Monthly Archives: February, 2014

I Think He Meant What He Said

Sunday’s homily from Father Bob…

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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Some scriptures you own.  They are my favorite and I love to return to them.  For me, the Emmaus story always brings me peace.  And other scriptures own you.  I can’t shake them or forget them or discard them.  That is what, “offer no resistance to one who is evil.” And “Turn the other cheek and “Love your enemy” are for me.  I cannot escape its challenge.  It inspires and burdens me.  It challenges and frustrates me.  It gives me courage and it frightens me.  It frees and imprisons me.  But above all, it stays with me.   It owns me.

I was very excited to preach about this.  Usually, Lent has begun and we skip this Gospel.  I told my friend Fr. Tim that I was psyched for this homily and he looked at me rather sadly and said, “Yeah, but nobody does it.”

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Scripture Commentary for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

1st Reading:  Isaiah 49:14-15

One can only imagine Israel’s hopelessness.  There is nothing harder to bear than to have the one you counted on the most desert you in the midst of despair.  Because of what Israel perceived to be God’s non-action in their Babylonian captivity, they felt they had been completely abandoned by their God.  But today’s word of the Lord has spoken.  Human beings are a part of God – the womb of God – never to be forsaken or abandoned.  God always forgives, invites, and tenderly caresses those who are God’s children, God’s own (Birmingham, W&W, p. 403).

Henry David Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  This is not the life God wants for us!  God’s loving grace is a free gift for us…poured out in abundant supply.  God wants us to know we belong to God, never to be forgotten.  Have you ever felt forsaken?  Can you think of others out there who do?  Bring this to the Lord.

2nd Reading;  I Corinthians 4:1-5

You can almost hear in this reading how Paul is trying to defend himself and who he stands for (who, of course, is Jesus Christ).  He is humbling himself.  He explains that we are meant to be servants and stewards of God, despite not even completely understanding God’s mysteries.  He was not concerned about how he might be judged  because he felt his conscience was clear.  His actions were between him and God.

St Augustine of Hippo said in explaining his role as bishop, “For you I am a bishop, but with you I am a Christian.  The first is an office accepted; the second is a gift received.  One is danger; the other is safety.  If I am happier to be redeemed with you than to be placed over you, then I shall, as the Lord commanded, be more fully your servant.”  We have to learn how to sink the roots of servanthood deep into the soil of our character (habits) so that our commitment holds up in the face of life’s inevitable challenges (Phelps, Leading Like Jesus, p. 71)

St. John Neumann reminded us that our conscience is the highest moral indicator.  We are to follow our conscience above all else.  Human beings have the right to act in freedom according to their conscience. They may not be forced to act contrary to their conscience, especially when it comes to religious issues (CCC, #1782).  Faith, prayer, and the word of God enlighten our conscience. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a [person]. There s/he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his/her depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and one’s neighbor.” (Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes] ,16).

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 6:  24-34

“No one can serve two masters.”   Soren Kierkegaard reflected on this idea.  He said, “If it is possible that a man can will only one thing then he must will the good,” (A Kierkegaard Anthology, p. 271).  This is a singularity of thought.  This is living authentically.  It is not living with two masters.  It is behaving as true to ourselves as we are able.  Yet even when we fail, we can turn back again.  Kierkegaard continues in hope, “For as the Good is only a single thing, so all ways lead to the Good, even the false ones – when the repentant one follows the same way back…let your heart in truth will only one thing, for therein is the heart’s purity,” (p. 272).   Even when we choose wrong, we can follow our way back to the good.

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.  More than than, it is cooperation in violence.”  Thomas Merton

Jesus is not insensitive to the needs of the peasants.  Like all human beings, they were anxious about the basics of life.  Given the subsistence economy in which they lived, the unpredictability of nature, and the voracious taxes they were forced to pay, how could they think of anything but survival?  Jesus’ advice is simple yet cleverly delivered.  Without pointing his finger or naming names, he selects a masculine Aramaic noun (birds, associating men’s work like sowing, reaping, harvesting) and a feminine Aramaic noun (anemones, or lilies of the field, associating women’s work like spinning yarn, making clothes) and urges men and women not to worry.  One must trust in God the heavenly patron who knows our basic needs and will meet them (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A, p. 41-42).

Ignatian Spirituality encourages a life of detachment to help us worry less.  Whose kingdom am I serving, my own or God’s  It takes a lot of courage to recognize the truth that we ourselves are not the fixed center of things but rather that we are beings through whom life flows.  But when we do understand and acknowledge this, we discover that our emptiness will lead us more surely to our true purpose than our imagined fullness ever could, because God’s life and grace will flow so much more fully and freely through empty hands  (Silf, Inner Compass, p. 110).

