4th Sunday of Lent

Laetare—Rejoice!

 

Today we take a break from the more solemn Sundays of Lent and say “rejoice!” For this one day we put away the the purple and bring out the rose. It’s a symbol of the joyful nature of our Catholic faith.

 

Today we hear the famous parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s a familiar story. We’ve heard it hundreds of times. What can I possibly tell you about it that you haven’t heard before? Probably nothing. But, hey, it’s my job so I’ll give it a try.

 

Starting at the beginning, before we even get into the story of the father and his two sons. Luke tells us that Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees and the scribes don’t like it one bit. The tax collectors and sinners are like the Prodigal son and the Pharisees and scribes are like the son who stayed home. We may miss this first paragraph, but it’s the whole reason for the parable. He wants to teach them, and us, an important lesson. The story of the Prodigal son, and his father, and his brother is a story about prayer.

 

So, we begin the actual parable and the younger son says to his father, “Give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” “Me, me, me. It’s all about me.” Admit it. Isn’t this how we pray sometimes? “Give me this. Give me that. Me, me, me.” We’re like the seagulls in the Disney movie who keep saying, “Mine, mine, mine.” All the young son is thinking about is what he thinks he has coming.

 

To our modern ears this young man seems to be just a little greedy. But, in Jesus’ time, his attitude would be considered much worse. In that culture, what the young son is saying to his father is “You’re dead to me. You might as well go ahead and give me my share of the inheritance now.” It was about as hurtful a thing as anyone could say to a parent. But the father, being a good dad, says “yes” and the kid packs up his stuff, takes the money, and leaves home. His prayer has been answered. But, as most of us know, you’d better be careful what you pray for.

 

The kid blows all the money on wine, women, and song. He ends up broke and alone, doing about the worst job any Jew could think of, taking care of pigs. He’s so low,he wishes he could have some of the food that the pigs are getting. He’s hit rock bottom.

 

In modern-day twelve-step programs that’s considered the turning point. When an alcoholic or an addict hits that bottom, then he or she is ready to ask for help. In this young man’s case he realizes that he belongs at home. Maybe dad will treat him as well as he does the hired servants. That’s all he wants. So he heads home. In his mind he practices what he’s going to say. His prepared speech sounds an awful lot like confession, doesn’t it. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. Please take me back.”

 

For the next point we have to shift back into first-century mode again. While the young man is still far off his father sees him coming. That means the wise older man isn’t surprised to see sonny coming back. He’s been waiting and watching for him, just like God waits and watches for you and me when we’ve strayed. He knows we’ll be back eventually. What does the father do? He ran to his son!

 

That was not the protocol in those days. Even the most compassionate father would have seen the boy coming and waited for him, maybe with open arms, but he would have made the son come to him. Not this guy! He ran to meet his son, again just like God runs to meet us when we call out to Him.

 

We know the rest of the story. Father rolls out the red carpet for younger son. Older son is jealous. “When YOUR SON returns you slaughter the fatted calf!” He can’t even bring himself to call the other son his brother. Take that Pharisees and scribes! In your face!

 

This parable has been the subject of several books, probably the best by Henri Nouwen called, surprisingly, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It’s a good read and sheds more light on this story than I ever possibly could. You should read it.

 

But, here’s what I take from it. The Prodigal son’s prayers are all about himself. “Give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” Sadly for him, he gets what he asks for. When he hits bottom his prayer suddenly changes. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. Please take me back.”

 

When the young man’s prayer becomes focused on his sinfulness, rather than what HE wants, the outcome is a whole lot better. That’s how it works. God answers our prayers when we focus on Him and on others. Not my will, but thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Very simple but very difficult.

 

By now you should have all received your Beyond Sunday information. Please prayerfully consider what you can do to help educate our kids. They’re the future of the faith and they need our help. Every one of us had some kind of Catholic education, either in Catholic school or in PSR. Someone had to pay for that and chances are it wasn’t us. Our parents, our fellow parishioners, and people we didn’t even know made sacrifices so we could get that education. Now, we’re being asked to pay some of that back.

 

In today’s bulletin there’s a list of employers who will match your contribution to Beyond Sunday. Maybe the company you work for or are retired from is on that list. If so, be sure you check the matching gift box on your pledge card.

