Sunday, February 28, 2021

If God is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?


Catholic Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, Feb. 28, 2021. Readings: Genesis 22:1-18; Romans 8:31-34; Gospel of St. Mark 9:2-10. Theme: If God is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us? 

In today’s second reading, St. Paul gives us a powerful message that we would do well to never memorize:” If God is for us, who can be against us?” But to make this bold statement a motto to live by requires confident trust, which I am sure you will agree, is somewhat of a challenge for most of us. We see this kind if trust dramatically acted out in the first reading about Abraham and his son, Isaac. Right up to the end, the elderly father is confident in God, that he will provide a way out of the sacrifice-situation. And we see a lesson in trust again in the gospel. Soon after Jesus foretells to his disciples his impending arrest and death, he clearly reveals his glorious divine identity to them so that when his Passion does come, they can recall just who he really is and keep trusting in him. 

So, it seems to me that God is calling us through today’s readings to trust in him as a Father who always has our best interests at heart, even if we can’t see it that way at the time. And that’s not easy for most of us to do! But you know, whenever I think of this, I can’t help but recall the many summers I spent with my kids at the swimming pool. There was always that first time - when each one was barely out of diapers - when they would be standing at the edge of the pool just dying to jump in but too scared to actually take the plunge! And there I would be in the water, my arms outstretched and saying to them, “Come on, jump! Daddy’s going to be right here and catch you. Just look at me and not the water and jump! It’s going to be fine!” 

I think this is very much what St. Paul is trying to tell us as well. He’s emphatically trying to assure us that trust in God is the best choice for us, and that it makes a lot of sense based on our past experience of his love. He’s trying to boost our confidence by reminding us that it was God, after all, who sent Christ into the world as our Savior. So, it’s foolish to think that he cares little about us. And he reminds us that it was Christ himself who not only lived for us but also died for us and who never stops praying for us before the Father in Heaven. So, why in the world would we not put our trust in him? What more can he do to show us his undying love and protection? It’s kind of like St. Paul saying, “Come on, take the plunge and trust in God your Father! Jesus is right at his side ready to catch you. Just keep your eyes fixed on them and not on the troubles in life. It’s going to be fine!” 

But as we all know, it’s a very hard thing for us to trust because so often our relationship with God, if we realize it or not, is based more on us being in control. We can’t seem to let go of our need to direct the events of our lives and just let God be God. And even when we think we are praying to God, sometimes we are actually trying to broker a deal with him. Thinking that we can sway his mind or dictate the trajectory of events we might be tempted to say something like: “if I do such-and-such a thing for you, then you do this-or-that for me.” 

However, Christianity does not see God this way at all! We who are baptized into Christ see and experience God as our Father, who knows our needs and is waiting for us to just ask and trust. Jesus devoted so much of his preaching and teaching to this truth, trying to get it into our heads! One time, to prove this point, Jesus took a child into his arms as said that unless we become like little children we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He was not calling us to be childish, but childlike. He made little children our role models of trust because that’s a child’s default way of living. They are typically rather oblivious to the threats that are around them and simply enjoy life within the safety and security of their parents’ love for them. That’s precisely how God wants us to be in our relationship with him. 

We need to take the advice we heard from God the Father in today’s gospel and listen to Jesus! Listen to what he is trying so hard to convey to us by both word and example And actually, that brings me back to the memory of being with my kids at the pool. When they stopped listening to their fears and focused on listening to me, and took that first plunge into the water, they experienced that it was safe and learned to trust me. In much the same way, once we stop listening to our fears - whatever they might be - and listen to Jesus the Beloved Son, and actually start jumping with trust into the arms of God, then we’ll start to experience for ourselves the truth of those consoling words we heard from St. Paul: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Hope Beyond all Hope


Catholic Homily for the First Sunday pf Lent, February 21, 2021. Readings: Genesis 9:8-15, 2 Peter 3:18-22, Gospel of St. Mark 1:12-15. Theme: Hope Beyond All Hope 
All three of today’s readings carry the hopeful theme of receiving a second chance, making a fresh start, turning our lives around. We heard the Old Testament story of Noah and his family escaping the Great Flood and receiving a second chance at life on planet Earth. Then in the second reading from St. Peter we are told that baptism connects us with Christ’s death and resurrection, and like the wood of Noah’s Ark, the wood of the cross gives us a second chance at living right with God. Lastly, Jesus proclaims the time of fulfilment, meaning he is going to open the gates to the Kingdom of God for all who repent and believe in the gospel. 

