Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Not Peace but Division": 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

   Today’s gospel reading contains what is, in my opinion, some of the most confusing and challenging words the Lord Jesus has ever said. He says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division”.   He doesn’t stop there though, he makes sure we understand that this division is not just a simple disagreement between friends. He promises it to be the cause of the most painful kind of division—division within families, between parents and their children!
    When we hear these words we have to ask: How can the “Prince of Peace” — the man who taught us that “When someone slaps you in the face offer the other cheek” — talk like this? Are we not supposed to live in peace and love everybody? How can Jesus say he came to destroy peace in the world?  Is this being nice? Is this being loving? How can we reconcile these two ideas? 
    Well if we really look at what Jesus is saying, we see that He is not saying “if you are my disciples go out and burn the world down! Cause division and discord! Make it your goal to destroy the fabric of society- which is the family”.  He is really talking about how his message is going to be received by the world, how it will challenge and change the lives of those who are willing to embrace it, and how those who surround His disciples will react.
         His message of love and peace is a message of true love and true peace which is diametrically opposed by the message of fake love and fake peace we experience in the world. This message is so radical, so unlike anything the world can accept that it will make us, his disciples, an object of persecution and division even within our own families!
   Now as scandalous as this talk about fire and division is, we should not be surprised by it. We just have to look at how Jesus's message was received by the people of his time.

   The baptism in which he will be baptized, the cross, is not exclusive to him. This is the destiny of all prophets of the Lord. We don’t have to look farther than the way poor Jeremiah is treated in the first reading. Those who stand for the truth can only expect to be marginalized and persecuted. Which begs the question: Why? Why would anyone disagree with the message of the gospel?
    I really have no time to go over all the reasons why this is but I can say this: Jesus's message is very dangerous. It is dangerous because it completely ignores our own interests for the sake of loving others. But who are the others? My friends? My family?
   Let me give you a couple of examples:
   By Jesus's command, we are obligated to pray for and love our enemies. This means pray for the neighbor that you have had problems with, the bully at school, the person at work whom you cannot stand… But it also means the criminals, the terrorists and, yes, even the followers of the other presidential candidate regardless of whom I am voting for.
    By Jesus's command, we are obligated to help the needy, regardless of who they are or where they come from. That means help the weird old guy living alone in my street but also the Mexican or Syrian immigrants we might encounter in our daily lives; if they are part of our communities and they need our help we are obligated to help them in any way we can.
   By Jesus's command, we are obligated to pray for police officers and for the people protesting against them. Now this is just a small sample of what we have to pray for, I have not even mentioned abortion, same sex marriage, the death penalty, and many others.
   I do not have to tell you that none of these are the types of topics you would want to bring into polite conversations, in fact these are the types of topics that we avoid when we are at family reunions. These are the topics we do not want to discuss with anyone, because they will stir up strong feelings in everyone!
   My brothers and sisters, I am the first one to admit that I myself struggle with this radical love that is the message of the Gospel. I know that with my own weak human faculties I can not love in the way Jesus requires me to love others. Luckily we have grace, which is the divine love of God, which manifests in our lives in many ways. In today's second reading, we hear of one source of this grace, which is what the Letter to the Hebrews calls  “the great cloud of witnesses”  which surrounds us. These are the ones who persevered in running the race and kept their eyes fixed on Jesus the leader and perfecter of our faith. They can help us by their life examples and by their prayers for us. We are not alone in the struggle of living the Gospel. We can ask for their help and intersessions.
  In the last 6 minutes or so, I have said a lot. I’m sure I have stirred up a lot of strong feelings in this sacred hall. I (or Father Mike) might even get some emails for this! This is what the Lord is talking about when he says that he has come to cause division. But we become divided only when we do not accept that, confronted with these words of the Gospel, we are all challenged, we all fall short of what Jesus expects from his disciples.
  May the great cloud of witnesses pray for us and for all of those who struggle with loving like the Lord Jesus expects us to love. Amen

Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Lord Teach us How to Pray": 17 Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

