Thursday, September 27, 2018

26th Sunday Yr B (Gospel: Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48) Sin cuts us off from God who is our happiness

They say that in the Church of the 1950s nearly everything was a mortal sin and everything else was forbidden! That didn’t leave much room for living. Thankfully we have moved on a lot since then and have a better understanding of human nature and also of human weakness and just how complicated we are as people. So many things influence us and how we think, from the moment we are born.

In the Church we always seem to be talking about sin and what is sinful. Why is that? In the readings today there are some dramatic words spoken about sin and its consequences. I think that the simplest way to explain it is this: We are only going to find happiness in one place, and that is in God. God has created us this way. The problem is that not only are we not convinced of this, but in fact we are often convinced of the complete opposite. I’ll bet that many of us here would probably admit (me included) that if I could really do anything I wanted, have all the wealth I want, the cars, houses, relationships, etc, that I would be truly happy and yet that is the opposite of what Jesus taught. Some of you may be familiar with a program on TV called ‘Cribs’. It is about many of the very wealthy celebrities and what they own. It gives you a tour of their homes, which are pretty amazing to say the least. It is presented in such a way that it gives you the impression that this is what happiness consists of. Yet sadly many of the lives of these same celebrities are often wrecked with addiction and heartache, as you know. Many of them live very tragic lives. Jesus tells us ‘How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,’ not because there is anything wrong with wealth, but it tends to distract us from what is important.


Sin and what is sinful, is the one thing that can lead us away from God, which is the only place we will find happiness. Much of what we now consider to be a normal part of modern living, is in fact completely sinful according to the teachings of Christ. A lot of what we watch on TV as entertainment is teaching us values that are completely opposed to what God has taught us. Lying, cheating and adultery are portrayed as normal. A young man asked me once if lying was a sin. It is one of the commandments: you shall not bear false witness. Killing is shown as wrong but often necessary. Abortion is portrayed as a difficult choice, but necessary. And yet the Lord tells us that all of these things are wrong and against his commands. ‘You must not kill, you must not bear false witness, you must not commit adultery’, because these things destroy us as human beings. Instead of helping us to become the best version of ourselves that we can be, they degrade us and they lead us away from God. That is why Jesus spoke so strongly about sin.

During the week I read an article about a young man by the name of Alec Smith. He died earlier this year at the age of 26, because he couldn’t afford insulin. He made $35,000 a year as a restaurant manager, but he couldn’t afford $450 a month health insurance, with an out of pocket deductible of $7,600. When he turned 26 he was no longer able to be on his mother’s health insurance. He needed $1300 a month to pay for insulin for his diabetes. So, he began to ration his insulin but he was found dead in his apartment a month later, three days before his pay day. A vial of insulin cost $24.56 in 2011 after insurance and now it has increased up to $80. That is corruption because of greed for money. 

Wealth in itself is not wrong, but when it becomes the primary focus, then it is a problem. Our health system is primarily about making money, rather than helping the sick, and that is immoral. That is what the second reading is about. When money is abused at the expense of people, it then becomes destructive. We will take none of it with us when we die and the only thing that will matter then is how we loved and served the people around us.

In the Gospel today Jesus uses a particular way of speaking to make the point of just how serious sin is. We use the same way of speaking when we say something like ‘If you do that again I’ll kill you.’ It’s called hyperbole, an exaggerated way of speaking to make a point. Jesus says, ‘If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off! If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out!’ He is saying that that is how serious sin is, because it is the one thing that can come between us and the happiness that God wants for us. It is possible to lose it. The Lord is constantly warning us to be careful of the things that can destroy us, just as any parent will warn their children. Parents want the best for their children. God wants the best for us, but we must listen to what he tells us. Nothing we can have on earth is worth losing what God has waiting for us in heaven.

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

25th Sunday of Year B ( Gospel: Mark 9:30-37) Love in the heart of the Church

St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897)
On the 30th September 1897, a young lady of just 24 years, died in a Carmelite Convent in the north of France. She was virtually unknown. She had been very ill with Tuberculosis for 18 months and was eventually reduced to half of one lung. Her religious name was Therese of the Child Jesus. Today she is better known as St. Teresa of the Little Flower. She is considered a saint for our times and I would like to try and explain why.

When she was in the convent she was considered very unimportant and not particularly talented. When she was dying she accidentally over-heard two sisters talking about her and one of them said, ‘I wonder what Mother Abbes will say about her when she dies, because she never really did anything.’ Before she died her sister, who was the abbess at the time, asked her to write an account of her life. If we didn’t have this, we would know almost nothing about her.

