God first!

Two stories: both true. They happened to me.

I used to be on call for the big city hospital in Austin, TX. One night I was called to come about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning. The hospital was quiet. I got on the elevator, and one of the heart doctors were already on the elevator. He was a tall man. I think he was from India or Bangladesh or Pakistan. I didn’t know for sure, but I assumed so because of his appearance and accent. We saw one another in the hospital frequently, but we didn’t know each other.

Suddenly he turned to me and said, “God first!!  Then my patients, then my wife. My wife…She does not understand this!” The elevator stopped and he got off without telling me the rest of the story, which I am sure was interesting.

The second story. I was having breakfast a few weeks ago with a Holy Cross bishop from India. He was very concerned about his country. . India is about 2-3% Christian. There are 200 languages, with 20 official languages. There are Muslims, but most are Hindu.  The current prime minister of India is pushing very hard with the theme: “One nation! One language! One religion!” He wants to unify the nation by having everyone speak only Hindi and being Hindu: no English, no Muslims, and no Christians.  Whether by law or by social pressure, all would speak only Hindi and be Hindus.

Political leaders over history and even today often use religion as a way to unite the country, and usually put it under their rule or influence.

The Chinese today have no problem with Catholicism, as long as it is part of the Chinese national Catholic Church. Foreigners—like a non-Chinese pope—should not be naming Chinese bishops, and the Church should be under the control of the Chinese, at least in their opinion. China and the Chinese Church should be for China.

Our closing hymn today will be “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a way of honoring veterans. Do you think they will be singing that hymn in Catholic churches in Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas? I don’t know, but probably not.

This is exactly what was going on in the first reading. The king wants to maintain control over his people. They are to obey the king first. Just obey the law—disobey God by eating a tiny bit of pork, and all will be well. But the seven brothers insist, “God first! God is more powerful. His rule extends even beyond this life into eternity.

This question is before us. In church we pledge loyalty to God. We profess our Faith. But there are other voices: political, social, economic that clamor for our loyalty.

In American Grace, Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame, study American society and the role of religion in American society. They point out that when Americans have a conflict between what their churches teach and what their political perspective says, they solve it by changing religions.  God first?

Glenn Beck of Fox News would tell Catholics that if their priest was preaching social justice, it was a code word for socialism or communism, so they should change parishes. I don’t know how he accounted for Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict and now Francis all having a Secretariat for Social Justice, but I find it so ironic that U.S. Catholics would get their Catholic social teaching from a fallen away Catholic who became a Mormon.  God first? Or a political position first?

When we look at the issues before us, is it God first? When we say all human life is sacred from conception to natural death, is it all human life, or just the ones that my political position likes? Does it include the unborn, the undocumented, and death row? If God is first, both liberal and conservative causes stand in God’s judgment.

We are the Catholic Church, a universal church that embraces all peoples, from the rising to the setting of the sun. We believe God’s love is extended to all, regardless of borders, regardless of citizenship, regardless of social status, regardless of race.

Pope John Paul II made a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. As patriots we are called to love our fellow countrymen and women. We are called to help them. But we are not nationalists. Our love—and God’s love and concern—are not extended only to our country. We love our country, but it is God first.

 

A Different Way to Converse

Today’s readings offer us some very practical advice on how to deal with some very difficult situations and issues:

g the pagan conquerors, who have brutally subjugated his people. And he is trafficking in images of a false God—Caesar by handling coins all day. He would have been as popular as a flag burner at the American Legion convention.

He starts with a little natural curiosity. He just wants to see who this Jesus is…what does he look like.

But Jesus does something very dramatic: He takes a first step. He calls out to this little guy in a tree by name and says: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

Jesus does two things here:

1. He takes a first step. He reaches out to Zacchaeus. He doesn’t wait until Zacchaeus repents, wants to meet Jesus…Jesus takes the first step.

2. Jesus begins a relationship. I am going to stay with you—eat and sleep. (Remember: eating for the Jews was a sacred act—it’s a bit like communion.

Pope Francis coined a word in Spanish “Primerear.” Take the initiative, take the first step. Don’t wait for people to come to you—You go out to the edges, you take the first step.

It’s only in relationships that people can grow, change, or develop. We all know this—“Who do you listen to about politics, religion, other things?—Only people you trust.

There’s a saying: Social change happens at the speed of relationship. Relationship happens at the speed of trust.”