Four Tiny Sermons for Four Antitheses

Thoughts from Father Bob on last Sunday’s readings…

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Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Without a gig at the parish (great job Deacon Tom) here are some thoughts I shared at the University at Albany mass.

Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount by talking about a “greater righteousness” that is achievable by listening and following him.  If we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world, then we will also be able to extend ourselves beyond the mere fulfillment of the law, to living out its spirit, of exercising the mercy that God showed Israel in giving it the law.  Jesus expands on this idea by presenting six antitheses – basically a statement of what the law called for, but now with the Son of God among us, what life in the kingdom demands.  Today, we will hear four of them and four tiny sermons, one for each.

“You have heard that it was…

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Scripture Commentary for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

1st Reading – Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18

Leviticus 19 is a miscellaneous collection of laws; some think it might be a more primitive form of the 10 Commandments. The distinctiveness, the separateness of God from the world now calls his people to also be like this. We need to show this by our behavior. This behavior is summed up in the command to love the neighbor. In the OT this neighbor meant a fellow Israelite. Jesus will widen this concept to include even the enemy. (Reginald Fuller, “Scripture In Depth” http://liturgy.slu.edu/7OrdA022011/theword_indepth.html )

The word holy means ‘set apart’.  What does that mean to you?  Holiness is a gift that is maximized when we choose good over evil in the various circumstances of our daily lives.  Grace, accepted and celebrated in a life of prayer, gives us the strength to be holy.  It’s hard to think about ourselves as holy.  We often don’t feel worthy to be called that.  How different would be world be if we considered ourselves sacred, by the grace of God?

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 3: 16-23

Have you ever discovered God’s sacred presence in another person? In yourself?

Paul tells us that we are the temple of God and God’s Spirit dwells in us; translated that means that God built the human heart ‘with a hole in it.’ We have a built-in openness for others, if we don’t block it with selfishness. We are to let God’s own self in – to let God stretch our stunted outreach to others so that we will truly give out of love. Love wants what is truly best for the other – as God wants what is best for us.  Real love is what we are to offer; real love wants what is healthy, good, life-giving for the other. (Fr. John Foley, S.J. “Spirituality of the Readings” http://liturgy.slu.edu/7OrdA022011/reflections_foley.html )

Pope Francis recently said, “When the church becomes closed in on itself, it gets sick.  Think of a closed room – a room locked for a year.  When you go in, there is a smell of dampness…The church must go out from herself.  Where?  Towards the existential outskirts.  I prefer a thousand times a church damaged by an accident than a sick church closed in on itself.”  How do we do in this as temples of God?  Perhaps Bishop Elect Scharfenberger gave a clue in the press conference last week.  He expressed his need for the help of others to be his best self.  Could this make the difference?

The Gospel – Matthew 5: 38-48

What is your reaction to these demands of Jesus?

How do the first two readings help prepare us for this gospel?

Thoughts from William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 166-175:

The ‘law of tit for tat’ was in fact the beginning of mercy, a limitation of vengeance. It was meant to stop blood feuds. It was also never a law for an individual to extract vengeance. It was how a judge in a law court must assess punishment and penalty. Even further, this law was never, at least in any even semi-civilized society, carried out literally. Very soon the injury done was assessed at a money value; the value was assigned according to the injury, the pain, the healing needed, the loss of time to work, the indignity. Also, the OT has other sayings concerning enemies that go far more along with Jesus’ ideas: “Do not say, I will do to him as he has done to me.” (Proverbs 24: 29) Yet, Jesus does go further. He actually does away with the very principle of that law; retaliation has no place in the Christian life.

Jesus never asked us to love our enemies in the same way we love our nearest and dearest. The word that is used for love is agape (invincible goodwill) not phila (deep friendship) or storge (family love) or eros (sexual love). With our enemies love is not so much a feeling of the heart as it is a decision of the will. We are called to will ourselves into doing this with God’s grace. It is in fact a victory over that which comes instinctively to the natural person. We are called to have unconquerable goodwill even toward those who hurt us. It is the power to love those whom we do not like and who may not like us. In fact, we can only have this kind of love, agape, when Jesus enables us to conquer our natural tendencies to bitterness and brooding. It does also, however, NOT mean that we allow people to do absolutely as they like. No one would say a parent really loves a child if the parent lets the child do anything he likes despite the dangers. If we regard a person with invincible goodwill, it will often mean that discipline, even punishment, might be in order so that the person will learn what is best for themselves and others. The discipline would never be retributive – it must always be aimed at a cure – at recovery – at remedial care. Lastly, Jesus says that we must pray for those who hurt us. We must take ourselves and those who hurt us to God. The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.

