Sep 30, 2017

Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty!

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 21: 28-32):  

One of the great joys of a pastor is the celebration of a baptism. There is really no such thing as a private baptism.  All baptisms are family affairs.  And when we bring families together from different backgrounds, cultures, languages and traditions - when we all gather in the narthex of the church in preparation for this sacrament, it is indeed a messy affair!

But "messy" in the good sense of the word. Picture the scene: babies screaming, young children running around, parents making sure everyone has arrived or calling their relatives who are running late to make sure they have the correct directions. Then there are the proud and honored godparents, excited by their new role, taking countless photographs from every angle, while the exhausted grandparents just want to sit down, rest their feet and simply watch - watch everyone and wonder how everyone has grown up so fast and with so much energy.  

This is our family life - it's messy, unpredictable, with so many individual personalities and characters.  And yet there is room for everyone. That's why the best adjective to describe the Church is the word "catholic", meaning "according to the whole", "universal", the place where everyone and everything finds meaning! 

But there is more. While we can be joyous knowing that God does in fact promise us His gifts, we have to, not only hear His voice, but "do" what He tells us to do in order to bring in this great harvest of grace we anticipate in every baptism.  

Yes, when we remember family baptisms and confirmations, what comes first to mind is the celebration, the festivity. And rightly so.  The photographs remind us of the day.  But what sometimes happens, is we can easily "fast forward" over the most solemn promise and commitment we as parents or godparent also made during the celebration of baptism  - to bring up our children in the knowledge and in the practice of the faith. That's the hard work of going into the vineyard and securing the harvest for the future.

God tells us to go into the vineyard and work.  Sometimes, when it comes to living our Christian faith, identity and lifestyle, we can be tempted to think that working in the vineyard of the Lord is only a one-day affair - Sunday.  But I doubt God would want us "working" on Sunday! So, maybe, working in His vineyard is instead reserved for all the working days of the week. That makes sense! 

The Father sends His sons into the vineyard.  It's a family business - it is not run remotely, nor is the work of the vineyard outsourced to professionals or interns.  Instead, the children work alongside everyone else.  In the vineyard, everyone pulls their weight together, cooperates and helps to bring in the harvest - which is ultimately the salvation of souls. And this is a great challenge. 

The vineyard of the Lord is the world He created! The grapes will not detach themselves from the vine and float over to us and land gently in our hands like prized trophies.  We have to immerse ourselves, throw ourselves into the very heart of the world to work, with God's grace, for its salvation.  And this is messy work.  Think of what the color of our hands will be like after pulling the grapes off the vine.  What will our feet be like, after trampling the grapes? It is hard work - it is messy work. But it is rewarding work. 

But do not be discouraged. Not only does God give us every day the opportunity to work for the salvation of souls, He also gives us the necessary grace and strength to do so. Therefore do not let the messiness of life discourage you.  Like a church baptism in real time, God's grace works in the midst of screaming babies, coughs and sniffles, and even when the odd cell phones go off in the middle of prayer.  God's grace is to be found in the everyday circumstances of your daily life, and not just yours - even without them knowing, also your neighbor’s.  But they need to know, and we need to tell them, so that the whole family might rejoice in the rich and abundant harvest of God's grace.

Let us ask Our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, who found themselves in places and circumstances they never planned nor expected, that they will inspire and help us to be always faithful and committed to what God asks of us every working day.

Sep 23, 2017

Making a name for yourself?

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 20:1-16

When we are so often result and goal orientated, and want to see the actual fruits and results of our work and efforts, today's Gospel puts us in our place. In other words, Christ reminds us that we only make little contributions to the building up of His Kingdom. But it does add up, over time.

But ultimately, we have to get used to the fact that we only lay foundations, even just a little brick here and there and maybe nothing more. Is that the only reason I exist, I might ask? That's either embarrassing or it's humbling!

We may never see the effect or how our little or, indeed, grand sacrifices will shape the future. All we can do, here and now, is be faithful to the task at hand and allow God to write the ultimate history of His Kingdom.

