Friday, July 24, 2020

15th Sunday OT (Cycle A): The Parable of the Hardened Hearts.

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    Today’s Gospel is one of Jesus' most beloved parables. For generations preachers have reflected on the deep meanings behind the story of the sower and the seeds that although being all the same, produce different fruits depending on the kind of ground they fall. It is a real shame that in today’s reading, right in the middle of the story we have to listen to Him explaining to the apostles that the reason why he purposely spoke in parables was  so that a specific group of people would not understand what he was saying.
   To our year 2020 sencibilities this comes across as not too politically correct for Jesus. After all, don't we live in an era in which we are supposed to include everyone in every endeavor? Why is the Lord excluding some while revealing deep meanings of the Kingdom to others?
   Even the Church recognizes this whole scene as problematic;  so out of character for the Lord that it gives us, preachers, the option to select between the Gospel I just proclaimed and a shorter, much more “nicer” version, without the embarrassing talk about “taking away from those who have nothing”. Luckily (for you...I guess) I am one who never shies away from controversy, so… here we are.
    Now, the important questions for us today are these: Why is the Lord excluding a certain group of people from his teachings and what does this have to do with us today?  The key to our first question is given right at the beginning of the reading. “On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.”  You see, we need to remember that today’s story happened at one specific moment in Jesus ministry. What else happened “On that day”, that Matthew feels the need to point this out? Well if we look at the passages BEFORE this story we find out that Jesus preached this parable the same day he had been presented with a possessed man. The same day when, after he liberated this poor man from the demonic power, Pharisees  accused him of having power over demons not because he was divine but because He was in league with Satan.
    In fact, if you look at Jesus preaching before that day, He never used parables to teach the crowds. It was after this day that he began speaking in parables to the people. Even the apostles notice this chance when they ask him “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Up to this point Jesus had taught in a very direct way, speaking of the Kingdom of Heaven directly, and what it was needed to be part of this kingdom. From this day on the Lord begins to teach in parables, in words that could be understood by those who were poor and oppressed. In words that those who were in power could not understand, not because they were confusing but because they had already made up their mind about who the Lord Jesus was showing to be: The Son of God. They we're too stubborn to receive his message and preferred to close their eyes to the words of truth and dismiss everything the Lord said as rubbish, not worthy of their time and attention.
     Jesus answered the apostles' question in a very direct way. I speak in parables so that you who have been granted knowledge of the kingdom of heaven could benefit from my teachings, and those who have decided to ignore or twist my words for their own benefit, continue to live in the darkness they have freely chosen, where they feel secure and  comfortable. “they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand”. These are the people whose hearts were like a dry path, where Jesus' words have no chance to take a hold and grow, and he tells us very clearly that these are the people to whom the evil one comes and steals away the seeds the Lord had tried to plant in their hearts.
    If you ask me on the parable of the sower there are two types of seeds: the ones with a chance to grow, but for many reasons only some are able to produce fruit, and seeds that never take hold, not because of they are bad seeds but because the ground in which they fell is to hard to give them any chance to produce fruit.
    Before I said we had two questions in front of us today. I hope I answered the first one to your satisfaction. The second one, what does this have to do with us today… well...I will let you answer this in the secret of your hearts. Is my heart so hardened, am I so comfortable with the way I live my life that the word of the Lord can never find good ground  to grow? That is a question we should always ask ourselves, not just today but everyday of our lives. GBMBS
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Sunday, June 21, 2020

