Three Parables for Us — 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

September 14, 2019

It was not without design that Jesus, St. Luke, and the Holy Spirit place before us today a trio of Gospel parables: that of a sheep that strayed and was found, that of a coin that was lost and then recovered, and that of a son dead through sin but then returned to life. The lost sheep is joyfully brought back by the Shepherd. The missing coin (specifically a Greek silver drachma worth one day’s wage) is joyfully found by the woman. And the son, repenting of his sinful wandering, retraces his footsteps to his father and is joyfully embraced.

The Pharisees and scribes had complained about Jesus: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus replies with these three parables, three allegorical stories teaching spiritual truths about God, the Church, and us. So where are we symbolically in these parables? We are that sheep, we are that coin, and we are that prodigal son.

Who is the good shepherd in today’s parable? This Good Shepherd is Jesus Christ, who took upon Himself your sins and bears you upon His own Body because he treasures you. And who is the woman who has lost her silver coin, a coin perhaps from an ornamental belt which held her sentimentally-valuable marriage dowry? This woman, this bride, is the Church, who searches and longs for you, because you are precious to her. And who is the merciful father? The merciful father is God the Father, the Father who receives you back.

Consider how, amongst our Good Shepherd’s riches, we are but one one-hundredth portion. Besides us he has vast, sprawling flocks: the angels and archangels, thrones and dominions, and possesses in himself every divine attribute and glory. But he stepped away from these in a mysterious way to save us. In the words of St. Paul, ‘though was in the form of God, Jesus emptied himself, coming in human likeness; he humbled himself for us, even facing death.’ “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Consider how that ancient drachma coin would bear an image, perhaps the likeness of a god or of the king who had minted it. In whose image are we minted?

God created mankind in his image;
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”

The Bride of Christ rejoices in every coin she picks up and holds, because each one bears an image of her beloved, uniquely shows his face, and enriches her all the more with him.

And consider how living in our Father’s house is better than life in a country distant from him. The word “prodigal” means to spend wastefully, and the son’s time spent away was truly wasted. After paying to enjoy sinful pleasures in the dark of night what did he have left to show for it in the new day’s light? But living in the Father’s household bears good fruit, “fruit that will remain.” And there is more than enough food to eat. “Whoever comes to me will never hunger,” Jesus says, “and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” And the joyful celebrations his Father’s house are not regretted after.

These three parables today are about us. We are the sheep; let us heed our Good Shepherd’s voice. We are precious coins; let us believe our great worth. And we are beloved children; let us live in our Father’s house.

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Loving & Serving Jesus Foremost — 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

September 11, 2019

Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” That teaching certainly demands one’s attention. But how does it mesh with our Lord saying: “I give you a new commandment: love one another”? This teaching, like Jesus’ parables, invites us to question and wrestle a little for our Lord’s meaning, so that, through the struggle, we will understand him more deeply and his words will go more deeply in us.

Loving our family members is not the problem that Jesus is warning us against—the problem comes from loving someone or something more than him. We are called to universal Christian love. We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and therefore, by extension, commanded to love ourselves as well. (Because if I did not love myself, then what good would it be to love my neighbor as myself?) We should love our neighbors and love ourselves. However, if I am seeking to always please myself or seeking to please everyone around me, that will not lead me to Heaven.

Whatever Jesus asks of me, ultimately will, sooner or later, yield happiness for me. Jesus says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these (good) things will be given you besides,” and “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Doing what Jesus asks us leads to happiness, but that doesn’t mean that I, or the people around me, will always be thrilled about what we’re called to do.

Suppose someone is called to be more healthy (which is a good goal) and begins to eat better, exercise more, drink less, and/or quit smoking. This person is loving their body by acting in healthy ways, but at the same time their flesh may, at first, hate these changes. In time, these healthy habits will bear happy fruits, but at the beginning you may have to love your body while displeasing your flesh. Healthy choices can face resistance from other people as well. Family members might object when there’s less junk food snacks in the kitchen cabinets, or when you don’t go out so often for fast food. Drinking or smoking-break buddies may complain that you’re never around, or somehow no fun, anymore. Ultimately, you have to decide whom you are going to serve, listen to, and follow. Jesus Christ insists that we serve him first.

My dad told me that when he was a kid he thought bad people did bad things because they wanted to be bad, like dastardly villains in cartoons and comic books. But in reality, nobody does evil solely for evil’s sake. Every single person, every angel and demon, acts in pursuit some real or perceived good. Sinners are simply pursuing happiness in wrong ways. The unrepentant usually feel justified in what sins they commit; and human beings can create justifications for anything they want.

In the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, the people said, “Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky…” They sought, in other words, to build a city and a tower into Heaven. But they attempted to do this without God, and they never got close. Genesis says ‘the Lord had to come down to see the city and the tower that the people had built.’ They fell far short. Today Jesus asks, “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’”

Who, of themselves, has the knowledge or resources to construct paradise, to build an earthly tower into Heaven? No one. We see many people try to build their own foundations for their lives and fail in every sort of sinful way. ‘For human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ If we follow Jesus he leads us into the City of God and his Heavenly Kingdom, the Church, the Church here below and above in glory. Following Jesus means being his disciple, and to be a good disciple is to listen, to learn, and to apply the teachings you are taught.

On earth, Jesus never penned a book, but he did establish a Church, a Church with a Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations”. Make disciples how? Through the sacraments, beginning with baptism, and by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In this, the inspired, Sacred Scriptures of the Church play an important part. “And behold,” Jesus says “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Jesus is present in our Church today. Jesus still teaches through his Holy Catholic Church throughout the world.

Is there a part of your life where you’re not listening to Jesus? Perhaps you’re not listening as he speaks in your conscience, in your prayer, or through his Bride, our Mother, the Church? It could be about money, or sexuality, or your life’s vocation, about something you’re doing, or something you’re refusing or afraid to do. Whatever it is, the Lord knows what it is, and you probably do, too.

I’d like to share with you a technique or approach I’ve used to help me take the next step when the Lord was calling me somewhere I wasn’t eager to go; like when I was in middle school and the Lord was calling me to take my faith more seriously, when it would have been easier to ignore him. Or later, when I was called to be more generous with my wealth, but I was frightened of risk. Or when he started calling me to become a priest, and that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do with my life. Picture yourself on your death bed someday, having not taken the Lord’s path now. Imagine looking back and having to wonder, “What would my life have looked like if I had trusted and dared more for the Gospel? How much better, how much more fruitful, would my life have been?” Or think of yourself standing before God’s judgment seat and him asking you, “Why didn’t you live your life like I wanted you to live it? I desired so much more for you.” Avoid having to look back someday with regret, at the end of this life or in the next. Bravely take the path that God is calling you to choose. Jesus desires abundant life for you, so carry your cross and follow him.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann, 1888

“Hi. I’m Jesus. This is my Apostle, Simon, and this is my other Apostle, Simon.”

