Was Jesus happy?

Fr. Bob’s homily last week…

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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time A 2017

I have always loved the ancient hymn of Jesus we heard in the second reading from the Philippians.  Every Saturday night we read it in the Liturgy of the Hours and I am moved by the heroic nature of Jesus’ life, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  I find his humility astounding, his self-giving complete and I am in stunned admiration for the life he chose.  Then this week I asked myself a question I had never asked before about this humble, self-sacrificing man.  “Was Jesus happy?”

Now I don’t think that happiness was a…

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27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

1ST READING – ISAIAH 5:1-7

Isaiah realized that God cares for us His people like a precious vine: He cultivates us, cares for us, prunes us, nurtures us, waters us and removes the stones from our hearts.  He expects us to grow, to bloom, to produce a good harvest.

Those darn Israelites never seem to get it right.  Can you relate?  Do you ever feel like you try so hard and yet can’t seem to get it together?  Sometimes children work hard on an assignment and end up crumpling it up because of their frustration.  We hear the frustration in God’s voice through Isaiah.  This harsh love language can be difficult because of the strong emotion.  But in the end, God stays with the Israelites through their trials.

Some thoughts from Harold Kushner in How Good Do We Have to Be?:  “…if we cannot love imperfect people, if we cannot forgive them for their exasperating faults, we will condemn ourselves to a life of loneliness, because imperfect people are the only kind we will ever find,” (p. 111).  “Being human can never mean being perfect, but it should always mean struggling to be as good as we can and never letting our failures be a reason for giving up the struggle,” (p. 174).

2ND READING – PHILIPPIANS 4: 6-9

Paul encouraged his Philippian brothers and sisters and urged tenacity in prayer.  Worry drains us of energy and hope.  Not that he was suggesting a Pollyannaish approach to life either.  Paul knew how hard life was.  There was a large military presence in the area, and the Gentile Christians also had a difficult time dealing with the Jewish Christians.  “What is the right thing to do?” was a constant question.  So Paul says pray, and peace will be given.  Do you experience this in your prayer life?  Even if there is no answer, prayer reminds us of God’s constant presence, and there is solace in that.   Paul also says hold fast to Jesus’ teachings.  Hold on to what is true.  There is peace in that too.  Do you experience this?

THE GOSPEL – MATTHEW 21: 33-43

From John Pilch’s The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A:

The tenant farmers are frustrated, desperate and driven to violence.  They beat and kill the first 2 delegations from the owner.  When the owner’s son shows up, they miscalculate and presume that the owner is dead.  Believing the son to be the sole surviving heir, they kill him in hope of gaining the vineyard for themselves.  The plan is stupid and illegal, but they are driven by their otherwise hopeless situation (Have you even done something “stupid” because of desperation?).  The owner is very much alive.  The owner must act.  Compare this vineyard story to the one in Isaiah.  There are no tenant farmers in Isaiah; God destroyed the vineyard itself.  In Matthew, the tenant farmers are destroyed and the vineyard given to others.  It is a problem of leadership.  The tenant farmers (and Jesus may have been calling out the chief priests and Pharisees) must be replaced because they have not born fruit.  So leadership will be transferred to others (us?) who will produce proper fruit (p. 145 – 147).

This parable ends with an image of a cornerstone.  This picture is from Psalm 118:22:  “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.”  Originally the psalmist meant this as a picture of the nation of Israel.  But Jesus is the foundation stone on which everything is built, and the corner stone which holds everything together.   It may be that people reject Christ, but they will yet find that the Christ whom they rejected is the most important person in the world, (Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series:  Mathew Vol 2, p. 264-5).  Jesus is all about seeking relationship and bringing goodness to fruition.  At what lengths will you go to seek relationship with Jesus and bring good to fruition?

How I Learned to Love the Parable of the Servants in the Field

Fr. Bob’s homily for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time…

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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

There are two kinds of people who hear the Parable of the Servant in the Fields.  Those who are annoyed by it (and I can tell there are some of you out there) and those who love the parable and like to annoy those who are annoyed by it.  Guess which group I belong to?

I am going to try to convert you to my side, but first let’s set the situation.  The beauty of the story is that it is truly ancient and yet equally modern.  For in small towns and cities throughout the third world and in our state, trucks drive up to corners looking for workers for a daily wage.  Imagine that your task was the landowner’s.  Who would you choose?  I imagine you would choose the youngest, the strongest and the healthiest.  And if you came back at nine…

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A World with Compassion and one Without

Fr. Bob’s homily for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time…

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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Do you think St. Peter thought he was being extremely generous when he suggested that forgiving someone even times was enough?  If so, he must have been disappointed by the answer.  Jesus says they must forgive seventy-seven times.  And it is not as if he means keep checking off offences until the 78th and then giving it to the other guy is an option.  No, as seven is a sign of completeness then 77 is kind of utter completeness as if that was possible.

