Sunday, September 25, 2011

Did Jesus Make You Angry?

 "...complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing." (Phil 2:2)

This morning I spent the first three Masses standing outside the Church doors greeting the people as they came in for Mass and as they exited.  Since there was a blood drive being held in the parish today, there were two volunteers inviting parishioners as they left if they would give blood.  The volunteers were shocked by the cold reaction of our people as they were leaving Mass.  Some people wouldn’t even acknowledge them or simply gave them a mean face for even bothering them.  Now mind you, some of these parishioners were walking out of Mass during communion which prompted me to wonder and almost ask one of them like a little child would:  “Did Jesus make you angry or something?”  I’ll return to this group of people in a bit.

This week’s readings pick up where last week’s readings left off.  We continue to see God favoring those who truly repent for past bad decisions over those who seemingly live virtuous lives but have gotten lazy and stop producing fruit for God’s kingdom.

We have two group of people referenced in today’s gospels:  the religious leaders of Israel and then the tax collectors and prostitutes.  The religious leaders represent the son who said yes to his father but did not go into the vineyard to work.  The tax collectors and prostitutes represent the son who initially tells his father that he would not got out to work in the vineyard but eventually does.  The son who goes into the vineyard will produce fruit from his labor.  The son that does not go into the vineyard is paying lip service to his father and produces no fruit.  What side do we fall under?

Last week, I made an aside remark during my homily that I never wrote down.  I made the analogy that these two groups of people reminds me of Catholics who come to Mass only on Easter and Christmas versus those of us who are here every week.  Those that come only a couple of times a year have a place at this table no matter how much they frustrate us for taking our parking spaces and seats because they may be moved to join us more frequently at this table where they belong.  Those of us who come weekly run the danger of falling into routine, of becoming stale, and not producing any fruit except for clocking in and clocking out at Mass for an hour a week.  I said it a few weeks ago:  we have to be careful not to fall into this routine.  Every time we come to Mass should be an experience all its own.  We must be open to the promptings of the Spirit that lead us to change our lives.  Yes, we say the same prayers and sing the same songs, but the readings are different and we should experience Jesus in a totally different way that challenges us to do more for the building up of his kingdom.  We must approach the Eucharist with a sense of wonder like someone who is approaching this sacrament for the first time or maybe even a couple of times a year. We should walk out with joy in our hearts because we have just experienced something heavenly.  The sinners of Jesus’ time understood that they had experienced the divine.  The religious establishment did not. 

I wonder if some of us fall under the title of “religious establishment.”  Most of us come to Mass every Sunday, but we want to do it on our own terms.  We want to arrive at a certain time, leave at a certain time, sit in the same pew, and not be bothered by anything going on around us.  We start to get very good at paying lip service to God, priests included, and have nothing to show for after Mass except that we were sitting in a pew for an hour once a week.   We don’t want to be bothered by the people around us who are trying to draw us in to the life of the Church yet we profess to be part of the Body of Christ.  St. Paul tells us in the second reading that we must be of the same mind and the same love, but some of us come to Mass as if we were the only people in the church.

We are in danger of becoming the Pharisees of our time if we continue to simply pay lip service to God and not produce fruit for his vineyard.  Every Sunday I stand outside and see so many people dash out of the church as if it was on fire with a sour look on their face.  It causes anyone to wonder if they truly experienced the living God during the celebration they supposedly took part in.  We cannot and should not approach the Mass as an obligation or something we simply do out of habit or routine because we close ourselves off from being awed by the living God that makes himself present in the Breaking of the Bread. That is why Jesus favored those who despite being sinners embraced his message because it’s never too late in God’s eyes to set things right, and the sinners rejoiced that were even acknowledged by God let alone forgiven. That is why we must empty ourselves as Christ did and become humble when we come to this table so that we may be open to whatever He has in store for us.  We must come to Mass with a total sense of wonder much like a child would. 

