think we have to recognize a couple things. One: there is evil in the world, and it is totally opposed to Jesus. Two: to be at peace with this evil means to be divided from Christ, but to be against this evil means to at peace with Christ and united with him. And I'm talking about  the big evils that allows things like abortion and slave trafficking to continue even today and the "little" evil that causes each of us to sin dozens of times a day. If we don't oppose evil in the world and in ourselves then we aren't at peace with Christ. I think sometimes we are passive towards the evils of the world out of a misguided sense of peace. We think "Jesus called us to love everyone and live peacefully, so maybe I shouldn't vocally oppose abortion, unjust wages, or unfair immigration laws in my country." But to not oppose these things means to be divided from Christ, while opposing these things and risking the division that opposition causes is one of the things that unites us with Christ.

As we start to recognize the cost of discipleship that Jesus is warming us of, lets look at the second reading, the Letter to the Hebrews. This letter reminds us today that what we are shooting for is heaven. Because heaven is the goal, no sin or anything else is worth it. That cloud of witnesses that the reading references is the saints in heaven, these saints surround us daily, and they encourage us and help us in this battle against sin and evil. But look at what this letter says, again, paraphrasing: "Because we are surrounded by these witnesses, these saints, let us work towards heaven and rid ourselves of everything that holds us back." Again, if heaven is our goal, nothing else is worth hanging onto at the expense of gaining heaven.

In the midst of all these readings about cost and sacrifice and division, the Gospel Acclamation grounds us in our reason for hope. The Gospel Acclamation is the Alleluia verse we sing right before the Gospel. Today we sang "My sheep hear my voice, says The Lord. I know them and they follow me." In the midst of the difficulties of the Christian life, in the midst of the sacrifices we have to make as Christians, The Lord, whom we call the Good Shepherd, is with us the whole way. He isn't standing afar off, hoping we make it to him, no, he is running this race with us. We only run this race towards heaven, we only do good each day, by relying on him. So accept bravely the cost of discipleship, and all the division and sacrifice that goes along with it. Because we know if we run this race to the end we will be united with Jesus in heaven even more perfectly than we are united with him on earth, and that makes all the sacrifice worth it.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Our Father...

The readings today are about prayer and perseverance, and there are ancient lessons and new lessons, but to understand what Jesus has to teach us, we first have to understand what Luke, the gospel writer, is doing. No gospel writer wrote his gospel because he was bored, he wrote it for a reason So what was Luke doing? Luke often portrays Jesus as a prophet, because this would resonate with his Jewish audience. Luke of course understood that Jesus was not just a prophet, but he portrayed him as walking the same path as the prophets and following in their footsteps. So Luke frames this question about how to pray in the form of prophetic teaching when the disciple says to him, "Teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples."  The disciple is saying, "Hey, John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray, so act like that prophet and teach us to pray." They were saying, "Be like the other prophets we know." The apostles had seen Jesus in prayer previously, and they wanted him to act like other prophets, so they wanted him to teach them to pray like the other prophets.

And here's where Jesus gives us an ancient teaching and a brand new teaching all at once. He is going to take something ordinary and do something completely unexpected with it. So the disciples want him to act like a prophet and teach them to pray. Fine, he'll do that, he'll teach them to pray. But then with that very first word of the prayer we have something completely new, and that first word is "Father."

Here's we need to understand a bit more background. Among Jewish literature, especially among the poetic scriptures, there had certainly been a tradition of comparing God to a father, and there are also writings about God's nurturing and motherly characteristics. So in Jewish history, there is present this poetic tradition of comparing God to a father, but it was never much more than a comparison. Fundamentally, God was YHWH, I Am Who Am, as he revealed to Moses in the burning bush. This name asserts God's complete transcendence, his complete otherness. God is the one who just exists, and he relies on no one else for his existence. Of course, throughout the Old Testament we see how much God does care for Israel and how close he actually is to those who love him. The Old Testament is the story of God's loving care for Israel, but it is always against the backdrop of the name YHWH, God is other.

