The Tax Collector in the Tree

Looking  back, it’s hard to believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted.  But it seems I’ve developed arthritis in my hands and it’s very hard for me to type.  But I did preach this weekend so here’s my homily for the 31st Sunday of ordinary time.  I hope you enjoy it.  Meanwhile I’m looking into voice recognition software so I can type without using my hands.

“Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew upon the earth”.  But we have this all-powerful, all-knowing God who takes the time to care for each of us.  The Wisdom writer tells us that God overlooks our sins so we can repent.

 

Because, as we heard in the first reading, He loves all things that are and loathes nothing that He has made.  See, God doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need you. But He made us and so He loves us. If He didn’t love us, why would He have made us? “ His imperishable spirit is in all things.”

 

And, here’s the best part of the first reading, “You rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O LORD!”

 

That’s why we come to mass every week.  God has prepared this handbook for us to remind us, to warn us, of the sins we are committing and to give us a chance to repent.  That’s a loving God. He doesn’t just give us the punishment we deserve, He gives us a way out. A “get out of jail free card” that we call the sacrament of reconciliation.

 

Then, at every mass God provides us with readings that rebuke us “little by little.”

 

Today’’s Gospel is a good example. 

Jesus in on the way to Jerusalem.  He passes through Jericho. Now Jericho isn’t just some backwater town.  It’s the oldest city in the world dating back to 8,000 BC. and it’s fairly big.  Luke tells us that there’s a man, Zacchaeus, who wants to see Jesus. Here’s the thing about Zacchaeus.  He’s a tax collector. And not just any tax collector, he’s the head tax collector. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day worked for the Romans.  They were basically enemies of the Jewish people. The way the system worked, the tax collector would come to your house and take whatever he could.  Then he would send what was actually owed on to Rome and keep the rest for himself. Tax collector didn’t have a lot of friends. And this guy wasn’t just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill tax collector, he was the head guy, a real favorite of the Romans.

 

Zacchaeus was also short.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that,  but he couldn’t get close to Jesus because he had no friends to help him and he couldn’t see over the crowd because he was vertically challenged.  So he had an idea. He ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree.  

 

The sycamore is a type of fig tree. It has large leaves.  In fact scholars believe the sycamore was the source for Adam and Eve’s fig leaves.  So, there’s a bit of historical significance to Zacchaeus hiding in this particular tree.  Adam and Eve hid themselves behind sycamore leaves and Zacchaeus hid in the sycamore tree.

 

So Zacchaeus is up in the tree and Jesus walks by.  He says “Zacchais, come down quickly for today I must stay at your house.”  Notice two things here.  First Jesus calls Zacchais by name.  Remember in the first reading from the book of Wisdom the writer tells us that to God, the whole universe is like a drop of dew.  Now, here’s Jesus recognizing Zacchaeus and calling him by name. He recognizes him just like He recognizes you and me. Don’t ever think that the Lord doesn’t take an interest in our lives.  He knows every single one of us and He knows everything we do.

 

Next, notice that Luke’s Gospel tells us at the very beginning of this passage that Jesus intended to pass through Jericho.  Now he’s telling Zacchaeus that He plans to spend the night. What’s up with that? Jesus sees this as a teaching moment. First then Zacchaeus says, “I’m going to give half of my possessions to the poor and, if I’ve cheated anyone (which we know he has) I’m going to pay them back fourfold.  It’s a win-win.  

 

Finally Jesus tells Zacchaeus, and the Pharisees, and you and me, “today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.  For the Son of Man has come to seek and save what is lost.

 

It’s easy for us to feel like we’re not important or that God is so huge that he doesn’t have time for us.  But it’s just not true. God has a plan and we’re all part of it. We may not know or understand it, but it’s there.  Sometimes good things happen to us. Sometimes bad things happen to us. Sometimes we find ourselves asking, “Why me, Lord.”  Maybe a better question is “Why not me, Lord.”

The little tax collector, a man with no friends, became a lesson for millions of Christians.  You just never know how God is going to use us to benefit others.

 

4th Sunday of Easter—Mothers

This weekend’s homily:

On this 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, we hear one of the shortest Gospel passages of the whole reading cycle; just five sentences. But, even though it’s short, it says an awful lot. We call it “Good Shepherd Sunday” because Jesus begins by telling us, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

We HEAR Him. He speaks to us. We recognize His voice, just as the sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd. That’s important. Sometimes we Catholics get a bad rap because we don’t read the Bible as much as some of our Christian brothers and sisters. The thing is, we don’t read it as much as we hear it. Every Sunday when we come to mass, we hear three readings, a Psalm, and parts of scripture that are repeated in every celebration of the Eucharist, for instance, the Lord’s Prayer. Every three years we pretty much hear the whole Bible.