Who knows?  Maybe one day I may be standing outside the church with a child, and trust me they pick up on everything, and that child may actually be bold enough to ask those grumpy people coming out of Mass:  “Did Jesus make you angry?”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A God Who Constantly Surprises Us

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”  (Isaiah 55:8)

Sometimes we have to step back to see God tapping us on the shoulder and reminding us that he’s there:

-A little girl who I barely know is walking in a perfectly straight line with her Kindergarten class while I walk in the other direction.  She suddenly breaks the line to give me a hug.

-A woman approaches a brother priest in a New York subway last week on the way to Ground Zero to tell him how she ran out of the Twin Towers on 9/11, sought refuge in a church, saw the firefighters lay their fallen chaplain by the altar, and rediscovered her faith.  (Read more of Father Luis' moving story here:

-A man approaches me after a weekday Mass to simply tell me: “Thank you for being a priest.”

-A random email or text message is received from a friend, a family member, an old parishioner, or student to remind me that I am loved and somehow made a difference in somebody’s life.

-A young man who pulls me aside out of the blue and tells me:  “Father, I think I want to be a priest.”

-A routine phone call from my sister becomes not so routine and flat out reduces me to tears when she tells me she is going to pass on my name to her unborn son.

Just when you think you have God figured out, he starts to surprise you in ways that you couldn’t possibly imagine.  Try as we might to do things “our way,” we still seem surprised when His way turns out infinitely better.  Our ways are definitely not his ways.  He is a God who will favor those who are last, yet we still scratch and claw to strive to be first.  When are we going to learn to let God be God and to just get out of his way?  It’s amazing how easy life gets and how joyful we become when we just surrender to His will.  And even then, He continues to amaze us, surprise us, and overwhelm us with the depths of his love.  Because just when you think God cannot possibly demonstrate the depths of his love for you any more than he already has…he goes even deeper!

This week, let yourself be surprised by your God.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Redefining Heroism

“None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.”  (Roman 14:7)

To be human is to be selfless.  It is to love others more than self.  True heroism involves putting the common good over one’s self, and laying your life down for another.  This is what our Lord did.  This is what we see on the cross.  Ten years ago, our definition of what it means to be a hero changed.  Men and women we see every day, and pretty much take for granted most of the time, were all of the sudden seen in a new light. Firefighters, police officers, and first responders were seen throwing themselves into harm’s way, as they do pretty much every day in this country, and were rightfully and finally given their due for running into two burning towers.  I always tearfully recall their heroism and that of our military whenever I hear the third verse of “America the Beautiful”:  “O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife.  Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!”

Today we honor all those men and women who lay their lives down for us whether on our street corners, in firehouses, or in the deserts and mountains of Iraq or Afghanistan.  So many who teach us on a daily basis that selflessness is what makes our nation great.  And that selflessness unites us.  Today we have with us members of our local fire department.  You always have a special place in my prayer life because my brother is a firefighter and civil servant as well.  He became a firefighter just a couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks, but five years ago today I was honored to give the invocation when he joined the City of Miami Fire Department.  That evening I wrote:

“[As for my brother], I often take what he does for a living his vocation for granted.  Many people celebrate my vocation to the priesthood, and they call my life "heroic."  But today as I saw my brother become a firefighter for the City of Miami under the backdrop of the burning twin towers, I wondered, "who truly is the hero?"  Right after the ceremony we proceeded outside to the training center for a demonstration of their skills.  Some were ordinarily impressive and some were jaw dropping.  Then we looked up to the top of this ten story building and saw my brother waving at my parents and at his son, then, with the crowd in awe, with two of his classmates, he proceeded to scale down the building…HEAD FIRST!  And so I wondered, as I often do when I see pictures of the World Trade Center on 9/11, "Would my brother run into those burning towers?"  After watching him scale that wall, after hearing him take the firefighter's oath which forsakes self for the good of others, the only answer I could come up with was an unequivocal "yes."  Makes you want to rethink your definition of a hero.”