“Repenting” means turning our lives around and “believing in the gospel” means trusting in Christ as the one and only Savior, who can make us brand new persons from the inside out. This sounds almost do good to be true for a lot of people, especially to those who think that what they have done in the past cannot be repaired and what they have made out of their lives is beyond redemption. But in the second reading St. Peter assures us that anyone who truly turns to Christ can claim a clear conscience and live a new life. This hope-filled truth of Scripture was the inspiration behind the unbelievable story of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany. They are living proof that repenting and believing in the gospel is a sure way to a fresh start, a second chance, a turning around of one’s life. 

In 1864, a young Dominican priest named Fr. Lataste was send to give a series of religious talks in a notorious women’s prison in France. He accepted this assignment admitting that he shared in the social attitude and prejudices towards these female prisoners, and thinking it was a useless endeavor to preach a retreat to over 400 inmates who had been prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves and murderers. But something came over him soon after he stepped past the gates and began to really look at the women in their poverty and reality. The words of Christ began to ring in the ears of his heart and echo in his mind, “Now is the time…now if the fulfilment...repent…believe….I have come to heal the sick, to restore the sinners…” 

As the retreat moved on Fr. Lataste found himself deeply moved with compassion and mercy, calling the inmates his sisters. He told them that the moment they freely chose to claim a clean conscience trough confession and then embrace the grace of their baptism with a new spirit, their lives, even as prisoners, would assume a new value. He concluded his several days of retreat with these words, “Whatever may have been your past, do not any longer consider yourselves inmates. You can choose to be people consecrated to God just like the Sisters are...” He assured them that they could turn their lives over to the service and praise God even in prison, just as much as nuns do in the seclusion of their monasteries, because what God looks at is the love and sincerity of the heart, not our external surroundings. 

The retreat which Fr. Lataste had originally deemed as useless and a waste of time had an extraordinary success. The inmates, until then rejected and despised, had suddenly discovered how precious they were in the eyes of God, rehabilitated by his tender mercy. As a result, several women, who were due to be soon released from the prison, made plans to visit with him once they were paroled. Little did Fr. Lataste know that God’s finger was upon this meeting and that these former prisoners were the beginning of what would grow to become a worldwide religious community called the Dominican Sisters of Bethany. 

To give them a real chance for a totally fresh start, Fr. Lataste made a rule that the Sisters were to include in their ranks both women who had been in prison and those who were untouched by crime and came from good backgrounds. This would allow those “with a past” to truly blend in and leave the details of their former lives behind them. If you go today to a monastery of these Sisters, you’ll have no clue as to who is who. Last names are not used in Bethany nor is one’s past ever discussed. Everything about their community life is structured to assure privacy and support fresh starts, remembering that Fr. Lataste had said, “God does not ask us what we have been; he look only at what we are today.” 

In every convent of the Dominicans of Bethany there are a few Sisters who go out to local women’s prisons carrying the same message of hope that they heard and embraced. They also minister to those who are in other types of prisons besides those made of brick and mortar. These are the prisons of addiction, of attachment to a life of hedonism and greed, of a destructive existence that seems to spiral into hopelessness. By the witness of their own lives, the Bethanies assure us that anyone and everyone can have a clean conscience through Christ. In Christ, anyone and everyone can find hope beyond all hope by simply responding to the words of Jesus we heard today, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Two Bethany Sisters with a photo of Fr. LaTaste and Sister Henri-Dominique, the first member.

Prayer to Jesus by Blessed Jean Joseph Lataste

Oh my Jesus, I want to love you.  Give yourself to me and grant that I may give myself to you.  Make me one with you.  May my will be yours.  Unite me to you, so that I may live only in and for you.  Grant that I may spend for you, all that I received from you, keeping nothing for myself.  May I die to self for you and bring others to you.  Oh my Jesus, may i bring many others.  Amen

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Fresh Starts & Second Chances


Homily for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021. Book of the Prophet Joel 2:12-13. Theme: Fresh Starts & Second Chances 

Of all the seasons of the Church Year, Lent is the most striking and the most ancient. And of all the special days of the Church Year, Ash Wednesday seems to make the biggest impression upon us and, in pre-COVID times, typically draws the largest number of people. Why is that? I think it’s because Lent, and Ash Wednesday which kicks off the season, is all about second chances and making a fresh start. And who among us doesn’t want, doesn’t need, a second chance and a fresh start? 