     Earlier this week, as I was watching the news about the two attacks in Germany, I kept remembering the times in which our country has endured similar moments. I remembered the shooting at Sandy Hook in Connecticut. I remembered the day of the September 11 attacks. I remembered the shootings at Columbine. These were events that occurred in our country where we were scared, angry and confused.
   The one thing I remember about those days and the days that followed was the desire that I had to do something, anything in order to help, and the feeling that in reality there was very little I could do. I’m sure that right here, today there are many people who can relate to these same feelings every time we witness unspeakable acts of evil.
   I wish I could tell you this will not happen again, but day after day we hear of wars in the Middle East, Christian persecution, Islamic terrorism, police shootings, and racial tensions; day after day this feeling that things are out of control and that there is nothing we can do gets stronger. If there is one thing that events like these teach us is this: The world is broken, and there is very little we can do to fix it.
   However there is one thing we CAN do: Pray, because it is us, the disciples of the Lord who hold the balance between a broken world of darkness and a world of hope, redemption, peace and love. We are like Abraham praying to God for the last 10 people in Sodom.
   Every time I start feeling like this I recall the story of the 7 Trappist Martyrs of Algeria. I would like to tell you about them. "On Christmas Eve 1996 the Trappist monastery of  Tibhirine in Algeria was preparing to celebrate Christmas mass when Islamic terrorists, who would later kidnap and kill them, invaded their church. After some initial threats, they informed the monks that if they did not leave the area they would return and kill them. The monks were badly shaken. They huddled together as a group for a time to digest what had just happened. Then, not knowing what else to do in the face of this threat and their fear, they celebrated the Christmas mass". In the words of their Abbott, Father Christian de Cherge: 'It’s what we had to do. It’s all we could do! It was the right thing to do' .
    After this event happened the monks took a vote to decide if they should leave or stay and continue ministering to the poor in Algeria. They all voted to stay. Months later the same men returned, kidnapped, and brutally murdered them.
   In today’s Gospel the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. This is quite a strange question because the Jews of this time knew the psalms almost by heart and prayed every morning and evening... and yet the disciples realized they did not know how to pray. Perhaps our feelings of not knowing what to do when we are confronted with evil are due to the fact that we, like the disciples, do not know how to pray.
    Jesus answers his disciples with a new prayer, new in the sense that none of them had ever talked to God in the way that it did. Up until this moment in Jewish prayer, God was distant, a remote and divine king. Jesus makes His prayer personal by calling God “Abba”, or Daddy, and asking for simple things. He talks to God like a man talks to another man or a child speaks to a parent. This is the type of prayer we need in order to counter the darkness of the world. I’m not saying that rosaries and novenas do not have their place, but when we really need to connect with the Father, like Jesus connected, we have to let our hearts speak through our mouths.
   Before Islamic terrorists returned to kidnap the 7 Trappist martyrs of Algiers, they had a few weeks to prepare and write their testaments. I would like to finish my homily, by reading you some passages from Father de Cherge's last testament, which he wrote in the form of a prayer.
   "If it should happen one day that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure."
   "To you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you I also wish  to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours. And may we find each other, happy 'good thieves,' in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both."  Amen

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Jesus and the Sinful Woman. 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

