Friday, February 28, 2014

8th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Luke 2:22-40) You cannot serve both God and money

In 1929 in a particular part of New York city, several wealthy business men committed suicide, all at the same time.  Why? Because of what became known as ‘the Wall Street Crash.’  The New York stock exchange collapsed over night and as a result many people lost millions of dollars.  Many of them could not handle this and sadly they killed themselves.  Money for them had become everything.  It was their god and it had just proved itself to be a false god, an illusion.  When their god collapsed, they were left with nothing, no money, no faith and apparently nothing to live for.  It seems that many of them despaired.

A few years ago, a woman by the name of Maura Grealish—a good friend of mine and a highly qualified accountant—took her final vows in the Poor Clare convent in my home town of Galway.  She took four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure.  She will never own anything of her own, she will not get married, and she will spend the rest of her life enclosed in a convent, dedicating her time and energy to God and to praying for all of us and for many others.  Some would consider this a useless waste; others see it as the gift of God which it is, the highest calling in the Church.  Her life lived in this way—as with any religious—is a sign that we believe in the life to come and that it is worth making sacrifices for it.  If we didn’t believe in the life to come, then it would be a waste of time.

How are the two related?  Well I suppose they are really the opposite of each other.  Those in Wall Street and in the business world sometimes put everything into their money.  Money becomes the only thing that matters.  They work for it, they live for it, they may even lie and cheat for it.  On the other hand Sister Gabriel, has given up everything for God, and is depending totally on God for everything. 

Most of us are probably somewhere between the two.  We may not be millionaires, but we have not given up everything for God either.  We work and try and put bread on the table and provide for our families and loved ones.  Most people are under a lot of pressure to pay their bills and mortgages, etc. 

Money is an important tool.  It would be very hard to live in our society without it, but it is only a tool.  If we lost everything over night it would be very difficult, but we would still be alive.  It happens to people every so often, but we do survive.  But if God disappeared, what would we have left?  When we died there would be nothing.  Thankfully God does not disappear, regardless of whether we have more than we need, or barely enough to survive on.  Either way God is waiting for us and when we have served our time on this earth then we will go to him.

In the Gospel Jesus says ‘You can not serve God and money’.  We must choose who is going to be our master.  That doesn’t mean that we can not enjoy our money or the things we have, but we must be careful to use it wisely.  At the end of the day it is only a tool and if it was suddenly taken away from us, we would still survive.

When we live in a world that places so much emphasis on having plenty of money, it’s hard not to be affected by that.  There is nothing wrong with having money so long as we remember that it is only a tool to help us survive.  It is not primarily what our life is about.  God has made us much deeper than just flesh and blood.  We also have a spirit and that spirit will never be satisfied with material things alone.  It is a reminder that we are not just animals and that we are called to something greater.
I want to finish with a few verses from Psalm 49.
No one can buy his own ransom,
or pay a price to God for his life.
In his riches man lacks wisdom,
he is like the beasts that are destroyed.

Friday, February 21, 2014

7th Sunday Year A (Mt 5:38-48) Is it possible to love your enemies?

During what was known as ‘The Troubles’ in northern Ireland, that time of guerilla warfare when the north was riddled with tit-for-tat killings—British soldiers being shot, Catholics and Protestants being shot—I was amazed every so often at the bravery of parents who were interviewed after one of their children had been shot dead because they were Catholic or Protestant.  Sometimes in those very interviews the parents would say ‘We want no revenge, no retaliation.  We forgive the people who murdered our son/daughter.’  I think those statements shocked people more than the murders themselves.  Much of the time people were ambushed and shot dead simply because they were Catholic or Protestant, which gives you an idea of the kind of evil at work behind such actions. I think anyone would understand if these people’s parents wanted to look for revenge, and yet quite a number did the opposite.  It was a very inspiring and hope-filling thing to hear.  There is great goodness in most people; in most people.  When Catholic churches were burnt to the ground, often Protestants would donate money to help rebuild them, but you don’t hear those things on the news.  There is great goodness in most people.

Today we are presented with what is probably the most difficult commandment that Jesus gave: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’  So far I have never met anyone who wants to do this!  Did Jesus really expect us to take that literally?  Maybe it was just a figurative way of speaking?  Jesus meant exactly what he said.  Remember his own words when he was dying on the cross, a death that was considered so brutal that the Emperor Constantine eventually had it banned:  ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’  The Lord does expect us to try and live this commandment, but how we are to do it is the key thing.  Essentially it comes down to God’s power and strength at work within us, but that will only happen if we remain close to God.  That is also why Jesus gave us the Eucharist, so that we can be intimately united to him every day if we wish.  That is where we get our strength from.  We continually read the Scriptures so that we are being formed in God’s way of thinking and not just a worldly way of thinking. 

