Wednesday, May 1, 2024

John 15:1-8 The Vine and the Branches

We all struggle sometimes to understand what our relationship with God should look like. Today, Jesus gives us a powerful image that clearly shows what our relationship with Him should be. Jesus said our relationship with Him should be as close as the grapevine is to its branches.  

Think about that … 

He does not describe our faith life as an occasional thing, just one aspect of our lives. He says that our religion, our faith, is what gives us life. He compares us to branches attached to him, the lifegiving vine. Religion isn't meant to be a mere part of our lives; it's meant to be everything; afterall branches wither and die if they are away from the vine.                                                                                                        

Jesus says today we will die … spiritually … if we aren't connected to Him.  That's big.  

Our belief is not in some distant God, some abstract God in the heavens. It's just the opposite. Jesus says we are called to be connected to our God intimately. A connection that is life giving a connection whose purpose is to produce fruit. In this vine-to-branch relationship described in this Gospel reading,  God wants fruit to result from our relationship with him! Fruit is mentioned six times in our text and eight times in this chapter.                                                                                                              

Jesus says:   "This glorifies My Father that you bear much fruit ."  We can only bear fruit by being attached to the vine. So, what does being attached to the vine look like? The vine needs to be cultivated, fertilized, and watered. Then it is pruned to produce fruit.   We nurture our relationship with the vine by reading scripture, meditating, praying, coming to Mass, and conversing with other believers. Only after cultivating our faith and deepening our relationship with Christ can we bear fruit.

We produce fruit by loving others generously and by sharing our life-giving faith. That's the fruit. The fruit we are called to produce comes from us spreading the love we know from our connection to Christ to others everywhere we go. This means loving our neighbor and taking care of our neighbor's needs. It means spreading love everywhere … everywhere. Is that how someone would describe you: "spreading love everywhere you go." Wouldn't that be nice!  

I heard a true story that might help explain what I'm trying to say. A few years back, a college professor had his sociology class go into the Baltimore slums to get case histories of about 200 boys. They were asked to write an evaluation of each boy's future. In every case, the students wrote: "He doesn't have a chance." Twenty-five years later, another sociology professor at the same university came across the earlier study. He had his students follow up on the project to see what had happened to these boys. Except for 20 boys who had moved away or died, the students learned that 176 of the remaining 180 men had achieved more than ordinary success as lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople. The astounded professor decided to pursue the matter further. Fortunately, all the men were in the area, and he could ask each one: "How do you account for your success?" In each case, the reply came with a feeling:  "There was this teacher."

The teacher was still alive, so the professor sought her out and asked the old but alert lady what magic formula she had used. Her eyes sparkled, and her lips broke into a gentle smile, "It's really very simple." she said, "I loved those boys."

We make this thing we call religion far more complicated than necessary; Jesus Christ tells us what religion is all about. He tells us today that He nurtures us, gives us life, and asks that we love others as He loves. That's it. Our religion is all about being loved and loving others.  

That teacher understood the power of God's love, which allowed her to love those boys into what they became. The fruit we are called to produce comes from loving others with the same kind of love we have received from God—a life-giving love.  

Monday, December 18, 2023

Homily Third Sunday in Advent 2023

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice,” 

Saint Paul, in the second reading, says something thought-provoking. He said, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

Twenty-five years ago, when I was battling cancer. And I discovered this reading from Saint Paul: "Give thanks in all circumstances,” Give thanks for cancer. Are you kidding me? But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get this reading out of my head. Mercifully, I went into remission but kept thinking about this reading. The truth is, as crazy as it sounds, I began to realize that the cancer brought me closer to Jesus. Looking back at that time, it is clear to me I would not be a deacon today if not for the cancer.  

When faced with significant challenges like illness, job loss, or relationship challenges, the question that often comes to mind is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”    

We have all faced trials and sufferings of different kinds. Losing loved ones, facing sickness, and financial struggles have disrupted the lives of people all over the world. I'm sure there have been times when you, too, asked, "Why me?" Why did my father get cancer? Why did my child die? Why does a child have to live with a disability like cerebral palsy? 

When pondering why bad things happen, and they happen to all of us, the critical question to be answered is: How will we respond? That is what I think our readings today are asking us. What do we intend to do now that “It” has happened? Can we live loving lives in a world that has disappointed us by not being perfect? 

Christianity, our faith, helps us, and enables us to face our challenges and work through them. We live in a broken world. Jesus is asking us today: Can we rejoice? Can we find JOY in the face of a world full of imperfections? A world capable of containing great beauty and goodness at the same time. Can we find joy in this world because it is our only world?

God's will for our lives is about more than the circumstances we face. It is about how we respond to those circumstances.

 My wife Linda has a saying that always makes me smile and think. She says, "Life's not about waiting for the storm to pass but learning how to dance in the rain."  Even in the storms of life, as worshipers of God, we can rejoice; we can dance in the rain because of what Jesus has gained for us. 