    This last Wednesday we had the first meeting of our Healing Hearts ministry for those recovering from or experiencing divorce, and we used this reading to open our meeting. As we were discussing it I noticed something peculiar. When we read the gospels, usually we see Jesus as the center of all the action, healing, teaching or making this or that miracle; But in this reading the Lord takes a secondary role.  Today the center of attention is someone else: a nameless woman.
   She is only described as a great sinner; as if this is the only important thing we need to know about her. We are never told her name or her sin, as if this information didn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is what the people of this town saw when they looked at her.
However, Jesus sees something completely different; the fact that she was able to show great love, because much had been forgiven to her.
And here lies the great difference between the Lord and the rest of us: We usually focus on the external, the actions, the sins others commit.  The Lord Jesus on the other hand only focus on the internal, on what is really hidden in our hearts, our motives, our guilt, our sorrows.
   For us, it is easy to dwell on the externals, because they don’t demand that  much from us. But to be able to look at someone as Jesus did requires great effort. It requires that we place ourselves in their place; and sometimes it even requires for us to open our own hearts to them.
   One of the main complaints I hear about religious people is that we are judgemental. And I have to admit that sometimes we tend to be like Simon, the Pharisee in this story, who not only judged this poor woman, but judged Jesus himself, for allowing her to touch His divine body.
  Simon focused on the actions and not on the person. Whatever motivated Jesus or this woman to act the way they did got lost in the scandal of seeing how they reacted to each other, she washing and anointing the feet of the Lord and Jesus letting himself be touched in such a familiar and intimate way.   I will venture to say that it is not just Christians who are judgemental, but we humans, every man, woman and child, have this default mode in which we operate, an attitude which makes us judge everything by our own internal standards. Luckily, in today’s gospel Jesus gives us the key for confronting this judgemental nature: by confronting the reality of our own sins.
  This nameless woman knew very well she was a sinner.  She approached the Lord weeping because of these sins, and Jesus' acceptance made her capable of a great act of love. Simon on the other hand, approached Jesus as an equal, trying to gain his favor by honoring him, by inviting him to have dinner. Jesus could see very clearly that Simon did not think of himself as someone who needed forgiveness for much. This is why he says “those who little is forgiven, show little love”.
  Like I have mentioned many times, because of my ministries here at St Michael, I get to talk with a lot of people. You would not believe how many times I have someone tell me “Deacon, I don’t go to confession because I do not know what to confess!” to which I always answer “That is precisely what you need to confess!” If we can not recognize the reality of our own sins, how can we know the struggles others have with theirs?
   As Christians we are called to love others, but we can not accomplish this by thinking that somehow we are not like them. To be a Christian demands we take a very critical look at our own sinful nature, and seek the forgiveness we so badly need. Anything else is just falling into Simon the Pharisee's mistake. We cannot accomplish great acts of love if we ourselves are not forgiven for our lack of love for others.
   Although the forgiveness God gives to us is free, we need to seek it and accept it. Once we have taken this first step, it is just a matter of looking at others in the same way the Lord saw this sinful woman, in the same way he sees each one of us. God bless you my brothers and sisters.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The What-How-Why of the Blessed Trinity: Trinity Sunday (Cycle C)

    Deacon Cliff reminded me today that we are recognizing our graduating seniors. Since today is Trinity Sunday a day in which we are encouraged to preach about the Trinity, I have decided to preach directly to our young people (So mom and dad you can read the bulletin while I preach...Not really!).
   So my young people, today I will take this time to introduce you to someone, but, before I do this, I need to explain to you how I usually do this. In America, we usually introduce someone by saying “so and so meet so and so”.  In Puerto Rico we do it differently, we use what I like to call the “What-How-and-Why” method.
    I can go into a long description of how to do this but I think it will be best if I give an example. Let’s say that I am going to introduce my wife to you. I will say something like: “So and so this is Nancy, my wife of 22 years, and the mother of my 4 kids”.
In one statement I have said 3 things:

  • The What: That she is my wife
  • The How: for 22 years
  • The Why: Because she is the mother of our children

   With a few words, I have given you a general idea of who this person is and what her relationship is to me. The problem with introducing people in this way is that it is very one dimensional. My wife is much more than the mother of my children married to me for 22 years.  For you to really get to know my wife, I would have to do this little what-how-why exercise hundreds of times.
    Now the person I will introduce to you today is The One True God, the Most Blessed Trinity, creator of everything that is visible and invisible. The way I’m going to do this is by presenting   the-What-the-How-and-the-why of The One God.

    So imagine that the Blessed Trinity appears right here today and tells me “Deacon Harbey, I want you to introduce me to the people of St Michael’s parish.” I would say something like: “Hi people of St Michael’s, let me introduce you to God, The Father who IS The Son, and IS the special type of love The Father and The Son share”. You might be thinking that makes no sense.

You are right!

But it gets worse!!

