The First Gift from the Lord
October 19, 2003
What was the first gift that Jesus gave us? When he began his earthly ministry, what was the first step that Jesus took? What was the foundation that he laid upon which he intended to build everything else? Jesus’ first step was not to erect a building. The first Christian church was not built until centuries after his death. Nor was his first step to write the scriptures. The first writings of the Christian scriptures were not composed until decades after Jesus’ ministry ended. Nor was his first gift, to give the Spirit. The Spirit did not descend until after the resurrection. Nor did Jesus begin by instituting the Eucharist. That sacred meal which we share was established on the night before he died.
No, Jesus’ first step was to establish a community. Immediately after his baptism, he went out and called disciples who could share life with one another. Therefore, the first gift that Jesus gave to us, is the gift of one another. He did this because he knew that if his teaching was to be understood, if his miracles were to have an effect, if his mission was to impact the world, he would need a band of men and women who shared a common identity. He would need disciples who would discover in their relationships with each other his very presence in their midst.
How peculiar it is, then, that we so often forget the essential nature of community. How unfortunate it is that are many who still associate their faith with a church building, as if bricks and mortar could on their own, lead us to God. How misleading it is for us to think that studying the bible or memorizing the catechism, or devoutly receiving the Eucharist, or saying the rosary could on their own adequately form our faith. They can’t. We need community! Because it is only when our lives touch, when stories are shared, when love is exchanged, that our faith can come alive and the power of Jesus’ presence emerge in our lives.
In his memoir of being a prisoner during the Second World War in the infamous Japanese concentration camp on the River Kwai, a British veteran noted that as the prisoners of that camp first came together, overt displays of faith were common. Prisoners would regularly pray publicly; many would read the Bible daily. However, as time passed and as it became clear that there would be no immediate release from this camp, these displays faded in the face of discouragement and anger. But then, out of hardship and necessity, those individual prisoners began to care for one another. They began to protect those who were weak among them and some even gave their lives for one another. As those individual persons began to share common identity, not only did their faith in God return, but it deepened. They were able to see in their midst, the presence of God’s love. Those prisoners began to realize that religion was not primarily an issue of belief, but one of action, where people cared for one another, even when it was not clear whether such caring would help. Out of that service to one another, faith became living and real.
This truth guides Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. It is why he commands his disciples to be servants of one another. Because Jesus knows that it is only when we care for one another, when our lives touch and intersect, that the Good News of his gospel will have power. It is also why today, as we celebrate our patronal feast, that we should be thankful for our parish community, the community of St. Noel. For this is a place, an essential place, where faith can be shared and where lives can touch. As Bishop Pilla asked over and over again on Friday night when he came to bless and dedicate our buildings, “What would you do without St. Noel or a similar community in which your faith could become real?” This is a place where lives can touch and where faith can become more than just a matter of words.
I know how different my life would be without this community. My faith depends and grows because of the inter-connection with you. So many of you have opened your lives to me, have served me and have allowed me to serve you. Yet, the history of this parish cannot be explained simply by the relationship between the community and it’s pastor. This community, from the start, was a community which recognized that service to one another was the foundation of faith. Our history was created because parishioners knew their own gifts and were willing to share them with one another, so that the real presence of Christ might become explicit and powerful among us. Today as we celebrate our patronal feast and mark the completion of our building project, we must recommit ourselves to that that kind of service and shared life. In the additional space that we now have, made possible by your generosity, we should strive to find new ways to serve, not only one another but the community around us. Jesus’ first gift was the gift of one another, the gift of community. If our faith is to be real, that community must be one in which we live and participate.
A woman was walking down the street, saw two little boys, seven years old, sitting on the curb, crying. With concern, she stopped and asked them, “Children, what’s the problem?” The one little boy said, “We have a stomach ache and it’s in his stomach.” Shared pain. Shared life. Shared love. These are the essential components of living faith. These are the gifts that allow others to see the presence of Christ in our midst. These are the gifts that allow us to be the Body of Christ in our world.
