Monday, September 22, 2008

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Here is my homily for this last week. I like it becasue it is short and to the point. I hope you enjoy it...

Mt 20:1-16a

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.’
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
‘These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I think it is safe to say that America or Americans hate cheaters!... However, if you are like me sometimes we do not mind bending the rules a little bit just to keep the game interesting… For example, when I’m watching football (You knew I was going to bring football into my homily right?) I do not mind if the ref misses an occasional call as long as it is in favor of the Redskins, God knows they need all the help they can get.
So... In light of this reality, I think I should rephrase my original statement, what I should have said is that what we Americans really dislike is been treated unfairly an unjustly. Why I bring this up? Well, I must confess, that today’s gospel got me a little miffed. I looked at the way this land owner treated His faithful workers, the ones that labored the whole day under the sun and say, How can this be?, If we proclaim that God is a God of justice, how can he behave in such an unfair way? The workers that came late should get less pay, what happened to the ”equal pay for equal work” law????
Now, people like you and me, children of western civilization, have a very developed sense of justice. For us it is very easy to relate to the concept of fairness and justice in part because God created us in his image and resemblance, so we are configured for justice, and in part because we have been conditioned to “play fair”. To be just is to follow the rules… which imply that, we do not have to make any decisions, because the rules are already there, we just have to follow them.
This works fine until we are confronted with the concept of mercy. For us mercy is a more difficult idea to grasp. Mercy breaks the rules, it does not come from applying time tested guidelines but from applying our God given faculties to love and forgive. It is not easy to know how much mercy we should give to those around us. The times in which we find ourselves deciding between been just and been merciful are not easy times. In us justice and mercy are always in conflict.
Luckily, God is not one of us (regardless of what some people like to think) in God there is no conflict between justice and mercy.
The reason why today’s Gospel might cause such strong feelings in some of us is because Jesus uses this parable to present to us the fact that in God infinite justice and infinite mercy reside in perfect harmony.
When we hear the land owner say in the gospel “Am I not free to do what I wish with my own money, are you envious because I’m generous???” what he is saying is that God is never conflicted between mercy and justice, mercy is His to give as He pleases, and when He does, he does it, fairly, even if we do not understand His ways.

If we think that God is unfair when he dispenses His favor and mercy, it might be because we are spending too much time judging God’s actions and too little time judging ourselves. Simply put: In what way God’s generosity to others affect me personally? That promotion that my co-worker received, that vacation that my neighbor took, that toy that my friend have, how does their good fortune affect me?… Let me put it differently, when we hear today’s parable, why is it so easy to feel that the land owner was unfair but so difficult to say: what a lucky Laborer! What a generous master!
When we are confronted with God’s favor to others we should think about how lucky we are to have a God that is this merciful, because if we feel he gives to those who do not deserve, how much more will He give us?! On the other hand… if we were to demand for God to always be just, to always follow the letter of the law, how much space are we giving Him to be merciful?
I want you to think about this last point very carefully because the possibilities are frightening, do we truly deserve all the blessings we have been given? Our country? Our community? The love of our families and good friends? Do we truly think that we deserve the fact that Jesus died on the cross so we could live forever with Him? The fact that we can approach the altar every mass and receive Him? If God were to exercise His divine right to be just, heaven would end up being a very lonely place!
If you disagree with this just think: in the last day, when we all gather together to meet Our Lord, and we stand in front of the heavenly throne, and our lives are revealed for everyone to see, every little action, every thought, every intention, every opportunity to love, to be merciful, all the things that we have done and we have left un-done, what do you think the most common plea that day will be? “God give us justice” or “Lord have mercy”?
My brothers and sisters like I said in the beginning, God has configured us to be just, but he has also configured us to be merciful. The thing is, unlike with justice, in our society and our culture we are not encouraged to be merciful. The only way we can become merciful is by being like God, by imitating the land owner of the parable that gives freely and generously out of the goodness that God has placed within his heart. We become merciful when we can be happy, truly happy for the blessings that others have received and by remembering that the only reason why we should be merciful is because we have received much mercy ourselves. Amen.

