4th Sunday of Advent

In our first reading today, the Lord gives Nathan a fairly long message to deliver to David.  He makes David a series of promises ending with “your throne shall stand firm forever.”  Remember, this is the same David who had one of his men killed so he could have the man’s wife for himself.  David’s closet was full of skeletons.  But here’s God telling him that he’s going to be a mighty king and that his kingdom will last forever.

 

Even in David’s time, everybody knew that no kingdom could last forever.  It’s still true today.  But the Lord wasn’t talking about an earthly kingdom.

 

Fast forward to today’s Gospel, Luke’s famous telling of the Annunciation.  It’s a beautiful story and one we’ve all heard many times.  Right in the middle of the story the angel tells Mary “the Lord God will give him (meaning Mary’s unborn Son) the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

There it is again; “The promise of a never-ending kingdom”.  We know today that the angel is talking about a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one.  Poor Mary doesn’t know what to think.  Her response is, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

 

I want to stop here for just a minute.  When I was first in formation for the diaconate, about fifteen years ago, I went to a two-day workshop on the Gospel of Luke.  The speaker was Father Eugene La Verdier, an expert of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, which was also written by Luke.  He spent the entire first morning talking to us about this Gospel passage.

 

Obviously I can’t tell you everything he said, but the gist of it was this.  Everything about Mary was small.  She lived in a very small town, Nazareth which was part of a very small province called Galilee.  To the people of Jesus’ time, Nazareth was kind of a back-water place, definitely not the kind of place that would give birth to the Messiah.

 

Then there’s Mary herself.  She’s a young girl from a small town.  She’s still a virgin.  In Mary’s society women were definitely second class citizens.  But married women at least had the prestige of their husbands.  Unmarried women were the lowest rung on the social ladder.  Aside from the biology of the thing, the idea of a young, single woman, a nobody in the Jewish society of that time, giving birth to such a mighty king was unprecedented.  “How can this be since I’m no more important than a good donkey or camel?”

 

Remember that Mary was engaged to Joseph.  Surely she intended to have children.  The idea that one of them might become a king was far-fetched but not impossible.  Her response only makes sense if we look at it as a sign of humility. “How can someone as lowly as me give birth to a king?”

What I’m suggesting to you is this.  The Son of God was born of a woman; an unmarried woman from a small, insignificant place.  The idea that she would give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God was outrageous.   But Mary was chosen by God.  Jesus was the only person in history to have chosen His own mother.  He didn’t choose someone wealthy.  He didn’t choose someone powerful.  He didn’t choose a queen.  Any of those choices would have made it much easier for Him to perform His ministry.

 

He chose Mary.  He chose Mary to show you and me that with God anything is possible.  He chose her to give us encouragement.  If this lowly girl could be His mother, then you and I shouldn’t be afraid to tackle anything.  He chose her to show us how we should respond to God’s call just as he chose David to be a mighty king in spite of his past sins.

 

You and I may think we can never change the world. We’re just not important enough. Or maybe we think we’re too sinful. But the stories of David and Mary prove that we’re wrong. In just a few days we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior. It’s not just a day revolving around gifts and food. It’s a day to remember that Jesus was born for us; to save us from our sins. It’s a day to ponder our part in salvation history. What can I do to repay such a remarkable gift? What does God have in mind for me. It’s a day for us, just like Mary, to say, “Let it be done to me according to your will.”

 

Time and again you have shown your generosity to others. Your response to our Christmas gift drive was outstanding. As you celebrate your own Christmas, take a moment to remember that some poor child is having a merrier Christmas because of your donated gifts.

 

After mass today (tomorrow) we’ll decorate the church for Christmas. We’ll have more poinsettias than ever before thanks to the generosity of our members who donated to our flower fund. Our Christmas visitors will be very impressed.

 

During the year you’ve helped with other collections for those less fortunate than we are. We may be a small community, but together we get things done. That’s what discipleship is all about. In the coming year, I hope that we can all work together to spread the Gospel to more people. There are plans in the works to build our attendance and to increase our revenue. Saint John Nepomuk Chapel has a special place in the hearts of people all over Saint Louis and throughout the nation and the world. We recently received a check from a lady from Florida, a non-Catholic lady by the way, who heard about our broken window and wanted to help.

 

There’s a Czech organization in Cleveland that sends us a check every year for Christmas. We regularly have visitors from other cities who attend mass here. You may not be aware that we often give tours to out-of-town groups visiting Saint Louis.