October 22, 2006
In the days of the Old West long journeys were often accomplished by stagecoach. Much like traveling today, those who secured the use of a stagecoach could buy different levels of tickets. They could travel first class, or second class, or third class. But unlike traveling today, those levels of tickets did not indicate a different level of comfort, for all the people traveled in the same crowded and dusty coach together. The levels of tickets indicated instead different levels of responsibility. It was impossible for the stagecoach to bring along a maintenance group or support staff. Therefore, if there were some problem, if a wheel broke or the coach got stuck in the mud, it was up to the people who were on the coach to resolve it. Here is where the level of tickets came in. If you had a first-class ticket you could remain seated in the coach as other people dealt with the problem. If you had a second-class ticket you had to leave your seat to lighten the coach, but you still did not need to contribute any personal effort. If, however, you had a third-class ticket not only did you need to leave your seat but you had to remove your coat, plant your feet in the mud, and push to get the coach out of the ditch. Those who had third-class tickets had to get involved. They could not stand back. They could not watch as others did the work.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us that those of us who wish to travel with him all travel on third-class tickets. Those who wish to be his disciples are expected to become involved. When there is some problem in the movement of the Kingdom, those who are riding along cannot sit back and watch. Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to be great, must become the servant. Whoever wishes to be considered first, must become the servant of all.” Now clearly you and I know this commandment. We understand that following Jesus involves service, and I think all of us do serve. We serve in our families. We serve by going out of our way to help our friends. We serve by getting involved in different ways in our community. So I suppose we could approach this command of Jesus with the attitude, “We have heard and followed that command already.” In a certain sense we have. But I suggest to you that the command of Christ goes deeper than we regularly consider it to go. I think when Jesus says, “We must become the servant of all.” He intends that we take that command literally. Christians are called to serve not only those who are close to us; not only those who we like; not only those who we are comfortable serving; but, indeed, anyone who is in need. Whenever we discern some problem of power and justice in our world, we are not free to say, “That’s not my problem.” The journey that we are on with Jesus involves the entire world and everyone in it. Therefore, the problems and the issues of our world are our problems.
Today as we celebrate the Feast of St. Noel, it is obvious that St. Noel possessed that attitude. His willingness to leave the comforts of his own country and to spend his life working in the new world among the Indians in this area is a sign that he did not limit his responsibility to only what was familiar and convenient.
Now of course, we cannot do everything. Anyone of us has only so much energy, so much talent. Therefore, each one of us has to judge carefully what kind of service matches our resources and abilities. But what a Christian cannot say a priori, out of the box, is “This need is not my responsibility.” Christians must always be willing to consider in any real need, whether there is anything that they can do? Perhaps Christ is calling us to make a phone call to Aunt Louise (with whom we always had a very close relationship) to encourage her to reconcile with her sister. Perhaps Christ is calling us to reach out in support to someone at school or work that other people shun. Perhaps Christ is calling us as a person who has the time and the ability to help teach a child to read or to make some small step in addressing the problem of world hunger.
The needs of course are vast and each one of us has to personally consider whether any of those needs are needs that we can meet. But no follower of Christ should say immediately, “That need is no concern to me.” All of us who follow Christ are riding with third-class tickets, and the coach that we are riding in is all of creation and everything in it. So whenever we encounter some form of injustice or prejudice or poverty or hatred or violence, it is not our place to sit back and ask what other people are going to do. It is our role to get out of the coach and push.
The Feast of St. Noel
October 18, 2009
Today we celebrate the feast of the patron of our parish, St. Noel. St. Noel was a Jesuit missionary who worked among the American Indians in this region in the middle of the 1600’s. He was martyred in service of the gospel. But today we are not so much celebrating on the life of St. Noel as on the life of the parish that bears his name. What we celebrate today is the fact that this parish exists; that it is alive with many very active ministries; that there are dedicated parishioners who make the life of this parish grow; and that we have a regular opportunity as a parish to come here week after week and worship God together.