One of the reasons why she has become so popular, is because God gave her a particular insight into our life on earth, which applies to all of us. Therese realized herself that she was not a particularly talented person, not capable of great fasts, or penances, or impressive works. She wrote that she would love to have been a missionary, or a priest, but here she was, a nun in an enclosed Carmelite convent, unknown to most people and not doing anything significant. She began to pray to God asking him to show her what in particular she was meant to do, in her situation. She knew she had a vocation as a nun, but she wanted to know more specifically if she was called to something. As she was looking through the Scriptures, she came across the passage that you often hear at weddings. It is the passage from one of St. Paul’s letters which says,
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor 13:4-7).

And it finishes with the words, ‘In the end there are three things that last; faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love’ (1 Cor 13:13). She says that when she read this she realized that the most important thing she could do, was to be the love of God in our world, exactly where she was, hidden away in a convent, virtually unknown to the world. Even though she felt she was not particularly talented, she realized that the most important thing she could do was to be the love of God, exactly where she was. It sounds simplistic and maybe it is, but what her insight shows us, is that all of us without exception can do this.

People often ask me what exactly they can do for God. It always seems to be more attractive to be somewhere else, living an impressive life of helping the needy or educating the poor. Most of us are not called to this and most of us are limited by our own circumstances, married or single, just getting on with day to day business. But no matter what our circumstances, all of us can bring the love of God into the very place that we find ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether you are the president or someone living on the streets. All of us can do this.

Recently I was watching a documentary about one of the missions of the 101st Airborne division in Afghanistan. They were on a mission in a place known as the Hornet’s Nest, which is considered one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan and they were trying to overthrow one of the Taliban leaders. Several of them were killed in this operation, even though they were eventually successful. Apart from the politics of it, I was inspired by the individual responses that the many of the soldiers made, to the journalist who was interviewing them. Many of them said that they just wanted to try and make a difference and make the world a better place. Young men in a very dangerous situation, but they wanted to make the world a better place.

There is good in everyone and at the heart of most people is the desire to do good. All of us are capable bringing the love of God into the exact situation in which we find ourselves. That is how the world is changed. But we can only bring the love of God to people if we are focused on God ourselves. We cannot give what we do not have. For us as Christians, that is where our faith comes in. We keep coming back to the mass each week, to worship God and to be refilled with his love, so that we can bring it to the world around us. Each of us has a unique part to play. No one can replace us, but that part is to be played exactly where you are.

In the end there are three things that last: faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.’

Friday, September 14, 2018

24th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mk 8:27-35) “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me”

There is a tradition I came across in Bosnia, where a couple getting married bring a crucifix to the church. The priest says a prayer of blessing over the cross and when the wedding is over the couple bring the cross to their new home and place it in a prominent position. The idea is that they will come before the cross in their sufferings and difficulties and ask Jesus to help them. They will not run away from their problems, but face them and ask for God’s help to work through them and most importantly, that Jesus Christ be at the center of their home. One of my sisters did this at her wedding. 

Today we are being constantly bombarded with the message that you shouldn’t have to suffer, that you should have everything your way, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices, sometimes even for your children. This is the complete opposite of what Christ teaches us, which means we have to decide who we are following. Am I following the way of Jesus Christ, which is difficult but so worthwhile, or am I following the way of the world, which tells me only my fulfillment is important? This has also become a modern mentality with marriage. If things are not working out, then move on, but that is not the teaching of Christ. Sometimes marriages don’t work out, but divorce and separation should be the last possible resort. It always troubles me when I hear a couple who are not long married, going through difficulties and the word divorce is already being used. The problem is that it has become part of our thinking. Currently in the US, one in four marriages break up within five years. That means that marriage is in crisis in this country.

The word sacrifice is at the heart of what we believe. Jesus sacrificed himself for us. He gave everything. We are called to sacrifice ourselves for each other. A husband and wife are meant to lay down their lives for each other and sacrifice themselves for their children. I am meant to sacrifice my life for the people God asks me to serve. That means that it is not about me being fulfilled, but about me giving of myself.

Moses said the same thing to the people in his time, after he had been given the Ten Commandments. He said, “Choose today whom you wish to follow. Choose life or death, blessing or curse. Follow the Lord or not, but make up your mind.”

In the book of Revelations, Jesus uses very strong words.  He says:
Here is the message of the Amen, the trustworthy, the true witness… I know about your activities: how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth’ (Rev 3:14-16).

In another translation it says, “I will vomit you out of my mouth.” That is very strong language. The Lord was not afraid to shock us and he still isn’t. He simply wants to make us wake up to reality. In order to grow, our focus must be on the Lord and not just on our own fulfillment.

Christianity is unusual in that it does not try to run away from suffering, or to rise above it, in any way. Rather it teaches us that suffering is part of the path that brings us to God. This is something we have always found difficult to understand. Two thousand years ago it was just as hard to understand. Peter is horrified when Jesus announces to them that he is going to suffer and be put to death and he tries to talk Jesus out of it. He says, “Lord, this must not happen to you. People won’t believe you, people will turn away from you. You are to be the King and all people will bow down to you.” And Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan (enemy) for the way you think is not God’s way, but man’s.” Jesus was saying to him, “You don’t understand this, but it has to be this way. If you want to follow me you will suffer too.” Suffering has its place, even though it makes no sense to us.

