Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Road to Emmaus

Luke 24: 13 – 16, 28 – 31, 35
            And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem . . . While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing him . . . And they approached the village where they were going, and he acted as though he were going farther. But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he had reclined at the table with them, he took the bread and  blessed it,  and  breaking it, he began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight . . . He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.
            The road to Emmaus is a seven mile journey from Jerusalem; seven miles along a stony broken highway; seven miles from joy to despair. The two companions traveling that road in today’s Gospel were close friends of Jesus. The crucifixion had left them devastated and broken. How could God have allowed this terrible thing to happen to Jesus?
            In the depths of their despair they encounter a mysterious stranger who opens their eyes to reveal the presence of Christ. Their depression vanishes along with the mysterious stranger. They turn themselves around and head back to Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel. It is they who are resurrected.
            Some of us have traveled that road to Emmaus. Like many of you, I have struggled with the problem of evil in the world: Why does God, whom I love and believe loves each of us, permit terrible things to go on: wars, violence of every kind, homelessness, mental illness, incurable disease, natural disaster?
            But like those two companions in today’s Gospel, I have been blessed. Over and over again my eyes have been opened and I have recognized God in the breaking of the bread of everyday life. I have felt his presence in the chaos and the darkness. And through grace, I have been able to turn myself around and to head back to Jerusalem with my faith sustained.
            Many years ago I had a powerful Emmaus experience. I had always been a person of faith and hope but some bad things happened. My friend Vic lost his wife and two of their three children when an electrical fire started while they were asleep. Around the same time the young child Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in New York City and was never seen again. These two events affected me very deeply. I began to ask, where was God?
            Shortly after this I began commuting to work in New York City. As I saw the many homeless people suffering and sleeping in the streets and subways, my questioning and doubts increased. Then one day something special happened.
            It was a beautiful October morning as I drove down Central Park West. I had been driving in early on Saturday mornings with coffee and sandwiches looking for people who were homeless. I spotted a disheveled young man huddled in a red sweatshirt, sitting on a park bench, rocking back and forth and staring into space. After saying good morning, I offered him some hot coffee, but he didn’t respond.
            Sitting down on the bench, I poured us both some coffee and placed his cup and a few cookies down next to him. He continued to stare into space. Sipping my coffee I carried on a one-way conversation for a while. He began to chatter in nonsense sounds to each squirrel that ran by.
            After a while his fingers inched over to the coffee and he gulped it down as he continued chattering with the squirrels. I finished my second cup of coffee and said good-bye, but he still did not acknowledge my presence. Walking to the curb where my car was parked, I kept thinking how this young man was so badly damaged in mind and body that he probably would not survive the winter.
            Lost in my own sadness, I pulled away from the curb. As I drove down the street I glanced in my rear view mirror. My friend had left his bench and was standing in the street waving good-bye to me.
            My eyes welled up with tears; I realized that what I was seeing in my rear view mirror was Christ. Not that this man was Jesus in disguise, but rather that the Christ within him, in the midst of all his brokenness, was reaching out and connecting to the Christ within me. At that instant my eyes were opened and everything made sense.
            God places a little piece of himself inside of each of us when we are born. That little piece of God is our immortal soul; it is the Christ within us. Life is the journey of our soul back home to its loving Creator. While our time on earth is limited and the journey can be pretty rough, getting home is all that really matters.
            No matter how good we are, how loving, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the pain and contradictions of human existence. The symbol of our faith is itself a contradiction: the cross, two opposing beams of wood made from the tree of life ─ used to torture and destroy life. Yet in the center of the contradiction, we find God in human form.
            But the message of the cross is hope. It tells us that we are not alone, that God is with us in the chaos and the darkness; he is present in the pain, loss and disillusionment; he is there at the center of the contradiction, the center of the cross. And someday, once we are free of the constraints of human existence and the limitations of human understanding, it will all make sense; there will be a happy ending, or more truly, a happy beginning ─ for all eternity.
            It is that mysterious stranger, who dwells in the depths of our being — the Christ within each and every one of us — who resurrects US, like he did for those companions on the road to Emmaus, and makes it possible for us to keep turning ourselves around and heading back to Jerusalem.
Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on
Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Universe is God's Family Business