Now even as we celebrate this truth we also have to recognize that fewer and fewer people think that what we do here is important. Since the 1950’s the Catholic population in the United States has doubled. But the percentage of people who regularly attend church has been cut in half. In the 1950’s it is estimated that church attendance was about 60 percent. Today it is about 35 percent. When we look at Europe, which tends to be an indicator of where we will be a few years from now, only 17 percent of Catholics are active. The trend does not look too promising.
When I talk to people who are not coming to church and encourage them to do so, what I usually hear is this: “Father, don’t get me wrong, I believe in God. I see myself as a spiritual person. I just do not see an advantage of being connected to an organized church. Isn’t God everywhere? So why should I come to church?” When people say these things to me I believe them. I believe they are spiritual people. And I certainly believe God is everywhere. But that’s only part of the picture, just the beginning of the truth. Since we are spiritual people, the question is: What are we doing to see that our spirituality grows and deepens? What do we do to see that our spirituality has the power to stand against the temptations and challenges that we must face? Yes, God is everywhere, but where are we? Are we in any conscious way making a space for God’s love to enter our life and for our relationship with God to grow? Faith needs to be more than an idea or a mental conviction. It needs to be a concrete part of our lives. God needs to have a visible presence in the way that we live.
A six year-old girl was very afraid of thunderstorms and one evening, as her father was preparing her for bed a real storm was brewing. So the father knew it was going to be a difficult night. He took her up to bed, tucked her in, and said, “Honey, there is going to be a storm, but do not be afraid. I am right downstairs. And remember, God is always with you.” He went downstairs and the storm broke loose. In the midst of the lightening and thunder he heard a voice, “Daddy.” So he went upstairs, sat down, comforted his daughter and reminded her that God was with her. Then he went back downstairs. As the storm continued, this pattern repeated over and over again. Time and again he went up, sat with his daughter, and then came back downstairs. Finally he decided that he must put an end to this. He went up one more time and said, “Honey, I know that you’re afraid, but there’s no reason to be afraid. You are safe here. I am downstairs. And remember, God is with you.” The little girl responded, “I know that God is with me. But I need someone with skin on.”
We all need a God with skin on. That is why we need the Church. That is why we need our parish community. Our parish provides a place where our faith in God can become public, where the work of Christ becomes tangible and concrete. St. Paul knew this truth. He called the Church the Body of Christ—Christ’s visible presence in the world. The Church is called to make Christ visible to those outside the Church. Others need to see Christ in our love and service, in our charity and justice. The Church is also called to make Christ visible to those inside the Church. We need concrete men and women as an example of faith. We need other people like us, who believe in God and are willing to publicly express that faith. We need to be able to feel from one another prayerful support and love. In that concrete support and love, we are able to sense God’s presence in our lives.
We would look suspiciously on a man who said, “I love my wife,” but never said or did anything to celebrate that love. It would be difficult to believe in his love, if he never took a moment to say I love you to his spouse and to hear that love returned. For that man the love of his wife was only an idea. It had no concrete tangible presence in his life. Our parish community is the place where we celebrate the love of God. We come together here to worship, to learn, to serve. In those concrete actions, God’s presence becomes visible in our life.
We all need to make our personal spirituality visible. We need a God with skin on. That is why I remain thankful for this parish community, because it is in the relationships I have with you that my own faith deepens and grows, that it becomes more than an idea. And I challenge all of us today to recommit ourselves to our God who becomes known in our love, service, and interaction with one another. Let us always be thankful for that gift. Let us recommit ourselves to live out our faith in God as part of this parish community of St. Noel.
Doing What God Does
October 21, 2012
Why is it that when give to someone else, it feels so good? Why is it that when we serve another and meet their need, it gives us a sense of satisfaction and joy to which few things can compare? Giving, after all, is not easy. It requires time and effort and sacrifice. So why is it so satisfying? Why does it bring with it such a deep happiness?
I have an answer to this question and it might surprise you. We receive joy from giving because when we give we are like God! Think about it. God is the Ultimate Giver. All that exists comes from God’s gracious and generous gift. Our life, our relationships, our abilities, our very being are the result of divine giving. So if God is the ultimate giver, our role is to receive. There is a goodness in that, because receivers are who we are. We are fully ourselves when we know how to accept from God with thanksgiving and wonder.
