Merry Christmas – Divine Compassion

Why do we celebrate Christmas?  Of course today, there are many nostalgic reasons.  It’s a cute story.  This baby Jesus is born in a manger.  Shepherds celebrate with joy, kings come with gifts, and Angels sing Glory to God in the highest peace to people on earth.  But we don’t celebrate it just because Christmas is a cute story.  We celebrate it because God did something truly amazing and special.  Maybe the better question for us to ask, is why would God even become one of us in the first place? Why would be his motivation? Why does God’s incarnation matter? I think the answer is God’s compassion.

The Christmas celebration is all about God’s divine compassion because it is his why.  The Divine Compassion is what motivates God to send his son Jesus into our human world.   I learned recently the differene between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  Sympathy is when we express pity for someone in an unfortunate circumstance. Empathy is when we express concern for someone’s unfortunate circumstance, and we share the experience, but because we went through it too. Compassion can be sympathetic or empathetic, but compassion moves us to action. I see your unfortunate circumstance, and I want to do something about it.  God sees us and knows that we need to be convinced of God’s love and care, so he does something.  He is motivated to action.  He comes to live among us in our human life. 1) Jesus comes into our lives.  God seeks us. God does not want to be socially distant from us.  He wants to be with us. For ancient jews, the idea that God could enter into our humanity and become like us, would have been heresy.  God is totally other.  He is not the same.  There will always be a great distance between divine and the human. But God sees that humanity was starving for a closer relationship with him, is longing for a deeper connection with God.  So he is motivated by compassion, through Christ’s incarnation closes the distance between God and us.  Christ has closed the gap and we are no longer “socially distant” from our God, thus we can now experience intimate friendship with him. 

2) Jesus reaches out to us to live in our physical world – he desires to touch our lives! God wanted us to be able to experience him through our senses.  Now we can see him.  Now we can hear him.  Now we can feel his embrace through the love of Christ.  We can literally experience God through our senses.  

3) The Divine Compassion sent Jesus into our midst to heal us. Those of us who are burdened with anger, unforgiveness, and sin can be healed by Christ’s grace.

4) By Christ’s incarnation, He desires to convince of God’s love and intimate friendship with each of us.  He wants to give us a spiritual hug.

The challenge for all of us is to allow ourselves to be wowed and to be in awe that our God would dare to enter into our human life.  But the challenges also is for us to open our eyes and see that the incarnation is not merely a past event – It is an event in the present!  God is incarnate among us today. Isn’t this really the great question that we all? Sure, God came 2000 years ago to live among us, but does he really live among us today? Can I, can we, really experience him today in the flesh?

There is a beautiful When Jesus came down from the mountain … And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus went to him, stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately. ~ Matthew 8: 1-3.  This scene may not seem like it, but it has Everything to do with Christmas, everything… It God’s divine compassion at work, and shows us why the incarnation matters; why God would become one of us.  

Leprosy was highly contagious and ostracized people from society.  It even caused death. People who contracted this disease in the biblical world were isolated from society.  Even people exposed to it are unclean. Those with leprosy experienced social distancing, they had to live separate from the world.  They lacked physical intimacy that expressed love and concern.  They were sick and in need of healing.  And because of fear, they were cast out of society.  They were unwanted and worse felt unloved. Sound familiar?  Just like the leper, our world is full of sick people.  And of course, it’s full of sick people because of COVID but its also full of sick people because we have all experienced in some way spiritual leprosy.  has caused not only those who are sick to be socially distant but all of us to practice social distancing.  And this social distancing, though necessary to keep us safe, has had some profound negative effects. The social distancing has caused many to wonder if God or even those close to them remember them. People have struggled with being alone and isolated because they cannot be in the same space. And finally, due to the distance between us during this pandemic many have felt unwanted, forgotten, and unloved. The biblical world’s experience of leprosy is familiar to our experience of the COVID 19 pandemic. This pandemic has showed us how important it really is for us to be in person with each other.

