Sunday, September 20, 2015

In Gratitude for an Accident

Gina, my wife, and I are recovering after being involved in a car accident yesterday. We had attended the Idaho Catholic Congress that morning, and Gina asked if we could go home for lunch. She has food sensitivities and didn't think the lunch offering would sit well.

We were driving north on a regular route, when about eight blocks away from home, a car came through the intersection, through a stop sign, and hit us on the driver's side just between the driver and rear passenger door.

I saw the other vehicle about two seconds before it impacted—just enough time to move my body away from the door and brace. (BTW, it's apparently an urban legend that it's better to be completely relaxed in an accident as the tension supposedly causes more damage than if you were completely free from tension and unaware. My chiropractor and a nurse from my parish have indicated that this is not the case.)

I've been in several accidents involving two vehicles. (I think that makes me part of the problem.) I recalled this time an odd visual affect that I encountered in my last accident—sort of a stuttered, or staggered image of the accident taking place. What I mean is that I did not see the approaching vehicle in a smooth fluid motion but almost as if it were a stop-image video. And then *BANG*, and our van was pushed from the lane and into the corner curb.

The point of impact, of course, was crushed, but on the passenger side, the rear axle was broken, and the front tire was completely blown off of the rim. After I checked with Gina to see if she was okay, I said, "Out, out, out," and we both exited through her door. I was concerned that the leaking fluids from the other vehicle might catch fire. After we exited, a neighbor, who is also a paramedic, said, "Do not renter the vehicle, and do not put your head into the door." Our air bags did not deploy, and he wanted to prevent an injury if they went of late (which apparently happens).

I was right there, inches from the point of impact, and I was uninjured—probably a bit out of alignment, but no blood, no broken bones.

The young man who ran the stop sign was extremely apologetic. At a point, we just really didn't know what to say to him other than, "Let's be grateful that we're all okay," and "Make sure to learn from this." He was clearly a good kid who made a few bad choices. And he probably won't be getting a license for some time.

This event has given me a chance to think a bit about attachment. As I was driving home yesterday after picking up a rental, I thought about what part this van has played in our lives. I bought it in 2004, primarily to use for food-bank runs, but also because I had hoped that I might be able to haul around my children in it. Well, I was able to drive my daughter Kellina, but the other children that I hoped would arrive did not. We would have to wait for grandchildren, and we made numerous trips with them to and from Nevada and around the state, We made a number of long road trips, and I have to tell you, it was the most comfortable cross-country vehicle I've ever owned. After a recent trip up to McCall in our Toyota Highlander, I swore that we'd be using the van for any future trips.

As I was driving home in the rental car, I thought about the van as a blessing that was wholly undeserved. For ten years, we have had this vehicle for our trips to diaconal formation weekends, to retreats, to a very long trip for a martial arts test, for visits to grandchildren, and for a few getaways. The van was a gift. And while it is an attachment for me, it is one of those good attachments—one that reminds me of the fact that I am not in control and that I am utterly dependent on God for everything that comes my way.