But here’s the point: every so often we receivers have a chance to be like God. Every so often, we are given a chance to serve. It can be as parents when we give our time and patience to form a new life in a son or daughter. It can be as children when we give of ourselves to care for an aging parent. It can be as a citizen when we work to bring about more justice in our society. It can be as a friend when we forgive so that a relationship can continue.
Now this kind of giving is not easy, but it is divine. Giving is what God does. When we are able to serve, we are able to participate in God’s action of creating, saving, and loving the world. Giving lifts us higher. It brings us closer to God’s action. That is why it is so satisfying. That is why it feels so good.
Now it is in this understanding that we can approach today’s gospel. James and John are disciples of Jesus and they come to him to define their role in his mission. What they ask him is: What will we receive? We want to sit at your right and at your left in your glory. Now there’s nothing wrong in asking Jesus for this. Sitting with Jesus in glory is a good thing, and we believe that James and John are sitting there right now. But note Jesus’ response. Jesus says: You will, indeed, sit with me in glory. But I can offer you something more. I can offer you to be like God, to serve. If you drink this cup that I drink, if you serve the least among you, then the lives that you will change, the hope that you will revive, the joy that you will instill in others will overshadow whatever seats you receive in the kingdom.
You see the mistake of James and John was not that they desired a bad thing. It was that they did not recognize Jesus’ call to something greater. They would, indeed, sit in the kingdom but they were called to participate in God’s action of transforming the world. Their flaw, if you will, was not that they were prideful or selfish. Their flaw was that they did not understand. They did not recognize that following Jesus allowed them to do what God does and that in that action of service they would find the greatest joy.
The gospel, then, calls us to value opportunities to give. Indeed, our primary stance is to be receivers, to accept from God all that is given with thankfulness. But every so often we get a chance to serve and we should never look upon that opportunity as a burden. It is, in fact, an invitation to do what God does, a chance to participate in the power and the love that shapes creation, an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the joy and the beauty of God.
Drinking the Cup
October 18, 2015
Be careful what you ask for. You may receive it. It is proper for us to ask God for good things, and God often answers our prayers. But the good things we receive do not always match what we expect. This is certainly the case for James and John in today’s gospel. They come to Jesus, and ask that they might sit with him in glory. In time their prayer is answered. They reign now with Jesus in Heaven. But to get there, they had to undergo persecution and for James, like Jesus, a painful death. This is the cup that Jesus tells them they must be able to drink.
The same is true of our patron St. Noel who we remember today. Noel prayed that he might serve as a missionary among the American Indians around our Great Lakes. He was willing to die as a martyr. In time his prayer was answered, and he came to this country and did die as a martyr. But he also found that he could not eat the Indians’ food or learn their language, and he was so often sick that he was frequently useless. Being a missionary was not as he expected it to be.
The same is true in our lives. We pray for someone to love and marry, and we do, for better and for worse. There is much that is better, but there is some that is worse: misunderstanding, hurt, and possibly divorce. We pray that we might have children, and they are given to us. They are a blessing. But they also worry us and disappoint us, and sometimes they walk out of our lives. We pray that we might live a long life, and we live into our nineties. But we also find that we have reduced mobility, and perhaps we lose our hearing. The quality of our life decreases. Many good things that we ask for, we receive. But they often come with a challenge, with a painful cup that we must drink—a cup we never thought would come to us.
Here is the good news. Although the challenges of our life might surprise us, they do not surprise God. God is blessing us with good things, and at the same time preparing us for the challenges that come with them. So, when our marriage is under stress, when our children ignore us, when our hearing goes, God is ready to stand with us and give us the strength that we need.
So, we should continue to pray for good things in our life as long as we understand that they might be different than what we expect. And when they include loss and pain, we should trust that God is still with us. When we receive a cup of suffering that we cannot put aside, it is faith to believe that God will give us the strength to drink it, so that the joys of our life may continue as well.