There’s a reason why Father doesn’t just say the opening prayer and then ask us to sit down and read the readings assigned to that day to ourselves. Jesus wants us to HEAR Him. He wants us to listen to the readings, not just to read them. It’s especially true of the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus speaking to us and He wants us to hear Him. How do we know? Because He just told us. 4-legged sheep follow their shepherd because they recognize his voice!

Over the years I’ve discovered that I almost always get something different from the readings when I hear them read out loud as opposed to just reading them out of the book. The spirit works through the lector, the deacon, or the priest, to give them the gift of inflection. The way the words are said convey a different meaning than the way the words are presented on the page.

Here’s something you may have never thought of. The Gospel readings are in the Sacramentary, along with the other readings. But we proclaim the Gospel from a separate book, the Book of the Gospels. The deacon, or some other minister, carries the Gospel into church as part of the opening procession. We give the Book of the Gospels much more respect than paper and ink alone deserve. We’re bringing Jesus’ words into the church.

Did you ever wonder why we don’t carry it back out? It’s because you hear His words and you carry them out of church, in your minds and hearts. Again, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.”

As far as we know, Jesus never wrote down anything. God the Father inspired all scripture, but Jesus wasn’t into writing. He was into speaking. “My sheep hear my voice.” He didn’t say anything about His sheep reading His blog, or following Him on Facebook or Twitter. And He handed His teaching authority on to His bishops at Cesarea Philippi when He said, “Whoever hears you, hears me.”

But, here’s our challenge. When Jesus spoke, people listened. There was no television, no radio, and no Internet. His listeners were just that; LISTENERS. Our Gospel readings usually begin, “Jesus said to His disciples….” He didn’t have to say “please turn off your cell phones and other electronic devices.” They hung on every word that He said.

Today, there’s just so much competition for our attention. We’re inundated with constant noise. Even the Son of God has a hard time getting through to us. That’s one reason why we need to come to mass. At least for these few minutes each week, we’re away from outside distractions and free to listen to God’s word. For the other 167 hours per week, not so much. Let’s not waste this valuable time.

We’re living in a time when we’re surrounded by false prophets. We may want to listen, but maybe we’re not sure which voice is actually His.

In matters of faith, there are a lot of people who claim to be speaking for Jesus.  They can’t all be right. How do we decide? For me the answer is simple and I already gave it to you earlier. Jesus told Peter and the Apostles, “Whoever hears you, hears me.” He left us one Church with one teaching authority. Lucky us; it’s the Church we all belong to.

What else does He tell us in this short Gospel. He promises us eternal life. He promises us that we shall never perish. “No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of my Father’s hand.” That’s some serious stuff.

You and I can live forever if we follow Jesus. The only person who can take us out of Jesus’ hands is ourselves. We have to follow Him. We have to listen. We can’t just go off on our own. We all know what happens to a sheep when he leaves the flock. The wolf has a nice dinner. Jesus closes by telling us that He and the Father are one.

In five short sentences Jesus has given us everything we need to know. Listen to Him, follow Him, and we’ll go to heaven. That’s it. It’s so simple. Yet, it’s so difficult.

 

I have to close by mentioning another voice that we all recognize and that we celebrate today (tomorrow) and that’s our mother.  Jesus set the example for us in the relationship he had from the time He chose her to bear Him in her womb until He hung on the cross and gave her to Saint John and to us.  “Son, behold your mother.”

 

On this Mothers Day we honor our mothers, living and dead and thank God for the gift of them in our lives.  Let us also honor Jesus’ mother by praying, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the Fruit of thy Womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

 

 

Happy Mothers Day!

 

5th Sunday of Lent

In the New American Bible, which is the Bible from which we get our Lectionary, today’s Gospel, Chapter 8 verses 1-11 is called “A woman caught in adultery.”  Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and our good friends, the scribes and the Pharisees show up dragging a woman who they have caught committing adultery. This incident raises a very real question.  Where is the man? They say she was caught “in the very act of adultery” but somehow they couldn’t find the man who was also participating; who was just as guilty. Obviously this is a test.

 

We’ve heard the story many times.  The punishment for adultery is stoning and Jesus says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  What we don’t often hear is that no sooner had he said it than a rock came flying in from behind Jesus and hit the woman in the chest.  Thunk! Jesus turned around and looked and said, “Aw, Mom.”