Social trust is at a low these days. People are staying within their safe social, political, religious cocoons. We watch the TV news that gives us the news to confirm what we already believe. We don’t have many, if any friends, with different political or religious views. We expect newcomers to town or to the church to be just like us. IT’S NOT WORKING!!!! Our nation and perhaps even the church in the United States are extremely polarized. We will have an election for president exactly one year from today. What kinds of nonsense, anger, bigotry, name-calling, divisiveness will we encounter? We are tearing ourselves apart. We will lose the ability for democracy and self-governance. We will cease to be a church and become political, religious social cliques.

What can we do?

Take the first step. Try to reach out to a person different from yourself. Do an individual meeting. Get to know them.

Try to stand where they stand. See the world from their perspective: their joys, hopes, fears.

We have been trying these cross cultural dinners in very small groups, and they have gone well, but try to do it on your own as well.

Tips for Engaging in Civil Dialogue:

1. Listen first and seek to understand the whole picture.

2. Ask questions for clarification.

3. Use ‘I’ statements—not so much, “you,” or “you people” or “they”; pay attention to body language.

4. Listen to what feelings are present and pay attention to how you respond.

5. Summarize what you’ve heard and ask for feedback.

Whether it is religion or politics or even the weather our conversations can be divisive and\or tense. “How are you thinking of family Thanksgiving dinner?” We are people of faith…with a great political tradition. God has blessed us and expects better of us.

As Pope Francis said a couple years ago in Egypt: “May you be sowers of hope, builders of bridges and agents of dialogue and harmony.”

Lazarus and Dives and World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Today is the Feast of St. Michael—our parish patron saint. We’ll have our picnic this afternoon. We celebrate, not only St. Michael, but that we are a parish: a stable, defined community. We gather together to hear the Word of God. We partake of the Body of Christ to be strengthened as the Body of Christ. We come together so that together we can support one another, so that together we carry on the ministry of Christ. We support one another, and together we are sent into the world.

Today is also the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, as declared by the Church. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has been celebrating this every year since 1914.  That is significant for our parish: This celebration was important 100 years ago, and it is important today.

Catholics were outsiders and “suspect.”  Catholicism was a foreign religion. Catholics were called “Papists,” pledging loyalty to an Italian pope, head of papal states.  Catholics were hated by the KKK which was very strong in northern Indiana—They paraded down Michigan Rd in Plymouth.

Our stained glass windows reflect our parish root. In one of our windows we have St. Patrick. The Irish had gone through terrible trials. In New York 150 years ago, their homes were burned—one a night by the Know-Nothings until Bishop John Hughes went to the mayor and threatened retaliation. The movie The Gangs of New York accurately depicts the bitter struggles between the Nativists and the Irish.

The window with St. Boniface reminds us that portion of our parish was German—. German-Americans were also thought to be unpatriotic and sympathetic to the Kaiser. Woodrow Wilson commented—referring to German-Americans– “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready.” Public libraries got rid of books in German, German schools, such as one in Rolling Prairie closed. Some German-Americans Anglicized their names from Schmidt to Smith.

And of course, migrants and refugees today are in the national news and in Plymouth.

Nationally, it is the growth of immigrants that has kept the Catholic Church from shrinking as dramatically as the other churches in the U.S.

Locally in Plymouth, the population has basically stayed the same since 2010. However, 29% of our population is now Hispanic. What would Plymouth look like today without the presence of migrants and their U.S. born children?

Immigrants today—like those of earlier generations—are on the margins of society–much poorer than those whose families have been here for generations. The Church 100 years ago and still today, serves and protects those who are poor. We started Catholic schools to teach the Catholic faith to our children—and to protect them from the nativist Americans. The bishop of Fort Wayne invited the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ to come from Germany to teach the German speaking children in German. The Sisters were to serve and to protect. That is still our mission today. As a parish we continue to support and protect one another, especially those on the margins, the poor and the vulnerable, those who do not have legal status: the unborn and the undocumented.

Today’s readings remind us of the centrality of works of charity and social justice to the mission of the Church. It’s part of what we do as the Body of Christ.

We tend to think of the social mission of the Church as “something extra,” or as something just from the goodness of our hearts, or something we do after the real mission of the Church is done. But charity and justice are at the core of what we are called to do. As the 1971 Synod of Bishops said (a world synod whose document was approved by Pope Paul VI) said:

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel,…that means if we do not serve with works of charity and justice, we are not evangelizing in the Catholic tradition (No. 6)

In the first reading last week, Amos condemned those ”who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land.”   This week he goes after “the complacent in Zion,” stretched out comfortably on their couches, drinking wine from bowls, unaffected by the poverty and ills that hurt others.

Amos’ God—our God–keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, loves the just, protects foreigners, sustains the fatherless and widows.

Jesus made serving others—including the welcoming of foreigners—the basis of entering His Father’s Kingdom at the Last Judgment in Mt. 25. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it is the foreigner who acts as neighbor.