You and I are part of God’s plan. He has something He wants each of us to do. It’s up to us to respond, like Mary. In a few minutes we’ll all say together, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

 

1st Sunday of Advent

Today we begin the holy season of Advent, the beginning of the Church year. It’s a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord. It’s a time of waiting and watching for the coming of our Savior. It’s should be a time of prayer. Unfortunately we live in a world that doesn’t always let us do what we know in our hearts we should do.

 

Businesses urge us to spend, spend, spend; to shop ‘til we drop. Our friends, families, and employers all want to fill our calendars with parties and other gatherings. For many of us who have secular jobs, the end of the calendar year can be the busiest time of all. Where are we supposed to find the time to pray? Where are we supposed to find the time to reflect on the meaning of this holy season? What are our priorities?

 

Modern society tells us to be rugged individuals. We can do anything. President Obama’s campaign slogan was “yes, we can.” Nike tells us “Just do it!” Over the past few days we’ve seen countless images of people who feel that it’s their right to just take what they want and to damage others’ property. Someone, for whatever reason, thought it was OK to vandalize our church. Sometimes, it just seems so hopeless. What are we supposed to do.

 

Well, the season of Advent calls us to prepare; to get ready for a savior. What does that mean? It means that we can’t save ourselves. We need someone to save us from our sins. We can’t do it alone. As Father Robert Barron says, “Our greatest challenge this Advent is to realize just how much we need Jesus.” If we’re not aware of how much we need a savior, how can we really prepare?

 

In the first reading the prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, O Lord, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.” This was the mindset of the people before the coming of Christ. They KNEW they needed a Savior and couldn’t wait for Him to get here. Isaiah goes on and reminds us that even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have withered like leaves and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” We can’t buy our way into heaven by doing good deeds.

 

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May He not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch’.

 

Maybe that one word, “watch” should be our mantra for the next four weeks. Watch for the coming of Christ. Watch your own thoughts and actions. Are they what Jesus would want you to do? Watch out for your family and friends. Are they preparing for His coming, or are they so caught up in the secular aspects of the Christmas season that they’ve forgotten the “reason for the season”? You do realize that that’s not just a catchy phrase?

 

For Advent we decorate the church in the color purple. It’s not a happy color. It’s not a joyful color. It’s a color for introspection. It’s a color for meditation. It’s a color of peace. It’s here to remind us that “ordinary time” is over. This is a special season. It’s not business as usual.

 

It’s kind of ironic that all the unrest happening in our city is happening during this holy time. There are a lot of angry, frustrated, and confused people here in Saint Louis and in other cities. Even though most of us are not involved with the situation in Ferguson, even though to many of us it seems like it’s very far away, we all have feelings about what’s happening. What you personally feel is between you and God. Maybe it’s good that this is happening at this particular time. By focusing on the message of Advent, maybe we’ll all be more inclined to be patient and forgiving.

 

Remember that there are two things going on in Ferguson and elsewhere. First, there are people who are genuinely concerned about the relationship between themselves and law enforcement. We’re all descended from immigrants and many of our ancestors were subject to the same fears as people of color are today. Where you and I may see a police car and be grateful that they’re here to protect us, I know my Irish ancestors didn’t share that feeling. The term “paddy wagon” was coined because that’s what the police used to round up the Irish.

 

Saint John Nepomuk church was built here on Bohemian Hill because the residents of the city in the nineteenth century didn’t want “foreigners” in their neighborhoods. That’s why there’s such a concentration of ethnic churches here on the south side. Fear is a strong emotion and it causes people to do things that they might not normally do. While we don’t share that fear with our African American brothers and sisters, it’s important that we try to understand it.

 

The second thing that’s happening is criminal activity. Looting and burning businesses has nothing to do with fear. It’s all about greed and opportunism. In fact, these thieves and vandals apparently don’t fear law enforcement. They just want free stuff. Their actions do nothing to further the cause of peace and justice. They just make it worse. It’s important for the rest of us to recognize the difference between the two groups and not lump them all together.

 

I’ve put a memo in the bulletin this week from Archbishop Carlson. I hope you take time to read it. We should all be proud that our Archbishop seems to be one of the only voices of reason among our local clergy. Tuesday night while Ferguson was burning, the Archbishop was leading a prayer service at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish. For some reason, the local media seemed to ignore what was happening there, probably because a reasonable man, speaking from the heart about the issues that divide us doesn’t make for exciting TV, especially when just a few blocks away there was so much more action.