Agape is love which is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself. The apostle John affirms this in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” God does not merely love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love. But it is important to remember that God’s love is not a sappy, sentimental love such as we often hear portrayed. God loves because that is His nature and the expression of His being. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely (us!), not because we deserve to be loved, but because it is His nature to love us, and He must be true to His nature and character. God’s love is displayed most clearly at the cross, where Christ died for the unworthy creatures who were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), not because we did anything to deserve it, “but God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The object of God’s agape love never does anything to merit His love. We are the undeserving recipients upon whom He lavishes that love. His love was demonstrated when He sent His Son into the world to “seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10) and to provide eternal life to those He sought and saved. He paid the ultimate sacrifice for those He loves.  (Sweet to the Soul on Facebook)  This is our example!

Our Best Self: Sunday’s Homily by Deacon Tom

Friends, have you noticed how easy it is to contradict things and make fools of ourselves sometimes?  Sometimes things may be funny and sometimes the same things can get us in trouble.  You know things were not much different in Jesus day with the Scribes and Pharisees, they were full of contradictions and self-deceit, convinced that they were the truly holy ones and everyone else were great sinners.  Jesus tells us that if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven, we have to be better than they were.  This week and next as Jesus continues his sermon on the mount he gives us various illustrations of what he means by being better.  Basically, Jesus is trying to show us that holiness goes beyond external behavior.  Holiness must be deep inside of us.  And that which must be deep inside of us, that which makes us truly holy is love: love of God and love of each other.  Certainly the way we behave is important.  God’s commandments tell us that; Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness, honor thy father and mother, keep holy the Lord’s day and so on.  Keeping God’s instructions about what we must do or not do will guide us to a better life.  Jesus also wants us to have such love in our hearts that we wouldn’t even want disobey his commandments.  We might be thinking that this is a big order that Jesus gives us and you know it is.  Jesus asks a lot from his followers.  Sirach tells us in today’s first reading that if you choose, you can keep the commandments.  I think we need to add, only with God’s help.  For Jesus said, “without me you can do nothing.”

Friends, God’s help is available to us through prayer and the sacraments.  But we must be careful not to condemn ourselves when feelings come to us, feelings of anger, laziness, envy, lust, greed, pride or whatever.  We are all human and we all experience those feelings.  The important thing is what we do with these feelings.  Do we dwell on them, hold on to them and allow them to take over our thinking, or do we consider whether they fit with what Jesus would want of us and choose to go in the direction of what we know Jesus would want?  I know we all know what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t be doing.  I know we all make mistakes we all make wrong choices sometimes and that is because we are human.

However if we choose to really allow our hearts to be filled with God’s love we will have absolutely no problem sharing that love with God and our neighbor.

And we always have the wonderful sacraments to help us, especially Reconciliation and the very Body and Blood of Jesus himself.

Our bishop elect Edward Scharfenberger said in his first statement to us, his sheep in the Diocese of Albany “help me to be the best self that I can be.”  What a wonderful statement, “help me to be the best self that I can be.”  Just imagine how much greater our parish would be if we all helped each other to be the best self that we can be. Imagine how much better each of us would be if we helped each other to be the best self we could be.

 

Stay Salty, You Light of the World

Father Bob’s homily last Sunday…

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Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

My friend Pauline always said that we look better by candlelight.  That is certainly true.  And while we too often see ourselves only in a harsh glare, we all look better in the glow of Christ.  That is where we will be spending our time as we hear from now until Lent from the Sermon on the Mount.  Immediately after telling us who is blessed in the beatitudes, he now turns to his disciples and says what he is sure is true of them.

He begins by saying,” You are the salt of the earth.”  Salt of course adds flavor, but in Jesus’ time it was also the main method of preserving things, the only way to stop spoilage.  When Jesus calls his disciples salt of the earth, he is saying that those who follow him season the world.  They bring the taste of God…

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Reflecting on the Creed

In our RCIA session last night, we discussed the power of the Creed and watched the following video.  I invite all of you to watch it too and think about the following questions as a way to reflect on it:

Are you a robot when you say the Creed, or do you pray it with your whole self?

There is a big difference between believing there is a God and believing IN God.  Which do you believe?

Do you believe Jesus can you save YOU?

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?

How are YOU part of church, the people of God?

How do you live the Creed?

