Saturday, June 30, 2007


(13 Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

“Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” but Jesus answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God

These are strong words that we have from Jesus today. And as I reflected upon how we might understand them, I was reminded of someone I met once. I spent one of my summers when I was in college volunteering down in Appalachian coal country, and one of the things I did was pay visits to the older folks who often lived alone and weren’t able to get out much. I would see how they were doing, and if they needed anything. It was certainly never boring. One day I would be helping with the canning of tomatoes or cabbage and on another I was invited to throw rocks at the wood-pile to “scare away them snakes.”

In the course of my adventures I met a wonderful older woman named Ocie. That’s O-C-I-E. Ocie had recently lost her husband, so I went to see her to see how she was doing. When I asked her how she was doing with her grief, she said to me:

“Young man, it was sad to see him go, but I’m not too troubled.”

“Oh?” I said. She continued,

“’Well, before my husband died I asked him a question. I said, who do you love more, me or the good Lord’? And he said, ‘Well, Ocie, I love you, but I reckon I love the good Lord more.’”

Ocie was delighted with this answer! She said,

“When I knew my husband loved the good Lord more than me, I knew I would be with him again in heaven.”

Now this is an expression of a simple faith, but I think it can help us to understand what God demands of us as disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s not that in order to follow Jesus we have to leave everyone we love behind, but that when we put God first the way we relate to them will be transformed by grace. It can help us understand the Lord’s words that “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

It’s not as if in order to follow Jesus we need to run away to the desert or abandon our families or jobs. Because once we put God first, the way we love and work will be made new by grace. So when we return from prayer to our daily life, we’re not looking back, but looking forward to the kingdom of God, because the way we will do even the plainest things will be lifted by the light of grace.

Look at the prophet Elisha. Yes, his life was radically changed by the call to become a prophet of Israel. He even destroys the plow and oxen that were his livelihood. But what does he do with them? He cooks the animals, using the plow as fuel, and feeds the people he leaves behind. The call of God never leaves anyone abandoned.

Take the Lord’s own words as another example, “let the dead bury their dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Being Christians doesn’t mean that we should ignore the needs of those we love while they are alive, or not bury them with dignity when they leave us. But once we put the kingdom of God first, once we make it our first priority in life to have the love of God reign in our hearts and minds, we will no longer care for those we love or bury those who die in the same way.

In fact, once we put God first, the love with which we love those around us becomes part of God’s love—and thus we touch the caring and gentle Mystery at the heart of all reality. Once we put God first, though we might seem to be burying the dead, we are actually just saying goodbye to those who are being born ahead of us into eternal life. So when we grieve for our loved ones who have passed on, we are not the dead burying the dead, but the living who suffer with a brief separation from the living. The way we remember those who have passed from this world ought to reflect our faith in the eternal life we have in Christ, the eternal life of which this Eucharist is like a sample taste.

And to live this way is freedom from sin and selfishness, as Paul points out in the second reading. Because when we put God first, everything else we do becomes a little part of what God is doing in the world. And in God there is no misery or evil. In the inner life of God there is only peace and gentleness and joy. And this life is ours through the humanity of Christ, through the Body of Christ we receive and we become at this Eucharist. So let us follow receive the Body of Christ and follow the Lord into the peace of his kingdom. Amen.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

John the Baptist

This past Thursday we had the longest day of the year—with just over fifteen hours of sunlight. For the rest of the year, until we celebrate the great feast of Christmas, we will lose a little bit of that light each day. And so it’s fitting that this Sunday we celebrate John the Baptist, who proclaimed that he had to decrease that Christ, the light of the world, could increase. John came not as the Light, but as witness to the true Light, Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist is the hinge that connects the Old Covenant with the New. He is the last and greatest of the prophets of Israel, and yet, his main role in the history of God’s salvation is to be the forerunner of Christ. For as the Gospel teaches us, in Jesus we have a prophet, and yes, more than a prophet.

By fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord…make straight a highway for our God,” John the Baptist sets up the means by which God will make the promises made to the little nation of Israel the inheritance of all the peoples of the world.

For in Christ, all of the promises made to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and to David…all these promises burst out and become the hope of all the earth. Indeed, as Paul says in the second reading today, it was to the family of Abraham that “the word of salvation has been sent.” But it is in Christ that the first reading, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: that the people of Israel would be made a “light to the nations,” that God’s “salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.”

God promised to Abraham that he would be a great nation, and that God would settle him in a land of peace and prosperity. In Christ this promise becomes our own as heirs and citizens of the kingdom of God. No, it’s not a kingdom like the ones of this world, but it is a place we are to cultivate in our hearts, our families, and our communities, that, like John the Baptist, we may prepare a place for the Lord in this world.

