Love Transforms

It kind of sounds like Jesus doesn’t answer the question, doesn’t it?  The pharisees ask him, “Teacher what is the greatest commandment?” And instead of answering with one commandment, Jesus gives two answers. To love God is the greatest commandment and the second is like it; to love one’s neighbor as yourself. 

What does love look like? It is a word we use for many things.  We “love” our favorite celebrities, movies, bands, television shows.  And many of say we love food or coffee. Love is kind of like the word good today.  So often we say that we have had a good day, or that our experience somewhere was a good one.  We almost need to use a different word to express if something was truly good, to emphasize how “awesome” of a day it was. It’s not wrong for us to say that we love coffee.  But when I say I love coffee, its because of the warmth, the taste is good, and it gives me a boost of energy.  My love for coffee is about what coffee does for me… But this is not the type of love Jesus is talking about.

The love that exists between God and us is reciprocal.  But God’s love for us gives us an idea of what true love looks like.  Its generous.  God’s generosity is why we exist.  He didn’t have to create us or the world, but he did.  God’s love is generous.  God’s love is outward.   It is not self-centered.  God is not satisfied with the distance between us and him, so he sends his only son Jesus to our world, to convince us of God’s love.  Christ convinces us of God’s love by showing us that true love sacrifices for others. That is the cross.  And finally, authentic love is transformative.  It creates something new.  Jesus how makes all things new transformative love gives new life.  Christ transforms his death into the resurrection.  Christ transforms us with his grace to newness of life.

The signs of God’s transformative love are scattered through out the Gospels.  Jesus motivated by love and God’s compassion (If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate), heals the blind and heals the paralytics. But he doesn’t just transform sickness into health, he transforms hearts.  Peter is a great example.  When Peter first meets Christ, Jesus has just helped him catch a boat-load of fish.  Peter’s response to Jesus is, depart from me, Lord for I am a sinful man! And yet we know peter becomes this great saint. The sinner has been transformed. 

The beauty is that God invites us to participate in the transforming art of Love.  This is why Jesus gives the pharisees a two for one answer.  Jesus first is emphasizing that “No one can love himself or [his neighbor] fruitfully unless he first loves God absolutely”! Second Jesus is inviting us into his mission. When we love others, when we love what God loves, we become an instrument of God’s transforming love for others.

One of the best examples of this comes from the movie Les Miserables.  There is a man, Jean Valjean, that has become deeply angry towards the world and for his situation.  Out of his desperation, he steals precious silver from a Bishop.  And he gets caught.  When the guards bring Jean Valjean to the Bishop, they inform the Bishop that they have caught this man red-handed.  The Bishop looks at the guards and says:  “this man has spoken true, I gave him this precious silver”.  Then turning towards Jean Valjean he says: “Now remember this, my brother, see in this some higher plan, You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.  By the witness of the martyrs, by their passion and their blood, God has raised you out of darkness, I have saved your soul for God.”

The Bishop’s compassion and love for Jean Valjean has transformed him.  He has been loved so intimately by the Bishop that he truly encounters Christ through the Bishop’s loving witness.  The rest of the movie then, Jean Valjean devotes his life to God and to serving the poor.  Throughout the movie, there will be many scenes where Jean Valjean is seen praying.  Soon after his encounter with the bishop, he meets a young woman, Fantine, who is near death. Ironically, she is on the streets because she was wrongfully fired from Jean Valjean’s factory and found herself working the streets in order to make money for her daughter. Eventually. this woman passes away, but Jean Valjean devotes the rest of his life to raising her daughter.  It’s not until the end of the movie where we realize the depth of Jean Valjean’s conversion.

He is now close to death, and Fantine, “returns” to Valjean to bring him up to heaven.  It’s a beautiful scene because, in that moment, there is the Bishop and Fantine welcoming Jean Valjean into heaven.  And they all sing together, “and remember, the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God”.  The bishop is there because the Bishop loved God through Jean Valjean.  Fantine is there because Jean Valjean’s love for the Lord was expressed in his loving service to Fantine and her daughter.

Friends we can love God more intimately, the one whom we can’t see, if we love our neighbor, the one whom we can (see 1 John 4:20–22). May the Eucharist we receive today, strengthen us to participate in God’s transformative love.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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We are image bearers

Imagine for a moment that in our two-party political system, there emerged a third party.  And that third party found a leader that gained popularity and a great following amongst the people.  Imagine that this person, this new leader, threatened the status quo.  That this person, according to the “Republicans” and “Democrats”, would ruin the political system as we knew it.  And because of this, the Republicans and Democrats all of sudden became ‘friends’… This would be the classic of example of, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Let’s take this one step further, imagine that this third-party candidate was upsetting the status quo so much so, that Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump join in an alliance in effort to save the two-party system.  It seems unthinkable that this could ever happened… And yet, and yet! This is exactly what has happened in our Gospel this weekend.