 

Now, you may not like that joke.  Maybe you think humor has no place in religion.    But every time I look in the mirror and see myself looking back wearing s Roman collar, I know that God has a sense of humor.  It’s hard to imagine that someone who hung out with twelve other guys, and could turn water into wine, didn’t enjoy a good joke.

 

I spent seven years at Saint John Neopmuk Church in Soulard.  If I’d told that joke in a homily the Archbishop would have gotten letters (to go along with all the other letters he got about me.)  But the Czech culture is very serious. When they sing the Gloria in Czech, you’d swear you were at a funeral. But that’s just the way they are.  It took me a while to figure it out.

 

I think we’ve all heard this Gospel enough times that I can’t really add much to it, so I’m going to talk about what you just sang, the Responsorial Psalm.  We don’t preach on the Responsorial Psalm very often, but I think today, as we get ready to wrap up Lent, it might be a good time.

 

The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men dreaming.  Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with rejoicing.

 

I think Father will agree with me that it’s not always easy to get Catholics to rejoice.  We don’t usually seem to be filled with joy. But, why the heck not? The Lord has done great things for us.  We’re alive and we’re living in the greatest country on earth.  You may or may not know that I just got back from a cruise to the Caribbean.  Every American should make a trip like that one time. When you see the poverty that exists just a few hundred miles from our shores you want to get down on your knees and thank God for what we have.  They may have beautiful weather but they don’t have much else. And they don’t show the tourists the really bad stuff.

 

The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

This is the front page from today’s (yesterday’s) paper. ( I held up the front page of the Saint Louis Post Dispatch, which is copyrighted.  If you want to see it, you can look it up.) It’s a picture of Ozzie Smith waving to the crowd on opening day at Busch Stadium.  The headline reads:  “It’s a Holy Day of Obligation.”  Obviously, the headline writer hasn’t been inside a Catholic Church for a while.  It doesn’t look like this picture, either in the size or in the enthusiasm of the crowd on a Holy Day, or even on Sunday.;

 

Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”  The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad indeed.

 

Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.

 

Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown, they shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.

 

[pause]

 

I want to close by looking back on the first reading from the book of Isiah.  Quoting God, Isiah says,
See I am doing something new.  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.  Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself that they might announce my praise.”

 

We weren’t created to be gloomy and sad.  We were created to announce God’s praise so others could see us and want what we have.  We sing “Glory to God in the highest” and “hallowed be thy name” and give Him praise. The Lord has done great things for us and we are filled with joy.

 

3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time–Ezra

Here’s my homily for this weekend,  Enjoy

 

People love stories.  We enjoy stories that entertain us and stories that teach us things.  Stories are powerful. The Book of the Gospels is full of stories about Jesus and stories Jesus told which we call parables.  Jesus parables make up roughly 30% of the New Testament. In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel the Apostles ask Jesus why He speaks to the people in parables.  Jesus answers that while they, the Apostles, know the secrets of God’s kingdom, the people aren’t ready yet so He must speak to them in parables.

 

For example, He could have told them to pray constantly, but they wouldn’t get it.  Instead He told them the story of the judge and the persistent widow. That they understood.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Here’s a more modern parable.  Some of us are cat people and some of us are dog people.   Some of us are neither. I happen to be a cat person. But suppose you don’t know anything about dogs or cats.  I could try to explain the difference or I could tell you a story.

 

A German shepherd, a doberman, and a cat die.  All three meet God and He wants to know what they believe in.  

 

The German shepherd says, “I believe in discipline, training, and loyalty to my master.”  God says “that’s good. You may sit at my right side.”

 

The doberman says, “”I believe in  the love, care, and protection of my master.  “Ah, God says, “you may sit at my left side.” Then God looks at the cat.  “And what do you believe?” The cat answers, “I believe you’re sitting in my seat.”

 

That’s the difference between dogs and cats.

 

Jan and I babysat our 18 month-old grandson last  night.  This morning he and Momo were reading this book. It’s by Dr, Seuss and it’s called “Mr, Brown Can Moo, Can You?” a typical, silly Dr, Seuss book.  You know one of the first things we teach little kids is animal sounds. You know, “the cow goes moo”. Well this book is full of all kinds of sounds and goofy pictures, and my grandson can repeat most of the sounds.

mr brown

 

But, l think if you just sat him down with a list of sounds, he probably wouldn’t get it nearly as fast as he’s gotten it from good old Dr, Seuss.  Again, stories are powerful.

