Friday, September 23, 2011

A Mother's Love Without Borders

A Desperate Love Without Borders

Gospel Mt 15:21-28 

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, "Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon."

But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.

Jesus' disciples came and asked him, "Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."
He said in reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me."

He said in reply, "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."

She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
Then Jesus said to her in reply, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.

 A Desperate Love Without Borders

Did I just hear what I read? Jesus ignores a desperate woman with a demon possessed child and then he says, “It is not right give the children’s food to the dogs.” At first glance, this story might seem demeaning to women; she was ignored, pushed away, and was considered no more than a dog. Jesus disturbs us with his actions and his words today.

Jesus continues on his journey north until he is at the border near Tyre and Sidon surrounded by Gentiles. The disciples likely had no idea where he was going or why he was heading north into Gentile territory. I’m sure they thought Jesus was out of bounds!

The Canaanite woman approaches Jesus as he moves along the border. One can imagine the hostility between the Jews and the Canaanites; it was like the rancor between Jews and Palestinians today. As Jesus walks along the border near Tyre and Sidon, the woman calls him Lord and Son of David.

But Jesus represented all that the Canaanites despised. One can almost see a showdown Jesus and his disciples are on one side of the border while the Canaanites are on the other side – with the poor woman and her possessed daughter caught up in the ugly war of political and theological differences, trapped between two worlds, likely cast away by her own people because of her possessed daughter, hence her reason for dwelling at the border of her country.

Jesus was her last great hope. Yet Jesus ignores her cries. Jesus’ silence must have been deafening! Then Jesus’ disciples add insult to injury; they are desperate to get rid of her! “Send her away! She’s embarrassing us. You can’t have riff-raff following you around. You have a godly reputation to keep. Pretty soon all the gentiles will want to follow you and have a share in the kingdom of God.”

She couldn’t win, she was despised by everyone. She was completely abandoned. She had thrown herself upon the mercy of the Lord God only to hear nothing. But Jesus’ silence and his disciples’ ugliness did not deter her from calling upon the Lord!

        Imagine this woman’s desperation. We do not have a lot of information about her, but sorrow filled her life. Her daughter had gone to the dark side of demonic possession. One also wonders where her husband was in all of this. Perhaps he had abandoned her as a result of the nuisance of a troublesome daughter and all the difficulty she caused their marriage. Or maybe the woman was a widow and had no one to rely on. Her life and that of her daughter must have been as desperate as we can imagine! Lack of financial means, emotional pain, fear and exhaustion! And now spiritual abandonment! The worst thing imaginable.

        And yet in this woman’s desperation she keeps getting pushed away! She is longing to belong, she is longing for happiness, and is will do anything for her daughter – even seek the God of Israel. She throws herself on the ground in front of Jesus and begs for mercy, but he tells her he is on a mission to the lost sheep of Israel.

        Certainly one of the disciples should have been troubled by the way Jesus was treating this woman. Or was he trying to get their attention by acting like them?

        Jesus then says, “It is not right to throw the food of the children to the dogs.” So now she is reduced to a dog.

        Maybe it was a common cliché tossed around like “It is not right to take the wealth of the rich and throw it to the poor” or “The poor are poor because they lack morals,” or “America is for Americans.”

It is clear that the disciples did not want Jesus crossing into any unfriendly territories, or going into the wrong neighborhoods or, God forbid, crossing any borders.

        Yet Jesus’ mere presence along the border of Tyre and Sidon is teaching his disciples that all territories and lands are the Lord’s and all peoples are called into the Kingdom of God. It is the good news that never grows old.

        Yet there are borders that we put up between ourselves and the Lord. We may think we know we have all the answers, we think that certain people are not good enough, we may consider certain attitudes tolerable or acceptable, or we may be guilty of placing ourselves first when others are clearly in more need. Or we may have preconceived notions of who God is or believe that one can only be a real Christian if one has a particular socio-political or theological view. Or what I see so much of today is the idea that one has to be perfect before one can be a Catholic or a Christian. How sad! Christ came ot call the unworthy – and that includes all of us!