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, it is service to those in need that is the basis for entering the kingdom. We only know two things about them—First, one was rich and the other poor. Second, one was in need, and the wealthy one failed to help him and so he is sent to hell. There is no mention of whether they prayed, were faithful in their marriages—only that one was in need, and the other failed to do anything for him.

Today, as we celebrate the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, we are the richest country in the world, with people—like Lazarus, seeking asylum, have people like Lazarus at our doorstep, seeking asylum, fleeing poverty or violence—or both, or living in our midst in the shadows, in fear.

It is the mission of the Church to protect and to serve. We are called to be guided by love. Pope Francis’ call to Encounter is meant to call us to, not only serve one another, but get to know and love one another: the entire Body of Christ, the entire parish, across race, social class, and nationality.

As we celebrate our parish Feast Day, share in our parish picnic, I am reminded of a theme for the Congregation of Holy Cross: “Crossing borders of every sort.” Today we have the opportunity to cross borders of culture, perhaps language, perhaps nationality to break bread with fellow parishioners.  I encourage you to meet some one who is different from you. Ask them about their family roots, their hopes for their children, their dreams, their Faith. You may discover you have much more in common than you think—and find a new friend.

“Which side are you on?”

We pray the St. Michael Prayer often. This battle between St. Michael and Satan is not just personal between the two of them. It is part of a cosmic battle: the struggle between the goodness and generous love of God and the sin and evil in a fallen world. It takes many forms and expressions.

This battle is measured, not in terms of dollars and cents, games won or lost, but what happens to people. As the U.S. bishops said in their pastoral letter on the economy: the measure of an economy is not the gross national product, but what it does for the poor, especially the most vulnerable. The measure of a great nation is not how many battle ships it has, but what it does to and for people, especially the most in need.

The battle can be clearly seen and delineated sometimes: a person takes a machine gun and shoots innocent people. A small group of people hijack some airplanes and crash them into the Twin Towers. Good and evil are clearly seen.

Other times it is foggy and not clear. A pharmaceutical company creates opioids that reduce pain but creates addictions.  Was it deliberate greed? Was it accidental?    ???

Violence in Central American countries, changes in weather patterns in Africa, drought, famine cause mass migrations. Changes in economic policy, trade, and tariffs have effects on farmers, manufacturers, and families: industries change, hardworking people lose jobs, people turn to addictions. Some lose faith in society, others lose faith in God.

The cause and effects and not always clear. Motivation and blame are not always easily discerned. Solutions are not always obvious. But there can still be great human suffering.

But all these things are not merely insignificant. They are part of the cosmic battle. God’s creation is in turmoil. And the crown of that creation—the human person, created in God’s images and likeness–is often suffering.

There are two primary things to remember:

  1. The battle lines are drawn and clear.
  2. And God takes sides. God opts for the poor and the suffering.

“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

“To those who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor,” who cannot wait for the religious ceremonies to be over so they can cheat people, Yahweh says: “Never will I forget a thing they have done!”

Yahweh appeared to Moses in the burning bush:  And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;

And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians. (Ex 3:7-8a)

We often pray: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man who did nothing to help Lazarus, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Last Judgment in Matthew’s Gospel make it clear where He stands.

St. John Paul II said we must choose between the culture of life and the culture of death.

And there is no neutrality. We often cannot see the battle lines in the battle. People of good faith may have different solutions and approaches to reducing the human suffering in the battle, but we are never neutral about which side we are on. We serve Christ and the Kingdom of God.

Nor can we be neutral and withdraw to only a “spiritual battle.” The battles in the Bible are about slavery, oppression, working people to death to support Pharaoh’s economy, the slaughter of the innocents, being conquered and carried off to a foreign land as slaves, returning to a homeland. The prophets call us to defend the widow, the alien, the orphan. Jesus calls for feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the foreigner, the sick, the imprisoned—and to be willing to suffer for it.

Authentic spirituality is seeing these “worldly, economic, political, social realities” in the light of God’s Word. It means we recognize them as part of the battle between St. Michael and Satan. We must choose because:

“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

And so, we have listened to God’s word…We will profess our Faith and declare which side we are on…We will intercede for the suffering in Jesus’ name. We will bless the Lord God of all creation for how he has generously blessed us. We will remember how Jesus celebrated the Passover, of how God saved the Hebrews with “mighty hand and outstretch arm.”  We celebrate how Jesus confronted sin and death, and rose in victory. We will pray at his table, be strengthened with his body and blood, and be sent back into battle as we are sent into the world to build the Kingdom of God.