12th Sunday OT (Cycle A): Do not be Afraid

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      I think we can all agree that the year 2020 has turnout to be a year unlike any other. A few weeks back when I stood here preaching to the mothers of St Michael our number one worry was protecting ourselves and our loved ones from the Covid-19 virus… What a difference a few weeks make!
     Today, on top of all of our worries about COVID-19 now we have to add all of the tension caused by news and images of police brutality, protesters, looters, tear gas, graffiti, rock throwing, rubber bullets... It is clear to me that on this Father’s day 2020 our nation is battling another type of virus, not a microscopic entity that only affects our bodies but something more dangerous and more destructive, a virus of the soul. Now some people might be thinking “Well here it goes the minority is going to lecture us about racism”.  If you think like that you are wrong. I believe that this virus which is stealing our peace and consuming our nation is not racism, it is something much deeper and more dangerous.
    As a Puerto Rican, throughout my close to 40 years living in the United States I have had my fair share of encounters with racism. I still recall the very first time I attended mass in Laurel, the very first words out of the usher’s mouth when they saw me walk into the church were “Let me show you where the Spanish masses are in the area”;  back then I  discovered something that is very clear to me in the pictures we see on TV.  Behind all the screaming, and anger, all the destruction of property and the violence, behind all the calls for change  and the actions of corporations changing their logos, and news of politicians threatening to dissolve police departments; behind all this, there is a deep undercurrent of fear. People are scared. Some people are living scared of the police, others live scared of people of a different color, or even a different accent.  Some People are scared of the change one group demands but more importantly almost everyone is scared about their future, and the future of their loved ones.
      If you think about it, we find ourselves living in a paradox. On one hand this is the most advanced society ever, the wealth of our nation, our health care and our technology are really stuff that people from a 100 years ago wouldn't even dream off! Even with all these advances as a society, as a community of people, in our nation we have never been more scared in our lives. The problem with fear is that it makes us behave in ways we would never do under normal conditions. Fear brings the worst in us, it takes away our capacity to think clear and to see or hear what others are telling us.
      In this time in which we live, it is easy to see how our fears can make other human beings look like the sparrows from Jesus story, part of the background, insignificant, without any value to us; So in the middle of this pandemic of fear today we hear Jesus proclaim in gospel: Do not be afraid!  No one is insignificant, not one person falls to the ground without the Father's knowledge, every hair of our head has been counted.  Every human life is precious in the eyes of God.
What I like about these words of the Lord for us today is that He cuts through all the noise and tells us “You are afraid, don't be!”. He doesn’t assume we are scared, he knows we live in fear, and he knows that the very first step to overcome our fear is to recognize we are afraid. When we realize this, fear can not control us anymore. We begin to see the fear of those around us, and we can begin to help them overcome their own fears. So if you find yourself getting angry at what the protesters are saying or about the silence of people who do not understand or care about the issues of race in our country, be honest with yourself and ask …”What am I afraid of?”
“Do not be afraid” is not only a message for today, but it should become our way of life. Do not be afraid of those who look different, sound different, think different than us.  Do not be afraid of stepping out of your echo chamber and listen to what the other side is saying. The Lord calls us to live a life without fears, free to love in the same way he loves. This is the antidote, the medicine our country needs, only then will the words from our national anthem will find their true meaning, that we live in the  “Land of the Free, Home of the brave ''. GBMBAS

