Thursday, February 28, 2013
Jeremiah has been described as the weeping prophet. Fr. Rich goes one step further and calls him the Prozac prophet. And I think Jeremiah should be read every Monday morning. What better way to begin the week with Jeremiah’s doom and gloom?
Yet in all seriousness, it would be a mistake to label Jeremiah as a crybaby and forget his crucial role in salvation history. Indeed, Jeremiah most clearly pointed to Jesus Christ out of all the prophets. He did so in his teachings, but that was consistent with the others. What was unique about Jeremiah is that his very life was a foreshadowing of Jesus.
Consider the words of Jeremiah’s opponents: “Come, let us contrive a plot against Jeremiah…let us destroy him by his own tongue; let us carefully note his every word.” What does this sound like? It is an identical plot the scribes, Pharisees and priests of Jesus’ time contrived to catch Jesus. Plus, both Jeremiah and Jesus were arrested, persecuted and killed while remaining innocent men.
How well are you following the example of Jeremiah, and ultimately Jesus, in your life? Do you suffer well for the Gospel? Are you persecuted for living out your faith? In any case, it is okay to cry out to God—both Jeremiah and Jesus did. But are you willing to give your life for love of God and neighbor?
This Lenten season is all about learning to sacrifice. Please God, may we follow the great example of Jeremiah in preaching God’s Word even in the face of suffering. And may we take up our cross and follow Christ to Calvary.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
This is quite a Gospel for a priest to preach. Here I am with a prominent seat in the chapel, wearing robes and tassels, and even being addressed “Father”. This is a great passage, especially for priests to keep their motivations and intentions in check.
Yet this evening I would like to focus on the first reading. In poetic terms the prophet Isaiah captures how deep God’s love runs for us: “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.”
To imagine God’s love in spite of our sin, imagine the love parents have for their baby. Two of my best friends have a boy who is almost two and I’ll never forget being at their house when the little guy was learning to walk. I truly delighted in watching as he struggled to take his first steps. He fell over and over again, bonking his head and bending in ways that would give me a trip to the ER. When he really clunked his head and began to cry, did his mom and dad say, “When you figure out how to walk we’ll be here for you. Quit crying and get your act together!”? Of course not! They picked him up and encouraged him to keep trying.
We are all spiritual children, learning to walk. We fall, get dinged up and sometimes knock our head pretty hard against sin. God delights in watching us struggle to walk in our spiritual lives, and when we do fall is there to pick us up and put us on our feet again. He never says, “Figure it out and get back to me!”
I keep reflecting on how awesome Ash Wednesday was here at CSS. Remember how packed our chapel was? Look how many Catholic students we have here! Each of you have tasted God’s love and mercy and I pray that you continue to seek Him to be forgiven and comforted. Then you need to get out into your classrooms, dorms and teams to bring your friends to our loving Father. As a priest, I’m here to get you cleaned up in the sin-bin and to celebrate Mass. Your job is to spread the Good News to your college. Let’s pack this chapel on Sundays and Tuesdays. Share with others how God wrapped you in His arms of mercy in Confession.
We pray this evening that we, and the students at the College, may be wiped clean of our sin and be held by God Himself.
Monday, February 25, 2013
Have you ever done something or been a part of something that was truly spectacular? Whether an accomplishment in sports, school, career or family, think of a time that caused you to think when you woke up the next morning, “Did that really happen? Was that a dream?” Is your experience the birth of a child? Making it to state? Graduating? (I hope we will experience when the Vikings win the Superbowl next year). These dreams-come-true, nothing short of glorious, draw us out of our normal daily lives. They give us a glimmer of what we can be and become through hard work, diligence and discipline.
Multiply this experience by 100—actually, multiply it by infinity—and this is what God has in store for each of us. God’s vision of who we are to become is so much deeper and more profound than our limited vision of ourselves.
Take Abraham, for instance. “The Lord God took Abram outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,’ he added, ‘shall your descendants be.’” Imagine standing in for Abraham, looking into the sky to try to count the stars to number your descendents. As you attempt this impossible task, remember that you are almost ninety years old and have no children! And don’t forget—God doesn’t ask Abraham this question at night—it is in broad daylight. God promises something to Abraham far greater than anything he can ask or imagine.
