Disciples of Grace and the Word

Disciples of Grace and the Word

When we think about the witness of St. Peter or St. Paul, it’s easy to say “I could never do that.  They were rock star disciples.  I’m too weak.”  Because of our weakness and sins, we question our ability to be good disciples. 

So many people are in marriages that are strained or broken.  Others become weary as they battle sexual sins like porn or sex outside of marriage.  Others find themselves caught up in gossip at school or work.  Still others feel hopeless because of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church.  We can become discouraged before our sin and be tempted to give up on being disciples. The temptation is to give up on daily prayer, to give up on having a pure heart, to give up on forgiveness, or to doubt that God is guiding the Church. 

However, it is precisely weak sinners who become strong disciples.  After the huge catch of fish, Peter knelt before Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk. 5:8).  Paul said, “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9).  Being a sinner did not prevent them from being disciples.  Rather, God often uses sinners to be the best disciples. 

The first lesson about discipleship:  What matters is not how sinful we are, but that grace is greater than our worst sin.  Paul says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace has not been ineffective in me.” (1 Cor. 15:10).  In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes how the sin of Adam has spread through the whole human race.  Then he says, “But however much sin increased, grace was always greater” (Rom. 5:20).  Do you believe that?  “However much sin increased, grace was always greater.”  One of the most frequent temptations is to doubt the power of grace. That happens when a person feels that he or she can never overcome a particular sin, or when we give up on the pervasiveness of sin in society.

Paul learned that God’s grace was so much greater than his sins.  It is greater than all sin.  No matter how weak or sinful you feel today, be open to God’s grace.  What matters is not how sinful we are, but that grace is greater than our worst sin — and that we open ourselves to God’s grace.

The second lesson about being a disciple:  Listen to the Word.  Christ will challenge you to go deeper.  When Peter was worn out from working all night long, Jesus said, “Put out into the deep” (Lk. 5:4).  Peter’s life was turned upside down because he listened to Jesus’ Word

At first he is casually listening in as a bystander.  Jesus is preaching by the shore while Peter is washing his nets.  Then Jesus takes it one step further.  He steps into Peter’s boat and asks him to put out a short distance, then continues to teach.     Peter must have been listening to what he was saying while he was working,  sort of like listening to a good CD while driving a car. 

Finally, Jesus speaks directly to Peter.  He says, “Put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.”  He and his partners have been fishing all night long. They’re tiredThey want to clean their nets and go home.  So Peter must have been at least a little annoyed.  You can hear both exhaustion and trust as Peter says, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command (literally, “at your word”) I will lower the nets” (Lk. 5:5).  Night was the best time for fishing; any fishermen knew that.  Yet, Peter listens to Jesus, and acts on his words.

How many times are we worn out from a long day and don’t feel like praying?  How often does a repeated sin dishearten us and we give up on God’s mercy?  Especially then, take the time to read a little bit of the Gospel.  Or pray over a psalm.  Listen to these words from today’s psalm that speak to a weary heart:  “Your right hand saves me. . . . your kindness, O Lord, endures forever; forsake not the work of your hands” (Ps. 138:7-8).   

Peter was not a great disciple because he was sinless, but because he listened to Jesus’ Word, especially the words of mercy.  After his triple denial, he remembered Jesus’ words, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times” (Lk. 22:61).   Yet he also remember how Jesus had assured Peter that he would pray for him that his faith would not fail.  Then after the resurrection Jesus nudged Peter’s heart with his mercy by asking him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (Jn. 21:15).  Jesus’ challenging and merciful words made him a great disciple.

Take two minutes to read the Gospel again.  Listen especially to Jesus words to Peter.  How is he encouraging you or challenging you as his disciple?

Rejoicing in Rejection

Rejoicing in Rejection

If Jesus were on earth today, people would treat him the same way as they did in this Sunday’s Gospel passage (Lk. 4:21-30).  Some would praise him and others would reject him.  We often think that if Jesus came today, everyone in the Church would recognize his authority.  We assume that he would bring peace to the Church.  But he would be rejected, just like he was 2,000 years ago.  Even in the Church, some would marvel at his gracious words, while others would be filled with fury and want to drive him out of town (Lk. 4:22, 28-29).  This is how people treat prophets.  It will always be that way. 

This gospel scene is a snapshot of Jesus’ entire ministry.  He will be a raving success when he heals the blind, the lame and the lepers.    Yet, he will experience bitter rejection.  Some will grumble when he shows mercy toward sinners.  Even though they see him cast out evil spirits, they will say that he is possessed by the devil (Mk. 3:22). 