        A closer look at this wonderful Canaanite woman reveals to us an example of a Mother’s love for her children. A love that protects at all cost, even to the point of ridicule. “Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

       The woman was not distracted from her mission: saving her daughter from the demon. This Gentile woman fulfilled her mission, because of her boldness in faith, love for her child, and trust in a merciful God. And she was willing to even accept the scraps from the table of the master, all for the love of another human being.

        The woman’s persistence shows that Jesus is accessible to all people–even those along the borders, on the fringes of society, the marginalized. 

There are still Canaanites in our midst: outsiders who some people would rather ignore and send away, and women and men who are bearing great family burdens, and those who have suffered great losses, yet still come to church, kneel in the pew and remain faithful to the Lord, despite their doubts and questions, they still cling to their faith.

        Jesus dared cross established borders that his disciples wanted to keep, and ministered to the one who called upon him in faith. And the woman found acceptance across the forbidden border.

        We are called to be like Christ.

Jesus allowed this woman to enter his world.

This one act changed everything.

Jesus is changed by the encounter with this woman of faith.

And so are his disciples.

And so are we.

All are welcome to enter the House of the Lord! All are invited to His table!

This woman turns Jesus' ministry to the gentiles, the non-Jews. She not only wants to enter the House of Israel, but she wants to sit at the table of the Lord, and is willing to accept the lowest place in the house – even if it is as a desperate dog.

The woman only wanted a crumb of bread from the Master’s table.

She was desperate to belong.

She was desperate for the Lord.

How desperate are we?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Owner of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and the Prodigal Father (Luke 15:11-32)

The Owner of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and the Prodigal Father (Luke 15:11-32)

Today, we hear the Word of God through the Prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts (Isaiah 55:6-9).

These words could not be made more clear in Jesus' (in)famous parable of the Owner of the Vineyard from chapter 20 of Matthew’s Gospel.

I am not a scripture scholar, though it is my duty and passion to ponder the Word of God, breaking it open, and sharing the fruits of prayerful reflection with all who hear my homilies, read my blog or attend my presentations. With that being said, I do not believe I have ever heard or read anywhere that would connect the two characters in these two parables: the owner of the vineyard and the father of the two lost sons.

The first parable is from Matthew’s gospel and his audience was primarily Jewish and/or a Jewish converts to Christianity. When they heard the parable, they no doubt found themselves as the laborers who had been there since dawn enduring the heat of the day. Then the Gentiles who now are gifted with the promise of Abraham seem to have gotten away with something. It just doesn’t seem fair that someone who labors for one hour should receive the same as the one who labored for 12 hours.

The parable of the Father with two sons is from Luke’s chapter about the good shepherd. Luke’s audience was primarily Gentile converts and Greek Christians who are learning the art of healing and reconciliation as exemplified by the life of Jesus.

What I propose is that the two men are related. Whether or not they were brothers or cousins is beside the point; the two men are living the life of the kingdom. The owner of the vineyard is the great equalizer. He seeks to bring in all who are lost or forsaken. Note that the owner of the vineyard makes five different trips to the marketplace in search of laborers for his vineyard.

The Father of the Prodigal Son, we will recall, also went out each day to look for his son. And then he breaks with tradition and all proper decorum and runs to his youngest son, welcoming him home – even thought this son had regarded his father as dead when he asked for his share of the estate “that should come to me” once his father was dead.

These generous forgivers are to be our example of how we should live our lives. These are not mere nice stories to pass down in a lovely liturgy, but are hard core realities that must be lived once we hear the word, “Go in the peace of Christ” or “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” How else are we to love the Lord but by loving our neighbors, no matter whether we like them or if they deserve it or even receive it. It is our call to be Christ-like, who loved us while we were yet sinners.

All we have been given is gift; materially and spiritually, all is gift. Let us then gift one another in the same manner as the Lord has, for, He is, after all, the Owner of the Vineyard.

May the Lord grant us the grace to hear this message; then may we have the courage to live it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

God's Mercy is not Ours to Keep; It Must Be Given Away.

