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This weekend we begin the season of Lent. When I was growing up all that Lent meant to me was that I couldn’t eat candy for six weeks. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to realize how important and how good the season of Lent is for our Church, as well as for me personally. It is a time to step back from the usual activities of life and focus on our relationship with God. We do this through the primary activities of Lent: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. In our prayer we attend to God. Through our fasting we deny ourselves what we want to discover what we really need. And in our almsgiving, we give to those who have little or nothing.
Each year on the first Sunday of Lent we read one of the accounts of the Temptation of Christ in the desert. This year we read from the Gospel of Matthew. The basic details of the temptation are the same in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In these Gospels Jesus faces three temptations: The temptation to take care of his own needs (“command these stones to become loaves of bread.”); the temptation to test God’s love and care (“throw yourself down” from the parapet of the temple"); and finally the temptation to worldly power and might ("all the kingdoms of the world I shall give you, if you prostrate yourself and worship me”). We all face similar temptations in our lives --- certainly not to the extent that Jesus did --- but temptations that are similar in kind, if not strength and intensity. Jesus has shown us, though, that God’s grace is sufficient to resist these temptations.
In our first reading this weekend we read the scriptural account of the temptation of Adam and Eve. It serves as a counterpoint to the Gospel. Unlike Adam and Eve, however, Jesus does not succumb to temptation.
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans. It follows the theme of the Gospel and first reading and reminds us that “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. We all face temptations in our lives. Now certainly the temptations we face aren’t nearly as intense or as powerful as those faced by Jesus, but they are real nonetheless. What form does temptation take in your life?
2. Christians did not invent temptation. We do believe, though, that we have found the remedy for temptation in Jesus Christ. When has God’s grace helped you to resist temptation?
3. Why do some people seem better able to resist temptation than others?
A few weeks ago a former parishioner of mine told me she was taking a break from the Catholic Church. With the recent and seemingly endless revelations about our church’s mishandling of the sexually inappropriate behavior on the part of various priests, she didn’t feel that, at the present time, the Catholic Church was a place where she could pray and experience God’s grace. She was clear that her decision was not irrevocable, but — at least for now — she was going to look elsewhere for spiritual strength and guidance.
As we talked, it was clear that while she was angry, perhaps the overriding emotion for her was disappointment. And while she was able to make a distinction between the Church and its all too fallible ministers and leaders, she couldn’t understand why no one seemed to be held accountable or was willing to accept responsibility for the current crisis. She felt that the Church, as an institution, had failed her and others who called the Catholic Church their spiritual home. This was tough for me to hear. As our conversation ended, though, we agreed to stay in touch and to continue the conversation another day.
Now while I could understand my former parishioner’s reasoning, and in part could agree with it, I also know that for me there is no other spiritual home I could imagine for myself than the Catholic Church. With all its warts, with its imperfect and flawed ministers, the Catholic Church is where I am meant to be. I echo Peter’s words when Jesus asked him if he also wanted to leave: “Master to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).
Now while I am joined at the hip with the Catholic Church, I don’t think it is acceptable simply to write off anyone, who, for whatever reason, has left or taken a break from the Catholic Church. Especially at this time, I think that I, as your pastor, as well as our entire community, need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions: Who are those people who no longer worship with us? Who feels alienated or estranged from our Church? Are we comfortable that people no longer choose to join us for worship?
Sadly, I think it is all too easy for us to simply let people leave our Church without making an effort to talk with them or ask them to stay. This needs to stop. It is not enough simply to tell people they are always welcome to come back. Instead, we need to help them find a reason to stay, or at least a reason to keep the conversation going. In the Gospels, Jesus had ongoing and serious disagreements with the Scribes and Pharisees, yet he never stopped talking with them. He never stopped trying to engage them. I think this is a good model for us. We need to invite people to continue the conversation and not just leave.
Our Church has been around for over 2,000 years. During this time, it has faced innumerable divisions and controversies; it has had poor and ineffective leaders; it has engaged in activities that were questionable at best and cruel at worse, and yet it remains. At its best, our Church is a place of God’s presence and grace, and a beacon of hope and a spiritual home to many. Certainly our local Church has not been that lately. For this reason I can understand why some people might choose to leave. I would hope, though, that, as individuals, and as a parish community we would not be comfortable if or when people choose to leave, but rather that we would engage them and offer to keep the conversation going. This was the way of Jesus. It needs to be our way as well.
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In the play “A Man for All Seasons” Thomas More addressed the witnesses for his execution in the following words; “I am commanded by the King to be brief, and since I am the King's obedient subject, brief I will be. I die his Majesty's good servant but God's first.” I was reminded of these words when I read Jesus’ opening statement in this weekend’s Gospel. “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Clearly Jesus was telling his disciples they could not have divided loyalties. As his followers, their first loyalty needed to be to God.