We also reflect today on the transfiguration—one of the Luminous mysteries of the Rosary. Peter, James and John had been walking with Jesus and seeing him cure, forgive, exorcise and preach for quite a while. Yet they still saw a man, albeit a man with remarkable powers. On top of Mount Tabor Jesus allowed these men to glimpse something far greater than anything they could have dreamed—His divinity. “…His face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” In Jesus’ transfiguration we catch a glimpse of who exactly we are following.
St. Paul nails down why we are capable of true greatness beyond our own hopes and dreams—“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.” We are not citizens first of Duluth, Minnesota, the United States or even the world. First and foremost we are citizens of heaven. We are called to be heavenly creatures both here on earth and forever with God. And I would dare say that the experiences in our lives—the dreams-come-true, achievements and miracles—are a foretaste of heaven itself.
In a few moments we will sing a powerful hymn. We pray then, and we pray now:
Transform us as you, transfigured,
Once spoke with those holy ones,
We, surrounded by the witness
Of those saints whose work is done,
Live in this world as your Body,
Chosen daughters, chosen sons.
Jesus promises to answer our prayers. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
It is with such confidence that Esther cried out to God. At the time you could not approach the king unless he held out his golden scepter. If he did not and you drew near to the king you were to be killed. Thus, Esther asked for the courage to give her life on behalf of her people who had been handed over to the wicked.
God always answers our prayers. Ask, seek and knock—always approaching God by desiring His will. For this—asking God’s will to be done—is one of the most powerful prayers and one that is always answered in the affirmative.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
We are supposed to laugh when we read the book of Jonah. It is intended to be both a comedy and satire.
First, we see the only protagonist who goes directly against God’s will. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh and he flees in the other direction. This is meant to be comical. Next Jonah gets on a boat with pagans, and they can recognize the storm as a punishment from God for Jonah’s rebellion while he cannot. Then God grounds Jonah—not by giving him a timeout or making him sit in his room—but by having him swallowed by a fish. The Israelites would have found this quite humorous indeed.
Our first reading comes from when Jonah finally did go to Nineveh. In my mind, I picture this wallowing prophet slinking around Nineveh half-heartedly saying “Repent” expecting nothing to happen. Indeed—Jonah goes outside the city to get a front row seat to a fireworks show of sulpher and ashes over Nineveh. He continues to complain that he is tired to the point of death, and after God takes away Jonah’s source of shade he cries out, “It is better that I would die!” Overdramatic anyone? And hilarious!
Many scholars think Jonah is a fictional work. And we are allowed to think this, so long as we recognize fiction in the Scriptures always teaches truth. Jesus himself refers to this text—“This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” If Jonah is fiction, I think this teaching from Jesus is even more powerful. Jonah may not have been in a whale for three days and three nights. Yet Jesus points to Jonah to illustrate that he will be in a tomb for the same time.
The citizens of Nineveh reportedly converted with an explosion. “Something greater than Jonah is here…” While the story of Jonah may be fiction, the story of Christ is the truest event of all time. How much more should we convert more fully to Christ this Lent.
I have a confession to make. I am not proud of this, but I watched 75% of the Bachelor last night. I gagged several times. Actually, it wasn’t really my choice. I was relaxing after a meal with a couple I am helping to prepare for marriage. The bride-to-be asked if she could watch it, and the bride is always right, so we watched.
Afterwards I was convicted that I spent an hour and a half watching pure junk. Even though this wasn’t my choice, I thought of my own choices to watch TV (I am currently hooked on Castle) and playing games on my phone (I JUST discovered Angry Birds). How much time could I spend doing more productive things?
Now in our busy lives there are times we need to just veg out to mindless entertainment. But how does the time we spend relaxing compare to the time we spend in prayer? The fact is there is no better way to relax than to spend time with Jesus in quiet prayer.
I love the image Isaiah uses to describe God’s Word. Just like the rain and snow which comes from heaven to give nourishment and life, God’s Word has the ability to soak in our souls and produce much fruit. Yet do we take the time to let God’s Word seep into our spirit?
Lent is a period to take time in quiet prayer, and I encourage you to pick up the Bible to help you in this. Now I’m not saying to completely give up hobbies or times to veg out, but challenge yourself to turn off the TV, put down the cell phone and listen to God’s Word. Read the Scriptures. Pray with them. Allow your soul to be quenched with them to produce life and bear fruit.
Monday, February 18, 2013
If the books of the Bible were kids on a playground picking teams for a game of kickball, I suspect Leviticus would be chosen last. Leviticus, with his many strange rules—you can eat a grasshopper but not flies, cannot boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk—and lists, would probably remain sad and alone on the sideline.
