Sunday, June 24, 2007

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist - Cycle C


Making Sheep

This past week I had the opportunity to attend a work shop on Christian Initiation. It was a wonderful experience and the perfect balance of instruction and discussion, practical and conceptual, worship and contemplation. Although the primary topic of the seminar was the reception of previously baptized Christians into the Full Communion of the Roman Catholic Church, all aspects of Christian Initiation of Adults were addressed at some level.

You may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with the John the Baptist?” After all, the image the Scriptures paint of him is pretty scary! But, for a moment, let’s put that image aside. Take away the locust and honey diet, the camel hair attire, and the commands to repent. Let’s just consider what it was that John did. At the core, what was his ministry?

John brought people to Christ. He called people to be born again through baptism and follow the one whose sandals he was unworthy to fasten. He certainly had a dramatic way of going about it, but it worked. It was John who led them to Christ. Not some angel, not some star. A man. A smelly, crazy looking, wild eyed man.

This past week, I heard a very profound quote. “Shepherds don’t make sheep. Sheep make sheep.” Think about it for a moment. Reflect for just a moment about what that means to you as a baptized Christian.

Jesus instructed his disciples to “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” This work of making disciples, of making sheep, is not just the work of the clergy. It is not even just the work of the RCIA catechists and sponsors. It is the work of ALL of us. By virtue of your baptism, it is not just your right, it is our responsibility to make sheep.

You may be sitting there asking, “How do I do that? I don’t know anything about bringing people into the church. I am not even sure I know everything I should know about being Catholic myself! I don’t have time to be attending those classes on Tuesday nights. I do enough for the church already.”

Shepherds don’t make sheep. Sheep make sheep. And although it has been a while since I have been around any sheep, I do not recall that they fret about how to make more sheep. They simply do it. How do they do it? By acting like sheep!

Christians make Christians by acting like Christians. Love you neighbor. Don’t just be with those you love. Love those you are with. Participate in the Sunday liturgy fully, consciously and actively. Sing out with joy to the Lord every day. Proclaim the Good News at home, at school, at work. Use words only when necessary.

Use the Eucharistic Liturgy to nourish your faith. Chew upon the Body of Christ from the Ambo as well as the Table. But do not simply stop there. Go. Go in Peace to Love and Serve the Lord in all People!!!! We are sent. Each and every Sunday, we are sent. We are sent not just to eat donuts and chit chat outside the Church. We are sent not just to rush home to get on with our weekend activities. We are sent to Love and Serve the Lord. The nourishment we receive at the Eucharistic table is not just for us. We are to use it to build up the Body of Christ. It is to bring about the Kingdom of God. It is to make Disciples of all Nations. It is to make sheep!

So, let us join John the Baptist in fulfilling that mission. While we may not be wearing Camel Hair and eating locusts, in today’s world, if we live a life consistent with the message of love and forgiveness proclaimed by Christ, I promise you we will look just as strange! And amazingly enough, people will follow us nevertheless!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C


Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound!
There sure is a lot going on in today’s Gospel! Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to dine at table, but then denies him all of the respect due to a guest. Who knows what hidden agenda Simon may have had or why he invited Jesus in the first place. However, Jesus’ agenda is as clear, and consistent, as ever. He accepts the hospitality of both the Pharisee (albeit limited) as well as that of the sinful woman. To top it all off, Jesus uses the opportunity to demonstrate to all who will listen the extent of mercy and love that God has for all of us. "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound!" (Rom 5:20)

Although this Gospel falls on the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, it is far from ordinary. Elements of it point to several other Gospel stories. For example, this foot washing is not the only one depicted in the Gospels. At the Last Supper, John tells us that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, commanding them to continue to do the same to each other. To the early Christians, the rite of foot washing was much more meaningful. It was a basic courtesy and sign of hospitality. After traveling a distance over hot, dry sand, with nothing but sandals to protect one’s feet, the sensation of cool water would certainly be welcomed!

The task of washing feet was reserved for the lowest of servants. As such, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he reinforces his teaching about the Kingdom of God: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tell us that,

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

“Whatever you did for these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

That certainly sounds a whole lot like what we just heard him tell Simon,

“When I entered your house you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair.”

What possessed that woman to approach Jesus and extend the hospitality that Simon had withheld? Although Luke does not tell us explicitly, it certainly was a force that was outside of her sinful nature. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit. It was certainly the same sort of spirit that helps each of us when we face a choice between doing what is right or doing nothing at all.

I once went on a class trip to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It was my senior year in high school, and as part of a class in European History, we were touring the Cathedral, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After we had finished touring the Church, I was heading back to the bus along with my classmates. Suddenly, I noticed that one of my friends was missing. I turned around to see him talking with a homeless man who was pan handling.