Our lives have been lived through a computer and the internet more in the past year than ever in human history bringing us out of the real world and into a virtual one. For example, our children have spent time in virtual classrooms, with mom and dad as the primary educators at home – all while trying to maintain their full-time jobs. In a humorous way, People have even maintained their gym memberships virtually, ‘zoom for Zumba.’ Birthday celebrations, thanksgiving, and for many, even this Christmas season people are only able to celebrate virtually hoping to remain safe and healthy. Truly, it is a miracle that we as Catholic Church in the diocese of Grand Rapids have found a way to connect virtually. What’s my point? 

Its that invisible sickness that makes us feel isolated, unseen, disconnected, unwanted and unloved. Covid has taken us out of our human world, and put us in the virtual, and the result is spiritual leprosy. Many of us are spiritually sick and need healing.  Many of us, struggle being alone and forgotten because of social distancing.  Many of us crave the chance to hug our loved ones again.  Many of us, want to know that we are loved.  Our virtual world has contributed to our spiritual leprosy.

This is the point.  To be together in person matters.  We need and crave physical proximity with each other. This is the gift of Christmas. This is why the incarnation matters.  Because our God wanted to be among us in person – and we crave and long to be close to our God!

And its this personal encounter between Jesus and the leper that shows us how much we needed Christ to become one of us.  This moment where Jesus heals the leper is no small act of kindness, No.  This moment gives a window into the soul of Christ – into what motivates our God. What motivated God to not only heal a leper but come into our world is God’s Divine Compassion. 

There are key moments in this exchange between Jesus, the son of God, and the leper that manifest God’s Divine Compassion.  1) Christ goes to him.  No one in their right mind would ever willing go close to someone sick with leprosy.  And yet – Jesus does! 2) Jesus reaches out and touches him.  Christ’s touch manifests God’s grace.  3) Our Lord heals him.  Finally, 4) the Lord embraces him and in that moment of embrace convinces the man, this former leper, that God loves him and has an intimate friendship with him.

Christmas is God coming into our world, he reaches out and touches our lives, heals us, and embraces confirming for us that we wanted, that we belong, and that we are loved more than we can ever imagine by our compassionate God.

Our responsibility then is to imitate God’s compassion for us to others. Jesus is the Sacrament of God the Father à Church is the Sacrament of Christ à Mystical Body (us) are sacrament of Christ for the world. We now are Christ incarnate in our world. We now are the means by which God continues to show his divine compassion to others; especially those who a longing to meet their savior and haven’t yet.

Have a wonderful Christmas!

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Spiritual Vigilance

Its hard to believe that it has already been a month since I was on quarantined.  But it was also eye opening.  I became much more vigilant and aware about COVID-19.  Here’s what I mean: For the first couple of days after my exposure to the virus every decision I made became more scrutinized.  For example, the day after Fr. Colin, the pastor of Holy Redeemer and my good friend, called to see if I wanted to watch Monday Night Football with him.  I said, we probably should not since I was in a soft quarantine.  Then the next day, I needed to go to Costco or Meijer to purchase some food.  Normally, that does not require much thought, but this time, I had to stop and ask myself, “is it appropriate for me to go shopping right now? Am I putting others at risk if I leave my house?”  Because I was exposed, I became hyper aware of COVID-19 and was even more vigilant with every decision I made.

The coronavirus has been a nightmare, and regardless where each of us stands personally with this health crisis, it does offer us an interesting insight into the first weekend of Advent.  Christ is asking us to watch closely for the second coming.  He wants us to be awake and alert for the coming of the Lord.  In other words, Jesus wants us to be hyper-focused on his second coming and to be vigilant – to be on the watch! 

And our protocols and procedures, our carefulness and vigilance with COVID-19 can show us how to be spiritually vigilant for Christ. 

During this pandemic we have become accustomed to many things, but these three things in particular: 1) Hand Sanitizer, 2) Masks, and 3) Social distancing.  We wash our hands and use sanitizer often, why?  So that we can protect ourselves from germs.  So that our hands to become an avenue for germs to make us sick.  We are more vigilant and cautious about going out into public without a mask, why? Not because we are afraid of others, because it’s a small thing that we can do to love the other person.  Just in case I have the virus and am unaware of it I will wear this mask, this uncomfortable thing, in order to love and protect others. And we are vigilant about keeping our distance from one another, why? So that we don’t spread the virus and so that one day soon we can be close with out families and friends again.  The vigilance we have right now towards COVID is about reaching the end of the pandemic, so that we can be reunited once again with our families and friends. The end goal is to get past this pandemic so we can live our lives together again.

