Hearing Voices

4th Sunday of Easter

Gospel of John 10:27-30

In today’s Gospel, using the imagery of sheep and a Shepherd, Jesus provides the simplest summary of the mystery of salvation.  This simple and concise summary is a description of a relationship.  His relationship with us, those who hear his voice.

A few years ago, I worked at a place where I was very fortunate to have gotten to know and become close with a wonderful group of individuals.  They were not only good at their jobs, but they were also very kind.  One of the things that made this period of time uniquely special is that although we were quite an eclectic group of individuals, we all got along.

After a bit of time, and because of the trust and care we had developed for one another, we would find ourselves engaged in rather deep conversations about religion.  Now I am sure that upon hearing this, all of you HR people just spontaneously gasped, however, I assure you, it just somehow worked.

Now, one person in particular was a very committed atheist, and we would often find ourselves engaged in very interesting, enjoyable, and, at times, intense conversations.  During one of these conversations this individual stated that one of her major problems with religious people was their claim that they “heard God.”  My response, “I hear God all the time.”

With a look on her face that indicated she might be a bit concerned she was talking to a crazy person, she asked, “Really?  You hear the voice of God talking to you personally?”

I answered, “Yes.”

Now, with a tone and an expression indicative of someone who is now convinced she is indeed talking to a crazy person, she challenged, “Well… what does he say?”

I responded, “He says, ‘Jason, quit being such a jerk.’”

The idea that we can actually hear the voice of God may sound a bit strange, especially to those who are not accustomed to His voice.  However, Jesus does speak to us.  In fact, he is speaking to ALL of us… everywhere, throughout the entirety of human history.  Jesus is speaking to all of us all of the time.

This 4th Sunday of Easter, Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom and mercy, is inviting us to reflect on what it means to hear the voice of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Today’s Gospel reading is taken from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel and is set in the context of Jesus’s response to the Jews who are questioning his authority.  This is not the first time Jesus was challenged to give an answer for his authority and the Jews demanded, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Jesus had already answered them plainly.  In the previous verses of John chapter 10 Jesus described himself as the “Good Shepard”, as “the door”, and as “(he) who lays down (his) life for the sheep.”  Yet, in spite of his own words, and in spite of his works, the Jews would not accept his answer… an answer they refused to hear.

What strikes me as most interesting about this interaction, this confrontation, is the fact that it is possible to refuse to hear the voice of Jesus.  That somehow, through the gracious gift of our free agency, any one of us, when given opportunity to hear the voice of Jesus, can simply refuse to hear it. So, obviously, that begs the question… do you hear the voice of Jesus?

“My sheep hear my voice; I know them; and they follow me.”  To hear the voice of Jesus is predicated on the reality that we must be in relationship with him.  It is not enough to know about Jesus.  It is not enough to accept that Jesus was a real person who lived in a real place during a real period of time.  Knowing ABOUT Jesus is entirely different then KNOWING Jesus.  To know Jesus means you must encounter Jesus.

So how do we encounter Jesus?

We encounter Jesus through his church.  We encounter Christ when we receive the Sacraments.  We encounter Christ when we listen to the preaching of the Word and the teachings of the church.  We encounter Christ when we pray.  We encounter Christ when we serve the poor, and when we serve one other.  Each of these occurrences provide us opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ and in turn allow us to develop a personal and vibrant relationship with him… and in that, and with that, and through that relationship, we follow him.

Now, that is sometimes a not very easy thing to do.  Sometimes in this earthly pilgrimage of faith we come up against teachings, clergy, and sometimes, one another, even in our own church, that cause us difficulty in following Jesus.  I get that… heck, I live that.  However, if we are a living a vibrant, dynamic, effective life in Christ then we must also accept that relationship struggles are necessary.

Christ is continually calling us to a deeper relationship with him which in turn calls us to deeper relationships with one another.  The command, “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength and your neighbor as yourself” is a twofold, yet single commandment of love.  To have a deeper relationship with Christ requires greater love… for both God and your neighbor.  It’s a single command… not a one or the other.

