Why did the young man go away sad?

 The 19th Chapter of Matthew’s gospel includes the story of the wealthy young man who wanted Jesus to help him achieve eternal life. According to the story, this unnamed young man knew the commandments and followed them every day. But he sensed that wasn’t enough; so he asked Jesus, “What do I still lack?” Jesus told him that, if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell everything he owned and follow Christ. This wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but, Jesus knew it was exactly what the young man needed to hear. The man went away sad, “for he had many possessions.”

We all have many possessions; things that don’t lead us to Heaven, but that we are determined to hang onto. It’s often money, things, stuff; but it is just as often habits, relationships or addictions. Like the young man, we have this nagging sense that these possessions are standing between us and the Kingdom. But just like the young man, we aren’t willing to let them go even when Jesus suggests that we should. We should be sad, because those possessions are keeping us from the greatest joys of our life.

The greatest leap of faith is the jump from selfishness to generosity, from putting ourselves first to putting God and our neighbors first. Being willing to give away everything you have without a thought or worry about what you will get in return is hard. It’s counter to the messages we hear all around us every day. We are taught from a young age to protect ourselves, to take care of ourselves, to plan for our future. Take care of #1 because no one will do it for you.

It’s not often that we hear the more important lesson: that it is better to live generously than selfishly. That God will not be outdone in generosity. That the more we give away, the more we will get in return. That there is more real pleasure, real joy, in giving yourself and your possessions away than there ever will be in waiting for people to give things to you.

Jesus’ message is simple, but it is hard to accept because we hear the opposite message every day. And because we’re afraid. We’re afraid to take that simple leap of faith. It seems impossible. Jesus knew that. That’s why, at Matthew 19:26, Jesus told the disciples, “For human beings, this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” If you can’t give away all your possessions, pray for generosity. If you can’t be generous, pray for faith. And if you’re afraid that your faith is too weak, pray for trust. Trust will lead you to faith; faith will lead you to generosity; generosity will lead you to Heaven.

 

 

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Okay, He’s Risen. Now what?

I look around our home and see that the Easter decorations have been stored away. Gone are the pink bunnies, the baskets with green plastic grass and the Lenten reminders to do this, abstain from that, and pray thus. God is risen and we’re moving on. Moving on to do what?

This in some ways is my favorite time of year, because the daily scripture readings come from the early chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. If you want to be inspired by early Christians, read that book! Immediately following Pentecost, Peter, James, John and the rest of the 12 started preaching and healing. Unlike during Christ’s passion, the Apostles were fearless. They knew that Jesus had risen, and that knowledge, coupled with a double dose of the Holy Spirit, put them beyond fear of anything the authorities could do to them. The apostles were repeatedly threatened, arrested, beaten and jailed. Through it all they laughed, prayed, and told everyone the Good News. More than their words, their courage and spirit built the Church that has thrived for two thousand, one hundred seventeen years and counting.

I got to thinking about that yesterday when I came across something Pope Francis had said. In a homily from a couple years ago, the Pope was talking about St. James comment that “Faith without works is dead.” The Pope said a person can have a great knowledge of scripture and theology, but if that knowledge wasn’t put into practice, it was worthless. “A faith that doesn’t get you involved isn’t faith,” he said. “It’s words and nothing more than words.” Faith, according to Francis, always leads to action. It can’t help itself.

That’s how I see the actions of the Apostles in the early days of Christianity. Peter stood up to the Jewish authorities not because he had somehow found the courage to do so. Rather, Peter couldn’t have done anything else. He could not have stopped talking about the tremendous news of Christ. Have you ever known something that was so awesome that you couldn’t wait to tell your spouse or your  friends? It’s like that, times ten. Peter was so filled with the Holy Spirit that his teeth would have burst if he tried not to speak.

For many, many years I tried to get my Christianity out of books. I love to read and study, and there have been lots of authors who inspired me. But what really lit my fuse was a men’s retreat. Spending time with a small group of men in prayer, study and sharing lifted me up in ways that can’t be described. The Holy Spirit blew through that church basement, lighting fires in hearts right and left, including mine. This, I thought, is what the earliest Christians must have experienced. Living in small clusters, sharing ideas, experiences and insights. Holding one another up and building one another up.