Then Jesus, in a brilliant two part story, explains why it is always necessary to always forgive in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  In it, he presents two worlds, one of mercy and compassion and one of unforgiveness.  Both have a price to pay, but only one way offers freedom.

A desperate man is brought before his…

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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

1st Reading; Ezekiel 18: 25-28

Ezekiel is among the first people of Israel that the Babylonians take captive in 597 B.C. He is well known for his insistence upon individual responsibility for sin. Children are not responsible for what the previous generation did. We are free to turn from wickedness to good at any time; we will then be judged by the new life that we have begun. (Sunday by Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005, vol. 14, #54; “Scripture in Depth” http://liturgy.slu.edu)

Ezekiel speaks of metanoia, from the Greek meaning a change of mind.  Even the term, “turning away” gives the feeling of a physical change of direction.  This is not only about our sinful ways.  Believing in God is life-changing.  It is “an interior transformation that comes about when God’s Spirit breaks into our lives with the Good News that God loves us unconditionally,” (Catholic Update on The Sacrament of Reconciliation, 1986).  What is our response to this unconditional love?

2nd Reading: Philippians 2: 1-11

William Barclay makes this important point: Paul is never just interested in intellectual speculation and/or theological guess work. To Paul theology and action are always bound together. Any system of thought must necessarily become a way of life. The purpose of these thoughts on Jesus’ humanity and divinity was to persuade the Philippians to live a life in which disunity, discord, and arrogance had no place. Jesus did not desire to dominate people, but to serve them. So we as followers must have the same desire. And, in the end, the humble service that Christ lived won for him greater glory, even if the glory was not the goal. Jesus gains our hearts not by blasting us with power, but by showing us an irresistible, faithful love. (William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 37-39)

“Emptied himself” suggests humility.  Humility was a big part of what St. Teresa of Avila wrote about in her Interior Castle.  She says, “As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God:  let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble,” (p. 38).  She goes on to say, “If, then, you sometimes fall, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good,” (p. 51).  Hope connects with love!

The Gospel: Matthew 21: 28 – 32

Parables can shock us as they can lay bare the truth with great simplicity. We cannot really argue with a parable; we must either accept it or reject it. It is a challenge, but it is also an invitation. Mary Birmingham says that “Living in the reign of God demands that I acknowledge my sinfulness, my reluctance to serve God, and forge ahead anyway.” (M. Birmingham, W&W, Yr.A, 525, 527)

In Jesus’ culture the son who answered yes to his father even though he did not go to work would have been considered the honorable son. His reply was respectful; it was what the father wanted to hear. Obedience was important, but the honorable appearance was more important. Notice: Jesus did not ask which son behaved honorably. He asked: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” Jesus’ own honor is being questioned by the chief priests and elders. But Jesus rubs salt into their wounds with this very counter-cultural parable and its challenge. They recognize this challenge: 1) Jesus is making them family with harlots and tax collectors (sons of the same Father) and 2) the chief priests and elders are the ones who may behave honorably, but they are not the ones who are always seeking to do the will of their Father. They care more about appearing to be honorable than about truly being about the good that God wants.(John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context,” http://liturgy.slu.edu)

Sometimes we can love humanity with great conviction, but find it extraordinarily difficult to love people in particular. For most of us, God is not the problem. The problem is those humans that God created, especially the creeps who don’t seem to deserve to take up our time and patience. When people draw near, they bring trouble. Yet, as Paul was emphasizing in his passage, it is our very relationships to each other that embody our relationship to God. Paul says we will only find joy and peace when we die to ourselves: an unwelcome prospect. Too often we want love, but not its cost. Love is more than logic and practical advice. It is a risk of the ego, an emptying of the self, a desire to serve rather than be served. This is at the heart of the Good News: first, God loved us with utter graciousness; second, we are called to love others with this graciousness. We jabber of love, but the living of it is a great shaking down of our pretense. Love in dreams can be easy; the reality of it can be a dreadful assault . . . (“The Word Embodied”, http://liturgy.slu.edu)

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

1st Reading: Isaiah 55: 6-9
This chapter starts the writings of 3rd Isaiah, a prophet who wishes to encourage his people as they come back from the Exile and face the rebuilding of their country and their faith. This chapter started with that beautiful image of all being invited to come to the water – come to the feast where there will be rich food and plenty – come without paying and without cost! In light of this vision and the gospel story this reading really says it all: God’s ways are not our ways – alleluia! What do you think of this reading? When might God be found?