As we read this passage, we are amazed that people are praising him, but shortly after they are so infuriated that they want to hurl him over a cliff.  As Luke begins to tell the story of Jesus ministry, he puts before us the praise of the crowds as well as their rejection, and even diabolical anger which will lead him to the cross.  If we are stunned by such contrasting reactions, then we still do not know the battle of good and evil at work in our hearts, the Church and the world.  This is a snapshot of the battle between good and evil which prophets confront. 

As a prophet, Jesus was destined for rejection.  As disciples of Jesus who share his prophetic mission through baptism, we should expect rejection.  We should not be surprised when some in the Church are reviled by others.  For example, St. Oscar Romero was hated by the wealthy Catholics of El Salvador when he stood up for the rights of the poor.  His fellow bishops and the Papal Nuncio did not support with him because he stood up against the government and military who were persecuting people.

Prophets stand alone and are persecuted.

As disciples, the first reaction to rejection is that we should expect it.  Something is wrong if we are never ostracized or reviled for Jesus’ name.  Then we are not living as authentic witnesses of Christ.  Sometimes people react with anger when I preach.  At times, they have walked out in the middle of a homily.  That bothers me because I want people to like me.  None of us wants to be rejected.  Yet, it’s part of our prophetic mission. 

Parents should experience some rejection from their children, when they stand strong in setting clear boundaries.  Teens should expect to be ridiculed by their peers simply because they live with moral values.  Legislators should expect scorn from their constituents and fellow legislators because they are not afraid to be guided by a strong moral compass in debating social issues.

Expect rejection and rejoice in it, instead of complain when it happens.  How often we grumble when we experience hatred.  But Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! . . . For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. (Lk. 6:22-23)

To rejoice in rejection requires a mature faith.  It means that you have learned to trust God in the darkest moments.  You have become a disciple who has embraced the cross and who remembers the victory of the cross.  You believe that God is greater than the worst evil.  Above all, you know that the Lord is with you and will prevail.

That is what Jeremiah experienced in his call.  God warned him that he would be rejected, yet he was assured of God’s help.  He heard the Lord say, “Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them. . . . They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (Jer. 1:17, 19).  The Church paired that reading with this gospel passage because it captures the trust of Jesus as he gets a taste of his future crucifixion and death.

The prophet expects rejection, rejoices in it, and walks away in freedom.  When they drove him out of town and wanted to kill him, “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away” (Lk. 4:30).  He didn’t complain about their attitude, or lament how poorly he was treated.  He walked away in freedom.  After this, he went to Capernaum where he taught with authority, expelled demons and healed people.  He kept focused on his mission.

One of the clearest signs of a prophet is that they have an inner freedom.  They do not get elated when people praise them, nor do they get discouraged when people despise them.  Prophets do not react to how people treat them; rather they act out of their relationship with God.  They are centered in God.  That gives them freedom from people’s opinions.

This is seen clearly in Pope Francis.  He is peaceful and free.  He is not perfect, and he makes mistakes.  But he has inner freedom.  Despite all the problems in the Church, he says that he has an abiding peace.  I am convinced that he is a prophet.  He is disliked by some in the Church because he has the freedom to listen to the Word of God and let it refresh the Church as we deal with troubled marriages or issues like immigration.  Especially, he urges us to be merciful like the Father is merciful. His appeal to mercy is one of the reasons that people reject him.

He is a prophet, so we should expect to see him rejected, even by Catholics.  Since he is the Vicar of Christ it is fitting that he is being rejected.  Like Romero who was derided by other Catholics, the prophets are not accepted in their day.  But they walk through the crowd in freedom. 

Do you want to walk with the freedom of a prophet?  Then seek to be centered in God alone.  Let God’s Word guide you, not the words of the crowd.  Take 3-4 minutes to read the gospel every day.  As you come to Eucharist, ask for the grace to expect rejection, to rejoice in it, and to walk in freedom.

Disturbed by Baptism

Disturbed by Baptism

Are you confused by Jesus’ baptism?  Many people find it confusing.  Why would Jesus be baptized when it was a sign of repentance?  He was sinless, so why would he be baptized?

If you find the Baptism of Jesus confusing, that is a good sign.  That means that the power of the sign is sinking in.  Jesus often proclaimed the kingdom of God with disturbing parables or signs.  Remember how unsettled Peter was when Jesus washed his feet?  Why would his master kneel down and wash his feet like a servant?  It was good for Peter to be disturbed.  That meant that he was beginning to understand the significance of the gesture. 

