Sunday, November 26, 2017

From the Catholic Liturgy for Christ the King Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. Matthew 25:31-46. Topic: Are You a Sheep or a Goat?

Today’s gospel is probably one of the best known and most often quoted passages from the teachings of Jesus for a couple of reasons. First, it gives us the most black and white, plain and simple teaching on salvation that we can find: Jesus tells us quite clearly - if you serve the poor you will go to Heaven; if you refuse to relieve their suffering, then you will go to Hell. The second reason for its widespread popularity is that has given rise to, and continues to inspire, some awesome charitable groups in the church, such as Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Hospitality Houses, and the worldwide Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

But the downside to its popularity is the danger of familiarity, that is, that we run the risk of taking it for granted something because we always hear it and think we know so well. At least that’s been true for me. So, when I began pondering this gospel for today’s liturgy, I asked the Holy Spirit to slow me down and allow me to hear it as if for the first time. To show me something I had not noticed in this passage before. And true to his mission, He slapped me upside the head and heard my prayer. He gave me two words: Sheep and Goats.

Sheep and Goats, huh? And then it dawned on me that when Jesus teaches us, he does so not just with words and actions, but also by the symbols he chooses to use.  I learned that  sheep are docile, obedient and community-oriented. They stay together as a flock following the shepherd’s voice and trotting along in his footsteps. Whereas, goats are stubborn, independent and trouble-makers. They have to be carefully watched or they will destroy things in their environment. They don’t follow the goatherd but make him follow them.

You could sum up the difference between the two by saying that: Goats want to live life on their own terms. No one to tell them what to do! If they see something they want it takes all of the goatherd’s efforts to haul them in and move them away. They look out for themselves and their interests are #1. Sheep on the other hand want to live life on their shepherd’s terms. They trust the shepherd and heed his voice.  They do not question his command but know that he is the one who protects, feeds and cares for them.

So, it seems to me that through today’s parable Jesus is telling each one of us to honestly ask ourselves: am I a sheep or a goat?  I am sure that deep down, if you are like me, you will most likely admit that you are a bit of both. I know for darn sure that I have some goat in me that likes to kick up its back legs every now and then and cause a bit of a ruckus!

But the good news from Jesus is that, unlike real life biology, if we have some goat in us, it does not have to remain there. We can change and our Shepherd has given us a way to become 100% sheep is we are willing to take it.   All that’s required is that we remain part of the flock and do as his voice tells us, following him every day, the best we can, in humble loving obedience. 

And we can learn to hear His voice in Scripture, especially the Gospels, which should become the daily bread for our souls. We need to speak to the Shepherd from the heart and learn to recognize his voice speaking back to us. We need to ask for the grace to know ourselves honestly and to make choices to live life as sheep and not goats, so that we will hear our King say to us when our time here is over: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father and enter the Kingdom prepared for you.”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Yield a High Return on Your Investments

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Nov. 19, 2017. OT33A Matthew 25:14-30 Parable of the Talents. Theme: High Returns on Your Investment
Last December, at the end of the special Year of Mercy, Pope Francis decided to keep its spirit and purpose alive among us by declaring that every year onward, the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time every would be observed by the Catholic Church as The World Day of the Poor.  And so, we are observing it for the first time today. 

How does Pope Francis ask us to observe World Day of the Poor and extend it throughout the year? By heeding today’s gospel about making the investment of ourselves in the service of all who suffer poverty in any of its forms, material and spiritual. And the like the servants in today’s Gospel, we can respond to this challenge in two different ways: We can do nothing, focusing on ourselves and our own needs, just like the servant who buried his talents out of fear. Or we can take a risk and be like the servants who in their desire to please their Master made a double on their returns.
And so I think we need to ask ourselves: what does it mean to take a risk as a Christian? I think it means to step outside the box, outside of our comfort zone, and do something that is a bit of a challenge for us. Christians who take this risk are like those who respond to Pope Francis’ plea to take up the Gospels daily and prayerfully read them, taking the risk of allowing the Gospel change their lives and not letting it remain just words on a printed page. They ponder Christ’s words and example, absorbing what they read, reflecting on it in their hearts, applying it to their own outlook and behavior. They take on a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at the world, a new way of living. They want to make the world a better place by focusing on their own little slice of life among those with whom they live, work and socialize.