Jesus then went on to remind his disciples (and us) that we are not to give ourselves over to worry or anxiety. “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” Rather we are to trust in God. “So do no worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or “What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. You heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”
Our first reading this weekend from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah shares the theme of the Gospel. In it Isaiah reminds the people that God will never forget them. ‘Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. In the section we read this weekend Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us) that .people need to see us “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” We should not be concerned about passing judgment on others or their passing judgment on us.
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Why is it difficult at times to trust God?
2. Have you ever felt forgotten by God?
3. How can you be a servant of Christ?
Several months ago I had an encounter with an individual who identified themselves as a fundamentalist Christian. In our brief conversation, we had a disagreement about how best to enter into conversation with those who don’t necessarily identify themselves as Christians. My point was that we need to enter into dialogue with these people so that hopefully we can find common ground. The individual with whom I was talking took a more aggressive stance. This person believed that Christians need to be clear, forthright and unapologetic about their beliefs. If that should cause problems or divisions, so be it. The person then quoted Luke 6:22 as justification for their position:
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold your reward will be great in heaven.”
Now, in response to this, I tried to point out that as disciples of Jesus we aren’t supposed to try to make the world hate us. Certainly at times our beliefs may set us apart from others. And there may be times when people don’t like us because of our beliefs. But this is different from deliberately antagonizing people or looking for a fight with someone.
In the Gospels Jesus didn’t try to deliberately provoke, alienate, or invite people to hate him. Now, of course, this is not to say it didn’t happen. Jesus wasn’t crucified because people didn’t like the way he parted his hair. At times his words and actions did cause people to take offense. But I don’t believe this was deliberate. Time and again in the Gospels we see Jesus reaching out to, spending time with, and engaging in conversation those with whom he disagreed. I think this is a good model for us.
As Christians our beliefs may, at times, set us apart from others. And in the worst case, our beliefs may cause people to hate us. But having people hate us should not be the goal for which we strive. Rather, I think we need to follow the model Jesus set for us. We need to be clear and unapologetic about our beliefs, but we also need to be open to dialogue and conversation.
It is in dialogue and conversation that we might be able to find some common ground. It is in dialogue and conversation that we show those with whom we disagree that we recognize in them a fellow child of God. It is in dialogue and conversation that we model the respect we hope others will reciprocate. And it is in dialogue and conversation that we invite others hopefully to see the worthiness and rightness of our beliefs.
It seems to me that too often in our world today we talk at or over each other. Some people even seem to take delight in being “hated” by others. I don’t think this was the way of Jesus and I don’t think it should be our way either. As disciples of Jesus, we aren’t supposed to deliberately try to make the world hate us. Rather, we are called to love one another as we have first been loved by God. Certainly this is challenging, but I believe that we are more apt to change people’s minds and hearts if we first give witness to our belief, as Jesus told us, that: “God is Love.”
Follow the link below or copy and paste it into your browser for this weekend’s readings.
In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you…………………..” Later Jesus says again: “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you…………................”
Now there are some people who have suggested and continue to suggest that in these words Jesus was seeking to abolish the law the scribes and Pharisees held so dear. I don’t believe this was the case. Rather I think Jesus was calling his disciples to a deeper commitment to the law and an entirely new way of living. Jesus is clear about this at the end of this weekend’s Gospel when he said: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” These words remind us very forcibly that as followers of Jesus our lives are to be substantially different from those of non-believers. Certainly we don’t always do this well, but that does not mean that we can ever stop trying.
Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of Leviticus. It shares the theme of the Gospel. Specifically God told Moses to tell the whole Israelite community: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge again any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. In the section we read this weekend Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us): “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Why is it so hard at times to love our neighbor?
2. What helps you let go of hurt and resentment, and forgive?
3. What do you think Paul meant when he said we are Temples of God?
Follow the link below or copy and paste it into your browser for the readings for February 16th
In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples: “unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” As we read these words, it would be easy to think Jesus was criticizing the scribes and Pharisees because they were bad people or because they were doing bad things. The fact is, though, the scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of their time. They carefully observed all the laws and all the precepts of the laws. In fact, they were so intent on following the law that they constructed a “fence” around the law so that they wouldn’t accidently break it, e.g. they determined how may steps an individual could take on the Sabbath before they broke the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was not that they were bad people who did bad things. Rather, the issue was that they had turned their relationship with God into a set of rules and regulations. While their actions were always in accord with the law, their heart was not. They had forgotten that following the law was not an end in itself. Rather the purpose of the law was to help people grow in their relationship with God. Jesus invited them (and us) to recognize that while following the law is important, more important is that we do so because our hearts are set on doing God’s will.