2nd Reading: Philippians 1:20c – 24, 27a
Remember when Paul talks about Christ being magnified in his body that he also referred to the church as Christ’s body. Paul is such a powerful example of how the grace of God can transform us and renew us, even in the midst of the most difficult situations.

This was probably written by Paul when he was in prison in Ephesus maybe about 52-55 A.D. In this ‘holding tank’ of a place, death was a real possibility. In this case, we know Paul later went free to travel to Rome where eventually he was again imprisoned and killed. So his words are powerful and real, even if at this point he did not face death. Besides this situation, this letter to the Philippians is probably a compilation from two or three short letters written by Paul to the community at Philippi over perhaps many months. He is in a state of tension, and yet is living the peace that surpasses understanding (4:7) that he talks about in the letter. Paul knows now that “to live is Christ” – it is not about some mystical union, but about trusting that in all his labors and sufferings and work, Christ is at work. That is all that is important. Just like in the gospel, Paul shows us that we are not to be concerned about ‘rewards’ or our ‘pay.’ Rewards are not denied, but they are not the purpose of toiling for Christ and his kingdom. They always come as a surprise. Paul is a profound example of someone who takes the gospel parable to heart – and lives it. (Reginald Fuller, “Scripture in Depth,” http://liturgy.slu.edu. )

What Paul speaks of is freedom. He seems to be okay with living or dying, because either way he is with Christ. Margaret Silf says, “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,” (Inner Compass, p. 110). We are called to live in a state of: I don’t mind…

The Gospel: Matthew 20: 1-16a
This parable (unique to Matthew) follows Jesus’ discussion of the unequal ‘right’ of males to divorce a woman, Jesus’ blessing of the children, and then the story of the rich young man ending ch. 19 with “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Now Matthew opens this chapter with another illustration of the surprising and unsurpassing goodness of God and His kingdom. This chapter will go on to give us another prediction of Jesus’ suffering and death along with James’ and John’s request for places of honor in the kingdom. It will end with the healing of two blind men.
Given the surrounding stories and its own powerful message, what do you make of this parable? How does it comfort you? How does it challenge you? Can you sense the kindness in the owner’s face? Do you feel the gloom of the ones who had had no work and were hired late? Can you feel their amazement and joy?

This parable was probably quite a challenge to Matthew’s community, also. This Christian community was no doubt struggling to understand the place of Gentiles in their community – and God’s kingdom. This was a highly Jewish group of people who were being stretched to accept and welcome ‘the late-comers’, the Gentiles. The ‘same wage’ is extended to all. Of course, it is not about wages at all, but about salvation. No one can get ‘more salvation’ than another. Can there really be ‘higher places’ in heaven, if it is really heaven (There are many dwelling places…)? All who work in God’s vineyard, God’s kingdom, get the same wage: fullness of life with God for all eternity – incredible generosity = truly Good News! (“Working with the Word”, http://liturgy.slu.edu. )

In Jesus’ culture, workers had to be invited to work; they could not apply or go looking for work. That was seen as dishonorable since you might be taking what belongs to someone else. To have a ‘patron’ was a particularly great blessing. A patron is someone who freely chooses to treat other people (always of a lower class) ‘as if’ they were family members. This is how God acts in this parable.(John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context”, http://liturgy.slu.edu. )

It is important also to notice that the owner calls the ‘complaining worker’ at the end a friend, even though the worker never even addressed the owner with a customary title of respect. Discipleship is serious business; we need God’s insight and grace. Justice is only possible through love. This parable is a clear call to conversion for all of us. There is only one God, and we are not it! There is a place for us in God’s kingdom, but it is not on God’s throne! Our conversion is about seeing anew, considering a new world view. God is kind and faithful, but also surprising. We must stay alert and in relationship with our loving Lord if we do not want to miss what God is doing. Prayer and Scripture are ways for us to do just that. (Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 516-519)

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

1st Reading – Sirach 27: 30; 28: 7 & The Gospel – Matthew 18: 21-35

Both of these readings this week are about forgiveness: God’s mercy toward us and our mercy toward each other.

From Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series on Mathew:

It is Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother 3 times.  The 4th time they do not forgive.  This is based on a Biblical truth in Amos where there were a series of condemnations on various nations; God forgave 3 times and then punished the sinner in the 4th.  Since we are not to be more gracious than God, forgiveness was limited to 3 times.  Peter thought he was being generous by saying 7 times, but Jesus says 70 x 7, which really means unlimited.

