Gospel Reflections

                                                                                  

September 27, 2020

26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

(SERMON)

 

The first and third readings give us four examples of the ways in which people follow the Lord in their lives.

The first example from the Old Testament tells us of a person who follows God and His Will in their lives, but then at some point turns away from that course and abandons it. What are the results? The good things he has done are destroyed by his new course of life.  Even though he had been faithful for a long time, that fidelity has been overcome by a new infidelity. It is sort of like a person who invests all his money in wise investments for years. His investments grow. Then he takes his investments to a casino and in one day loses it all. He no longer has any of the assets he has built up over a long time. God uses this example to tell us that if we have walked in his ways for a long time, but abandon those ways, we lose the value which has been accumulated.

The second example we are given in the O.T. reading is the example of a person who has done serious wrong in his life. He never followed God, but later on in life he has a true conversion to God, and what happens? Because of his conversion, and his sorrow for the way he has lived, God is willing to forgive the wrong he had done in his life…..even very serious wrongs.  We can think of the good thief who hung next to Christ on the day of crucifixion. In the last moments of life, he turned his life around, and Christ tells him that on that very day he will be with him in paradise.

The gospel, also, gives us two examples of people who are requested to follow the will of God in their lives.  Our Lord presents these examples in a parable  of a father who asks his first son to go to work in his vineyard.  The first son says defiantly, “I will not,” but he later changed his mind and does what the father wanted.   The second son initially says he will follow his father’s request, but he simply disregards it. This person is what psychologist call a passive aggressive individual.  

Which was the better response on the part of the two sons? The crowd listening to Jesus responded:  the example of the first son because even though he was initially resistant to the request of the father, he later followed it.  This story tells us that there are those who are called to follow the Lord, and initially they resist him with all their might.  They later come to their senses and return to following the Lord’s ways.  Others give lip service to following the faith. They may fulfill some superficial observances of God’s law such as not killing anyone, but they never really turn their lives over to God. Hence, their superficial “ yes” to God has no meaning. 

In all these four examples, the example of a person who follows the Lord for a time, but then abandons him, the example of the person who refuses the calling of God, until a later time in his life. The example of the person who initially resists God’s presence in his life, but later changes his direction, and the person who gives superficial allegiance to God, but never is entirely devoted, we find four examples, all of which, have flaws in them in varying degrees.  The best example, but not one found in the four given to us today is the example of the person who always tries to be faithful to God, has never turned away from Him, and perseveres through a lifetime on that course. There are some human beings who are such, and we find the greatest example of that kind of response to God in Jesus himself.  Our second reading, in a letter written by Paul, only about a decade or so after the death of Jesus, says that Jesus emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, being obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.

St. Paul tells us to have in us that same attitude that was in Christ Jesus. So wherever we have been with God, wherever we are with God, let us try always to walk in God’s ways in the complete way in which Our Lord, Jesus, walked in His ways.  Let us aspire to imitate Him in the ways we respond to the Father.


September 12, 2020

24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

(SERMON)

 Back in 1986 Steven McDonald was 29 years old and a cop in the New York City Police Force, a married man of only eight months. While on patrol in Central Park, he saw several youths who were suspected of stealing a bicycle and he approached them to question them. As he did do, a fifteen-year-old pulled a gun and shot Steven three times. The results were permanent paralysis from the neck down.  This incident certainly emphasizes the risks police take each and every day on the streets of our nation. What would we do without them?   Six months later Steven made the news again when, at the time of the baptism of his son, Conor, he made public statement that he had forgiven his assailant. A few years later the assailant while in prison apologized. He was undoubtedly touched by Stephen’s forgiveness.  Stephen went on to give speeches about forgiveness and avoiding violence at schools, churches, gatherings of all kinds. He even went to Northern Ireland to soothe the tensions between the Catholics and Protestants there, and went on another trip to the Middle East to speak to groups of Israelis and Palestinians about finding better ways to deal with their differences.  Steven died two years ago and shortly before his death he delivered this message: “ Looking back, pondering on my life, it is clear to me that God wanted to use me through this tragedy that visited me. He wanted my “yes” and that was made possible only through prayer. Through the family and friends that God put in my life and their prayers, God spoke to me and said, “ Will you love this boy who shot you? “ and the way I could love him was to forgive him. Left to my own abilities I don’t think I would have done it., and I know that I would have died a long time ago had I not listened to God and said “yes” to Him, following the example of His Son who forgave. “

  Listening to this true story of forgiveness we have to wonder whether we would have that kind of spirit if we were placed in similar circumstances.