The Catholic Church is many, many things. It is God’s visible place on Earth. It has thousands of years of wisdom of saints and saintly people. It has a rich and long history.  But the true “catholic” Church is you and I. It’s the network of human beings, all connected to each other and to Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The life of the church lies in our interactions with one another, not with the books and the history. Those are important guides, but they are only guides. Guides to our real work, which is to love God and one another.

Easter is over. Christ is risen. The Holy Spirit has come. Let’s get to work.

Another Holy Week begins

Last Friday, I attended two funerals. Two men I have worked with passed away. They were not young, but they left this earth short of a full life’s ride, and their passings were sad occasions. The two men did not know one another. They lived several hours apart. One of them was a former boss I liked while the other had served on a nonprofit board with me. They were two good men who did good things in their lives and now will be missed by the rest of us.

Being a couple of hours apart meant I had plenty of alone time in my car to think before and between the two funerals. As a result, by the end of the day Friday, I was pretty sad. And then came Saturday evening’s Palm Sunday gospel, which tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus rode into town to the cheers of the crowd, only to find himself arrested right after the Passover Holiday dinner. Needless to say, this was not my singing and dancing weekend.

In an uncomfortable way, though, I have to say I appreciate God’s timing. I can sit and mope about how mean our ancestors were to Jesus and how sad we should be that he was killed. But I can only do that if I ignore that which I know comes next. In less than seven days, we will be singing the “Gloria” at mass again, because Jesus showed us that death is the beginning, not the end.

In the same way, I can miss my friends Mike and Jerry. I can be sad that they were ill and didn’t live as many years with us as we would have liked. I will not be able to hear their wit and their wisdom any more. But just as I am confident that Jesus overcame death, I am confident that both Jerry and Mike did too. And that they are now enjoying the real life, the eternal life, and the life without tears, illness and pain.

Holy Week is a sober, somber week for me. I can easily get pulled into a sad place, thinking about the suffering of Christ. But Holy Week always ends the same way. We are not meant to remain sad, and we do not have to fear death. We know how this story ends, and it is a terrific ending.

I miss you, Jerry and Mike. But I will see you again soon. Because Jesus went there before you and has shown us the Way.

Sufficient for a day is its own evil

Last week we talked about not worrying; about accepting the portion that God gives us for today, both the good and the bad. The post was based on the “Worry Sermon” (I made that title up); which is the last portion of the Sermon on the Mount (see Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel).

There’s a sentence in that reading that has always felt wrong to me. The last sentence of Chapter Six reads “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” Other translations put it this way: “Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” Those words always felt awkward, like there was a word missing or out of order. Surely Jesus meant to say “The day’s own good things are sufficient for the day,” or, “I’ll give you enough to help you through today.” Why “sufficient for a day is its own evil?” It’s as though Jesus is promising us bad things, and plenty of them. Seems very un-Jesus-ey. It feels particularly out of context in a reading about not worrying. I’m all set to live free as a bird, peaceful as the wildflowers, and comfy as Mary at Jesus’ knee (while Martha serves lunch). And then Jesus tells me that today’s gonna be a handful.

St. John Chrysostom must have talked to someone who knows me. He wrote about this sentence. His answer was this: “Doesn’t every day have enough burdens of its own? Why do you add to them by laying on those that belong to another day?”

This sentence is one of those examples of parts of the Bible that need to be read in context. You can’t just quote this as a one-liner at parties (unless you like being alone at parties). It just doesn’t make sense outside of the context of the idea that came before it. The sentence before it that goes, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself,” helps a lot. Backing up another sentence, Jesus reassures us that, “Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all (clothes, food, shelter). But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we can only deal with things, both good things and bad things; in daily doses. This is one more reminder to live in a relaxed manner; by living for today and meeting today’s challenges as they come. And not by dragging tomorrow into the day’s fight.

One day at a time.