That is the kind of moment we have here.  John said about Jesus, “One mightier than I is coming.  I am not worthy to loosen the straps of his sandals.” (Lk. 3:16)  Imagine how confusing this was for John the Baptist!

God likes to surprise us, like having his Son born in a stable and laid in a feed trough for animals.  By his humble birth, Jesus came to be with poor shepherds, instead of important people like kings or the Jewish leaders.  It was a prophetic sign that God dwells with all people, especially with the poor and humble. Later Jesus clarified this sign by telling a parable of his final coming in glory when he will judge the world.  After listing categories of the poor – the hungry, homeless, sick, prisoners, and strangers or immigrants without any legal rights – he disturbs us by declaring, “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers [and sisters], you did to me.”  (Mt. 25:40)  In that parable, he warned us that we should see him in every poor person.  The most desperate people are special places where he dwells.  That is what it meant for him to be born and laid in a feed trough.

Jesus’ baptism is an extension of that revelation.  Now he reveals an even deeper love.  He is with us in our sin.  He joins sinners coming for baptism.  As people come in droves to John the Baptist, Jesus associates himself with sinful humanity.

That is why he chose to be crucified between two criminals, a prophetic sign shocking us with his mercy.  When one of the criminals pleaded with him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he assured him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  (Lk. 23:42-43)

Jesus’ baptism foreshadows the cross, where he takes on the sin of all the world.  He experienced the whole weight of human sin at the crucifixion.  Yet, he kept speaking of mercy.  He stunned us by praying for those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”  (Lk. 23:34)

In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote:  “For our sake [God] made [his Son] to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21). When we think of this, we should have a holy confusion.  We should ask, “What is God doing?  How could Jesus act with such goodness?”

In his letter to Titus, St. Paul reacts to this mystery by saying, “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth [i.e., by our baptism] and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us.” (Tit. 3:4-6)

One of the goals of religion is wonder….. to sit and marvel at who God is and how God acts.  Jesus was baptized to be with us in our sin and rescue us from sin.  Through his birth and baptism, “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.”

But it doesn’t stop there.  We are also baptized.  He has baptized us “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Lk. 3:16)  We share his mission.  Now we are supposed to shock people with our prophetic deeds like St. Maximillian Kolbe who volunteered to die in a starvation bunker at Auschwitz for a man he did not know, or like Mother Teresa who picked up the dying off the streets of Kolkata because she was struck by the warning, “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.” 

We have been given the Holy Spirit and the fire of God’s love.   We have been immersed in the Spirit, not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy.  

Today, marvel at how that gift has been revealed in Jesus.  And ask for the grace to act like him – to be his hands and feet in the world, and to recognize Christ in his least brothers and sisters.

Making resolutions at the manger

Making resolutions at the manger

Have you sat in silence with Mary and gazed at the manger?  Just sitting and pondering the mystery, whether your manger scene at home or at church.  After telling us the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke says, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)  Another translation says, “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” 

This is a clue to how we should respond to the Christmas mystery.  It is a treasure to be pondered.  Take a few minutes to reflect on these things with Mary.  Jesus’ birth changed her life completely.  As the mother of God’s Son, Mary is the Mother of God.  That title was given to her in the year 431.  At a council of the bishops at Ephesus (in modern day Turkey) they declared that Jesus was “true God and true man” from his conception in Mary’s womb.  That truth was declared by calling Mary, the Mother of God.  The Greek title Theotokos means she carried God in her womb.  Imagine what that was like for her. 

Paul reflects on this mystery and takes it one step further.  “God sent his Son, born of a woman . . . that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal. 4:4-5)  This Paul’s favorite way of describing the effect of our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are adopted by God as his sons and daughters.  At that time, adoption had permanent consequences.  The adopted son became a true son of his adopting father.  Therefore:

  • The adopted son could never be rejected.
  • The natural parents could not reclaim the adopted son.
  • Adoption included the rights of inheritance.

Through Jesus we have received “adoption as sons [and daughters]” so we can never be rejected by God.  Once our parents bring us for baptism, we belong to God.  Our natural parents cannot take us back.  Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  And, we are heirs to all of God’s gifts.

Mary cooperated with God’s grace and became the Mother of God.  If we cooperate with the grace of baptism, we will be transformed into God’s own children.  We will act like Jesus.  We will be his presence. 

