17th Sunday of Ordinary Time–The Lord’s Prayer

“Jesus was praying at a certain place, and when He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples” His response is what we call today “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father”.

We learn the prayer as kids and we keep it with us for life. Many of our protestant brothers and sisters pray the Lord’s prayer, but we, as Catholics, pray it almost constantly. It’s part of our daily prayers, it’s part of every mass, and many of us pray it privately, sometimes many times per day. It’s a part of our “Catholic DNA”.

I’ve visited Catholics at the hospital who are nearly comatose. They may or may not be near death, but they can barely communicate. But when I pray the Our Father, their lips will move along with the prayer. Sometimes they’ll even try to make the sign of the cross.

But, have you ever thought about what you’re praying; what the words really mean? In some ways, the prayer was revolutionary for Jesus’ time. The Jews were known for their lengthy, elaborate prayers. They would gather at the synagogue and make a big production of their prayers. Of course, we do that sometimes too, but nothing like the Jews in Jesus’ day were used to. This simple prayer was something new and different.

The second thing that was radical about this prayer was the fact that Jesus taught us to call God “Our Father.” The God of the Old Testament was a pretty scary guy. This was the God who destroyed the earth with water in the great flood. He was known to destroy a city if things got too far out of hand. Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? He parted the Red Sea to allow the Jews to pass through then let the waters return, killing Pharoah’s army. The Jews had such a fear of God that, even today they’re afraid to speak His name.

But here’s Jesus telling us it’s OK to call Him “Father”. In fact, the word he used was “Abba” which is translated more like “daddy”. A Jewish child might call his biological father “Abba”. It was a very radical idea.

So we call on our Abba, our heavenly Father, and the first thing we do is offer Him praise. “Hallowed be thy name”. The word “hallowed” means “holy”, consecrated”, “sacred”, “revered”. Again, for a people who have been afraid to even speak God’s name, now we’re praising His name. Like any child about to ask a parent for something, it never hurts to put them in a good mood by saying something nice.

“Thy kingdom come.” We know that God’s kingdom is coming, we just don’t know when. We’re not telling God anything He doesn’t know, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves.

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This seems kind of unnecessary. Of course God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. We’re not asking for God’s will to be done. We’re reminding ourselves that it is. It always is. When we say “Thy will be done”, we’re acknowledging that we know it and we accept it.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” This is the only material thing that’s included in the prayer, but why bread? Why not “give us this day our daily cake”? Well, we know that bread is the basic staple of life. It represents nourishment and it represents the earth. It’s the thing that Jesus chose to turn into His own body inthe Eucharistic sacrifice. Without bread and other natural things that grow from the earth, there would be no physical life. Without the transubstantiated bread of the Eucharist there would be no spiritual life.

When we pray for our daily bread we’re not asking that manna drop down from heaven like it did for the Israelites in the desert. We’re asking for the necessities of life; the things we need, not the things we want. Notice, too, that He tells us a story about a man who came to his neighbor’s house in the middle of the night. What did he ask for? Bread. You might think that we’re not just praying for our own needs. Maybe Jesus is telling us that “our daily bread” includes enough to share with our neighbor. Maybe by sharing our bread with someone else, or by dropping off a yellow bag each month for Feed My People, we’re helping God answer someone else’s prayer. Receiving the Lord’s body in the Eucharist every day isn’t a bad idea either.

Jesus tells us: “For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” How could He say that when we’ve all prayed for things and not gotten them. What’s up with that?

Here’s an example. Someone who’s lost his job might pray to win the lottery. That’s what he wants. An awful lot of lottery winners end up right back where they started in just a few years, blowing their winnings. What our man needs is another job.

Most of you probably know Garth Brooks’ song “Some of God’s Greatest Gifts are Unanswered Prayers.” He had prayed that he would marry his high school sweetheart. He didn’t. He married someone else. Years later, he runs into his old flame and discovers that the woman he did marry was a much better match. Who can’t relate to that? Remember, He gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want. If you knock and the door doesn’t open, you might just be knocking on the wrong door.

Now comes the tricky part. This might fall under the heading “be careful what you pray for. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That’s how we pray it, but maybe the actual words of the Gospel make more sense: “Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us.” I don’t know about you, but this one scares me to death. Forgive me because I forgive everyone else? I hope that God is more merciful than I am. In my human weakness I sometimes hold a grudge.

Even though we humans may not be as merciful as God, or at least I hope that’s the case, forgiveness is definitely good for the soul. Let me tell you a story about myself. My father ran away from home when I was fourteen. One day he just left and never came back. As kids do, I took it very personally. I hated my dad for a long, long time. One day, after my mom had passed away, I found a letter that my dad had written her either when they were first married, or maybe before.