I think the verses we hear upon receiving the blessed ashes are an inspiration for making this fresh start. The first is, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This verse is from Genesis 3:19 and repeats the words which God spoke to Adan and Eve after their decision to commit the first human sin. It reminds us that death is a consequence of sin, of our choice to live life on our own terms instead of according to God’s plan. And so, this short verse summons us to never forget that life on planet Earth is just the first stage of our eternal existence. Where we are going to spend this eternity is up to each one of us and Lent allows us to reorganize our priorities with this in mind. Ash Wednesday, then, is meant to be the kick-off to a new reformed lifestyle. 

The second verse goes like this, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” It is a direct quote from Jesus Christ and formed the heart of his preaching. We will hear this verse in the gospel that will be read this coming weekend on the First Sunday of Lent. Let’s take a quick look at the three key words of this proclamation because they set the tone for our fresh start, for our second chance at living a new life: repent, believe, and gospel. 

“Repent” means to have an about face in life; to make a 180 degree turn in our attitudes and behavior. It includes sorrow over our sins and selfishness but goes beyond sorrow, resulting in a genuine commitment to make a concrete change in how we think, how we speak and how we act. 

“Believe” means to trust. Whenever you encounter the words faith or believe in the Bible you can substitute them with the word “trust”. So, where do we place this trust? Well, the last part of the verse tells us where: in the Gospel.

"Gospel", as I am sure you have heard many times. means “good news”.  And the good news is this: that Jesus, in dying for us destroyed the power of sin to control us and our destiny. And that by his rising from the grave, he has conquered the finality of death, opening up to us who trust in him the pathway to eternal life. 

 So, there we have our foundations for a fresh start, for a second chance, no matter how we have been living up to now. The prophet Joel calls this a time of returning to God with your whole heart because he is rich in mercy. The Liturgy of Ash Wednesday, with its distribution of blessed ashes calls this day to be this a time to make a change, to reset our spiritual GPS, and plug into it our eternal destination as Heaven.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Be Cleansed of the Leprosy of Fear


Homily for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, February 14, 2021. Gospel of St. Mark 1:40-45. Theme: Be Cleansed of the Leprosy of Fear 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals a leper, enabling him to return to normal life in society. As you probably know by now, leprosy was the most feared of communicable diseases. For the leper, this meant a life cut off from community, an existence of isolation from those who were healthy, and the constant humiliation of having to publicly self-identify as a leper. For the healthy, it meant alienation from loved ones and the need to consciously and bravely reject the attitude of fear and hatred that many directed at the lepers. 

You know, when you think about it, we have some of those same dynamics today in our virus-infected and politically-charged world. People are shunned by the healthy, not because they are COVID-positive, but simply because they might be! Some are ridiculed and feared because of their political positions, cancelled from social life like the lepers of old. Obsessive fear, such as the people had of leprosy back in the day seems to be alive and present today, making its way through the population like a deadly emotional virus. It causes people to turn in on themselves, to isolate and become suspicious of others. And this fear, like that which once surrounded leprosy, if left unchecked, can even grow into hatred. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way! We have much hope for change because Jesus came to heal the inside even more than the outside. His words and touch healed the leper offering him so much more than simply physical wholeness. The man was liberated to return to community, released from social isolation and set free to no longer identify himself in terms of his illness. And I think that like this leper, we need to throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus and beg him to set us free from our own self-imposed alienation and fears. 

This is the way of humble and honest surrender to God in trust. It’s not easy but it is effective. It begins by owning up to our fear, naming it for the false threat that it really is, and then learning to intentionally hand this fear over to God, step by step, bit by bit, throughout one’s day. It’s a surrender that is made to God in faith, confident that He watches over us and loves us and wants us to be happy from the inside out. You see, the infectious virus of fear can only grow within us when we begin to think and act as if we are in control of our lives.  And so, to consciously turn ourselves over the care of God is the perfect response, the best medicine, the most effective vaccine against this emotional infection. 

And we can make this surrender of ourselves with confidence, because we see over and over again in the gospels, how Jesus is deeply moved by compassion to reach out and touch us in our need. Whether it’s a father begging for his daughter’s life, a widow who has lost her only son, a man tormented by evil spirits, the blind asking for sight or, as in today’s gospel, a leper asking to be made clean, Jesus feels what they are feeling and is moved to the depth of his heart. He’s not moved because he is the all-knowing powerful God, but because he is 100% human in all tihngs but sin. So, he knows what it’s like to be afraid. He knows what it’s like to be rejected. He knows that it means to worry about those we love. And yet he assures us that we have no need to be anxious, fearful and paralyzed emotionally. 