“I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.”  Our relationship with Christ is not one-sided.  Our relationship with Christ is not simply that of an obedient slave following the will of a kind master.  Our relationship with Christ is one of hope.  Our relationship with Christ is one of security.   Both of which can only come from the Father.  Our relationship with Christ ensures that we are known by the Father, and that we are loved by the Father, and that we are secure in the Father. 

Our lives have meaning and purpose not in the things we possess, or in our experiences, but in our relationships.  What makes us valuable is the love we share with one another… and most importantly the love we have for God.  When we choose to hear the voice of Jesus, we are in relationship with him.  When we are in relationship with him, we follow him, and we are loved, and we are capable of loving.

So I ask you… are you hearing the voice of Jesus?

Divine Mercy Sunday

I usually start out my homily with a quaint personal story.  It drives my wife crazy when I do this.  As some of you know, my wife reminds me that I am personally not that interesting and eventually, someday, I am going to run out of cute, folksy, interesting stories to share.  Well, folks… that day has finally come.  I’ve got nothing.

With the glow of Easter Season still upon us and in light of the record attendance at this past Easter’s Sunday Masses, it may seem a bit odd to even be considering the question that I am about to ask, however, nonetheless, here it comes; “Why are Catholics, especially young Catholics, leaving the Church?”

A recent study shows that 50% of young Americans who were raised Catholic no longer identify themselves as Catholic today.  In addition, a 2015 Pew Research study reports for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church.  To make that statistic a bit more personal, let’s consider the 19 people, both children and adults, who were initiated into our parish this past week.  If the math holds true, then 114 people walked away from Pope St. John Paul II Catholic Community this past year… and haven’t come back.

If some of you sitting here are thinking to yourself, “good riddance!”, then you must know that you are a part of the problem.  If some of you sitting here are thinking to yourself, “I don’t even know 114 Catholics”, then you too are a part of the problem.  If some of you are sitting here and thinking, “we are in trouble!”, then we are in the same boat.

So, what do we do?  What is the solution?  Unfortunately, I don’t have one.  Our church didn’t get here over night, and it isn’t just one issue.

Priests abusing children and the Bishops failure to protect the innocent is a significant cause, for sure.  Sanitized religious education programs designed as sacramental funnels and parents prioritizing soccer/hockey/baseball schedules and family vacations over foundational encounters with Christ, are others.  The Church’s teachings on human life & dignity, homosexuality, marriage and divorce stand resolutely against cultural norms.  Combine that with the heretical idealization of political platforms… on both sides of the ballot… and the church is no longer a refuge, a place of healing for the marginalized, downtrodden, and afflicted.  The rationalization, “Why go to a church that doesn’t even want me there?” has a bit more truth than most of us would care to admit.

However, with all that being said, I do believe that today’s Gospel, on this second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, provides a foundational truth from which the solutions to our problems can begin to take root.

The events described in this Gospel occurred during the evening of Resurrection Sunday where the disciples were gathered together in one place.  Christ’s appearance to the disciples in the upper room behind the locked door was at the conclusion of a day in which Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb and to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

It is significant that Mary Magdalene and the other disciples who returned from the road to Emmaus were there.  Though they each had a personal encounter with Jesus they were there sharing their experiences with the other disciples.  Their personal encounters were not only for them individually but for the benefit of the whole community.

Also, it is important to note that the disciples weren’t gathered together because they were fearful.  The door was locked because they were fearful.  They were gathered together because that is what Jesus had instructed them to do at the Last Supper. 

And, since we are talking about fear, notice that the Peace of Christ not only removed fear, but that His peace was inclusive.  That frightened, confused, and befuddled group of believers gathered in that one room (dare I say Church) on that evening encountered the risen Christ and their fear was vanquished.  Each had their own individual journey to that one room (dare I say Church) that day.  Each in a different emotional, physical, and spiritual state.  Peter was most likely struggling with guilt and shame.  Mary Magdalene was probably both relieved and confused.  The two disciples who returned from the road to Emmaus were feeling who knows what, yet the peace of Christ ministered to them all.  Christ came to them, and he met them each individually in community.

Except, of course Thomas.