So this newness, this twist that Jesus so often gives to the ordinary, comes when he addresses God simply as "Father." No comparison, nothing about how God is like a Father, he just says, "You, God, Father." Jesus shows us that this utterly transcendent God is in fact right here with us. He isn't merely like a father, he is our Father. He couldn't be closer. And then Jesus continues to show us how to interact with this Father: you assert his holiness, you ask for the things you need, and you pray for forgiveness of your sins.

So the totally new lesson Jesus has for his disciples is how God is actually their Father, he isn't just like a father. And now the ancient lesson comes when he teaches them to pray to this Father without ceasing. It's ancient because it's the same lesson we learn from Abraham in the first reading. Pray without ceasing. Be persistent in your prayer! Be obnoxious, even! This story about knocking on a neighbor's door at midnight is strange because if I were to knock on your door at midnight, I'd fully expect you to call the police! But Luke understands Jewish culture because in this culture, ties of family and friendship were paramount. Luke understands that of course you would get out of bed to help your friend at all hours, if not because it's the right thing to do, then at least because your friend is persistence.

The new lesson, that God really is our Father, and the ancient lesson, that we should pray to him relentlessly, should cause us to ask some questions: How well do I actually believe that God is my Father, and does that belief change me? Do I pray to him without ceasing?

In the examples Jesus gives about knocking on a friend's door at midnight and about how a Father gives a son exactly what he asks for, Jesus is inviting us to trust the Father. A wise son doesn't try to fill his own needs, because he knows that's what his father want's to do for him. All he has to do is ask. 

So we have to ask for what we need, and we have to ask without ceasing. So how persistent are we in our prayer? And not just prayer for ourselves, but prayer for others as well. I tell you, when I'm praying for myself, I am the most persistent person in the world, but when I'm praying for others, unless it's really serious, I often just offer a passing prayer for that person and then kind of move on. I suspect that many people are similar. But Jesus teaches us to be persistent in all of our prayer, not just the prayers for ourselves.

Sometimes, this persistent prayer is gentle, it is allowing God to be a constant presence in your life, and you are just always aware that he is right near you, and he cares for you.

But sometimes this persistent prayer is not a gentle thing. Sometimes when we pray, it's like were kicking down the door to heaven, not quietly knocking on the door. We ask for great things from God, because he can deliver great things! We don't sheepishly ask for things from God, gently calling him if he as time for us. We boldly ask great things from God, because we know he's great, and we know we are his children through baptism.

The sense of the Greek word we have translated as persistence could also be translated as "shamelessness." So the neighbor will give his friend what he needs because of his shamelessness. There is no need to be ashamed when you have a need and you need someone else to fill that need, especially when that need can only be filled by God. We turn to God without shame or embarrassment and ask him to do what we cannot do. And he promises that if we ask, we will receive; if we seek, we will find; and if we knock, the door is opened.

So remember the new lesson: that God is a Father who cares for you. Remember the ancient lesson: that you can approach this Father with boldness. Because he is your Father, you can approach him boldly, without shame. This Father loves you and cares for you, so trust him with everything.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mary and Martha

Have you ever acted without thinking, or more specifically, without praying? I know I have. My parents could tell you countless stories of the things I did without thinking when I was growing up, and how seldom that worked out for me. The gospel today gives us an image of praying and working, and how they must relate to each other.

This story follows directly on the heels of last week's story about the Good Samaritan. Last week, we saw Jesus upset the social convention by turning the samaritan, a member of a hated group of people, into a good guy, making him the hero of a story. Today we see more social conventions being broken, and more folks than just Jesus are getting in on the act. First off, Mary's place as a woman in 1st century Judaism was indeed in the kitchen. It was the man's place to entertain the guest, or in this case to sit and learn from the guest since he was a rabbi. But instead, Mary is sitting where the men belong and learning from the rabbi. But Martha commits the biggest social blunder by asking the guest, an esteemed rabbi, to interfere in this family argument. 