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

5th Lent: Lazarus and the Coronavirus

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    As I was reading this gospel 3 times  was I surprised by the words of Jesus. The first time was when he said:  “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 
     I believe we can all agree that these are encouraging words in a time like this.  However we can not make the mistake of thinking that these words are a promise that we don’t have to worry about taking precautions, washing our hands and keeping our social distance because Jesus is telling us that if we or anyone we know gets sick, at the end we will all be healed. After all, a few short verses later in the reading we see Jesus crying for his dead friend.
     I think that what the Lord is telling us is that in a time like today, when the news is grim; even when we have to deal with the sickness of a loved one, if we let him, He will find a way to bring glory to his name. All we have to do is trust that even in the grimmest of times He is right there with us, sharing in our sufferings.
    The second time I was surprised by His words was when he said: “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me”. It surprised me because he is giving us a perfect example of how to start every prayer in times like the ones we are living. It is easy to get discouraged when, day after day, after we spend hours pleading with the Lord, we see that our prayers are ignored and that those things we so desperately want are denied by the harsh reality of life.
   It is important we recognize that these words of Jesus are the first words of the Lord when he was asking his father for the impossible, to bring Lazarus back to life. The Lord is giving us an example of how to pray. And that example is this: Pray with the realization that God indeed listens to our prayers. Even if we do not get the results we want, our prayers, every prayer counts. And our desired to be heard by God is always, always fulfilled. He might not answer our prayer but, like a good Father He is ready to console us when He has to deny what we so desperately need.
   And the third time I was surprised by the words of the Lord was when he said: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  Today  the Lord is asking  each one of us: Do you truly believe this?
   We are living in a time in which, because of this pandemic, death can become part of the reality of our lives. In fact we have reached a point that death has become just a number, that keeps going up and up. Anyone could become discouraged by the constant reporting of death in the news, but the Lord IS resurrection and life, if we believe in Him we will never die! Yes, our bodies might decay until it can not continue the battle, but our soul, our essence will continue, united to Him for all eternity.  And eventually we will meet again. Do we believe this? If we do, then there is no fear, no pain, no sickness, no virus that can keep us away from our eternal destiny.
    The coming days and weeks will be challenging to some if not all of us. The time of complacent Christianity is over. The time to pray, to hope and trust in God’s plan is here.
    Lets commend ourselves to the protection of all the angels, the saints, the martyrs and especially the Blessed Mother and lets make our prayer “Yes, I believe, Lord help my unbelief!” GBYMBAS.

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Monday, March 9, 2020

2nd Lent: Transfiguration and Corono Virus

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  My dear confirmandi, I’m so glad you are here today! When I was working on this homily I was not aware you would be here today. As I finished it and reviewed it, I realized that it did not sound like  my regular sermons. In fact reading it I got a sense that this particular homily had been given to me for a specific person. You might be asking why? Well it is because one of the important points I want to make is that the Jewish people in the times of Jesus, were not much different than you or me. Yes, for them, our world would look more like a magical place than anything we can imagine. Just think about the fact that today, right here I can pull out of my pocket a device which allows me to contact anyone, no matter where they are in the world by just a few keystrokes on a keypad. But the reality is that if we take all the technology away we are left with the realization that the problems of these people from 2000 years ago and your problems are not that different.
    Think about it this way, in the times of Jesus people were scared of contagious diseases like leprosy. To the point that even the suspicion of contact with a leper, would force you into quarantine from the rest of the community. They were under the control of political forces that only cared about their own interests, and not about the lives of those who were less fortunate to the point that the lives of regular people, especially the most vulnerable had very little value. Like you and me they had to get out of bed every morning, to go to work and in their own way make every day of every week count. They lived in fear of the Roman authorities especially on what could happen if one of their children ever had a run in with a Roman soldier or worst the weight of the Roman law.
   I can go on and on but the point I’m trying to make is that as different as their world and our world could be, when it came to what really matters health, security, companionship; their concerns, those things that keep anyone of us up all night, were no different than the problems we face in our own homes and our own lives. 
   This is why today's’ gospel has always been very important for the Christian believer. So important that along with the crucifixion and his resurrection it is the only other episode in Jesus life that is mentioned in the gospels AND in the letters of the apostles. But why? Why is this event so fundamental to Christians from all times and places?
   Quite simply the transfiguration of the Lord is proof that although in life we can be assaulted by the tragedy or disease, by the failure of the political systems to be just and fair, even by the loss or abandonment of loved ones there is a place outside of our regular day to day perceptions in which the Lord Jesus is King, a place in which we can meet him in all of his glory.
   You see the transfiguration was a gift of the Lord to the apostles. Right after this, the Lord began his long way towards Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus wanted to make sure the apostles did not get discouraged by the terrible events of the coming weeks. He wanted to make sure that when things looked at their worst, when the soldiers were torturing him and nailing him to a cross, and the apostles were running away scared to hide from the authorities, they would look back at this moment on time and realize that He had already defeated his enemies and that as beaten and as broken as he looked to those who didn't know him, he was still the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
   The significance of the transfiguration is that it was not an event for just the apostles or the disciples. It was a moment in which all believers could find consolation, whenever they themselves were scared, and confused. This is why Paul in the first reading reminds persecuted Christians of the first century to “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” because of  “the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light”.
  Today we are living in a time not much different than the times of Jesus, the CoronoVirus, the loss of billions of dollars in the stock market, what is starting to look as the most divisive election cycle in memory is making regular people like you and me scared and worried like the disciples in Good Friday. What is the Lord telling us today?  Do not be afraid Jesus has destroyed death and had shone a light from the top of the Transfiguration mountain into the souls of those who believe in him. There is no virus, no future president and no stock market crash that can take that away from us. God bless you my dear confirmandi and my brothers and sisters.