These men and women remind us that loving others, loving country, more than self is the greatest attribute of an American.  They unite us through their heroic example of courage.   Ten years ago, our nation was firmly united in one of our darkest hours.  If any good came out of that horror, it’s that we were reminded that we were one and that a nation united is far stronger than any terror attack.  Our churches were filled as people looked for answers, for as Christians we knew that only with Christ could we make sense of the senseless.  May this solemn occasion serve to remind us once again that true heroism lies in selflessness, and that our strength as Americans lies in knowing that we are the United States of America:  one people, one country, one nation under God!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

I'm Listening

"If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."  (Psalm 95:8)

I have a penchant for getting into trouble with my sister when we talk on the phone because she always claims that I don't listen to her.  I do listen even though she asks me every couple of minutes:  “Are you listening to me?”  I do admit there has been a time or two when my mind has drifted or I have been working on something else (multi-tasking) and she asks if I’m listening.  This happened last week when she called and was telling my about my nephew’s first days of Pre-K 3.  After a few minutes, she said, “You’re not listening to me.”  I told her I was.  She paused for a second and said, “you’re watching a baseball game, aren’t you?”  “I’m not!”   I tried to defend myself, but I kind of actually was watching a game.  Now ever since I was a kid, my mother and my sister know when I am lying because my lip starts to curl.  So my sister exasperated said, “I can hear your lip curling over the phone!”  I never did admit it to her. (I guess I’ll be getting a pretty angry phone call once she reads this.)  The reason I bring up this story is because today’s readings are all about listening particularly to the voice of God.  In the late 90’s during the sitcom “Frasier”, the titular character who played a psychiatrist with a radio show would welcome his callers on the air by declaring, “I’m listening.”  This is what God is telling us constantly in the Scriptures particular in the gospel when Jesus tells us that our communal prayer will be answered by our Father in heaven.  He is always listening, but the question that we are challenged with today is:  do we listen to Him?

There are many obstacles that prevent us from hearing the voice of God, and it is very hard to hear His voice if we’re not listening which is an essential, yet often neglected, component of prayer.  If we don’t listen to God, we become disconnected from his will which in turn hardens our hearts and allows us to be easily led into sin.  In today’s gospel, Jesus talks about fraternal correction and about pointing out the sins of our brothers and sisters.  The reason that Jesus does this is because sometimes a brother or a sister may be the last person to know that they are in trouble or in sin.  Think of an alcoholic who needs an intervention in order to realize that they have a serious problem.  What we sometimes fail to realize is that sin has a social dimension.  It may be a “private sin”, but it not only affects our relationship with God, it affects our relationship with the Church because it causes us to distance ourselves from God and prevents us from being effective members of Christ’s body.  That is why during the Confiteor at the beginning of Mass, we say “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters…”  For this reason, Jesus asks us to intercede for our brothers and sisters who have gone wayward because they may need to be rescued from the clutches of sin.  Sin drives such a wedge between us and God and our community.  Sin destroys us.  It blinds us.  It sucks us into a vortex of despair.  It tricks us into doing something we think will make us happy when all it does is drive us further away from our God and make us numb to its horrendous effects.  Sin does not allow us to love as St. Paul calls us to love in the second reading, but ultimately, sin makes us forget what the voice of God sounds like.

It is in the despair of sin that we start to blame God for our own self-inflicted problems and start to complain that He isn’t listening to us.  This is a complaint I hear often:  “God doesn’t listen to me.”  It’s not that God isn’t listening to us.  It’s that we’re not listening to Him.  Even when trapped by sin, God always listens to our pleas and sends good friends to rescue us and bring us back home where we begin to remember what God’s voice sounds like.  It is a voice of peace.  A voice of comfort.  A voice of serenity.  A voice that makes us feel that we are home.  So again, the problem isn’t that God isn’t listening to us, the question we must ask ourselves today is:  do we listen to Him?  May we remove all stains of sin that may harden our hearts so that we can freely approach God’s presence and say, “Speak, Lord.  I’m listening.”