September 11, 2019

St. Luke’s Gospel tells us,

“Jesus departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles:
Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew,
James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas,
James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot,
and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”

Ever notice how many of the Apostles have the same names? With two Simons, two Johns, and two Judases, half of the Apostles share a first name. Something like this naturally occurring is actually not that unusual; for instance, nearly 48% of U.S. Presidents share a first name with at least one other President, and about 68% of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had the same first name as one or more of the other signers.

But how often have you come across a novel, movie, or TV show with two characters bearing the same first name? (The only example that comes to my mind is from the 1980’s sitcom Newhart: “Hi. I’m Larry, this is my brother, Darryl, and this is my other brother, Darryl,” but this was just for laughs—the two Darryls didn’t even have any spoken lines.) Duplicate naming is avoided by the authors of fictional works because this complicates the story, potentially confusing the reader. The fact that we see duplicate names among the Apostles (not to mention the many, many Marys) is just more evidence that the Gospels are not made up texts but a record of history as it happened.

Larry (right) with Darryl and Darryl on Newhart

Chihuahuas & Heavenly Glory — 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

September 1, 2019


Saturday Night Live used to have a running bit called “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy,” and this was my all-time favorite Deep Thought:

I hope if dogs ever take over the world, and they choose a king, I hope they don’t just go by size, because I bet there are some Chihuahuas with some good ideas.

Imagine if our human social standing in the world were based upon size. What if we were looked up to, or looked down upon, because of our height? I imagine that more men would wear big boots and more women would wear high heels. Guys would don tall hats and gals would keep their hair up. Basketball would be the sport of kings. And some unfriendly folk would say, “I don’t want no short people round here.”

Or, what if our worldly status were based upon the alphabetical order of our last names? A, B, and C families would have every honor and advantage, and the middle letter households would be considered middle class. I suspect there would be more romantic stories and fairy tales about Andersons marrying Zwiefelhofers. And I can picture lots of people legally changing their last names, until perhaps this practice got outlawed by a new law signed by President Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

These are silly and unjust ways to structure a society. But what is the basis for social standing and status in our real world? Money comes to mind. Now people usually work for their pay or profits, so personal wealth is a personal trait that – to some degree – is earned. But how much have we really merited all the wealth that we possess? Compared to international averages, all of us here are very rich. I try to do my best in ministry, but do I really work five times harder than a priest in Bolivia? Am I actually twelve times more productive than a priest in The Philippines? Am I truly twenty-five times more fruitful than a parish priest in Nigeria? I doubt it. So how proud can I be of my being rich? How much should I be enamored by, or how much should I look up to, people wealthier than me? And how much should I look down on people with less than me? Other sources of status and standing in our society include political power or physical attractiveness. But history teaches us that people in positions of power are often not admirable. And sometimes the wicked in this world can be very attractive, while the good can look quite plain or even ugly.

Our second reading today speaks of a society quite different and far better than this broken world we live in. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us we approach ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.’ Who lives there? God the judge of all, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. All are happy who live in Heaven, happy to their fullest, but their individual weights of glory are not the same. It is like how thimbles and small cups can be as completely full as buckets and tubs while holding different amounts of water. We know that glory differs in Heaven because, for starters, who among us could possess as much glory as our Lord? Within the hierarchy of the angels some have more glory than others. And glory varies amongst the human saints in Heaven as well.

The salvation of every saint is only possible through Jesus’ precious blood—the blood of his sacrifice we could not and did not deserve; sprinkled blood which speaks more eloquently than that of Abel, because Abel’s blood cried out from the earth for punishment on his murderer, while Jesus’ blood cries out to God for mercy on us all. Yet, once redeemed by Christ’s blood, we can merit, because God promises to reward our good deeds done in Christ. Jesus promises that he, “the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.” He tells us today, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” St. Paul speaks to this in various places in the New Testament. He says, “…A person will reap only what he sows… Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up.” And St. Paul says elsewhere, “Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

Our gracious good deeds transform us more and more into God’s likeness, allowing us to receive more and reflect more of his glory, both now in this life and forever in Heaven. So what is the best way to sow bountifully in this life for the greatest possible reward in the next? We can look to and imitate the lives of the saints. We can learn from them and we are wise to befriend them. Yet the saints were first and foremost imitators and friends of Christ; who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself to became human like us. Jesus deserved to be our king on earth, but he took the form of a servant. He humbled himself, even to the point of death on a cross. And because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name and honor and glory that is above and before all.

Like in today’s parable, Jesus took the lowest place, and the Father called him up to a higher place, to be seated at his right hand in Heaven. Jesus calls us to be like him, in what we respect and in who we honor, in what we value and in who we treasure, in how we live and in how we treat others. You may or may be considered a big dog in this world, but you must follow our good Master, loyally heed his commands, and show kindness to all the Chihuahuas.

How Many Will Be Saved? — 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

August 25, 2019

Someone asks Jesus from the crowd, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” And Jesus replies, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Instead of quoting some particular figure, like ten thousand or ten billion souls, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Jesus dodges the question. So we are left wondering: in the end, will the number of people saved be few or abundant?

In the Book of Revelation, St. John witnesses a vast number of saints worshiping God in heaven. He beholds “a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Note that this ‘countless multitude’ is different and much larger than the “144,000 marked from every tribe of the Israelites” that John observes several verses before. Jesus came to save people not only from the twelve tribes of Israel, but from the whole world. As the Lord declares through the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” Based on this, we can confidently say that a very large number will be saved.

On the other hand, in our gospel’s parallel passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” The ‘few’ who enter the narrow gate to life sounds like less than the ‘many’ who do not. From this, it would seem that the number saved will be comparatively small.

However, the words “few” and “many” are relative terms which depend upon the context. For example, nearly 19,000 medals have been awarded in the modern Summer and Winter Olympic Games, and that is indeed many. But how many Olympic gold, silver, or bronze medalists have you personally met? If any at all, probably only a few. In a more tragic example, around 130,000 Americans die each year in accidents, and that’s awfully many. But at the same time, roughly 99.96% of Americans do not die in accidents each year, making the 0.04% who do relatively few. The word “many” sometimes refers to a majority of people, but not always.

Jesus suffered, died, and rose to redeem all of mankind. Even if there had been only one sinner on earth in all of human history, it seems that Jesus would have become man in order to offer himself to save him or her, me or you. Suppose that the number of human souls condemned to Hell on Judgment Day turns out to be only a dozen. Knowing how much our Lord loves each and every person, will not those lost twelve feel like many in the heart of Jesus and those saved billions feel like few? In any case, Jesus never tells us whether the majority of the human race will be saved or lost. Either outcome is possible.