Matthew 7: 21
     (Jesus said to his disciples): “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father.”
     I went on retreat for a day and heard a Jesuit priest tell us that the universe is God’s family business. So I think of it now as ‘’. God made it with the hope that it would one day grow into a garden filled with peace and love; a place that would be known from one end to the other as the Kingdom of God. But God won’t get what he wants unless we accept his invitation to come into the family business, and work with his son to build that Kingdom.
     Building the Kingdom of God takes more than just prayer, more than just saying, ‘Lord, Lord’. It takes more than just coming to church or reading the Bible. It takes listening to Jesus’ words in the Gospel and acting on them, making them come alive in all the circles of our lives. But his message was hard to hear back then, and it’s hard to hear today: Love unconditionally; forgive unconditionally; turn the other cheek when someone strikes us; treat every human being like we would treat Christ himself.
     Building the Kingdom of God takes more than just saying, ‘Lord, Lord’. We are called to be pure of heart and deed, but we are also called to reject the structures of sin in our society; to recognize the sin inherent in neglect of the poor and the sick; in discrimination, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, bigotry in all its forms — and to stand up against these social sins.
     We are called to respect the sanctity of life but we are also called to promote a seamless culture of life; to be vocal advocates not just for the unborn, but for the residents of death row and the undocumented refugee as well. We are called to treat the least, most vulnerable, most unlovable member of society just like we would treat Jesus himself. Jesus wasn’t kidding around in the Gospel; and he wasn’t just making suggestions.
     Building the Kingdom of God takes more than just saying, ‘Lord, Lord’. Are we kind and peaceful, or do we carry around anger and bitterness? Are we gentle and forgiving of ourselves, or do we bring the burden of self-loathing, whether it is conscious or unconscious, into every relationship we have? Are our doors always open, or are there people whom we have shut out of our hearts and out of our lives because of some deep hurt or disappointment that we just can’t forgive? Are we inclusive, non-judgmental and accepting, or do we look down upon or feel morally superior to others because they are different from us, or represent something we fear or dislike? We can’t be about God’s family business unless we are building his Kingdom.
     ‘Lord, Lord,’ is a nice salutation but Jesus never stood on formality. Instead, he is counting on us to help him turn the universe into a beautiful garden for his dad, a garden filled with peace and  love,  a place  that  will be known from  one end to the  other as the Kingdom of God. Let us be mindful as we open our eyes on each new day that God is once again calling us to join him and his son in the family business.
Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on
Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Drop Your Net and Come Follow Me

 Matthew 4: 18 - 20

            As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
            I have always loved listening to this Gospel story. The imagery is so alive that I can feel myself right there in the boat. I can feel the heat of the sun, hear the seagulls, and smell the ocean. And there is Jesus walking on the shore, smiling, pulling up the hem of his garment as he wades out a bit into the water. He’s waving his arm and beckoning to us, “Come follow me.”
            Hearing this story as a young boy in Catholic school back in the Bronx, I thought it was the greatest adventure that could ever be, better than Robin Hood, better even than Star Trek: to drop everything, leave everything behind; to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth.
            But as I got older, fell in love, and raised a family, something about this story began to bother me — what happened to Peter and Andrew’s wives and children after they dropped their nets? What about Zebedee, James and John’s father, who depended on his sons to run his fishing business; how did he survive after they climbed out of the boat and went off to follow Jesus?
            With maturity has come an understanding that even though they became disciples and followed Jesus, they continued to raise their kids, support their families, and probably went back to work on their fishing boats. But something was different: they had been transformed, changed forever — they had LET GO OF THEIR NETS.
            Jesus calls to each and every one of us in a personal way, just like he called to those fishermen in Capernaum. He calls us by name and asks that we follow him; follow him in the context of our lives and the responsibilities, rooted in love, that are associated with our place in the world.
            Jesus calls us to open our hearts and accept God’s love; to let it transform us; to let ourselves become channels of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and to let that love flow through us to all our brothers and sisters, all God’s children. He calls us to love and forgive others as God loves and forgives us — unconditionally.
            But whatever the circumstances of our lives, if we are to follow Jesus, WE NEED TO DROP OUR NETS. But our nets are not filled with fish, they are filled with baggage, emotional baggage, collected over a lifetime — anger, hurt, resentment, self-alienation.
            Some of us carry heavy, painful, unresolved feelings towards others in our nets: the pain of abandonment as a child by a parent we may have lost through divorce, death, or a debilitating addiction or illness; the hurt of betrayal as an adult by someone we loved and trusted very deeply; anger towards God for an illness or handicap we are traveling through life with, or for taking someone from us in death. The list goes on and on.
            Jesus calls us to let go, TO DROP THE NET.
            Some of us carry the heavy burden of self-alienation, self-hatred — for not being perfect, for not being someone, anyone, else.
            Jesus calls us to let go, TO DROP THE NET.
            These feelings are hard to let go of. They usually result from very real hurts we have experienced. But if we hold on to them, they are like blockages in the artery of God’s love. They stand in the way of our being able to truly love God and love each other; they keep us locked in a prison of bitterness and depression, and make it difficult for God’s love to flow through us into the world.
            So here we are 2,000 years later, and we really are in that boat with those fishermen in Capernaum. For whatever the circumstances of our lives, whatever our individual responsibilities, Jesus calls us to be touched by the magic of God’s unconditional love. He calls anew as we open our eyes on each brand new day, each new beginning; to drop our net; to let go of the past, of the hurt; to be loved and forgiven, and to love and forgive unconditionally — without strings.
            He calls us to be healed; he calls us to be whole.
Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Thursday, May 17, 2012