 

If not, it’s still important to realize that so many big companies, many of them not based in Saint Louis and not run by Catholics, recognize the importance of Catholic schools in our community. They know that our schools produce well-educated, moral young people who make their companies more successful. Hopefully, as Catholics, we recognize the same thing.

 

God told Saint Francis to build His Church. Being a deacon, Francis didn’t quite get the message straight and started hammering nails and cutting boards, actually building church buildings. After a while he realized that that wasn’t what God meant. Build the Church was something entirely different.

 

Over a century ago, Bohemian immigrants started building this church, this physical building so that you and I would have a place to worship in 2016. Today you and I are being asked, like Saint Francis, to build the church, not by physical labor, but by our prayers and our contributions. Let’s not be like the Prodigal son, praying only for ourselves.

The 4th Sunday of Lent–The Return of the Prodigal Son

4th Sunday of Lent

Have you ever heard the expression “no good deed goes unpunished”?  Yesterday  morning I was on my way to Saint Bernadette to do a communion service.  I was almost there when I came up on a minor traffic tie-up.  There was one car each way stopped in the middle of a block.  The reason they were stopped was because there was a dog standing in the middle of the street.

 

He was a big, black, bear-looking beast and he was obviously confused.  He was trailing a very long leash and it looked like he had gotten loose from being tied up.  The driver ahead of me went on when the dog had gotten out of his way but the lady coming toward me got out of her car to try to corral the critter.  I turned on my flashers and got out to help her.

 

She managed to stand on the leash and was trying to reel in the dog, but he was too big and strong for her.  I walked up to him and held out my hand for him to sniff, hoping he would calm down and let us see if he had a tag.  Instead of sniffing, he tried to take my hand off.  He was scared and confused and wasn’t about to let this stranger get close to him.

 

So, we decided it would be best to tie the animal to a tree in hopes that his owner would find him.  An hour later, when I left church he wasn’t where we had left him so I’m guessing that his owner did find him.  I pulled my hand away before he had time to bite me and apparently his owner found him and took him home.  Everybody was happy.

 

It made me think about life, particularly life as a Catholic Christian.  How often do we try to help others, especially when it comes to their relationship with God, and end up getting bitten?  Maybe you have a friend or family member who’s fallen away from the Church.  You gently try to steer them back and end up getting snapped at.  Your help isn’t wanted or appreciated.  They’re like that big, black, fuzzy dog.  They know they have a problem.  Something is missing.  But because of fear, or confusion, or guilt, they don’t want to be led back home.

 

Evan worse, in Father’s and my vocations, we have an obligation to help people find their way home.  We’re supposed to be evangelists.  It’s our job to offer help to those who need it.  But sometimes people just don’t want to hear what we’ve got to say.  They don’t want us to rock their spiritual boat, even if we see that it’s about to run aground.

 

That brings us to today’s Gospel, the story of the return of the Prodigal Son.  In this case, the returning son is more than happy to accept his father’s help, but it’s the other son who’s the problem.  The prodigal son has squandered his half of the inheritance on wine, women, and song while his brother has stayed at home, doing what he’s supposed to do.  It’s not hard to see why he’s jealous and resentful that dad is so excited about his missing son’s return.  Look at what he says, “‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.  But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”

 

The thing that makes this parable so powerful is that we can see ourselves in it.  There are three characters; the father, the prodigal son, and the son who stayed home.  Depending on where you are in your spiritual life, you may identify with any of the three.  In fact, you may find parts of yourself in all three characters.

 

prodigal son bookIn 1992, Henri Nouwen wrote a book called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”  His inspiration was Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.  Rembrandt was fascinated by this story and actually painted several pictures based on it.  As a young man his painting was from the perspective of the returning son.  You could see the son’s face but not the father’s.  Later in life he did the more famous painting, the one on the cover of the book.  This time the focus is on the father.  You see his face but only the son’s back.

 

The son is on his knees, with his face buried in his father’s chest.  Dad has his hands on the young man’s shoulders, welcoming him home.  The boy is dressed in dirty rags and he has only one shoe.  You can’t help but see God in the father’s face.  The other son stands off at a distance.