 

It’s too bad that most people didn’t get a chance to hear his remarks, because, frankly, they made me proud to be Catholic. Among the things he said was this, “Violence destroys what it claims to defend.” You can find the video online. I urge you to find it and watch it.

 

Discrimination is the work of Satan. Because of original sin, it’s something that’s plagued us since the beginning of time. Whether it’s Jews and Muslims, whites and blacks, or Catholics and protestants, we all seem to have a need to hate someone to make us feel better about ourselves. While our Bohemian founders were discriminated against by the so-called “native Saint Louisians” (who had been immigrants themselves just a generation earlier), the animosity between Catholic Bohemians and non-Catholic Bohemians was just as bad if not worse. Some of you may remember that it hasn’t been that long since a Catholic belonging to the Czech hall was a cause for excommunication. Today the various Muslim denominations can be bitter enemies. And don’t get me started about the “troubles” between Catholics and protestants in Northern Ireland, which is even more ironic because most of them don’t go to any church at all.

 

As we begin the Church year, I hope you’ll join me in praying for the gift of understanding just how much we need a Savior. We’re prisoners of so many things; money, prejudice, power, prestige, addictions to drugs, alcohol, and pornography, that we desperately need a savior. Every twelve-step program begins with the realization that we’re powerless to overcome these things alone. We need a higher power and we must turn our lives over to Him.

 

That’s what Advent is all about.

O come, O come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel.

Thanksgiving 2014

thanksgiving1

Today is a day to give thanks to an awesome God who has given us so many great gifts.  It’s one day when everyone, regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof, is reminded of all the good things in our lives.

Many of us will gather with our families and friends to celebrate this unique holiday.  It’s also a time to remember those who have so much less than we do.  (Up on my soapbox) It isn’t a day to try to score a great deal on a flat screen TV.  Don’t get me wrong,  there’s nothing wrong with “Black Friday” but I honestly don’t see how intruding on our day of thanks, especially making retail employees leave their family celebrations to run the cash registers, is a good idea.  Are people really going to buy more because they have a few extra hours to shop, or are the sales just going to be spread out a little bit?

Here’s link from ABC News to twenty-two stores that won’t be open Thursday.  Of course, most local, independent retailers won’t be open either.  I urge you to stay home on Thanksgiving and join the shopping fray later.  Enjoy the time with your families and join me in a prayer of gratitude for all the blessings in our lives.

On a personal note, my wife and I will be spending “Black Friday” the same way we always do, shopping at independent retailers.  Obviously we won’t do all our Christmas shopping that day, but we’ll be doing our part to support our local merchants.  I hope you’ll join us.

On a related subject, it’s time for my annual rant about saying “Merry Christmas”.  It does seem that many businesses have restored that phrase to their vocabularies.  But there are still some holdouts who insist on wishing us “season’s greetings” or “happy holidays” in spite of the fact that they make the lion’s share of their annual profits selling us gifts for Christmas.

Frankly, this confuses me.  Some will say that referring to Christmas is offensive to non-Christians.  I say “nonsense”.  Seeing a menorah, or having someone wish me a Happy Chanukah doesn’t offend me.  In fact, I think it very nice.  Why shouldn’t we share our joy with others?

When someone wishes me “happy holidays”, I always smile politely and answer “Merry Christmas”.  I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve yet to have someone object.

Merry Christmas

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

If Father were preaching today, he could choose any of the readings as the basis for his homily. But as a married deacon, I feel kind of obligated to talk about the first reading from the Book of Proverbs, especially if I want to avoid any painful consequences later at home. It’s not that Father can’t talk about the virtues of a good wife. It’s just that I can speak from experience.

 

“When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls. Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.” You don’t have to be married to understand this statement. I know lots of men who have worthy wives. But, thanks be to God, I can include myself in that blessed group.

 

“She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.”

 

The writer goes on to describe other virtues of a good wife and ends by saying, “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.” All I can add to that is “AMEN!”

 

Some people in the 21st century will look at this and say, “Wait a minute! This is sexist language. Women aren’t meant to take care of men. We’re all equal!” To that I would say, “yes, we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord but we’re not the same. Just today (yesterday) there was an article in the Post about remarriage. Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say. We all know the Church doesn’t condone divorce and remarriage. Marriage is ‘til death do us part. But we also deal in reality and we know that spouses die and marriages end for other reasons. The point is that research has shown that newly unmarried men are almost twice as likely to get married again as newly unmarried women.