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Monday, February 17, 2020

6th OT (Cycle A) God's Wisdom

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    When I came to live in the United States, about 35 years ago, I had what you would call a culture shock. Mostly because I came from a culture in which Catholicism was part of everything I did. It was not that religion was part of life, it was that religion was life. I still remember when, during the Holy Week all schools, government and private businesses were closed. The only thing open were churches. On TV (Granted we only had 3 channels) the only things you could watch  were movies about the life of Jesus and especially his passion.
    When I relocated to this area  everything was different. Here the Catholic religion was one among many, and that one was part of the minority. Worst, the way people talked about the Church, the things they said were so outrageously wrong to me an informed Catholic, that many times I was left speechless, not because I did not have the answers but because a comment was too outrageous to even deserve an answer.
     There were many things that confused my religious sensibilities back then but the most confusing thing for me was the usage of the Lord's name. You see, since I was a child the Lord’s name was always in my parents lips. In fact, growing up, our day to day talk was filled with religious references. In the Puerto Rico of my childhood we were constantly giving thanks to God, blessing his name and requesting favors for ourselves. The names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were common companions in our speech.  Of course when I arrived in Maryland I just began to translate this custom into my English speech, so in my new job, with my new friends, even in public I began to  use the name  of “Jesus” often.  Boy was I wrong! Finally one of the secretaries that worked with me, pulled me to the side and corrected me. Because, unknown to me, I was “using the name of the Lord in vain”.  I tried to explain to her that I would never use the name of the Lord in a less than worthy way, but that was beside the point. The people listening to me did not care about my intentions but about the fact that I was actually using the name of Jesus in a “secular”setting.
    And this was the moment in which I discovered one of the realities of our fallen human nature: When we make an action, speak a word or even give a look most people only care about what it means to them.  They don’t care about our intentions, they will only judge our actions by the way these actions make them feel. That is the sad reality of our human wisdom, that it can only focues on what we perceive.
    Today’s readings remind us that God’s wisdom is unlike our human wisdom. God looks in what is in our hearts he doesn’t wait until we make up our minds and make an action. Human wisdom tells us that killing is wrong, God’s wisdom tells us that we can kill someone way before we lift a finger against them. Human wisdom tells us adultery is wrong, God’s wisdom tells us we can hurt our relationship with our loved ones way before we touch, kiss or even reconnect with that long lost highschool flame. Human wisdom tells us not to make false promises, God’s wisdom tells us not to make promises at all, to let our words be yes or no, anything else will just open us to the temptation and occasions to lie. 
   God’s wisdom is based on what matters in all of us, the state of our souls.  Paul calls God’s wisdom something mysterious and hidden. Mysterious because it is unlike any type of human wisdom we can conceive. Hidden because it can reach deeply within our souls and we can not hide from its presence. The spirit scrutinizes everything, even the deepest corners of our souls. I assure you my brothers and sisters, nothing is hidden to God; because of our baptism the spirit IS the constant companion of our souls every second of every day, witnessing to what resides in our hearts.  He is a witness to every thought and desire we indulge, in every second of every day, and testifies about the way we decide to live our lives.
  I guess the best way of finishing today is by repeating the words of the first reading: “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; If you trust in God, you too shall live; Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.  Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;he is mighty in power, and all-seeing” GBMBAS