Why isn’t Jesus more clear about exactly how many people will be saved? Because Jesus knows how such knowledge would be harmful for us. If we were told that most people will be saved in the end, we would fall into dangerous presumption. We’d say to ourselves, “I haven’t robbed any banks or murdered anybody; I sure I’m good enough.” And if we were told that most people will be lost in the end, we would fall into poisonous despair. We’d say to ourselves, “With my sins, what’s the use in me even trying?” St. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “did not need anyone to testify to him about human nature. He himself understood it well.” So, instead of giving us some precise statistic, some number or percentage about how many will be saved, Jesus gives us this much more beneficial advice: ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate (for whether you are saved or not depends, in part, on you.)’

Almighty God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth,” in the words of St. Paul, but upon coming to know that truth, the Lord requires our personal response. He respects our freedom, and we are free to ignore him, to our own harm. As Jesus tells us, after the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, you may stand outside knocking and saying, “Lord, open the door for us.” He will say to you in reply, “I do not know where you are from.” (In other words, “You’re a stranger to me.”) And you will say, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets” (as happens at every Holy Mass.) Then he will say to you, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.

For adults like you and me, entering through Jesus’ narrow door requires more than merely wishing or have vague aspirations about going to Heaven someday. Striving to enter through the narrow gate entails sacrifices and discipline. As our second reading tells us, to those who are trained by it, discipline brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness. “So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet.” Consider:

What sacrifice does Jesus ask of you?
What is Jesus asking you to remove from your life?
What is Jesus asking you to add to your life?
What sin does he want you to cease?
What gift does he want you to give?
Think about it. Pray about it.
Jesus has answers for you.

Let us intentionally cooperate with God and his grace. Let us accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives, so that we may be numbered among ‘the few‘ who are saved in the end.

Your Special Day: August 24th — The Aaron & Ciera Logslett Wedding

August 24, 2019

Aaron and Ciera, this date, August 24th, August 24th 2019, is a date you will remember (or else you will be reminded of) every year for the rest of your lives together. Today marks the beginning of your marriage covenant. This will henceforth be your special day. But are you aware of the past history of this date? Momentous things have occurred on August 24th.

1,940 years ago today, on August 24th, 79 A.D., an Italian volcano, Mount Vesuvius, famously erupted, killing thousands of people in the Roman city of Pompeii a moment. That’s why you picked today for your wedding date, right?

On August 24th, 1814, 205 years ago today, during the War of 1812, the British army invaded Washington D.C. and set fire to the White House. The President and First Lady, James and Dolly Madison escaped, but they lost their home and many personal possessions. But, it’s not only unfortunate historical events that mark this day. Positive things have happened as well.

110 years ago today, In 1909, the first of some 2 million cubic yards of concrete began to pour to create the Panama Canal. This project, connecting two oceans through Central America, is one of our country’s greatest engineering feats.

And 70 years ago today, on August 24th, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization went into effect. The United States led Western nations in forming this mutual defense pact (called NATO) against the evil and hostile Soviet Union. Through this alliance, the U.S. and her allies would go on to win the Cold War.

Besides being interesting trivia, I mention these events from the past because they carry lessons for your future together.

This is a happy day, a day for great joy, but it is my duty to tell you, and my desire to help you, to enter the years ahead with open eyes. There will be enemies to your marriage. Hostile forces will attack your house that would burn it down. I speak of temptations and dangers from this broken world around us, your own weak flesh, and the very real devil. All of us must fight these battles. And there will be days in your marriage when unexpected disasters fall from the sky, crises and trials will erupt in your lives in ways you cannot now predict. I know this because the Cross comes to every person’s life.

But today, the two of you are entering into a new alliance, to stand and endure against these evils. It’s an alliance sealed with God and with each other; to be a good wife and mother like Sirach praises in our first reading, and a kind and merciful husband and father like our Psalm celebrates. Together, you can and will prevail. Today the cement of your marriage covenant will be poured and hardened. Today you have found your life’s calling, your vocation. Rather than taking a longer way around to this world to Heaven, your marriage is to be your straight path to holiness. Your marriage is to be your channel of God’s grace.

As St. Paul’s prayed for the Romans in our second reading, so we pray for you:

“May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant you to think in harmony with one another,
in keeping with Christ Jesus,
that with one accord you may with one voice
glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Today, Jesus preaches his Gospel message to you

“As the Father loves me, so I also love you.
Remain in my love.
If you keep my commandments,
you will remain in my love…
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment:
love one another as I love you.”

Aaron and Ciera, remember these things in the marriage you are about to enter so that you may be blessed in this life and forever. Now, let’s make history.

A Preview of our Future Glory – The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – August 15th

August 15, 2019

In the year 1950, with the world past beyond the deaths of World World II and rejoicing in the victory against evil, Pope Pius XII promulgated this joyful message:

“…For the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son – the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

As Pope Pius detailed in the decree in which he proclaimed this dogma, the Church’s belief in Mary’s Assumption into Heaven is not something new. This is evidenced by the fact that no Church in East or West claims to have her body. You can find purported (and quite probable) relics of St. Peter or St. Paul, but you will encounter no bones of St. Mary. This is because Christians everywhere believed that her body no longer remained to be found anywhere on earth.

Some people say Catholics honor Mary too much, but this is an unfounded concern. Whatever we celebrate about Mary at the same time points to and glorifies her Son. The Lord’s Ark of the Covenant, his throne, and his mother are celebrated and glorious; but the One whom the ark, the throne, and the mother bear is greater still. While the mysteries of Mary point to and glorify Jesus, the mystery of Mary’s Assumption particularly points to our future glory in Christ.

For example, as I mentioned before, Mary’s body is no longer to be found on earth. In times past and present, some have doubted whether the bodily resurrection of the dead extends beyond Jesus from his tomb. Mary in her glory is not a disembodied spirit, but united in her body and soul. This is the future destined for our bodies as well. That is why we do not treat dead bodies as trash, like dirt swept up from the floor to be thrown outside to the wind. We reverence the bodies of the dead because those bodies will rise again.

We know more about Mary after her Assumption through the Church-approved apparitions of her; such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, and other appearances. While we are not bound to believe in these apparitions, the Church – having investigated them thoroughly – has judged them to be true and worthy of belief. These apparitions indicate that Mary has been globe-traveling for nearly two thousand years.

The dogma of Mary’s Assumption leaves open the question of whether Mary ever actually died. There are traditions on both sides of the question, and Pope Pius XII merely proclaimed that she assumed after “having completed the course of her earthly life.” But in either case, whether she died or not, Mary now clearly shares in her Son’s victory over death. Death no longer has any power over her, and this will be true for all of us who rise in Christ.