When I was a boy growing up in Vincennes I loved to throw rocks in the lazy Wabash River. I loved to find the biggest rocks and hurl them as far as I could. But that was just half the fun. I wanted to see how big of a splash they would make and then, best of all, was watching the ripple effect of the stone breaking through the water and seeing just how far the ripples would extend.
In today’s gospel, then Jesus told the story of the unforgiving servant. That story should disturb us. Let's look at this man. He was so quick to beg his master for mercy and forgiveness on his own behalf. And his master wiped his debt away, no questions asked, cancelled it completely. Yet as soon as the man was forgiven his debt and is set free and unburdened he finds someone who is below him and nearly chokes him to death, and demands that he pay back a small amount of money.

Who is this man? Is he not in some ways the man lurking within each of us? Have we not all played the role of hypocrite, played the double standard game? How many of us have people in our lives who we really do not want to forgive? (pause) Yes, that relative you’re thinking of, you have to forgive him or her. That neighbor who you’d wish would move, yes, you have to forgive him or her.

Mercy and Forgiveness is all part of our baptismal call!
God's mercy is not ours to keep; it must be given away.

All over the United States – and all over the world – this gospel is echoing forth from pulpits everywhere. This gospel was not picked to coincide with 9/11. No, this gospel is the gospel for the day. Indeed, this IS the Gospel Message for every day. Always. Mercy. Forgiveness. Compassion.

Just imagine the ripple of mercy and forgiveness if we were to live the gospel?!

Ten years ago 19 foreign men with a warped image of God and a grudge against our government decided to act in unison in a horrible way. Just think – if 19 men could change the world so quickly, what if only 19 of us decided to do something beautiful for God?

Soon after the 9/11 attacks all we could hear was Usama bin Laden's name. I decided that every time I heard his name, I would say the name of Jesus, and then pray for bin Laden and all our enemies. I wish I would have written about this and spoken about this following the attacks, but I did not. I regret this. But I did say Jesus every time I heard bin Laden's name.

I also prayed with my wife and sons every night that our enemies might have a change of heart.

But I also prayed that we as a nation might not regard every Muslim as a terrorist or regard every Afghani or Iraqi citizen as a member of Al-Queda. I pray that we might see them as fellow human beings, and not disregard their humanity, of which some have, regarding them as the enemy, terrorists, or worse.

Then back in May of this year I remember the night that President Obama announced that Usama bin Laden had been killed. I sat on the couch with my sons in a stunned silence. I was mortified by the giddiness of certain reporters and then I watched as hundreds and thousands of people began to celebrate in the streets of New York and Washington and other cities. I was grieved that so many people would rejoice so much in the death of one man.

If you will recall, it was a week after Easter, but did we see people dancing in the streets at the news of Christ's Resurrection from the death? It was also Mercy Sunday, yet did we find mercy in the streets that night? And Pope John Paul II had just been beatified that day as well. I wonder what Pope John Paul would have said?
Pope Benedict sent a message that we, as Christians, should never rejoice in the death of anyone, not even an enemy.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Ezekiel writes: “God does not desire the death of the sinner, but that he turn to God and live.” No matter what bin Laden did or inspired others to do, we are called to forgive and pray for our enemies.

I cannot change the gospel. The gospel must change us.

This past week on September 9th we celebrated the memory of a different type of foreigner who came to the Americas with a plan to bring the love and compassion of God. His name? Peter Claver.
Peter Claver was a Spanish priest who understood that love of God is expressed through love of neighbor, in the distribution of medicine and food and most of all compassion.

The young Jesuit left his homeland forever in 1610 to be a missionary in the colonies of the New World. He sailed into Cartagena (now in Colombia), a rich port city along the Caribbean. The slave trade had already been established in the Americas for nearly 100 years, and Cartagena was the chief slave market. Ten thousand slaves poured into the port each year after crossing the Atlantic from West Africa under conditions so foul and inhuman that an estimated one-third of the passengers died in transit. Although the practice of slave-trading was condemned by Pope Paul III, it continued to flourish.

When Claver arrived he declared himself "the slave of the Negroes forever."

As soon as a slave ship entered the port, Peter Claver moved into its infested hold to minister to the ill-treated and exhausted passengers. After the slaves were herded out of the ship like chained animals and shut up in nearby yards to be gazed at by the crowds and put on the auction block, Peter Claver continued to assist them. With the help of interpreters he gave basic instructions and assured his brothers and sisters of their human dignity and God's saving love. During the 40 years of his ministry, Claver instructed and baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves.