 As we survey the present spirit of our times, it is apparent that there is much anger and hatred surfacing every day in the cities of our nation. Unbridled wrath and anger give birth to disasters. Our first reading opens up with the words, “ Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” Too many people hug, and promote, and fuel their anger, allowing it to be expressed unhampered, and that often leads to the kinds of disasters we are witnessing happening daily in our cities. Our first reading further tells us,  “ The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance for He  remembers their sins in details,” Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord? “  It is one thing to legitimately protest things that are wrong; it is another to allow our anger to escalate to the point of rampant violence. In view of our final end which is expressed in the opening words of our second reading, we should try to form our lives, attitudes, and behaviors “ None of us lives for oneself and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord and if we die we die for the Lord.so then, whether we live or die we are the Lords’”  If we live by an appreciation of our final end as envisioned by God, we will live accordingly. That theme is again expressed in our first reading when it tells us, “ Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin.”

So rather than escalate our wrath and anger to the point of violence, the readings for today urge us to de-escalate our tendencies towards unbridled wrath, and approach our issues in a rational way, capping them eventually in forgiveness. When we harbor resentments and allow them to brew freely within us, that only brings continued misery to us. Each week between the two morning Masses, Deacon Frank and I get into discussions and just last week, he mentioned to me (not in anticipation of today’s readings) that he prays for those who harm him. He mentioned past bosses, other contentious people who intruded themselves into his life. He said that rather than festering resentment, he prays for them, and he said that in doing so, he has experienced a sense of peace he would not have had if he had not let his inner wrath go and used prayer as a tool to do so. That is exactly the same message which Officer Stephen relayed in his final days. It was through prayer that he let go of his natural resentments and gave birth to peace in his soul and even forgiveness. 


 

September 06, 2020

23TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

(SERMON)

A young woman, Lydia, strayed from the church as a teenager. After nine years of experimenting with atheism and new age religions, by the grace of God she found her way back to the Church. Relating her story, Lydia said that what hurt her the most in all her nine years of spiritual exile is that nobody in the church seemed to miss her. Nobody ever spoke to her about her choice to dump her faith. “ I got the impression that the Church did not want me”, she said.  Of course the Church wanted her, but no one from the church and that included her own family members and many friends ever spoke to her about her falling away from the faith, mostly because they thought that the choice was her business.  We live in an age of relativism. Relativism teaches us that there is no such thing as objective rights and wrongs. What may be right for me may not be right for you. There are no universal rights and wrongs.  A corollary of that philosophy is that we live in a world in which total toleration has become the most valuable quality that everyone should live by, no matter what’s being tolerated.  Thirdly, unbridled freedom in our society is also considered to be the highest of attributes, even if the things that are being done so freely go against teachings of God or common sense; freedom of choice is pretty much supreme in our current society.  These three things: relativism, extreme toleration and the extolling of freedoms to do anything a person wants to do, make us very reluctant to ever speak a corrective word to anyone, even our own loved ones, about things they are doing.  It has become counter-cultural to judge most of the behaviors a person may indulge in. The messages of our first and third readings of today strongly point out that there are times in which we should admonish a brother or sister. Our motivation, in keeping with the teaching of the second reading, should never be that we think ourselves to be better than someone, but we speak to them out of love….we want to make them better people. As Christians we are called to the prophetic role; a prophet is a spokesman for God. Prophets never had it easy, but we have to share, at times, in that role.  

Jesus words today, “ If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault “ is the translation I just read to you; however two of the oldest and best manuscripts of this section of Matthew’s gospel do not have the words “ against you.” They simply say, if your brother sins,  go and tell him his fault. Most commentators hold that the words “against you” were not part of the original message. Thus, our topic for today is how to deal with a person who is involved in some kind of sin or some kind of negative behavior. Jesus delineates a step-by-step procedure: speak to him privately, speak to him with several others, consult the teachings of the church, but deal with him. Ezekiel in our first reading is so strong in his warning about correcting others that he says that if we fail to speak to others about their failures, they will be judged, but we also will be held partially responsible.