A detail that seers of Mary’s apparitions agree on is that she is now exceedingly beautiful. During the years of her life on earth, Mary might not have been the most beautiful woman alive. We do not imagine that Jesus had to be the tallest or most muscular man who has ever lived, so likewise Mary need not have lived as history’s most beautiful woman either. If she had been that physically beautiful, I can easily imagine it impeding her God-given mission. But regardless, now there is no mismatch between Mary’s inner and outer beauty. This inner beauty is called holiness. Sometimes in this world the holy can look quite plain or even ugly, while the wicked can look very attractive. But after the resurrection, the abundance (or lack) of holiness we have cultivated within will be seen in our endless beauty (or ugliness) forever.

It seems that Mary, in her now-glorified body, can change aspects of her appearance. For instance, in her apparition to St. Juan Diego as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico in 1531 she had darker skin and black hair, like the Native Americans. But at her first Church-approved apparition in the United States, to the Belgian-immigrant Adele Brise in 1859 here in Wisconsin near Green Bay, Mary had white skin and blonde hair. And on these occasions she did not speak to them in her own original language, in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in the familiar languages of those she was speaking to. She chose to look and speak this way to them because she is their spiritual mother. And she is our mother, too.

Mary may change her hair color, skin color, and age because these are relatively unimportant details of our person; but interestingly, she never appears as a different sex. She has never appeared as a bearded man declaring, “I am the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus.” God has created Mary as a female, just as the body he created for Jesus is forever male. God made them male and female, and what God has created is very good.

In none of her apparitions has Mary ever said, “I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, but could you please let up on all the prayers? I can’t keep up with all your Hail Marys!” Just imagine having an email account with an inbox receiving a billion new messages every day. For us this would be overwhelming, but Mary’s capacity to hear, and know, and act has been heightened in her glorified state. She hears you, she knows you, and she loves you personally. This foreshadows our life in the Kingdom to come. How many close friends can a person have? Five, ten, maybe twenty? But in Heaven we will have more than a billion such friends, and the capacity to profoundly know them all and to intensely love them all will be within our ability. The practice of love in this life is a preparation for that endless day.

What is Mary’s mission after her Assumption? It’s not that different from the Visitation we hear about in today’s Gospel. Mary encounters her extended family member, Elizabeth, and comes to serve her in love, for Elizabeth is up in age and pregnant with her first child. And Mary does not come alone, but with Jesus within her, and she helps to make him known. And then Mary and Elizabeth praise and rejoice in God together: “the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his Name!” That is what she’s doing in her apparitions. And even after the Resurrection, that will continue to be her mission and ours; to encounter and love and serve our family in Christ, to praise and glorify God, and to rejoice with Christ and each other forever.

In conclusion, Mary’s Assumption points to our own bodily resurrection. Her beauty encourages us to pursue the beauty of holiness. She is our mother, and as long as we have God as our Father we will be their son or daughter forever. Mary knows and loves each one of us, helping us to grow in love. And her mission is our mission; to encounter and serve others, to walk with Jesus Christ, and to praise and rejoice in God. All of the mysteries of Mary point to and glorify Jesus, but the mystery of Mary’s Assumption particularly points to our future glory in Christ.

Really Present — 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

August 12, 2019

The Pew Research Center, which conducts surveys on religious belief in America, published a poll this week which asked self-identifying, Catholic adults this question:

Regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion? During Catholic Mass, the bread and wine…
  1. Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or
  2. Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

65% of respondents said that the bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus while only 30% said the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. This is discouraging, but I’m inclined to think that many people are misunderstanding the question.

As you know, when the priest says the words of Consecration at Mass (“This is my body… This is the chalice of my blood”) what we see with our eyes appears unchanged. What the priest holds still looks like bread. What the chalice holds still looks like wine. On well-documented occasions throughout the centuries, Eucharistic miracles have occurred in which Hosts have turned into visible human flesh and the chalice contents have become visible blood. I encourage you to read about and investigate these ancient and modern miracles for yourself. But outside these extraordinary cases, if you looked at the Eucharist under a microscope, or ran a chemical analyses before and after Consecration, the Eucharist would appear unchanged. Catholics who have made their First Communion know the Host doesn’t taste like meat and drinking from the chalice doesn’t taste like blood. So, strictly in this outward sense, when people say “The bread and wine do not actually become the body and blood of Jesus” they are correct. But after the priest’s words of consecration at Mass, are the gifts on the altar just symbols of Jesus’ body and blood? No! Something very real and wonderful occurs.

Now Jesus does give his Eucharistic meal intrinsic symbolic meanings. For example, breaking the bread which is his body and pouring out his blood for us are symbols of his Passion. Separating his body and blood is a symbol of his death. And sharing his meal with us symbolizes our intimate communion with him. Yet, the Eucharist is no a mere symbol, any more than baptism can be called just a washing with water. After the water and words of baptism, a newly baptized person appears unchanged (they have the same height, same weight, same hair and eye color as before) but they have been radically transformed within; the baptized person’s soul is cleansed, they have become a child of the Father, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a new person in Jesus Christ. Likewise, at the Consecration, though appearances remain unchanged, the gifts on the altar undergo a radical transformation; in fact, apart from outward appearances they can no longer truly be called bread and wine at all; for they become the body and blood, soul and divinity, of the living person Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist, Jesus’ real presence is really present, and it is no blasphemy to gaze upon the Host and say, “My Lord and my God!

Our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not something the Church just invented. This teaching goes back to Jesus himself. St. John writes about the Real Presence in his Gospel, St. Paul writes about it to the Corinthians, and the Church Fathers write about it throughout the first centuries AD. God has confirmed this mystery with Eucharistic miracles, as I mentioned before (miracles which occur in no Protestant denomination.) The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist her been our Catholic Church’s teaching from her beginnings to this day.

I am somewhat encouraged that when other polls ask Catholics adults about their belief in the Real Presence in a different way, using different words than in the recent Pew poll, their responses are different as well. When given a choice between saying: “Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist,” or “The bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present,” about 60% of Catholics give the first and correct answer. However, we should be only somewhat encouraged by this. Four out of ten Catholics not believing in the Real Presence of Jesus is a tragic and terrible thing.

This week, I visited an old college roommate friend and his wife and children in Oregon. He is a very faithful Evangelical Christian; following Jesus is the most important thing in his life. But he and his family haven’t attended a church on Sundays for some time. It’s partly because he has two very young children, but he also confided over dinner that it’s because he has difficulty seeing the point of going just for a message and some songs. My friend studied in a Protestant seminary and could probably give a better sermon than most preachers. He plays guitar and has a great voice; why can’t he just sing and worship with his family at home? Discussing the recent Pew poll and my plans for this homily with him, he asked me — not to challenge me, but to better understand — “What difference does it make whether Catholics believe in the Real Presence or not? What is the harm in them receiving Communion without holding this belief?” I answered that, without the Real Presence, the Holy Mass becomes optional. And when we skip the Mass we miss out on the source and summit of the Christian life, the most intimate sacramental encounter we can have with Jesus on earth, the Holy Eucharist. And if we do go to Mass and receive Communion without believing it’s really Jesus, we do not receive the fullness of graces he wants to give us, and perhaps — by receiving him unworthily — we are offending him and doing ourselves actual harm.