Thomas was not present on that first Easter Sunday.  He had not gathered with the other disciples.  He had separated himself from the community.  His reason for being absent is not known to us, however he might have said, “I would rather be on the water, thinking about God, then in the Church thinking about the water.”  I don’t know.  However, what I do know is that he was there, in that one room (dare I day Church), the following week and that is where he encountered Jesus.

We all love our own personal Jesus.  Whenever we encounter him on the mountains, valleys, rivers, and plains; or on our streets, in our homes, or at our private alters of prayer, we are often filled with awe and are inspired.  I am not arguing against that.  In fact, I too have had wonderful experiences of encountering Jesus in private and very personal ways and places.  But these personal and private encounters of his majesty and beauty found in the magnificence of his creation; in the gentle whisper of the Holy spirit heard on the wind, or in the quiet rhythm of a mountain stream, or in the melody of a songbird are but a partial reflection of our Lord and our God.  They are precious and formative indeed, but lack his fullness, his entirety, his completeness.

Christ revealed himself, fully God, fully man… Prophet, Priest, and King… completely and entirely in his Church.  To seek Christ outside of his Church, is like searching for a buried treasure with only an X on an otherwise blank sheet of paper.  We possess confirmation that there is indeed a treasure, but without context, direction, and help we will never find it.

The Church is not unaware of the problems.  The scandals, the divisions, the cultural divides are real and present and have had a negative effect.  Yet, just as the Apostle Thomas’ story did not end with his exaggerated demand for proof, we too must never abandon our faith and our hope that the solution to all the church’s problems and wrongs first start with encountering Christ… here in this place….  in front of this altar… in community with one another.  Christ is here and he invites us to reach out and touch his wounds, and with and through his boundless mercy and love we to shall come to proclaim the profound statement of faith of the Apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

How is Your Lent Going?

2nd Sunday of Lent
Gospel of Luke 9:28-36

How is your Lent going?

To be honest, I am not sure as to how to answer that question. Should one even have a “good” Lent? Or, in the spirit of penance, fasting and the giving of alms, is a “good” Lent even the goal?

The word “Lent” itself defines the period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The word’s origins are Germanic and come from a word meaning “lengthening of days”, which in and of itself inspires a bit of hope, but in light of the bitter cold and snow we experienced this past week, maybe not so much. However, this definition still does not provide any real help in finding the appropriate answer to the question, “how is your Lent going?”

St. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, today’s Gospel reading, describes both a bizarre and holy event. Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus to the mountain to pray… and promptly fall asleep. In spite of this, however, they do witness the incredible transformation of Jesus as he is conversing with two of most significant individuals of their Jewish faith. St. Luke’s tells us, “They saw his glory.”

We might find an answer to today’s Lenten question in the Apostles inability to stay awake, but to be honest that is just low hanging fruit. To condemn the disciples might be a bit too “judgy”. To be honest, I too have a tendency to fall asleep at the most inconvenient times. At about 9pm my internal dial goes from “go” to “no”. This dramatic shift occurs almost every night regardless of where I am at or what I am doing. This tendency of mine has even become a point of contention between my wife and I, especially when my snoring interferes with her conversation with our guests. Now, I am not saying that Peter, James, and John suffer from that same ailment, but from the accounts found in the other Gospels, they also seem to shift from “go” to “no” when it gets dark.

So… what else can we find in today’s Gospel that might help us in answering our Lenten question?

In St. Luke’s words, Peter responds to his encounter with the Glory of Jesus, by stating, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Though St. Luke seems to add an editor’s note, “but he did not know what he was saying”, St. Peter, whether by accident or with intent, still said it. In essence, St. Peter the Apostle, the Rock on which the Church was built, gave voice to one of the most prevalent struggles that has plagued us when we encounter Jesus… he wanted to put him in a box.

Jesus cannot be contained. He cannot be compartmentalized. He cannot be controlled. His humility, his sacrifice, his love is without boundary or limit. Yet, just like our beloved St. Peter, we want to build walls, create structures, and designate times and/or places for Jesus.