In our spiritual lives, there is a time and a place to pick and choose what Scriptures on which we meditate. Yet it would be unwise to overlook completely books that at first seem boring or irrelevant.
We heard two of the most important verses in the entire Bible from Leviticus this morning. First, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” The entire Law was given to the Israelites so they would be set apart from other nations. They were not to follow the corrupt practices of others, but to strive for holiness by following God’s ordinances.
Second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s right—the greatest commandment—the Golden Rule—comes not from the Gospels but from Leviticus.
As we continue our Lenten journey in prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we pray for the grace to be holy as God is holy. We strive to love our neighbor as ourselves. And we praise God for these great teachings which come from what may first seem to be a boring book.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
Our liturgical season of Lent comes almost exclusively from our Gospel passage today. Jesus, led by the Spirit, goes into the desert for forty days of prayer and fasting. So, too, do we spend forty days to be with Jesus in our own prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Again, Jesus didn’t go into the desert willy-nilly, looking for a vacation and a tan. During this period he underwent a period of preparation for two important tasks: his mission and his confrontation with the devil.
Lent is the time for us to be purified and focus on what is truly important in our lives. It is a time to rededicate ourselves to coming to Mass each Sunday and Confession regularly. As I’ve told you before, my dream is that all of our parishioners at St. John’s and St. Joe’s would come to Mass and Confession often. In fact, if you told me, “Fr. Ben, you can make a choice—you can have one million dollars, or the assurance that the people you serve will be faithful in experiencing the graces of Mass and Confession.” Now I have a deer rifle to buy, a truck to payoff and loans to chip away at. But I wouldn’t hesitate choosing door number two. Seeing your sparkling clean souls is worth infinitely more than any amount of money.
As we start this Lenten season, I would like to challenge you to do three things. First, I encourage you to pray for ten minutes every day. You deserve ten minutes to step out of the noise and busyness of our culture to be with the Lord. And so does He. Ten minutes—that’s one third of one evening sitcom. Actually, that’s the amount of time the commercials take in that sitcom. Spend ten minutes in quiet prayer, reading the Scriptures, journaling or simply resting in peace with the Lord every day.
Second, please pray for Pope Benedict. He made the most difficult decision of his life by stepping down from the papacy. This choice is nearly unprecedented and has met with mixed reactions from Catholics and the world. Yet I believe Benedict’s choice to step away during Lent is intentional. Pope Benedict is now going into a life of solitude and prayer—he is going into the desert to spend the rest of his life praying for us. We need to pray for him too.
Finally, I would ask that you read a book. The parish has provided each of you with the book Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly. Both Fr. Rich and I are reading this book and it is great. It is well-written, easy to read, filled with concrete and moving examples and stories and has the potential to reignite your faith. Sadly, only 2% of Catholics read a spiritual book last year. Let’s not be in that number.
I provide some of these thoughts with the overall point of Lent in mind. Like Jesus, this period is meant to help us be prepared for the mission God has called us to. This mission is as unique as each of us and we need to have periods of prayer in our lives to more fully grasp it. Additionally, in a world so full of darkness and evil, we are to be prepared to stand up against sin, evil and the devil himself. We can’t do this without being united to God.
Don’t let this Lent be wasted. Use these forty days to rediscover your Catholic faith and spend time with Jesus in the desert.
Friday, February 15, 2013
Our first reading contains the corporal works of mercy in seminal form. Here we are encouraged by Isaiah to be diligent in: “releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” Jesus adds to these in the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew—we must visit the imprisoned and bury the dead.
In my life as a Catholic I have often seen our faithful divided into two camps. I saw this especially during my college years which featured the intense passion and zeal of young lives. These two camps consist of those focused on social justice and those focused on prayer. Often we can have bitter rivalry in our own Church between these groups and indeed I witnessed this when I was in college.
Yet our faith isn’t either serve the poor or be faithful to prayer. We are called to both fidelity to the Lord in our spiritual lives and be there for those in need.
Whichever camp you are in, Lent is a time to grow in areas in which we are weak. For instance, I must make conscious decisions to get out and work with the poor. I can’t just speak about it or pray about, but must go out there and do it. Those who find service the main source of their spiritual lives must challenge themselves to continue to build their relationship with God in the depths of their hearts.