So what's going on? Is Jesus just upsetting social convention for the heck of it? I don't think so. I think he is trying to teach Martha and Mary something important, and in turn he is trying to teach us also. A very traditional interpretation of this story is to see Martha and Mary as representatives of the active and contemplative lives. Martha represents the active life. All of us who have taken up normal jobs and work in the secular world have taken up the active life, we work in the world to bring about the Kingdom of God. Mary represents the contemplative life. The contemplative life refers, usually, to religious communities that have shut themselves off from the world and labor for the Kingdom of God by their constant prayers. Although we don't see them, their prayers are vitally important to the Church. So in this traditional interpretation of the Martha and Mary story, Jesus appears to be simply validating the contemplative life by saying that she has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

I think this is a good way to understand this story, but I want to push it further because I think Jesus is trying to teach us something here in the Martha and Mary story, and that is the importance of listening to God before acting. Throughout the Bible, anytime someone sets off to do a great thing they always take time to hear the voice of God first. The good kings of the Old Testament consulted God through the prophets before they undertook anything. The apostles had to be prepared for their mission to the world by following Jesus for three years. And even Jesus went to the desert for forty days to listen to his Father before he began his public ministry. In the Bible it is always clear that hearing God comes before action.

If we work with that traditional interpretation, where Mary represents contemplation and Martha represents action, then we see that Jesus condemns neither Martha nor Mary. Keep in mind, of course, that we are using Martha and Mary as they are presented in this short story as representatives of entire ways of life. I'm sure this short story doesn't sum up their personalities. I'm sure Mary did her fair share of housework, and I'm sure Martha prayed too. But at this point, Mary had her priorities a bit more correct than did Martha.

So in our own lives, do we allow contemplation to come before action? And by this I mean do we spend serious time with God before we begin trying to work for him? The psalms tell us that if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor, and if the Lord does not watch over the house, in vain does the watchman keep vigil. We have to make sure we are doing the work God want's us to do before trying to work for him. There's a quote I've heard before that basically asks: "Are you working for God or doing God's work?" Hopefully we are constantly trying to work for God, but we have to pray to him to see if the work we are doing is actually what he wants us to be doing. 

When I talk about working for God, I'm not just thinking of those of us who are paid by the Church, I'm thinking of each of you, and all the good things you do each day, raising a family, being obedient to your parents, and quietly witnessing to God's power every day. We must pray before undertaking big actions because we want to know God's will in these things. If I live my life only in the sphere of action, I can and probably will find God from time to time. But if I spend some time in contemplation, some time where I set action aside, I can't help but meet God.

Now when I say that it's important to occasionally set action aside and spend time with God, I'm not talking about giving up all your legitimate responsibilities to run off and be a hermit. That is probably not what God wants from you. What he does want, though, is to be involved in the decisions of your life. So rather than acting without thinking or praying, like I did when I was a kid, ask God what he would have you do. Mary's posture of listening to Jesus and Martha's posture of working for him are both important, but Mary's must come first. If we don't first follow Mary's example of listening, then Martha's example of work will very soon lose its way. That's how we work for God without doing God's work.

I want to address the men for just a second. Sometimes we struggle to listen to God because we have our own plans and we don't want to consult anyone else about them. It kind of rubs us the wrong way to have to ask anyone else what's best for me. It takes a real act of humility to sit back and just listen to the Lord's plan for us rather than try to formulate our own plans. But in this humility we have Jesus as our example. His humility, his ability to just receive God's plan rather than try to come up with his own, gave him the strength to face down the devil himself. This is the sort of strength we want, but this sort of strength only comes from a humility that can surrender to God's plan.

And now back to all of us. Take from this reading the example of both Martha and Mary. Mary shows us how to listen to God, and Martha shows us how to work for God. Both are necessary, but Jesus tells us clearly that listening to him must come first. We must first hear God's voice in prayer before we try to do any work for God. So listen every day for his voice, find out what he wants from your life, and then act on what you hear.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Who is my neighbor?