Admittedly, this is a most uncomfortable teaching, not only because it is difficult to do, but, as I said, we have the culture working against it. It is difficult for parents to correct their children; it is difficult for family members to correct one another; it is difficult for pastors to correct parishioners. It is said that a pastor’s role is to make the disturbed comfortable and the comfortable, disturbed.  St. James spoke about this issue in his epistle: “whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his ways will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins ( James: 5:20) . None of us like to disaffect ourselves from others, especially those with whom we have to constantly mingle. If we have to render an uncomfortable message to someone, it is best that we wait for a moment in which that person seems most receptive to our words; and again, we have to be motivated by genuine concern for that person. We can’t give the message that we are better than thou; such an approach of admonishment can never be effective.

Our responsorial refrain for today is : “ If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The corrective voice of God can and at times should come to us from his followers. If we hear a message we do not want to hear, do not harden your hearts against it, but be willing to look at the message objectively. Maybe you need to hear it.


 

 

August 30, 2020

22TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

(SERMON)

 

Probably we have all had occasions in which we wondered how we ever got ourselves involved in a certain activity. It could have been a job we entered which was not what we expected it to be.  Many marriages have segments in which the one or both people question their original choice in getting married to the person they are married to or even about getting married at all.  Hopefully, those periods of difficulty are only temporary and the difficulties are later resolved, but there may be moments in which one questions one’s decision in having entered into some life-defining or important experience in life.

Jeremiah the prophet in our first reading is in such a point of crisis. He did not want to be a prophet in the first place; yet felt compelled by God to do so. For the initial period of his calling as a prophet things went easily for him. He resigned himself during those good times to be what he had been called to be. As long as things were going well, he became positive about his situation. Later on, though,   he ran into some major obstacles and difficulties; some of them were life threatening.  It was then that his original feelings about being a prophet came full circle. He resented his calling, and he resented the God who called him to be a prophet.  He cries to God, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All day long I am an object of laughter, everyone mocks me.”  To make matters worse, he found that he could not easily extricate himself from his calling, as he wanted to do at that point.  He a says in desperation, “ I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will not speak his name any more, but then it becomes like a fire burning in my heart; I grow weary holding it in; I cannot endure it.”  Have you ever been in that situation? You resent a decision in your life or an activity you’re involved in, but you can’t get away from it?  People with negative addictions have such ambivalences toward their addictions. If they have an addiction to, say, gambling, they may, on the one hand, want to get free of that addiction; yet, on the other hand they are attracted to it. Pornography, which is so readily available today via computers, also can become very addictive. A person who wants to live by a higher moral order and stop using pornography may well have the struggle between his addiction and his desire to rid himself of this habit. Or if we use the example of someone who does not know whether they should stay in a career-choice or in a marriage,  he may well have both an attraction to the choice originally made and an inclination to move away from it at one and the same time.   During such times of dilemma, God may have something to say to us—especially if we are dealing with an important issue in our lives. When we are in such situations, it is important to pray to God, as our second reading tells us, to discern his will. Ask for a direction. God speaks to us, not so much through language, but in other ways. If we have two or more alternative directions of choice to make, God may tell us of his will in this way. If we choose one alternative and we meet all kinds of serious resistances; doors close to us when we try to open them, and we never feel a deep seated kind of peace in pursuit of that direction, maybe that is God is trying to tell us that he does not want us to go in that direction. If, however, we choose a direction that seems to meet little or no kinds of resistances; doors seem to open for us as we pursue this direction and we feel a deep kind of peace about this option, it is likely that is God telling us that that is the direction he wants us to go.  Jeremiah, in spite of the troubled waters in which he found himself eventually came through those passages with a new resolve; he remained a prophet.  Maybe, if anyone here is in similar straits now, like Jeremiah, you may have to work out your dilemma step, by step. Furthermore, like Jeremiah in our reading, anyone of us could have felt that God has left us down. Have you ever felt you were duped by God?  You came to believe in him; you came to hope in Him. Faith and hope are easy in good times, but when a time of testing comes, we can conclude that our original believing and hoping in God was a mistake. Many people give up on God when an unfortunate tragedy visits them. We tend to blame all our misfortunes on God, and God may not be responsible for them at all.  Moreover, many of us have parts of our souls which believe, but we may well have parts of our souls which doubt, and strangely enough the presence of faith may co-exist with the presence of doubt at one and the same time.  But again, like Jeremiah, if we hold onto those parts of us which still believe, we may find that we can reach a new plateau of faith and hope later on.

Jeremiah’s life and the life of any true follower of God will have its ups and downs; times in which we experience a time of testing.  The critical point for us is to hold onto that part of us that still hopes and believes in God in such times, and we may find that a difficult passage of life, is just that, a temporary testing of our faith and hope in God which  can later give birth to a whole new level of positive change and belief in our lives.

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