Happy Easter, Everybody

My Easter homily:

THIS IS THE DAY THE LORD HAS MADE!  LET US REJOICE AND BE GLAD IN IT!

I know some of you are visiting here today.  Some of you are home from college or home from out of town to celebrate the holiday with your family.  If so, welcome home.

Some of you may be visiting as a guest of a parishioner; maybe it’s your first time here.  We welcome you too, and hope to see you again.

Then there are some of you who are here today because it’s one of the two “BIG” church days, the other one being Christmas. We want to especially welcome you and hope that maybe we can persuade you to come back a little more often.

Even though we all may have different reasons for being in THIS church, there’s one thing that brings us to A church.  It’s this day called “Easter.”  What is Easter?  It’s a day for great rejoicing!  THIS IS THE DAY THE LORD HAS MADE!  LET US REJOICE AND BE GLAD IN IT! Say it with me, THIS IS THE DAY THE LORD HAS MADE!  LET US REJOICE AND BE GLAD IN IT!

So, what is Easter?  Here’s a little story that I really like I hope you like it too. One day, during Lent, a first grade PSR teacher was teaching the kids about Easter. She asked if they knew what Easter was. A little girl in the front row raised her hand. (Little girls in the first row always raise their hands). When the teacher called on her she said, “Easter is the day when we all dress up in costumes. We go to the neighbors’ houses and they give us candy.”

The teacher said, “No, Susy, that’s Halloween. Does anyone else know what Easter is?”

Another little girl raised her hand. “Easter is when we all go to the park and there’s lots of food, and rides, and music, and when it gets dark we sit in lawn chairs and they have pretty fireworks.”

“No, Mary. That’s the Fourth of July.” Does anyone else know.”

Little Johnny sat in the back row. He was a sweet little boy, but he liked to fool around in class and didn’t always pay attention. He wasn’t very successful when it came to answering questions. But, he was waving his hand frantically. He was almost jumping up and down. The teacher wasn’t sure whether he knew the answer to the question or if he had to go to the bathroom. Reluctantly, she called on Johnny.

“Teacher, Easter is when Jesus dies and they put Him in the tomb and on the third day he comes out of the tomb.” The teacher was in shock. Johnny was actually paying attention. He knew the answer.  He should have stopped while he was ahead, but he went on, “ and if He sees His shadow, we have six more weeks of winter.”

It’s funny because it’s about a little boy, someone we can all identify with.  But little Johnny isn’t alone.  Look at today’s Gospel.  Mary Magdala was the first at the tomb.  She saw Jesus was gone and thought that someone had stolen His body.  She went to get Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus would build His Church, and John, the Apostle that Jesus loved.  Peter went in and, being Peter, he didn’t get it. Remember that just two days earlier Peter had denied he even knew Jesus.   But John saw and believed.

How many modern adults really don’t know what Easter is?  Like Christmas, it’s become a day about “stuff”:  New clothes, candy, toys, and food.  Don’t forget the food. If you were to play a word association game with a hundred random people and asked them to say the first word that popped into their heads when you said the word “Easter”, how many would answer “ham” or “lamb” or “brunch” and how many would say “Jesus” or “resurrection”?  How many would say “bunny” or “eggs”?  I don’t know and maybe I don’t want to know.  I’m afraid I’d be disappointed at the results.

Remember, the Apostles had been in hiding.  They were afraid that, as followers of Jesus, they were doomed to crucifixion too.  They didn’t understand what was happening.  Jesus was gone.  One of their number had committed suicide.  But when they saw what had really happened, you couldn’t shut them up!  They had no fear of death because Jesus had defeated death.  They had the hope of eternal life.  In fact, they would all die, some of them violently, because they were preaching the Gospel of Christ.  But it didn’t matter because they knew now where they were going, and there were lots more believers to take their place.

Here we are, in this historic church, 6,471 miles from Jerusalem, on a beautiful spring morning, more than 2,000 years later.  In spite of all that distance, and all that time, we share the same hope of eternal life.  Just like that first Easter morning, there are people today who either don’t understand, or don’t believe what happened that day, or don’t understand what it means to each and every one of us.  But we do.  Or I hope we do.  By dying on that cross and then rising from that tomb, Jesus gave us the ultimate gift, the gift of hope.  Not some phony-baloney small-h hope promised by some political candidate, but real, true Capital-H Hope for eternal life.

Like the bumper sticker says, “Stuff happens.”  OK, that’s not exactly what the bumper sticker says, but you get my drift.  Stuff does happen.  Great stuff and stuff that’s not so great.  Sometimes really terrible stuff happens.  No matter what happens in this life, we’re assured of eternal bliss when God calls us home.  In the mean time, Jesus is there for us, helping us endure.  Whether we get sick, or lose our jobs, or lose all our physical possessions, we have hope.  No matter how many things go wrong in this life, nothing compares to being beaten, then having our hands and feet nailed to a cross, then being left to hang there in the dessert sun for three hours waiting to die, especially when you’ve done nothing to deserve it.  Whatever bad things happen to us, we can always know that it’s nothing compared to what Jesus did for us.

Maybe we’re not “overwhelmed with hope.”  Maybe we’re overwhelmed with something else like money worries, or sickness, or any number of things that can “cover us up”.  But that’s our fault, not God’s.  He hasn’t changed.  History hasn’t changed.  Jesus’ resurrection means just as much to you and me as it did to Peter, Mary, John, and all the others.  The hope that overwhelmed them is there for us, too.  The more space Jesus takes up in our lives, the less space there is for anything else.