There are many ways to bridge the gap between the two groups of people I have described, but the greatest is the Eucharist. We must remember Jesus’ body and blood are both the source and summit of our faith. It is the source from which all our lives depend and we are called to go forth from this source into the world. Yet we are also called to return to the summit of our lives by bringing those we meet with and serve to the Eucharist. Rather than an either/or the Eucharist calls us to be both/and. God feeds us, we feed others and then we are all fed again.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
What do you think is the greatest challenge we Christians face in our country? Is it that many don’t believe in God? That materialism and entertainment run our society? That, God forbid, we have had some corrupt leaders in our Church?
I would argue that the greatest obstacle we face is not that people don’t believe in God, but that many don’t believe in sin. Think about it—if there is no sin, there is no need for a savior. If our wrongdoings are simple mistakes due to biology, psychology or society, there would be nothing for us to be saved from. Do you believe that you sin and that some of your choices directly hurt God, your neighbor and yourself? Do you need Jesus Christ?
Often times we freak out when we think about sin. We Catholics are good at guilt and can paralyze ourselves with fear when we face our sin head on. Yet we must account for the fact that each of us has sinned. And, like a good basketball player who makes a mistake, we don’t need to freak out but acknowledge the wrong and move on in the game. We can have great assurance because “he made him to be sin who did not know sin…” And he nails our sin to the cross.
Lent is the season of the year to address our sin: “now is a very acceptable time…” After acknowledging our sin and seeking forgiveness, Lent is the time to combat sin itself. And we do this by living out the great pillars of Catholic spirituality—prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We hear Jesus speak of each of these practices in the Gospel in which he teaches us to keep quiet and humble about the prayer and sacrifices we make.
We are called to be generous like Jesus. First, we must pray, both individually and by coming to Mass. We want to treat God like He is our best friend. Second, we have periods of fasting and abstinence from meat during this season. Third, we give alms to those less fortunate than us. This includes money but also our time and talents to serve others in need.
It is typical to give something up during Lent. While it is a good practice to give up pop, candy or chips, I encourage you to make Lent more than a diet. And there is no better Lenten resolution than to come to Mass each week and make it to Confession. These sacraments, coupled with our own prayer, fasting and almsgiving, help us to combat sin and remain in union with Jesus Christ.
Don’t let this Lenten season go by wasted. Make Lent more than a diet and allow this season of penance to help you confront sin head on.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Like many of you I have had mixed emotions about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. I am caught between sadness of seeing our Holy retire and the excitement of wondering whom the next pope will be. I have watched Fr. Rich who looks like a kid in a candy store as we are in unprecedented times with respect to papal history. The last time this happened was 600 years ago! There are all sorts of theological questions that theologians will discuss for years to come. For instance, what do we call Pope Benedict XVI after he retires? How can we have a retired pope who is still alive when there can only be one pope at a time?
Among all the unknowns, I know for certain that Benedict XVI will continue to pray for the Church. In fact, this was the last thing he said when he announced his retirement. And I don’t think it is an accident that the Holy Father chose the season of Lent to step down.
Our first reading today is also providential. We are reminded that the entire cosmos was created by our good and loving God. At the culmination of His creation He made man and woman in His own image and likeness. He made us very good.
Yet we know the next chapter in our history—we sinned. And we continue to sin.
Lent is the season to confront and to combat our sin head on. The word Lent actually means spring, and it is the time to experience newness of life from our sinful nature.
On the brink of Lent we pray for our Holy Father and trust in his prayers for us. We pray for our next Pope, that he may be a holy man to lead our Church universal. And we pray for the grace to be renewed in our own lives and free from sin.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
The theme of our Scriptures today centers on God’s call. I’d like to begin by starting with the fishermen, as this is one of my favorite pastimes.
Now I will admit—there have been times, believe it or not, that I haven’t caught anything. I’ve gotten skunked over a day or even a weekend. While it’s a bummer, I fish for recreational purposes and can still have a great time with friends or family.
Peter, James and John found themselves skunked after a night of long fishing. Yet they didn’t just lose bragging rights from coming home empty—they fished for a living. Thus they lost revenue and food.
Then Jesus—a carpenter—whom the apostles had not met yet (as they weren’t apostles yet!) tells them how to fish. Imagine someone coming to you in your profession and telling you what to do. What would your response be?