In a chapter of Luke’s Gospel different from the one we heard today, Jesus asks, “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’?” This is the attitude of a very earthly master. Yet notice what the master does in one of today’s parables. Jesus tells us, “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, [the master] will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.” This is a parable about the coming of our Lord. We are to be diligent, vigilant, and ready for his Second Coming, or for the unknown day and unknown hour of our death. But Jesus, our Lord and Master, wishes to come to us more than just once at the end of our lives. He would come to us at every Mass. Blessed are those servants whom our master finds vigilant on his arrival on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. They open the doors of their lips and hearts to him receive him. He has returned from the wedding of Heaven and earth and desires to feast with us. Amen, I say to you, he girds himself, gathers us at his table, and proceed to wait on us. And he does not serve us mere things, dead foods, but the greatest gift and nourishment conceivable, his very living self.

Jesus says, “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” What greater thing could be entrusted to us than Jesus in the Holy Eucharist? Let us not spurn but cherish this precious gift of Jesus Christ; let us nor hesitate but dare to share with others this good news of Jesus’ Real Presence here. “Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.”

“The Prince” or the Christ? — 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

August 3, 2019

In the 6th century B.C., the Romans had a king named Tarquin the Proud who declared war on a city eleven miles east of Rome called Gabii. When the king was unable to take the city by force, he plotted to take it by deception. His son, Sextus, pretending to be ill-treated by his father and bearing fresh wounds from being flogged, fled to Gabii. The infatuated inhabitants entrusted him with the command of their troops, and when he had obtained the full confidence of the citizens, he sent a messenger to his father to learn what he should do next. The king, who was walking in his garden when the messenger arrived, spoke no words, but kept striking off the heads of the tallest poppy plants with his stick. His son understood the unspoken reply, and put to death or banished on false charges all the leading men of Gabii, after which he had no difficulty in compelling the city to submit to his father.

I was reminded of this story of political power and deceitful scheming this week while listening to Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th century Italian book, “The Prince.” In this pragmatic, cynical treatise, Machiavelli discusses how a ruler can most effectively rule his realm. For example, upon conquering another king or noble’s territories, Machiavelli recommends exterminating that ruler’s family members to prevent future revolts. Machiavelli also encourages leaders to always appear merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, and religious to appear so but not always be so, because he holds that no ruler can be successful without, at times, deliberately doing evil as circumstances require.

Machiavelli provides numerous historical illustrations, like the story of an Italian ruler whose newly acquired territory was full of corruption, robbery, and violence. He appointed a cruel and efficient man as their governor, entrusting him with full authority to act. This governor quickly restored order with his iron fist, but then his lord had less use for him and saw him as a possible threat. Machiavelli writes that the ruler, “to clear himself [of guilt] in the minds of the people and make them entirely loyal to him, … desired to show that if any cruelty had been practiced it had not originated from him but came from the personal cruelty of the governor. Under this pretense [he arrested the governor] and one morning had him killed and left in [the city square] with the block and a bloody knife at his side. This terrible sight,” writes Machiavelli, “caused the people to be at the same time satisfied and worried.”

Listening to his stories, hearing his advice, I wondered what sort of person would ever want to be such a prince or ruler. Besides the iniquity, Machiavelli himself acknowledges that the prudent leader, when not fighting wars, should constantly focus on preparing for wars. But like King Solomon asks in our first reading, ‘what profit comes to [a ruler] from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? Even at night his mind is not at rest. This is vanity.’ And furthermore, like Jesus says, ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’

Machiavelli’s advice and methods for maintaining power by any means might work in one sense here in this world, but in the long term all these things are futile. The rich fool says to himself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” But God says to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.

Jesus once asked, “What king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with 10,000 troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with 20,000 troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.” That’s simply basic strategy, yet how many people march towards the inevitable end of their lives — when they will approach the all-powerful King of kings and the Lord of hosts — without consideration of how ill-prepared they are to face him?

Who and what are we loving? And are we loving them as we should?

St. Paul is often quoted from his 1st Letter to Timothy as saying, “The love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.” But something about this passage never made sense to me. Does the root of all evil really reside in the love of money? For instance, does every act of adultery stem from a love of money? I don’t think so. But while studying Greek in seminary I discovered that this passage can be justifiably translated a different way: “The love of money is a root of all evils,” and that is very true.

Money, wealth, is a tool, like fire. It’s a neutral thing; good when used rightly but potentially destructive and deadly when mishandled. The love of money, that is to say greed, is rightly called “idolatry” by St. Paul in our second reading, because the greedy person serves and trusts in wealth as their god, their savior and source of blessings. While urging us never to worry, our Lord does call us work, to make material provision for ourselves and our households. St. Paul taught the Thessalonians that “if anyone was unwilling to work neither should that one eat.” And on another occasion he wrote, “whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members [of his household] has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Yet Jesus does not wish us to make work and wealth our idol: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

One day, perhaps sooner than we imagine, our lives will be demanded of us and all the property and possessions we leave behind will be left to others. It is a good thing for us to have a will prepared for this foreseeable event, and I would ask you to remember St. Paul’s Parish and our endowment in your estate. But as praiseworthy as it is to prepare inheritances for that day, it is not as meritorious as giving during your lifetime. How much generosity is there in giving away what you cannot possibly take with you or keep? How generous is it to give away what is no longer of any use to you? Unavoidable giving is a small sacrifice and exercises small trust in God.

And so I recommend to you the practice of tithing, to the Church and to charities. Chose some percentage to tithe to the mission of Jesus Christ in our parish, for needs in our community, and to help people far beyond. In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to tithe 10% of everything, and they were much poorer than us. I urge you to prayerfully discern a number for yourself. Giving in this way practices trusting in the Lord and allows him to show you his providence and his power to provide. Though we do not believe in a “prosperity gospel” which claims believers will never experience trials, Jesus does promise a prize for our every given gift: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you. … And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”

Our short life here on earth is an audition and a training ground for life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Through his gracious, saving work, Jesus Christ has extended an invitation to everyone to become a citizen of his Kingdom, now and in the age to come. Presently here on earth, his Kingdom, the City of God and her citizens, exist alongside and amidst the City of Man with its Machiavellian-minded members. But in the coming age, there will be no place for those sinners who live for themselves, and the virtuous meek who are generous to God and their neighbor shall inherit the earth. The choice before us all is for “The Prince” or for the Christ.

The Master-Weaver — Funeral for Goldean Gehring, 93

August 1, 2019

This morning, our parish is honored to be offering our greatest offering, praying our greatest prayer, the Holy Mass, for our own Goldean. May it help her soul to Heaven, and console and strengthen you and me who are called to follow Jesus on the same journey. The full fabric of a person’s life is not reducible to a single thread, be it a job, a pastime, or a hobby. But the threads of a Christian life each lead back to our master-weaver. This homily will follow one such thread.