When we suffer we often cry out to God, “Why have you done this to me? I shouldn’t have to suffer.” I used to hear this all the time when I worked in the hospital. People say, “Fr., why has God done this to me, what did I ever do wrong?” as though this was a punishment. We forget the line from Scripture that says, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Does this mean that we shouldn’t try to get rid of suffering? Of course not. We should do everything we can to help those who are suffering and to make our world a better place, but we will never be fully rid of it, it is simply part of this life.

Perhaps what is most important is why the Lord asks us to follow this path. It seems to be some kind of doorway we have to pass through, which helps to form us as people, and which brings us closer to God. It is not just suffering for the sake of suffering, which would be sadistic. The death of Jesus led to his rising from death and winning eternal life for all people. That’s what we have to remember. If we are allowed to suffer, it is because through it, God will lead us on to something much greater, although we may not see this until the next life. Padre Pio used to say that if we understood how powerful suffering was, we would pray for it.

We say that we are followers of Christ? Do you have a crucifix in your home? If you don’t, maybe it’s time you got one. By having a crucifix in your home where people can see it, you are saying “I belong to Jesus Christ.” I believe in what he has done for me; Jesus Christ is Lord for me.” We have no reason to be ashamed of what we believe in. Acknowledging the way of the cross is also a recognition of the world to come. If there was nothing after this life, then the way of the cross would be meaningless. But what it is saying is that the struggles we go through and the sacrifices we have to make in this life are worthwhile, because they are leading to something greater. That’s why we keep our eyes fixed on the world to come. If that is our ultimate destiny, then everything we have to sacrifice to follow the Way of Jesus is worthwhile.

Recently I was watching a documentary about how they caught Joaquin Guzman, “El Chapo,” the drug lord who ran the Sinaloa cartel. What was so sad about him and the others caught up in these drug cartels, is that they invested so much in gaining everything for this life. They were found with huge quantities of cash and jewels and they were prepared to kill and butcher others to get it. They don’t seem to have any sense of the purpose of our life here on earth. Apart from being evil, it is also very sad. Ironically, many of them also had big chapels built in their homes. What a contradiction!

Unless you take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.”


Saturday, September 8, 2018

23rd Sunday of Year B (Gospel: Mark 7:31-37) Sickness and healing within the Church

"I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance" (Rev 2:19)

From the time I was ordained, every time I celebrate the mass there is one line that nearly always stands out in my mind. It is the line after the consecration of the wine where the priest says, ‘This is the chalice of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.’ That really sums up what the whole mass is about. That is what the death and resurrection of Jesus is about; ‘so that sins may be forgiven.’

More recently I find myself hearing the words at the beginning of the consecration which say, ‘On the night he was betrayed…’ What we are going through at this time, is the revelation of a terrible betrayal of Christ within our Church and it is very painful.

During the week we had a meeting at the cathedral for all the priests of the diocese along with our bishop. This was to address the whole abuse scandal in the Church. I wish that you could have been there and heard the anger, pain and frustration that was expressed by so many priests, at what has happened. I think it is good to be reminded that all of us priests are as angry and disheartened as any of you. You can imagine how difficult it makes our work as priests.

The challenge for all of us at this time, is not to give up, but to stay faithful and above all to keep our eyes fixed on the Lord. He is the only one that matters and all of us are trying to follow the path that leads to him. During the week I read on Facebook a message from a young mother who wrote: ‘The best thing we can do now is to raise the best generation of Catholics ever.’ That is the right approach. The best thing we can do is to live our faith as well as we possibly can and to bear witness to Jesus by the way we live.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus said to Peter, ‘
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:31-32).

Judas betrayed Jesus to death, but Peter also publicly swore three times, that he never knew who Jesus was. But later Jesus helped him to recover and then made him the first leader of his Church.

Our Church belongs to the Lord. It is his Church and He will continue to guide it and heal it from this terrible time of betrayal. Everywhere Jesus went, he healed people, helped them back on their feet and encouraged them to keep going. In today's Gospel we have another account of healing and not only that, but the sensitivity that Jesus had towards the man and his disability. He healed him in as private a way as he could. There are many accounts of the different characters in the Bible who wanted to give up because following God’s path had become so difficult. Each time the Lord pushed them to keep going, not to give up and I am sure that is what He is saying to us now. Just keep going and keep your eyes focused on me, not on the world. 366 times in the Bible are the words ‘Do not be afraid’ and they are there for a reason.

Diseased flesh must be removed so the body can be healed and that is what is happening now. God will heal us, because it is his Church and he loves us. What we are called to do, is to be faithful.
Thus says the LORD:
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you. (Is 35:4-5)