We are the Church

Acts 2: 1 – 2, 4
            When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.
            Michael Jackson gave us one of his best songs many years before his death:
                        We are the World,
                        We are the Children,
                        We are the ones to make a brighter day.
            That song is fitting as we prepare ourselves for the feast of Pentecost because, by virtue of our Baptism, each one of us can paraphrase Michael Jackson and say,
                        We are the Church,
                        We are the Body of Christ,
                        We are the ones to build the Kingdom of God.
            Pentecost is the day we celebrate the birthday of the Church, but not everyone will be coming to the party happy. Many don’t even show up anymore. For some the Church has changed too much and too quickly; for others, the change hasn’t been fast enough. Many are angry and hurt and disillusioned with the institutional Church.
            In times of frustration it’s tempting to think of the Church as something out there — some monolithic superstructure over which we have little control.  But the Church is not some abstract reality that lives behind Vatican walls. The Church is you and the Church is me struggling to follow as the Holy Spirit guides us through history. And the Church of the 21st and the 25th centuries will be the beneficiary of what we do in our lifetimes to help it grow.
            As a child I listened with awe to the story of Pentecost: the Apostles huddled in fear in the upper room; the doors fly open; the Holy Spirit appears; tongues of fire descend upon the Apostles turning their fear to courage. They take to the streets, shouting for joy for the entire world to hear, “Jesus Christ is Lord. He has risen!” And so the Church was born.
            The child in me that listened with awe to this wonderful story grew up believing that the Apostles and the Church they created were perfect — incapable of human weakness, of discord, controversy, or sin. But with maturity has come an understanding that the Church didn’t land in the streets of Jerusalem on Pentecost Day as a perfect, finished product. The Holy Spirit is guiding the Church through history. But the operative word is ‘guiding’ — not dragging, not coercing.
            As such, the Church is like a flower or a human being — it is a living, growing organism. And, like each of us, it is called to wholeness but is capable of weakness and failure along the way. But like us, it is called to get back up on its collective feet each time that it falls; and to never give up on becoming all that it is called to be.
                        We are the Church,
                        We are the Body of Christ,
                        We are the ones to build the Kingdom of God.
            The Apostles didn’t ride off into the sunset on Pentecost to live perfectly harmonious and stress-free lives. The Church in those early days was very much like the Church of today. There was tremendous faith and love, but there was also controversy and human weakness and sin; and differences of opinion and struggle for growth. Saint James headed the first Christian community in Jerusalem. It consisted of Jewish followers of the Gospel who continued to observe strict kosher dietary laws. Eventually Gentiles joined the community. They came from all parts of the Mediterranean and all cultures. Being Gentiles, they did not follow kosher restrictions as to what they could eat.
            In this first Christian parish, the Eucharist was celebrated at the end of a common meal. Preparing the menu for this meal presented political problems for the community. The Jewish members, who were in the majority, wanted to stick with tradition and serve only kosher food. The Gentiles didn’t want to abandon their ethnic eating customs for fear of losing their cultural identity.
            Both groups lobbied Saint Peter, our first pope, but he was evasive and indecisive. He wanted to welcome the Gentiles to share the Eucharist without dietary restrictions, but he feared the backlash from the Jewish members. So he just stopped eating with the Gentiles. This caused tremendous hurt, and created tension between the two groups.