In today's Gospel, we are confronted with two questions. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is my neighbor? These two questions form the crux of one of the most beloved parables in all of the Gospels. These questions reverberate down to our present day because they continue to be important to us. I want to look at how Jesus dealt with these questions, then i want to look at how these questions apply to us. They're timeless questions, but in the gospel they're set in a specific time, and so we have to understand the basics of that period, and the three groups of people that we meet in this story. We encounter a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. We need to understand these groups as Jesus's listeners did in order to grasp the full meaning of this story.

The priests and the Levites were almost the same group. The Levites were one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and they were the ones who took care of the temple. Priests were chosen from among the Levites, so all priests were Levites, but not all Levites were priests. They represent the "in crowd" of Judaism, because they were crucial for temple worship and sacrifice.

And then there's the Samaritans: As Israel tried to identify itself as a people, a religion, and a nation, marrying within the religion became an important way to identify who belonged to our group and who didn't. It was a way to identify "us" as followers of God and "them," who were not. But not everybody followed this as closely as they would have liked. The Jews in Samaria had started to marry outside the religion, to mix the bloodlines, and they had done this for so long that they formed a distinct people that was excluded from the rest of Judaism, and they ended up being called the Samaritans. Samaritan was a bad word to Jesus's audience, so in our parable they represent the "outsiders," not the "in crowd of the priests and Levites.

From the get go, this story is tense, The gospel tells us that the scholar wanted to test him. The whole purpose of this encounter was not a friendly exchange of ideas, it was to test Jesus. But the conversation wasn't initially about neighbors. The scholar tested him by asking him about eternal life. The scholar said, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" and Jesus quickly turns the conversation to be about neighbors. What is Jesus doing here? Is he changing the topic? No, whether or not I inherit eternal life is directly connected to how I treat my neighbor, so Jesus is getting right to the heart of the matter.

So the scholar correctly quotes the first and greatest commandment: to love God above all else and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is child's play for this scholar. So he decided he wants to show off and he asks "Well, who is my neighbor?" And then we get the story. The scholar clearly wanted to prove that he was loving his neighbor as himself, just as the commandment says, because to him, his "neighbor" was those who were a part of his group, those who were easy to love.

But the correct answer to the question "Who is my neighbor" is "everyone," I am supposed to love everyone as myself. Jesus uses his story to say that Israel was not doing this. Now, it's not immediately obvious in the story that the priest and the Levite did a bad thing by passing the man on the opposite side of the road. In order to do their ministry, the priest and the Levite had to observe ritual purity, and part of that involved not touching human blood. So Jesus audience might have understood why the priest and Levite didn't help. But then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He brings this outsider, this Samaritan, in and makes him look like the good guy.

So who is my neighbor? In the context of the commandment we hear in the gospel, to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor? Clearly, it's not just the person who lives on either side of me. My neighbor in this context is specifically the person I don't want to love. Now, if the person you don't want to love actually does live right next to you, then great! You don't have to go looking for someone to love, they're right there! The neighbor of the man on the roadside was the Samaritan, the person who should have been his enemy.

Jesus is teaching us two big things about how to obey this greatest commandment. He is teaching us that we can't just love those who are easy to love, we have to love those who are difficult, and he is teaching us that this love has to cost us something, it can't just be nice feelings.

We have to love those who are difficult to love. The Samaritan and the man who got robbed had nothing to do with each other, and as far as their cultures were concerned, they had every right to hate each other. We have to love those who aren't a part of our group. Who would you rather not associate with? Who is it easier to just avoid? That's a personal question. Is it those who are richer than you? Poorer than you? Those who vote for the other political party? Those who talk differently than you? Or maybe someone with a different value system? Or maybe it's even more personal than that. Maybe someone has hurt you, and that's the neighbor you don't want to love, maybe it was someone close to you. Take a moment and examine your life and figure out who it is who you don't want to love, and then figure out how to love that person.

And that second lesson: this love has to cost us something. When we love the difficult person, that love requires action, not just nice sentiment. The Samaritan in the parable lifted the man onto his own animal, so now the Samaritan was walking and thus exposed to the robbers who were around. And, he spent his own money to take care of the man. He didn't just wish the half-dead man a pleasant day, he went out of his way and drew from his own resources to be a neighbor to him.

