Sunday, September 28, 2008

Doing the Will of the Father

Today's readings
1. Which son did the will of the Father? Really, this is what it all comes down to- doing the will of the Father. That is the way in which Jesus lived and died in His earthly life- doing the will of the Father. But what does it mean, doing the will of the Father? Scripture reveals various ways to do the will of the Father. For example: to believe in Jesus, to obey the commandments, to protect and nurture the small and the weak, and to put things aside to trust in the Lord.
2. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him (on) the last day. (John 6:40). To believe in Jesus as the True Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, this is the will of the Father. In the Gospel we heard today, there were those who many of the religious people thought of as sinners who were entering the kingdom of heaven because they believed in Jesus on the strength of the preaching of John the Baptist. Those who did not believe in Jesus were risking their eternal souls by failing to recognize that He was the One whom God sent to save the world.
3. But belief in this context is not merely intellectual assent to a proposition of faith. Remember, Saint James told us that the demons believe that there is only One God, and they tremble (James 2:19). Rather, to believe includes turning away from sin- to repent- to change one’s life. That is why Jesus chastised the chief priests. Even if they were not sure of the message of John the Baptist, the effect it had in converting sinners should have alerted them that God was at work. As Jesus said at another time if you cannot believe in me, believe because of the works that I do...(see John 10:38). That is, believe that God is at work. And it is more than the work of God, it is God Himself entering our human condition to save us from death and sin.
4. To believe in Jesus requires the believer to change - to begin to obey the commandments, not merely to give lip service. Remember that Jesus said Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21). Unfortunately these days there are those who would promote themselves as Catholic Christians, and yet their actions and their words are false. There are even politician- public figures who recently have even misrepresented the constant teaching of the Church so that they may permit the destruction of the weak and the small. I speak of those who would continue to support abortion, euthanasia, and medical experimentation on the unborn as if the unborn were not human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Yet Jesus says that the angels of the little ones always look at the face of God the Father in heaven (see Matthew 18:10).
5. Of course, what drives many of these so called leaders into error is the same force that drives practically everyone to whatever sin we commit- and that is fear. I do not mean the “fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom (see Proverbs 9:10), but rather the fear of the things that do not last. The tax collectors and the prostitutes in Jesus’ day sought security in money and the attentions of other people. The high priests and the scribes and pharisees often sought security in their religious practices. Lack of trust even caused the rich young man to turn away and leave Christ because he had many possessions. Yet those who turned to Jesus found more than enough security and joy even in the midst of suffering.
6. And so it is our task to turn to the Lord, to believe in Him, to obey Him, to trust Him- to let Him live in us. It is for just this cause that Saint Paul begs the Philippians to take on the attitude of Jesus Christ- that attitude of emptying Himself and becoming obedient to death on a Cross. For in His doing of the will of the Father perfectly unto death, Jesus has obtained for us eternal life.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Vacation Coming Up!

Sunday, I am going to go take a little vacation for a few days. There will be golfing (poor golfing), running (slowly), napping (I'm very good at napping), reading (ditto), visiting friends (also good), eating (yum), sleeping late (one of my strengths), music (playing) and bicycling (which I do pretty decently).

One of my goals this vacation is to make another long ride. This time it will be the "Valero Bike to the Beach" for MS research. Although I am interested in success in the research for Multiple Sclerosis, I must admit the main reason I am doing it is so that I can go on an organized long distance ride. We will ride from San Antonio to Beeville, and the next day from Beeville to Corpus Christi- about 160 miles all together. Having finished a century already, I am feeling very confident in my abilities. But my main goal is to finish. I have only done one century, and never anything on back to back days of such magnitude.

After the ride, it will be back to napping, golfing, reading, visiting, etc for a few more days before returning to the parish. I look forward to it. And I need the vacation.

When I return, there will no doubt be one or two posts regarding my experiences on the road.

Friday, September 19, 2008

You Too Go Into My Vineyard

This weekend the deacon will be preaching, but I still wanted to comment on the Scripture readings.

The behavior of the landowner is certainly strange- paying everyone the same no matter how long they worked in the vineyard. And if we were the first ones in, we would probably feel like we had been badly treated. But there are a few things to consider. First, it really is the money of the landowner and he can do whatever he wants with it. The first workers agreed to and received exactly what they had hoped for originally. Any normal day they would have gone home satisfied that they received a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. Second, in those days a daily wage for a worker was generally tied to what it actually cost to live for a day. Whether you work or not, you have to pay your rent and feed your family. The children are not going to be less hungry because dad only worked half a day. It certainly does not pay to have a pool of available workers that are desperate and hungry men. You may have to depend on them tomorrow. If they are malnourished or ill from being homeless or preoccupied because their families are in want, what good is that for anyone? It is best for the common good to provide for all the workers. And the common good benefits everyone- landowner and worker alike.
But the Gospel is really not about vineyards, although we could learn something from the behavior of the owner. The story is really about the kingdom of God. The vineyard is the kingdom and the landowner is the Lord, and we (hopefully) are the workers.