 

The conclusion of the research is that this is because men need someone to take care of them and women aren’t necessarily excited to take on that role again. Another example of researchers spending a lot of time and money to find out something the rest of us already know. Women are the nurturers. That’s why God in his infinite wisdom made women to be mothers.

 

A case in point. Last week Mrs. Buckley was out of town for a couple of days. I hated it. She makes this trip every year and God knows she deserves time for herself. But I can barely function on my own.

“When one finds a worthy wife, her value is far beyond pearls.”

Forty-six years ago this week, I moved out of my mother’s house and moved into our house. I’ve never lived alond. I’ve never had to fend for myself. I’m not much of a cook. I don’t know how to do the laundry. I’d rather sleep on the couch than have to make the bed. I totally missed an obligation I had on Friday morning because my alarm didn’t go off and there was no one there to get me up. Frankly, I’m pretty useless when it comes to taking care of myself. This may not be politically-correct, but it’s just the way it is.

 

The article in the Post pointed out that older men who remarry are much more likely to marry a younger woman. I think it’s because older women know better. Been there, done that. They’re not interested in becoming caretakers for another helpless old man. Of course, there are exceptions. Two older riends of mine were married a few years ago. Both of their spouses had died. But, they had been living alone for a while and the husband had figured out how to make it on his own. For the record, they’re very happy. They do things together and they do things separately. God bless them. I think they may be the exception to the rule.

 

This brings me to today’s Gospel. We all know the story of the talents. The servants who used the master’s money wisely were rewarded. The guy who buried his share of the money in the ground, not so much. God has given all of us talents which we’re supposed to use. Whether we use our talents to earn a living, or to take care of our families, that’s what God wants us to do.

 

A perfect example of using our talents was on display here at Saint John’s last Sunday. We’re blessed to have some very talented cooks. We have people who can organize things and get things done. We have a deacon who’s smart enough to stay out of their way. Today we have over $6,000 in the bank that wasn’t there a week ago. We also have new friends who came and saw what a group of dedicated people can do when they invest their God-given talents for a common cause. No one person was responsible for our success. It was a group effort and there’s no doubt that the Holy Spirit was present to help us and guide us to use our talents in the most productive way. It’s all about teamwork, and sadly, some people who prefer not to be part of a team chose not to participate. My prayer is that we can continue to work together, as a team, using our various talents and skills to build up the Kingdom of God in our small corner of the world.

 

Frankly, fund-raisers are a lot of work and can be a pain in the you-know-what. But I don’t look at the events we hold here as fund-raisers. The money is nice but it’s only a way to keep score. We made more money this year than we did last year, so some might say the event must have been a success. But our mission here isn’t to sell goulash and beer. Our mission is to make disciples and that’s much harder to measure. But from what I saw, we did God’s work last Sunday and I know that He will continue to bless us. And make no mistake, our devotion to the Holy Infant of Prague is a big part of everything we do that’s good.

 

window damage - 01I’m sure some of you are wondering about “the window” and some of you may not even know about it. Late Wednesday night someone threw a brick through our beautiful Nativity window. They tried to break several other windows, but the Plexiglas covering did it’s job, stopping any further damage. We have insurance which will cover most of the cost of the repairs, but it’s still discouraging that someone would deliberately damage something so beautiful   Your first reaction is probably the same as mine; anger, disappointment, confusion. As a flawed human being, when I first saw what happened I wanted to catch this person and see that they’re punished.

 

But since Thursday morning, the story was covered by Channel 2 News and the outpouring of support has been amazing. We’ve heard from current and former members of the community who want to know how they can help. We’ve found out that we have a lot of support in the community. We’re fortunate that the company who originally created the windows is still in business and they’re dedicated to restoring the window to its original glory.

 

The publicity generated from this unfortunate event has been very positive. While it’s only human nature to be angry with the person who did this, we have to understand that this person has some serious issues. A person who would attack a house of God needs help. Rather than be mad, it’s important that we pray for this individual. God creates good out of evil and it’s up to us to make that good happen. We’ve gotten support from friends and strangers in South City and from throughout the Saint Louis area. Even a friend of mine, a protestant minister who lives in Wyoming, offered his condolences.

 

Thanks be to God that the damage can be repaired and that no one was hurt.

 

Saint Louis is bracing for potential violence and property damage on a much bigger scale when the Michael Brown grand jury verdict is announced. If and when it happens, we at Saint John Nepomuk should have a greater insight into the bigger picture. Everything happens for a reason and great good can come from evil. As Catholic Christians, our task is to pray. Pray for our city and pray that the basic goodness of people will win out. We must also be vigilant. While Ferguson may seem like a long way from us, violence and property damage can happen anywhere, even right here at our own church.