And so now, here we are, and Christ is asking us to be vigilant, to have a careful watch for his second coming, why for the purpose of Social Communion. For us to have Social Communion, Christ too wants us to have spiritual vigilance.  He invites us to use spiritual hand sanitizer, to wear our spiritual masks, and to practice spiritual social distancing so that we can be a united family in heaven.  So, what is spiritual hand sanitizer? In our first reading we heard how our sin makes God angry and makes us unclean.  Christ is calling us to repent.  He wants us to take our spiritual hand sanitizer so that we our hearts can be made pure – that we love God above all things.  What does our spiritual mask look like? Our spiritual mask is our willingness to love others as God Loves them.  Our spiritual mask reminds us that our lives are not about us, but about God.  Our spiritual masks motivates us to make sacrifices to love the other person in front of us. And finally, what does Spiritual social distancing look like?  Spiritual social distancing is about separating ourselves from negative habits, vices, things, and at times people that keep us from God.  Jesus invites us to be vigilant about all three of things so that we can have Social Communion.  So that on the day of Christ’s coming, we may be aware and ready to see him, so that we can be with him and all the saints and angels in a beautiful social communion in heaven. 

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Jesus is our King

Who is our king?  Who are you willing to promise loyalty and fidelity to?  Better question maybe, who are you willing to imitate?  Whose mission do you believe in enough, that you would go into battle for it?

Preparing for this weekend I was reminded of that great scene in Braveheart.  William Wallace is giving his speech to the soldiers, but they are not convinced yet.  They are not totally willing to go into battle. Then William Wallace gives that great speech where he says freedom is worth fighting for.  William becomes a king-like figure.  His purpose is freedom.  He believes so much in it, that he is willing to die for it.  His belief is so inspiring, that others believe in it too, that that the also are willing to go into battle for the same mission.  They are willing to die for William Wallace’s mission, for freedom!

This weekend, we celebrate Christ the king.  We are just like the men who have shown up to see William Wallace, and we face the same crucial decision. Are we willing to follow Jesus as our commander? Is Christ the king worth fighting for?  If we are going to follow Jesus, we need to know what his mission is and be willing to go into battle for it.

Jesus’ mission is to proclaim God’s love and to set us free.  Free from what? From darkness, sin, and death.  Jesus has come to proclaim the Father’s love in the world, to free us, and to invite us to live in his kingdom forever.  How does Jesus accomplish this?  He loves the poorest of the poor, he forgives sinners and invites them into his kingdom.  This is what Christ the King is about.  The sacrificial love of Christ is more powerful and overcomes all sin and all evil.  Christ’s kingly power is not earthly power.  Earthly power is selfish, about domination, and controlling others. Christ’s kingly power is self-less, about serving others, and is motivated by love for the other.

Brothers and sisters, I think for us this weekend, we are called to be grateful for Christ’s kingly power and to live as citizens of his kingdom. As a Christian people, as a baptized people, we are baptized into the mystery of Christ’s life and mission.  That is, we are called to be priests, prophets, and kings. Priests – people who offer thanks and praise to God.  Prophets – people who speak about God to others. And kings – people who serve and love for the sake of others.

We participate in Christ’s kingly identity when:

We meet those who are hungry, and we give them food; not only for bread but for the understanding love of being loved, of being known, of being someone to someone.

We meet those who are naked, and we offer them clothing; and remember their human dignity where we acknowledge and help rather than simply ignore them because they are poor.

When we encounter those in prison or in the spiritual prison of addiction and remind them that they are wanted and loved. That those who have walked in this world with no one who cares for them, they are reminded my members of Christ’s kingdom, that Christ cares.

This day is the culmination of the whole year. We have heard the story.  We have heard that Jesus suffered and died for us.  We have heard the stories of how he healed people, forgiven great sins and offered his whole life in order to save us.

In Christ we have been set free. We have become members of his kingdom. Just as the soldiers took on William Wallace’s courage and qualities to go into battle, we take on our King’s qualities as we follow his mission of loving service. Are we going to enjoy our freedom and do what we please? Or, are we going to live now as members of Christ’s kingdom, and go into battle with him and for his kingdom so that others also be free?  