I don't think it will drive again, but if it does, I will remember that it is a gift, and I'm grateful for God's lesson that even something as simple as a drive home can have repercussions.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Faith and Works—Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Isaiah 50:5–9a; James 2:14–18; Mark 8:27–35
            Our epistle reading comes from James and is one of the well known statements in scripture on faith and works. Sacred Tradition attributes this letter to the apostle James the Less, son of Alpheus (also known as Cleopas) and his wife, Mary, who was called the sister of the Blessed Mother Mary. It seems unlikely to me that a family would have two daughters named Mary. I think it's more likely Mary of Cleopas was the sister-in-law rather than a sister. Aramaic was not very specific in these distinctions.
            That relationship is why James the Less is called the brother of the Lord. Aramaic didn't have words for cousin or uncle either, and this lack of distinction very likely carried over into the Greek text when the early Christians transmitted these traditions. So this epistle is attributed to James the Less, the brother of the Lord. Sacred Tradition also identifies him as the first bishop of Jerusalem, and the Acts of the Apostles suggests the same.
            Martin Luther didn't care for this letter and called it the "epistle of straw" and "unworthy of an apostle." He particularly didn't care for this letter because it explicitly links faith and works to each other. Luther wanted to say that works were of no use, and that faith alone is what saves. But this entire letter talks about the necessity of joining our faith to our actions—that faith with no movement toward justice is not true faith. Faith, if it does not result in works, is dead. Our action is what demonstrates whether the faith we proclaim is the faith we truly hold.
            James is saying, "Walk the walk. Don't just talk the talk." We have to do both together. Catholics are not either/or people but both/and people. We must both have faith and demonstrate it with works. I have to admit that I fail at this on many occasions. Fortunately, I am in good company.
            In the gospel reading from Mark, Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am?" The Gospel of Mark is frequently understood to be the first-hand experience of St. Peter essentially dictated to John Mark, a disciple and follower of Peter. Mark is also mentioned in the book of Acts as the son of yet another Mary.
            That name Mary was number one in the Top 10 list of Jewish baby girl names in year 2 AD.
            Anyway, what is unique about Mark, and what differentiates his presentation from the same accounts in Matthew and Luke, is just how harsh Jesus is with the twelve apostles, and the unflattering light in which Mark portrays them. In this passage, Jesus asks, "Who do people say that I am," and Peter responds correctly, "You are the Christ." But moments later, when Jesus explains what His anointing really means, Peter tries to correct Him, and Jesus comes down hard.
            "Get behind me, Satan!"
            That's not much of an endorsement, and it's nothing like how Matthew presents the same account. Peter says, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." And Jesus says, "Blessed are you Simon Bar Jonah.... And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it."
            Well, that's St. Peter, God bless him. He sometimes reminds me a bit of Joe Biden, but more often he reminds me of myself.
            Why does Matthew have the whole "gates of the kingdom" business and why does Mark's account leave that statement out? Why would an account from the perspective of the first of the apostles, Peter, only portray that same apostle in such a negative light?
            I suggest that this difference subsides in St. Peter's desire to walk the walk first and foremostthat he had no interest in being the first of the Twelve. He wanted to live his faith visibly and be an example. If you recall, this Peter when first confronted by Christ in Luke 5:8, says, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man." In 1 Peter 5, he refers to himself as an elder among elders. Peter is clearly the leader of the Twelve, but anywhere in scripture that his story is told, he is presented as a bumbler and a sinner. And I think that was by choice. He recognized his need for redemption, and he responded by making himself less, by trying to divert attention from his role as the first of the twelve and by letting his actions be the measure and example of his faith.
            Now, I can say unequivocally that that is not my tendency. Heck, I used to be a nightclub musician and spent a good portion of my young adult life on stage saying, "Look at me!" I have to make a concerted effort to make myself less.
            But of course, seeking all that attention does no good whatsoever, if the whole point is my personal glorification. If I act simply to draw attention to myself, I'm just a clashing symbol or a noisy gong, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Why do I act at all? Why do I attempt any good? Is because of my faith? Is it because I believe what I profess? This point cuts both ways. Our faith must be borne out in action, and our actions must... must reflect our faith. There is not either/or for us in this case as Catholics. Our faith and our action must be one, or neither is sufficient.
            Christ wants our hearts, heads, and bodies. We have to give ourselves completely to Him. After all, that's what He did for us up there and what He does for us weekly right there.
            St. James doesn't give us a whole lot of wiggle room, nor does our Savior. He's the one who says in this gospel, "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Well, what else does that mean? Does it mean that we simply say, "WORD, Jesus! You the MAN!" and be done?
            Or does it mean something else?
            It means something else. It means that we not just say but do. It means that we put our faith and lives, if needed, on the line—whether that means feeding the poor and serving the homeless when it is not permitted, or when it means opposing unjust laws forced on us by our government and Supreme Court.
            And believe me... it means both.
            The time for sitting on the fence is fast drawing to the close, so we need to climb down to one side or the other. We need to make a choice—whether we will be authentic witnesses of Christ, or whether we will simply offer Christian sounding platitudes.

            We need to live our faith in word and deed. Our families need it. Our nation needs it. Our world needs it.

Monday, September 07, 2015

What punishments of God are not gifts? Monday 23 Week in Ordinary Time—Cycle I

            This reading from Colossians is a bit perplexing, especially to those who do not perhaps understand Paul as the Church does. I can't imagine how our Protestant brethren make sense of these words in verse 24: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church[.]" On the surface, it sounds as if St. Paul is suggesting something incomplete in the suffering of Christ and his work of redemption. But of course, that's not what Paul is saying here. It would be heresy if that's what he meant. What he did mean, though, was that we, in our suffering, which is a share of Christ's suffering, participate in the redemption of the body of Christ—of all our brothers and sisters in Christ. By taking up our cross and suffering with Christ, we take part in His sanctifying work.
            One of the things I love most about our faith is that it makes sense out of human suffering. As Catholics, we believe that all things serve some purpose, even if we don't know what it is. If that's the case, then our suffering serves a purpose, and we can offer it for someone else's benefit. Our suffering also shapes us into the people we are. I read an excellent story online in GQ of all places. It was an interview with Stephen Colbert, the comedian, who just took over the Late Show. Colbert is Catholic and was known on the Colbert Report to occasionally school people on Catholic theology, sometimes in less than reverent fashion. But his faith is no show.
            He lost his father and two of his brothers when he was ten, and he speaks of it now in the most amazing terms. He said in that interview, "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened." He quoted J.R.R Tolkein's response to his friend about his own suffering, "What punishments of God are not gifts?’"
            What punishments of God are not gifts?
If our very existence is a gift, if the people we love in our lives our gifts, then what we suffer in loss must also in some mysterious way be a gift.