 

The original painting is in Russia and Nouwen managed to pull some strings and actually got to spend several hours alone in front of it.  Rembrandt was a pretty talented guy and we can only imagine the detail and the nuances of his work.  This tiny reproduction on the cover of the book is a poor representation of what it really looks like.  It’s pretty clear that Nowen’s life was changed forever after he saw the original work.

 

One of the most important parts of the story is one that you and I could miss entirely.  Those of us who are parents can relate to our kids needing money.  They come to us and we help them out, not knowing if we’ll ever be paid back.  But we’re parents and we do what we can.

 

In Biblical times, things were very different.  Here’s how Nouwen describes it: “The evangelist Luke tells it so simply and so matter-of-factly that it is difficult to realize fully that what is happening here is an unheard-of event:  hurtful, offensive, and in radical contradiction to the most venerated tradition of his time.”

Then he quotes Kenneth Baily, who did an in-depth study of the story:

“For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living.  The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:

Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?

Never!

Could anyone ever make such a request?

Impossible!

If anyone ever did, what would happen?

His father would beat him, of course!

Why?

The request means he wants his father to die!”

 

I wonder if you or I would have the compassion to forgive something like that.  Not only did the father forgive him, he threw a party when he returned!

 

Of course, the lesson for us is a simple one.  No matter what we do; no matter how many times we turn our backs on God; no matter how many times we wish He would just go away and leave us alone, when we do come back, He’s there waiting for us with open arms.

 

The opposite side of that coin is that, as parents, we should forgive our children, no matter what, just as God forgives us.  And it’s not just about our children.  In a few minutes we’ll all ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  We’ll actually ask God to limit His forgiveness, treating us as we treat every one else.  That’s a little scary.

 

And, we can’t ignore the older son.  We can see ourselves in him too.  How often are we resentful of someone who gets ahead of us even though we’ve been around longer, worked harder, and think we deserve it more than they do.

 

As we speak, 115 Cardinals are gathered in Rome.  On Tuesday they’ll be sequestered in the Sistene Chapel.  One of them will emerge as Pope.  114 of them won’t.  These are the Princes of the Church, the holiest of holy men.  But some of them will feel slighted.  They’re human and Satan tries his best to tempt them.  Some of them are older than the man who will be selected.  Some of them probably have more experience.  But the Holy Spirit will lead them to chose the right man.  He always has and He always will.

 

Today’s Gospel is very appropriate for them to consider as they go about the business of selecting the man who will lead our Church.  It’s also appropriate for  us as we begin the final two weeks of Lent.  Think about which character or characters you are in this story.

 

Are you repentant like the younger son.  Are you resentful and jealous like the older son.  Or are you forgiving like the father.  Chances are you’re a combination of the three.  Pray that God will give you the grace to be more like the father and the prodigal son.  Our repentance will lead to God’s forgiveness.  Jealousy and bitterness will get us nowhere.

 

Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.  The word means “rejoice”.  As we begin this week, let’s all rejoice in the fact that we have a loving, forgiving God.  This afternoon we’ll celebrate the crowning of the Infant Jesus.  It’s a joyful occasion.  It reminds us that God chose to become one of us to save us from our sins.  If that’s not a reason to rejoice, I don’t know what is.

 

If you can’t be with us this afternoon, please take a moment around 4 o’clock to say a prayer of thanks for all the blessings you have received in your life.  Our prayer to the Infant, which we say after every mass, ends with these words, “That with Thee and with Mary and Joseph I’ll be, sharing joys that will last through eternity.”  Amen

 

The Fifth Day of Christmas

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On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…….five golden rings.

True ministry goes far beyond the giving of gifts.  It requires the giving of self.  That is the way of Him who did not cling to his priveleges, but emptied himself to share our struggles.  When God’s way becomes known to us, and practiced by us, hope emerges….

Henri Nowen, Gracias!  A Latin American Journal

What he’s talking about here is real hope, hope in the Lord.  Not the cheap, empty, political hope that politicians promise as a means of winning elections.  This is the sure hope of a life in paradise after an earthly life following the teachings of Christ.

As the secular world stumbles forward believing that Christmas is over, we continue to revel in the true hope promised by the Son of God.

The Third Tuesday of Advent

“When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.  Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

In today’s  Gospel Jesus calls out the chief priests and elders for not recognizing John the Baptist for the prophet that he was.  With the 20/20 hindsight of history we know that they won’t recognize Jesus either.