Think of all the commercials, radio and TV programs, newspapers, that we read each day.  We spend a lot of time feeding our mind with the values and thinking of the world around us.  But the ways of God are not the ways of the world.  They are quite different.  Our culture tells us that we should sue people and seek revenge if we feel we have been slighted.  There are so many commercials on TV encouraging us to sue people.  That’s not what God tells us to do.  If we only love the people around us that we normally love, then how are we different from anyone else?  That’s exactly what Jesus puts to us in this Gospel.  We are called to be different by the way we live and think.  If we do try and live this way, then we stand out because we are different.  Then we are the salt of the earth and the yeast that makes the dough rise.  We are small but we can have a big difference on the world around us, just like those parents who publicly said they forgave the people who killed their children.  I am sure it was their faith that enabled them to do that, because that takes more than human strength.

This is why we have to keep going back to our relationship with God.  It is meant to be a real, living relationship, as real as any relationship with another person.  As that relationship with Jesus grows then and only then does it become possible to live this way, to see good in those around us, even those who hurt us.

I want to finish with a short part of a very famous speech given by Martin Luther King Jr which reflects this:

To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail, we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead and we shall still love you.  One day we will win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process. (Martin Luther King, Strength to Love)
‘Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.’

Friday, February 14, 2014

6th Sunday Year A (Mt 5:17-37) If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven

Recently several people asked me questions about sin, what it is and what is serious or mortal sin.  I have also heard many people say that they feel the teaching on sin has become too watered down.  Is that true?  Has the teaching on sin changed?  The answer is ‘no’.  Sin is still sin. However, our understanding of these things is all the time changing and hopefully maturing, especially as we get a deeper understanding of how complex we are as people.

Before he was made Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger said an interesting thing about mortal sin.  He said that probably not that many people commit mortal sin, because in order for it to be ‘mortal’—meaning it causes the death of the soul—three things are needed.  You must know that it is something very serious, you must deliberately want to do it and you must be completely free to do it.  It is not often that all those categories are met, especially the freedom.  All of us are driven by compulsions and are affected by the stresses and strains of what is going on around us and all of that affects our freedom.  Sin is always something for us to try and avoid of course, because it is what separates us from God and only in God will we find total fulfillment.  If sin didn’t matter Christ would not have had to die for us in order to break the power of sin, but it’s also important that we keep it in perspective or else we can feel overwhelmed by our own weakness and become disheartened.

There is also a big difference between falling into sin because of our own weakness and deliberately living a double life.  For example, a man (or woman) who is happily married, enjoying his work and life and then one day he meets someone who really turns him on.  And he decides to have an affair with this person just because he feels like it.  That is very different from a man or woman who is in a very difficult marriage, under great pressure at work and generally finding life very up hill.  One day they meet someone who is very understanding and compassionate and they end up in a relationship with them.  They certainly didn’t intend to, but that’s what happened.  Both of these things are sinful and adultery, but the circumstances are very different.  I think we often forget to take all the circumstances into consideration, but God does because God sees everything and God is always trying to help us, to bail us out and help us start over.  That is one of the reasons why God has given us the extraordinary gift of confession, so that we can begin again as often as we fall and maybe more importantly so that we don’t become so discouraged as to give up.  Satan is the one who tries to discourage us, to tell us that we are useless, hypocrites, a bad example and that there is no point in trying to live the Christian life.  The Lord does the opposite.  Jesus is the one who continually helps us to get up again and start over, assuring us of his mercy and compassion.

In today’s readings we are reminded that we have a choice.  We can choose for God or not, for sin or not.  God has given us that freedom and it is ours to enjoy.  Hopefully we will use it to choose for good, but even if we do fall we can turn to God and ask for his mercy.

In the Gospel Jesus challenges us not just to live on the surface in a legal way, fulfilling the minimum requirement of what is asked, but instead to live from the heart.  Why was he so critical of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the time? Because they lived the law perfectly but they had lost a sense of compassion and mercy.  There was no longer any room for our humanity.  We can easily fall into the same trap.  We can fulfill our religious obligations by going to mass on Sunday and giving to charity, but if the rest of our life doesn’t reflect our faith in some way, then our religious observances don’t mean a lot.  Here is an example, although it is an extreme one.

A few years ago at a conference I heard a lady give an extraordinary testimony about her life.  God had healed her from terrible abuse that she had suffered at the hands of her father from an early age.  She had grown up with incest, abuse and pornography all around her.  She had even been sold to other men.  And yet this family went to mass every Sunday.  Obviously there was something seriously wrong there.  Now that is a very extreme example, but Jesus is telling us that just filling outward obligations is not enough.  It must go deeper than that. 
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

The same thing can easily happen in religious life; we can life the ‘rule’ perfectly while becoming monsters underneath.  It would be better that we don’t live the rule perfectly but that we learn to be compassionate and merciful, because our love for God is expressed by how we treat the person beside us.