Will I get a mention in it, credit or even be known as a maker and shaper of the world? Can I live with the fact that the world that knew nothing of me before I was born, might likewise know nothing of me after I die? Why does that question even matter to me? Why is it so difficult simply to do my little bit, and move on - even without anyone noticing?

But God does. And He never forgets. From His perspective, from the dawn of creation to the final Day of Judgment, whether anyone noticed me or not, I was born at the right moment, lived a necessary life for a particular reason and whether I see it or not, my life, my little life has a God-given purpose and meaning within the entire history of the cosmos from the beginning of time!

Put it all in the plain language of the parable we listen to. We are told that in the course of one day, a landowner (God) went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard, then again at 9 in the morning, once more at midday, the same at 3 o'clock and finally at 5 in the early evening.

Whereas we tend to approach this scenario as if all happened within twenty-four hours, if we looked at this parable with a much wider lens, we might ask, "what is 'one' day in the sight of the eternal God?"  In the early dawn God sent Adam and Eve into his vineyard. At midday God put Abraham to work. At 3 o'clock Moses began his mission and at 5 in the afternoon, in the coolness of the early evening, the Lord calls us.

We arrive late into the scene and are given the privilege to work in his vineyard though most of the hard work has been done!

That's the big picture. Where do you and me fit into this timeline?  Many of us were baptized as babies, brought up in the practice of the faith and God's grace accompanied us throughout life. We received grace in equal measure.

There are some, who find the gift of faith only later in life, maybe when they get married and, having children, look to the Church to help them in their spiritual formation.  They too received grace in equal measure.

Maybe, some, have spent a generation away from the practice of the faith, but maybe something happened - a sickness, a death in the family, an event to allow them to pause and think of the direction their lives were going. And then, maybe only then, they approached the doors of the Church seeking direction.  They too received grace in equal measure.

And then, there are those who respond to God's call to seek him at the last hour of the day - like the good thief on the cross who, just before he died, had enough breath to ask Christ to let him into heaven. And we was!  And received the same grace in equal measure.

Whether we have responded to God early in the day, or in the heat of a moment, or at the last moment or final hour - all received grace in equal measure.  Whether we went to Catholic school, home schooled, private school or public school, if we simply say yes to God's plan for our lives, all receive grace in equal measure.  Whether you are a priest, a nun, a mother or father, single or married, young or old - if today you hear his voice, simply respond and likewise receive grace in equal measure.  

But just in case we grumble and complain that we worked more than someone else, or that we are more Catholic than someone else, let's, in a moment of truth compare our own efforts to Christ's.

He made the greatest sacrifice in the vineyard of the Lord, for us, for everyone, past, present and future.  He carried the greatest burden, He carried you and me, His Body broken, His blood shed in a labor of love for every single man, woman and child - for those whom we read about in history books or those who have never made a name for themselves.

But Christ considered every single person, past, present and future, equally worth dying for - He made His ultimate sacrifice for those nobody even noticed - the homeless, the wanderer, the passerby, the little baby who only lived a day, the addict fighting demons, the young man or woman confused about who and what they are, the elderly with no friends or family, those living alone and forgotten. Each and every human life God sees as wonderfully made, takes delight and rejoices in because they too are building blocks - all adding up, one by one, to the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. So, don't try to make a name for yourself. God already has!

Our response should always be humility before God's labor of love and a respect and honor for each and every person regardless of their gifts or burdens, big or small. But most of all, Christ's parable of the vineyard should evoke in us a deep sense of gratitude for the undeserved gift of salvation.  

"May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last." Blessed John Henry Newman

Sep 16, 2017

When it doesn't add up

You might remember the 1993 movie Schindler's List, based on in the life of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman. He was credited with saving the lives of more than one thousand, mostly Jewish refugees, from execution by the Nazis towards the end of World War Two. There are many haunting scenes of human brutality difficult to understand, or even stomach. One scene, in particular, I think is pertinent to the Gospel today.

On the balcony overlooking a concentration camp, Schindler is depicted in conversation with a drunken SS officer by the name of Amon Göth.  Historical records detail that Göth personally murdered prisoners on a daily basis, many for little or no reason. He shot people from his balcony if they even appeared to him to be working too slow under forced labor.  There is even a report that he shot and killed a Jewish cook, there and then, because she served him soup that was too hot.

