Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”
Why is this so hard for so many of us (m0st of us? all of us?) It ain’t rocket science. It ain’t brain surgery. You don’t even have to stay at a Holiday Inn Express to understand it.
Do yourself a favor. Find a quiet place and spend ten minutes meditating on these words. I promise it will change your attitude toward life. Then, make yourself repeat this process every day for the remainder of Lent. I promise it will make you a new person.
You think you’ve got it tough, look at what the king of Nineveh said to his subjects in today’s first reading.
He rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.
Not just the people had to fast, but even the cows and sheep had to do penance. “Sackcloth and ashes for everybody!” The people weren’t just forbidden to eat, they couldn’t even have a drink of water.
Today we’ve “dumbed down” fasting to where a lot of people would have to eat MORE to meet the requirements.
I think the point is that fasting is a state of mind. Where people in Biblical times had to be told what to do, hopefully here in the modern world we’re a little more mature. There’s quite a difference between eating one normal meal and two smaller meals and having no food and water at all.
Maybe your sins are so severe that you need the old-fashioned fast to cleanse your soul. If you feel the need to head out into the desert, then we’ll see you on Easter. Hopefully you’re in a little more of a state of grace and just need a gentle reminder. I hope so.
There’s a new show on NBC called “The Good Place”. I don’t think it’s ever going to be called great television, but it’s kind of cute. The idea is that this young woman, Eleanor, played by Kristen Bell, has died and gone to the “good place”. But there’s been a mistake. In life Eleanor was kind of a jerk and doesn’t deserve to be in the “good place”,
Her presence in the good place is causing some kind of a disturbance in the atmosphere and Eleanor has to clean up her act before anyone finds out what’s happened and she gets sent to the “bad place”.
Like I said, the show is cute, but besides not being great television, it’s also not great theology. No one ever mentions God and the words “heaven” and “hell” are never used. In fact, they don’t talk a lot about the “bad place” except to play a sound bite where there’s a lot of screaming and wailing. Eleanor is told that that’s what’s happening right now in the bad place.
There are some good things about this show. One is Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are very good. Another thing is that it’s a show about morality, which is rare today in prime-time television. As hard as Eleanor tries, it’s impossible to curse in “the good place”. Her mentor and “soul mate” is trying to educate her on ethics and morality so she can stay. And, even though the show isn’t very good theology, it’s kind of Catholic in it’s approach to heaven and hell. Overall, it’s a better use of thirty minutes than a lot of other things on television. It’s only been on twice so we’ll have to see how it develops and if it can get and hold an audience with it’s morality message.
Eleanor’s story is a little bit like the story of the rich man in today’s Gospel though Luke’s story is much more disturbing. Here we have a rich man who lived high on the hog when he was alive and would have nothing to do with Lazurus, the poor man who was lying at his door. Now they’ve both died and Lazurus has been carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man is in torment in the netherworld. Luke tells us he is suffering in the flames.
The image is disturbing because it’s a very graphic description of what could happen to us. It’s one of the few times in the New Testament when hell is described in such graphic detail. Yes, I said the h-word. Hell. The netherworld. The bad place. It’s something we don’t like to think about. But, here it is in black and white. It IS a possibility.
So what does the rich man do? He tries to use Lazurus. “Send him to dip his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Even now he doesn’t get it. Then, when Abraham tells him that it’s not going to happen, he wants Lazurus sent to his father and brothers to warn them of what could happen to them, again taking advantage of the poor man. But Abraham tells the rich man, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to THEM.”
This is another disturbing thought for us. We also have Moses and the prophets. The first reading today is from Amos, one of the greatest of all the prophets, telling us “Woe to the complacent.” Are you complacent? Or do you take eternity seriously? The readings today are meant to shake us out of our complacency. How much more warning do we need? The reading ends with the very ominous passage, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
One thing about today’s Gospel story that I find interesting is that after 2,000 years we know the poor man’s name; Lazurus. But we don’t know the rich man’s name. He must have been important in this life, otherwise he wouldn’t have been rich. But today we have no idea who he was. His story is important to us but his identity isn’t.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist. We’ve heard the story lots of times. John’s baptizing at the river and Jesus gets in line along with everyone else. But, why? He was the Son of God. He came down from heaven and would soon go back. Why did He need to baptized? And why do we commemorate it today?
First, the answer is that He didn’t need it. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, but you and I needed Him to be baptized. Saint Maximus of Turin, one of the Church Fathers, wrote “Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy.”
If you remember your grade school science you know that water evaporates, forms clouds, and returns to earth. The cycle repeats itself over and over. The wind blows the clouds so that the water that evaporates in one place comes down somewhere else. Eventually every drop of water on earth is connected to every other drop. When Jesus made the water of the Jordan holy, he made all water holy.