            Sometimes you'll hear atheists or agnostics complain about suffering.  They say, "How could a loving God allow people to suffer with cancer? How could He allow all of the suffering around us?" The gospel gives us the answer. Jesus stands up in front of the Pharisees and heals a man with a withered hand. Now how exactly does this answer the question? Well, this man's suffering was an opportunity to see God's goodness and mercy in action. If the man had been whole, he would not have experienced God's mercy, nor would anyone have witnessed. The Pharisees are like those new atheists. They can't see the mercy of God at work in front of them. Yet it happens all the time. People come to the aid of immigrants fleeing persecution. People step out of their comfort zone and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick. We see these acts of graciousness and mercy around us all the time. Where would we be without those who suffer? How could we act in mercy toward them if they were not in our midst? How would we experience God's mercy if we ourselves never suffered and needed the aid of others?

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Ephphatha! 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

I got a text message this morning asking for me to prepare a  homily for today, since our rector was very much under the weather (looks like flu). Anyway, I slapped this together and ran it through Google Translate* so I could preach at our Mass in Spanish. Turned out that I did not preach at our evening Mass. Anyway, here's the English version that did not get a hearing today.
            I didn't expect to preach today, so I hope that the Holy Spirit will loosen my tongue so that I will say something worthwhile for you, however brief it may be.
            Ephphatha! Be opened. Jesus is in the Decapolis, in an area we would call Syria these days. Jesus is speaking here with Gentiles, not the Jews of his native Galilee. This is an important detail, particularly in light of the first reading from Isaiah. Had Jesus been in Galilee among the Jews, perhaps the first connection they would have made with these signs are the word of Isaiah. Perhaps they would have recognized Jesus as their long-awaited messiah. But would it have been enough for them? They would see the signs, yes, but would they understand that Jesus did not come to deliver them politically or culturally as they expected?
            The passage is puzzling as well because Jesus tells the people not to tell anyone what happened. Why would He do this? Why tell them not to spread the word? Perhaps it was for the same reason that He didn't want the Jews to know yet that He was the long-awaited Messiah. He knew that they would bring their own expectations to this understanding. They would mistake Him for a political savior, an earthly king. But that is not what Jesus was about. He came for much more. And for them to come to the proper understanding, they needed to hear what Jesus came to say. They needed to hear the gospel first. In a way, the miracles get in the way of His primary mission because the people focus on them instead of His message. But Jesus was also merciful, and His miracles were really a sign of that mercy, not just a proof of His Divine power.
            Our baptismal rite includes a reference to this passage—a sacramental that we call the Ephphetha. We touch the ears and lips of the children being baptized with our thumb and say, "The Lord made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father." Like baptism, all of our sacraments are very physical. They all involve matter of some kind—water for baptism, oils for confirmation and anointing of the sick. This passage here is about as physical and earthy as it gets. Jesus spits on His fingers and touches the tongue of the deaf-mute man. In another passage from the gospel, he spits and makes mud to smear on a blind man's eyes. Jesus demonstrates in the institution of our sacraments that we need these physical signs, that we come to understand His goodness through our experience. And that is how we ultimately come to understand, to hear the gospel—not just with our ears but with our hearts. We have to be prepared to hear it, to have ears opened. But having the capacity to hear is not the same as truly listening. And that's why Jesus tells the Gentiles of the Decapolis not to talk about the miracle. He wants them to listen first, to come to understand the gospel.
            We have an adage that God gave us to ears to hear and one mouth to speak, and that we should do both in that proportion—that is, to listen more than we speak. In my own experience of my faith, I can say that I have sometimes failed to follow that advice. But we have a mission. Jesus gave us a mission to take His words and proclaim them to the world in our words and our deeds. How can we know what to proclaim if we do not listen to Him? How can we speak the words of truth if we have not heard them? How can we give what we don't have?