Note that the workers may be waiting around, but they depend on the landowner to hire them. It is he who seeks them. We may think that we do this or that for God and that we are wonderful workers for the Lord (and that may very well be true). But we are all dependent on the Lord. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you said Jesus to His disciples. Sometimes we forget how utterly dependent we are. God has given us existence, which no one can obtain for themselves. For many of us, God has given us the gift of faith and even the opportunity to receive it. And if we do serve the Lord, it is at His bidding. We cannot build His kingdom apart from Him.

Furthermore, we have no control over who God chooses. It is true that the Church has been given authority to decide the suitability of ministers. But that authority is God's that is given to us. It is not apart from Him. If we choose inappropriate or unsuitable ministers who do not actually have a vocation, then the whole Church suffers. In truth, we are all called in some fashion or another to serve the kingdom of God, but our happiness and true success will result from our obedience to the Lord's call and not to our own desires or to the fashions of the times.
The reward for service is not a result of the length of service, but rather fidelity to the will of God. As workers in His kingdom, we should rejoice that others have also been called and are receiving the gifts of eternal life. If we do what we are asked to do with joy, then we will receive all we hope for and even more. There is no reason to be jealous of the gifts another has obtained, especially when all of us are dependent on the Lord.

There is one aspect which is missing from this parable, maybe it is what Jesus is getting to when He chastised His hearers for failing to convert when the tax collectors and prostitutes changed their lives and repented. Even though we are workers in the vineyard, that is not our actual position. And as long as we think of ourselves as merely servants we will miss the true blessings that the Lord wishes to bestow upon us. In truth we are not merely servants, we are even more than friends, we are children. The vineyard is not merely our workplace, but our home. Our "pay" is not the amount that is necessary to survive another day in a cruel world. Rather, our remuneration is an eternal inheritance: eternal life in joy in the home of the Father.
If we understand that we are children and not slaves we can understand the generosity of the Lord. If we are His children, it is His desire to have us share in everything. And where the love of a family really exists, it is not divided by the numbers of the members, but it is multiplied by them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Exaltation of the Cross

We praise you Oh Christ and we adore you. Because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.

More than 30 years ago, when I was in college the first time, one of the others students residing in the same dormitory as I saw a crucifix in my room or the room of another Catholic student. The non-Catholic scoffed at it and remarked that his Jesus was no longer on the Cross. I did not argue with him because he was a person whose mind was generally closed. But I remember thinking two things. First that I knew Jesus was not on the cross any more- it was just an image to remind me of the cost of our salvation and the love of God. Secondly, I thought of the scripture passage where Saint Paul said we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24).

It is difficult for us in this time and place to understand the horror of crucifixion. The images we see are generally much milder than the actual facts. Not only is crucifixion extremely painful, but it was a form of death meant to bring shame upon one who suffered it. In the Jewish law it said cursed be the one hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23) which they interpreted to mean that being hung up to die or being left hanging from a tree after death was religiously unclean. In the law it indicates that to hang someone on a tree, or to leave him there would defile the land and make acceptable sacrifice to God impossible.

The Romans practiced crucifixion of slaves, rebels and pirates, and others whom they judged to be trying to destroy the political stability. Yet they recognized how violent crucifixion was and made it illegal to crucify a Roman citizen. (Note that Saint Paul was executed by the sword- he was a Roman citizen and had rights). The ancient views of the Cross before Christ was unanimous- avoid the Cross at all costs.

Yet as Catholic Christians, we do not avoid the Cross. We glory in it. Saint Paul even says that he wants to boast in the cross (see Galatians 6:14). We decorate our homes and churches with the cross. We wear the cross as jewelry and carry them in our pockets (such as in the Rosary). We begin and end every prayer making the sign of the Cross. No blessing is complete without the Cross being invoked.

We do not glory in the Cross because we want Jesus to be suffering. Nor are we some kind of sadists who take pleasure in the pain of others. Rather, we acknowledge the Cross as the instrument of our salvation. Without the Cross, we would still be subject to death and would have no hope for eternal life.

We venerate the Cross by itself, yet the Cross is meaningless without Christ. If Jesus had not been crucified, then the Cross would be no more glorious than a hangman’s rope. Who would decorate their home with a noose or a miniature version of an electric chair? But because of Jesus Christ, this terrible instrument of death has become the instrument of our salvation. The first antiphon from the Office of Readings for Sunday week I of the Liturgy of the hours states: See how the cross of the Lord stands revealed as the tree of life.