In our church, the stations of the cross are so powerful, and one of the most powerful statements in these stations is here at the end. It says, “For behold by the wood of the cross JOY came into the whole world.” 

Crosses bring JOY? Yes! Christ’s cross brought us great joy. We rejoice not because our circumstances are perfect! We rejoice because, as St Paul told us in his letter to the Romans: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”

God can and does work in our challenges. When you get to my age and look back, there are plenty of challenges. My career didn’t go as we planned. We lost our fourth child, which is never an easy situation. These experiences helped us help other couples who have lost a child or lost a job. My journey with cancer has allowed me to speak with people and pray with people going through something similar.

I’ve learned that – the experiences of our lives, if we let God use them, are the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he would have us do. 

Yes, bad things happen to good people. But when we learn to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, we can live this way when we respond to our challenges with HOPE.   

During the Vietnam War, they imprisoned the Catholic bishop of South Vietnam for 13 years in solitary confinement. He was asked later in life how he made it through that experience. He said something we all should embrace. He said: “I told myself I will not wait. I will live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love.” He said, “I simply recall that I must live each day, each moment as if it were the last of my life. I leave aside everything accidental and concentrate only on the essential, then each word, each gesture, each telephone call, and each decision I make is the most beautiful of my life. I give my love to everyone and my smile to everyone. I am afraid of wasting even one second by living without meaning.” 

He said, "Only one moment exists for you in all its beauty, and that is the present moment. Live it entirely in the love of God.

When we follow this advice and live each moment, we can live through the challenges and allow God to use them as Jesus did. 

St. Paul and this Vietnamese bishop understood that it is not joy that makes us grateful but it is gratitude that makes us joyful.

Monday, October 30, 2023

"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" 

He said to him,

"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

This is the greatest and the first commandment.

The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We are living in challenging times. We are dealing with a difficult economic situation, with inflation impacting all of us. We hear over and over the perils of global warming. We recently lived through a pandemic. And now wars are flaring up around the globe. 

It's easy to get so caught up in this kind of news that we lose heart. Jesus says to each one of us today: Don’t lose heart. Don’t lose heart.

If you are focused on the world's problems, he tells us you are focused on the wrong thing. The most important commandment our God has given us is to LOVE.

Jesus is saying our call in life is to love God and each other … period.

The good news of our faith is that this love we are called to is not one way. God never gives up on us. God never stops loving us. He is always seeking us out, patiently offering His love for us. When we love God with our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole soul, when loving God and each other becomes the focus of our lives, the problems of the world fade into the background.

The love Jesus speaks of is not mere sentiment. He is asking us to make a total commitment to God, to love God and each other, to make this the focus of our lives.

He is calling us to make loving God our highest priority. And then to express that love through loving actions towards others. If we truly love God, we will love everyone God loves, even those who are, for us, rather unlovable.

About 100 years after the time of Christ, a non-Christian named Aristides wrote to Emperor Hadrian describing how the early Christians lived. Listen to these words. They tell us what we are called to be like.

Aristides said to the Emperor, "Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a Christian person has something, he gives to a person who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians invite them to come into their home and consider them a brother or a sister. If they see someone who is ill or someone who is in prison, they go visit them. If they hear that one of them is in great tribulation, they will give that person all that he or she needs. These Christians are a new kind of people. They seem to be filled with the Spirit of God! There is something Divine in them.”  

This description by Aristides is what we, as followers of Christ, are called to be. That is what Jesus is talking about today: loving our God and loving each other. If we make that our priority, it changes us. We see the world differently. We live out our call to LOVE. It may not change the world, but it will undoubtedly change us; it will change OUR WORLD.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves means seeing and treating others with the respect and love that God gives them.

As Christians, we don't want to waste our lives. We know in our hearts that what Jesus says today is true.We know Jesus is right when he says the only path to life is loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. We want to do something and not just talk about it. 

So what are we to do? 

First, we must let God's love enfold us. In the embrace of him, who sees everything yet loves us nonetheless, we find the power to act. The power to give ourselves to one another. And in doing that, we'll find the joy we long for.

Trust in God’s love for you. Trust the full extent of it. Let him enfold you completely, and the power to love with all your heart will follow. Living in this world of love, it becomes much easier to – as the great saint Padre Pio said – pray, hope, and don't worry.

Always remember God loves you and wants your love in return.

Monday, September 25, 2023

 Jesus told his disciples this parable:

"The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

Going out about nine o'clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.' So they went off. And he went out again around noon, and around three o'clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o'clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.'

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.' He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?'


If I polled the congregation this morning, I think many, if not most of us, would feel the first workers who worked all day and received the same as those who worked a few hours got a lousy deal.

This story isn’t really about the workers being taken advantage of, because they’re receiving exactly what He promised them. When we look at this situation, it's easy to make the big mistake of judging by the world's standards, not God's. The prophet Isaiah reminds us God does not think like us!

This story is all about the vineyard owner’s generosity.   God’s generosity.

