Sunday, February 24, 2019

Do I Smell Like a Rose?

The Catholic Liturgy for the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feb. 24, 2019. Gospel – Luke 6:27-38. Topic: Do I Smell Like a Rose?

During his college studies in England, the famous Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, began reading the New Testament to keep a promise he had made to a friend. It made a positive impression on him and he said that Jesus’ words went straight to his heart. He was fascinated by the Gospel passage we heard proclaimed today: “But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”  He was convinced that if Christians lived these words of their Master, they would become a significant force for peace and justice in the world.

After reading the Gospels, Gandhi was eager to explore becoming a Christian. So, he decided to attend a Sunday service. When he reached the doors of a local Episcopalian church, he was stopped by a clergyman who said to him, “Where do you think you are going, you (derogatory British slang word for a person of color). There is no room for your kind in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my ushers throw you down the steps”.  Imagine experiencing this abuse after having just been filled with hope and enthusiasm by the words of Christ, who preached love, mercy, forgiveness and unity! After this sad episode, even though Jesus continued to occupy a significant place in Gandhi’s mind, he sadly – but understandably - he rejected Christianity.  His path to Christianity has been road-blocked and detoured by the scandalous behavior of those who claimed the name of Christian, but lived lives that were so very far from the teachings of the Gospel

In preparing for today’s liturgy, another one of Gandhi’s comments on Christianity popped into my head.  He was once asked what would be the best way to spread the transforming message of Christ in the modern world?  Newspapers? Radio? Television?  He shook head at those suggestions and replied: “A rose does not need to preach. It simply spreads its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon.” And so that made me ask myself a question that I think we would do well to each ask ourselves: Does my Christianity smell like a rose, attracting others by its fragrance to investigate the person and message of Jesus? Or does it smell more like a drive down HWY 5 by the cattle fields of Harris Ranch, repelling people from Christ?

You see, the problem is not that we do not know what Jesus is teaching us in today’s Gospel. The problem is that we do not live what we know. We all know what it means to love, to treat others with kindness no matter who they are, and to forgive those who offend us.  We know what it means to not judge the reasons for a person’s particular actions because we cannot see into their minds, into their hearts.  We know that only God can look into those secret chambers of the human person, and thus, only God can truly and honestly judge each one of us.

We fail rather consistently to put into practice what we preach and I am the first in that line of guilty Christians!  We would like to live like Jesus but we find ourselves falling short of the mark, even if we start off the day with the best of intentions. And the reason for this moral weakness is the wound of original sin which is found within every human being.

But it was precisely to heal this wound that Jesus came to us as Brother, Savior and Lord. He does not a cruel Master who teaches us a lifestyle that is impossible to live. Rather, He promises to be with each one of us always, to live within each one of us, making it possible for us – by His divine presence and power within us - to say “yes” to love and mercy, to say “yes” to forgiveness and unity.  And not to just say “yes” with our lips, but with the concrete actions of our behavior.

It is primarily through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Real Living Presence of the Risen Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, that this divine power and in-dwelling comes to us.  Holy Communion - received with faith and mindfulness and not simply out of routine or habit – enables us to love and to live as true Christians, to put into practice the Gospel teachings that we heard today.  We come to Mass every Sunday – and some of us more often that that – because we know how far we are from living and loving as Jesus taught.  We know how much we need Jesus to live within us so that we do not become a road-block or a detour in someone’s path to Christ. We know how badly we need Jesus dwelling within us always, enabling us to become like roses, whose sweet fragrance of Christianity captures the attention of those around us, drawing them to the person and message of Jesus.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

No Pain, No Gain

The Catholic Liturgy for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feb. 17, 2019. Gospel – Luke 6:17-26. Topic: No Pain, No Gain.

Struggle, sacrifice, self-denial…. these are all a part of our lives and not just when things go wrong or only when we have to go through some trials or difficulties.  Often times, we intentionally embrace these things when we want to better our situation in life. For example: If we want to advance in our occupations, we put in extra effort and time to prove our dedication and competence.  If we want to work on our appearance and health, to lose weight, build muscle or whatever, we embrace a strict regimen of proper nutrition and commit ourselves to a routine of physical exercise.

We willingly chose sacrifice and self-denial in order to come out on the other side with the joy of accomplishment and a better form of living.  Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel that we should have the same level of commitment and determination for our spiritual growth and development as we do for our physical well-being. And in both cases, as the saying goes, “no pain, no gain.”

If we value and want to promote our spiritual health and well-being, we must willingly and intentionally embrace the struggle, sacrifice, and self-denial that come with choosing to live according to the way laid out for us by Jesus. Today’s Gospel presents us with His fundamental teachings that have come to be called the Beatitudes. These are attitudes and behaviors that are so characteristics of Jesus, and include such things as poverty, mercy, humility, kindness, justice, patience in suffering and fidelity to God even in persecution. They describe and define who we are as Christians.

And as we heard today, the Beatitudes have both negative and positive aspects. They are a blessing for those who embrace them, and a condemnation for those who refuse to do so. 