Our first reading this weekend from the Book of Sirach reinforces the message of the Gospel. It reminds us that “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live.” It reminds us that keeping the commandments will save us, if we trust in God.
In our second reading this weekend we are reminded of God’s mysterious wisdom. “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. In many ways a nanny and a parent both do the same tasks. The difference is the nanny does them because they are paid to do them. The parent does them out of love. I believe doing things out of love and not obligation is what Jesus was getting at in our Gospel today. Do you agree or disagree?
2. What does it mean to trust in God?
3. What words/images come to mind when you think of what God has prepared for those who love him?
For the past several weeks, Minnesota Public Radio, as well as other media, have run stories on the financial impact on our local church because of the recent disclosures of clergy sexual misconduct. These stories have in turn raised concerns about our Archdiocesan and parish finances. Specifically, concerns have been raised about secret accounts, hidden payments, generous severance packages, questionable business practices, and the impact this is having on parish finances. While the revelations contained in these stories have been painful, it is important that they be brought into the open. It is only in being open and honest regarding these matters that we can begin the healing process and move forward in faith and hope.
In reflecting on the revelations contained in these various stories, it seemed to me they left some questions unanswered, or with answers that were incomplete. Given this, I would like to offer some comments about our parish finances, our Archdiocesan finances, and the hidden accounts and secret payments that have been made.
In regard to our parish finances, I would note the following:
- Our Finance Committee is comprised of 18 individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Members can serve two consecutive three year terms and then must rotate off the committee. I, along with Terri Ashmore, our managing director, and Audra Johnson, our Director of Finance and Human Resources, also sit on the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee meets monthly except during the summer.
- At our meetings we review and monitor our monthly income and expenses to make sure we are on target in regard to our budget. .
- The Finance Committee has four subcommittees: Audit, Budget, Investment and Nominating.
- An audit is conducted each year by an outside independent auditor, and the results of the audit are shared with the Finance Committee and our Parish Council. For the past two years, a summary of the audit has been available on-line, and as I mention each year, copies of the full audit are available for anyone who is interested.
- Each parish is assessed 8% of its stewardship income to help run the Archdiocese. In the next year, this will increase to 9% for those parishes without a school.
- We work hard at being open and accountable for the financial support of our parishioners. Certainly we don’t do this perfectly. I think we do it pretty well, though, and we are always open to suggestions about how to do it better.
In regard to our Archdiocesan Finances, I would note the following:
- As it appears from the recent media reports, our Archdiocese has not done a very good job of being open and transparent in regard to its finances. There is no excuse for this. It needs to change.
- As it also appears from the recent media reports, our Archdiocese has not had a system of checks and balances in place to prevent embezzlement and other abuses of the system. Again, there is not excuse for this. All of us in the Church need to be transparent.
- In addition to the money received from parish assessments, the Archdiocese also receives income from investments, bequests, and special gifts. Our Archdiocese needs to be open and transparent in regard to these sources of revenue and how they are used.
- Money collected through the yearly Catholic Services Appeal goes directly to the programs, ministries and services that are funded through the Appeal. None of the money from the Catholic Services Appeal goes to the Archdiocese. This was reinforced this year when The Catholic Services Appeal Foundation was established to collect and disburse money collected through the Appeal.
Finally, in regard to the hidden accounts and secret payments that were made by the Archdiocese I would note the following:
- First, I believe we need to apologize that we weren’t honest and open about these payments. Frankly and bluntly, I believe this was wrong. It certainly is not consistent with the goal of transparency.
- In regard to people who have been victimized by priests, while nothing can undo the pain and harm they have experienced, I personally believe we must help them in any way we can, whether in the form of a settlement, payments for counseling, or other services.
- In regard to priests who have abused or victimized individuals, we need to be clear: because our church ordained them, we are responsible for them. While many people would like to see these men formally removed from ministry, this is a long involved canonical process that is expensive and can take years to complete. Most dioceses have chosen instead to reach settlement agreements with these men. These agreements remove them from ministry but also tie them to ongoing monitoring. It is my understanding that these agreements are negotiated with each individual priest, and are based on their particular needs and circumstances. Clearly some of these settlements appear to be overly generous. I don’t understand this. I do believe, though, ---- and I know many people will disagree with me --- that it is better to negotiate these settlements, and tie them to ongoing monitoring, than to go to the time and expense of trying to remove these priests from ministry through a canonical process.
The current crisis in our Church is painful to all of us. It is made more so by the fact that while our Archdiocese has talked about being open and transparent; we seem unable to do this. We continue to be reactive instead of proactive in our communication efforts, and, at least at this point, our words are not supported by our deeds.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, certainly the current revelations have been painful. It is important, though, that they be brought into the open. It is only in being open and honest regarding these matters that we can begin the healing process and move forward in faith and hope. I invite you to join your prayers to mine that this process will begin soon.