Through the Gospel and the Eucharist, Jesus offers each one of us personally, this inner healing of the mind and soul. Through his word and his touch today, he can banish fear and replace it with trust in him as the healing remedy to worry, anxiety, and panic. He is moved with as much love and compassion for each one of us as it had for the leper. The Heart of Christ overflows with tenderness towards all who are ruled by fear because he knows the disturbing effects it has on our peace of mind and quality of life. And he wants us to be free of such deep dark oppression so that we can leave our isolation and return to community with the same rejuvenated and joyous heart as the former-leper in today’s Gospel, who went off and told everyone about the amazing Man who had set him free!

Saturday, February 6, 2021

We're All Fixer-Uppers


Homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Feb. 7, 2021. Gospel of St. Mark 1:29-39. Theme: We’re All Fixer-Uppers 

I have to confess that I am an ardent Home and Garden TV viewer. I especially like the fixer-upper shows and it amazes me how someone can look beyond the mess and destruction of a run-down house and see its possibilities. I enjoy watching the various stages of renovation – demolition day, re-wiring, reinforcing weak spots in the structure to make them sound and solid again…and by the end you see what is basically the same building, but totally renewed and restored to what it was originally meant to be. 

And it seems to me that this is a good way to understand the mission of Jesus, because we’re all fixer-uppers. We may not all be in the same dilapidated condition but we all need saving and restoring. Some of us might be like rundown shacks that need to be completely rebuilt due to having been so terribly mistreated and neglected. Others might have a decent foundation and simply need some refurbishing and a good heavy polish to make them shine. But all of us, without exception, need some kind of work to be done so that we can be made new from the inside out. Jesus can look beyond the mess and even destruction we may have made in our lives and see the possibilities. He has a burning desire to restore us to what we were always meant to be: the holy and happy sons and daughters of God. That’s why he came into our world as one of us: to heal what is sick, to drive out what is evil, and to fix what is broken. That’s what our Gospel today is all about. That’s why we call it Good News! 

So, I suppose the big question would be: How can we cooperate with Jesus the Master Carpenter in this task of repairing and restoring us? It seems to me that like any fixer-upper job we need two fundamental things: a plan or blueprint to follow, and the right tools to get the job done. And the good news is that Jesus provides both of these for us. We find the blueprint of what kind of person we are supposed to be in the example of Jesus himself. His words, his attitude, his actions, his relationships…these have all been recorded for us in the Gospels to show us what it means to live as a happy and holy human being. This is why frequent and thoughtful reading of the gospels is so vital for us. We simply cannot get to know Jesus or absorb his attitude and behavior if we do not get to really know about him. We can also find this blueprint in the letters of St. Paul in the New Testament which explain and apply Christ-like living to our everyday situations. They should also be part of our regular reading and reflection. 

But head knowledge is not enough to bring about a change in us. No matter how many times a contractor looks at a blueprint, the house is going to remain in its sorry state until he gets going and starts the actual work of making the blueprint become a reality. The same is true for us. We need to allow Jesus, the Master Carpenter from Nazareth, to get on with the work of rebuilding us. We have to get out of his way by letting go of self-sufficiency and stubbornly clinging to our usual ways of thinking and acting. The saints tell us that the spiritual tools we need to use to get out of Christ’s way and allow him to transform us are Confession, the Word of God, and the Holy Eucharist. 

Each time we go to Confession it’s kind of like demolition day. We haul away the sinful junk and spiritual debris that have accumulated within us and that needs to be removed before the work of renewal can begin. But our occasional Confession has to be made real in our daily lives through a spirit of on-going repentance and conversion as we intentionally strive, with the help of God’s grace, to live in a more Christ-like manner one day at a time. 

The necessary re-wiring within us takes place gradually and carefully each time we read and reflect upon the Gospels, applying the words and example of Jesus in our daily lives. The Word of God has real supernatural power to enlighten us and bring us to this daily conversion. By our frequent and consistent encounter with Christ in the Gospels, our understanding and living of Christianity will become more genuine, and our discipleship more authentic. 

And then, these two spiritual tools, along with our receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, will begin to repair the weak spots in our relationship with God and our neighbor, making them more sound and solid. With each Holy Communion, Christ continues the work of rebuilding us and the more we open our hearts to the power of his presence, the more surely will we begin to take on a new way of thinking, a new way of looking at life, a new way of loving that shows we are being restored and renewed. 

If we spend this Lent, which will soon be upon us, seriously putting these tools of the spiritual trade to good use, then when Easter comes around we just night be in for a pleasant surprise. We just might be able to see that, what resembles the same old fixer-upper has been refurbished, renewed and restored to what it was originally meant to be: a Temple of God beautifully reflecting his holiness and glory.