            To avert the breakdown of the community, the Council of Jerusalem — our very first Church Council — was called. Saint Paul argued powerfully against Saint James while Saint Peter sat in arbitration. The elders of the community accepted Paul’s position, and the Gentiles were no longer required to observe the kosher dietary laws. The community could henceforth celebrate the Eucharist together. By this decision the Church became truly universal — no longer tied exclusively to the Jewish traditions.
            Of course, this could have had a different ending. James or Paul or the Gentiles could have turned their backs on the community, and gone off to do their own thing. But they didn’t; they let the Holy Spirit guide them through the storm. And, as a result, here we are, 2,000 years later — one culturally diverse worldwide community, celebrating the Eucharist together, somewhere every minute of every hour of every day.
                        We are the Church,
                        We are the Body of Christ,
                        We are the ones to build the Kingdom of God.
            The Church of the 14th century got into a real mess. The pope moved from Rome to Avignon, France and then back to Rome again. But the French Cardinals didn’t want to go back to Rome — so they elected their own pope. The two popes excommunicated each other. The Christian world was polarized, and torn by politics and confusion.
            Saint Catherine of Sienna, a great doctor of the Church, argued forcefully in defense of the Italian pope against Saint Vincent Ferrer, a gifted Dominican preacher, who strongly supported the pope in Avignon. Catherine prevailed and won Vincent over to her position. The French pope fled into the night, thereby averting a permanent split in the Church. Of course, this could have had a different ending: Catherine or Vincent could have turned their backs and walked away disillusioned with the Church. But they didn’t. They let the Holy Spirit guide them through the storm and, as a result, here we sit 700 years later — one community.
                        We are the Church,
                        We are the Body of Christ,
                        We are the ones to build the Kingdom of God.           
            Vatican II in the 1960s was a wonderful movement of the Holy Spirit. But some have walked away. Some because the movement was too fast: too much change too quickly; they long for the security of tradition — the Latin Mass, meatless Fridays. Others have walked away because the movement was too slow: too little change, too long to wait.
            This latter group almost included me. In 1987, I dropped out of the formation program for deacons. I long for the day when all my sisters around the world, my daughters, and my wife are invited to participate in ordained ministry. Church history was moving too slowly for me on this issue. Not only did I withdraw from the diaconate program but for many months I struggled with the question of whether I could remain a member of the Church. But then I remembered Paul, James and the Gentiles, Catherine of Sienna and Vincent Ferrer; and I realized that for change and growth to  happen,  I couldn’t walk away — I had to be here to be part of the process. I let the Holy Spirit guide me through my storm; and here I am, twenty-four years later, sharing my hopes and dreams for the future of our Church.
                        We are the Church,
                        We are the Body of Christ,
                        We are the ones to build the Kingdom of God.
            The Church isn’t out there; it’s all around us. It’s you and it’s me; it’s our Sunday school teachers and our pastor; it’s the baby we baptized last week; the nuns and the pope, and the bishops; it’s my friend Bob, with whom I shared the Eucharist many times in his hospital room before he died of AIDS; it’s the young mother from New Jersey who lost her baby, her family and her home to a heroin addiction, and sits begging for food in the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
            The Church is you and the Church is me. For change and growth to happen, we need to be here — to use our gifts and our talents to help move the institutional church wherever it is that the Holy Spirit is leading us.
            We are members of the Body of Christ; but each and every one of us IS the Body of Christ. We are Eucharist to each other and to the world. We are the world; we are the Church; we are the future.           
Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on
Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry


Monday, May 14, 2012

Corpus Christi - The Body of Christ

Mark 14: 22

            While they were eating, he took some bread, and after a blessing he broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.”
Jesus gave us a wonderful gift; he gave us the gift of himself in the Eucharist. But that gift only comes alive when we give it away, when we pay it forward, when we become Eucharist for each other and for our world.
There is something so wonderful about sharing a meal with the people we love: the warmth, the laughter the companionship. The dinner table can be community at its very best; it is communion; it is a gift. The Last Supper table was just such a gift. And Jesus was able to extend that table both vertically down through the ages and horizontally to all people in all cultures in all countries of the world. He created the greatest communion and invited us all into one timeless moment. He gave us the gift of himself in the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is an invitation to each of us from Jesus. It is his call to us to love and forgive each other as he loves and forgives us; to become a beacon of light and a conduit of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness for our troubled and hurting world. As we accept the Eucharist and say, ‘Amen’ we are really saying, ‘yes’ to that invitation and to the grace that goes along with it.
And little by little, day by day, that grace transforms us; and through us the world. It enables us to bring God’s peace and love and healing into all the circles of our lives:
to our families and friends; to those we like and those we don’t like so much;  to the workplace and the classroom; the highway and the byway; and everywhere in between. 
            The Second Vatican Council reminded us Catholics that whatever we do at Mass in our liturgy must “ritualize a lived reality.” The bread and wine becoming the real presence of Christ on the church altar only takes on meaning when that presence is subsequently made visible by us out in the world ─ especially to those most suffering and in need, to those who are unlovable and unwanted, to those who are unwelcome at anyone’s table. It is out there in the world that our Amen, our ‘yes’ to accepting the Body of Christ in Holy Communion, is transformed into a lived reality, and we become the Body of Christ for others.
            A good friend of mine recently shared a profound quote from Saint Augustine:
You are the Body of Christ, and his members [his hands and feet, his eyes, his voice]
If, therefore, you are the Body of Christ and his members,
you are the mystery that has been placed on the Lord’s table.
and you are truly the mystery that you receive.
You reply, “Amen” to that which you yourself are.
And by replying, you consent. For you hear, “the Body of Christ,” and you reply, “Amen.”
Be a member of the Body of Christ so that your “Amen” may be true . . .
Be what you see, and receive what you are.
                                                                        (Augustine Sermon 272)

            We are members of the Body of Christ; but each and every one of us IS the Body of Christ. From that dinner table in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, Jesus calls us to be his hands and his feet, his eyes and his voice for even the very least and the most unlikable or unforgivable of our brothers and sisters. He calls us to give life to our ‘yes’, our Amen at Communion time; and to make it a lived reality.
            He calls us to BECOME Eucharist for our world. 
Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on
Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Spirituality Is Being In Love With God

            Somewhere along my journey I heard this old Christian fable: This parishioner is walking down the road that leads into Rome hoping to visit all the churches in the Holy City. In the distance he sees an angel leaving Rome at a very fast pace. The angel rushes past him carrying a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. The parishioner calls out to the angel, “Angel, where are you going in such a hurry?” The angel stops, turns to the parishioner and says, “I’m off to burn down all the mansions in heaven and put out all the fires in hell, and then we’ll see who really loves God!”
            Lots of us are religious. But how many of us are spiritual? Religion by itself is a tool, a vehicle, very much like a language. It helps us to communicate our understanding of God, of life and death and of our own mortality. Using the structure of religion, we communicate our understanding of these mysteries both horizontally to others in our own time and vertically to future generations of history.
            Spirituality, on the other hand, blossoms out of and transcends religion. It is the non-verbal essence of that unique and intimate relationship between each one of us and God. Spirituality is being in love with God.
            The difference between being just religious and being religious and spiritual is like the difference between being a married couple that just live together for a lifetime and being a married couple that live together and remain passionately in love with each other for a lifetime. A couple can live together in marriage for decades without passion, without being in love. And that would be very sad. That marriage would be like a body without a heart. Likewise, a person can be very religious; can practice every devotion known to the Church; can spend the day talking only about God. But if this devotion is done without feeling the presence of God as an intimate and personal friend, it is like a marriage without passion.
            Psalm 16 is a beautiful expression of spirituality, of the soul in love with God:  
                        I said to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
                        I have no good besides You . . .
                        You will make known to me the path of life;
                        In Your presence is fullness of joy;
                        In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”
                                                                                                  Psalm 16: 2, 11
            We are spiritual when our heart is totally open to God’s love; when we feel God so present in our life that we want to love him back in the same unconditional way. And we try to love all his other children as he loves us.
            Spirituality doesn’t know from mansions in heaven or fires in hell. Spirituality isn’t a quid pro quo. It’s not about leading a good life so that we make it into heaven. It’s about leading a good life because we are so filled with God’s love for us that there is no other way we could possibly live.
            Spirituality is being in love with God. When we are in love with God, we are already in heaven. When we turn ourselves away from God, we are in hell. Either way, the choice is ours and the time is now. There is only this moment, the reality of God’s love and his invitation to each of us to return that love.
            So if you see an angel carrying a torch and a bucket of water, smile and be assured that after those mansions are all burnt down and those fires quenched, your soul will remain with abounding joy basking in the glow of God’s love forever.
Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on
Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life

Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Gospel of You

Officially the Church recognizes only four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but in reality there are many, many gospels. One of my teachers in formation for the diaconate made a point that has stayed with me: each of us is writing a gospel, little by little, day by day. It is the gospel of you; the gospel of me — for each of our lives is a gospel. And by writing this gospel we are telling the world about Jesus of Nazareth; and in the process, we are slowly growing into the people that we will be for all eternity. In the end our gospel can be truly beautiful, but how it turns out depends on our understanding of what Jesus was really asking of us, and how we translate that understanding into the way we subsequently interact with others and live out our lives.
            It’s not so easy to understand what Jesus really asks of us; lots of things can get in the way: our fears, our prejudice, our tendency to label and to exclude people who are different from us; and the presence of anger in our hearts. These obstacles can keep Jesus a stranger.
            Even the disciples who lived day after day with Jesus didn’t get it right away. It took time and a series of incremental moments of enlightenment to slowly open their eyes. Through their encounters with the resurrected Jesus and the subsequent transformation that occurred within them on Pentecost, the disciples, little by little, came to understand Jesus.
Their enlightenment slowly unfolded in the choices that they made and the way they lived out the rest of their lives. Each one of those lives was in fact a gospel, because through those lives the world experienced the healing presence of God. And it has continued to happen down through the centuries. And it still happens today. Through the unconditional love and acceptance and inclusion of others that is demonstrated by modern day disciples, the world continues to experience Jesus in its midst. But this can’t happen until our eyes our open and we understand what Jesus wants of us.
It is hard for many of us to understand and accept what Jesus is asking. We hear the story where Jesus was asked by someone what the most important commandment is;  and his answer that it is to love God with our whole heart. But we can easily overlook the rest of his answer, the part where he says that the second commandment is just as important — to love each other the way we love ourselves. Love – not hate. Love – not bigotry. Love – not anger or revenge. What kind of a gospel are we writing with our lives?
            Jesus was about love. It is hard for me to imagine a Jesus who went year after year without speaking to a brother or a sister, a parent or a child, or a friend because of some hurt or some unacceptable behavior. How about a Jesus who voted for the death penalty, or one who got upset that tax dollars were being spent to provide healthcare or education to the poor. What kind of a gospel are we writing?
            It is hard for me to imagine a Jesus who would exclude anyone from his friendship because he or she was gay; or who separated his friends along racial, economic or gender boundaries.           
            When we look around, when we read the papers or watch the news, we can see how many people do not really know Jesus. The world is in great need of unconditional love, of unconditional acceptance — the kind of healing that Jesus was all about. The world is hungry for the story, just as it was 2,000 years ago. That story, that gospel, can reach out through you and through me. We are writing a gospel little by little, day by day.
            What kind of a gospel is it?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