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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Trust in God’s Trust in us

This Gospel often doesn’t inspire confidence in God’s love for us, it actually tends to make us feel uncomfortable. Here again we have a parable, where Jesus is describing what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like.  A man, going on a journey will entrust his possessions to his servants.  Once again, this person represents God.   We are uncomfortable with the way the third servant is treated in the end.  This servant seems to have lost the most precious gift, that is, communion with God.  He is thrown out into the darkness, and no longer welcome. Is this really the God we believe in?  At first glance, this Gospel makes us uncomfortable, because God seems harsh, unforgiving, and worse he seems unloving.  We expect God to treat us with love and mercy, and so when it appears that God is acting in a different way we get uncomfortable. 

This begs the question; can God be disappointed in us?  Or is it okay if God wanted something more from us? I think to answer this question we need to ask ourselves what is the vice or the real sin that the third servant commits? Most would say laziness… but is it really?  I think its something subtle, and worse.  The third servant isn’t lazy.  Notice, he makes a great effort to figure out what to do with the gift.  He goes out into the field, is thinking about the gift, and knows he is supposed to do something, so he digs a hole and buries it.  The chief vice here is not laziness…. It’s a lack of trust. The chief vice or sin is that this person sees their own insignificance and struggles and believes that God cannot overcome them. The servant has a great fear of failure. God can’t overcome my weakness.  By believing that our gifts aren’t good enough, we subconsciously believe that God cannot heal, forgive, and transform – that his power cannot overcome my shortcomings. The sin is twofold, it’s a fear of failure and lack of belief in God’s goodness and power.

We all struggle with the fear of failure. One of my regrets in my childhood came in my freshman year of high school.  You all know that I love sports, my favorite among them is basketball. Shooting free throws and baskets was a place that I would talk with God.  The point is basketball was an important part of my life.  In my freshman year of high school, basketball tryouts came, and I did not go out for the team.  Why?  It wasn’t laziness.  It was fear of failure.  It was fear of not making the team that made me erroneously believe that it was not worth the risk. My mom, in her infinite wisdom, encouraged me hoping I would change my mind.  I wish I would have listened… My mom wasn’t angry, but she was disappointed.  Not because I had done something horrible, but that I was letting go of something good that she knew I would miss.  She knew me better than I knew myself.  God is the same way.  The first message of our Gospel is that we are culpable when we choose our fear as more powerful than God’s goodness and love.

So, the answer to our question: can God be disappointed in us, I think is yes.  But God’s disappointment does not mean that he loves us any less. Maybe the only way to understand this is to put it in our human language.  I think of parents who have a son that is smart.  All the test scores show that he is capable of academic excellence.  Then, the grades come back for the semester and the son is barely passing his classes.  When the parents confront him and say, “hey, you can do better.  We expect you to do better.”  They may even decide to ground him from technology until he improves his grades. Would we accuse them of not loving their son?  No of course not.  Most of us would say that this is good parenting.  Yes, they are disappointed, but they are disappointed because their son is capable.  God knows we are capable of amazing things, and he hopes that we will accomplish them.

There is something amazing about this Gospel and I don’t want us to miss it.  Notice, the great trust he has in his servants. Think about it, we leave things in the care of others that we trust will take care of them well.  Parents, when you have a date night, you leave your children with family or friends whom you have great trust in, that they will take care of your most prized possession, your children.  What I do not want us to miss, is the goodness and trust God has in each of us. 

To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability.  Knowing each of his servants well and their abilities God entrusts five, two, and one talent respectively to each of them. This teaches us three things about God.  God knows each of us better than we know ourselves.  He doesn’t ask us to do something we are incapable of.  That is why one servant is given 5, another 2, and the other 1.  God only asks of us that which we can give. And he doesn’t’ show favoritism.  Both the one with 5 and 2 talents are given the same affirmation, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”  God trusts each of us to use the gifts well.  God is generous, he gives us his most prized possession. 