Obviously Jesus thought baptism was very important. In John’s Gospel He said, “Unless a man is reborn in water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In Matthew’s Gospel he tells the Apostles, “Go, make disciples of all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is our response to Christ.
Jesus died and rose from the dead to defeat death, to save all of us from our sins. But what He does today makes it possible for us individually to be one of his people. Baptism is the beginning of our journey of faith. Jesus’ seemingly unnecessary decision to be baptized by John, someone “not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals”, is actually the beginning of OURjourney of faith.
So, why do we celebrate Jesus’ baptism today? Today is officially the end of the Christmas season. Over the last few weeks we’ve celebrated Advent, the time to prepare for Christ’s coming. Then we celebrated His birth on Christmas and the Feast of the Holy Family on the following weekend.
On January 1 we celebrated Mary, the Mother of God followed by the feast of the Epiphany last weekend. We end this holy season by remembering the great gift Jesus gave us; the gift of baptism. In it’s own way, this feast is extremely important and it’s appropriate that we celebrate it at the end of the Christmas season.
This year there’s a very short time between Christmas and Lent. Ash Wednesday is February 10, just a month away. But it’s a long month. The days are short. The weather’s not so great. It’s easy to get discouraged and to forget the blessings of the season that ends today. But the feast we celebrate today reminds us that this isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of our life in Christ.
Chances are most of us were baptized as infants. Our parents and godparents stood in for us in making our baptismal promises. But those promises, promises we made to God, are just as valid today as they were on our baptismal day.
As baptized Christians we reject Satan, all his works, and all his empty promises. That’s what Satan does. He makes us empty promises. “Do this and this will happen.” But we should know by now that his promises aren’t worth the paper they’re not written on. And we, or our parents speaking on our behalf, promise to reject those promises. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Today, in lieu of the Creed, I’ve asked Father to lead us in renewing these promises.
Let’s let today be a reminder that we’re all part of God’s family, His children and brothers and sisters of His Son. We share baptism with Jesus. Water didn’t make Him holy. He made the water holy and by doing that, He made us holy.
After Jesus had been baptized heaven opened up and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son and with you I am well pleased.” I don’t know about you, but when I meet God face to face, I hope to hear those same words.
Yesterday morning, I was at the Cathedral Basilica for the annual Chrism mass. It’s the mass where the Archbishop blesses the holy oils for the coming year and it’s the mass where the priests renew their priestly vows. As you can imagine, there are a lot of priests and deacons at the Chrism mass.
Seating at the Cathedral is priests in front, deacons in the back, which is as it should be. The only problem with the setup is that during the Consecration of the Eucharist, the priests stand while the deacons kneel. All the deacons can see is the backs of chasubles and a lot of bald heads.
As I knelt there yesterday morning, I wondered, as I often do, just what I was doing there. I know a lot of priests and deacons and most of them are good, holy men. The deacon who was sitting next to me is one of the holiest people I know. Then there was me, a sinner of the first order. Why would God choose me to be in this group?
But, you know what? I do belong in that group and here’s why. I don’t and can’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. I believe most of the men sitting around me at the Cathedral yesterday are more holy than I am, but I can’t know for sure. We’ve learned in the past few years that a lot of men we all believed were saints are actually pretty serious sinners. We don’t know. Only God knows.
Could it be that they have the same doubts and fears that I do?
Scripture tells us not to judge others. Is judging someone else to be good just as dangerous as judging them to be bad? Maybe so.
Think about what failures the Apostles were? Judas sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. Peter denied he knew Him three times. The other ten ran off and left Him when He needed them the most. The only ones who stood by Him were the women. You don’t have to be perfect to serve Jesus.
If Jesus only called perfect men to be clergy, think how frustrating that would be for everyone else. They’d think they didn’t have a prayer (prayer, get it? Jesus does have a sense of humor.) Plus, there wouldn’t be very many priests and deacons. Maybe none.
I think Jesus wants His clergy to let people see that they’re sinners, just like they are. Judas didn’t have to turn Jesus over to the Jews, but somebody had to fulfill the words of the prophets. Jesus knew He’d do it, even before he chose him to be an apostle.
Peter didn’t have to deny him three times, but He did, just as He knew he would. He even told him he would do it. He knew the others would run away. But he chose them anyway, just like He chose you and me, sinners that we are.
So, today we mark the day when He died a painful death on the cross for you and for me. If we were sinless He wouldn’t have had to do that. But we aren’t and He did. In effect He told us that He’d like us to live a sinless life, but He knew that we couldn’t. So, He let Himself be crucified so that we might be forgiven.
As painful as that was for Him, He knew it would be even more painful to sit back and watch us destroy ourselves.
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.
I’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?
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?
I am the LORD your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.
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?”