That Was Me

        The Gospel of Saint Matthew contains a parable in which Jesus lays out the bottom line of what it means to be a Christian and how our lifetime behavior will ultimately be evaluated. It is Jesus’ parable of the last judgment where Christ the King comes in glory to separate the sheep from the goats:
 “Then he will also say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones . . . for I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Matthew 25: 41-44.
            Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he said this. He meant it for the people around him; and he meant it for us. Many religions preach the Golden Rule — do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. But Jesus, Our Savior, the one we believe is God made man to redeem us, went way beyond the Golden Rule: love unconditionally, forgive unconditionally, turn your other cheek when someone strikes you, and treat every human being as if he or she were me. These are the instructions that Jesus handed down over 2,000 years of history to each and every one of us.
            And this is what makes Christianity different from every religion and every philosophy. This is what being a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, is about. It’s not just about worship; it’s not just about dogma; it’s not just concerned with  issues of  human sexuality. It’s about unconditional love and forgiveness even at the cost of one’s comfort, even at the cost of one’s personal or national pride, even at the cost of one’s life. It’s about treating the least, most vulnerable, most unlovable, most disenfranchised member of society just like we  would treat  Jesus himself.  Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he said this. His message was hard to hear back then, and it’s hard to hear today.
            The Catholic Social Teaching of our popes and our bishops has always been very strong and very clear. Christians are called to a life of charity towards the poor. But that’s not where it ends — we are called to a life of advocacy as well. We are called not just to give generously of our means but to stand up for, protect and be a voice for the poor, the vulnerable, and the disenfranchised:
“Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
            The Church calls on us to be pure of heart and deed, but it also calls on us to reject the structures of sin in our society and to promote a seamless culture of life. It’s sometimes easier to define and fixate on sin as consisting of sexual acts than to recognize the sin inherent in poverty, neglect, discrimination, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. It’s sometimes easier to be a vocal advocate for the unborn than to be a vocal advocate for the poor or for the residents of death row. But Jesus wasn’t kidding around; and he wasn’t just making suggestions.
            After hearing the parable of the sheep and the goats, can’t we see Jesus standing with the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference in their opposition to a proposed law that would make it a crime to feed and shelter undocumented immigrants; and in their opposition to deportations that would break up families?   Can’t we see him  standing for a compassionate form of controlled amnesty for undocumented immigrants who have worked and paid taxes here for many years so that they could build a better life for their families? If Jesus were sick would we find him being cared for by the best nurses and physicians at Hackensack University Medical Center, New York Presbyterian, Englewood Medical Center, and Memorial Sloan Kettering; or would he be waiting in line at some charity clinic with the forty four million Americans who have no access to healthcare? Wouldn’t Jesus have stood with Pope John Paul II when he called for an end to the death penalty? Wouldn’t he support Pope Benedict XVI’s statement, which I quote, “. . .  the concept of preventive war does not appear in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.”?
            If Jesus were interviewed on the Sunday talk shows, what would he say about collateral damage, about prisoner abuse, about water boarding; how would he feel about the genocide in Darfur, about injustices in the refugee camps of the Middle East, about the Syrian government's slaughter of its own people who dissent? What would he think about members of Congress, in both parties, who have the best health benefits for themselves and their families, vote themselves regular pay raises, pass huge tax cuts for the wealthiest members of society, but can’t manage to compromise on a means to provide affordable health care to all?
            Jesus wasn’t kidding around — he calls us to a life of charity but he calls us to a life of advocacy as well.
            And, my sisters and brothers, this isn’t personal opinion, this isn’t politics — this is the teaching of our popes and bishops; this is the teaching of our Catholic Church. That fact notwithstanding, it isn’t easy. If you are like me, you struggle with these complex moral issues.
            That parable of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel — the one about the sheep and the goats — has been adapted for twenty first century American ears by Jesuit Father James Hug, president of the Center for Concern in Washington, D.C. I found it powerful when I read it.  It made me confront hypocrisy in my own life; it made me look at how I need to change my behavior. I’d like to share it with you:
“Then Christ will say to those on his left [the goats]: ‘Out of my sight . . .’ [They will ask him when was it that they treated him so badly?] . . . and he will answer them: when you turned away as my hunger turned to malnutrition and starvation, while you overate and overfed your pets . . .when you, who came here as poor immigrants, began  scapegoating  new immigrants . . . when you  stuffed your  closets with more clothes than you need . . . when you rested secure with good health insurance for your family, while fighting universal coverage and funding for public health services for we who are mired in poverty . . . when you were willing to pour out money for prisons but not for the neighborhood programs, schools and jobs that could have reduced the need for prisons . . . I truly say to you, that’s when you did it to me.”