Peter’s response to this mysterious man was one of deep faith. He told Jesus, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” And how did God respond to Peter’s faith? With an abundance. They had the catch of their lives. How often I wish Jesus would show up while I am fishing on a slow day.
Praise God men and women throughout the ages, while recognizing their own inadequacies, have responded with such faith. Isaiah was “a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips”. Yet he became a great prophet. Paul, who reports today that he was “abnormally born” and “least of the apostles” became the greatest evangelizer we have ever seen. Peter’s first response to the great catch of fish is, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” And he became our first pope.
God does not call the saint. He does not call the perfect. He does not call people who have it all together. He calls the sinner, the simple and the ordinary men and women to do His extraordinary work. One of my favorite quotations captures this reality. John Chrysostom once stated, “For the good deeds which tax-collectors and fishermen were able to accomplish by God’s grace, the philosophers, the rulers, the countless multitudes cannot even imagine.”
As we approach the season of Lent, how are you answering God’s call for your life? How are you responding to Jesus’ summons, “Come, follow me.” Would that we had the courage and faith of Isaiah, Paul and Peter to leave our nets and follow Jesus saying, “Here I am, send me.”
Then the philosophers, the rulers and the countless multitudes could not begin to imagine what God can do with us.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Saturday, February 2, 2013
You may have heard this phrase before: “Excuses are like armpits…everyone has them and they stink.”
I always like to bug my Dad about making excuses, especially with respect to hunting and fishing. Frequently I will get a call from Dad. “Yeah, Ben,” he says, “it was a great day of hunting. I was three for four with pheasants today.” He then gives me the play-by-play of all the birds he had a chance to get. “The first one was perfect…Molly [our dog] set it up good and I knocked it down clean. Then Molly got way out front and the hen got up. It was a long ways a way so I missed. Then one flew in front of the sun and I missed. Another got behind some trees so I shot for the heck of it.” By the end of the conversation I’m wondering about his math as his three out of four sounds more like three out of ten!
We hear many excuses in the Bible. Starting in the beginning, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent for their sin. Abraham is too old. Moses can’t talk. David is an adulterer and murderer. Jeremiah is too young. And on and on.
What are the excuses you make with respect to your faith journey? Are you too old? Or too young? Too busy? Too many young children?
Our second reading checks in right after Jeremiah told the Lord, “I am too young.” Listen again how God replies: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”
Like the experience of Jeremiah, I would argue that each of the men I mentioned had one characteristic in common. We heard about this in the second reading: love. We often hear this reading at weddings, but Paul is not speaking strictly to men and women getting married. In fact, the Greek word for love—agape—Paul uses means the sacrificial love that God gives us. Specifically, the former excuse makers experienced the reality that “Love never fails.” Their excuses melted in God’s all powerful and enduring love.
And look what God did with these individuals. Abraham became the father of faith. Moses led his people out of 400 years of slavery to the brink of the Promised Land. David established the kingdom and was the greatest king of Israel’s history. While these men realized their inadequacies they all tasted the love of God for them and trusted that He could do what they could not.
Would that we had the same trust in God’s love. Would that our own excuses would melt in God’s love and that we would know that God does not choose the qualified but qualifies whom He has chosen.
I mentioned a few individuals from Scripture who dramatically altered salvation history. These were a few ordinary people. Imagine what God could do in our parish and society if the 650 families in our parish allowed their excuses to be melted in God’s love.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Jesus today talks about small seeds that can do great things. In another place in the Gospels, He calls such seeds the Word of God which, if planted on fertile ground and taken care of, produce much fruit.
We do well to have the Word of God planted in our hearts. One of the reasons for this is to have Scripture passages and verses accessible when we face difficulty. Whether facing increasing hostility of our faith in society, challenges at home, health difficulties, unemployment and more, we can always trust God’s Word which has the capacity to speak directly to our experiences. We have a couple of great examples in our readings.
In the letter to the Hebrews (chapter ten) we find great encouragement: “do not throw away your confidence; it will have great recompense…we are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life.” When I hear these words I am reminded of some of the coaches in my life who pushed me to do my best, especially when the pressure was on or when I was tired. They challenged me to be my best, and this is what the Scriptures do.
Psalm 37 has similar words: “By the LORD are the steps of a man made firm, and he approves his way. Though he fall, he does not lie prostrate, for the hand of the LORD sustains him…the LORD helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him.”Keep the Word planted in your heart. It will produce abundant fruit in your life, and will encourage you when you most need it.