The pharisees and the Herodians join forces to trap Jesus.  “The pharisees are religious patriots, bitterly opposed to Roman rule, whereas the Herodians are content to work together with the Gentile powers that be.  The present alliance is made solely for the purpose of bringing down the Messiah” (CCSS Gospel of Matthew, 285). What is unthinkable in our world has happened in Jesus’ world. He offers New Hope, New Life, Freedom from Evil, but in all this he has upset the status quo for the people in power.  And as a result, they hate him for it.  And ignoring for a moment what they dislike in one another, they now seek to trap Jesus and bring him down.  

And so, together, they attempt to trap Jesus and ask him, is it lawful to pay the census tax?  Jesus asks to see the coin of the census tax and asks whose image is this and whose inscription? And they respond together, it’s Caesar’s… “The Roman coins of Jesus’ day bore the image of the emperor.”  Then, Jesus says, repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

It is in Christ’s answer that we see his brilliance. The image we carry marks with the person to whom we belong. We see this in sports fans who wear jersey’s or even masks of their favorite teams.  We are in the heart of election season and so we are acutely aware of this right now.  People places signs and bumper stickers to let others know to whom they belong and who they support.  And many of us, out of pride for our country fly American flags outside our homes or businesses to show that we are citizens of the United States. But notice how each of these images necessarily put us against one another.  Lions fans vs. Packer fans.  Republicans vs. Democrats.  US citizens vs. non-U.S. citizens.

The image signifies belonging. So as Christians to whom do we belong?  “From the opening chapters of Genesis, we know that as human beings created by God, we bear God’s image.  God’s likeness is stamped into us and upon us.  God’s signature is written across our very beings.  Which means — if we keep the analogy going — that we owe God everything.  Our whole and entire selves.  Any fantasy we might harbor of dividing up the secular and the sacred is simply that.  A fantasy.  We cannot separate Caesar’s realm from God’s realm when everything — everything — belongs to God” (Debie Thomas, What Belongs to God)

Here is the terrifying truth for us… When we forget that we first belong to God, we in fact become team players with the Pharisees and Herodians.  When our membership is to a sports team, to a nation, to a political party, or even to our own families before our membership to God, we become participants in the mission to bring down the messiah. The world of “Us versus Them” becomes firmly engrained in us. Jesus himself said, A house divided against itself cannot stand. It is a very real temptation for us to make an alliance with a human authority or organization over our foremost allegiance and membership with God. And we know the consequences of living in a world of us verses them.  This type of world is led by selfishness, power, and wealth and greed.  The problem isn’t that we have sports fans, republicans or democrats, or many nations in the world. The problem in this world is we forget the right order:  We belong to God first, our families second, to nations third, and somewhere after to political parties and sports teams. 

How much different could this world be if we kept the proper order and saw each other first as members of God’s family? The reality is our spiritual lives, political lives, and personal lives must all cohere.  But the spiritual order must always be first to remind us that we all bear God’s image. “As image-bearer,” then “of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God, maybe what [we] owe God in this hour is the … generosity [and love] he extends to us” back to him and to each other. May we choose to align ourselves with Jesus and give back to God everything.  Then we might truly see a world that is led by sacrificial love, generosity, humility, service, and love for each other as members of God’s family.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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Is this Gospel Dangerous?

Is this Gospel reading dangerous? This Gospel really seems to challenge our common conception of God as a God of love, a God who desires us to join him in heaven, and a God who desires to give us blessings? This is an important question for us to ask, because there is a king, a son, and a banquet.  And so often it is the case that people interpret the King to be God, the son to be Jesus, and the banquet to be the eternal feast God has prepared for ‘his chosen’ ones. 

So, if the king represents God, that means that God would do the following:

  1. He would burn the city and kill those who refused the invitation to join the feast
  2. He bound the hands and feet of the man who came dressed inappropriately for the party and threw him out

It seems that it this reading of the Gospel is in fact dangerous that this is not the God we Christians believe in.  Our God is an inclusive – he is the God of all, all loving and all forgiving God.  This king seems to be exclusive, not loving, and very unforgiving.  Uh-oh…

Whenever we have questions like this we need to first ask, what was Jesus’ intention in the parable? Scripture scholars almost universally agree that the King is the representative of God in the parable. So we cannot look the other way from the analogy and let Jesus, and God-the Father off the hook.  But we do need to ask the question, what is Jesus really saying to us and what literary device is he using? Jesus wants us to see two things: 1) that God’s kingdom is meant for all of us, and 2) that his Kingdom needs to matter and we are responsible for being prepared for the feast. Jesus is using hyperbole to make his point.  That when we reject God’s invitations, though big or small, and are indifferent to his many graces and blessings, it is disappointing for a God who loves us so much! This is hyperbole from Jesus, And that’s ok!