Monday, September 1, 2008

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Here is my homily from last Sunday. I personally love to preach about the Cross.
Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Then Jesus said to his disciples,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life?
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

Sometimes it is very difficult to grasp the impact of Jesus words on those who heard them for the first time. Take for example today’s Gospel where Jesus tells the apostles: “Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”. Now I’m sure we all have heard these words many times, it occurred to me that, for us and the apostles the images evoked by these words are completely different.
Let me explain, as human beings we develop knowledge based in our personal experiences. So without the personal experiences of a first century Jewish peasant it is not easy to relate to what the apostles felt the very first time Jesus said these words. Take for example the bit about “denying ourselves” I don’t know you but every time I hear that phrase I think of lent, because that the time of the year in which I do most of my heavy “denying of myself”.
Now the apostles, on the other hand, had a different perspective about what denying themselves for Jesus meant, these where men that had abandoned everything to follow Jesus hoping that he was the Messiah. For three years they had denied themselves of friends and families, homes and jobs, and became wanderers with no clear idea where Jesus was taking them, I’m sure that when they heard Jesus say that they must deny themselves, the last thing in their minds was not eating meat on Friday’s or giving up deserts for 40 days.
Now, I think that, for us, the most difficult part of Jesus message to relate to is the bit about picking up our crosses. You see the Cross has suffered a remarkable transformation from the times of Jesus until today. For us the cross is the symbol of our salvation, a reminder that we are Christians. I’m even willing to bet that many you, today, have a little silver or golden cross hanging from their necks.
In the times of the apostles, having a cross hanging from their neck would have been inconceivable! For the people of first century Palestine, people living under the oppressive and abusive joke of the Roman Empire, the cross was a shocking symbol, it was the instrument used in public executions, to shame and subjugate those who resisted the oppressor. It represented pain, hopelessness and death. The only time in which a Jewish peasant peasant will pick up their crosses, was in the way to be executed by the authorities in a brutal and inhumane way so that they could serve as an example and warning to others.
To contemplate the cross as the apostles did is not an easy task for us. We do not have a symbol that by its mere nature is able to strike fear, uncertainty and hopelessness in our hearts.
However, that is not to say that we have not experience moments of hopelessness and fear, moments that although in the pass still haunts us, we have all been there, the painful sudden death of a friend, the fear of a serious disease diagnosis, the hopelessness of those long days waiting for test results, the dread of a phone ringing in the middle of the night. It might not be two beams of wood but if we try, we can all stand next to the apostles and contemplate our own crosses.
The one difference between the disciples and us is that we know how the story ends. The disciples looked at the cross and saw death, but we know that behind the cross there is life because we have been there on Easter Sunday, we have tasted the wine and the bread that is the sacrificed body and blood of our Lord, and as Christians we live in the hope that we will also share in His resurrection.

When in the second reading Paul urges the Romans to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice pleasing to God, what he means is that in the same way that Jesus sacrifice in the cross redeemed the world, our own crosses, our sufferings and fears have a redeeming quality. Because if God has the power to take a despicable instrument of death like a cross and turn it in to the source of salvation for all of creation, he has the power to use our crosses for our own good and the salvation of our souls. All we need is the willingness to pick our crosses and follow Jesus each day.
The words of Jesus today might evoke different images for us, but the message is the same, to be a true disciple of Jesus means not to shy away from our own crosses, they might be painful and scary but if we trust in God he will turn them in to a source of tremendous grace and blessings in our lives. Amen.