In this parable, the vineyard owner is God, and all of humanity are the workers. If we judge this situation by God's standards, we might discover that when you come to faith in God, when you enter God's vineyard, is not the issue; the issue is how generous our God is when we do enter his vineyard.

A few years ago, my good friend Bob O'Neill told me a story about a friend of his. Bob was a judge, and the friend he told me about was also a judge. Bob's friend was dying, and he was very depressed. The judge who was passing had not been a man of faith. In fact, he was a person who had regularly ridiculed people of faith. On his deathbed, Bob heard that his friend was frightened. Bob O'Neil visited his friend and courageously asked his friend how he was with God. The terminally ill man said to Bob: It’s too late for me. 

To which Bob responded by reading his friend – this passage – this parable from the bible. He told his friend that God doesn't care when you enter the vineyard. The reward is the same. That day, Bob's friend committed his life to Christ and passed on a few days later, full of joy. Bob's courageous conversation impacted the man's whole family, who found God through their father’s spiritual journey.  

How does Jesus’ parable of the Workers apply to us today?

Look at it this way. Every Christian is a worker God calls to labor in the vineyard of God's earthly Kingdom. Some of us were called at birth; we are often called "cradle Catholics." And maybe some of us workers are not carrying our workload. Perhaps this is why the vineyard owner in the parable had to keep hiring more workers. It wasn't that he had underestimated the size of the job. It’s just that some of the all-day workers were not pulling their load. They were not using their talents as God had intended that they use them. This leads us back to the fact that some late-coming Christians are doing remarkable work in the vineyard of God's Kingdom. Converts to the faith are often among the hardest-working members of the Church. I think about 20% of all the deacons in San Diego are converts.

So, as we return to the altar, let us thank God for the zeal and the inspiration of those who have been called at a later hour to work in the vineyard of God’s Kingdom.  And let us ask God to inspire and motivate us to join them in working harder to bring in the great harvest that is out there. 

Like my friend Bob O’Neill did.

Then, in heaven, we will all rejoice together, singing the praises of our God, who has been so merciful, forgiving, and generous.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

What happened at the Ascension?

We might compare the feast of the Ascension to the passing of a baton from one runner to another in a relay race. That day Jesus passed the baton of responsibility for the Kingdom of God to his followers … to us.                                                                                                                                
Jesus gave us the assignment to complete the work He began. 

The message of the Ascension is a simple one. Jesus invites us to take from his hand the baton he received from his Father; and tells us to continue the work that his Father gave Him to do on earth. It’s a call to witness Jesus and teach others about Him wherever we find ourselves and in whatever manner the Holy Spirit inspires us to use.

The Ascension is all about simply taking Jesus' invitation seriously to be His witness to our world and his teacher to those we encounter in our life.

As Jesus exited this earth, He asked us to continue the work He began on earth in the environments where we live … our homes … our places of work … our parishes. Does this mean we must preach about Jesus as Peter and the other disciples did in our first reading? For most of us, probably not. It’s more about how we live. St. Frances once said: "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary."

Taking the baton from Jesus means living the Gospel in our daily lives. At the very least, it means being witnesses to Jesus in our own families. Only if we begin taking our Christian calling seriously will the message of Jesus take hold in our world. And, if we step out in faith and do it, our faith will ripple around the globe. And, if enough of us do it, that ripple will grow into a tidal wave. And that tidal wave — empowered by the Holy Spirit — will renew the face of the earth in a way we never dreamed possible.

Don't be disheartened; pick up the baton and carry on!

Saturday, May 20, 2023

With gratitude 

optimism is sustainable.

If you can find something

to be grateful for

Then you find something

to look forward to

Then you can carry on. 

Thursday, October 27, 2022

I've been to four funerals in the past week or so. Which filled my heart with this message for us all: Life is short, and the goal should be to live each moment to the fullest. We mustn’t waste time in anger, regrets, and worries. Life is too short to be holding grudges. 

Mother Theresa said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet. We have only today.”

My two brothers and I did not speak to each other for many years. Some of that was from past hurts, but most was laziness. We didn't take the time to reach out to each other. My brothers died within a few months of each other last year. My heart is heavy with regret. Learn from me – call someone today and tell them you care; mend fences if you need to. Life is fleeting.

One way to make life more joyful is to be grateful. Gratitude and joy are uniquely linked. According to a study by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, people who keep a happiness journal for a week feel happier than people who don't, even three months after they stopped writing it.

Lately, I've learned to take some time in the morning - praying, sipping coffee, and coming up with my day's to-do list. It has become the most precious time of the day for me now. I try to make sure the things on my list are not just chores but reflect what came to my heart during prayer. I try to ensure my list includes things I want to be doing and reaching out to people God put on my heart. In my morning prayer time, I reflect on the life I want to be living.

A Swiss philosopher once said: "Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind," and I would add to that beautiful message to always be aware of the blessings of God, who made us, loves us, and encourages us to love one another.