It showed my father to be much more of a caring, loving individual than I ever thought he was. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Every story does have two sides. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and forgave him. He was already dead by then so I couldn’t tell him how I felt, but by letting go of all that anger and resentment my whole life changed. After years of carrying around all that emotional baggage, I felt like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. My forgiveness may not have done anything for my father, but it definitely helped me.

By asking God to forgive us as we forgive others, we’re putting the burden on ourselves to free ourselves from the weight of being judge and jury of the rest of the human race. God has a Son and He already has that job. He doesn’t need my help.

“Lead us not into temptation.” Or, “do not subject us to the final test.” This is another tricky one. God doesn’t lead us into temptation. That’s the devil working with our sinful nature. On the other hand, He could if He wanted to. Remember “thy will be done”? So what are we asking here? “Lead us not into temptation” could also read “Lead us away from temptation.” We’re more than capable of leading ourselves into all the temptation we could ever stand. But if God leads us in other directions, away from temptation, then we should be alright.

“But deliver us from evil.” This completes the thought. “Lord, I know there’s evil out there. Please deliver me from it, just like you delivered the Hebrews from the Egyptian army.

There are some scholars who think that Jesus was just giving us a template, a format for prayer that we could adjust to fit our own situation. But, I can’t think of anything I could change that would make this prayer any more perfect than it already is.

We acknowledge God as our heavenly Father. We give Him praise. We recognize that His will will always be done. We ask Him to give us what we need, not what we want because they’re often two different things. We ask Him for mercy. Not just that He be merciful to us, but that He give us the grace to be merciful to others. Finally, we ask Him to defend us against Satan and to lead us away from evil.

Most of us will elaborate on the “bread” part, giving God of a list of our needs, including the needs of others. We know our loved ones in purgatory may need us to pray for them. That’s a good thing. I have a list of people that I add every day, including all of you. But we know that God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our needs and He knows our temptations.

If we were to suddenly lose our memories and could only recall this one prayer, it would really be all we need.

Note:  After I delivered this homily I sat down and realized I had missed a very important point.  He taught us to pray in the plural tense, our Father, give us this day our daily bread.  That’s crucial.

Who is the us we pray for?  Is it our families?  Is it the people in our parish?  Is it all white Republicans?  Is it just Democrats?  Who we include in our prayers says a lot about us, doesn’t it?

The next time you pray the Our Father, hopefully in the next few seconds, think about what I’ve said, particularly “Who is the ‘us’ we’re praying for?”

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15th Sunday of Ordinary Time–Love Your Neighbor

OK, maybe you want to go to heaven, but you don’t want to go today…but you still want to go.  Well I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel exactly what we have to do to get into heaven.  The bad news is that for some of us, it seems like an almost impossible challenge.  We have to love our neighbor.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  Like most people, I have two neighbors.  The guy on one side is super nice.  Before I got my snow blower, he used to clear my driveway with his.  He’s a good guy.  But the guy on the other side?  I can’t stand him.  He’s the neighbor nobody wants.  He doesn’t take care of his property, he makes a lot of noise, and he collects derelict cars.    If I have to love him to get into heaven, I may be out of luck.

No, Jesus’ command is very clear, but it’s not so easy to do.

But, let’s take a look at today’s parable a little more closely.  The scholarly young man asks Jesus what he has to do to gain eternal life.  Jesus tells him he must love the Lord God “and your neighbor as yourself.”

The scholar then asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus tells him the story of the “Good Samaritan.” Notice, though, that Jesus never uses the term “good Samaritan.”  He calls him a “Samaritan traveler.”    This other poor traveler has been robbed, beaten, stripped of his clothing and left on the side of the road.  Since Jesus is telling the story to a fellow Jew, we assume that the traveler would be Jewish, too.  A priest and a Levite pass by and ignore the poor guy, but the Samaritan stops to help.

Here’s the thing.  Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  Think Jews and Palestinians in the twenty-first century.  The Jew’s own people pass him by, but the man whose people are sworn enemies of the Jews, stops and offers assistance.  He puts the man up in an inn, pays the innkeeper, and even promises to pay for any additional expenses on his way back.

Jesus then asks the young man who is the traveler’s neighbor and he answers, “the Samaritan.”  “Good answer”, says Jesus.

We usually use the phrase “good Samaritan” to apply to anyone who stops to offer help to someone in trouble.  We even have what are called “good Samaritan laws” to protect people who offer help from being sued by the “helpee.”  But the way we use the term doesn’t really do justice to that original Samaritan in the Gospel.  He wasn’t just helping, he was helping someone he was supposed to hate.  He was even risking his reputation, maybe even bodily harm, if any of his Samaritan buddies found out what he’d done.