 

In the first reading today from the Book of Nehemiah the Hebrew people have been in exile in Babylon for more than 100 years.  There’s nobody alive who remembers what it was like before they were captured. There are some people, like Ezra the priest who have kept the traditions alive, but to most of the people it’s just ancient history.  Living among the Babylonians for more than a century, most of the people have adopted the Babylonian lifestyle.

But, now they’re back.   They’ve returned to Jerusalem and Ezra has brought them all together, “all the men, the women, and all the children old enough to understand.”  They’re gathered in front of the Water Gate, which isn’t a hotel in Washington DC, but it’s the gap in the city wall where the water comes in. They’re outside in the sun and they’re going to need a lot of water.  Ezra is standing on a wooden platform that’s been built just for the occasion. He opens the scroll and begins to read from the Torah. Notice he read from dawn to midday, around six or seven hours. If you’re one of those people who think mass should never take more than 45 minutes, preferably less, think about that.  They stood out in the sun for six or seven hours. I told you they would need a lot of water,

 

They weren’t just standing around.  They had their hands raised high and were shouting “Amen!  Amen! Then they prostrated themselves on the ground. They were all weeping because they realized what they had been missing; how they had let the Lord down.  Have you ever cried at mass, other than maybe at a funeral? Has it ever occurred to you how undeserving you are of God’s love? Well, that’s how the people were feeling.

 

Then Nehemiah, who was governer, said to the people, “Don’t be sad.  Don’t weep! Today is holy to the Lord, your God. Rejoice in the Lord! Have a party!”  That was some powerful story that Ezra read to the people.

 

Now, normally this is where I would talk about the Gospel.  But since this week’s Gospel and next weeks are basically part 1 and 2 of the same story I’m just going to point out how Jesus reading from the scroll is just like Ezra’s doing it in the first reading and say again that there is tremendous power in stories.  This is the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and he addresses it to “most excellent Theophilus.” The word means “lover of God” so Luke probably isn’t writing to any particular person.

 

Jesus has returned after being tempted and today finds Himself in Nazareth, His home town.  He attends synagogue on the Sabbath and stands up and reads from the scroll just like Ezra had.  He finishes by telling His listeners “today this scripture reading is fulfilled in your hearing.”  But come back next weekend and you’ll hear that the outcome is very different. Stay tuned.

 

4th Sunday of Easter

PEACE BE WITH YOU!

Peter just isn’t going to let up on the elders and leaders of the people. Remember these guys would just as soon kill Peter as look at him. And eventually they do. But in our reading today from the “Acts of the Apostles he reminds them again that they crucified Jesus the Nazorean and that He has been raised from the dead. Peter is going to pay for his sharp tongue eventually, but not just yet.

 

He reminds them that the stone they rejected has become the Cornerstone. There is no salvation through anyone else.

 

Jesus begins today’s Gospel by saying, “I am the Good Shepherd”. Often in the Old Testament Israel had been referred to as sheep. One day God would send them a shepherd. Well, here he is and we celebrate Him on Good Shepherd Sunday. Interestingly, today is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We are desperately in need of modern-day shepherds.

 

Jesus says that He’s the Good Shepherd. What makes Him better than the average shepherd? Well, He tells us. “A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Are you kidding me?  We would expect a “good” shepherd to do everything in his power to protect his flock. But, when push comes to shove, when the wolf is threatening the shepherd himself, would we be surprised to see the shepherd run for his life. Isn’t a human life more valuable than a sheep’s life?   But we know that Jesus isn’t talking about four-legged sheep. He’s talking about two-legged sheep; you and me.

 

But, again, Jesus is God. Whoever heard of a God giving up his life for his creatures. That’s just outrageous! But, it’s what He did. He gave up His life for you and me. He was the “good” shepherd.

 

What else makes Jesus the Good Shepherd. He tells us again. “I know mine and mine know me.” Sheep, the four-legged variety, recognize their shepherd’s voice. When it’s time for them to follow him home he calls out to them and they know which shepherd to follow. Likewise, if a sheep is in trouble, his shepherd will recognize his cry, which is distinctive from other sheep. Sheep’s voices actually sound very human.

 

Our God, even though He created the entire universe, isn’t some far-off diety. He’s close enough that He can hear and recognize our voices. That’s how He hears us pray. He knows our voice and we know His.