   Do you remember when I said that just one “What-How-Why” statement is not enough to get to know someone? Well...When it comes to the Trinity there is only one statement we can say.  Yes, we can say He is all powerful, all knowing, all present, but these statements only describe what God can do. They do not reveal Him in a personal way. In a personal way, we can only know Him as God who is The father, and The son, and the deep fraternal love They share with each other, which we call the Holy Spirit.
   How can this be? How can one being be three unique individuals? Well, in the Trinity, the What, the How and the Why, the action of being a father, the action of being a son and the active love between these two is so powerful that they become three living separate, independent, individuals(Not beings… There is only one God!). This is why we use the word “person” because they are different and each behave in a different way from the other.
   In a regular human being, the what-how-why is just one idea of who a person is. In the Trinity, this what-how-why is more than an idea; they are personalities.
  Are you confused yet? Wait until you hear this! These 3 personalities live and exist in a relationship, they behave towards each other as members of a family do.
   What do I mean with this?

  • They love each other with infinite love
  • They are individuals, independent of each other, but  united as one God
  • They act independently from each other but are always united in harmony and purpose
  • They interact with each other, they talk between themselves, they enjoy each other’s company, they praise and help each other.

    These are fundamental truths of our faith. If we want to call ourselves Christians, we have to believe all of this, however it is not necessary to understand it. In fact, we will never be able to.
    Now, none of this should come as a surprise to you, we say we believe all that I have just mentioned about God at every mass.  In a few minutes, when we say the Creed, pay attention to when we say these 3 things:

  • I believe in God the Father almighty…
  • ...and in Jesus Christ, the Only begotten Son,
  • I believe in The Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son
   A father, who has a son and whose mutual love becomes another person, The Holy Spirit.
   Like I said, this is a great mystery of our faith; one which we should approach in great humbleness.
   Now there is one more thing I would like to say about the three persons of the trinity.  The most important thing I'm going to say today. The persons of the Trinity ARE real persons, they are not a thing or an idea; we can interact with them. If we talk to them they will listen, if we call on them they will answer, but if we pull away from them they will respect the freedom of our choices.
   God The Father, sent God The Son to teach us how, by baptism, we become sons and daughters too. Our destiny is to be active participants in this family which is the Trinity, the One true God.
   Sometimes sin pulls us away from this family, sometimes it actually breaks this bond. The only way we can re-establish this connection is through the Sacraments.
    So my young brothers and sisters in Christ, if today you do not feel this connection, ask The Blessed Trinity to help you, and guide you so that you again can call God The Father “Daddy”, God The Son “My brother” and God the Holy Spirit “My beloved”
Blessed be the Most Holy Trinity, who has shown us His mercy.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Advice to Parents of Children Who Lost Their Faith: 3rd Sunday of Easter

