Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Follower's "Yes!"

Some weeks ago, the pastor of Seaside Community Church in Torrance, California, invited me to preach at the church's Sunday service. Here is my reflection for Sunday, June 29. The text upon which I am reflecting is Matthew 10:37-42.

Do you ever think about those first women and men who followed Jesus? We hear about them all the time in the Gospels. After all, without them, Jesus wouldn’t have had people to hear his wise words. There wouldn’t have been all those sick and broken people calling out to him for healing and wholeness. Without those women and men, we wouldn’t have the great stories of forgiveness, as Jesus reached out a loving hand and shared a meal with everyone who came to him with an open heart. They are an essential part of all the stories we know about Jesus.

From the shepherds who went to the stable in Bethlehem on that first Christmas, to the disciples who stood on that mountain looking up at the sky that day Jesus ascended to heaven, to each one of us gathered here this morning, we are an essential part of the story of Jesus and the gift that he is for our world.

But, looking back on those crowds that followed Jesus throughout the mountains and valleys, towns and villages of Israel, I think it would be very fair to ask: “Why were they following him?”

Was it because they had heard about this great wonder-worker and wise man who was teaching their old faith in a new way? Possibly.

Were they just curious and hoping to see a miracle—maybe someone walking for the first time in years or maybe even someone being raised from the dead? Maybe.

It might have been something as simple as their friends and neighbors saying, “Hey, did you hear about that teacher from Nazareth? We’re going to take lunch and go hear him preach on the mountainside, today. Why don’t you join us?” My guess is that there was a lot of that.

But, I think what happened more often was that the people who heard Jesus teach and preach, and who saw the wonders he performed, were changed by what they experienced. I think that they experienced God in a new way and they were so excited by what they experienced that they wanted to share it. Maybe, they were so excited that they couldn’t not talk about it. After all, how many of us feel that way when we’ve seen a good movie or read a good book, or even when we have a good piece of gossip? So, why wouldn’t those women and men, so many centuries ago, have shared the good news about this Jesus in the same way?

What we heard in the reading from Scripture that we listened to a few minutes ago is part of a longer passage in which Jesus is telling these excited followers of his a little bit about what it means to follow him: “Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me… whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me… whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Wow! What is Jesus doing? Is he saying that we can’t love our families? Is he saying that we have to go through life suffering and miserable? And what’s the random “cup of cold water” about?

Before we try to answer those questions, let’s take a step back and be in the here and now. Think about how many people (and this might apply to you, too), like to be rewarded for our efforts. Gold stars on our school papers as children. Praise from parents and teachers as we get older. Money as payment for our time and talents in our work. Perhaps being recognized publically with a plaque or round of applause for our community service. I think it’s safe to say that we all appreciate recognition and benefits from our actions.

Well, in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is doing two things: he is promising a reward for those show hospitality and welcome to those who have gifts to share with the community, and he’s offering the promise of a reward to those who show even the smallest kindnesses (like a cup of cold water) to those who were in need.

So, what is this reward? It means we get the privilege of continuing the work that Jesus began in the hearts of his followers two thousand years ago and that he is continuing to do in our hearts right now.

But, this morning, I’d like for us to take few moments to ask the same question of ourselves that I asked about those first followers of Jesus: “Why are we following Jesus?”

I think this a question that we have to ask ourselves often, if not every day. And it isn’t the same as asking why we are here this morning. After all, coming to worship is only one part of being a follower of Jesus.

The fact of the matter is that God has reached out to each of us, God has called each of us to be followers of Jesus—to continue that work. For some of us, that call might have been a dramatic experience of God’s grace and presence breaking into our life in a time of crisis or joy. For others, it’s less dramatic. They have a sense that this is the path that they should be on. I know for myself, it’s a mix. I’ve always been a “churchy” kind of guy, but I also see in my own life, those blessed moments when I seem to be getting a “yes” from God—yes, this is the direction I should be going in; yes, this is how I can best continue the work of Jesus, right now.

How has God spoken to you?

