Memorial Day

Readings: Isaiah 32:15-18 | Psalm 72 | Matthew 5:1-12a

Today is a day to reflect on our heroes. Who are the ones we hold up as role models and honor for their contribution to our world? Would we think of political leaders, or sports heroes, or entertainers? Certainly their accomplishments inspire us, and perhaps even make us yearn for greatness. But then, when we watch the news, how many of them turn out to be flawed in many ways? The people we want to hold up as heroes are very often not very heroic.

Today, then, is a day to celebrate true heroes. Memorial Day originally began in our country as an occasion to remember and decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Later it became a holiday to commemorate all those who had died in war in the service of our country. So today we remember those men and women who have given their lives for peace, justice, righteousness, and freedom. These have been people who have given everything, have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

On this day, I think it would be a mistake to glorify warfare. I don’t think that is the point of this day, or is even best way to honor the memories of those who have fallen in war. Our Church’s teachings counsel that war is not the way to peace and that developed societies like ours can and must use our resources to seek other ways to solve problems. But we have to acknowledge that there are and have been times in our nation’s history that have called on people to fight for our freedoms and to fight for justice. Today we honor their memory with immense gratitude, because without their sacrifice we may not be free to worship today.

It’s important that we take time to reflect on the freedom we have received from their sacrifice, because I think people often misunderstand it, and thereby diminish it. Real freedom isn’t doing whatever on earth you want: in some ways that’s a form of servitude and bondage, because it has us all bound up in ourselves. Real freedom is expressed in service, in our making the world, or at least our corner of it, a better place. Real freedom is living in such a way that we become the person God created us to be.

Today we pray for those courageous men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep the world safe, and free. These are the ones who have been people of faith and integrity and are true heroes that God has given us. These are the ones who have laid down their lives for what is right. If we would honor them on this Memorial Day, we should believe as they have believed, we should live as they have lived, and we should rejoice that their memory points us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is our hope of eternal life.

May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter (School/RE Mass)

Today’s readings

Jesus tells us today that sadness is always going to be a part of life.  That’s not the good news, that’s just the way things are.  I think we can all think about things that have made us sad, maybe even more so in these days when we’ve all been sheltered in place, away from each other.  We haven’t gotten to see our friends.  We didn’t get to have Olympic Day, or any of the fun end of the year activities.  Our second graders are all ready for First Holy Communion, but we haven’t been able to do that yet.  Then there are the regular sad things: Maybe we have had a good friend who has moved away and we don’t get to see them very much.  Maybe we have lost a pet or a toy that we have liked a lot.  Maybe we didn’t get picked for a team, or didn’t understand something in school.  All those things make us sad.

And some of us have had harder things that have been sad for us.  Maybe your parents aren’t getting along or have split up.  That’s very sad.  Just last week, my family gathered to remember that my father died several years ago.  All these years later, I still miss him a lot, and I am very sad – maybe you too have had a grandparent or someone you’re very close to die and you don’t get to see them again.  That’s a sadness that doesn’t go away soon.

Sadness is a part of our life, and Jesus acknowledges that.  He tells his disciples that he is going away – that he is going to ascend into heaven, which we will celebrate on Sunday – and they will miss him.  But he also tells them, and us, that sadness is not forever.  He says that it’s just like a woman who is having a baby.  She is sad because giving birth hurts so much.  But after a while, the baby is born and the pain stops, and she gets to see the beautiful child she brought into the world and is happy again.  Your moms probably have stories like that about when you were born!  In that same way, the things that make us sad won’t last forever.  One day, we will get to see Jesus face-to-face and he will bring us happiness that lasts forever.  On that great day, there won’t be anything that can ever make us sad again.

That doesn’t mean that our sadness doesn’t hurt right now, because it sure does.  It just means it won’t hurt forever.  Because Jesus loves us, we can look forward to happiness forever, even if we have to put up with a little sadness now and then.  We can count on the love of Jesus to get us through our bad times, because he promises that he will always be with us, always and forever.  

Sadness doesn’t get to rule our lives, because Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

There are a lot of miracles going on in today’s first reading.  First, there’s the earthquake that brings down the prison walls, although Paul and Silas did not take advantage of the situation.  Then there’s the conversion of the jailer, who was an employee of the Romans, and so would have had to worship their pagan gods.  You might also note the rather miraculous faith of Paul and Silas, who despite being very badly mistreated on account of Jesus, did not abandon their faith but actually grew stronger in it.  And you might also consider it a miracle that, when they are jailed and singing hymns at midnight, the other prisoners didn’t gang up and beat them into silence!