Jesus reveals himself to us… because that is what he does. In fact, Jesus is always revealing himself to us. Jesus emptied himself and became man that he may reveal the fullness of himself, God, to all of humanity. He walked among us. He ate with us. He suffered and died on the cross for us in order that we might all know him and be saved. Yet, in our humanity, in our weakness, and in our sin we respond to Jesus’s attempts to reveal himself to us, with “Jesus why don’t you just stay over there.”

For example, as Catholics we know that in Mass, and most especially in the Eucharist, we have opportunity to encounter Jesus. Yet do we attend Mass every Sunday? Or do we find excuses and reasons to leave Jesus in his place and remain in ours.

Sometimes the opposite is true. We may be faithful attenders of Mass… every week with out fail. Yet when we encounter the suffering Christ in the poor and the marginalized… we turn our heads, stop up our ears, and tightly grip our wallets. We are perfectly fine with encountering Jesus in the Eucharist but let him into our hearts and minds? Allow him to open our hearts to the suffering of others with love and compassion… “No, it’s okay Jesus, you just stay right there.”

The mountain top experience that Peter and the other Apostles experienced is beyond our human understanding. Jesus’s face changed in appearance, his clothes became dazzling white, and he appeared to them in his glory. Is it any wonder that Peter, even with his lack of understanding, so desperately wanted to control what he was experiencing? It is any wonder that Peter’s first thought was, “How can we make sure this moment never goes away?” Is it any wonder that the Glory of God is so magnificent… so desirable… so enthralling that no one would ever want to be separated from it?

Of course not! The glory of God is a holy and magnificent wonder!

The mountain top experience is not the problem. The moments in our lives when we encounter the glory of God are entirely fantastic. The problem is not the encounter, but it is our resistance to what Christ wants to do to us, through us, and with us as a result of that encounter.

The answer to our Lenten question, “How is your Lent going?” is not a “good” or a “bad”. Rather, our answer to this question is a simple “yes” or “no”. Yes, we are allowing the limitless love of Christ Jesus to transform our lives. Yes, we are allowing the very glory of God to change our response to the suffering and pain of those around us. Yes, we are encountering Jesus in the Eucharist, and in our prayer, and through fasting, and by our giving and we are allowing him to revive us, refresh us, and renew us in his image. Yes, our Lent is going exactly as our Savior intended!

Super Bowl Sunday

6th Sunday Ordinary Time, Gospel of Luke 6:17, 20-26

Good morning and welcome to one of the more significant days of the year.  Obviously, I am talking about the fact that today is Sunday, and we have the distinct privilege and honor of celebrating the Holy Mass.  However, if that isn’t enough of a reason to celebrate, today is made even more significant in that today is the feast day of Saint Catherine Ricci, a 16th century Stigmatic who so loved the Lord, that she was granted the privilege of physically experiencing the sufferings of Christ.  Oh yeah… and at least for an estimated 100 million Americans, this Sunday is significant because it is Super Bowl Sunday.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you, that for me, Super Bowl Sunday is a significant day of celebration.  Not because I am a fan of the teams playing in today’s game.  Nor, because I am an enthusiastic football fan.  Rather, today is special to me because it is the one day of the year that I will consume the gastric wonder known as… the chili, cheese, coney, with onions, and mustard.

In case some of you are not familiar with this unique and flavor filled delight I will now enlighten you.  First, you will need a can of chili.  Then hot dogs, regular hot dog bun, shredded cheese, and an onion.  Heat the chili and the hot dogs, place the hot dog in a bun, add some yellow mustard, smother it all with a ladle of chili, top off with cheese and onions, and Hello!!!  Pure mouth pleasure!!!

In case you were wondering… today the average football fan will consume 8,000 calories.  Today, as a nation, 8 million pounds of guacamole and 11.2 million pounds of potato chips will be consumed, and close to 49 million cases of beer will be purchased.  It is obvious, that for about 1/3 of the population, Super Bowl Sunday is a significant day of celebration.

Now, keep this in mind as we examine today’s Gospel, and more specifically Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who are hungry…”.

Speaking directly to his disciples, Jesus states, “Blessed are you who are poor…”, “Blessed are you who are now hungry…”, “Blessed are you who are now weeping…”, and “Blessed are you when people hate you…, exclude you…, insult you…, and denounce your name… on account of the Son of Man.”

