All posts for the month September, 2020

September 27, 2020

St. Peter the Apostle & St. William Churches in Naples, FL

Ezekiel 18, 25-28 + Psalm 25 + Philippians 2, 1-11 + Matthew 21, 28-32

Saturday, 3:30pm St Peter the Apostle, Naples, FL

                                  Jesus has just entered Jerusalem with great excitement, and with no other authority than the Truth, he cleared out the Temple which, I’ve always thought was a symbolic way of demanding that we clear out our lives tangled up in commercialism, competition and consumerism forgetting that we are a Temple, the dwelling place of God. Those chief priests and elders realize now that they have no way of dealing with this troublesome Rabbi, and with that, Jesus tells this story of the two sons in the presence of those chief priests and elders to trouble their consciences. He speaks today, in this place, to trouble us and our conscience.

There is something about this parable that ought to make all of us squirm a little, because we can recognize ourselves in both of these “sons.” We have all promised to do things big and small with the best of intentions, and then, we just don’t follow through. At the same time, we’ve all said “no” to many requests, and later had second thoughts or regrets changing our minds. There is no way to think that this parable is about “them”. Jesus is speaking here, live and in person with this living Gospel.

There is something yet troubling with this parable especially so in a culture in which honor and shame are so significant. Saying “no” to a parent would have been a great insult and very disobedient causing great shame. While the second son gets an honorable approval rating by saying “yes” thereby preserving honor and avoiding shame, but look at what happens. Which is better, a son that does nothing but look good, or a son who looks bad and does good? When Jesus puts this question back on the chief priests and elders who are all about looking good, he sets the hook like a fisherman, and he drags them into the light of truth.

But, the parable today is not about them. It’s about us, and it’s about repentance which is what John the Baptist called for and what Jesus still expects. We are all a people who like to look good, a people who have made a lot of promises, because promises are a lot easier than action. What Jesus seems to prefer are people of shame, like tax gathers and sinners. He prefers them because even though they say “no” often doing wrong in their shame, there is evidence by their response to him that conversion and repentance are happening. There is good news here for us if we let this Gospel trouble our conscience enough to bring us to action. Notice that when Jesus describes that procession into the Kingdom, he does not exclude those chief priests and elders. The door will always be left open for anyone who repents. The Kingdom is to be inclusive. The hope remains then, that all of us who are so imperfect, both a “yes and a no” community we are a people for whom not only one but many changes of heart and conversion to the Father’s will are possibly and necessary.

What ultimately counts, my friends, are not the promises we make, but the actions we take. God is Good!

September 20, 2020

At St. Peter the Apostle and St. William Churches in Naples, FL

Isaiah 55, 6-9 + Psalm 145 + Philippians 1, 20-24,27 + Matthew 20, 1-6

3:30pm Saturday at St Peter the Apostle in Naples, FL

You almost have to wonder what in the world the owner of this vineyard was thinking when he paid the last workers first. He could have avoided the whole controversy by dong it the other way around.  However, Matthew is describing the Kingdom of Heaven where the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. So, Jesus speaks to us about this and teaches us, his disciples, about how to reveal something about God to those around us. There something else here to wonder about. Why were those hired later not hired at the beginning? Why were those hired at the end still without a job? Perhaps, it is because they were known to be incompetent or lazy. Whatever the case, they were unwanted. That is an important point in this story.

We might notice that the grumblers don’t start their complaining until they are paid. They do not grumble when those paid first get a surprisingly generous compensation. They start grumbling when it comes to their compensation which is exactly what they had agreed to. They were not cheated. It isn’t until they start looking at what others have received that they start showing what we ought to call, envy. At first, they are reminded that they got exactly what they were promised. Generosity is the land owner’s right. The real rebuke comes from the land owner when their complaint goes beyond the matter of the pay and they say: “You have made them equal to us.” This arrogant attack on the worth of the late comers crosses the line. It is more than an economic observation. It is an expression of envy.

As before in this section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to the privileged, to us. To those of us who are here, who keep attending Mass at least every weekend, who make sacrifices for the work of the whole church, and who work long and hard at being faithful, prayerful always seeking the Will of God. We are reminded, even if it stings a little, that we are just as good as everyone else, we are just as good as any other sinner, or maybe just as bad if the secrets of our hearts were revealed. The real sadness of this story is that those who worked the longest and worked hardest seem to have failed to imitate the generosity and mercy of the owner. They could have at least rejoiced that there was generosity, and perhaps imitated the generosity of the owner. But no, they choose to act offended as though they were better than the others.

This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel. As with previous ones it reflects the stress of that early community as their privileged position is challenged by the late-comers – those gentile converts. They were to be accepted as equals just as today, this first-world church must welcome the new men and women who come from developing countries. Jesus reminds us of the equality and solidarity of all God’s laboring disciples who receive the same food at the table.