Friends, this weekend is about what God expects from each of us.  He has given us the greatest gift imaginable, the love of his son Jesus Christ.  God also knows each of us better than we know ourselves.  And he has given us each different talents and gifts.  The talents and gifts are meant to be used to expand the kingdom of heaven.  “the talents represent each servant’s knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven… being entrusted with the message of salvation entails great responsibility… the Lord who calls us to share his good news with the world … does not want us to give it back to him unshared and unfruitful.” God gives us, only what he knows we can accomplish.  This Gospel is beautiful precisely in that it shows how much God trusts us. May we all respond and say, “Yes Lord, I will trust your trust in me.  Just think, the amazing things God can do through each of us, if we allow ourselves to Trust God who puts his trust in us.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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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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Is Simon Cowell a prophet?

Simon Cowell – loved and hated by some.  Because he tells it like it is.  He gives his honest opinion.

What are some characteristics of Old Testament prophets? 

An Old Testament prophet has experienced a call.   Jeremiah for example, our prophet in our first reading, is the one who says, “before you formed me in the womb you knew me, O Lord.”  And later, after hearing God’s call to be a prophet Jeremiah says, “I do not know how to speak. I am too young!” But the LORD answers him…  Do not say, “I am too young.” To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak.

And this is the second great characteristic of Old Testament prophets, they have to speak.  Or a better word is they are compelled.  They are so convinced of this call, they cannot ignore it.  They must speak.

And finally, the last identifying characteristic of an Old Testament prophet is that they were very unpopular or even hated because they spoke challenging words. This is what is happening for our prophet in the first reading.  Jeremiah is unpopular.  He complains to us: Denounce! Let us denounce him! … All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine.

So an Old Testament prophet experienced God’s call, were compelled to speak for God, and finally were very unpopular.  Who is signing up?

Well, this is exactly what Jesus wants us to be this weekend. Jesus wants us to be prophets.  He says to us in our Gospel, What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. Being a prophet in today’s world is not easy. A prophet in today’s world proclaims God’s love and truth.

Many of you know that a couple of weeks ago I preached about George Floyd’s death, how racism is evil and a sin, and that we need to find a way to bring Christ’s unity in our world.  I agonized over this homily.  I had the diocesan director of communications read that homily before I gave it.  I let Fr. Len know that I was preaching about it so that he wasn’t surprised.  And I spent a lot of time praying with it and asking the Holy Spirit to give me the words.  Why am I telling you this?  because I knew that this had the potential to be an unpopular homily.  I knew that for some it would be challenging. But, this is was a Jeremiah moment for me.  I felt called to speak.  I even tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to speak about something difficult the first weekend back to Mass.  And I knew for some it would be an unpopular homily. 

Here’s the point.  This was a moment that God was asking me to be like an Old Testament prophet.  But Jesus is asking all of us to be prophet.  What I have whispered to you, [you must] proclaim on the housetops.  We are called to be prophets. 

Proclaims God’s word in our world.  This means we must know scripture and have a life of prayer. The place where Jesus “whispers” to us is both in scripture and in our personal prayer life.  Once we’ve heard his word we must share it with others. All of us are baptized into new life with Jesus.  As baptized Christians, we are baptized as priests, prophets, and kings. We are baptized as prophets, people who proclaim God from the rooftops. 

Something we hear over and over again on America’s Got Talent from people is that they want to impress Simon.  They hope that he will see their talent.  Why, because he is the most honest.  And if he liked it, most likely many people liked it as well. We are called to be prophets people who proclaim God’s love and truth, even when its hard, to others in our lives.

In Christ’s love and Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

In the unity of the Holy Spirit

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together.

We return this weekend to public celebration of the sacraments.  It is great for us to be reunited once again in prayer and fellowship so that we can give thanks and praise to our God. And for that today is a day of great joy. As we know for many weeks now we have had live-streamed Masses.  So why is it a big deal for us to return to this building? Is it really that different from being at home? This church building is important because it the sign of the Holy Spirit’s work; that the Holy Spirit is the one who unites us. This is the place of our togetherness. This place, this church building, is the symbol that says, those things that divide us are no more.  Look no further than the opening prayer at every Mass, these beautiful words are said: We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen. We are united as one family, in the unity of the holy spirit, we are brothers and sisters in Christ’s as God’s mystical body.