 This past Wednesday I had to be in 2 different meetings at the same time. In one room there was the Pastoral Council meeting while in the other we had the the Surviving Divorce group. As I left one to attend the other I was surprised to find out that in both meetings they were talking about the same thing: A big problem which affects many families right here at St. Michael’s and the in Church universal -  How to reach young adults in the 15 to 25 year bracket, an age in which God, faith and church have very little significance in their lives.
   What intrigued me was that in both meetings you could hear the sense of betrayal in the voices of the speakers. At the Divorce Survival group it is always heartbreaking to listen to the stories about how many of their children have lost their faith and refuse to attend mass, or have gone to college only to return home claiming, now they are agnostic or atheists. As a member of the pastoral council, is very difficult not to feel bad about the fact that with all the time and talent we invest evangelizing our children there are some who, after their confirmation, never return to church again.
   Now, if you are a parent with this problem I wish I could give you a few words that will make your loved one return to the Church,  but sadly I cannot. However, what I can do is reflect on today’s Gospel for guidance. Because in it we see how Jesus dealt with those who had betrayed him. What I mean is: Judas was not the only one who betrayed Jesus, but Peter and the apostles betrayed him as well.
   The story goes like this: After the resurrection Peter and the apostles decide to go fishing. They spent the night fishing without catching anything, and just when they are tired, hungry and ready to give up,  Jesus meets them and say “Why don’t you try something different?” “Why don’t you, cast your nets but this time do it on the right of the boat?” So they do and they haul in a great catch. Peter, realizing it is Jesus, jumps into the sea and swims to see him, only to be welcomed by Jesus and a charcoal fire. And this detail is quite significant not only because this is only one of two times a charcoal fire is mentioned in the Bible but because the only other time is when Peter denied Jesus, in the courtyard of the high priest, on Good Friday.  For the rest of the apostles, I’m sure the charcoal fire, the bread and fish felt like a welcome rest. So it is easy to think that at this moment the apostles felt safe, secure and relaxed.
     Now Jesus doesn’t waste any time.  He uses this moment to address Peter’s betrayal. But he doesn’t nag, he doesn’t accuse, he doesn’t remind Peter of his failure.  He just asks Peter three times “Do you love me?”.  It is as if Jesus is saying “Peter, you know and I know that you betrayed me. Let's put all that behind us and try to remember, the reason why I called you, why  I  spent 3 years teaching you: I did this because I loved you, and I don’t want you to go back to your old life, I want you to tend my sheep and lead my Church.”
I hope you see now why  I think this reading is the key to help us deal the issue of young people abandoning the faith. In fact, I do not think it is a mere coincidence that the first words on Jesus lips in this reading is “children.”
   Reflecting on how Jesus dealt with the apostles,  I think that we can get 5 principles from this reading:
     First : Do not wait for your children to come to you, go where they are. Jesus did not wait until they were praying, he met them when they were doing what felt comfortable doing: fishing.
     Second: When you get there, do not go to judging, or accusing. Jesus became part of their world, he showed them respect, he even cooked them breakfast! We should let our young people know that we love and appreciate them where they are at the moment!
    Third: Wait until they are comfortable and relaxed to address your concerns. It is easy to accept advice when some one shows us that they love us first. Usually after a nice warm breakfast!   
    Fourth: Explain to them that you do not want them to change anything in their lives, but what you want is for them to look at their lives and ask themselves: are you better, or happier now than the way you were before when you were part of a family and community which loved you and nurtured you? If you are not happy now... Why not try something different? This is what Jesus did when he asked the apostles to cast their nets,  but this time on the right side! Keep living your life but do it the way God wants you to do it, the way you were taught  at Church.
    Finally : Be direct, but not judgemental. Tell them how they make you feel by their turning away from the faith, and let them know you and the Church are praying, waiting for them, with open arms for their return.
    Now Jesus’ method of dealing with betrayal is not based on surveys or psychological profiles, but on the Lord’s knowledge of human nature. Of course Jesus had instant results because, you know... He is God . We on the other hand are not God, we are parents and evangelists who love very much these people who have turned away from our families and communities. So do not expect an instant result. You might have to do this again and again.
    In fact, I’m not claiming that if you do these things young adults will flock back into our church, but what I’m certain of is that if you follow Jesus’ example and keep  praying for our young people, we will see miracles happen in our homes and right here in this building.
God bless you.


Friday, March 25, 2016

On the Sufferings of Life: Palm Sunday

       One of my ministries here at St Michael’s is helping people which are going through the process of divorce. I’m a marriage advocate for the marriage tribunal of the archdiocese of Baltimore, and I also participate in the St Michael’s Divorce Survivors group.
      That is a long way of saying I have talked with a lot of people who are in the midst of their divorce.
      It is my experience the vast majority of people who find themselves in this situation live in a state of shock. I listen to them and their stories and I hear the same words again and again:
“I never expected this to happen! I was/am in complete shock”. And it seems that the more unexpected their divorce is to them, the more pain and despair they experience and the higher the sense of betrayal, confusion, fear and loss.
      Those who have gone through this experience will tell you how life shattering it could be. The reality is divorce not the only event in life which will sent you into this tailspin of emotions:
  • The unexpected death of a friend or loved one
  • The betrayal of a friend
  • The serious diagnosis of a life threatening disease
      All these events are like lightning strikes on a clear day. One minute we are happy and content and the next we find ourselves  in the middle of a storm. The fact is, in life no one is immune to these experiences. Everyone has one and there is no assurance they will not happen again.
         You might be wondering what does all this have to do with Palm Sunday?  Well, if you listen to the readings today there is just such a shocking transition in the story. In a matter of minutes we go from Jesus' glorious entrance into Jerusalem to his crucifixion and death. It is as if we are not given time enough to breathe.
         I wish I could tell you that you will never go through a life shattering experience. The truth is I cannot. The only thing I can say is this. The reason why we are here today celebrating Jesus entrance into Jerusalem. The reason why we celebrate Holy Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Easter is to remind us that we never suffer alone. God himself suffers with us because he suffered as one of us. And it is because of His suffering we can make sure our suffering is not wasted. How? By seeing our pain in His pain.
        So, I invite you, during these holy days, to meditate in the sufferings of Christ, and how they reflect your own sufferings. And the hope his death on the cross gives to each one of us. God Bless you.