Finally, it's interesting to examine how the parable ends. When Jesus puts the question back to the scholar of the law and asks him "Which of these three was neighbor to the robber's victim?", the scholar can't even bring himself to say "the Samaritan," because the divide between the Jews and the Samaritans runs too deep. All he can say is "The one who treated him with mercy." He sees the point of the story, but he doesn't like it.


So what must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is my neighbor? These are the questions to deal with today. We know we want eternal life, and Jesus tells us that to inherit eternal life, we must consider everyone our neighbor, and treat them as the Samaritan treated the robber's victim. So find that difficult neighbor, show him mercy, and that's how you will inherit eternal life.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Peace Be With You

The Sign of Peace is a very important piece of the Mass, but I think it is misunderstood.* At its best it is a chance to express exactly what it is: the peace of the Lord. At its worst, I have seen it more closely resemble a cocktail hour with lengthy and loud conversation, and people on a mission to shake the hand of everyone within their reach. This is on my mind because the Sign of Peace made an appearance today in the Office of the Readings:

"On the Lord’s day, when you have been gathered together, break bread and celebrate the Eucharist. But first confess your sins so that your offering may be pure. If anyone has a quarrel with his neighbor, that person should not join you until he has been reconciled. Your sacrifice must not be defiled. In this regard, the Lord has said: In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice."

This passage comes from the Didache, a collection of writings that dates from the early 1st century. The Didache, which means "teaching," is the earliest example of a catechism that we have. This ancient document ties peace with each other to the issue of whether or not the sacrifice we offer to God us pure. So the Sign of Peace is a symbolic but deeply important gesture. We don't go around the church to offer the Sign of Peace to everyone to ensure our offering is pure, but we should examine our hearts each time we offer the Sign of Peace to our neighbor and ask "Is there anyone I know to whom I could not extend some sign of peace if they were standing next to me?" Perhaps there's someone who betrayed you, or perhaps political parties or leaders have let you down. Can you find it in your heart to extend to that person the Peace of the Lord? The sacrifice we offer to the Father is at stake. That's what the Sign of Peace is all about.

*This is one of those blogs that especially qualifies as "Deacon Brian's opinion." Please don't crucify me if you happen to love the Sign of Peace.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Laborers are Few

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus bids us to ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for the harvest, because the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few. We love to use this passage to promote vocations to the priesthood, but the dangers is that we end up thinking that priests are the only ones who are sent to labor in this harvest that Jesus is speaking of. We end up twiddling our thumbs, looking around at anyone but ourselves, and hoping that The Lord sends someone else to do this laboring. But he laborers are each and every one of us! We are all meant to labor in this harvest! A quick glance at the evening news reminds us that the world is in rough shape, but this world is the harvest The Lord wants for himself, and he wants each of us to share in the labor it's going to require to get it! So today I am examining my life to see where I might labor more or better to help bring about this harvest in the world.

The picture is of the Calling of Matthew, a painting I was blessed to see while I was in Rome. Matthew is the one pointing at himself with the expression that says "Who? Me?" Many of us are genuinely surprised when we realize the great things Jesus is calling us to. Yet Matthew responded to the Lord's invitation to become a laborer of this harvest; let's try to imitate Matthew in this.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

St. Peter's Basilica

Yesterday was what the whole pilgrimage was building up to: visiting the tomb of St. Peter, celebrating mass there, and gaining a new appreciation for the Rock on which Christ build His Church. I am actually writing this entry from the plane on our way back to the United States because I was just too tired to write an entry last night after our great day at St. Peter's Basilica.

St. Peter's in the morning sun


To begin our day at St. Peter's we left our hotel at 6 am for the short walk over to the basilica. We celebrated an early morning mass in the crypt of the basilica surrounded by the tombs of about a dozen pontiffs, but most importantly, the tomb of St. Peter was about thirty feet behind our altar.