When you look at it as a vignette, it’s all so amazing, although Paul and Silas probably just viewed it as part and parcel of the life they had been called to live.  They had faith in Jesus and they probably didn’t expect anything less than the miracles they were seeing!

People of great faith experience such great miracles. This is not to say that all their troubles go away; Paul and Silas were still imprisoned, and continued to be hounded by the people and the government because of their faith. But the miracles come through the abiding presence of Christ, giving us strength when we need it most, a kind word from a stranger that comes at the right moment, a phone call from a friend that makes our day, an answer to prayer that is not what we expected but exactly what we needed. The Psalmist today has that same great faith: “Your right hand saves me, O Lord,” he sings. Let us pray that our hearts and eyes and minds would be open to see the miracles happening around us, that we might sing that same great song!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Friday of the Fifth Week of Easter (School/RE Mass)

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel gives us some of the best news I think we can possibly get.  Jesus says he no longer calls us slaves, but instead he calls us his friends.  That’s important for us to know because I think most people believe that God doesn’t really have to care about us, his creatures, that much.  He could just give us commandments and expect us to follow them or else.  He doesn’t really have to teach us anything so that we understand him; he could just expect us to follow his commandments out of fear.  We think about God that way sometimes.

But that’s not what Jesus is about.  We know that God made us so that he could love us and we could love him.  Even when we sinned and could not be his friends any more, he didn’t leave us to die in our sins.  Instead, he sent his Only-Begotten Son, Jesus, to become one of us and to pay the price that we deserved for our sins.  Jesus died on the cross, to pay that price, and he rose from the dead, so that we could be friends with God once again, and so that all those who believe in him and follow his ways can have the opportunity of eternal life with God in his heavenly kingdom.

That’s the Good News!  That’s the Gospel!  Jesus says he doesn’t call us slaves anymore.  That’s because we aren’t slaves to sin anymore, or at least we don’t have to be.  We can instead turn to Jesus and be his friends, if we do what he commands us.  And the commandment he gives us today seems like a very simple one: love one another.

Except that it’s not so simple all the time, is it?  Sometimes loving one another is hard to do.  Loving one another means we have to put others first.  Loving one another isn’t something we get to do only when we want to, but instead we have to do it all the time.  Loving one another means that we follow all the other commandments, because “love one another” is what sums them all up.  “Love one another” means that we remember that each person is created by God who loves them so then we have to love them too.

But we don’t have to worry about how hard it is to love one another.  We have a God who loves us first and loves us best.  Because he loved us and sent his Only-Begotten Son Jesus to show us his love, we have the grace we need to love one another.  We can love one another when it’s hard to do, when they really make us mad sometimes, because God loves us all the time, even when we are hard to love, even when we make others mad and make God sad because of what we do or what we fail to do.

We aren’t slaves anymore.  We have been set free.  But being free doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want, whenever we want – that’s the same thing as being a slave to sin.  Being free means that we can love others and put others first because God has done exactly that for us – over and over again!

So how will you love someone else today?  How will you love your parents or your siblings while you are doing e-learning today?  How will you love your teachers who might be explaining something very important that maybe you think is boring?  How will you teachers love the students who don’t seem to be getting it?  How will we all love our families today?  How will we put all these people first?  During the quiet parts of today’s Mass, let’s think about that.  Let’s come up with a plan to love someone even when they are hard to love.  Let’s love one another because God loves us first and loves us best!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Blue Mass for First Responders

Today’s readings: Daniel 3:25, Daniel 3:34-43 | Romans 8:31-39 | Mark 4:35-41

“Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?”

I can remember during my seminary formation, one of the most terrifying days of my life was during my third year of Theology formation.  That year, I had agreed to serve as a fire chaplain for one of the local fire departments.  I didn’t take that position lightly, because frankly, the whole idea of it scared me to death.  But I was asked to pray about it, and I’ll tell you, if you do that, you’re never going to hear God say, “Never mind, I’ll ask someone else.”  So the day when I was most terrified was one morning when I was awakened at 5am by a page from the department that they needed a couple of us chaplains to come and minister to a family whose father had just committed suicide.

I quickly got dressed and called the other chaplain who was going with me, and I headed down the hall to meet him in the parking lot.  As I was running through the hallways, I asked God, “What on earth do you want me to do in this situation?  How am I ever going to give comfort to this grieving family?”  I was absolutely terrified.  Well, we got there and, while we didn’t have adequate words to say, our presence did seem to help.  And the local police department, who did not have a chaplain, was so pleased that they asked for us to help them a few times after that.

I learned in that moment that it’s okay to be afraid, as long as I focused on Jesus.  Fear happens – no matter what we do in life.  Fear can paralyze us and keep us from doing what God wants and what others need.  Or fear can force us to look to the God who wants the best for all his children.