From Living Liturgy, Year A, 236-237:

The ‘large amount’ in the gospel is literally 10,000 talents or 100,000,000 days’ wages, an unthinkably large amount.  (John Pilch says that 10,000 talents would require more than 164,000 years of work, seven days a week.) The smaller amount is 100 denarii or 100 days wages. The exaggeration is meant to remind us how much we should be in awe of the God’s gracious forgiveness.

The Hebrew word for forgiveness means to lift and carry away; the Greek word means to send forth.  Both words tell us that forgiveness puts transgressions and their hurt at a distance – or out of our mind and focus.  We put the hurt at a distance so we can get on with healing and life-giving relationships.

Pheme Perkins reflects like this:

God’s forgiveness of us is not primarily concerned with getting himself loved, a two-party reciprocal relationship.  The parable is not meant to imply that I have some set of obligations to God . . . rather, it suggests that the experiences we have of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, extra assistance, and so on are meant to be directed outward. They are not relationships to be shaped solely on the legal model . . . the first servant’s experience of forgiveness should have changed his own behavior . . . divine forgiveness is like that – it is so unequal that it must be applied in transitive fashion to other relationships. And, the issue is how I treat the other, not how I feel about the other.

JC Arnold’s Why Forgive?:  Certainly forgiveness is sometimes given and received lightly, or used to whitewash the ugly underside of life.  But such forgiveness has no staying power.  Even the most genuine declaration of forgiveness will wear thin if it is not accompanied by a change of heart (see end of Gospel reading), both in the forgiver and the forgiven.  In other words, it must cost something if it is to have any lasting effect.  There is, moreover, little value in seeking forgiveness if we let it touch us only momentarily and then slide back into the same behavior that required an apology in the first place.  It is true that forgiveness is a gift and that it comes with no strings attached.  But it is a useless one unless we let it change us for the better  (p. 131-132).

The 2nd Reading – Romans 14:  7-9

From: “Feeling and Pain and Prayer” by Margaret Bullitt-Jones

The question is whether we are willing to let God in on the depth of our anger and sorrow and anxiety and shame. Are we willing to disclose these parts of ourselves to God? What if God yearns to know and to enter not only our warm and loving feelings, but the depth of our anger and sadness and fear and doubt? What if God not only tolerates, but actually welcomes, the expression in prayer of our true selves, including those feelings that we tend to hide away and repudiate and despise?

C.S. Lewis once observed that “the prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’” If this is so, then our intention in prayer is to be our real selves and to encounter the real God. As Hart pointedly puts it, “The first principle of prayer is to be yourself. Prayer is being yourself before God.” Getting real involves opening to the truth of what we feel.

Winning in a Different Way

Fr. Bob’s homily last Sunday…

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22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

This is the last weekend at Saratoga, so I thought I would share one of my favorite stories of my Dad.  He had one week off a year and spent it going with his friends to Saratoga and the races with his buddies.  He was never too proficient.  He use to claim that the escalator of the clubhouse was named after him because he lost so much there.

The guys all had rules and one of them was never to bet too much on a steeplechase race because you could never know what would happen during the jumps.  But one day they got a tip from the outrider for the horses on this one particular race.  They were told he was the most outstanding horse by far so they all bet a lot on him.  And sure enough, the horse leads after every…

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On Charlottesville

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Remarks on Charlottesville Riot on August 13, 2017

In the beautiful first reading of Isaiah waiting for God in the cave, God is not found in the powerful wind, the earthquake or the fire.  Instead, God comes intimately, in “a tiny whispering sound.”  Yesterday, in Charlottesville, we found that God can speak even more softly than that – in the sound of a tear hitting the ground.

That tear sets off an alert in us.  That forces of hatred and bigotry, white supremacists and neo Nazis must still be confronted.  That when such horrific forces are at work they are borne of ignorance, fear and isolation.  Predictably, they can only offer violence and hatred in support of their banal arguments. They must be challenged as they were yesterday with peace, creativity and love.  We can never let down our vigilance against the forces of hate until we are one nation…

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Enough

Fr. Bob’s homily last Sunday…

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Feast of the Transfiguration A

I have fallen in love with the word ENOUGH.  It is a strange word to fall in love with. It does not come poetically to the ear.  When someone asks how much do you love me, no one wants to hear “Enough.”

But perhaps they should. For of all that Jesus promised could be summed up in that word.  We are loved “enough.”  Jesus did not make outrageous promises of this life of smooth sailing and uninterrupted happiness.  He spoke of carrying our cross and imitating him.  But the cross would not crush and we may die to ourselves but it is also followed by a resurrection.  You see we have been given enough to endure our crosses, our heartbreak and our tragedies.

The Transfiguration is a story of enough – enough to sustain the disciples through the shattering events of the cross.   A reminder…

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