Oskar Schindler, in an attempt to reach the the Nazi officer’s conscience says to him, “Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don't.” The officer replies, surprised, “You think that's power?  Schindler continues, describing a scenario, very much like that of Christ’s in today's Gospel. He tells him, “A man steals something, he's brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he's going to die. And the Emperor... pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.” The Nazi officer responds, “I think you are drunk.” But, Schindler responds, “That's power, That is power.” According to the rules, you deserve punishment. But the judge, even with all his power to inflict punishment says, “I forgive you”. Was Schindler able to reach the Nazi’s conscience?

Soon afterwards, we are shown the officer reprimanding a young Jewish boy for not cleaning his bath tub perfectly. Fearing immediate punishment, the young boy looks down at the floor preparing for the worst. But then the Nazi officer, with a rehearsed wave of his hand, imitating a king, says, “I pardon you”. The boy is dismissed and, taking his leave, briskly walks out of the building with a hidden relief.

Inside, the officer looks at himself in the mirror and repeats to himself his rehearsed gesture of pardon. But he senses that he is not really being himself - it was only a performance. So he immediately goes out to his balcony, looks down at the young boy walking briskly and unsuspectingly across the courtyard. He takes up his rifle, and after a couple of warning shots, which freezes the young boy in his tracks, the Nazi officer takes aim and shots the lad dead, in the back of the head.

I know it’s a graphic picture, and it, not doubt, provokes much emotions. But this would have been the same kind of reaction Christ himself would have stirred up after telling the story we hear in the Gospel of the unforgiving servant. Those who listened to Him knew very well, even first hand, the abuse of power and position of those who were over them - not only from their Roman masters, but also from local politicians, government officials, the rich and influential under whom many of them might have worked for and at times abused by their employers. But what is Christ trying to tell us, show us in this parable?

Of course, we are assured that God always takes the side of the innocent. God is intolerant of any unjust aggressor, anyone who abuses their power or influence. After the war, the Nazi officer depicted above was later captured, made to stand trial for crimes of torture and countless murders. He was executed, his body cremated and his ashes dumped into a river. He will also stand trial before God who alone has the power to make the final and eternal judgement as to a criminal's immortal soul.

But just when we start licking our lips in satisfaction when we perceive that justice has been done, Christ looks at me and you and solemnly declares, “so will by heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you [that means everyone, no exception] forgives your brother from your heart”.  Christ goes on to tell us, and in fact asks us to make our own the words of what we call the Lord’s Prayer - “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

Saying I “forgive you”, “I pardon you” are only words in themselves. We can say them, utter them ceremoniously. But often, it is not really forgiveness.  When we want others to know they are forgiven, we often risk doing so, so that they will not forget they have been forgiven. We are tempted to remind them, again and again that they are forgiven - “I forgive you, and don't you forget that!”  That is not forgiveness - that is control. It is an abuse of power.  Forgiveness has to come from the heart!

I know, and you know, this is extremely difficult. It is difficult, extremely so, especially when remembering a hurt, an offense or great personal injustice. It is so difficult to forgive from the heart because it risks opening up wounds we hoped may have been healed, and we are afraid reliving the pain, again and again and again.

When Peter asked Christ how many times must I forgive and Christ replies “not seventy times, but seventy-seven times”, Our Lord was in fact saying forgiveness has no expiration date. You can not wait it out. If you think you can, then what do you want to do next? Get even? That is God’s responsibility, not ours. As Christ's parable points out, it is He who settles accounts and balances the books, not us. So what are we to do if we can’t forgive from our heart?

Two things I can only suggest but we cannot attempt these without first asking God for his help.

First, (and there’s a bit of a twist here) follow Christ’s example from the cross.  After being brutally tortured beyond recognition and nailed up on the cross to slowly die a most painful and lingering death, Christ did not look at His abusers and say, “I forgive you”. He had neither the strength, physically or emotionally to do so - His heart would “naturally” not be in it. Instead, He said, “Father, forgive them!”  When we are too traumatised to even make sense, if that is possible, of our own suffering and pain, we must hand it over to our Father, and trust Him who is true justice and true mercy.