Finally, I think the most important thing is that we strike a balance.  Focusing on sin too much is not healthy and we can easily feel discouraged and overwhelmed.  Our life in Christ is not about sin, it is about freedom from sin.  At the same time pretending that we never do wrong is naïve.  In St. John’s first letter he says:
If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 Jn 10).  

We are sinners and we will always be sinners, but that is why Jesus came for us.  That is what the mass is all about: ‘So that sins may be forgiven’.  So we do our best and we continually ask for God’s mercy, which God promises He will always grant us if we are sincere.

If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
If you trust in God, you too shall live;
He has set before you fire and water;
To whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.

Friday, February 7, 2014

5th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16) Let your light shine before others

Every so often the Lord raises up men and women who live their faith in an exceptional way.  It usually seems to be at a time when people really need to be inspired and often when the Church is in crisis.  At the end of the 13th century God called a man called Francis, to live in a radically different way.  He was from a town called Assisi in Italy.  Francis was from a wealthy family, but he felt that God was calling him to leave everything and follow him and so he did.  To the horror of his father who strongly objected, Francis renounced everything and in front of everyone he stripped off all his clothes and any belongings he had and went off to live on his own as a poor man, living only for God.  Soon afterwards while he was praying alone in a broken down church he felt God speaking to him from the cross and saying, ‘Francis, rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling down.’  So Francis started to collect stones and reconstruct that building.  However, God had a much bigger project in mind. God was talking about the whole Church.  Around the same time pope Innocent III had a dream of a poor man holding up the Church which was collapsing.  It was a sign of the role that Francis was going to play. 

Not long after Francis began to live in radical poverty others began to see the kind of simple way of life that he was living, one by one they began to join him.  They spent their time looking after the sick, the lepers, praying together, preaching the Gospel and most importantly… inspiring people by the way they lived.  Eventually when they had been living this way for a while Francis went to Rome to get permission for this new group to officially become a Religious Order.  When some of the bishops were discussing this with the pope one of them said, ‘It is not possible to live in this kind of extreme way.’  But one of the others pointed out that if it wasn’t possible to live that way, then it wasn’t possible to live the Gospel, since all he was doing was living the Gospel literally.  So Francis was granted permission to form this new Order called the Friars Minor.  Our current Pope Francis took his name after this wonderful saint.

Today, over 800 years later, people are still inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, because we still need to be inspired.  Through people like Francis God continues to help us look beyond our own immediate needs and reminds us that the world is not just about me.  There have been others like him too, a modern day example being Mother Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be St. Teresa of Calcutta.  What is especially important about these people is not so much the work they do as the effect that has on others.  These kind of people usually become renowned all over the world because they inspire us and we need to be inspired.  Otherwise there is the danger that we just become cynical and no longer make an effort to improve our world.  People such as Francis and Mother Teresa preach about God by the way they live more than by anything they could say.  St. Francis of Assisi had the lovely saying, ‘Let us go and preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words.’

The Missionaries of Charity (the Order founded by Mother Teresa) spend a lot of their time in India at least, bringing people in off the street who are dying.  They clean them up as best they can and allow them to die with dignity.  Most of these people would be Hindu or Muslim, but they don’t try to convert them.  That is not what they are called to.  They are called to bring the love of God where they find themselves among the poorest of the poor.  In fact they really say more about their faith in God by what they do than by anything they could say.  

There is a story of one man they found who was in a particularly bad way.  It took them several hours to clean him up and then he said to them: ‘All my life I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.’ Mother Teresa went on to say: ‘It was so wonderful to see the greatness of a man who could speak like that, who could die like that, without blaming anybody, without cursing anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel - that is the greatness of our people.’

In the first reading today we are called to look out for those around us who are in need and there are always plenty around us in need, often hidden.  Looking after those who are in need is how we shine.  By doing this we point to God who has inspired us.  Recently I got talking to a man in Sarasota who is homeless.  He told me that he had served in the military, he had also done time in prison and now he was homeless.  He also said: ‘You know doing time in prison is one thing, but trying to survive on the streets of Sarasota is quite another.’  It’s not what you would expect.  While helping the poor materially is really important, respecting the dignity of each person is just as important.  The way we look after people and treat people is how we tell the world what we believe in.  It is not even about giving great amounts; it is about giving what we can with great love and treating those around us with great respect, whether we like them or not and regardless of what they believe in.  That is how we tell others about God.

Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.