The tomb of Pope John Paul II


The length of the basilica


Then, every fifteen minutes or so, a small portion of our group left for the Scavi tour. This was a sacred, no-picture sort of area, so my description will have to suffice. Scavi is just Italian for excavation, and this is the tour that goes through the excavations below St. Peter's basilica. The present basilica was built in the 16th century (?) to replace the original basilica that had been built by Constantine in the 4th century. Constantine built the basilica over 1st century cemetery that our unbroken tradition held was where Peter was buried. The altar of each basilica has been located over the tomb of St. Peter, and in the 1940s they began excavations to try and find the tomb. The excavations found a tomb but it was empty. The excavations also discovered graffiti on a wall (much of the 1st century cemetery was above-ground internment buildings) referring to Peter's bones being below the tomb. They dug down and indeed found bones that we're identified as those of a man who was about 60 year olds. This indeed fits the description of Peter. DNA testing being what it was in the Roman Empire, no test can prove conclusively that these are Peter's bones of course. But the fact that we found bones of the right kind of person where 1900 years of tradition said they would be tells me that these are the bones of the first bishop of Rome.

Anyway, the Scavi tour takes you through much of the excavated cemeteries and you get to see the paintings preserved in the burial buildings, the inscriptions on the tombs, and the foundations of Constantine's basilica. Finally, you get to see the bones of St. Peter. After they were discovered and tested, they were replaced in their original location. They are located behind the wall of the Clementine chapel below the main altar, placed in a clear plastic box. You take a side door out of the beautiful Clementine chapel to enter the archeology area behind it and you see the bones through a hole in the wall. For all the beauty of the basilica, you only see the bones of the fisherman from Galilee by leaving the gold and artwork and climbing on catwalks in the dirt-filled excavation area. Somehow, that seems fitting.

In the afternoon we visited the Vatican museums. The museum was very crowded and difficult to enjoy, but on an emptier day I would have loved visiting their collection. The Vatican has a priceless collection of art and artifacts from all of world history, but the highlight was definitely walking through the Sistine Chapel where the pope is elected and Michelangelo's masterpieces cover every wall, to reflect on the beauty of the space and how the decisions made there have affected the course of the world. Again, pictures aren't allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so you'll just have to visit it yourself.

The Laocoön, a famous statue from 40-30 bc


Dinner in the evening, our last evening in Rome, was at a beautiful outdoor restaurant just outside the city with all 105 pilgrims. It was a beautiful ending to a great trip, and I already can't wait to come back again to Rome!

A parting shot of St. Peter's from the roof of our hotel 

 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Catacombs and Coliseum

Today's post will likely be brief because tomorrow is going to start especially early as we leave for mass in St. Peter's basilica. The day began with mass in some of the Christian catacombs, where we also were blessed to see the oldest known image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, from the early 200s. It was very special to be among the burial grounds of so many Christians and really come to appreciate the ancientness of our faith.

Preparing for mass in the catacombs


A family burial room. You can see an image of the three wise men visiting Mary in the upper arch.


The oldest known image of the Virgin and Child. They're on the right, with a prophet pointing at them.


Then my half of the large group went to the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum was the center for worship, trade, and government in 1st century Rome, and much of it has been excavated and available to view. Then we got a guided tour of the Coliseum and we got to go to the lowest and highest spots in the structure. That we truly awesome. 

The Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum


The Arch of Titus contains the only existing image of the menorah from the Jewish temple from Jesus's day. This arch commemorates Titus's destruction of Jerusalem and his pillaging of the temple. Enslaved Jews built this arch. 


Part of a basilica (which was a meeting hall, not originally a church) from Constantine's era, I think.


In Michelangelo's era, the green door was at ground level. It has all been excavated since then.
  

Waiting for our Coliseum tour


Approaching the floor of the arena


The Coliseum from down low


The Coliseum from up high

The clouds, too, we're epic this afternoon

After that, the bishop hosted a dinner for the young adults of this trip, and apparently I still qualify for that group! We had dinner at a great restaurant that Bob Rodgers the local seminarian knew of. Hands down the best dinner of the trip. Now, it's earlyish to bed as we prepare for morning mass in St. Peter's Basilica. So excited!