 

I’m going to end with a personal story. My son and his wife live on Nottingham in South Saint Louis. Nottingham is one of those streets where Halloween is a big deal. Jan and I were there to help give out candy to nearly 800 kids. The neighborhood is almost entirely white but most of the kids who were trick-or-treating were either black, or Hispanic, or Muslim.

There were no problems. The kids were well-behaved and polite. There were times when there were thirty or more kids lined up at my son’s house to get candy. There was no pushing or shoving. Frankly, it was an awesome experience. I couldn’t help wondering, where was CNN? Where was Channel 5? Where was Mayor Slay? The media has painted Saint Louis as the epicenter of racism and violence of the entire country. Yet, something as simple as Halloween brought all these different people together just to have a good time. That’s our city. That’s who we are. A few agitators, many of them from out of town, have given us a huge black eye. But we know better.

 

Jesus said “a little child shall lead them.” Maybe when the Grand Jury makes its announcement, we should all give out candy. Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

Dear readers, You can see more pix of the window damage on Saint John’s Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/SaintJohnNepomuk

 

 

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Jesus was a Jew. Everybody knows that. His mother was a Jew. His step-father was a Jew. All his aunts and uncles and cousins were Jews. Most of the people He ministered to were Jews. Jesus lived in a Jewish society.

 

In Jesus’ time, Jews had an entirely different view of God than we do today. Look at today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. The Lord says “you shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword, then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”

 

Whoa! The Old Testament God didn’t mess around. “If you’re not nice to widows and orphans, I’ll kill you.” End of story. Jesus introduced us to a kinder, gentler God. He told us it was OK to call God “Our Father”.

 

Look at our Gospel reading.   The Pharisees decided to test Jesus. One of them asked Jesus “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” We all know the answer to that question. “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment.” He goes on to say that the second commandment is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, he knew that the Pharisees, experts in the Jewish Law, weren’t following either of these two commandments.

 

As 21st century Christians, we look at this reading and think, “OK, out of the Ten Commandments these two are the greatest. But wait! “Love your neighbor” isn’t one of the ten.

Maybe we should have a little quiz here. Who knows the Ten Commandments?

  1. I am the LORD your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  3. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
  4. Honor your father and your mother.
  5. You shall not kill.
  6. You shall not commit adultery.
  7. You shall not steal.
  8. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

The first three are about loving God. The last seven are about loving our neighbors. The Ten Commandments can be reduced to just two.

 

But, remember, Jesus was speaking to 1st Century Jews, not 21st Century Christians. The question the Pharisee asked Jesus was, “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” He wasn’t asking about Moses’ TEN commandments, he was asking about the commandments of the Jewish law. The Jewish Law, which still applies to Jews today, was made up of SIX HUNDRED THIRTY ONE LAWS! And every good Jew was expected to know all of them!

 

If we look back at the first reading, every point the writer makes is one of the Jewish Laws. Don’t molest or oppress an alien. Don’t wrong widows and orphans. Don’t demand interest on a loan. If you take your neighbor’s cloak, give it back before sunset. There are 627 more. And observant Jews know all of them.

 

One of the Jewish laws is to “love all human beings who are of the covenant”, in other words, to love all other Jews. Another law says to “love the gentiles”. The Jewish laws did direct the Jews to love everyone, but Jesus wrapped up dozens of individual laws of the Old Covenant into one law of the New Covenant.

 

Even though the Jewish Law says to love one another, it does make some distinctions between Jews and Gentiles. For example, charging interest on a loan to a fellow Jew is prohibited in the law and in today’s first reading. But the law also says charging interest to a Gentile is mandatory.

 

The point is that today’s Gospel, which we’ve all heard dozens of times was a major shift in thinking about God. Don’t fear God. Love God. Love your neighbor. The two are one and the same. Our God’s not an angry God. He doesn’t kill people with swords. We don’t think of Him as being wrathful. We think of Him as Our Father.

 

When Jesus came, everything changed. He didn’t come to abolish the Jewish law, He came to fulfill it. At the time, the 631 individual laws made sense. They covered every area of life. The Jewish people weren’t just a religious group, they were also a society. Their laws were their constitution. Their laws protected them from making bad choices. In today’s world, our Church doesn’t care if you charge interest on a loan, as long as it’s not excessive. If you were to take out a loan from the Vatican bank, you’d better believe you’ll be charged interest.