As you know, beginning at a very young age, Goldean sewed (and later knit and crocheted) throughout her entire life. At one point, her husband Ernie said ‘you should start a list to keep track of how many things you make.‘ That was about 275 sweaters ago. She and close friends would knit and sew together, with their club rotating from house to house, sharing their precious patterns and their congenial company. Goldean was pleased to create and to freely give. She made stocking hats for servicemen deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm, where nights can be cold and helmets uncomfortable. She made shawls, scarves, and mittens. She also made clothes for her family. Kathy says mom made her dresses and sewed her clothes. Goldean made clothes for her sons, Tom, Pete, and Steve as well. Everything was made in triplicate –whatever one got they all did.

This is like what our Father, our Creator, does for us in Christ. At the beginning of this Mass, Goldean’s casket was draped with the pall, a symbol of her having been clothed in Christ at her baptism. As St. Paul’s wrote to the Galatians: “Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

God is the master-weaver, who would clothe us all in Christ. Without destroying our precious and unique individuality, our Father desires each one of us to strikingly resemble our brother, Jesus Christ. This resemblance is not merely an external thing, like clothes or a costume that goes on and off. Jesus would transform us within. In our Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him… The one who feeds on me will have life because of me… And whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Goldean rejoiced to receive Him in the Holy Eucharist, and so we rejoice with hope today.

I want to thank Ann Bowe for reading the funeral readings for us today. Ten minutes before the Mass began, I learned that the person who was going to read today, through a misunderstanding or miscommunication, mistakenly thought this funeral was tomorrow. When my server, Donnie Stoik, found and asked Ann to read, she remembered that Goldean had once asked her to read at her funeral. It appears that Goldean is receiving special favors this day.

But pray for her. When I die I want the people who love me to pray for me. Pray that Jesus may tailor any alterations that remain necessary for her soul so that she may fit perfectly into Heaven. And let us be conformed to Jesus Christ; through our daily prayer to him, through frequenting his sacraments, through his holy word, and through a life-long friendship with him, so that we may not be found naked at our judgment on the last day, but gloriously clothed in Christ for ever.

Asking for a Gift to Give — 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

July 28, 2019

Remember last Sunday, when Abraham hosted three mysterious visitors from Heaven. Once they had agreed to Abraham’s offer to serve them a meal can you recall the first thing Abraham did? “Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah, ‘Quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.'” How much were “three measures of flour” back then? Through a scripture commentary, I learned that this was about half a bushel, or like twenty pounds of flour. That’s enough to make about twelve of the loaves of bread we buy at the grocery store these days. So, Abraham served about a dozen loaves of bread to three guests. Now I’m as much a fan of unlimited breadstick deals as anybody, but when was the last time you ate four loaves-worth of bread in one sitting? Abraham knew these were extraordinary guests, so he set an extraordinary meal before them. And perhaps he intended to give them all the leftover loaves as a further gift to God.

I wondered about those “three measures of flour” because of Jesus’ parable today: Suppose you have a friend to whom you go at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house…” So we have a meal with three measures and a parable with three loaves. Three measures of flour for the Lord, and three loaves of bread for a friend. I perceive that these things are connected, but more on that later.

Immediately preceding this parable, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. You surely noticed that the Our Father prayer in Luke differs from Matthew’s more familiar version. This is providential. If the two texts were exactly the same, some Christians might mistake Jesus’ example as being our only permissible prayer. But Jesus does not give the Our Father as a magic formula or incantation, but as a model for our approach and attitude to prayer. In Matthew’s version, the prayer begins with “Our Father.” He is not mine, but ours, because he calls us to salvation together. Luke’s version simply begins with “Father”; not “Master,” as though we were merely his slaves; not “Ruler,” as though we were merely his subjects; but “Father,” because we are his children. The prayer’s petitions are direct requests, simple requests, profound requests. For example, consider: “Give us each day our daily bread.” It’s straight-forward, basic, yet deep when you contemplate “our daily bread” as a symbol for all of our constant bodily and spiritual needs. And notice something else that these petitions have in common: “hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” “forgive us our sins.” Each is asking God for something that God already desires for us. They are each a part of his plan already.

Who are we supposed to be like in Jesus’ parable? Surely it’s the persistently asking and seeking door-knocker. Because Jesus says, immediately after this parable, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

And who is God represented by in this parable? Naturally, the man in the house whose gifts can be gained through asking. Indeed, God is on the other side of Heaven’s door. And even at midnight, in the darkest hour, we can call on him for help. His children inside, the saints and angels who rest peacefully in his house, join their voices to ours when we persistently ask for good things on earth. But God is surely not like this annoyed neighbor in saying, “Do not bother me… I cannot get up to give you anything.” Jesus’ mode of teaching here is from the lesser to the greater. If this annoyed neighbor can be persuaded to give, how much more can God who already desires to give. Likewise, Jesus says, “If you, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

The request for three loaves and Abraham’s request for three measures suggests another character like the Lord in this parable: “Lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him.” Mystically speaking, this visiting friend is the Lord. For Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Jesus says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” And Jesus says to the early Church’s persecutor, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus is mystically present in every Christian and within in his Church. Thinking of God as represented in this parable by both the homeowner and the visiting friend reveals a dynamic that could change how you relate to prayer.

When you pray for some good thing, when you ask some worthy blessing for yourself, someone else, or even billions of people at once, are you not praying for the greater glory of God among us? What prayer would he, could he, possibly grant you that would not also glory him? Furthermore, what can we offer him that is entirely of ourselves? The man in the parable asks his neighbor for loaves for his friend because “I have nothing to offer him.” As St. Paul asked the Corinthians, “What do you possess that you have not received?” It’s been said that to truly make an apple pie from scratch, you have to recreate the universe. Like Abraham asking Sarah for loaves for his holy guests, like the man in the parable asking for a loan of bread, every good prayer—whatever it may be—is asking for a gift to be gifted to the Lord. It’s like asking your dad for money to buy him a gift for Father’s Day. It’s for his own glory, so you don’t have to persuade or coerce him, he loves you and already wants to give. Which raises a question: if God already wants to give, then why doesn’t God always give immediately in answer to our prayers?

Sometimes God waits for the right time to grant our requests. If you bought your mom the perfect Christmas gift, you might desperately want to give it to her right now, but you would realize that the very best time for her to open it comes later. Would you rather have you prayer answered right now or at the best and perfect moment?

Sometimes God is storing up the accumulated reservoir of your prayers so that once the floodgates are opened a torrent will be unleashed. St. Monica prayed for her sinful, wayward son for years, and when he finally converted he was not merely saved but went on to become the priest, bishop, and great doctor and father of the Church we know as St. Augustine of Hippo. Would you rather have your prayer answered in a small way now or in an overwhelmingly incredible way later?