Our adoption is real.  The question is whether we will live it.  How about a New Year’s resolution to live your adoption as a son or daughter of God?  What would that look like?  Paul said, “As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba,’ Father!” (Gal. 4:6)   Anthony de Mello said it this way.  Through baptism we are blessed with the relationship that Jesus had with the Father.  We have the right to speak to God face-to-face.  “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’”

When you pray, do you pray with confidence of little children who speak to their mom or dad?  Are you in tune with the Spirit?  Do you ask for the Spirit to guide your actions?  As you look back over your life, do you see a growing awareness of how the Holy Spirit has guided you?  Is your relationship with the Holy Spirit deepening with each passing day?

Then Paul says, “if you are a son [or daughter], then you are also an heir.” (Gal. 4:7)  Adoption leads to the right of inheritance.  You have received the Father’s gifts, just like his Son Jesus was blessed with every good gift:  prayer filled with trust; grace to overcome any sin that plagues your heart; healing power to soothe your wounds and restore your weary spirit; and forgiveness to be merciful like the Father.

The Christmas mystery made Mary into the Mother of God.  It makes us adopted sons and daughters of God.  Sit by the manger scene, ponder this great mystery, and make New Year’s resolutions to help you mature as son or daughter of God.  I suggest three resolutions:

  • for your relationship w/God
  • for your relationship w/family or friends
  • for school or work

Will you wander into the New Year with a sense of doing the same ole, same ole? Or will you resolve to do live intentionally as God’s beloved child?  More hopeful and at peace, with a clearer sense of who you are and whose you are.  More humble and grateful, walking serenely inside of God’s relentless mercy.

Make a commitment to prayer which reflects the reality of your adoption as a son or daughter of God. Make a resolution to treat family members in a way that reflects Christ’s love.  Live your adoption well.

Shining in the darkness

Shining in the darkness

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great LIGHT. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a LIGHT has shone.” (Is. 9:1) Winter is so dark, but winter darkness is the backdrop for Christmas light.

Did you know that in Bethlehem the early Christians always celebrated Christmas Mass at night? By the fifth century the pope in Rome also celebrated a Christmas Mass at night. What’s behind the tradition?  Why bring people out in the middle of the night during the darkest time of the year?  The first people to learn about Jesus’ birth were “shepherds . . . keeping the night watch over their flock.” (Lk. 2:8) The Night Mass was a way to remember the night-time birth of Jesus.

That was the historical significance, but there was also a symbolic significance. Jesus is the Light of the human race, especially for those who dwell in the land of gloom. “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a LIGHT has shone.” On Christmas Day John declares, “The LIGHT shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn.1:5)

People in the darkest places hunger for God’s light.  When you dwell in the land of gloom, you yearn for the light. I am thinking of the home-bound or homeless, of immigrants or prisoners, and those with life-threatening illnesses or the dying.   When you live each day with physical weakness or mental frailty, you hunger for the light.  When you are isolated or seen as unwanted and a burden on society, then you crave God´s merciful light to lift you out of that place of gloom.   

People in the darkest places are zeroed in on Christ shining in the darkness. I saw this while serving on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota. One Christmas in a little mission parish, the people had decorated the church, and a little boy named Larry Brown proudly pointed to the string of Christmas lights that he draped around the crucifix behind the altar.  His eyes were beaming with pride as he asked me, “Do you like the lights around the crucifix, Father?”  I said, “It looks great, Larry,” even though it was not how I would have decorated the church for Christmas! 

However, Larry was probably instructed by the elderly ladies to put those lights around the crucifix.  They know the Light that flows from Jesus.  In their daily struggle, they humbly gaze on the cross or the image of divine mercy.  Those Christmas lights framing the crucifix may not have looked elegant, but they expressed the truth proclaimed by John, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

We have had a gloomy year in the Church.  In our weariness, we need to remember that “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We should learn a lesson from the people dwelling in the land of gloom – the home-bound, the poor, the sick, immigrants or the imprisoned. We often ignore these people, but they can help us see the Light of Christ.  In humble faith, they are not absorbed by the darkness, but fix their gaze on the Light streaming from the Risen Lord.

Even more, notice how they are shining in the darkness. When you visit a sick person of faith, the peace of Christ fills their hearts, and you sense it when you speak with them.  The home-bound pray with perseverance.  It’s inspiring to visit them. They illuminate the Church even though they are not here with us. We are strengthened by their faithful prayer.