 

Scripture Commentary for 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

1st Reading;  Sirach 15: 15-20

Sirach is the longest of the wisdom books with 51 chapters.  It is a mixture of proverbs and lengthy essays on major themes grouped together.  It was written between 190 and 175 BC.  For many centuries it was thought to be only in Greek in the Septuagint.  But a partial copy of the Hebrew original was found at the end of the last century hidden in a synagogue storeroom in Cairo, and another when archaeologists excavated Masada in Palestine in 1964.  A few fragments also turned up at Qumran in 1947.  Despite this evidence, it was never accepted into Jewish canon because it was not from the time of Ezra or before (Reading the Old Testament, Boadt, p. 487).  It is in the Catholic Bible but not the Protestant.

Sirach speaks of the choices we make in life and how we must trust in God when we make them.  This will help us choose what is good and life-giving for us.  We must have an openness to the working of God in our life.  In Ignatian spirituality, we must look at the “pushes” and the “pulls”.  Do you feel pushed to do something – I should do this, I should do that – out of a sense of crushing and lifeless obligation or a desire to please?  Or do you feel pulled, like a gentle invitation in love?  God pulls not pushes  (The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Fr. James Martin, p. 329).

2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 2: 6 – 10

Paul is talking about the meaning of the cross in salvation history.         The ‘mystery’ is that the crucified One, precisely as the crucified, is the Lord of glory. Many Corinthians thought otherwise. For them, the Cross was an unfortunate past event, the less said the better. All that mattered to them now was the risen Christ. He was now spirit, and as such, he could convey to them ‘secret wisdom’. Paul is using their terms in an ironic way, sort of turning them upside down to help them see where true wisdom is. By refusing to recognize the Lord of glory in the crucified One, they were in a sense aligning themselves with Pontius Pilate and Herod (the rulers of the day) who also did not recognize the One they were crucifying. Such blindness leads to horrible evil.

Why is God’s wisdom mysterious and hidden?  What does this mean for us?

The Gospel: Matthew 5: 17 – 37

Now let’s take this gospel in parts to see what value and meaning we can gather:

First, what did Jesus mean by the law and its importance:

Jesus seems to say that the law is so sacred that not even the smallest detail (something as small as an apostrophe) should be discarded or ignored. Yet, again and again Jesus broke what some Jews called the law: handwashings, healing on the Sabbath, picking grain to eat on the Sabbath etc. In Jesus’ time it was popular to call the ‘scribal law’ the law along with the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Scribes were people who made it their business to reduce the great principles of the Law into thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations. God’s Law was to rest on the Sabbath. They, however, spent hours arguing about whether it was work on the Sabbath to move a lamp from one table to another, if one could bandage a wound with or without salve, or could one lift a child? Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations. Jesus was highly critical of this. What Jesus was upholding here was the real meaning of God’s Law: to mold our lives on the positive commandment to love. Love that is filled with respect, reverence and compassion is the permanent stuff of our relationship to God and to our fellow humans. Our righteousness in this way must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. This law of love to fill our hearts and minds; it must be our sole motivation. We need to be people of gratitude that God has first loved us – and then people who generously give of that love to others. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.126-131)

Second, Jesus then gives examples of the kind of law and righteousness he means – that the law of love must penetrate to our hearts, our core. The only way to safety and security in society is not to even desire what is wrong. It also shows us just how much we need God’s help in this. We need God to transform us to be able to live up to this standard of love. For example Jesus says that any one angry with a brother is liable to judgment. The word that is used for this anger is an anger over which a person broods and will not let go of –an anger that broods, that will not forget, that seeks revenge. It is an anger that insults and shows contempt. Raka meant an imbecile; a word of one who despises another with an arrogant contempt. This type of anger leads to a hurt that is like a murder; we can ‘kill’ a person’s spirit and take his good name and reputation away from him or her. This makes us liable to fiery Gehenna, a garbage dump where rot burns and pollutes. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.136-141)

In fact, here is an interesting piece of information from Jesus’ time:

“The fires of Gehenna” had become a metaphor for divine judgment on evil.  The inferno was actually the city refuse dump located southwest of Jerusalem.  It was a gehinnom that some of Judah’s kings engaged in the heinous practice of burning their children as sacrifices (see 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35).  Condemned by Jeremiah and King Josiah, the valley was used, thereafter, as a site for rubbish. (Celebration, February 14, 1999)

The third point to consider is that when we come before to pray or to bring gifts to the altar to the Lord we must consider not only our relationship with God but also our relationship with others. A breach between a human and God could not be healed until the breach between humans was healed. Jesus emphasizes this: one cannot be right with God until we are right with each other. (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.136-141)

Then Jesus deals with lust – looking at and thinking about another person as an object (not a person) of pleasure, an object to be used. Jesus is not talking about what is normal human instinct, human nature. He is talking about lust, where a person uses his eyes and thoughts to stimulate wrong desire – a desire to use someone even if it destroys their personhood and value. If we allow such desire to grow in us the most innocent people and things can become ‘used’ and abused. Jesus is vehement here using hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration, a very common teaching tool in this culture) to get his point across. When something is deadly, destructive – surgery is needed. In other words, to let such evil grow in us is worse that losing an eye or a hand. For such evil leads us into a garbage heap of burning refuse: Gehenna!

(Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p. 147-148)

Jesus then warns of the abuse of divorce. Ideally, Jews abhorred divorce. Marriage was seen as holy and as fulfilling God’s positive commandment to be fruitful. But by Jesus’ time the practice itself had fallen far short of this ideal and women were the victims of this abuse. In both the Jewish and especially the Greek culture of the day, women were at the absolute disposal of the males, her father and then her husband. She had no legal rights at all. A woman could be divorced with or without her will. All that had to be done was to hand a degree of divorce to the woman in the presence of two witnesses. The reason was to be for some indecency which could be serious – or just that she put too much salt in the food, or she spoke disrespectfully, or she was troublesome, or unattractive. Because of the ease of divorce at this time, basic family structure was threatened. (Wm. Barclay, the Gospel of Matthew, Vol.1, p.150-153)

Jesus was for loving and caring relationships. This we must keep in mind. He was not for upholding abuse or condoning it. As disciples we must go that extra mile to repair fractured relationships and live according to God’s plan of love and life. Here is a caution to note: While this teaching points out God’s will for unity and love, there are times when a marriage is no longer real – or because someone is incapable of such a relationship – it never was a marriage. While every effort should be made to redeem fractured marriages, some must be acknowledged as beyond repair. In such cases divorce may be not only the lesser of two evils from the point of view of God’s ultimate will which is love, but also a positive step. (M. Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook, Year A, p. 391.

The last section of this gospel deals with our ‘public’ behavior. “Oath-taking” had greatly deteriorated into misuse in Jesus’ day.  Some resorted to frivolous swearing, by constantly ‘taking oaths’: “by my life…”  “May such and such happen to me if…” Still others used evasive swearing to avoid the truth.  According to this questionable practice, oaths which contained the name of God were considered binding and were rigidly kept; oaths that did not mention God were not considered binding and were easily changed.  Jesus advocated simple integrity in speech. (Celebration, February 14, 1999)

As Jesus’ disciples we need to live in such a way that falsehood and infidelity in our families and workplaces is eliminated. The Law of love is the only thing that works.

Scripture Commentary for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

1st Reading – Isaiah 58:7-10

This is from 2nd Isaiah, written after the Babylonian Exile.  Jerusalem had been destroyed, so this is meant to be encouraging.  Right before this section, Isaiah spoke of fasting and how it shouldn’t be done in a showy way.  This is misdirected; use that energy to help the poor and those less fortunate.  Spirituality that is other-centered shines like a beacon in the midst of the darkness  (Birmingham, W&W, p. 380).  Isn’t it true that when the chips are down, it helps to reach out to others who may be worse off than you?  Are we a community that is like a beacon?  How could we be better?

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1-5

Don’t we sometimes think we are the ones that have it right, that there is only one way to solve a problem – and it’s yours?  True human wisdom is pure gift from God (One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit!).  Who could ever look for God’s wisdom and power within an instrument of capital punishment and torture?  Yet that was exactly what Paul was demanding that followers of Christ do if they wished to know true, divine wisdom.  Paul proclaimed the power of the cross (p. 381).

The Gospel – Matthew 5:13-16

When Jesus called his disciples the salt of the earth, it was the highest compliment.  Salt was highly valued:

  1. It stood for purity (its whiteness).
  2. It was a common preservative.  It kept things from going bad  (preserves from corruption).  Do you know someone who makes it easy for you to be good?
  3. It gives flavor.  A Christian should be full of vigor and life!  Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers, (Barclay on the Gospel of Matthew, Vol I, p. 119-121).

Jesus called himself a light to the world, so here he is complimenting the disciples again by referring to them as he would himself.  We do not produce our own light but reflect the light of Christ.  Lamps in those days were like a bowl filled with oil and the wick floating in it.  It was hard to rekindle a lamp, so when it was not on the lampstand, it would be protected under a bushel basket, (p. 122-124).  The light’s purpose is to shine.  We are meant to shine too!