I think that’s the kind of love Jesus was talking about.  The Samaritan may not have liked the man who had been robbed.  In fact, he probably didn’t, even though he didn’t know him.  Chances are they never saw each other again.  But, by helping a stranger, the Samaritan displayed his love for his fellow human being.  He didn’t have to stop.  Even the Jewish priest didn’t stop.  But stop he did.  He helped the stranger and even though we don’t know his name, twenty centuries later we still tell his story.

So, does loving my neighbor mean I have to like the guy who lives next door?  No, I don’t think so.  Clearly there were people, like the money changers in the temple, that Jesus didn’t like.  He probably wasn’t too crazy about his fellow Jews who yelled “Crucify him!  Crucify Him!” on Good Friday..  But, in His agony He asked His Father to forgive them.

So, I think I can honestly say that if I saw my neighbor in trouble that I would stop to help him.  I don’t wish him any harm, I just wish he lived someplace else.  Maybe I’m just justifying my own human weakness by twisting Jesus’ words, but I don’t think so.  Jesus did say we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and sometimes we don’t find ourselves all that lovable either.  He knew that just like He knows all our faults and weaknesses.

Jesus would have never set such a high bar for us that it would be impossible for us to gain eternal life.  He came to save us, not to lock us out.  So we continue to try our best to love our neighbor in spite of their weaknesses and our own weaknesses, too.

Gustus Bozarth is a 50 year old homeless man who lives in El Paso, TX.  Not long ago, he was out walking during a rain storm and saw a flag pole that was broken off by high winds laying on the ground along with the American flag.  Bozarth carefully picked up the flag, shook the water out of it as best he could and carefully folded it, military style, and put it in a safe place.  Then he moved the pole out of harm’s way.

According to Bozarth, he never gave it a second thought.  He just did it because it was the right thing to do.  When the employees of the company came to work the next day they were surprised to see the neatly folded flag surrounded by the rubble left by the storm.  As it turns out, the company has video surveillance cameras and were able to identify Bozarath from the video.  Someone posted the video on the Internet and the story has gotten press coverage all over the world.

Even though he hadn’t helped an individual human being, I think this guy qualifies as a good Samaritan.  In spite of his homelessness, he loves his country.  He’s a true patriot.  I think loving your neighbor includes loving your country.  Respecting the flag, not to mention wrangling a metal flag pole during a thunderstorm, make Bozrath a hero in my eyes, and in the eyes of thousands of other Americans.

People all over the country have been offering help to a homeless man they don’t even know.  There’s are two facebook pages set up in his honor, one called “Help Gustus Bozarth” and one called “Gustus Bozarth for President”, and a trust fund has been set up for him.  But, he doesn’t want the notoriety or the money. He had no idea that his unselfish act would be recorded on video.   He’s happy with his life just the way it is, living in back of a warehouse with his two cats.

But look at what’s happened because of his simple act.  By being a good Samaritan he’s caused hundreds, maybe even thousands,  of people to be good Samaritans to him.  Plus, his story has brought millions of dollars of free publicity to the cause of homeless Americans.  He’s been seen on national television and all over the world on the web.

This man isn’t a bumb.  He’s just a patriotic American who prefers to live his life his own way, much like thousands of other homeless folks.  Like the Samaritan in Jesus’ story, he just did what he thought he should do, and by his simple act, he’s taught all of us something about our fellow man and about ourselves.

Besides securing our place in heaven, performing simple acts of charity, whether it’s helping someone by the side of the road, or simply stopping to rescue Old Glory from a storm, our little uncelebrated acts of kindness are exactly what Jesus wants from us.  When the time comes to for us to stand before Jesus, I think He’ll be much more concerned with how often we acted like the good Samaritan than whether we or not we liked someone who happens to live next door.

A New Member of the Family

I met my new granddaughter today.  Morgan Lynn Buckley drew her first breath at 11:15 this morning.  She was almost two weeks ahead of schedule but still weighed more then seven pounds.  She is, without a doubt, the cutest baby ever!

As I laid my hand on her chest and felt her tiny lungs pumping the first of many millions of breaths in and out of her small body, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future holds for her.

This is such an uncertain world.  Even though I know that God will hold her in the palm of His hand, we live in precarious times.  Economies are failing, countries (including our own) states and cities are out of money.  There is an element at work in the world that would like to see our country go down in flames.  Sadly, I’m afraid our enemies are more interested in our future than many of our own citizens.  That’s not a good situation.

But my vocation is to preach hope and I take it seriously.  God will provide for the faithful ones and that’s what keeps many of us going.  I can’t quite understand how people without faith get out of bed every morning.

So I’m full of hope for all my grandchildren including little Morgan who’s only hours old and our unborn grandchild due in Mid-August.  I hope you’ll forgive me for worrying just a little bit.  Isn’t that what grandfathers are for?