1) Jesus wants us to see how generous God is by inviting us to the eternal banquet.  If we look closer at this Gospel the generosity is clearly there.  The king invites the normal guests, he invites the normal guests again and this time says it will be the best food with the best wine! And finally, he invites whomever he can find for the feast.  This feast is meant for all of us and its going to be the best meal ever.  God’s generosity is evident. The first reading makes this clear as well, the feast will have rich food and choice wine, and it’s a feast that he will provide for all people (Is 25: 6).

2) Jesus wants us to recognize the gift and respond with gratitude.  God is serious about the invitation, and that means God is serious that we have a duty to respond.  A lack of a response and lack of preparation are no excuse.  We are called to be made ready.

The man thrown out of the party, said yes to the invite, but didn’t do anything to prepare. And when confronted about this, he is reduced to silence. I participate in a weekly bible study on zoom with some friends; one of which is a judge. Now I’m sure I can’t explain it with the proper precision, but in a nutshell, he spoke about how when someone is asked a question in the courts and remains silent; silence in that moment is perceived as “admission of guilt.” This man’s silence is an admission of guilt, he recognized that he should have been ready for the party and he wasn’t. 

Here’s the point.  It’s not enough for us to accept the invite.  God wants us to respond as well. The response is represented by the white garment.  The white garment signifies “True metanoia, repentance, change of heart and mind, that is the condition for entrance into the kingdom.”

God desires all of us to join him in heaven. And that means everyday we seek greater metanoia in order to change our hearts and minds to love God as the one needful thing.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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Coworkers in the Vineyard

Jesus opens our Gospel with a parable, There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.  The important question we must ask right away is who/what are the key players in this parable? The key players are the landowner, the vineyard, and the tenants.

The landowner is God; he is the one who creates the vineyard and does everything right. The vineyard refers specifically to the Jewish people, God’s chosen people.  Finally, the tenants are the scribes and the pharisees, those called to look after God’s people. Jesus’ hope is to strike the hearts of the religious leaders by calling them to the carpet: “Look God entrusted you with this vineyard and yet you have no fruit.” Instead of being good stewards, you, scribes and pharisees, have been self-seeking owners like the tenants in the parable.  They want to keep the profit, the fruits of the vineyard, for themselves and not give it to God.  

Jesus’ parable remains very relevant for us today.  The landowner once again represents God.  The vineyard is now the Church – all of us; again, God’s chosen people; not just Jews, but Jews, Greeks, and all of us (all people baptized and those yet to be baptized).  The tenants are those called to serve the Church in a specific way; we may think that the tenants are just priests, bishops, and lay leaders but really, all the baptized are the tenants of the vineyard.  All of us are tenants in the vineyard, and God wants all of us to be good stewards as coworkers in the vineyard; His Church.

Last week the Saint Pius community said goodbye to a good priest and good pastor, Fr. Chris.  I am very grateful to him.  He has been an excellent steward of this parish.  As he leaves this parish Saint Pius is healthy and well.  The church has grown during his time here, and it has many committed members/volunteers, and the people continue to desire to grow in their faith.  I could not ask for a better first assignment as a pastoral administrator of a parish.  Fr. Christ was a good steward of this parish and it has borne much fruit.  I confess that I feel a deep sense of responsibility from this Gospel to follow his example and to be a good steward of Saint Pius X Church.

And so, God’s message for us this weekend strikes me to the core.  And with that I find great comfort in these words from St. Paul in our second reading, Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Brothers and sisters, I’d be lying if I said I had no nerves at all about this assignment.  I don’t have all the answers. And I will make mistakes. But nerves aren’t all bad it means we care and want to do well. So, what I can promise all of you is this: I will give my very best and I will love you with all my heart.  As a steward of this parish, as a tenant of this vineyard, of Saint Pius X church, I desire nothing more than for this community to be fruitful.

This past week I spent some time in prayer and read from a biography on Saint Pius X, because I wanted to learn more about him.  When he became Bishop, he said these words to his people, and I repeat them to you as a personal pledge:

“When Jesus Christ gave to St. Peter the charge of his sheep and of his lambs he asked him three times for the assurance of his love, thus getting him to understand that love is the greatest necessity for a shepherd of souls.  From this moment I gather you all into my heart” Saint Pius says, “I love you with a strong supernatural love, desiring but the good of your souls. For you are all my family… My heart and my love are yours and from you I ask nothing but the same love in return… I am ready to make any sacrifice for the salvation of souls. You who have zeal for the things of God, work with me,” be coworkers with me in the vineyard, “help me, and God will give us the grace necessary to achieve our ends.”

Together, I cannot wait to see the beautiful things God will do in this parish.  Please pray for me as I begin here and know of my prayers for all of you. And may we be coworkers in the vineyard as we seek to bring God’s love to more and more people in the Saint Pius community.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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