All posts for the month September, 2023

Ezekiel 18: 25-28 + Psalm 24 + Philippians 2, 1-11 + Matthew 21: 28-32

October 1, 2023 Not delivered in person. I am away from Naples

Years ago, I lived with a Vietnamese Priest who was a refugee with a frightening story about his escape from Vietnam in a stolen boat that was fired upon as they slipped away in the darkness and drifted for several days on the open sea. At first, we had some trouble understanding each other not just because of language limitations, but because of cultural differences. In church order, I was his superior even though he was twenty years older than I was. That rich Asian culture has deep respect for senior authorities which I was in his eyes. The age and culture in which he grew up would never allow or tolerate saying “no” to a superior. He never told me no, and it caused a lot of confusion until I caught on. I would ask him to take a Mass. He would say, “Yes” and never show up. I would ask him if he was coming to dinner and the same thing would happen to the frustration of the lady who provided us meals. He was a good and holy man. He drove me crazy. I can never hear this Gospel without thinking of him, and that experience has given me a slightly different way of understanding what is happening here.

That son who said Yes, just like Father Bao always did, was not bad because he didn’t do anything. In fact, to the people who first heard this parable, he was good because he was respectful and did not insult his father by saying, “no.” That other one who was disrespectful to his father by saying, “No” is also good because he did what was asked of him. This thinking could leave us wondering what’s the point of the parable, because in some ways, both did the right thing. Yet, neither of them did it the right way.

Perhaps there is another question to be asked here. Which son was most concerned with the family’s well-being? This story really ends up being about action, about doing something. Polite words, pious gestures, bumper stickers with scripture quotes, are all empty when not backed up by committed activities. As we have all heard from our parents while growing up, “Actions Speak Louder than Words”. Only those who act, even if they are slow to respond, have done the father’s will. 

The truth is there is a little of each son in all of us. Sometimes we say, “Yes” and never go. Sometimes we say, “No” but eventually do go. This Gospel is meant for us just as much as it was for those scribes and Pharisees to whom it was first spoken. We tell the story once again to help us, no matter how long it takes, to do the Father’s will which means doing something with God’s undeserved gifts.

Isiah 55: 6-9 + Psalm 145 + Philemon 1:20-24, 27 + Matthew 20: 1-16

September 24, 2023 at St William and St Peter Catholic Churches in Naples, FL

This is really a cool parable to hear right now as the Auto Workers go out on strike. And since I firmly believe that the Gospel is for the present time and not some history book of old sayings. Jesus Christ just spoke this parable to us just as really as he did once before to his disciples, the “in group.” Perhaps more than any of the parables, this one shakes us up, and I can remember hearing it when I was a lot younger and thinking: “That’s not fair. Those guys who worked the longest should get the most.” When that thinking starts, you know there is something deeper going on here, and a message that just might rub us the wrong way.

If you move around in this scene and look at it from the perspective of each character, some interesting ideas emerge. What about that land owner? He needed to get the job done, and as the day went on, he realized that he didn’t have enough help, so he went looking for others. He promised a fare wage, and he kept his promise.

What about those workers hired in the morning? They were promised a fair wage. What are they complaining about, a generous land owner? Yet, equal pay for vastly unequal work does not seem right. But maybe this parable is not really focused on wages but on motives.

What about those workers who came on the job late in the day. It’s easy to think they just didn’t get up in the morning and were too lazy to get to work, but maybe they had been looking for work all day desperately going from one place to another until someone finally hired them. We don’t know why they were not working in the morning. What we do know is that all their needs are the same – feeding a hungry family.

When you move around inside the story, it seems to me that one thing comes clear. The owner of the vineyard was more interested in supplying their need than in measuring their contribution to his task. His judgement was not based on how hard or long someone worked, but rather on each one of those workers’ right to life and just wage to support that life.

This is not about capitalism and meritocracy nearly as much as it is about justice. That urge to say “Not fair” can overwhelm the many messages here and avoid the challenges. We all like to calculate our own worthiness. It’s comforting, but it does not always lead us toward a real just society. The growing wage disparity in this world should be troubling to us challenging us to call into question what’s really fair and what’s really just. How can those two things really be opposed by any disciple of Christ? The dignity of human work and the importance of a just wage is something too rarely considered these days until we can no longer ignore the multimillion-dollar bonuses and salaries collected by CEOs who sometime are more concerned about profit and keeping share- holders happy than the needs of those who make those profits.

In the end, this parable is really about generosity, leaving us to wonder what’s wrong with those complaining who got what they were promised. Resentment has no place in the heart of any disciple. Are they jealous of someone who seems to be more generous than they are?

This parable comes after the story of the rich young man and Peter’s claim to have given up everything wanting to know what he is going to get out of it. Like those parables, this is really about relationships, the owner and the workers or between the master and disciples. Ultimately it is about getting the mission accomplished not the rewards. We have work to do. We don’t need to be looking around at what anyone else is doing. There are too many empty pews in this church.

Sirach 27: 30-28:7 + Psalm 103 + Romans 14: 7-9 + Matthew 18: 21-35

September 17, 2023 at St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, Fl

Jesus speaks to us today about Mercy, which is much deeper and far more rich and healing than forgiveness. Peter, probably trying to look grand and magnanimous comes up with what, to him, must seem like a large number. Jesus will have none of his silly counting ideas and he proposes to us something greater than forgiveness. Forgiveness is a great gift, but there is something greater. Mercy goes further than forgiveness because it is underserved, and it comes without asking. It is a pure gift, an incredible gift that must be accepted. Through this parable Jesus teaches us that because God is merciful we must, in turn, be merciful to others. We have no right to ask for mercy if we are not prepared and willing to give it, and that is what we see in this parable. 