 

There are a lot of Jewish dietary laws. Many of them make perfect sense, even today. “Don’t eat a worm found in a piece of fruit” is pretty good advice. “Not to eat or drink like a glutton or a drunkard” is also wise. Some of the laws about certain foods were written to keep people from poisoning themselves and that’s a good thing.

 

Without rules, it would be impossible for people to live together. You and I have rules where we work. If we’re retired, we still have rules we have to follow. If you’re married, there are rules you follow to keep a happy home. If there weren’t traffic laws, none of us would ever be able to go anywhere. There would be chaos. But it’s hard to find a rule about anything that doesn’t fall under “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” And “love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

The Catholic Church has laws. They’re called Canon Laws. This is the Canon Law book. Thanks be to God you and I don’t have to memorize it. It’s nearly 2,000 pages long. I’m willing to bet that you don’t even own a copy of it. Frankly, if someone hadn’t given it to me, I wouldn’t own one either. It costs about $100.00. But it exists and there are people who do know it backwards and forward. They’re called Canon Lawyers.

 

When I studied Canon Law the instructor told us there was just one thing we needed to remember. It was the telephone number of the Office of Canon Law. They could answer any question.

 

The thing is, we need these rules and laws to maintain an orderly church. What happens at Saint John Nepomuk in Saint Louis is the same thing that happens at Saint Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague. At least that should be the case. It’s in the book.

 

But the point is, Jesus boiled all of this down for us into two sentences. Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. If we judge everything we do according to those two simple sentences, we’re doing God’s will. Anything we do that’s contrary to those two sentences is against God’s will. It’s all so simple. And it’s all so very, very hard.

 

When we gossip; when we talk about people behind their backs, we’re not loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. When we refuse to accept change because it’s not the way we’ve always done things, we’re not loving our neighbor either. When we criticize the Church and its leadership, we’re not loving God or our neighbors. When we don’t welcome strangers, we’re not doing God’s will. When we come to church with the attitude that “it’s all about me”, we’re violating God’s commandment. When we act like a Pharisee instead of like a disciple, we’re breaking the covenant that God made with us by the death of His Son.

 

Our faith is simple, but it’s not easy. The Pharisees thought they knew it all. They did everything they could to defeat Jesus, up to and including hanging Him on a cross. But they didn’t win. They committed the greatest Sin of all time. And Jesus lives! He’s alive for each of us and He’s in each of us. All we have to do is remember the two commandments He reminds us of today.

 

We’re called to constantly judge our actions against these two commandments. We have to ask ourselves, “Am I a Pharisee or am I a disciple?”

 

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Our readings today speak to us about heaven and hell; good and evil. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that “many are called, but few are chosen.” One man is thrown out of the king’s wedding feast because he wasn’t prepared. Here in Saint Louis, just this weekend, and just a few blocks from where we are now, we can see situations playing out that remind us of just how real these struggles can be.

 

A few blocks to the north, our Cardinals will begin the National League Championship Series in a few hours. It may be a bit of a stretch to call their series with the Giants a battle of good and evil, even though some die-hard fans in Saint Louis and San Francisco may see it that way. But it’s certainly a test to see who is most prepared.

 

When spring training started nine months ago, thirty teams all thought that they would win the World Series. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have shown up. But after weeks of practice and 162 games, just ten teams made it into the playoffs. After months of preparation, ten teams moved on and twenty teams went home. Now we’re down to just four teams. “Many are called but few are chosen.”

 

In just a couple of weeks only one team will be left. One team, the one who is most prepared, will make it to “baseball heaven” and twenty-nine will have to wait until next year. It’s an exciting time in the four cities that are left, but it also says a lot about our modern society. Millions of people are watching. People are paying outrageous prices for tickets to the games. Fans will dress up in team colors and cheer for their favorite team. Meanwhile, many of those same people won’t give an hour this weekend to come to church, to prepare themselves for their own heaven.

 

A couple of blocks east of here, thousands of people are attending the Soulard Octoberfest. Again, it’s a gathering of hundreds of people, doing their best to enjoy their earthly lives. In this case, no preparation is required. All you have to do is be over twenty-one and show up. There will be gallons of beer and lots of music. There will also be people getting drunk and making fools of themselves, all in the name of “fun”. Again, many of them will try desperately to have a good time but most of them won’t have time, or will be too hung over to make it to church tomorrow morning. I’m not sure exactly what equals “success” at the Octoberfest.