He became a moral voice against slavery and lodged with the slaves in their quarters.

He often said, "We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips."

“He had a steady confidence that God would care for them and, not his least worry were the slave owners whom he did not deem beyond the mercy of God. They also had souls to be saved, no less than the slaves. To the masters and slave owners Claver appealed for physical and spiritual justice, for their own sakes no less than for that of their slaves.” (Leonard Foley, O.F.M.)

Whatever we do has a ripple effect, whether we toss a rock into the river, serve the poorest of the poor, or forgive an enemy. Everything we do has an eternal effect.

The good news is that you and I are the ones who have been forgiven … and we are to seek to not merely understand others, but accept others, while inviting them to a life of holiness. We are the ones we are waiting for... We are the ones who can bring peace to our troubled world, one person at a time, just like Peter Claver did.

Oh, would to God that we might live our faith and love, yes, love our enemies, then we would stop keeping a record of wrongs and counting how many times we have to forgive others. Can you imagine the hatred that Peter Claver could have had for the slave-traders and owners? Yes, his anger would have been justified, but he sought to win them over with his words and actions of love among the slaves and the slaveholders.

In today's gospel, Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?" Forgiving someone seven times was very generous. Three times was the limit to forgiveness in Jesus’ day. So Peter figured that he’d multiply that by two and he’d be good, and just for good measure he added one more to make it a beautifully holy number of seven.

Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” 

This was not what Peter was expecting to hear.

Seventy-seven times? Imagine if we began to count the times we forgave others. And once we got to 77 times, then we might try for 7 X 70 times, or 490 times. I assure you, by the time you got to 490 times forgiving others, we would have likely stopped keeping count and forgiving would have become a habitual virtue.

Forgiveness, mercy, and peace begins with each one of us and we can change the world for the better.... beginning right here. And we will not be armed with box-cutters or bombs, but we must first allow ourselves to be disarmed by the love of God, our hands ever open, not clutching bricks of bigotry, rocks of racism, grenades of grudges, pistols of prejudice, or missiles or mayhem, but opening our hands and reaching out in forgiveness and mercy, where we will lose count of who we have forgiven and how many times.

May we throw our rocks and bricks of unforgiveness into the ocean of God’s love and allow the ripples of mercy to wash over us as we learn to forgive one another 77 times over and over and over again.

God's mercy is not ours to keep; it must be given away. Amen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mary's Message of Mercy and Justice

On September 8th we celebrate the birth of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Her words are prophetic for us today.

The Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:46-55)
And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior. 

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.

He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry. Yes, sounds like she taught Jesus a thing or two. Yet she who is the Mother is also the daughter. Already Mary begins to sound like Jesus - even before He is born.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Need for Prayer and the Power of Prayer

In Today's Gospel (Luke 6:12-19) we read:

"Jesus departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God.When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

"And he came down with them and stood on a stretch of level ground. A great crowd of his disciples and a large number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and even those who were tormented by unclean spirits were cured. Everyone in the crowd sought to touch him because power came forth from him and healed them all."

What I find fascinating is that Jesus Christ Himself, the Very Son of God, took time to pray, and spent the night in prayer to God the Father. It seems that his very being thirsted for the face of the living God.

If Christ took time for prayer, how much more do each of us need to take time for prayer and silence in the presence of God. Our very being does thirst for the face of the living God.

What is also noteworthy is that after Jesus comes down the mountain, He is rejuvenated from his previous day's activities, which included healing a man's withered hand, and he chooses his 12 Apostles by name and then heals, cures, and drives out demons because "power came forth from him".

When you and I take the time to pray as did Jesus, we too will be a source of healing power for those whom we encounter.

Who will we heal today with our presence or touch?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor of Love

On this Labor Day, we reflect on the words of Christ: "I ask you, is it lawful to do good rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" The question remained unanswered. How do we answer the question?

Today we recall the life of Blessed Mother Teresa. On September 5, 1997, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta entered eternal life. Throughout her life she lived this question. She never tired of speaking of human dignity from the moment of conception until natural death. But she spoke more with her works of mercy, her deeds of kindness, and her labor of love.