Second, and again this is naturally difficult and again we must ask God for His grace to do so - like Christ risen from the death and still bearing on this body the past wounds of His abuse and suffering, He does not want us to be defined by past sins - be they our own or others. He asks us come to Him and to let Him help us break free from allowing our past hurts and wounds to define us. Instead, He wants to remind us, not of our past - but our future with Him forever, where there will finally be no more suffering, no more pain, where every tear will be wiped away.  He offers us, hope. Hope, even in the darkest hour, keeps us alive. Persevere in hope!

May Mary, the Mother of Sorrows, whose tender heart was pierced through by the atrocities of humanity, and who never despaired, may she guide our fragile hearts and minds in the direction of true healing that flows from the justice and mercy of God, who alone balances the books, through Christ our Lord.

Sep 9, 2017

Away with the Birds!

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time:

It used to be that when we said, “A little bird told me…”, we were being discreet in how we opened up a conversation about a disappointment or some news you needed clarification about. For the most part, the “little bird” of the past has now grown teeth, dipped itself in blue war paint, and tweets! And if the little bird is angry, its tweeting can often sound like the squeals of flying reptiles from Jurassic Park!

The template for dialogue and reconciliation provided by Our Lord in the Gospel today comes, not from a tweet, but from the very mouth of God spoken clearly, patiently and carefully. He understands the emotions and dynamics of the human heart, our passions and our temptations. As such, especially for all Christians, Christ has provided a model to follow. Failure to follow it step by step, often results in needless conflict, angry exchanges, hardening of hearts, broken marriages, family fluids and even divisions within the very Church community and nation itself.

Christ reminds us that we can not hide from our social obligations to keep each other accountable to the patient love and mercy of God. Compassion and forgiveness does not mean that we tolerate or paper over the social and personal consequences of sin. We can not avoid taking up the cross if we are to follow Christ.

However, the weight of the cross that we must bear and often encounter, is not an ideological one. It’s real. It’s personal. We encounter its roughness, its splinters and its weight, not only in our own weaknesses, but we also visit it daily in people we meet.

Our Lord intimately understands the passion of the human heart, how differences of opinion can sometimes grow into resentment, how our minds work to further particular causes and ideals which are near and dear to us, and how we will often naturally react amidst disagreements and perceived threats.  It is sometimes easier to provide a plan of action to engage an incoming hurricane or even a battle with sickness, than it is to approach a loved one or even a stranger who are themselves creating havoc in their own lives or even in yours!

The Gospel message of Christ gives us a clear outline to approach this often difficult situation. It would do us well to revisit these Scriptural rules of engagement again and again and apply them constantly in our lives. We should remember, this is Christ’s approach to us and we must receive him should he himself knock at our door disguised as a friend or a stranger.

1. “Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” It takes courage and humility to look encounter another person. Courage, because it's easier to hid behind a tweet, an email or a text message. Humility, because, face to face, I might have to hear something I don’t want to hear or afraid of getting myself involved. Face to face, I might have to admit my own guilt. Maybe I got the wrong end of the stick or that the perceived bark from a dog was instead a lick in the face from a puppy who meant no harm!

2. If there is a need to follow through, our Lord reminds us to “take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established”. In other words, do you have good and trusted friends who will help you with a reality check. And that is the value of sacred friendships. Not someone who is a “yes man” and will agree with you to “keep the peace”. We all need true friends to help us see objectively, to prevent us going down the rabbit hole or seeing ghosts in every shadow.

3. Only after we have exhausted a one to one dialogue and only after we allowed ourselves good and honest counsel, Christ then goes on to say “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.” That doesn't mean that we can wash our hands of responsibility to remedy an injustice simply because we wrote a letter to the pastor, the bishop or the pope. It does mean that we all must share the weight of each other’s cross addressing together a threat that, if not addressed by the larger community of the Church, risks tearing apart our families, our communities and even our nation.