Was it in a happy moment from your childhood, maybe a holiday with loud relatives and too much food?

Was it in the first smile you shared with your partner?

Was it in the birth of a child or grandchild?

Did you hear God speaking when your friend called and told you that he had just been diagnosed with cancer?

Was it when you heard about another senseless act of violence in the news?

Was it in the video reflection we saw a few moments ago when we heard the words, “Just say yes, just say there's nothing holding you back/It's not a test, nor a trick of the mind/Only love”?

These are just some of the ways that God uses the everyday moments of our lives—both the happy and the sad—to invite us to be true followers, to renew our “Yes!” to being the presence of Jesus in the world. This truth reminds me of the words of the mystic, Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.”

So that we really know how to do that well, we have words like those we heard from Jesus this morning: “Love your family, but love them in me—they are my gift to you and you are all my family. Show hospitality and kindness—remember, that you also rely on the generosity of others and know what it’s like to be an outsider. ‘Take up your cross’—don’t be afraid to give of yourself, just like I gave all my love for you. Don’t be afraid to say ‘Yes’ to love and hope and faith, because I am working with you and in you and you are not alone.”

There is a quotation from Jonas Salk (the researcher who discovered the vaccine for polio) that I think has a lot to say to us this morning: “The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”

And that is just what Jesus has promised us. When we say “Yes” and truly set out to follow the way He showed us, we are given the privilege to share in God’s work of creating a more beautiful, more sane, and more sacred world.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Being Like John the Baptist

How many of us were asked, when we were young, what we wanted to be when we grew up? I’m sure that of all the answers we might have given—or that we might have heard, for that matter—“I want to be like John the Baptist” was not among them.

And yet, aren’t we called to be like John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate every June 24?

Who was this John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah?

In essence, John was simply a prophet. In fact, Jesus himself said that John was “more than a prophet,” going on to say, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11: 9-11). High praise, indeed.  

 Since the early days of the Christian Faith, John the Baptist has been revered as the one chosen by God to prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah, in much the same way that Mary was chosen to be the mother of Jesus. This is the reason why, other than the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the only birthdays celebrated in the Church’s calendar are those of Mary (on September 8) and John the Baptist. What made John “more than a prophet” was that he didn’t just preach a message of repentance and return to God (like those we honor as prophets of the Old Testament); he pointed to Christ who was present within and among humankind: “John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me… And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God'” (John 1:29-30, 34).
St. John the Baptist
by El Greco

Among the selections from Scripture assigned for this celebration of John’s birthday is a brief passage taken from the First Letter of Peter (proclaimed at the Vigil Mass for the Solemnity): “Concerning this salvation, prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and investigated it, investigating the time and circumstances that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when he testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the glories that followed them” (1:9-10). Like those who came before him, John “searched” and “investigated” what was going on in the world around him. This is what prophets do. Sadly, there are some who seem to think that prophets were some sort of fortune tellers and it’s this impression of prophets that leads so many people to take texts like the Books of Daniel and Ezekiel or the ever-popular Book of Revelation as a sort of promise of terrors to come. But, this interpretation of the prophet’s call misses the mark.

When I think about the recent Year of Faith, along with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis, I find myself often thinking of Pope Saint John XXIII. Dismissed as an uncomplicated man who wouldn’t make waves following the long pontificate of Pius XII, John accepted the responsibility that was laid upon his shoulders by the cardinal-electors and donned the camel-hair prophet’s mantle, like the Saint whose name he chose. “Good Pope John” looked at the world around him and “searched and investigated,” realizing that there were new opportunities for the Church, new ways to engage the world that were ultimately enshrined in Council documents he would never see. But, I also believe that Pope John trusted the Church—the whole Church, with its individual members—to be prophets in the world. In fact, this was not only the vision of John XXIII, but of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, working together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever else we might feel we are called to (or simply want to do), being a prophet is our common vocation—each of us is called to be a “John the Baptist” in our own time. After all, what is a Christian if not the one who says “Look, Christ is here!” Remember: this isn’t the sole responsibility of the clergy. It is the right and responsibility of each one of us. Every member of the Church is called to look at the world around us and to recognize that we, too, are prophets.