 

Tomorrow morning, again right here in our Soulard neighborhood, hundreds of people will be taking part in the Go Marathon. In this case, a lot of preparation is required. Most of the runners will have spent hours in training for this event. Many of them will come back next weekend for the other marathon, again running through our neighborhood. The runners who are most prepared will win. It’s obvious that the one who runs the fastest race will be called a winner but for a lot of other runners, their definition of success may be something different. Just finishing a marathon is an accomplishment. For others, just showing up is a major feat. There will be lots of individual “successes” but one thing we know for sure, no success in any kind of race is possible without preparation. “Many are called but few are chosen.”

 

Something else is happening here this weekend. It’s not a game or a festival or a race. There’s nothing happy about it. There are no winners but there surely are losers. Our city is in the midst of a crisis that’s getting national and even international attention. Two months after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, racial tension isn’t going away. Worse, just this week another young man was fatally shot by a police officer. This time, instead of happening in Ferguson, which for many of us is like the other side of the moon, this time it happened right here in South Saint Louis.

 

After two months, we still don’t have closure in the Ferguson shooting. As they say, “the jury is still out.” Details of the shooting in the Shaw neighborhood seem to be a little more clear-cut. There seems to be pretty clear evidence that Vonderitt Myers shot at the police officer who then returned fire and fatally wounded the 18 year old. More demonstrations and protests are planned for this weekend, not just in Ferguson, but all over the area.

You and I don’t know exactly what happened in either incident. What we do know is this. Two young men are dead and racial tension in Saint Louis is near the breaking point. We also know that what happened in North County is now happening in our own neighborhood.

 

While the shooting of these two young men is a tragedy, what’s could happen next would be an even greater tragedy. As Catholic Christians, we have an obligation to pray for the souls of the two young men. We have an obligation to pray for their families and friends. And we have an obligation to pray for our community, that cooler heads will prevail and that there is no more violence. We must also pray for our policemen and women. They do a very dangerous job and it gets more dangerous by the day

 

I think a lot of us are isolated from the events of the last 60 days. We feel safe and secure in our white, suburban communities. But this most recent shooting brings the whole thing closer to home. The baseball playoffs, Octoberfest, the Blues game tonight, the marathon, and the Ram’s Monday night game are bringing thousands of people into a very concentrated area. The potential for trouble is huge. The world is watching us. We must pray that there are no more tragedies in Saint Louis.

 

The problems in our community, in our country, and in our world may seem almost insurmountable. But as Paul said in today’s second reading, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” It makes me sad when I hear people who claim to speak for Jesus calling for actions that can only stir up more trouble. Anyone who calls themselves “reverend” should be a person of peace.

 

Finally, when we look at all that’s happening around us, we should look at our own problems and how they compare to the big picture. Saint Paul was remarkably positive for a man who was persecuted and thrown into prison more than once for preaching the Gospel. In today’s reading he tells the Phillipians, “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
The prophet Isaiah and Jesus Himself promise us today a seat at a magnificent banquet…..if we’re prepared. What does that mean? It means we should love God and love one another. It means we should work for peace. It means we should humble ourselves before God, placing our lives in His hands. It means we should be disciples and we should make disciples. It means we should take inspiration from the saints and do our bests to live holy lives. It means we should remember, “Many are called but few are chosen.”

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

 

The world-famous high wire walker stood on the banks of Niagara Falls. A steel cable was strung from one side to the other and a huge crowd had gathered. He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, today I am going to walk this thin cable across these mighty falls. But, in order for me to do it, I must know that you believe I can. Do you believe??”

 

The crowd yelled out, “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!”

 

So he jumped up on the cable and began to walk. Slowly he proceeded to the other side and when he reached the other side, the crowd went wild. Then he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, now I’m going to perform an even greater feat. I’m going to cross the falls on this thin cable blind-folded. The crowd gasped and he said again, “In order to accomplish this amazing feat, I need to know that you believe I can do it. I draw my strength from your belief in me.” Again the crowd went wild. “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!” they yelled, even louder than before.

 

With that, the daredevil put on his blind-fold and proceeded to cross the falls again and again the crowd went wild!

 

Then he said, for my third and final act today, I’m going to cross these mighty falls on this thin cable, blind-folded and pushing this wheelbarrow with someone sitting in it. Once again, I must ask, do you believe I can do it?” Again the crowd yelled, “WE BELIEVE! WE BELIEVE!”

 

Then the daredevil said, “I need a volunteer from the crowd to sit in the wheelbarrow.” And they all started walking away. The only sound was the roar of the falls.