Some of the most Light-hearted people are the poor who have little or nothing; yet, they emanate joy because Christ dwells in the least (Mt. 25:40).  Ten years ago, I accompanied college students on a mission trip to El Salvador.  After the trip, they said that one of their most memorable experiences was, ‘How joyful the people are, even though they have nothing.’

The Light of Christ infiltrates his disciples, especially the poor and the humble. It shines in the dark world, if only we have eyes to see. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins marveled at the power of this light in a poem, as he wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.  It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil.” We see the grandeur of God flaming out in disciples who show mercy. 

Ten days ago, I visited St. Joseph’s Church in Cheyenne where the youth group was serving the homeless and sitting with them to offer a listening ear.  The light of Christ filled the hall with their simple acts of kindness.  Think of how many times this happens in thousands of parishes across this nation.  Think of all the disciples “shining as a flame of God’s mercy in the world.” (Pope Francis) 

Although our hearts have been saddened this year by clergy who have stumbled in the darkness, tonight remember all the priests who faithfully serve each day patiently hearing confessions, visiting the sick, celebrating the Sacraments, teaching the faith, mourning with people at funerals and rejoicing with them at weddings.  In the universal church, there are 400,000 priests radiating the Light of Christ.

In even greater numbers, religious sisters are shining stars in a dark world.  In October I met Sister Patricia Murray.  She is the Executive Director of religious women in the world, and she described the work of religious sisters serving on the peripheries – working against human trafficking, teaching in poor missions, schools or universities, assisting refugees and immigrants, serving in healthcare or in prisons.  Worldwide there are more than 700,000 sisters shining in the darkness. They are fulfilling the command of Jesus who said, “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Mt. 5:16)

When we think of all the faithful disciples “shining as a flame of God’s mercy in the world,” it calls to mind the words of St. Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.  For light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.” (Eph. 5:8-9)

Tonight marvel at the Light flowing from the crib and the cross.  Remember that God’s power is stronger than sin and sickness, Satan and death.  “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a LIGHT has shone.” (Is. 9:1) See how his Light is shining in the darkness.  It radiates through every good deed you do.  It is multiplied in every faithful disciple. 

Finally, ask the Lord to renew his Light where it has grown dim because of the frailty of flesh, or slavery to sin, or the demon of discouragement.  With humility and confidence, ask the Lord to conquer any darkness in your life and to empower you to walk as a child of Light.

The Light of Christ is the strongest force in the universe.  “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5)

Abound in Love

Abound in Love

This Sunday, I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation with St. James Parish in Douglas.  The homily is below.

As we begin Advent, St. Paul describes well how we are supposed to act.  “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . . so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” (1 Thes. 3:12-13)  The grace of Baptism and Confirmation empowers you to “abound in love for one another.”  The power of the Holy Spirit “strengthens your hearts to be blameless in holiness before God.” 

 As you look at how you treat the people in your family, are you abounding in love for one another?  For youth, is this how people see you treating your brothers and sisters?  Do you abound in respect and love for your parents?  For parents, do you overflow with patience, gentleness and forgiveness with your children?  In your relationship with your husband or wife, do you overflow with Christ’s selfless mercy?

Paul’s challenging words are helpful to hear as we begin Advent.  He reminds us of our goal as disciples – to “abound in love for one another,” and “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father .”   Passages like this make us realize how far we have to go.

To be a good disciple is not to be perfect, but to work at it every day.  You can hear that desire in a letter one young person wrote.  She said:  “By being confirmed in the Spirit, I desire to witness and serve others.  You honor yourself, your parish and God by serving others.  It is one of the many things we have failed in our everyday life, and I feel the need to change that.”  She realizes that she needs to work harder at serving others.

To be a good disciple is to never give up….. to keep working the journey of faith.  The Holy Spirit keeps nudging us along each day, urging us to do more.  In a film about St. Teresa of Calcutta, a reporter is interviewing her.  He has observed her serving the poorest of the poor in the streets, but she is barely making a dent.   To him her work seems meaningless.  So he asked her, “What do you want to accomplish in your life?”  She responded with urgency, “More, more, more.  Always more.” 