We are not all called to live the life of a Mother Teresa, but we are called to defend the sanctity of human life - not only from the moment of conception, but through all stages of life.

St. John Chrysostom wrote: "Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ? Then do not disdain Him when you see Him in rags. After having honored Him in Church with silken vestments, do not leave Him to die of cold outside for lack of clothing. For it is the same Jesus Who says, “This is My Body” and Who says “I was hungry but you would not feed Me. Whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.”

Pope Gregory the Great said, “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

So how do we answer the question: Is it lawful to save life rather than to destroy it?

We have work to do. Yet if we do it for God, it will be a labor of love.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

If Today You Hear God's Voice, harden not your hearts

The verse: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts," comes from Psalm 95 in the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

This evening as the cantor chanted the psalm and we sang the response, I couldn't help but wonder how often we miss hearing the voice of the Lord due to our noisy and chaotic culture.

So many people constantly have the radio on, talk radio, or the television, 24/7 news (usually bad), or our ears are plugged with ear-buds and nothing can get through except what we want to hear.

Each one of us needs to take time out - even if only 10 minutes a day - and sit in the silence and listen. In times past we called this prayer or placing ourselves in the presence of God. If we foster this silence in our lives we may enter into contemplative prayer. But for now, let us embrace the silence. And let the silence embrace us.

We may well be surprised by what we hear or experience - or don't hear or experience.

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Who Will Be Justice For the Poor?

Saint Lawrence Distributing Alms to the Poor by Angelico Fra

We recently celebrated the memory of St. Lawrence, who was an advocate for the poor and needy, widows, orphans, and marginalized, as we all are called to be. In the above painting we see him distributing alms to the poor. While I have no desire to be grilled alive, he cared for the poor to the end in his great act of justice for the poor.

We are also coming up on the feast of St. Gregory the Great (September 3) who was a deacon long before he became pope, and he too ministered to those within his reach. In the stained glass window below, we see Pope Gregory the Great feeding the poor at his own table, which he did every day. Unbeknownst to him, Christ was one of the strangers he invited to his table.

(Stained glass window of Pope St. Gregory the Great from Saint Meinrad Archabbey Church)

Those of us involved in outreach to the poor and needy, such as soup kitchens and St. Vincent de Paul recognize that we are being inundated with calls for assistance with power, rent, and food, among other necessities. This is a cry for justice for the poor, as we read and chant in the psalms daily.

I am not a great organizer, but if 19 terrorists could wreak so much havoc ten years ago, imagine if only 19 of us decided to get the word out that the local pantries are in great need? Or better yet, what if we began to be the salt and the light we are called, and loved others as Christ loves us.

Wherever we are, it seems that now, more than ever, the poor need a voice that each of us can-and should-provide. Justice and mercy have embraced. The prophets have told us what we must do: Act with justice, love mercifully, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

If every one of us does a little, no one has to do a lot.

May the words of St. Benedict, which Gregory lived by as a Benedictine, spur us on to charity and justice: "Relieve the lot of the poor.Clothe the naked. Visit the sick...Help those in trouble. Console the sorrowing. Be a stranger to the world's ways. And prefer nothing to the love of Christ" (RB. Ch. 4:14-21).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

New Wine Must Be Poured Into Fresh Wineskins

No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined. Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins. And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, "The old is good."   (Lk. 5:33-39)

This passage confuses some and continues to puzzle others. However, Jesus is challenging us to realize that the new life experienced in Him will likely be taken as something new, and certainly not as good as the old wine.

Even for many today, the way things are is good enough. But Christ calls us to go beyond good. Good isn't good enough.  He makes all things new!

When we truly plunge ourselves into the Kingdom message of Christ, and into His very life, death, and resurrection, we will become new creations.

As a result, those who are comfortable with a Christianity of the status quo may well take offense at our fiery faith and thirst for justice. Yet it cannot be otherwise. We must serve Christ in all who are in need; we must work to change structures and mindsets that keep people locked in poverty and old ways of thinking.

The prophets all suffered for proclaiming the Word of God, but their message continues to go forth.

Let us pass over the old wine and drink the new.

Christ has given us a new Commandment: Love one another. There are no exceptions.

Let us drink the new wine of the Kingdom which is Christ Himself.

What are we waiting for?