God save the worry warts

Jesus doesn’t want us to waste time worrying. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus used a significant chunk of his Sermon on the Mount to address worry. He said, “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” (See MT 6:24-34 for the whole message. Spend some time with it; it’s worth studying.) In Luke’s Gospel, Martha tried to get Jesus to tell her sister to stop listening to the conversation and help serve the guests, but Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion; which shall not be taken away from her.” (LK 10:41-42).

Admit it now; you spend a lot of your time being Martha, don’t you? I know that I do. One look at my calendar for the week can send me scurrying about the house or my office, making lists, worrying, picking things up, worrying, drafting memos to my staff, worrying, rehearsing, and worrying, worrying, worrying. Fretting about the future seems to be the Great American Pastime. But it’s such a waste of valuable Christian moments.

In most cases, the things we’re worrying about never come to pass. Even when the worst happens, we come through the other side and are better for the experience. A few years ago, I was dreading losing a job. Sure enough; I lost that job. It was a rotten job, and shortly after I lost it, I found a much better one. What did the worrying add to the mix? Nothing; except a little indigestion.

If anyone in the world’s history had a right to worry, it would have been Jesus. He knew how his story was going to end. If you knew someone was going to arrest you for a crime you didn’t commit, humiliate you in front of the entire city, beat you while your friends all ran away and then nail you to a tree until you died…maybe you could worry. But, until the evening it actually happened, Jesus was laughing with his friends and going about his business. He had things to do and worrying was not going to help get those things done.

God knows how much we can handle and He knows what we need. He gives us just enough of both. Enough food and shelter to get through the day and enough challenges to help us grow. We have the ability to put more on our plate; more food or more troubles. In both cases, all we are accomplishing is making ourselves less fit for our mission.

So don’t worry. Be happy. God said so

It all starts with faith.

Everything starts with Faith.

Because faith is confidence. Confidence that God has your back.

If God has your back, you will never look over your shoulder in fear.

Confidence gives you courage. Courage to move ahead boldly.

Courage allows you to serve. To serve your fellows without fear, without shame, without embarrassment.

Service gives you joy. Joy in God. Joy in yourself. Joy in the company of others.

It all starts with faith. Pray for faith.

 

An Easter resolution?

Lately, I’ve been thinking that Easter is when we should make our new years resolutions. It is the beginning of the church year, after all. And it marks the beginning of new life for Christians. What better time for resolving to live one or more parts of your life in closer harmony with Jesus?

I think this year I will resolve not to fear. Why fear? Because fear keeps us away from being close to God, and fear is also a sign of that distance. If we’re afraid, we’re not connected to God.

Think about it. Think about the time you were worried about your job, or your health, or your spouse’s job, or health, or your son’s relationship, or the price of a barrel of oil or unrest in the Middle East. Think about the worst possible outcome in each case. You or someone you love ends up on the other side of eternity. That’s it, The End; the big D.

And now let’s think about the next question: do you believe in God, in Jesus, in Heaven? Do you believe all that stuff you claim to believe every Sunday? Yes? Good; me too.

So let’s stir those two ideas together and ponder them for a bit. The worst thing that can happen to you or to your loved ones on this earth is you leave it. But you know that when you leave it, you’ll be with Jesus. And every tear is wiped away, every pain, every suffering, every worry ceases to exist. You will be in the presence of God, the One we describe as “Love.” Sit back and think about that.

When Jesus was arrested, the Apostles scattered like sheep. Peter was so terrified of what was going on that he denied, with curse words, that he had ever known Jesus. But then after the Lord’s resurrection the Apostles told everyone they came upon the good news. And they wouldn’t quit, even under penalty of death. The authorities arrested them, threatened them, beat them, jailed them, and the Apostles sang, and laughed and went right back to preaching. What changed?

Jesus changed. Jesus changed the rules by showing that we are not creatures of the Earth; we are creatures of a love-filled eternity. He showed us that death is the wonderful beginning, not the horrible end. Jesus conquered death. He also conquered fear. It is Easter; Jesus lives and fear no longer exists.

Happy Easter.