Now, when someone is going to make a risky investment, they do some research and find the best place to put their money. In the same way, when we are taking a risk with our lives we have to do so with someone who is trustworthy and promises a sure return. We find this person and this promise in Jesus, who gives us the certainty of God’s Word that the investment of our lives with Him will yield much more back to us in grace and blessings. In the gospel, we learn that only way this investment of our lives for the service of the poor will be get results is by allowing Jesus to live within us and touch others through us.

How can this happen since we are just human beings and on our own we have no power to reach into anyone’s heart and transform their lives? We have a hard enough time transforming our own lives!  But Jesus knew that and this is exactly why He gave us the precious gifts of the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Eucharist. These two sacraments enable Jesus to live and act and serve others through us.

Confession removes the spiritual junk and obstacles that muddy our relationship with Jesus and others. It gets us, our egos, out of the way and lets Him take over. It motivates us to do good things for others as a way of making up for the selfishness of our past sins. The Eucharist, Jesus truly present among us and within us by means of Holy Communion, opens wide the doors of our hearts to Him.  The thoughtful and prayerful reception of the Blessed Sacrament is a way of saying to Him, “Come on in, live within me, touch the lives of others through me.” And the more we receive Jesus with faith and love, the more He lives within us, and the more He can touch others through us.

So, let’s pray today,  on this first World Day of the Poor, for all who are suffering all forms of poverty in the world.  But let’s also pray for the grace to be people who take a risk and put an end to our own spiritual poverty and laziness.  Let’s ask for a renewed understanding of the supernatural power of the sacraments, so that we can allow the Risen Lord Jesus to minster to others through us.  Let’s ask for the grace to make Jesus and his Gospel a reality in our everyday lives so that we can truly be bearers of Christ and instruments of mercy, justice and peace to those with whom we live, work, worship and socialize.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Is Your Lamp Lit and Shining Brightly?

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. Matthew 25:1-13.Theme: Is Your Lamp Lit and Shining Brightly?

As the Church Year draws near to its close and the liturgical calendar comes to its end next Sunday, the Gospels proclaimed in our liturgy during this time of the year draw our attention to the fact that our lives will also draw to a close on this earth. Whether this be due to the Second Coming of Christ or to our own personal deaths, Jesus is warning us of the need to be ready, to be prepared, because we do not know the day nor the hour for either of these events. The one sure thing we do know is that at some time these two things will indeed happen.

Jesus is asking each one of us: are you ready? Are you prepared? And as He typically does when teaching, Jesus uses an experience from the daily life of the people to get his lesson across and in today’s Gospel, He uses the example of the ancient Jewish wedding celebration. It might help us to know that in his time a very important part of the wedding ceremonies was the public procession.

When the wedding day arrived, the groom would go to the bride’s home escorted by his groomsmen. At the home, they would find the bridesmaids waiting for them. These chosen women would escort him to the bride and then all together they would form of joyful noisy procession to the actual wedding feast. To be chosen to be a bridesmaid was a great honor and to fail in this duty was a great public shame.  Jesus is reminding us that it is a great honor to be chosen to live life as a Christian and conversely it is a great shame to fail in this gift and lose the joy of eternal life.

And what about those lamps or torches that the bridesmaids carried?  Well, the women did not want to be shamed in failing to do their duty as bridesmaids, and so as evening came and the groom still had not appeared, they lit their small hand-held clay lamps so he would have a proper welcome and see that they were expecting him. In other words, the lamps were a sign that they were prepared and ready. Ancient Christian writers tell us that the lamps and the oil are symbols for two things we need to enter the heavenly wedding feast: faith in God and love for others. Just as a lamp without oil is useless, so too faith that does express itself in mercy and compassion to others is useless. It has no power to save us, to bring us into the Kingdom of Heaven.

And so, I think that in today’s parable of the kingdom, Jesus is telling us make sure that our lamp, that is, our faith relationship with Him, is fueled by love for our neighbor shown in concrete actions.  Jesus is assuring us that if we live our lives with our lamps burning brightly then we will, indeed, be prepared for death whenever it arrives for us. We will be welcomed into the great wedding feast of heaven where we will rejoice with all the angels and saints. We will not be counted among those standing outside, banging on the door.