 

See, there’s a big difference between saying you believe and actually believing. Saint John tells us in today’s Gospel, possibly one of the most famous of all the scriptural passages, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” You might say to me, “Deacon, I believe in Jesus so I’m going to go to heaven when I die.” But hold on. Do you believe like the crowd at Niagra Falls? Do you believe as long as there’s no personal risk? Or are you willing to risk your earthly life to gain eternal life?

 

This is where a lot of us get it wrong. We say, “of course I believe. I go to mass every weekend.” That’s all well and good, but what else do we do? We may never be called on to actually risk martyrdom, but how do we act when someone challenges us? Do we risk embarrassment by defending the Church? Are we willing to do something as simple as making the sign of the cross and saying grace in a restaurant with our friends? Are we willing to call out a friend or family member when we see that they’re doing something sinful? Will we even do something as simple as inviting a friend or family member to come to mass with us?

 

You tell me you believe. PROVE IT! Get in the wheelbarrow. Turn your life over to Jesus, not just for one hour out of 168 each week, but every minute of every day!

 

A lot of us who wear this Roman collar are even more guilty of this phony belief stuff than any of you are. We’ve been called to preach the Gospel but when push comes to shove, we’re afraid to get in your face and ask the hard questions because we don’t want to make you mad. We want everybody to like us. We don’t want to hurt your feelings. And, God forbid, you should stop giving money because of something we said. So, we don’t challenge you. We don’t stand up here and point out your sins or warn you of what might happen. We’re happy with the status quo.

 

But, where would we be if Jesus had been happy with the status quo? If He avoided hurting people’s feelings? I think you know where we’d be. Jesus let Himself be hung on the cross that we exult today, to save us from our sins; to save us from ourselves. But we have to do our part.
I started my sales career selling life insurance more than 40 years ago. Believe me, that’s a tough sell. For one thing, nobody wants to think about their own death. And they definitely aren’t inclined to give up money today for something that’s going to come in the future, especially when they don’t know when that future date is. No young father wants to think that he’s not going to be around to see his kids grow up. He thinks he’ll always be here to provide for his family. It’s just human nature. But the fact is, we’re all going to die sometime. And we have to prepare for that day.

 

Here it is, 2014, and I’m still trying to convince you to prepare for that day that will come. I’m selling eternal life insurance.

 

Here’s the thing. When you and I stand before Jesus for that final judgment, He’s not going to ask us how many friends we had. He’s not going to ask us how much money we made. He’s not even going to ask us how many times we went to mass. He’s going to ask us how many people we helped get into heaven.

 

He’s not going to care how many years we were an altar server, or how many years we sang in the choir. He’s not going to ask me if the people I served liked me or not. All He’s going to look at is how we served Him. Whatever He asks us, He already knows the answer.

 

In the first reading today, the people complained against God and against Moses. He had brought them out of captivity. He had saved them from slavery. What were they saying. They didn’t like the “wretched” food. And the Lord punished them by sending snakes. Then they changed their tune. “Wait a minute, Moses. We’ve sinned by complaining. Take away the snakes and we’ll be good.”

 

Does that sound familiar? How often have we been ungrateful to God? Some of you, not many, but a few, sound just like those Israelites. You know who you are. Things may not always go the way we want them to go. Sometimes we have to look at the big picture. Maybe the food isn’t great, but it’s better than what Pharaoh gave us in Egypt and we’re free! Maybe Saint John’s isn’t a parish anymore, maybe we don’t have a resident priest, maybe you don’t like me, but we’re still open!

 

If we’re going to stay open, maybe we have to do some things differently. Take a look around at all the empty seats. Obviously what we’ve been doing isn’t working. Change is hard. It makes us uncomfortable. But it’s also inevitable. Like any organism, if we don’t grow we die. In 1896 this church, which the people had built with their own hands just 26 years ago was destroyed by a tornado. I’m sure there were people who were angry. I’m sure there were some who cursed God for their misfortune. Some of them probably even blamed the pastor. But the majority of them rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt this church, bigger and better than it was before. Those were the people who got into the wheelbarrow.

 

Today, we’re faced with an even bigger challenge. It’s hard work, but rebuilding a physical church is not nearly as hard as rebuilding a church community. That’s what you and I are called to do. Like the daredevil at the Falls, I’m asking you, “do you believe?” Are you willing to trust God to do what’s best for all of us and to sacrifice your own ego to gain eternal life?

 

Jesus died on the cross but He also asked us to take up OUR crosses and follow Him. Are we willing to get into the wheelbarrow? It’s a question we all have to answer.

 

 

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