Those who worked the longest and considered themselves worthy of more would have been satisfied if the owner had given out rewards in proportion to the work done. There would be some justice to that. However, justice and grace do not always fit well together. This parable reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is based upon grace rather than justice, and that’s a good thing to keep in mind when we start thinking about that final time when we shall get what we deserve.

September 13, 2020

At St. Peter the Apostle and St. William Churches in Naples, FL

Sirach 27, 30-28, 7 + Psalm 95103 + Roman 14, 7-9 + Matthew 18, 21-35

4:30pm Saturday at St. William Church in Naples, FL

It is ironic that Peter should ask this question about forgiveness introducing the parable of the merciless steward since Peter himself will be forgiven by Jesus for his Good Friday denial. We are in the fourth “discourse” or theme of the five in Matthew’s Gospel. In the first we heard the Beatitudes as a discourse on the virtues of those who would follow Jesus. In the second discourse, the apostles are introduced and the theme is the “mission” of disciples. The third is the “Parable Discourse” that describes the Kingdom of Heaven. This month, we have begun the fourth discourse which concerns the church, its life, its action and purpose. It unfolds for us the Divine will for reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus speaks to us again today about how we must live together. Forgiveness and Mercy are basic attitudes that every Christian in the Church must have. The Church, when all is said and done is a community of forgiveness and mercy. It is not just the place where you receive forgiveness and mercy. It is the place where you give it.

There is something in all of us that likes counting. It starts early in life when we notice that some other child got two cookies and we got one. It boils down to being all about winning. We have to win. If we don’t there is something wrong with us. So, Peter comes with this counting question, about how many times. The answer he gets is totally confusing and beyond computation. In other words, Jesus tells him to stop counting. If you think you have to win, then win by being the most forgiving and the most merciful or by just not counting at all.

Interesting details of the parable make it quite shocking because of the exaggerations. The first servant’s debt to the master is enormous. The second servant’s debt to the first servant is a tiny fraction of what that first servant has been forgiven. It would be like owing a penny to the first servant who owed the master 14 billion! Yet, the mercy extended to that first servant is not passed on. Perhaps more important is the fact that buried in this parable’s comparisons is another matter Jesus would have us recognize, and that is the role of the other servants who see what’s going on. They go to the master and report the matter.

Some might criticize this behavior and think that they should have minded their own business. If what they did was not appropriate, Matthew would not have included it in the Gospel. Without those fellow servants, there would have been no justice. Today we would call what they did “advocacy”, and it’s a good thing. It is an appropriate response of the church, you and me, to injustice everywhere and anytime. There is a real sense that this is a ministry of the church: calling attention to injustice and wrong doing.

King Lear in Shakespeare’s great tragedy says to his daughter Cordelia: “Pray you now, forget and forgive for I am old and foolish.” Something about that idea of linking forgetting and forgiving becomes an obstacle to real forgiveness. It isn’t really possible to forget. The challenge is to remember and forgive. By remembering, we can learn and not repeat. By forgiving we are healed. The Dalai Lama tells about a meeting with a Tibetan monk who had served eighteen years in a Chinese prison. When he asked the monk what he felt to be the greatest threat or danger during his imprisonment, the monk replied, “Losing my compassion for the Chinese.” We don’t have to forget in order to forgive. In forgiving, the memory changes us from being a victim to being survivor, and it changes the enemy into a friend.

October 4, 2020 at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL

Isaiah 5, 1-7 + Psalm 80 + Philippians 4, 6-9 + Matthew 21, 33-43

We all just stood up to hear Jesus Christ speak to us directly from this Gospel. To sit down now and to think that we have heard Jesus of Nazareth attacking the chief priests and leaders of the people is to completely miss the point and somehow dis-engage the Gospel from real life. It is not about them. It is about us. They are entrusted with the care of God’s creation and God’s children. They blew it, and in a clever trap with this dialogue, Jesus gets them to condemn themselves.

History and Literature are full of stories about tenants and landlords. Almost always, the landlord is the bad guy and the tenants are victims of greed and abuse. This parable is different, because the landlord is the good guy and the tenants are the bad guys. It ought to leave us a little troubled and perhaps disturb our consciences which we so often like to keep quiet. This is a stark reminder that we are expected to bear fruit, that the owner, God, will come to collect, and if there is no fruit to return, it will not go well for us.

I am not a firm believer in coincidences, because I believe in a provident God.  Yet, it is wonderful and helpful today to hear Jesus speak to us this way on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, and during the time of leadership by a Pope named, Francis who has spoken to us time and time again about our responsibility for this earth, God’s vineyard. How we care for it matters, because it’s not ours. The earliest story in our scriptures reveals God’s intention by putting us here with clear instructions. We ought to learn a lesson from this Gospel about how it goes with those who begin to think that just because they are here it belongs to them and they can do what they want with it.