Sometimes it we must pray persistently, rather than just asking once and setting the request aside, for the powerful influence of that continued offering. On one occasion in the gospels, there was a demon afflicting a boy that the disciples could not exorcise. After Jesus cast out the demon his disciples asked why they were unable. Jesus is written to have answered them, “This kind can only come out through prayer and fasting.” Last week we heard St. Paul tell the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church”. It’s not that Jesus’ Passion is insufficient, but that God allows our offered sufferings and sacrifices to have a vital role in Christ’s work of saving souls. Patient, persistent prayer is a sacrifice we offer with him.

In conclusion, the Father, our Father, already wants to give, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church. So let us not hesitate, but let us persist, in asking good things from Him who loves us.

The Highway — Funeral for Alvera “Veda” Hassemer, 88

July 26, 2019

St. Paul’s parish is honored to offer our greatest prayer, Christ’s sacrifice, for Veda. We also hope our prayer may be a consolation to you, who know and love her best. Veda was member of our parish throughout her life, though I never had an opportunity to meet her. For the last couple years she lived in a Chippewa Falls memory care-facility, but her children have told me some of her story. Veda’s Catholic faith, I am told, was the most important thing in her life. Her devotion to our Lord is reflected in today’s readings, which she pre-selected herself for her funeral. I often make note when I preach at funerals that no brief homily can capture the fullness and mystery of a faithful Christian life. But the features and details of such lives can help reveal the truth of Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

When Veda and Arnie got married in 1952, they settled on a dairy farm; accepting the hard, demanding work that comes with milking cows. It happens that their farm was situated a literal stonesthrow away from St. Catherine’s Catholic Cemetery, where Veda’s body will be buried today. Arnie and Veda lived and worked upon the dust of this earth, and in this same dust their earthly remains will lay side by side. But the toilsome labor of farm life and the lifeless stillness of the grave are not the sum of their story. Between the farm and the cemetery there is a road, Highway 64. Arnie and Veda took that road several miles to a new home, here in Bloomer. They did good in this community; he founded his Shoeland and sold his cookies, she nursed at Maplewood and maintained the house, and together they loved and blessed their children.

I’m told that Veda loved animals. Especially, four-legged fuzzy ones. Cows and horses were not her favorites though, and not only because of their lack of fuzz. When her son Michael was two years old, he wandered out near a horse. The horse reared up to kick him, potentially fatally, but Veda intervened. She stretched out her leg into the horse’s path and took the blow. She saved her son and bore the mark for the rest of her life.

Christ is the Good Shepherd, and we are his fuzzy, four-legged sheep. When we were threatened by eternal death, he intervened. He stretched out his limbs and took the blow. He saved us and bears the marks in his body to this day. Our lives are not reducible to a short journey of toil to the grave. Jesus Christ shows us a way, his narrow road, in between. That humble road, his highway, leads to a whole world above inhabited by billions who continue to do good. Jesus would invite us to a new home with him there, until our bodies and this broken world is someday resurrected and restored in him. “Therefore, our God, we give you thanks and we praise the majesty of your name,” and our sadness at Veda’s passing is lightened by our faith and hope in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Meals with the Lord — 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

July 21, 2019

Our first reading from Genesis recalls Abraham at a meal with the Lord. In the story immediately preceding this one, God had renewed his covenant with him. The Lord changed his name from Abram to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude,” and indeed, today more than two billion Christians around the world call Abraham our father in faith. A covenant bond is an alliance which transforms unrelated persons into family. In the ancient world, nations and peoples would form covenants, declaring themselves brothers. Today we rightly call marriage a covenant. And God has established many covenants between himself and members of the human race through salvation history. Something that family members do is eat together. Sharing a meal signifies communion and relationship with each other. Today, after renewing his covenant with Abraham, the Lord visits him for a meal.

Genesis says “the LORD appeared to Abraham,” but, “Looking up, Abraham saw three men standing nearby.” Like when God said at Creation, “Let US make man in OUR image,” Christians detect signs here of the presence of the Holy Trinity. There’s an interesting alternation of singulars and plurals in their dialogue. Abraham says, “Sir, if I may ask you (singular) this favor, please do not go on past your servant….” Abraham offers THEM a meal and THEY reply, “Very well, do as you have said.” Later THEY ask him, “Where is your wife Sarah,” and then ONE of them declares, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” Genesis does go on to call two of these three visitors “angels” but in Hebrew and Greek this word angel means “messenger or representative.” And who are the greatest representatives and messengers of God the Father but God the Son and God the Holy Spirit? Whatever the mystery that was actually at play here, Abraham serves a meal with the Lord and is blessed in the encounter.

In today’s Gospel, the Lord God visits Martha in the person of Jesus Christ. She welcomes him and sets about serving him with food and drink. Her sister, Mary, sits beside the feet of the Lord listening to him speak. And Martha, burdened with much serving, comes to him and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” “Martha, Martha,” Jesus replies, “you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.” Notice how Jesus repeats her name, something seen only a handful of times in the New Testament. Jesus laments over “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” before his Passion, he admonishes “Simon, Simon” at the Last Supper, he cries out “Eloi, Eloi / My God, My God” on the Cross, and he calls out to “Saul, Saul” on the road to Damascus. That’s some extraordinary company she shares. Clearly, Martha matters a great deal to Jesus.

So what was Martha doing wrong? Is it because she was working so hard to serve the Lord a meal? Well, Abraham hastened and hustled to serve too; he ran to pick out a choice steer, get curds and milk, and set these before his guests. Abraham even got others to help him work; telling his wife to make some bread rolls and directing his servant to prepare the meat. The problem wasn’t Martha’s work. It was her mindset, her outlook. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” Why was Martha anxious and worried? Anxiety and worry come from fear. What was she afraid of? Was she afraid of failing? Was she afraid of what others might think? Was she afraid of disappointing the Lord? What are you afraid of? What drives your anxiety and worries? Do you think Jesus will abandon you if things go wrong, if things are less than perfect?

Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing.” What is that one thing? Mary apparently had it sitting at his feet, listening to him teach. She was sharing personal communion with him and receiving from him. And later, when Mary got up to do whatever task came next, I bet that peace remained with her. “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus says, “and it will not be taken from her.” If you have gravely sinned, then return to Jesus, go back to confession, and come into the state of grace. And when in the state of grace stop letting yourself get in the way of connecting with Jesus and receiving and enjoying his good pleasure in you. Rest with him, rest in him, even as you work hard for him.

Fifty years ago this weekend, mankind took its first steps on the surface of the Moon. The astronauts journeyed from Earth more than 200,000 miles, through the extreme temperatures of an airless void, to achieve a modern marvel watched and celebrated around the world. But a still greater journey is made, a more incredible wonder is accomplished, when Jesus Christ comes from Heaven to this altar and invites you and me (who remain far from perfect) to share this covenant meal with him.

The Good Samaritan — 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

July 14, 2019

Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is among his most famous and familiar. Yet, like Jesus Christ himself, it has still more to teach us. Today I will share contexts and symbolisms of this parable that you’ve probably never heard before.

Jesus’ story begins, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” In Wisconsin, we talk about going up to Canada or going down to Madison; for us north is “up” and south is down. But in Israel, the city of Jericho lies fourteen miles east of Jerusalem. The man went down to Jericho because Jerusalem has a much higher elevation. Have you ever seen the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) in Chicago? Picture its height from street-level to the top of its two antennas; now imagine stacking another Sears Tower standing on top of those antennas. From top to bottom, that’s how much a traveler descends when going from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Jerusalem was the Holy City, the place of God’s dwelling. But Jericho, as you may recall, was the city which Joshua at God’s command marched the Hebrews around in a circle for seven days, before blowing their horns and shouting, causing its walls to collapse. They conquered the city which symbolizes sin, human fallenness, and rebellion from God. Jericho, incidentally, is not far from the Dead Sea, the shore of which is the lowest dry land on the surface of the earth—the furthest you can be from heaven above.

The robbers stripped and beat the man and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. In the same way, a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.” Who were these men? The Jewish priest would have offered sacrifices at the Temple while the Levite would have assisted there like a sacristan. Why did both men pass by ‘on the opposite side of the road’ as they walked in the direction of Jericho? Perhaps that they thought the motionless body on the shoulder of the road was already dead. Under the Law of Moses, touching a dead body made a person ritually unclean. Whether this was their reason, or they just did not care enough to be bothered, a third man comes along who is both willing and able to help.

A Samaritan traveler came upon him and was moved with compassion at the sight.” We know that Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other, but why? Who were the Samaritans? Some five hundred years before the coming of Christ the Babylonians were the superpower of the ancient world. When the Jewish king decided he wasn’t going to pay tribute to Babylon anymore, the Babylonian king was not pleased. He sent his army, sieged Jerusalem, conquered it, and carried off the region’s inhabitants into what is called the Babylonian Exile. Not everyone was taken though; some of the poor laborers, the farmers and vine-dressers, were left behind. To ensure that this Jewish remnant did not rebel again, and to make sure the good land did not go idle, the Babylonians resettled the people of five pagan nations among them.

Seventy years after this catastrophe, after the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persian Empire, the king of Persia gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland. When they arrived they found that those who had been left behind had intermarried with the pagans and adopted some of their religious practices. The Jews looked down on these people, these Samaritans, as unfaithful to the Lord. It’s no mere coincidence that the Samaritan Woman at the Well with whom Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel has had five husbands—just like the five resettled pagan nations. This real woman symbolizes her people, with whom Jesus desires to be reconciled and whom he wants to save.

Jesus’ chosen hero for this parable, the Good Samaritan, “approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the scholar of the law (and us) to be like “the one who treated him with mercy.” That’s a very important, famous, and familiar lesson, but there is symbolism within this parable which teaches even more.
The man who fell to the robbers represents our human race. Traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we were descending from the height of communion with God to the depths of sin. We fell to robbers, to evil spirits and wicked desire. They stripped us naked, depriving us of our previous glory. They beat us and left us half-dead; biologically we were still living, but spiritually we were dead. No one could or would help us. But then our Good Samaritan came – Jesus Christ.

He looked upon us and was moved with compassion. He approached us and poured His blood over us, like wine, to cleanse the wounds of sin. He poured the Holy Spirit on us, like oil, to strengthen us. He bandaged our members with his teachings; and though these disciplines bind us they are for the freedom of full health. He lifted us up on his beast of burden, his own flesh in the Passion, to bring us to the inn. This inn, where the robbers’ victim is cared for until he comes again, is the Church.

You and I are represented by the robbers’ victim brought into the inn for care. But you and I are also represented by the inn-keeper, for we are likewise called to care for others. The Good Samaritan provides two coins to the inn-keeper along with an instruction and a promise: “Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.” In the parable, these are two coins are Roman silver denarii, equal to two day’s wages. Jesus provides for our mission to serve him and our neighbor, for today and for tomorrow, and whatever we expend in time, talent, or treasure in his inn, the Church, will have his divine repayment.

In light of this great parable, ask Jesus to show you your neighbor, who he has entrusted to your care, then “Go and do likewise.” The command which he ‘enjoins on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. …No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.’ You shall love the Lord your God supremely, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The Great Carpenter — Funeral for James “Jim” Rogge, 55

July 10, 2019

St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus, was a carpenter or craftsman by occupation. He supported his family, both wife and child, as a carpenter, a woodworker, or perhaps a mason, and a builder. And, as his son grew older, Joseph taught him his trade. We read in St. Mark’s Gospel that when Jesus returned to preach in his hometown, the people of Nazareth asked, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Odds are that Jesus the Nazarene was personally well-familiar with the work of preparing timber for his uses.

Every log comes to be from a once-living tree, from a natural canopy or tent of foliage over the earth. But every round log to become fit for the craftsman’s purpose, such as to become a portion of his dwelling place, must be transformed from its original, natural, unfinished state. Before the advent of modern sawmills, this difficult task was done up-close, by hand. First, the rough, brittle, dead bark must be stripped away. In life, this bark served as a protective layer against our imperfect, trial-some world, but in this stripping process this layer is removed and discarded into the craftsman’s fire. From there, the log of wood is hewn (perhaps flattened, notched, or whittled down) to fit its intended purpose. When the carpenter desires to erect a building, each piece, each log or plank, is made to fit with its neighbors, so that the builder’s structure may stand solidly and harmoniously as one. And the greater the carpenter the greater the perfection they desire in their work.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is a carpenter. He is the greatest carpenter. And his work material is the wood of humanity; that is, you, and me, and Jim. The Lord would shape us as he has done with others since ancient times: laboring personally, up-close. As King David said in the psalm: “He guides me in right paths for his name sake. I fear no evil; for you are at my side.” But we build up layers of bark against him and the world, because we’re afraid to trust or we love our faults, yet Jesus doesn’t give up. Our rough, brittle, dead bark must be stripped away, in this life or hereafter.

We must allow Jesus to befriend us – it is supremely important that we befriend him – for as Daniel writes in our first reading and St. Paul in our second, a resurrection and a judgment awaits us all. But if we do befriend the Lord, “we know that [when] our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in Heaven.” As St. Paul told the Ephesians, “Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

You probably know of Jim’s faith in Jesus, of his strengths and his weaknesses. Pray for him, that he may be hewn and perfectly fitted with our brothers and sisters in Heaven. And today at this altar, renew your commitment to Christ, so that we and he may remain in the house of the Lord, the master craftsman, forever.