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Sunday, February 9, 2020

3rd Sunday OT (Cycle A): The People Who Sits in Great Darkness

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   “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light.” Believe it or not, this is a very important passage for us Christian because it not only describes what happens when those who are suffering and abandoned, find themselves confronted with God’s love and mercy, but it also describes how those who serve others are illuminated by the face of Christ when they give themselves in service.
    The first time we hear these words today is taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah, who is speaking to those poor souls that had fallen under the captivity of the Assyrian king about 800 years before the birth of Christ. In the Gospel, we find ourselves in another very dark moment in the history of the people of Israel, the Roman occupation, however Matthew uses these same words to describe NOT the political liberation of his people but their spiritual liberation from the powers of evil. In Jesus ministry  these words find a different meaning, the darkness they speak about is much more than physical oppression, it is the darkness of a world that lives in ignorance. Ignorance of the suffering of their neighbor, ignorance of the will of God for their lives, but more importantly ignorance of the power of God and of the role of each person plays in the building of the kingdom of God. Matthew takes a prophecy which was spoken specifically for the people of Israel and gives it a universal meaning, a meaning not bound by time and space. Who are the people who live in darkness? Everyone who has not heard the good news of the Gospel, and every one who has heard the Gospel but has never taken the next step and put these words into actions.
   As you might know, last Monday I returned from our yearly Jamaica mission. This is my 8th trip and every time I visit this country I see people who are living in great darkness be blinded by the great light which is the Gospel of Christ in action.
   This year we had a good mix of young and old. We had married couples, college students, parents with their children, siblings, friends, college roommates, as well as people on their own. We packed 1800 pounds of donations, from you the good people of St Michael’s. We brought toys for children, clothes, school supplies, tools, laptops, phones and more than $25,000 dollars in contributions.  Our center of operations was the Our Lady of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Hase Jamaica. An area forgotten by the government. A mere quarter of a mile away from a 400,000 gallons open air chemical waist pool for a Chinese operated aluminum processing plant. In fact you can see the levee of this pool from inside the church if you look out the window, and when the wind blows just right you can not miss the aroma.
   To complicate the matter the community has been trying to recuperate from losing a beloved priest and has just been assigned a “part-time” pastor. Needless to say this was a community experiencing great darkness. The task which took the bulk of our time there was replacing a rotted roof and moving a small wooden structure to a new foundation. But I would say these were the least important aspects of our trip.  Seeing how grateful and willing to embrace us  this community was, was truly an eye opening experience for us. For example, noticing that on the first day of work we only had sandwiches for lunch they gathered their few resources and for the next 3 days, for lunch, prepared for us a true Jamaican feast cooked right there on the site with burning wood using  an old tire rim as a stove.
     I could spend hours talking about our experiences on this trip and how we saw the light of Christ on the service work we did but I will do something better; I will read to you a note sent to Ted Burkheart by one of the college kids that accompany us. And I will let it speak by itself:
“   Hi Mr. Ted! Thank you so much for all you’ve done this year and all the years prior to get us all prepared for this trip and giving us this amazing opportunity. Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All my siblings and my father had told me about the poverty and injustice I was going to see, as well as the kind and joyful spirits I was going to meet, but nothing they said really prepared me to see and experience it myself. The trip was truly a unique experience that I think everyone who has been as blessed as I have been, during my entire life, should have at least once in their lifetimes. Meeting the people of Jamaica, who don’t have nearly as much as us, but are still so much more joyful and gracious than us, really changes your perspective on the world. I see them all as an inspiration on how I want to live my life from now on, with that same joy and graciousness. I really think service trips such as this one are not only fulfilling and worthwhile, but also part of our duty as people so fortunate to help those who have not been as fortunate.”
   Wow, I tell you my brothers and sisters, because of the generosity of you; the people of St Michael, people who normally sit in darkness have, indeed, seen a great light. God bless you my brothers and sisters.

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