The cross is a reminder that the things that often seem to be the worst, can be transformed by the love of God. When the people Israel were in the desert and complained against God that the Manna was disgusting food, their sin resulted in their being bitten by snakes (see Numbers 21:4b-9). When they repented, the Lord God instructed them to look upon a bronze serpent mounted on a pole and they would be healed. Not because a bronze serpent held medicinal properties, but because by placing their trust in God, they would be healed from their guilt.

Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, death and suffering entered the world. And throughout history people have suffered greatly. Even today, when one of our loved ones gets sick with cancer or suffers in some other terrible manner, or even if they have died, we can sometimes wonder what we did that led God to permit these things to happen to us or to the ones whom we love.

Yet in the glory of the Cross, we can see how Jesus, Saint Paul says, although He was in the form of God ...emptied Himself (see Phillipians 2:6-8) to die obediently on the Cross. As a result, Jesus triumphed gloriously. There is no suffering that Our Lord is unfamiliar with, and there is no sorrow that He cannot overcome with His merciful love.

In the Korean War, there was a Army Chaplain- Father Emil Kapaun. He was captured by the communists along with other soldiers. In the prison camp, he led all of them to trust and hope in God. His army helmet had a cross on it. And seeing Father wear that Cross made his captors very angry. And Father’s helmet was put in the trashpile. But all the soldiers, whether they were Catholic or not, or even Christian or not, were soon visiting the trashpile to meditate in front of that cross. After awhile, Father Kapaun was taken away and died shortly thereafter. The Communists feared his leadership and holiness. But after his death, the men remaining stuck together. One of them, who was Jewish, even carved a crucifix out of wood in memory of the slain priest. The men were reported to say that the love of God reflected in the face of Fr Kapaun. No matter what happened to him, Fr Emil always exuded love.

Saint Paul said that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). The message of the Cross is that of today’s Gospel passage- that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). God did not do this because we were wonderful and deserving of His love, because we are sinners. God loves us because that is what He does. And no matter where we are, or how low we have fallen, the glorious cross reminds us to trust in the Lord, for He has conquered all things.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Amazing Saints

Yesterday was the Blessed Virgin Mary's birthday. I have to say that the Blessed Mother has been particularly good to me this year. Because she has been really praying for me, guess what? I ask for even more. Especially I commend to her care any who might be my spiritual children.

Today's saint is Saint Peter Claver. Saint Peter was a Jesuit priest who became a missionary to Colombia. He spent his missionary career serving the black slaves that were sent there to work on the plantations. You can read about his story online somewhere at more depth than I plan to tell. Some facts do stand out, however. Peter pledged himself to be a slave of the black slaves, to serve them above himself. He always started by taking care of their physical needs, but likewise never wavered from presenting to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, offering them instruction and the opportunity for reception of the Sacraments. As a result of his charity and patient instruction, he baptized over 300,000 individuals in his career. That's right- 300,000! What an amazing saint.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Fraternal Correction, Part Two