That’s what I think is going on in the Gospel story we just heard.  I really don’t think Jesus expected those disciples not to be afraid of the storm and the sinking boat.  I think he expected them to trust in his ability to calm the storm, which they did in some ways, or they wouldn’t have called out to him.  And that trust was rewarded.  Not just by the calming of the storm, but by the knowledge they gained in that situation that they could count on him and not let fear put an end to their relationship with him.

I can’t know the mix of emotions that comes to our first responders when they get the call.  I got a little glimpse of it as a fire chaplain.  But I wasn’t the one walking into the burning building because I was with the family as they huddled in a neighbor’s house across the street.  I wasn’t the first one into the house when the family member committed suicide; the situation was stabilized before I was even allowed in.  That all being the case, I do know, when I’ve had to act in times of fear and crisis, I was always okay with it when I remembered the presence of the God who never abandons us. 

In these days of pandemic, there is added fear and stress that is added to what you do.  You don’t know if the people you encounter in the course of your work have been exposed to COVID-19, and how that may affect you.  It’s hard to social distance when you have to respond to someone with a medical need or who needs some physical persuasion to obey the law.  PPE is hard to come by, and even when you have it, you have to pray it’s on right and doing its job.  But regardless of the situation, our communities still have needs, and still need the assistance of those who have sworn to serve and protect us all.

In the midst of the complication that this disease puts into every interaction, Saint Paul’s words in today’s second reading give great comfort:

What will separate us from the love of Christ?

Will anguish, or peril, or the sword? …

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly

through him who loved us.

The presence of a virus in our world is never, can never, will never outweigh the presence of Christ who loves us.  Nothing can ever separate us from that.

And so tonight we gather in gratitude for all that our first responders do for our community, especially during this difficult time.  I have to give a special shout-out to the Plainfield community, who have gathered around in support of each other during this time.  I haven’t experienced that level of cooperation and care in any other community in which I’ve ever served, so my gratitude is that much greater!  We also pray for all first responders in communities all over our nation and our world.  We ask God to give them safety and the assurance of his presence in every situation.

And so we faithful ones forge on in hope, knowing that COVID-19 is not forever.  Nothing gets to be forever except God’s grace and mercy and love.  And so, while disease is a fearsome thing, we don’t owe it our fear.  If we use that energy instead to trust in God’s providence and presence in every situation, and know that he is at work in us, he can then use us to renew the face of the earth.  Because that’s what’s really going on here: renewal.  Renewal of our relationship with God, our trust in him, our commitment to live the life he wants for us.

God’s mercies aren’t limited by disease or social distancing.  Fear and disease and even the powers of hell will not prevail against God’s Church and God’s work in the world.  

Because Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

So pretend you are Paul or Barnabas or one of the other apostles.  Think about all the things they went through in that first reading. Paul hasn’t even been a Christian for very long, and already he is being hounded and persecuted.  Maybe that makes sense because some people probably viewed his conversion as a kind of treason.  Whatever the case, as they speak out boldly in the name of Jesus, they receive nothing but violent abuse from the Jews.  So then they turn then to the Gentiles who were delighted to hear the Word preached to them.  But the Jews didn’t even leave that alone; they stirred up some of the prominent Gentiles to persecute Paul and Barnabas and eventually they expelled them from their territory.  What a horrible reception they received over and over again.

But, listen to the last line of that first reading again: “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”

Let that sink in for a minute: would that be your reaction?  Or would you say, “enough is enough” and let God stir up someone else to preach the Word?  Obviously, that’s not what Paul and Barnabas, or any of the other disciples did, or we wouldn’t be here today.  No, they were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God!

That’s the way joy works. It’s not something conditioned by the external events of a person’s life.  Joy is not a feeling. Joy, instead, is a direct result of the disciple’s decision to give their life to Christ and to follow his way – wherever that may take him or her.  Joy does not mean that the disciple won’t experience sadness or even hard times.  I think we all get that disciples get tested as we go through these pandemic days.  But joy does mean that the disciple will never give in to the sadness or the hard times because all those things have been made new in Christ.

Christ is the source of our true joy.  We disciples must choose to live lives of joy and remain unaffected by the world and the events of our lives.  We choose joy because we know the One who is our Salvation, and because it is he who fills us with joy and the Holy Spirit.

We have joy because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Faith Formation Closing Mass

Today’s readings

Can you remember the first time you were called a Christian?