If those words don’t make us a bit uncomfortable then give it a minute.  Because Jesus continues, “Woe to you who are rich…”, “Woe to you who are filled…”, “Woe to you who laugh…,”, and “Woe to you when all speak well of you…”.

These words of our Savior can make us feel a bit uncomfortable.  Is Jesus really asking his disciples to financially divest themselves and live in self-enforced poverty?  Maybe… and if you need a bit more clarification, I know that Fr. Flores would like to speak with you and offer some suggestions as to how the church might assist you in removing the burden of your wealth.

Now, to be honest, I can’t really speak to you about what Jesus wants you to do with your money, however, I do think that it would be beneficial to take a moment and ponder what does it means to be poor, to be hungry, to weep, and to be hated.

Poverty is defined as lacking the basic resources and essentials needed for the minimum standard of living.  The same can be said for spiritual poverty, which is the more traditional way to interpret this Gospel passage.  Either way, Jesus is instructing us that living in the reality of our poverty; in the recognition that we are dependent on God for all things, is absolutely necessary for discipleship.  In contrast, when we use our possessions, and believe and behave as if our possessions can insulate us from our dependence on him, we are not disciples of Christ.

Hunger is similar to poverty in that hunger is a state of want and need.  In truth, hunger is a manifestation of need.  As disciples of Christ, we are to manifest our need for Jesus in our daily lives.  We do this first, by faithfully attending mass.  Speaking for myself, do I desire the Eucharist as much as I desire my chili cheese coney with mustard and onions?  We manifest our need for Jesus through prayer.  Are we actively and consistently engaged in prayer?  And we manifest our need for Jesus when we serve others.  Are our celebrations are done so with a clear conscience because our abundance is shared with those who are in need?

To weep can be better understood through the lens of oppression.  To be oppressed is to be subjected to injustice, cruelty, and control.  Is there not a better definition of the consequences of sin?  Do we not know that to live in sin is to live absent of peace, kindness, and freedom?  As followers of Christ, we should weep for our sins, and for the sins of others, and in turn passionately seek repentance for ourselves and for others.

Finally, hatred.  Jesus clearly states, “Blessed are you when people hate you…”.  He is letting his disciples know that living in a manner worthy of our baptism will result in ostracization and marginalization.  This is in direct opposition to our natural tendency to conform and, when that is not possible, hide our faith and abdicate our purpose of going throughout the world and making disciples.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, our challenge today is to be men and women who do not abandon our faith for comfort.  Instead, we are to be men and women who embrace the knowledge that disciples of Christ do not retreat from hardship, hunger, sadness, and rejection.  Christ did not call us ease and comfort.  He called us to be a people of joy in the midst of trial and tragedy.  He called us to be his disciples

Jesus Visits His Hometown

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel of Luke 4:21-30

As many of you know, I grew up in a small town, a town of less than 5,000 people.  Now, there are some advantages to growing up in a small town: 1) it can be very safe and predictable.  People tend to leave their doors unlocked… which is most dangerous when Zucchini is in season.  2)  You are never very far from help.  If you accidentally left your purse at home, only to discover that fact while standing in the checkout line, chances are you will still get home with your groceries.  3)  In a small town, people know you.  They know your family, they know your people and, believe it or not, there is a great comfort in being known.

However, those same reasons can also be considered disadvantages to growing up in a small town.  Sometimes safety and predictability can be taken advantage of resulting in pain and loss.  In times of need, judgements about character are often rendered and reputations are tarnished when it is considered that one is “taking advantage” of Christian charity.  Finally, and this can be the most frustrating thing about growing up in a small town… everybody knows everyone.  Errors of judgement or mistakes result in labels that can last a lifetime.  Like; “that’s the guy that holds the record for the most burps in French class”, or “Isn’t he the kid who couldn’t stop laughing in 4th grade and had to sit in the hall”, or “isn’t he the teenager who took the coroner’s car for a joy ride and drove all around town with the emergency lights on”.

If you can appreciate these examples, both the advantages and disadvantages of what it means to grow up in a small town, then you will be able to appreciate today’s Gospel reading.

Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last week’s Gospel as Jesus visited his hometown.  His custom of entering the synagogue and teaching on the Sabbath resulted in people speaking “highly of him” and being “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”.  Yet, in a very short amount of time this admiration and amazement quickly dissipated, resulting in anger, and rage, and attempted murder.  The very people who knew Jesus as “the son Joseph”, turned on him and, in their fury, they tried to throw him off a cliff.

This sudden turn of events, this immediate and severe shift from admiration and amazement to fury and homicide started with a simple question, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”

In their minds they knew who Jesus was.  They knew his family.  They knew his history, and to them that was all of who he was.  (Please allow me a bit of license here.) They remembered that time when Mary was coming home with the groceries from the market and her donkey came up lame, and the neighbors had helped her get home.  They remembered that time when Jesus, as a little boy, made clay birds and they mysteriously came alive and flew away, though everybody was impressed, it was still a bit weird.  They remembered Jesus, the 12-year-old, who got lost in Jerusalem and his parents had to spend 3 days looking for him only find out that he was in the temple talking to the teachers… “as if he knew everything.”

The people who crowded into that synagogue that sabbath day, believed that they knew Jesus, and because they knew him, they knew what they could expect from him.  Even more tragically, because they knew what they could expect from him, they felt they were entitled.

They were not seeking Jesus the Messiah; they were expecting Jesus to grant favors and pay off debts.  They had created a distorted Jesus.  A Jesus based on their limited experience and complete lack of understanding.  A Jesus who would remember their kindness and neighborly acts and would respond in turn.  To them Jesus was obliged to do them a service.  He wasn’t there to save them; he was there to repay them.

His response to this sense of entitlement; He reminded them of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha and how in times of great trouble and distress they brought healing and salvation to Gentiles, and not those who considered themselves to be worthy and deserving.  In essence, they were furious because they wanted a prophet they could control, and not the Jesus calling them to repentance.

So… with this perspective in mind… let’s ask ourselves a few questions.

Who here is angry?  Who here immediately had a name, or a face, or an event come to mind when I asked who was angry?   Who here is now in an argument with themselves trying to convince themselves that they are not angry… they just misunderstood the question?

My brothers and sisters in Christ we are angry.  Sure, we may not be throwing things, breaking things, getting kicked off planes, or having screaming fits in the grocery store… but we are angry.  This pandemic has caused us to change the way we live, work, and play.  We have lost loved ones, incomes, and freedoms.  We have lost respect for each other and the things that made us different are now dividing us.  Anger is the emotional by-product of loss, and we are angry.

Anger manifests itself in many ways.  We hold grudges.  We pull away from friends.  We stop attending church, or, when we do attend church, we do so joylessly and with an attitude of obligation.  We become bitter and spiteful and eventually, we just stop caring.  Anger has seeped into our lives.  It has affected our health, it has affected our relationships, and it has affected our church.

The next question we need to ask ourselves today… are we ready to stop being angry?

If we are then there are things we must do.

First, be here… in this church, in front of this altar, with your anger, sadness, brokenness, and need.  Acknowledge it, don’t deny it, and bring it to Jesus and place it all at the foot of his cross.

Second, be forgiven… and be forgiving.  Go to the confessional, then go to that individual whose face and name you just now recalled, reconcile with that person… immediately.

Thirdly, go serve.  St. Benedict instructed his monks who were struggling with anger to serve others.  Serving others will overcome anger, causing it to lose its grip upon our hearts, enabling us to live free from bitterness and resentment.

Finally, pray.  Just like the people of Jesus’ hometown whose knowledge of Jesus was entirely historical, so it is oftentimes the same for us.  We have memories of Jesus.  We remember when we last encountered him, when we last felt his embrace, when we last heard his voice… but too often those moments exist in our past and not in our presence.  Pray.  Pray in your homes, pray at your work, pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, pray always and in all ways pray.

Our challenge today… is to make today the day when encounter Jesus anew.  Make today the day to re-introduce ourselves to our Savior, allowing ourselves to be reconverted in Christ.  Make today the day we say, “Jesus I am angry, and I wish to be no longer.”