A good disciple is someone who feels that he or she has never done enough.  She is restless.  She wants to “increase and abound in love.”  But this does not mean doing more so others see how good I am.   And it’s not increasing my good works out of a sense of guilt because this is how I should act.  Rather, a disciple seeking to “increase and abound in love” is inspired by God.  This feeling arises in a person who is close to God.  In particular, it flows from the experience that God is so good to me.  As St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor. 5:14)

This is the feeling that we often get when we are at Mass because we are refreshed in the mercy flowing from the cross.  When a person is confirmed, one of the first effects is to experience the abundance of God’s goodness, even though you do not deserve it.  And God’s blessings are meant to be used.  They are intended for others.  The abundance of grace inspires us to “increase and abound in love.” 

We see how that abundance shines out in the saints.  They abound in love and heroic strength.  One student chose St. José Sánchez del Río who died as a martyr at 14 years old.  She wrote, “He wanted to be part of the Mexican revolutionary way so he joined the Cristeros.  He knew that he had to fight for his faith. . . . His godfather ordered his assassination.  José was offered many opportunities to be set free but . . . he was stubborn to the end.  The federal forces cut the skin off the bottom of José’s feet and made him walk to the cemetery.  Just before his death, the captain taunted José by asking him what message that he wanted to tell his parents, and José responded.  “That we will see each other in heaven.  ¡Viva Cristo Rey!  ¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!”

 St. José Sánchez del Río was a martyr because he shined with the abundance of God’s power.  He wanted to do something more than just be a regular person.  That is what God wants from you.  He wants you to abound in his love.

The goal of Confirmation is to set your heart on fire with God’s love.  St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.”  God created you so that he could pour the fire of the Holy Spirit into your heart.  You are confirmed to bring that fire to the world.

I gave a talk at the Wyoming Conference for Violence Prevention and Response in Riverton on Wednesday, November 28.  There were 175-200 people at the conference.  That evening I celebrated Mass at St. Stephen’s Mission (cf. the photo with servers).  Afterward, we gathered for a meal and a Listening Session for 50-60 people.  On Thursday, I celebrated Mass for St. Margaret’s School in Riverton.

A Widow’s Generosity

A Widow’s Generosity

Faith and generosity go hand in hand.  Generosity is a critical indicator of your spiritual life.  Jesus watched how people gave to the treasury to discern their spiritual life.  He saw a poor widow who “put in two small coins worth a few cents.”  Meanwhile others were giving large amounts.  But he said, “This poor widow put in more than all the others.”  (Mk. 12:43).  The first thing Jesus teaches us:  Don’t compare your giving with others.

A few years ago, a small parish was doing a capital campaign for a large building project.  One donor with the means to pay for the entire project was approached.  He asked what others were giving.  He wanted to give at their level.  His approach to giving was to compare his gift with others.

Don’t compare your giving with others.  Rather, give in a way that represents your blessings.  Your generosity should represent your relationship with God.  In other words, give in a manner that reflects your faith.  The level of my giving reveals how much I trust God.  It shows the strength or weakness of my faith.

The widow gave everything.  Jesus said, “from her poverty, she has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”  (Mk. 12:44)  He did not say that she was foolish to give her last few cents.  Rather, he marveled at her gift.  WHY?  For one thing, it showed her total trust in God’s providence.  Her reckless generosity is a striking gesture of faith.

Her attitude reflects a similar teaching of Jesus.  He said, “Do not worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and what you are to wear. . . . Look at the birds in the sky.  They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are?”  (Mt. 6:25-26)

Clinging tight to my money is a way of saying I don’t trust in God’s providence. The rich often trust in their wealth.  And the poor trust in God.  So Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, yours is the kingdom of God.”  (Lk. 6:20)  The poor know how to live inside of God’s providence.

When I was on the Standing Rock Indian reservation, one day we were taking up the collection for World Mission Sunday.  One poor lady was providing a home for ten or more children and grandchildren.  Her name was Germaine Eagle.  She had barely enough to get by each month.  I saw her put into the special collection a $50 bill, and I was tempted to tell her not to give so much.

She didn’t compare her gift with others.  Rather, her giving reflected a deep faith in God.  She trusted in God’s providence.  She was like the widow of Zarephath who trusted that God would provide when Elijah told her, “The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”  (1 Kings 17:14)

Some of the most generous people are those who have had a profound experience of God’s mercy.  Their giving is based on the generosity of Christ.  The best motivation for generosity is God’s bountiful mercy.  How have you experienced God’s mercy?  Does your generosity reflect God’s goodness?

We see that generosity in the saints.  It shined out in St. Maximillian Kolbe at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.  When the Nazis sentenced ten men to die in a starvation bunker, one of the men cried out saying that he had a wife and children.  He begged not to be chosen.  Fr. Kolbe heard him cry out and offered himself instead.  He said: “I am a Catholic priest; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”

The man, whose place Kolbe had taken, later said, “I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me—a stranger.” 