It was at Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians.  This, of course, is after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after the disciples, including Barnabas, and apparently Paul (known to them as Saul, the name he had before his conversion).  These dedicated men created a community in Antioch and taught them the Gospel and started a church there.  The people around them knew them for teaching about the Christ – Jesus – and it was there that they were first called Christians.

We probably don’t think much about the term “Christian.”  It’s so much a part of our vocabulary, that we know Christians are those of us who believe in Christ and follow his teachings.  Sometimes people wonder whether Catholics are Christians, and the response is, yes, of course.  Our Church was founded by Christ himself, and we dedicate ourselves to living the Gospel he taught us, to living our own lives as disciples, as followers, as people devoted to him.

If I were to ask you, “Who is Jesus?” you might tell me that he is the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the son of Mary and Joseph, God made man, the One who went about doing good and calling people to repentance, the One who shows us the way to the Father.  These, and many other facts about Jesus, are absolutely right, and we believe them completely.  But a fuller, more important answer requires us to go more deeply and to answer who is Jesus for us?  Do we have a relationship with Jesus, or is he just a concept we have learned?

If all Jesus is is a concept, then, honestly, who cares?  If all Jesus is is a concept, why did so many of those early disciples die for him?  If all Jesus is is a concept, then how did this Church survive for over two thousand years?  Concepts are interesting, maybe, but hardly worth living for and dying for.  A vibrant relationship with a God who loves us enough to be personally present to us, that’s worth living and dying for.  At the end of the day, only that vibrant relationship with Jesus will cause people to say, “She’s a Christian” or “He’s a Christian.”

Ever since Sunday, and including tonight, the Gospel reading at Mass has been reflecting on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  Our Good Shepherd promises us eternal life, a life so much better than what we now experience, a life of forever grace, where all of our woundedness is bound up and our sins erased and our death redeemed.  All we have to do to get there is to listen to his voice, live his Gospel, and be faithful to our relationship with him.  If we do that, no one can take us out of his hand, no one can separate us from his love.

In these days of pandemic, when we are sheltered in place and socially distant from each other, Jesus offers us a relationship that transcends all that.  He offers us a relationship where virus, disease, sin and death don’t have ultimate power over us.  He offers us a relationship that continues to write our story and draw us closer until we are one with him.  In these days of pandemic, I firmly believe that God is doing something among us: calling us to look at what’s ultimately important and calling us back to oneness in him.  That, really, can be the gift to us in these days.  And who doesn’t need a real gift in these days?!

I honestly hope we never go back to normal – at least not the normal we’ve become used to.  Because that normal had us forgetting about Jesus and distancing ourselves from one another – you know, in different ways than we have now.  That normal had us distancing ourselves from our families in favor of being part of every activity imaginable.  That normal had us eating in the SUV on the way to the next thing rather than sitting down and getting to know each other.  That normal found other things so much more important than our relationships with each other and with our God.  And, friends, that normal isn’t worthy of us.  We deserve so much better, and the great thing is, God wants us to have it.

So when things start getting back to normal – whenever that may be – let’s not forget the really important things we have learned and experienced and loved in these days.  Let’s not forget the really beautiful things that have happened among us.  Let’s not forget our renewed relationships with each other, and the relationship we have with God.  Let’s not forget that we are Christians.

Because Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“Athirst is my soul for the Living God.”

The Psalmist today sums up what is going on in the entire Liturgy of the Word.  In the book of Acts, we see that even the Gentiles seek salvation in Christ, and Peter learns that those God has called to holiness cannot be treated as unclean.  In the Gospel, we have the image of the Good Shepherd – a bit of a re-run from yesterday – whose voice the faithful hear in the depths of their hearts.

At the core of our creation, all of us – and not just the “us” who are here in this church or tuning in online, but all people – all of us yearn for the Living God.  This is not surprising, because God made us – all of us – for himself, in his own image.  This is an important point for us Christians to get: God made all of us, created us good, created us for himself.  And so, deep down inside, every person yearns for the Living God.

And it’s this realization that makes our lack of unity so very troublesome; it’s this realization that puts the work of evangelization on the front burner.  God created only one People and Christ established only one Church.  God made us to be one, and one with him, and it is sin that has driven us apart and kept us apart for so very, very long.

And so our goal as God’s people is to become one in him who made us, and one in him who redeemed us.  The work of evangelization is so important because God’s creation will not be complete until all of us are one.  And so we disciples have to make it our life’s vocation to see to it that everyone who knows us hears Christ in us, we have to open doors so that people can come to Christ and we have to tear down barriers of hostility or elitism.  The souls of every person cry out, “Athirst is my soul for the Living God.”  Who, then, are we to hinder God’s unifying work?

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Today’s readings

What would you do for just five minutes of peace and quiet?