 

In a few minutes, we’ll all pray, both as a community and as individuals. At the same time Christians all over the world will be praying. And, He’ll hear all of us. Jesus isn’t A Good Shepherd, He’s THE Good Shepherd. He hears us and we hear Him.

3rd Sunday of Easter

PEACE BE WITH YOU!

These are the first words Jesus speaks to the Apostles both in today’s Gospel and in last week’s. Remember, last week he appeared to them in the locked room. That was when Thomas wasn’t with the others. A week later he came back, and again He greeted them “Peace be with you.” Now today He comes back as they were talking to the two disciples who had met Jesus on the road to Emmaus` and what are his first words?  “Peace be with you.”

peace be with you

See, here’s the thing. Jesus was dead. They saw Him die. He was as dead as Monty Python’s parrot.  Now, here He is again “in the flesh”. That had to be a frightening thing to experience. He knew that so He started his conversation with them by offering them “Peace”.

 

In today’s Gospel Luke writes that they were “startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.” So Jesus said to them, “Hey. Do you have anything to eat?” “They gave Him a piece of baked fish and He ate it in front of them.” He did that to prove that He wasn’t a ghost.  If a ghost had eaten the fish it would have just fallen on the floor.

 

A little sidebar here, if you read the entire Gospel of Luke you’ll see that Jesus was always eating. The book is full of dinners that Jesus attended with various people. Luke loved to write about these events. So it’s no surprise that even after Jesus has died and been risen from the dead that Luke would introduce some food.   Luke’s Jesus would have loved Saint Louis fish fries during Lent. But, I digress.

 

Jesus tells the Apostles that everything written about Him in the law of Moses and in the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.

 

Now, if we look back at the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, Peter says to the people, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus.” Remember, in Jesus times there were lots of gods running around. There were Roman gods, and Greek gods, and Egyptian gods. But Peter tells the people that Jesus didn’t come from any of those phony-baloney gods, He came from The God. Capital T, capital G. The God of our fathers.

 

But, he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say “You denied the holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.” Then here’s the real zinger,  “The author of life you put to death.” Ouch!

 

But John, in his letter, our second reading, gives us hope. He tells us not to sin, but if we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ. He is expiation for our sins.” How can we be sure of this? Keep Jesus’ commandments. And His commandments are very simple. Love Him and love our neighbors. That’s it. It’s amazing how many people can’t get that right.

 

PEACE BE WITH YOU.

 

Good Friday

[Originally posted March 29, 2013]

Good Friday is a day of fast and abstinence in preparation for Jesus’ glorious resurrection. We’re all encouraged to attend services today, but it’s not a Holy Day of Obligation. You don’t have to come to church today. You can’t eat meat and you can’t eat between meals, but you don’t have to come to church. I think that’s a little bit odd. On the day that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice to save you and me from our sins, I think we should be here. Obviously, so do you.

On the other hand, the fact that this isn’t a day when we’re obliged to come to church, says something about those of us who do come, and those who don’t. One of my wife’s pet peeves is people who don’t send thank you notes. It seems like that simple, common courtesy has fallen by the way side. It’s just good manners to thank someone who’s done something for you. If it’s bad form not to thank someone who has given you a toaster, how much worse is it to not thank someone who’s died for your sins.

Our church will be full tomorrow night for the Easter Vigil. Doesn’t it make sense that it should be full today too? Even in this politically correct, what’s in it for me, don’t mix religion and politics, world, a lot of people get today off. Good luck trying to find a politician in Washington DC today. They’ve all gone home for the Easter break. You’d think that more people, not having to work or go to school today, might take an hour to drop by and say, “Hey, Jesus! Thank you for suffering terrible torture, being beaten and ridiculed, and for dying the painful death on the cross for me.”

I could have told you ahead of time who would be in church today. I can also tell you a lot of people who aren’t. But you and I are here. We love Jesus and we’re thankful that a loving God would send His only begotten Son to die so that we might live.

Today is a solemn celebration. We mourn Jesus’ death. We see Him lying in the tomb and we realize that if it wasn’t for our sins, He wouldn’t be there. We’re sad and we’re sorry for what we’ve done. We also have the advantage of history telling us what’s about to happen. Tomorrow the tomb will be empty because He’s risen from the dead. Where today’s service is solemn, tomorrow’s will be joyful. There will be candles and bells and incense and we’ll rejoice that He’s overcome death. We will celebrate His resurrection because it’s the precursor to our own resurrection!

In a few minutes, we’ll quietly leave church anxious to return tomorrow or Sunday for the great celebration.

Thank you, Jesus, for saving us from ourselves.