While we wait in anticipation for the coming of the Christ child in less than two weeks the question is whether we’ll recognize Him or not.  It’s easy to see the baby in the manger and say “That’s Him.”  Or to see Him hanging on the cross and say “That’s Him.”  But what about when we see Him in less obvious circumstances.

Henri Nouwen, the famous Catholic writer who died in 1996, wrote a book called Gracias!  A Latin American Journal. Here’s what he wrote about this season we call Advent:

“It is Advent again.  In his sermon this morning, Oscar Uzin said: ‘Be alert, be alert, so that you will be able to recognize your Lord in your husband, your wife, your parents, your children, your friends, your teachers, but also in all that you read in the daily papers.  The Lord is coming, always coming.  Be alert to his coming.  When you have ears to hear and eyes to see, you will recognize him at any moment of your life.  Life is Advent; life is recognizing the coming of the Lord.”

As a preacher of the Gospel, I wish I could say that I always practice what I preach, especially since I took a vow to do just that.  But you know what?  As I read and reread this quote it occurred to me that I have never really thought about seeing Jesus in my children.  And I’m embarrassed to tell you that.  I’m not somebody who enjoys admitting when I’ve made a mistake.  But I’m telling you because maybe you haven’t either and you might learn something from my mistake.

I suppose it’s because our kids are our flesh and blood, we’re supposed to be older and wiser than they are.  We may see Jesus in a stranger.  But in our own kids?  Not so much.  I suppose it’s the same reason that my kids don’t seem to see me as an ordained member of the Catholic clergy.  They know me too well.  They know all my faults.  I’m just their dad.

So maybe this reflection will cause you to take a new look at your own kids and grandkids.  See them through the same eyes that will draw your attention to the nativity scene in just a few days.  I know I will.  After all, we are Christ for one another.  All of us.

The Second Monday of Advent

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It’s only natural to think of children in these Advent days. For one thing, we’re all waiting for the coming of a child. No, not just a child: the child. The Son of God. That’s what Advent is all about.

It’s also a special time for all children. We see the joy in their little faces as they anticipate the coming of Santa Claus. Watch them as they discover the bright lights and holiday decorations. They’re in awe of the season. Not burdened by jobs, or bills, or a failing economy, all they see is the wonder of the season. We wish we could share that joy and wonder.

It’s ironic that we begin life with that sense of wonder. Then, somewhere along the line, we lose it. We may not realize it at first, but sooner or later we discover that it’s gone. Then we spend the rest of our lives wishing we could get it back.

The cynic will tell us that you can’t get it back. Reality, or at least their version of reality, won’t allow it. Guess what?! You can get it back. Read what Henri Nouwen wrote in Jesus & Mary: Finding our Sacred Center:

“Mary creates a space for us where we can become children as Jesus became a child…It is precisely this childhood that Mary wants us to claim. She who offered an immaculate space for God to take on human flesh wants to offer us a space where we can be reborn as Jesus was born. With the same heart that loved Jesus, she wants to love us. It is a heart that will not make us wonder anxiously whether we are truly loved. It is a heart that has not been marked by the infidelities of the human race and so will never bring wounds to those who seek peace there.”

Or, as Thomas Merton wrote in Seasons of Celebration:

“If we leave (Mary) out of the Sacrament of Advent we shall never fully penetrate its mystery, since we need to go forth to meet our savior on the same Road by which He came to us.”

Stepping back from all the confusion and stress of our daily lives for a few minutes each day and praying the Rosary is one way to get back in touch with our “inner child” and find some of that wonderful peace that we enjoyed as children.

December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy.

It may seem like a step in the wrong direction to consider the horrible events of Pearl Harbor Day. It was truly a day that will live in infamy. But it was also a day that changed the world. It gave our country the resolve to pull together and lead the Allies to victory both in the Pacific and in Europe.

Everything happens for a reason and much of the freedom and prosperity (Even in the midst of a recession, we’re still the most prosperous nation on the planet.) we enjoy today can be traced back to that fateful day nearly seventy years ago today. God can make something good out of even the worst things.

May God bless the men and women, living and dead, who suffered on that day.