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C (Last Year)

On my effort to make all of my past homilies available on line, I'm adding this one on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. I preached this homily last year around this time, which happens to be the beginning of the Football season. By know most people at St Michel's know that once the "grid iron" starts a little bit of Redskins mania always finds its way into my homilies... enjoy... oh yea, one more thing... Go Skins!
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'
"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'
"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "


Let me let you in on a little homilist secret… sometimes when we get a gospel like this one we like to think “men… this is truly a gift from heaven! This is going to be a piece of cake”
What I mean is that the story of Lazarus and the rich man is a story that almost everybody knows by heart: There is Rich man- and there is a poor man, When they die each one of them gets their just reward: rich man goes to the netherworld (A very unpleasant place), but the poor man goes to duel with Abraham. I mean…“How difficult could it be to talk about this stuff?” The Rich should help the poor, the poor has human dignity, Social Justice…Good, 8 minutes tops, and we’ll be home before kick off!
But when we start reflecting on what the reading actually says and we start noticing little things, like for example, why are we never told the rich man’s name? The only thing we are told is that he dressed in purple and dinned sumptuously but we are never told who he was….Is it, because it is more important for us to know what kind of life this man lived? A life we can all relate to? Or at the least the type of life we all aspire to?
A life very different to Lazarus’s life which was full of pain and suffering. The type of life we all try to avoid, or at least not think about to much?
Another thing we are not told is if these two men knew each other… What we know is that that Lazarus spent his days at this man’s door steps so at the least he had an idea of who lived in this house. On the other hand we can conclude that this rich man knew about Lazarus because of the way He and Father Abraham talk about him. So… Although we are never told, it is obvious that their paths must have cross more than once.
There is lot in this story that is left to the reader’s imagination. But the most important fact that we are never told is this: Why does this rich man end up in the “Netherworld”? …Why is he sent to a place of torment and fire? We are never told that he mistreated or abused Lazarus in any way and been rich in it self is not a sin! What was this rich man’s great sin?
At the end of our analysis we are left with a feeling that although this rich man knew of Lazarus, and of the hard life he was living, he was indifferent to Lazarus suffering.

Right now you might be thinking “ok here it comes, the social justice punch line” and don’t get me wrong, social justice is an important theme in this reading, we can spend a whole series of homilies talking about the responsibilities those with more resources have towards those less fortunate, but I think today’s message goes deeper than that.
To understand this message we should start with a simple statement: suffering is a fact of life, we all suffer. Regardless how wealthy or how poor we are, how young or how old, we all experience pain, injustice and loneliness. The poor, the hungry and the sick experience very visible forms of suffering, but for the kid that feels he is not good or cool enough at school, for a teen that struggles to be accepted, for a mom or dad overwhelmed by their children’s problems, for a grand-ma and grand-pa struggling with old age, their pain, our pain is as real as Lazarus pain of having to let dogs lick his sores.
It is because of this that we like to think that pain is something that happens to other people, far away. But the moment we are confronted by the pain and suffering our first reaction is to close our eyes, and practice avoidance. Those are the time when we tell ourselves “do not make eye contact, it will go away”.
Jesus is telling us today that as Christians we can not go thru life ignoring the pain that happens at our own doorsteps. What this rich man did… this man’s great sin; was not that he abused Lazarus in any way, but that to him Lazarus suffering was invisible.
I can tell you from experience that staring at the suffering of others is not an easy task. What can you say to family that has lost a love one? Or a man or woman that is unloved? A child is been bullied? What can you say that will make the pain go away? Nothing, the only thing we can do is follow the example of Jesus on the cross. Embrace this suffering and let this person know “I will suffer with you, I will suffer for you”.
My brothers and sisters, it is easy to make the mistake to think that today’s Gospel is about the suffering of those that live far away from us, in the inner city, in homeless shelters, but if we do not see the suffering that is at our own door step, Aren’t we as guilty as the rich man from the story?
Many years ago blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was told by a young man that he wanted to abandon everything and follow her to the streets of Calcutta to help the poor, her answer resonates with today’s gospel "Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are -- in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. ... You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected… completely forgotten, completely left alone."
I have to tell you my brothers and sisters some Sunday Gospels are truly gifts from heaven.