They teach us that those who make material possessions, self-fulfillment and the pursuit of pleasure at any cost their motivation in life will end up with those things, but nothing more. If their whole focus in life is what this world has to offer, then when their life on planet Earth comes its end so will they. God was not their focus. Heaven was not their goal. The needs of others were not considered or served. And so, such people will get what they lived for: an eternity in which there is no room for God and no experience of real love.

Conversely, Jesus teaches that those who do embrace the struggle, sacrifice and self-denial of the Gospel will also get what they seek and lived for: blessings from God in this life and happiness with Him forever in the next. Despite difficulties and even when being ridiculed or misunderstood by others, they chose a lifestyle inspired by Jesus that was poor and simple, sacrificial and giving; a life focused on loving God and neighbor instead of primarily oneself.

I find it very interesting and very revealing that the Beatitudes start off by naming poverty as the first Beatitude, that it receives pride of place.  I think it’s important for us to understand what the Gospel means by the term “poverty” because when many of us hear this we get confused and even turned-off. As 21st century Americans, when we hear “poverty” we think it means “destitution”, you know, living in the poverty-level, with not enough to eat or wear or have to take care of oneself.  But this is not at all what Jesus means in this Beatitude.

Gospel poverty means simplicity of life, being content with what one needs and not being suffocated by an over-accumulation of things one wants and then so often wastes.  It is a Beatitude that is especially important and necessary in today’s culture that is so steeped in materialism and driven by the desire for more. As Christians, we embrace a simple lifestyle which, while allowing for our fair share of this world’s goods, keeps in mind the just needs of others and provides us with the means to help them, by not needlessly spending all our money on ourselves.

When I think of this Beatitude, I often recall some of the home renovation shows that I enjoy watching. They will typically highlight a newly enlarged walk-in closet and you see so many clothes, and a whole ocean of shoes, that you wonder how in the world they can even keep count of what they have, let alone ever even get around to wearing all that they have stored up.  Meanwhile, others in their town go around with barely enough food to survive, or without proper clothing to wear.  As Christians, we must admit that there is something so very wrong with that picture. It is such a glaring contradiction to the first Beatitude.

So, let’s take to heart the words that Jesus speaks to us in today’s Gospel: Blessed are you who struggle, and sacrifice and embrace self-denial for the sake of love, you shall be forever rewarded in the Kingdom of God. But woe to you who have served and pampered yourselves, for you have had your consolation in this world and will be denied it in the next.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Risen is the Reason

The Catholic Liturgy for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feb. 10, 2019. Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11. Topic: Risen is the Reason.

When I was reflecting on the Scriptures in preparation for our liturgy, the second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians really jumped off the page for me. Even though it’s tucked in between the Old Testament and the Gospel, I think it’s the most important reading of the three for us today. 

In this reading, St. Paul deals with the very reason why we are at Mass today; the reason why we strive and even struggle to live the teachings of the Gospel; the reason why we stand up for the welfare of the poor and the protection of the vulnerable; in other words, it is the very reason why we are Christians. And that reason is this: the historical, actual, physical Resurrection of the Crucified Lord Jesus from the dead.

St. Paul will go on to say to the Corinthians – in a part of this letter which we are not reading at Mass today - that if Jesus Christ is not truly risen from the dead, then people are right to laugh at us and poke fun at our faith. If Jesus Christ is not truly risen from the dead then we have been duped, hoodwinked and been made into fools for believing such a ridiculous claim.

But St. Paul knew full well that our faith in the Risen Jesus is based on fact not fantasy.  So, he reminds the Corinthians that the reality of a Risen Lord who conquered death, is based on eye-witness testimony and not simply religious myth or story-telling. He tells then that he himself has seen the Risen Lord, and he goes on to list others who saw and heard and touched the Risen Jesus, naming them by name because the Corinthians knew them and could ask them. He even reminds them that 500 disciples experienced a visit from the Risen Lord as they were all gathered together, most likely for Mass.

We need to hear this as much as the first Christians did, because no matter when in history you live, it is a strange thing, indeed, to believe that a man who was tortured, killed and buried has risen up from the dead to a more awesome and glorious life.  And it is even more strange to be told that you, too, can have your life totally transformed in this world and share the very same resurrection-glory with Him in the next. This promise of a real and new eternal life seems too good to be true to many people, and so there are those who challenge our faith by objecting to what they call a fantasy Resurrection story.

And yet, as St. Paul declares, this the heart of our faith. The Resurrection confirms the very foundation of our belief that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed God-come-in-the-flesh to teach us the truth, to take away the penalty of our sins, and to lead us to Heaven.

And that’s why Peter could trust Jesus when He told Him to pull out into the deep for a miraculous catch of fish. That’s why Peter, along with his brother Andrew and the brothers James and John, could trust Jesus enough to pull their boats ashore and leave everything behind to follow Him in a new way of life.

And that’s why when we encounter something in our lives that seems difficult or even impossible, we can trust that Jesus will make things work out for us, even if it’s hard to see how that can be done, because Jesus is Master of the impossible.