Right before dinner, we visited the tomb of the apostles Philip and James, next door to our restaurant.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

St. Paul Outside the Walls

Today began with mass in another one of the four Major Basilicas, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. This is Bishop Paul Etienne's favorite basilica, but no big surprise there. It is a very simple basilica, at least compared to some of the others we've visited recently. One interesting feature of this basilica is that they have a mosaic of each pope, from St. Peter through Pope Benedict XVI (they're still working on Francis's picture) lining the upper walls of the basilica. We celebrated mass on a side altar, because ordinarily only the pope celebrates mass on the main altars of the Major Basilicas. St. Paul's tomb is located below the main altar, and the foundation of the fourth century basilica that preceded the current structure is also visible. During the year of St. Paul in 2008-09 archeologists drilled into the tomb located below the altar and discovered purple threads. Purple was an expensive dye in the ancient world, so anyone who was buried with it was a person of some importance. This lends credence to the undisputed tradition that Paul's mortal remains are indeed below the altar of this church. 

Exterior view of the basilica


From inside the basilica's courtyard


Inside the basilica

The high altar and the apse. A few of the popes's images can be seen in the circles on either side of the apse.


St. Paul's tomb behind the grille


The foundation of the earlier basilica


Peter and Paul are always a team



The front of the basilica and courtyard


We then returned to the hotel for lunch, and then had a free afternoon because the normally scheduled Wednesday audience with the pope was cancelled this week. I joined a small group of young adults to wander a touristy shopping area near St. Peter's. We enjoyed dinner while we were out, and then we sat in St. Peter's Square as darkness descended in order to see the illuminated St. Peter's. Now, I am preparing to go to bed earlier than I have yet on this pilgrimage, only 10:30 pm.

St. Peter's through the columns


From another angle she's touching the tip of the dome. From this angle she just looks silly.


This basilica is beautiful at any hour

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Preaching, churches, prayer time

The day started (after breakfast and an adequate amount of coffee) with mass at one of the four major basilicas of Rome, St. Mary Major. The name basically refers to it being the biggest church in Rome dedicated to Mary. The highlight of this mass was that I gotta preach the homily today. The gospel was about Jesus calming the storm, so I talked to the pilgrims about how Jesus can calm the storms of our life, whether they are storms of this pilgrimage or much bigger problems. In the gospel, Jesus sets faith as the opposite of fear when he says “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?”. So we need to allow faith to overcome our fear. Whatever we fear in this life, our faith in Christ can overcome it.

The Blessed Sacrament chapel in Mary Major.


St. Mary Major's has a relic of Christ's manger-crib below the altar


It's that piece of wood hanging in the middle:


The main interior of St. Mary Major's


And the exterior


I was privileged to preach this message in a side altar of Mary Major, where we had before us the icon of Mary entitled Salus Populi Romani, or The Help of the People of Rome. This is the most beloved image of Mary for the people of Rome. It is around a 1000 years old, and the people of Rome have turned to it in times of war, famine and plague to help their faith to overcome their fear. 

After Mary Major, we visited the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, another icon with numerous miracles attributed to it. We also visited a church that claims to have the pillar that Jesus was scourged on. It was very special to pray in front of that. Then, after another delicious lunch in a street side restaurant, half the group left for a tour of the coliseum, while my half went with the Bishop Etienne and Rome Seminarian Bob Rodgers for some prayer time and tour of significant churches on the way back to the hotel. My half of the group will tour the coliseum on Thursday. We visited the church where St. Helen is buried. She was Constantine's mother and the one who discovered the True Cross, we visited the church where St. Ignatius of Loyola did his work in Rome, and we visited a church dedicated co St. Philip Neri, the "second apostle to Rome."

Trajan's Column. It commemorates the military victories of the early second century Emperor Trajan.


I don't honestly remember what church this was, but I liked all the chandeliers.


The dome of St. Ignatius's church


And above the nave


The dome of St. Alphonsus's church


And the apse


We then had dinner at the hotel with the whole group, and I enjoyed a nice drink and wonderful conversation on the patio with fellow seminarian Bob Rodgers before retiring for the evening.