Click on the link below or paste it into your browser to find to the readings for this weekend: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/020914.cfm
In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” These words are so familiar that it would be easy to miss their meaning. Specifically, I think they remind us of two very important things. First, notice that Jesus didn’t say you “will be” the salt of the earth, or you “will be the light of the world. Rather he said: “You are.” This reminds us that in our lives --- in the here and now and not at some point in the future --- we are to be salt and light to the world around us.. Second, though, both salt and light have an impact, and it doesn’t take much of either for that impact to be noticed. A little salt can add flavor to a meal, while too much salt can ruin it. In the same way even a small amount of light can guide us on a dark night, while too much light can blind us. Clearly, even in small ways, we can be salt and light to our world and can make a difference.
Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It shares the theme of the Gospel and tells us very practically how we can be salt and light in our world. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn………………… If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness,”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. In the section we read this weekend, Paul reminds the people of Corinth. That he did not speak to them with “sublimity of words or of wisdom …………… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Where are you called to be salt and light in your life?
2. What concretely and specifically do you need to do be salt and light?
3. Have you ever encountered someone who spoke with “sublimity of words and wisdom,” but really didn’t say much?
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4 Hebrews 2: 14-18 Luke 2: 22-40
This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. This Feast is celebrated on February 2nd each year. Our Gospel for this Feast is the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in accordance with Mosiac law.
When Mary and Joseph came to the Temple they encountered Simeon, who was “righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph and then said to Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be sign that will be contradicted --- and you yourself a sword of sorrow will pierce --- so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Mary and Joseph were fulfilling the prescription of the law of Moses when they presented Jesus in the Temple. As is often the casein the scriptures, though, things have a much deeper meaning than is immediately evident. Simeon’s words prophesy both Christ’s ministry and his passion and death.
Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Malachi. In the section we read this weekend God announces: “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me………” From our Christian perspective we see this prophecy as referring to John the Baptist who came to prepare the way for Christ.
Our second reading this weekend is from the Letter to the Hebrews. It reminds us that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, the he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered he is able to help those who are being tested.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Simeon said that Jesus was a “sign that will be contradicted.” What does this mean to you?
2. Have you ever waited, as Simeon did, and eventually found your waiting rewarded?
3. I loved the words from Hebrews that “because he himself was tested through what he suffered he is able to help those who are being tested.” When and how have you felt Jesus’ help in time of need?
When I was growing up, I was taught that there were four reasons to pray: 1. Adoration, 2. Contrition, 3. Gratitude, and 4. Petition. We still believe these four things are the reasons behind, as well as the motivation for our prayer. My problem, though, is that I never seem to adore God, or tell God I am sorry for my sins, or express my gratitude to God as earnestly or as deeply as I entreat God. My prayers of petition are long, heartfelt and sincere. My prayers of adoration, contrition and gratitude on the other hand, while sincere, tend to be brief and more often than not, superficial.
Now I know that adoration, contrition and especially gratitude are really what my prayer should be all about. God is so good, so faithful and so loving, that this alone should fill my life with thanksgiving, praise and sorrow. And yet I continue to be embarrassed at the many times I am indifferent and ungrateful. It is so easy for me to take God for granted, telling myself that God certainly must know how grateful and how sorry I am. And yet, while God does indeed know this, it is binding on me as one of God’s creatures to give voice to my gratitude, praise and sorrow.
I am not sure why it is easier for me to pray for the things I want or think I need, than it is for me to be grateful for the many blessings I enjoy in my life. I suspect, though, that a big part of the reason is that the blessings are so abundant and so pervasive that they sometimes become part of the background and they fail to stand out for me. If I only occasionally knew blessings, they would stand out much more clearly. Because I am surrounded by blessings, though, they don’t always, or even often, stand out as they should.
The fact is that we all live in a world imbued with God’s grace. God’s love for us is ever present and always being offered to us. We are always held firm in the embrace of our God’s love. If God should forget about us for even a moment, we would cease to exist. It is easy, though, to grow so comfortable and complacent with this, that we can forget that it calls for a response on our part. God’s love for us is not just to be enjoyed, but responded to. And our response needs to be adoration, contrition, and gratitude. Petition should follow after these three.
I suspect I will continue to petition God more than I praise, thank or tell God I’m sorry for my sins and failures. Prayers of petition are deeply rooted in my life.
I am hopeful, though, that as I grow older I will recognize the many blessings I enjoy in my life, the love that God constantly pours forth on me, and the forgiveness that is without end, and that this in turn might lead me to be more thankful and contrite, and lead me to give praise to the God who made all things possible.