Sometimes, we find ourselves powerless against evil. Sometimes we know that there is literally nothing we can do with our own strength and resources. Even though it is easier to see the consequences of sin, division and disaster, it is often difficult to see the fruits of our own actions and good works inspired by God’s grace.

There will be plenty of camera crews capturing the drama and trauma of the hurricane season. There will, no doubt, be much pain and passion expressed after the storm. But I suspect, not too many from the national media will be reporting months from now about the countless individuals who are slowly and patiently building up their lives again in the aftermath and who are making great sacrifices to help others do likewise. Instead, when there are true glimpses of peace and justice in the world, be assured it will not first be announced on social media. How then will you know? God will tell you in the same way that he told Noah after the flood. A little bird will tell you - and it won’t be twitter! It will be the Holy Spirit.

May our Blessed Mother who stood in the midst of an angry crowd, who perceived so much injustice and who weathered the storm of the cross, comfort us with the faith she had in the victory of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

Sep 2, 2017

No More Selfies

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time:

The portion of Matthew’s gospel proclaimed to us last week assured us of our Lord’s care and protection of the Church - so much so he entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven to St. Peter with the authority of binding and loosening. We reflected on this ministry from the perspective of a key given to Peter’s office that can be used to open and close the doors of heaven. If we simply left it there as the end of the story, we risk seeing St. Peter gilded in coronation robes and seated on a throne - picture perfect, a photo worthy of a Facebook moment with a million “likes”.

However, it is as much dangerous to try to unlock the inner mind, the heart and the soul of any one person by the study of a photograph, a series of tweets or text messages as it is to lift one portion of Scripture out of its page, separating it from the complete narrative. The Bible was not “canonized” because of one single passage any more than a saint is because of one of their holy quotes or wise sayings. We are talking here about human lives, lived in the complexities of relationships, with God, family, friends and neighbors with the demands of the world around us in all of its blessings, challenges and complications.

Not only can we risk doing this to St. Peter, we also can at times do it to ourselves. We have all had our moments to walk on the red carpet. We all have also had our moments when we tripped and fell, looking around quickly hoping nobody saw us. When we try to save face too often our pride will get in the way. It takes a lot of strength and endurance trying to be a rock of strength and stability for everyone else. But when our strength gives up, or we fail, we can be particularly hard on ourselves, bitter or angry.

For this reason the Church asks us this week to reflect of both the Prophet Jeremiah and, of course, St. Peter. We see them, not in a hall of fame, but in their brokenness and vulnerability. The prophet Jeremiah, having been thrown into a prison pit because his wise and holy counsel was rejected, complains that he was set up - not by his enemies, but by God himself. He accuses God of "dumping" him. He is even mad at himself for agreeing. The same, no doubt for St. Peter. Having been entrusted with the keys of office to open and close the doors of heaven, he now offers his educated opinion but he is abruptly told by Christ he is out of line, to be quiet and fall in line behind. Just when he presumed he was trusted to sail his own ship, Christ takes over steering and sends St. Peter the fisherman to the rear of the boat.

Too often we can get so caught up in our 15 minutes of fame, that we can’t think or pray outside the box. We can often become so full of our own sense of importance, that we can easily become so closed minded and arrogant. So let us be courageous before God, acknowledging our weakness and vulnerabilities, in swallowing our pride and trusting in God’s plan and His power without wanting to always understand it.

That doesn't mean that we are like puppets on a string. Far from it, God will sometimes cut the strings from whatever puppet master we sometimes allow to control us. Yes, we will often fall flat on our face and at times find ourselves all tangled up. It will indeed be a cross. But with humble submission to the strength of God’s grace, that cross, in whatever way it may unfold in our lives, will not be the last word. Instead, cooperating with the grace of humility, God can use the cross in time to save me, raise me up and strengthen me in the vocation he has asked me to respond to. That I know, but I pray when the weight of the cross becomes too heavy to carry, that I will not think of myself as solid rock hardened in my own estimation, but clay in the hands of the God I have slowly learnt to trust more and more.

Inside Water

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