We are warned today by the truth of this Gospel that this earth is not ours, and that the one to whom it belongs expects us to bear fruit and return it to return to him. To whatever extent we may have become possessive and ambitious, we run the risk of becoming self-condemned tenants of God’s vineyard. We are not placed here to build huge estates for ourselves or amass great portfolios and fat bank accounts. God is not interested in any of that. In fact, as Pope Francis has warned, this quickly slips into idolatry. What God longs for then and still today is social justice and integrity, and things that bring peace. When the master comes and finds us well fed, fat, and comfortable while 2/3rd of his children are hungry, it isn’t going to go well. When more than half of what gets produced on American farms goes to waste and spoils on grocery store shelves, we won’t have much to show the master.  When the master comes and finds people refusing to speak to one another, a life-time of broken promises, violence, abuse, and the hording of this vineyard’s goods, we cannot pretend that the master will be pleased.

The truth is that sitting here on a Saturday afternoon in October there isn’t much we can do about it, but when we leave here, we could get at least get interested, study, and think about how what we might change, improve, and empower the right people to make some reforms, to minimize this damage we are constantly doing to God’s creation. The chief priests and elders of the people eventually solved their problem by taking the master’s son out of town and killing him just as their ancestors silenced the prophets who interrupted their comfortable lives and troubled their consciences. Leaving this Gospel message in the church, and deciding that religious values have no place in our secular lives the rest of the week does the same thing. When the prophetic Francis, Pope of Rome is written off or ignored because we think he should be taking care of pious or religious matters, the same disastrous consequences are likely to follow. The good news here is that we know how it works with God, and that this vineyard owner is yet to come. But, he will.

September 6, 2020 at St. Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL

Ezekiel 23, 7-9 + Psalm 95 + Roman 13, 8-10 + Matthew 18, 15-20

9:00am Sunday St. William Catholic Church, Naples, FL

My father had a few old sayings that in my adult life I have begun to wonder about and question very seriously. Some of them were sillier than others. Some of them were wise and thoughtful. Some others I have come to question. When I would leave the house at night with friends, there was always the shout: “Don’t do nothin’ stupid!” To say that my father was a lot like Archie Bunker would be an exaggeration, he hated the show, but I always thought it was insightful and revealing. In the wisdom category would say: “Don’t buy more than you can pay for.” However, there is one saying that has been a problem for me, and when it is believed and followed, it becomes a serious matter for all of us. He would say now and then: “Mind your own business.” Now, in his favor, I can allow that he may have been talking about gossip; but when applied too broadly, something goes wrong.

In an age of blame when responsibility is often shifted away from one’s self the instruction of this Gospel is very much to the point. Just a few moments ago, you all stood up. Sometimes I wonder if you know why. The easy answer is that it’s just what we Catholics do for the reading of the Gospel. I would like to suggest to you that it’s much more than a custom. In fact, if that is what it has become we’re in trouble. We stand for the Gospel because we are the presence of Christ who has come to speak to us. I don’t like all the other implication of this comparison, but in a court room, everyone stands when the Judge enters because the judge is going to say something. Now, Jesus speaks to us today, and he gives us some serious instructions about a serious matter that is close to his heart: forgiveness and unity that is preserved by reconciliation.

Something about us always likes the third step in the process that Matthew has handed on to us. The three steps were nothing new. This was a process already in effect in Jewish communities and described in great detail in the Old Testament. Having instructed us a couple of weeks back about binding and losing,  Jesus now reinforces that instruction to make it clear that every effort must be made to keep the community together, and not lose anyone for lack of attention. Yet, something about us always prefers to take a short cut and go for the third step first. I cannot count the times when as a Pastor someone came into my office demanding that I “do something” about this or that person or behavior that needed attention. Forget about the first two steps, just go for the big guns is the attitude, and it hardly ever works.

I think about this as I can count the number of times when things have gone terribly wrong because people decided to mind their own business and say nothing when something was wrong. It creates a kind of silence that is terrible. It happens in families and among friends who live their lives tiptoeing around one another avoiding speaking up about something that is hurting everyone. Alcoholism, Drug abuse, physical abuse victimizes other people, and fear is the controlling agent. We all know he script: “Say nothing.” “Don’t bring that up.” What good will it do?” “You’ll never change their minds.” And so, there is silence, deadly silence while hearts scream in anguish and spirits shrivel up and die.

We have suffered from this as a church partly because no one said anything or spoke up when trusted people broke the trust. We have suffered from this as families when silence prevails and we watch someone destroy their life or their future. We can talk all we want about how the church should do something, about how someone else should put a stop to something, but when we skip the first two steps, it is more likely that there will be no alternative except to expel and break our relationships which the first two steps strive to maintain.

            So, Jesus is speaking today. Jesus is breaking the silence and teaching us to take care of one another, to stop trying to find an easy way to avoid expressing our love and concern for someone who is hurting themselves and hurting others. Love must be the driving force, not anger, vengeance, or judgement. Just simply love that springs from our desire to be one, to be whole, to be holy.