I have to admit that I did not notice him. All I recall was that he was black, unshaven, and that he wore an old army jacket. But I do remember what Mike told us when he eventually rejoined the group. The man was from North Carolina. He had no job, and no way to get back to his family. The rest of us probably sounded a lot like Simon when we scolded Mike for talking to someone like that gentleman. After all, we were in the big, bad ‘city’. But Mike saw past his outward appearance, and granted him a sign of hospitality and dignity.

The 'urge' to step out of our zone of comfort and reach out to another comes from the Spirit. Henri Nouwen, in his book, Bread for the Journey, notes that, "The way God's Spirit manifests itself most convincingly is through its fruits: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22). These fruits speak for themselves. It is therefore always better to raise the question "How can I grow in the Spirit?" than the question "How can I make others believe in the Spirit?""

There is another scripture story that comes to mind when I reflect upon this Gospel. At the conclusion of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we witness the pure contrition of the younger son, the jealousy of the older son, and the unconditional love of the father. In today’s Gospel, we see similar characters. Simon the Pharisee is no different from the older son. He is unable to grasp the full potential of God’s mercy. It is an interesting question to ponder. Who is the bigger sinner? The one who strays, realizes she has done so, and returns, or the one who never strayed but does not understand the full capacity of God’s love for him?

Before we can be forgiven, we must accept that we are forgivable. That can be a very difficult leap. Simon the Pharisee and the Older Son could not make it. The Woman and the Younger Son could. They were all sinners. We are all sinners. We all have the capacity to extend mercy and hospitality to one and other, and to withhold the same. Jesus is consistent in his message. We must give without expectation of anything in return. That is the generosity that God the Father gives to each of us. Quite frequently, He gets nothing in return but a slap in the face. But he still gives, and remains ready to celebrate our return.

So keep your eyes open for those opportunities to extend hospitality to those around you. In the home, in the school, in the workplace. On the highway, at the store, on the street corner. Opportunities abound, but we must allow God to work through us to bring about the Kingdom. The quiet voice of the Spirit will be there, as long as we are listening.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ – Cycle C


What if the bread and wine change, and we don’t?”

I once came across that very question. On this feast celebrating the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, it is a fitting question to ask. The readings for today give us a lot on which to ‘chew’. They each present an aspect of what we in the Catholic Christian tradition have come to call Eucharist.

The first reading, from the very first book of the Bible, describes how the priest Melchizedek made an offering of bread and wine on behalf of Abram and his people. Today we can see the Eucharistic imagery contained in this story. The Eucharist most certainly is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

The second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, presents us with the image of Eucharist as a commemorative meal. The Last Supper was probably a celebration of the Passover Seder. To the Jews, remembering an event did not simply mean thinking about something in the past. It meant experiencing the event in the present. Not a reenactment of the event, but the actual event. When Jews celebrate the Passover Seder, they are with Moses and the people of Israel on the night before they were lead out of slavery. Likewise, when we celebrate the Eucharistic meal, we are with Christ and His disciples ‘on the night before he died’. Before you scoff at the notion, remember, in God’s time, there is no past, present or future. To God, all things are present.

Finally, the Gospel presents us with the image of a sacred meal. God provided for all those gathered in His name. Recently I attended a luncheon thanking those who lead the many ministries in my parish. There were fifty or sixty people in attendance. We were seated eight to a table. The image in today’s Gospel of groups of fifty sitting patiently on a hillside to be fed bread and fish comes to mind. Of course, what is particulary powerful in that example is that those that were being nourished at the luncheon did not simply eat and run. They are living out their baptismal promises. The luncheon was a time to celebrate what was done, and 'fuel up' for what was left to be done!

Remember that Jesus instructed the disciples to feed the multitudes. We are called to take an active part in nourishing our community, physically, mentally and spiritually. Even when we do not think we have it in us to do so, God will provide. The great Catholic writer Thomas Merton once noted that. “It helps me to remember that I need to trust that God will provide through me, not from me.” That is a lesson those disciples most certainly learned on the hillside that day.

And, it is one we must learn also. We often hear it said that “You are what you eat.” We must ask ourselves today if that is really true. Do we tend to those who need our care? Do we clothe and shelter those with nothing? Do we feed those who are hungry? Do we visit those who are alone? Jesus did all of these things, and commissioned us to do the same in his name. He provided us with the Eucharist as spiritual nourishment. It is truly viaticum, food for the journey. What if the bread and wine change and we do not?

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity - Cycle C

We Plan, God Laughs!

With our first child almost two years old, my wife and I felt it was time to start trying to have a second child. We were blessed with the positive home pregnancy test in March of 2003. I have to admit that we felt like this was old hat. At least I did. A few weeks later we went to the obstetrician for the first doctor's visit.

Everything was pretty straight forward until we got to the ultrasound part of the exam. Katie and I stared at the small black and white screen while the doctor manipulated the wand. I had no idea what I was looking at. Then, the doctor said, "It looks like we have two!" She pointed to two, tiny flashing lights. They looked like blinking cursors on a computer screen. "Looks like two, healthy heartbeats." Katie always wanted to have twins, and I was excited too. The doctor half-jokingly said "Let me just make sure there isn't another one in there somewhere."

She had just finished saying that when I saw another tiny cursor blinking on the screen. I asked, "Is that what I think it is?" The doctor nodded. Triplets. The rest of the exam is a blur. Katie and I stumbled out of that office, trying to process how our lives were about to totally change.

Today's feast calls us to ponder the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Today's readings are a window into that mystery. All three of them place an emphasis on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. It is referred to as the 'wisdom of God,' and the 'spirit of truth'. We are told that it was with God at the 'beginning of His ways.' It 'finds delight in the human race.' It pours the Love of God into our hearts. It is the Spirit that empowers us to live out our Christian mission. Jesus may have shown us the way to the Father, but we don't have a chance of getting there without the Spirit. Jesus tells us to love our enemies; the Spirit gives us the compassion to forgive those who have hurt us. Jesus tells us to care for the poor; the Spirit gives us the courage to approach that person on the street and give them something to eat. In today's readings, we hear that God is with us always and forever!

But do we recognize God in our lives? Sure, you and I recognize Him in the Eucharist, we see Him in the readings from the Scriptures. But what about outside of church? How do we recognize the Holy Spirit helping us in our daily lives? We know from last week's readings that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles like tongues of flame. Can you see that flame in your own life?

It is there. I promise you. Christ promises you. We just heard Jesus tell us that the Spirit will 'guide us to all truth.' But we have to look for it. Just as that third baby was hiding at first glance, the Spirit of God sometimes is tough to see. If we open our hearts and minds to the presence of the Spirit, wonderful things happen. We do things we could never do on our own. We say things we could never say on our own. We love people we could never love on our own! When we see the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we allow God to work through us, with us, and in us!

Find time to pray every day. Each of us can block out fifteen minutes to sit in silence and open our hearts so that the Spirit can fill it with the love of God. Let God delight in watching the Spirit guide you. Great things will come from it. Keep your eyes, hearts and minds peeled for that third little blinking light. Believe me, three is never easy, never boring, and certainly never clean! But now that I have experienced it, I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Measure Twice, Cut Once

I am a fan of wood working shows. Keep in mind that until recently, my hands-on experience with carpentry was limited to my years in middle school shop class! However, my wife, Katie, gave me a certificate for some woodworking lessons as a Christmas present a couple of years ago. In my professional life, I am expected to call upon my experience and technical knowledge to make decisions all day long. There was something very relaxing about being a student in a class about a subject that I knew nothing about! I guess some of the sawdust must have gotten into my blood, because, I have been working on putting together a small shop in our basement ever since.

It wasn't until last year that I made the connection between my hobby and my patron saint - Joseph. Furthermore, there was something that one of those woodworking classes taught me that carries over to my faith life. The instructor said that the key to fine woodworking is not making every piece perfectly the first time. It is in being able to work around the inevitable mistakes, to recover from them and make the finished piece look like it is perfect. Before I took the woodworking classes, I already knew how to use a saw, a drill, etc. What my teacher was able to show me, however, was what to do when the saw, or the drill did not do exactly what I intended them to do. How can I make that mis-cut look like I intended it to be there? How do I make it appear to disappear altogether?

An important adage in woodworking is to "measure twice, cut once." If I prayerfully reflect on my decisions in life, I am a lot less likely to make mistakes. However, when I inevitably make one, I need to draw upon my experience to fix them. Just like a piece of wood, I cannot simply 'erase' what I have done. But I can work with what I have to make it as good, or better, than I intended. I am sure these were the lessons that Saint Joseph taught a young Jesus as they worked side by side in his shop.

I have been very active in Catechetical ministry for seven years. As the coordinator of my parish's RCIA process, I have the privilege of accompanying people from all walks of life on their journeys of faith. I make it very clear at the beginning of each year that RCIA is not a class in church history or a course in theology. It is an apprenticeship in discipleship. The medieval guilds were on to something when they set up the structure for training future tradesmen. Christianity is not something we can learn from a textbook, or even a lecture. We must learn by doing. Those seeking full membership in the church are the apprentices, the catechists (and all the faithful, for that matter) are the journeymen. While we have grasped the basic skills of our craft, we still have much to learn from the Master!