St. Maximillian sacrificed his life for someone he didn’t even know.  Kolbe’s generosity was inspired by Jesus’ example on the cross.  When Pope John Paul II canonized Fr. Kolbe in 1982, the man he saved was there for the event.  A TV interviewer asked this man what it felt like to have been saved from death, to have another man die that his own life might be spared.  The saved man replied, “Ever since that day I feel that I have been walking in another man’s shoes.  I feel impelled to live with his attitude, by the values for which he lived and died.”

To be Christian is to come to the same place.  It means to live with Jesus’ attitude, to live by the values for which he lived and died, especially to live with his generosity.  How have you experienced God’s great mercy?  Does your generosity reflect God’s goodness toward you?

The Lord’s bountiful generosity overflows at the Eucharist.  It is freely given so that we might become his generosity for others.  As St. Augustine said about the Eucharist, “Become what you receive.”

Loving my neighbor

Loving my neighbor

Can you teach me the whole Bible in one sentence?  That’s the question put before Jesus.  “Which commandment of the law is the greatest?” (Mk. 12:28)

In Jesus’ day, this was a typical question.  The Jews tell a story about a man who came to the famous Rabbi Hillel and said, “I will become your disciple if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”  Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.  The rest is commentary.”

The greatest commandment is the heart of the commandments.  If you live that commandment, you’ll live all the commandments.  Jesus combined two commandments into one inseparable command: “Love God with all your heart . . . . and love your neighbor.”  The greatest challenge of this commandment is to know who my neighbor is.  What gets in your way of seeing someone as your neighbor?

One obstacle to seeing another person as my neighbor is tribalism.  Let me give you an example using sports.  I have a good friend from Wisconsin named John McHugh.  Now John is an avid fan of the Green Bay Packers.  He is one of those guys you might see jumping up and down and screaming at the TV as he watches his team.

John’s behavior seemed odd because my family did not watch much football.  At first, I thought that maybe cheese-heads were a little crazy in how they reacted to a football game.  However, I have come to realize that lots of people manifest a kind of tribalism for their favorite team.  If the referee makes a call against their team, they are skewed in their assessment of the penalty call.  It’s almost always the other team’s fault.  The players on their team can do nothing wrong.

Recently a writer said that “Tribalism describes the human instinct to want to belong to a group of people who are like you. …… in the sense of very strong group identification. The kind of group identification where your identity is so bound up with it that you will basically defend the group and cling to the group no matter what and you start to see everything through that group’s lens. . . . once you connect with a tribe in a certain way, then you actually start to interpret facts and studies and statistics to fit your tribe’s world view.”  (Political Tribes by Amy Chua)  Everything else is “fake news.”

On the one hand, a certain level of tribalism is good.  People need to identify strongly with a group.  That group or tribe defends us through thick and thin; they will be there no matter what.  However, tribalism can blind me to my neighbor.  Tribalism run wild will prevent me from seeing the good in the other group.

For example, years ago Catholics and Protestants had an unhealthy tribalism that prevented us from seeing each other as neighbors.  It prevented us from seeing the good at work in the other person.  When tribalism runs rampant, then it fuels incidents like the killing of eleven people in a Jewish synagogue.  It incites Muslim extremism, and conversely, tribalism causes others to say that all Muslims are extremists.

Democrats and Republicans have become much too tribal.  Neither party is able to acknowledge that anything good is done by the other side.  They are blind to the other as a neighbor.  When tribalism runs rampant, then you have a Democratic party that is so strident in its support of abortion that some party members want to cleanse their party of anyone who defends the unborn.  Meanwhile, members of the Republican party allow its leaders to spread false information about immigrants so that they are maligned and seen not as real people in dire circumstances, but as the worst criminals. As a result, neither party respects human beings as our neighbors.  Neither can claim to be pro-life. In both parties, tribalism has taken control.  They defend their party and cling to it no matter what, and they see everything through their own party’s lens.

One of the saddest manifestations of tribalism has been in the Catholic church where bishops protected priests who abused minors.  They showed favoritism to clergy – to their tribal leaders, but shunned survivors of sexual abuse.  They abandoned the little ones.

I could go on and on with examples of tribalism.  Virtually all of us are prone to it.  It blinds us to our neighbor. It is a major obstacle in keeping the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  So what is the way beyond tribalism?