If you’re a parent, maybe you’d be happy for just five seconds of peace and quiet!  In these days when many of us are sheltered in place together, it can be easy to get on each other’s nerves.  For those of you sheltered alone, you’d probably love to have an interruption to the peace and quiet, but that’s not my point here!

We are all probably sadly familiar with the many loud distractions our world puts before us.  And we’ve become conditioned to accepting it, even needing it on some primitive level, I think.  How often do we get out of bed and flip on the radio or television right away, or check our text messages or email before our feet even hit the floor?  Can we even get through a car ride without having the radio going?  Is the television always the background noise in our homes?  I know I’m guilty of some of those myself.  There’s a whole lot of noise out there and it’s become so that we are very uncomfortable with any kind of quiet.

A big source of noise in these pandemic days has been the many sources of “knowledgeable” information.  I know that for me, it’s been hard to discern which voice I should be hearing.  So many people have so many ideas about what we should be doing in every given situation.  It’s amazing how many people are epidemiologists and medical experts.  I hadn’t even known they had gone to medical school!  News goes on for hours and gives us all kinds of conflicting advice.  In some ways, it’s been another source of noise.

And all that noise doesn’t lead us anywhere good.  The Psalmist talks about walking through death’s dark valley.  I think some of the noise out there resembles that dark valley pretty closely.  There are voices out there tempting us to all sorts of evil places: addictions, selfishness; pursuit of wealth, prestige, or power.  Those same voices call us to turn away from the needy, from family, God and the Church.  Those same voices tell us that we are doing just fine on our own, that we don’t need anyone else to make us whole, that we are good enough to accomplish anything worthwhile all by ourselves.  And those voices are just wrong; dead wrong.

Those are the voices of those Jesus mentions in the Gospel who circumvent the gate and come to “steal and slaughter and destroy.”  The frightening thing is, we have become so used to these distracting voices that we have turned away from God, turned away from the Savior we so desperately need, and have been led astray.  That’s the heart of why our pews aren’t filled, why people call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, why the likes of Oprah and Joel Osteen have become so popular in this day and age.

So maybe we have to become a little more like sheep.  Now I want to be careful about saying that, because I know what you’re thinking: being like sheep has a pretty negative connotation.  To be clear: I don’t mean that in the sense of cultivating blind obedience leading us on the pathway to ruin.  Because, as it turns out, sheep aren’t as dumb as we often think they are.  I once read an explanation of the backstory on today’s Gospel image of the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheepfold. 

In Jesus’ day, the shepherds would gather several flocks in the same fenced-enclosure. They needed to do that, because they were always on the move with their sheep, bringing them to market, and they didn’t own every plot of land across the entire route of their trip.  So they would find a sheepfold which might be constructed in a pasture using brush and sticks; or, maybe it would adjoin a wall of a house and have makeshift walls for the other sides. Owners of small flocks of sheep would have combined them in the secure enclosure at night.  Someone – the gatekeeper – would then guard the flocks. The “gate” would have been a simple entrance, but the gatekeeper might even stretch out across the opening and literally be the “gate.” The shepherds would arrive early in the morning and be admitted by the gatekeeper. They would call out to their sheep and the members of the flock recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and that shepherd would “lead them out.”  The shepherd then walks in front of the flock and they follow. (cf. Jude Sicilliano, OP)

So the sheep are smart enough to recognize their shepherd’s voice, and follow him.  We, like the sheep, have to cultivate the silence that is needed to hear our shepherd’s voice and follow him, so that we can be led to green pastures, and not be distracted by all the noise out there.  We are a people in great need of a Savior, of the Good Shepherd.  When we deny that, we’ve already lost any hope of the glory of heaven.  We desperately need the guidance of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; the one who leads us to eternity, laying down his own life to keep us out of the eternal clutches of sin and death.  Jesus came into this world and gave himself so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly.”  We just have to stop settling for the noise out there and tune in to our Savior’s voice.

Here’s a way to pray with this in the coming week.  Take five minutes, or even just five seconds if that’s all you can find, and consciously turn off the noise: whether it’s the physical noise of the television or radio, or the internal noise of distractions in your head.  Step outside by yourself for a while, if that’s what it takes.  And then reflect on what voices are out there distracting you from hearing  the voice of your Good Shepherd.  Bring all that noise to mind and acknowledge its presence.  Then, ask the Good Shepherd to help you tune them out so that you can more readily discern his voice and follow the right path.  Sometimes we have to take note of the distraction before we can move past it.  When you’ve done that, you can spend some time in the presence of the One who is the gate, the sheepfold, and the shepherd.

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Allelluia!

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