            Christ is present to us at Mass in numerous ways. First and foremost, He is present in a mysterious way in the Eucharist we will celebrate, but He is also present in His word. We are strengthened as we receive communion today so that we can better proclaim the truth to the world. So hear the Word of God, be strengthened, then let your mouth be opened to tell the world how God has done all things well for you.

¡Effetá! XXIII Domingo del Tiempo Ordinario—Ciclo B

            No esperaba a predicar hoy, así que espero que el Espíritu Santo va a aflojar la lengua por lo que voy a decir algo que vale la pena para usted, por breve que sea.
            ¡Effetá! Esté abierto. Jesús está en la Decápolis, en una zona que llamaríamos Siria en estos días. Jesús está hablando aquí con gentiles, no los Judios de su Galilea natal. Este es un detalle importante, particularmente a la luz de la primera lectura de Isaías. Si Jesús hubiera estado en Galilea entre los Judios, tal vez la primera conexión se habrían hecho con estos signos son la palabra de Isaías. Tal vez lo habrían reconocido a Jesús como su Mesías tan esperado. Pero habría sido suficiente para ellos? Verían los signos, sí, pero iban a entender que Jesús no vino para librarlos política o culturalmente como esperaban?
            El pasaje es desconcertante así porque Jesús le dice a la gente que no le digas a nadie lo que pasó. ¿Por qué haría esto? ¿Por qué no decirles a difundir la palabra? Tal vez fue por la misma razón que él no quería que los Judios para saber todavía que Él era el Mesías tan esperado. Sabía que iban a traer sus propias expectativas a este entendimiento. Ellos le confundan con un salvador político, un rey terrenal. Pero eso no es lo que Jesús estaba a punto. Él vino para mucho más. Y para que vengan a la comprensión adecuada, tenían que escuchar lo que Jesús vino a decir. Tenían que escuchar el evangelio primero. En cierto modo, los milagros en el camino de su misión primaria porque las personas se centran en ellos en lugar de su mensaje. Pero Jesús también fue misericordioso, y sus milagros eran realmente un signo de que la misericordia, no sólo una prueba de su poder divino.
            Nuestro rito bautismal incluye una referencia a este pasaje, un sacramental que llamamos Effetá. Tocamos las orejas y los labios de los niños que son bautizados con el pulgar y decimos: "El Señor Jesus, que hizo oír a los sordos y hablar a los mudos, te conceda, a su tiempo, escuchar su palabra, y profesar la fe, para alabanza y gloria de Dios Padre ". Al igual que el bautismo, todos nuestros sacramentos son muy físico. Todos ellos implican cuestión de un cierto tipo de agua para el bautismo, aceites para la confirmación y la unción de los enfermos. Este pasaje aquí es tan física y terrenal como se pone. Jesús escupe en sus dedos y toca la lengua del hombre sordomudo. En otro pasaje del Evangelio, escupe y hace barro para desprestigiar a los ojos de un ciego. Jesús demuestra en la institución de los sacramentos que necesitamos estos signos físicos, que llegamos a comprender su bondad a través de nuestra experiencia. Y esa es la forma en que finalmente llegamos a entender, escuchar el evangelio, no sólo con nuestros oídos, sino con el corazón. Tenemos que estar preparados para escuchar, tener los oídos abiertos. Sin embargo, tener la capacidad de escuchar no es el mismo que realmente escuchando. Y es por eso Jesús dice a los gentiles de la Decápolis no hablar sobre el milagro. Él quiere que escuchen primero, para llegar a entender el evangelio.
            Tenemos un dicho que Dios nos dio para los oídos para escuchar y una boca para hablar, y que debemos hacer las dos cosas en esa proporción, es decir, a escuchar más de lo que hablamos. En mi propia experiencia de mi fe, puedo decir que a veces no he podido seguir ese consejo. Pero tenemos una misión. Jesús nos dio una misión para tomar sus palabras y proclamar al mundo en nuestras palabras y nuestros actos. ¿Cómo podemos saber qué proclamar si no escuchamos a Él? ¿Cómo podemos hablar las palabras de verdad, si no los hemos escuchado? ¿Cómo podemos dar lo que no tenemos?

            Cristo está presente para nosotros en la Misa de muchas maneras. En primer lugar, Él está presente de una manera misteriosa en la Eucaristía vamos a celebrar, pero también está presente en su palabra. Somos fortalecidos como recibamos la comunión de hoy para que podamos mejor podemos proclamar la verdad al mundo. Así que escuchar la Palabra de Dios, ser fortalecido, entonces que se abrió la boca para decirle al mundo lo que Dios ha hecho todas las cosas bien para usted.