That’s why we’re gathered here today, and every Sunday, to give thanks and praise to God’s only son who did and still does so much for us. Say it with me again, “THIS IS THE DAY THE LORD HAS MADE!  LET US REJOICE AND BE GLAD IN IT! “

Advertisements

Good Friday

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.

Without Good Friday, that’s exactly what we’d do.

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

In today’s Gospel we learn something very important about Jesus. It’s important to all Christians, but especially to us Catholics. He’s teaching in the Synagogue. But the people who’ve gathered to listen to Him will learn that this isn’t just some ordinary teacher, some ordinary Rabbi. Teachers in Jesus’ time, just like today, taught based on someone else’s authority. Father Paul and I don’t just make this stuff up. We rely on someone else’s teachings. We have the Scriptures, we have the words of religious scholars, we have the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church, and we have the Holy Spirit. If Father, or I, or anyone else who assumes the role of teacher stands up here and makes stuff up, you have every right to complain.

If any of us comes up with some new, radical teaching of our own invention, you should get on the phone to the Archbishop and tell him that we’re preaching heresy. Then the Archbishop will call us in and demand to know what’s going on. It won’t be pretty. We may even lose our faculties to preach or worse. We’re not allowed to preach anything that isn’t the truth, as it’s been passed down over the centuries.

In Jesus’ time, Rabbis taught from the Torah. That was the Word of God and that’s what the people wanted, and deserved to hear. But, here’s this Jesus teaching something new. His message was extremely radical for the first century. And, as Mark says, ”the people were astonished at His teaching.” They said, “What is this?”

One man even speaks up and says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” But to get an idea of what’s going on, we have to look back at Moses’ words in the first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.” Jesus is that prophet, but the people don’t realize it yet. God promised Moses that He would put His words into His, this new prophet’s mouth. God goes on, “Whoever will not listen to my words which He speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.”

 

Jesus is that new prophet. This man who challenges Jesus is possessed by an unclean spirit. Here’s the evil one, Satan, challenging Jesus in the Synagogue, the very house of God. Jesus rebukes the man and says to the unclean spirit, “Quiet! Come out of him?” And the spirit, with a loud cry, comes out of him.

Naturally, the people are amazed. “They asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” Satan has made a huge mistake. His attempt to discredit Jesus backfires and the people understand. Jesus is teaching with authority, not human authority, but with the authority of God the Father. For the first time in history, someone other than God the Father, has the authority to speak on His behalf. Up to this time, every teacher has taught strictly from the Torah. As Mark says, “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”

 

Today, Christians rely on both the Old Testament word of God, and the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ. But, why is this more important to Catholics than it is to other Christians? To find the answer we have to turn to Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tell the disciples that whoever hears them, hears Him and whoever rejects them, rejects Him. And whoever rejects Him, rejects the One who sent Him. This is the beginning of the teaching authority of the Church.

This begs the question, “Do we always like what the Church teaches?” Not necessarily. Do we have to believe it? We do unless we want to reject God, and that’s dangerous territory. As faithful Catholics, it’s up to us to learn what the Church teaches and to know the difference between Church doctrine and discipline.

The Eucharist is a perfect example. In a few minutes, Father will take the bread and wine, which will be presented to him by members of the congregation representing all of us. The bread and wine are your gifts to God. Then he’ll turn that bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s God’s gift to you. It’s scriptural and has been taught by the Church since the very beginning. If you don’t believe it, then you’re not a Catholic. It’s a core belief and it’s non-negotiable. In fact, according to Saint Paul, if you partake in communion without believing it is what it is, then you’re guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ.

On the other hand, the Church calls us to fast for an hour before we receive His Body and Blood. If you forgot and ate a donut 59 minutes before communion, are you committing a sin? No, that’s a discipline. It’s something we should do, not something we have to do. It can change and it did change after Vatican II. Remember, you used to have to fast for twelve hours. Under certain circumstances, for example, if you’re a patient in the hospital, you can receive the Eucharist at any time.

Disciplines can change, doctrine can’t. Remember when you couldn’t eat meat on Friday? It wasn’t that long ago.

Recently our former Archbishop, Cardinal Burke, has been in the news for things he’s said that aren’t in agreement with Pope Francis. You may wonder, how can this be? Who are we supposed to believe? If you study what both men have said, they don’t disagree on Church doctrine. The disagree on disciplines. Male alter servers aren’t Church doctrine. If the good Cardinal thinks servers should all be altar boys, that’s his opinion. Again, it’s something that has changed over the years. Given the power of the feminist movement, it’s not likely to change back, but it could. In fact, there are still some dioceses where they don’t allow female servers. But, remember that here in Saint Louis he did allow girl servers when he was Archbishop. Frankly, it’s not that big a deal.

To wrap this up, today’s readings remind us that Jesus has a special kind of authority and He shared that authority with His Apostles and their successors, the Pope and the Bishops. It was unique. It was radical. It was outrageous! It’s no wonder that the Jewish authorities didn’t want Him around. His authority was a challenge to their authority.

Make no mistake, there are people alive today who hate Jesus and His Church. Why? For the same reason. Jesus’ authority, and by extension the authority of His Church, is a challenge to them. If I’m in the business of selling sin, our course I’m going to hate the Church. If the Church challenges my political authority, I’m going to hate the Church. If I represent a religious denomination that doesn’t accept the Church’s teachings, I’m going to hate the Church. If I suddenly decide to divorce Jan and marry another guy, I’m probably going to hate the Church. Any time the Church challenges anyone on anything, there’s going to be a backlash. Remember that there were enough people who hated Jesus that they tortured Him and killed Him.

As Catholic Christians, we have a responsibility to know what the Church teaches, to accept those teachings, and to share those teachings with others.

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

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.

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.”