Every Christian shares in the vocation of John the Baptist, as the forerunner of the Lord. Quoting the Gospel of John, the entrance antiphon for today’s Mass puts it quite simply: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the Light, to prepare an upright people for the Lord.” All of us who know Christ are sent in the same way. We are to bear witness to the presence of God in the world, so that we may share in the raising up—the Resurrection—of this world in Christ.

Recall another line from John’s Gospel—one that we proclaim in every Mass as we prepare to receive Holy Communion. When John saw Jesus he announced, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

We share in this ministry of pointing out the Lamb of God! Sometimes people call this “naming grace.” It’s simply the practice of noticing that God is at work in the world. And it’s a practice we need, because the world is largely ignorant of God, and even we ourselves with all of our busyness and chatter often miss the presence of God.

Think about it. Even in the most war-torn and troubled places on earth people still insist on falling in love with each other. How can this be? Because the presence of God—who is love—is more powerful than any of the suffering we inflict on each other with our sins. Wherever there is compassion, wherever there is gentleness, forgiveness, and care, we know that it is the pure grace of the loving Mystery we call God.

It is up to us to imitate John the Baptist by naming this grace, by proclaiming to the world that the love of God is in its midst, especially when people don’t know it. In this ministry each one of us fulfills our vocation as forerunners of the Lord, as those who prepare a path for God in the world.

(Nativity of John the Baptist, Mass during the day)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

How to be a Sinner

This past Lent I was invited to help with a day of recollection at one of our parishes in Manhattan. The focus was on St. Francis’ Prayer before the Crucifix, and the line I was given to speak on was the one in which Francis prays, “enlighten the darkness of my heart.” Now you can only make such a prayer if you have and are aware of some darkness inside. So I asked the people I was working with, “Is there anybody here who sometimes has some darkness in their heart?” Well, every hand in the place went up, and mine too!

Everyone can relate to a consciousness of sin. We can all say with confidence, “I am a sinner.” Now I haven’t had the chance to meet all of you here at Sacred Heart, but I doubt that many of us here are sinners with the intensity of the great king David, who was not only adulterous, but who also made himself a murderer in order to commit adultery. But we can all identify with the words that God speaks to David in the first reading: “Look at everything I have done for you. Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight?”

Yes, even the saints know that their great holiness is inadequate when it is compared to the burning and intense generosity of God. The love and mercy of God are so overwhelming that they always make us look lukewarm and more aware of our faults.

But our confession before God that we are sinners begs another spiritual question: What do we do with this awareness?

The easiest thing to do is to be ashamed. This is the answer on the human level. We feel like we have sinned against God, so we stay away from God, stay away from prayer, stay away from communion with Body of the Lord here in the Eucharist.

This is the certainly the response that Simon the Pharisee expected of the sinful woman in today’s Gospel. There he was, hosting a nice dinner party with respectable people and entertaining this local celebrity, Jesus of Nazareth. And then his party is crashed by this woman who was known to be a public sinner. You can almost hear him saying to her, “Get out my house, and go back in the street where dirty people like you belong. Can’t you see this is a man of God! Have some respect! A sinner like you shouldn’t approach the great teacher.”

But Jesus explains to Simon the Pharisee how he has it all wrong. Jesus points out how the sinful woman showed much more love than Simon, the decent, respectable, religious man. And with the simple parable of the two debtors Jesus explains why she loved more: the one who is forgiven more will love that much more.

And this is what we must do. When we are aware of our sinfulness it ought not to discourage us. We shouldn’t let it make us stay away from prayer or from this Eucharist. When we are aware of our sinfulness it ought to make us more grateful for the forgiveness of sins that God has accomplished in Christ. The more we are aware of how much we have been forgiven, the more we will love in return.

So let’s give thanks that we begin every Eucharist with an invitation from the priest to “call to mind our sins.” Because is we do this well, it will make us more grateful for our Savior and will make us love the Eucharist even more. On this altar the Precious Blood of the Lord is poured out, precisely for the forgiveness of sins. And this life-giving and renewing Blood washes over us. As the author of the book of Revelation puts it, we are washed and made clean in the Blood of the Lamb.

Let us confidently approach the throne of grace today, knowing that we are sinners. We shouldn’t be happy about our sins, but we should be grateful for the knowledge that we are sinners. Our role model today, the sinful woman, shows us how this knowledge will make us love God even more.

(11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)