To be honest, this burden unsettles me… at times, I find it frightening. But, the reality is that each of us has to take what is going on in the world around us, however uncomfortable it might make us or how much it might challenge us, and we have to be prophets who “search and investigate” and we must be willing to take a stand and proclaim that, even in the midst of the mess, Christ is present and at work. Does this mean that things might change and that our comfortable “ways of proceeding” might be challenged? Yes. But, if we are guided by faith and proceed along our way in a spirit of prayer and discernment, actively engaging the lived Tradition of the Church, we can trust that the way we move forward together will be guided by the Holy Spirit. And this new way will take us to places which we might never have imagined.

 In the end, all of this takes patience and discretion. Speaking to this, Henri Nouwen wrote: “Patience dispels clock time and reveals a new time, the time of salvation. It is not the time measured by the abstract, objective units of the clock, the watch, or the calendar, but rather the time lived from within and experienced as full time… All the great events of the Gospel occur in the fullness of time. A literal translation from the Greek shows this clearly: 'When the time for Elizabeth had become full she bore her son John' (Luke 1:57)… It is this full time, pregnant with new life, that can be found through the discipline of patience. As long as we are the slaves of the clock and the calendar, our time remains empty and nothing really happens. Thus, we miss the moment of grace and salvation. But when patience prevents us from running from the painful moments in the false hope of finding our treasure elsewhere, we can slowly begin to see that the fullness of time is already here and that salvation is already taking place.”

Like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Paul, John XXIII, and the great prophets of our own time, each of us is called to proclaim that the Spirit of Christ is present and working among us: “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Aloysius: A Friend and a Brother

I first read about Aluigi Gonzaga when I was about 9 years old. Leafing through an old St. Joseph’s Daily Missal that I had found in my grandmother’s cedar chest, I saw page after page of saints’ names and the prayers assigned to various days of the year. When I turned to June 21, I came across an image of a Renaissance prince (wearing a ruffled collar, breeches, and hose) kneeling before a statue of Mary. Although the short bio that preceded the prayers of the Mass assigned for the day didn’t provide much information, something resonated within me. That was the moment when I began a relationship with the young man who is now remembered as Saint Aloysius Gonzaga.

Today, when most people hear the name “Gonzaga” they think of the great Jesuit University in Spokane, Washington. For Reformation-era Europeans, the name of Gonzaga meant something very different. Distant relatives of the Holy Roman Emperors and counted among the greatest families of Italy, Spain, and all of Europe, the Gonzaga commanded respect. Military leaders, Marquises, Empresses, Queens, and no fewer than 14 bishops and 12 cardinals were counted among the members this great family. Aloysius, who was born to the Marquis of Castiglione (in Northern Italy) in 1568, received a birthright that would have been practically unrivaled in his day, set, as he was, to inherit not only his father’s vast holdings but the titles, lands, and wealth of two other distant relatives.

A traditional 19th century representation of St. Aloysius
Although the Aloysius of history has been lost in a haze of hagiographical excess, I don’t think there is anyone who would doubt that there was something special about this bright, talented, and, by all accounts, charming boy. Endowed with his family’s fiery temper, he channeled his energy into his studies and, most especially, into his faith. In time, however, his life began to spiral out of control as he faced a future that was not of his choosing—preparation to serve as the next Marquis of Castiglione and to take his place among the crowned princes of the Holy Roman Empire. People knew who he was and they sought his favor.

While illness took away some of his youthful vitality, it didn’t curb his spirit and, as a teenager, he began to focus his energies on one reality: the God who was calling him to become more than he or his family ever imagined he might become.