First, to remember how the commandment was broadened in the Bible.  It first appears in the book of Leviticus, where God says to the Hebrews, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)   Here one’s neighbor is a fellow Hebrew, but a five verses later that changes.  God says, “If you have aliens [‘resident foreigners’] in your country, you will not molest them.  You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; You shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)

An ‘alien’ (Hebrew = ger) is a man who, either alone or with his family, leaves his village and tribe, because of war, famine or pestilence, and seeks shelter elsewhere, where he does not enjoy the rights of a citizen.  An ‘alien’ was an immigrant without rights.

Thus, my neighbor is not merely the members of my tribe.  God commanded the Hebrews to treat non-citizen foreigners as neighbors.  Basically God said to them, “Remember that you were aliens and that I rescued you when you were in dire straits.  Now, you must treat others in the same way…. according to my mercy toward you.”

Already in the Old Testament, the command to “love your neighbor” was extended to foreigners living among them.  However Jesus broadened the commandment.  He extended it to enemies, as he said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”  (Matt. 5:43-45)

Jesus put that into practice when he washed the feet of his disciples.  Immediately, after washing their feet he said that Judas would betray him.  Then he said to them, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn. 13:34)   Next, he announced that Peter would deny him three times.  So his command to “Love one another as I have loved you” was sandwiched between Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial.

Just before he died Jesus commanded his disciples to love backstabbers and unfaithful friends with the love of the cross.  “Love your neighbor” means to defend immigrants, the protect the unborn and forgive your enemies.  It means to love beyond tribalism.

When you vote this week, try to identify candidates who have the wisdom to see beyond tribalism and the courage to stand against it.  Look for people who will not be blinded by a party lens.  Seek leaders who have the inner freedom to support the good in the other party.

Above all, vote for people who have shown by their words and actions that our neighbor is much more than those who belong to my tribe, or who are native-born.  As we approach the Eucharist today, let’s remember how Jesus washed the feet of his betrayer, then said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Becoming servants and saints

Becoming servants and saints

This weekend, I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation with 84 students in Cheyenne at St. Mary’s Cathedral (Friday), Holy Trinity Parish (Saturday) and St. Joseph’s Parish (Sunday).  Below is the homily from Sunday.

The best way to understand Confirmation is to see how the Holy Spirit shines out in others.    In the letters you wrote for confirmation, you describe how you see the Holy Spirit in the saints.  One of you wrote:  “My confirmation name is Maximillian Kolbe. . . . He sacrificed his life for someone he didn’t even know.  He did it because he wanted the guy to not lose his family.” 

St. Maximillian Kolbe was at the concentration camp at Auschwitz.  When the Nazis sentenced ten men to die in a starvation bunker, one of the men cried out saying that he had a wife and children.  He begged not to be chosen.  Fr. Kolbe heard him cry out and offered himself instead.  He said: “I am a Catholic priest; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”

The man whose place Kolbe had taken later said, “I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me—a stranger.” 

St. Maximillian sacrificed his life for someone he didn’t even know.  He was a great example of what Jesus says in the gospel today.  He was totally selfless, totally focused on helping other people.  Saints teach us how to be servant-disciples.  The grace of Confirmation empowers you to be servants and to sacrifice your life for others.

Yet, that takes time.  We need to realize that God works with us, even when we are selfish.  You can see that in today’s gospel.  James and John are selfish.  They are seeking a privileged place with Jesus.  They asked him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”  (Mark 10:37)  Then the other disciples became angry.  Maybe they were jealous.  So Jesus patiently reminded them what it means to be a true disciple.

He told them,  “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

To be a disciple is to serve others.  Saints are servants.  But it took time for the disciples to get it.  Like us, they were selfish.  As I read your letters, I saw that you have the desire to serve, even though you are aware of your weakness.  For a disciple, success means to never give up.  You cannot fail if you never give up.  God will give you the grace to be a good servant, if you just keep asking him for grace.

It is easy to get discouraged because we sin and fail.  But one of the best reasons to have hope is to realize that God knows our weakness and helps us in our weakness.  In the letter to the Hebrews is says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.  So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”  (Heb. 4:15-16)

When you are weak, remember that Jesus knows your weakness and helps you.  He will forgive you and help you to start again.  Keep reading stories of the saints.  They will inspire you to be selfless servants.  Above all, take time every day to read a gospel passage because seeing how Jesus served is the best inspiration.

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