All of us face situations when we struggle to let go of bitterness, anger, or resentment. We sometimes feel that if we forgive someone who has harmed us in any way, they get “off the hook” with no consequences. So, we fool ourselves into thinking we will take the “high road” and let them suffer without our forgiveness.  Then too, we begin to think that if we just forgive again and again, people will just walk all over us. So, we offer ourselves more “realistic” advice. “I’ll forgive maybe once, but three times, and you’re out.” All the while we ignore what God has said through the Apostle, Paul in his Letter to the Romans: “Beloved, do not look for revenge. Leave room for my wrath.” 

Forgiveness comes from a humble person. The prideful can never forgive because it requires dying to self, our pride, our desire to be right, our thirst of revenge which is really our desire to play God. When we get trapped in this mood of righteousness refusing forgiveness, we need to pray for mercy like never before lest we condemn ourselves when we pray as Jesus taught us.

There is a great tragedy if we exempt ourselves from the law of Jesus, the law of love and forgiveness. If we establish for ourselves a new reality; if vengeance and retribution are what we embrace, then that’s what we are left with, a hardened heart. There is always the risk that a hard heart might become so hardened that even a kind and merciful God could not soften it.

Forgiveness is never a business deal. I’ll forgive you if you do such and such. This is when mercy enters experience. With mercy there is no “if”, no conditions. We give what we hope to receive. Perhaps if we look at it this way, we give mercy creating an empty space in our hearts. It is into that empty space that the Lord himself can refill what has been given away.

Forgiveness, and its motive, mercy is really a decision we make. It is a decision to be different from the offender, a decision to not let what has been done to me dictate how I act to that person or anyone else for that matter. It is mercy that takes the arithmetic out of Peter’s idea of forgiveness. A parable about the Kingdom of God tells us that mercy is for those who are merciful. Those without mercy shall live without the Kingdom of God.

Ezekiel 33: 7-9 + Psalm 95 + Romans 13: 8-10 + Matthew 18: 15-20

September 10, 2023 on the MS Zaandam at Sea

The verses of Matthew’s Gospel that the Church puts before us are complex, and as usual, Matthew has little gems buried in these verses that should get our attention. What we really have here is a peek into the working of the earliest church communities. Matthew is confirming the method by which his community is to maintain unity and harmony. One of those little gems is the note that shifts the responsibility for binding and loosing from Peter to the whole church. The first time this binding and loosing instruction is given Jesus speaks to Peter. This time it is to the church. In other words, the work of forgiveness and healing is not just responsibility of the authorities. We are all responsible for each other. 

Something about us makes us like that idea of binding, and we often find it a lot easier to do than loosening. We like to enforce the rules and punish the rule-breakers. It makes us feel good, and of course, it usually distracts from our own rule breaking. As long as we can keep people focused on someone else’s offences, our own may not show.

While it might be easier to reflect upon these verses as an instruction on discipline, it’s really not about that at all. These verses, this teaching of Jesus Christ to us reveals God’s desire that we take care of each other, that we help one another and together seek the what is best for us all as we make our way to the Father. This is the way to make sure that no one is lost. The debt of love that that we owe one another in Christ compels us to build up one another Lord. Without the love as our motive, we run the risk of speaking out of self-righteousness, judgmentalism, or feelings of superiority. All that does is insult, hurt, and shame. 

God created us to live in unity with Him and with each other. We can know that unity because God’s only Son removed everything that separated and divided us like leprosy and blindness, and even death. The gift of the Spirit provides everything we need to live in this unity.

Our Holy Father, Francis, has been trying to teach us exactly what this Gospel encourages, that the first step toward healing our brokenness, binding up what is broken and gathering in those who are lost or feel shoved aside is to listen. Four times that verb shows up in these five verses. If we can just listen to each other, we have every chance to make a friend and find a brother or sister. 

Jerimiah 20: 7-9 + Psalm 63 + Romans 12: 1-2 + Matthew 16: 21-27

September 3, 2023 on board the MS Zaandam departing Montréal

The one who fed the multitude, who calmed the water, drove out evil spirits, and broke down social barriers by healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman is now the one who will be put to death. It doesn’t make sense. It does not match our idea of what a Savior or Messiah should do any more than it did Peter who was obviously not the only person who has struggled to understand the mind of God. He had all that power at his disposal. Why would he not use it in his own defense?

That question is the key. His power is meant for the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God, not for his own comfort, safety or protection. The Gospel never says that Jesus gallantly steps forward and takes suffering upon himself. That would be a demonstration of his power. Instead, his fate will be a demonstration of his vulnerability. He will be taken forcibly and will suffer at the hands of others. He will do this willingly, but not as a volunteer. Jesus will be a victim.

It is in this behavior, in this obedience, and in this vulnerability that he teaches us about the use of power and privilege. Look at us here beginning this wonderful voyage today. We are gifted with so much, and with it comes such great responsibility and the expectation that we do not use all that we have for ourselves. 

Peter thinks that because Jesus is so favored by God and so powerful he should never experience what he is told will come to pass. Again, like Peter we sometimes think that because we keep the commandments, practice our faith, say our prayers, care for others something is wrong when we suffer disappointments, tragedies, and illness. We might think like Peter that this isn’t right and start to whine like the Prophet we just heard moaning and complaining to God.

When we get caught up in that, we are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do, and today’s Gospel teases us into a new way of thinking even about faith. Oftentimes we find faith to be like a warm comforting quilt into which we can crawl up and feel safe. But sometimes faith is a call to obedience, to suffering and sacrifice. It means being vulnerable, risking love and forgiveness when it may not be returned. Denying one’s self, as Jesus demands means that we are no longer the sole and only center of our attention, but rather that we have placed the Lord Jesus Christ at the center of our lives. When that begins to happen, the Kingdom of God will be near at hand.