NOTE: This is a paraphrase of what I said during the Palm Sunday mass homily. I tried to keep it short because it is  a long mass.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

That Voice Crying out int the Desert: 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle C

  6 Months ago I started a new job. On my way to work I stop at the corner of route 29 and route 198 in Laurel. In this particular spot there is a man who stands with a sign which states he is unemployed and that we will accept any help we can provide.
  As I was reflecting on the person of John the Baptist, I found myself going back to this man and to the different feelings he has caused on me throughout the last 6 months. I remember the very first time I saw him, I felt like just getting out of my car and offering him my help. Of course I could not just abandon my car in the middle of the road, so I had to sit there and stare at him feeling helpless, trying to figure what could I do. As the weeks passed I started looking at him with suspicion -  especially when I noticed someone else with a similar sign on the other corner of this intersection.
   Pretty soon I started to feel a bit angry at him, since people who stopped to give him some money were causing me to miss my turn adding time to my commune (I remember I told myself, here I am the one with a regular job been made late to work by the unemployed!) Well after six months of this, I’m ashamed to admit, I just feel indifference towards him. In fact, I have noticed that other drivers (I assume they are regulars like me, on this busy intersection) have trained themselves to not even make eye contact and just ignore him.  Helplessness, suspicion, anger and indifference; all these feelings just from a man standing in a corner, holding a sign.
  I think it is very proper that in a time of the year in which we are busy and stressed with the million little tasks we need to complete before the “Big Day”, in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist appears standing against the traffic of our busy lives as a voice, “Crying out in the desert”,  reminding us what this season is all about: “A time to change the direction of your lives, to straighten our paths, to smooth our rough ways, because the Lord is near”
  In this Second Sunday of advent, John the Baptist is our man on a corner, holding a sign, asking us how are we doing with our preparations for the coming of our Lord.

   The questions we should be asking ourselves today are not if our houses are ready, or are all the presents wrapped. But, how does John makes me feel, when I hear his call from the desert. Do we feel helpless because although we would want this season to be different, we see ourselves time and time again buying more, wanting more, wasting more?    Are we suspicious of his words, thinking that although it might be nice to refocus our attention in the coming of the Lord, that is the sort of thing which only religious nut jobs and old ladies do? The sort of things me and my family do not appreciate? Do we feel anger at the implication that our way of celebrating Christmas is not the right way? Anger at the implication that our way of life is not the right way of life? Or are we just indifferent, even perhaps numb, at his message to refocus our attention to what is important this season? Refocus our attention into Christ and his coming, and not into having the taller three, the most Xmas lights, the biggest presents.  
   The good news is that helplessness, suspicion, anger and indifference are just feelings, and as feelings they could be overcome by our will, with the help of God’s grace in our lives, which we receive through the sacraments..
   So as we enter this second week of advent, it is up to us to look into ourselves and decide that instead of helplessness this year we will be hopeful that the Lord will truly be born in our hearts, instead of suspicion we will be confident of the promises of our Lord, instead of anger we will love those we encounter, and instead of indifference we will make an effort to appreciate this time we have been given to prepare and receive the Lord like he deserves, with  a humble spirit and a joyous heart.God bless you all.

NOTE: Many people have asked me what happened to my daily compute friend. After I preached this homily I make the point of stopping and talking to him. I gave him my card and told him that if he needs any help he could call me and I can make him contact the proper Catholic charities which will be able to help him. I ask you to say a prayer for this man so that he takes advantage of the help he so much needs.