All of this led him down a path that forced him to stand up to the conventions and norms of his day. After all, if he insisted on pursuing a religious vocation, he could very easily have taken his place among the prince-bishops and cardinals who were his relatives. But the young man discerned a different path. He wanted to become a member of a relatively new religious family within the Church—the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola only a few generations before. This step, which his father opposed to the point of literally striking out at his son, would mean that he would have to leave behind his titles, inheritance, and the life that he had known and commit himself to poverty, strict obedience, and celibate chastity, willing to risk everything with no security but the promise of grace and the assurance that comes with faith.

He never looked back.

Although there is lots more that could be said, Aloysius never became the great teacher he promised to become and he never realized his dream of becoming a missionary in Asia. In fact, he never made his final vows as a Jesuit, nor was he ordained a priest. Aloysius Gonzaga died in the night between June 20 and 21, 1591, at the age of twenty-four. It is commonly held that he contracted the illness that took his life when he picked up a dying man in the street and carried him to a Roman hospital, disregarding any danger to himself. After months of painful illness, he died surrounded by his brother Jesuits. This young man counted the royalty of Italy and Spain among his childhood companions, received his first Communion from Saint Charles Borromeo, the cardinal-archbishop of Milan, and had Saint Robert Bellarmine, now honored as a Doctor of the Church, as his spiritual director. But, I believe that if you had asked Aloysius who he was, he would have told you that he was nothing more than a poor son of the Church and of his Holy Father Ignatius, the founder of the Society that Aloysius sought so desperately to join.

Unfortunately, history has not been kind to Aloysius. Once one of the most revered saints of the Church, he has fallen into obscurity in the years since the Second Vatican Council. And yet, he remains among us. His image is still found in countless churches (most often depicted as a young cleric holding a crucifix with lilies [a sign of purity], a crown [representing his abandoned legacy], or even a skull [symbolizing his penitence] lying nearby) and his liturgical memorial is celebrated in churches all over the world on June 21, the anniversary of his death. But, I have to admit that the images and his memorial both inspire and sadden me. While, I am happy to see the man I consider to be both a brother and a friend honored in so many places, remembering how many lives he inspired, I’m also disappointed that the real Aloysius, taken off his pedestal and without his lace surplice, has all but disappeared.

A contemporary icon of St. Aloysius entitled
"Aloysius: Similar to Fire"
by William Hart McNichols

In an essay written in 1991, to honor of the 400th anniversary of Aloysius’ death, the great writer and activist, Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., wrote these words which I believe capture something of the power of Saint Aloysius:
I keep pondering Aloysius, the contrast, the covenant, the vow, the meaning. Even a phosphoric trace in the dark. All or any of these. The heart and longing and hope that arose in him from a small boy, a life of purpose, goodness, sweetness; and all so brief, crushed out of due season…
All too easy to make of this youngster, fighting for his soul’s ransom against enormous odds, an icon just short of bizarre, carefully and studiously remote, nose in the air, rapt gaze, crucifix, lilies delicately in hand, cleaving his way to heaven with scant interest or attention to mere earthlings.
He was tougher than his would-be admirers would have him, both tougher and more tender, enormously more complex, his heaven won by way of many a detour—through hell…
Let us not attempt to democratize Aloysius! No leveling this one; elegance to the fingertips, nobility of spirit, a relentless fiery courage, a choice to go it alone. Then the price he paid, declining the myth of the world as to its claim on such as he. Breaking the mythological clutch (a family affair as well).
The price of all this. (The price we [I] renege on).
As though the great things can be cheaply won; and not turn paltry in the winning.
And so, as June 21 approaches, I especially remember this young man, the patron saint of youth and of those with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers, whose name I received at my Confirmation and whose image I carry with me on a medal I received from my grandmother and have worn around my neck for nearly 20 years.

These days, I remember the man I have come to consider my friend and my brother and I continue ask God that I can have some hint of his courage and conviction and, more than these, his charity.

I ask that for all of you, as well.

Prayer for the Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga +
O God,
giver of all heavenly gifts,
who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life,
grant through is merits and intercession,
that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence,
we may imitate him in penance.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Taken from the Roman Missal, the Memorial of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga on June 21)