1. Fraternal correction is an act of Christian charity. To practice it marks a believer as mature. At the same time, fraternal correction is not always easy. To take another person aside with the intent of correcting their faults is not always well received. We live in a culture in which no one really likes to be told what to do. And for many people, any form of criticism is viewed as form of hatred or even violence. Yet such a view is not really mature, even if we must contend with it.
2. To correct another person, to admonish their faults may be uncomfortable for us, but scripture indicates that it is absolutely necessary. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord has told us that those who know better, those who have authority also have the obligation to speak the truth and to warn those who may be set on the wrong path toward sin. Which parent here would stand by calmly and silently while their infant child stuck his or her hand in a light socket or into the fire on the stove? Who here would remain silent while their best friend accidentally drank deadly poison? Would we consider silence in these circumstances as good manners? Or would a word of warning be more proper? Yet in the moral life, there is much more at stake than electrocution or even painful death by poison. There is the risk of losing our eternal soul to the second death- the fires of hell.
3. With this in mind, our Lord has told us that we are all responsible in some part for one another. We cannot control the actions of another person, but we can offer them the help of admonishing them before it is too late. Jesus said to whom more is given, more will be expected. And as members of Christ’s Body and the adopted children of God, we cannot remain silent when our brothers and sisters are risking their souls in sin. If we do, God may hold us responsible for the sins of others. (I do not know about you, but I have enough problems of my own. I do not need to be responsible for someone else’s sins.)
4. Of course, one of the problems with correcting or admonishing another person is that to be an act of charity it must be the fruit of a loving heart. And it must be conducted in a loving manner. So Jesus tells us how we are to go about it. He says, first If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. Taking someone aside alone is essential to preserving their good name and preserve their dignity before others. To correct parents in front of their children or husbands in front of their wives or vice versa or a teacher in front of the students could really damage their relationship with others. Besides, many times a person does not even know that they have done something wrong. They may have never had that intention or even been trying to avoid the very thing which they are accused of doing. There may be an explanation or a circumstance which we do not know about. If we were to first bring it up in public, it might be an injustice.
5. A couple of years ago I read a book which intended to help people say whatever was on their minds to others, even in a crucial situation. The first tenet of the author was that you had to make it safe for the person to hear. If they felt unsafe for whatever reason, they would not hear what you had to say and you would have to back track. Fraternal correction is not a place to bring up old hurts, or a list of faults, or to condemn, belittle or destroy another person. Jesus Himself said that He did not come to condemn but to save, and He is the judge of the world. Correction is a time in which someone who cares genuinely seeks the good of another and calls them to holiness.
6. Some years ago, there was some crisis or other and a parishioner called me on the phone to discuss it for an hour. Although this person made several good points and reasonable criticisms, it felt like they yelled at me. At the end of the call, I was exhausted and very upset. Just then the doorbell rang and another parishioner wanted to talk about the same crisis. As it turned out, they gave me the exact same criticism. At the end of an hour, however, I knew that I had found a friend who would always speak the truth to me in charity. To this day, the latter is a valuable friend from whom I welcome criticism. The former is someone with whom I am polite, but with whom I avoid having an extended or serious conversation.
7. Jesus continues by saying that only after a personal encounter fails are we to bring in others. And they are to be witnesses to the problem we are trying to solve. Jesus does not say it, but these witnesses also need to have charity in their hearts. If the witnesses fail to convince someone to change, then it is time to bring the problem into the public eye through the ministry of the Church- that is, into the family of the children of God who will try to resolve it as ones who are loyal to one another. Only when a person has rejected the Body of Christ which is the Church can we ignore them.
8. Sometimes it is very difficult to follow this advice. It is so much easier to drag our problems out into the open immediately without trying to resolve them in a patient manner.
9. Even scripture acknowledges that correction will not always be accepted. Even though Jesus died for all people, there were a few who did not seem to want to hear His words, even though they meant eternal life. And so it will be the same with us. Not everyone will appreciate our desire for their good. There are even places where free speech is curtailed if it is in the least in disagreement with certain lifestyles and actions.
10. But there is one place in which we can control how fraternal correction is received. And that is within ourselves. Not only do we have the duty to correct, but we also have the duty to allow ourselves to be corrected. Sometimes we are the ones who have erred, and are in need of being “won over” by another. And that too is a characteristic of a mature Christian. Humility is part of true greatness.
11. The key to correction of others which is truly fraternal is the same key to being silent and praying for someone with all our strength. And that key is the love of Christ. Each day we need to put Jesus first. We need to desire His will above our own and make loving God the center or our lives. And if the love Christ dwells in us, then whether we speak or not, it will always be the right decision.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

How Much Difference a Year Makes

Yesterday, I rode my bike in what was advertised as a 38 mile race/ride. It ended up being 43 miles, but not exactly for me. The good news is that my average over 42 miles was 17.5 mph. Also, I had no mechanical difficulties, nor physical ones.

The bad news is that I took a wrong turn. When I got back to the finish line, I had only gone 35 miles. At one of the crossroads, I had ridden through in the correct direction, when some riders behind me warned me I was going wrong. I stopped with some others. At that moment a race volunteer drove up and looked at the map. She instructed us to go in what ended up being the wrong direction. I rode hard and when I caught up with the riders who had first alerted me to turn the other way, they said "sorry" because it was obviously a mistake. I was so deflated that I slowed down considerably. I was not happy, but it was my own fault for not carrying my own map. If I had, I would have ignored everyone. When I got back to the start, I took a brief break, looked at the map and then went out to go over the course backwards until I met one of my friends. Then we rode in together.

Since I had no chance at the race win, I cannot be too irritated about not completing it correctly. And many others were similarly misinstructed or simply made the same mistake. I am happy that my average speed was up over last year, and I kept the cadence that was my goal. I will have to consider whether to do the same ride next year. There is no support from law enforcement whatsoever, and some of the traffic passed closer than was necessary, even with the other lane open with an approved passing zone.

After the century the other week, this ride just flew by. Last year, this ride was my big goal. This year, it has turned out to be sort of a filler. It still is fun riding in a big mass of bicycles at the beginning of the race, no matter how long it is.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fraternal Correction, Part One

To correct another person is one of the most challenging aspects of being a mature believer in God. But we must learn to speak up if we are to practice true charity. Certainly, few people would let their infants place their fingers in an electrical socket, fearing that warning the child might damage their sensitive natures. God may have chosen us to be the instruments of someone’s conversion. Of course, key to successful fraternal correction is that it be motivated by charity- the love of God- and be done in a gentle manner. Another key is that we open our hearts to receive correction as well. Humility gives more power to our words.