Today we celebrate the beginning of the Church and the Holy Spirit.  The two are intimately linked.  We believe wholeheartedly as Catholics that the Holy Spirit guides our Church today.  The Holy Spirit also empowers us, as the Church, to carry out our mission.  And that mission is to bring all peoples together, regardless of race or culture, as members of Christ’s family and His Church. Jesus Christ himself said, I came to draw all of humanity to myself (John 12:32).  Simply put, God’s church is meant to be universal – for all peoples. And so this weekend we pray for the gift to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit – that is, to be agents of unity in our world.  

What does it mean for us to be united?  For us as church I think it simply means this, we are united in our baptismal identity and mission.  Our baptismal identity is that we are all God’s sons and daughters and therefore are endowed with dignity. And our mission is to profess and witness to our faith in the world.  Notice however, that unity does not mean sameness.  It can mean togetherness, shared values, and share mission, but not sameness.

Those groups of people that are truly united embrace differences between others because it makes us better.  Sameness, forces others to conform and change, and can even cause division.  This is exactly what Saint Paul is saying in the 2nd reading, there are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit… To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. And that benefit is for the Christian community. 

Here’s a simple example.  Can you have a good football team if you have all offensive linemen?  Can you have a good baseball team if you have all pitchers?  No, of course not.  But on those teams, if you use the different gifts and skills of your players at their strengths, then you will likely have a great team. This is why the Golden State Warriors were so good a few years ago. Draymond the great defensive presence. Steph Curry the best 3-point shooter ever.  Klay Thompson one of the greatest two-way players ever surrounded by a collection of talented basketball players who all had different roles; but they did it extremely well.  The same is true of us as Church.  Many people, different gifts, united in the Holy Spirit.  And together we can make amazing things happen.

But if we are honest with ourselves, there is also great sadness at how much division still exists in our world. I think of this pandemic, has anyone else been frustrated that we managed to politicize a health crisis?  The coronavirus shines a light on the division in our country.  When we assume the other is an enemy, it only causes division.  I think most of you would agree with me, we don’t want Republicans and Democrats to be the same.  Because both support good things, and we want them to work together in their differences for the good of the country.  The strengths of these parties, there differences, can cover the other’s weaknesses. We need unity in politics, and that doesn’t mean a bunch of people who think the same way.  It means people who respect and appreciate the differences in their peers who are willing to collaborate for the good of our country.  

And I think the most obvious example that divisions still exist in our world is between race, ethnicity and culture.  My heart is broken over the death of George Floyd. This man should never had died. Period. No one should ever die at the hands of those who are called to protect our cities.  The visceral reaction on all sides manifests just how divided we are.  Some Americans deny racism exists, and yet, on the other side we have others looting, rioting, and putting other people in harm in protest.  Both reactions are a result of a divided nation. I think we can all agree that George Floyd should never have died.  I think we can all agree we need to find a way to end this type of violence that seems all to common for minorities.  But I think we can also agree that looting, destroying property, all in angry protest is not only harmful to our communities, but are not actions that will solve the problem or bring unity.  What we need is the unity of the Holy Spirit. 

These signs of disunity should cause in us great sadness.  During this time, where we continue to experience divisions caused by racism, politics, or even religion, we are called to be agents of unity.

How do we become agents of unity? 

  1. Friends Not Enemies – We do so first and foremost by seeing each other as members of the same family and not as enemies.  That way when we hear of a man like George Floyd dying in the horrible way that he did, we can and should be sad too, because George was a member of our family.
  2. As agents of unity we seek understanding – We can do this by asking our friends who identify as a different political party, or simply other viewpoints, questions about their beliefs. We might discover that we want the same things but have taken different avenues. 
  3. Offer Christ’s Peace: And finally we become agents of unity by offering to bring Christ’s peace into our world just as Christ did for the Apostles in our Gospel.  Today’s celebration of “[Pentecost] is about the Holy Spirit showing up and transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into the Body of Christ… It’s about the Spirit carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbor” (journey with Jesus, Thomas).  Today’s celebration is about living in radical unity as Christian brothers and sisters.

May we be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be agents of unity in our world that badly needs it.

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen