Fr. Kelly

Our Sunday Journal is a brief reflection on the scripture readings of the day by Father Kelly, a senior priest in the Diocese of Saginaw.

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Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 5:38-48
February 19, 2017

If a youthful, mop-topped blond kid walked into my parish by himself on a Sunday morning, I would be delighted. I’d make every effort to see that he felt welcome. After all, the young are the future of our Church. It is the duty and the joy of disciples to pass on our faith to the next generation. I would be even more pleased if a young man of that description wandered into a Bible Study or a parish meeting. I would see the opportunity for evangelization, or possibly even conversion. I would hop right on it.

I suspect that 19 months ago, in Charleston, S.C., when such a young person walked through the doors of Emanuel African Methodist Church, the Christians that saw him felt the same feelings of delight and opportunity. I suspect that they were pleased…if not overjoyed…to welcome him. And welcome him they did, in spite of the fact his skin color distinguished him from the majority of the folks on hand that day for prayer and study. In fact, two days after unleashing horrific violence in this place of worship, the young man acknowledged that everyone was so nice to him that he almost abandoned the plan that he’d spent months concocting. Nine people were martyred at the hands of this youthful, mop-topped blond kid.

Having been quickly apprehended by authorities, the young man faced a judge at a bail hearing. People watching the televised proceedings must have been as shocked by his harmless appearance as they were by the violence and hatred he unleashed on innocent people at prayer. When someone commits a crime of this magnitude, we expect them to look like a monster, not the kid next door.

Even more shocking, however, were the statements made that day by family members of the nine people who died. Rising out of their grief, they tearfully confronted this unrepentant “white supremacist” with the words: I FORGIVE YOU! I FORGIVE YOU!

From the moment of his arrest until he heard the jury sentence him to death, the young man has shown no contrition…no regret…no remorse. He has persisted in his hatred, his sole defense to his heinous crime being bigotry and prejudice. And still, many of the victims remain as steadfast in their forgiveness as the young man in his hatred: I FORGIVE YOU!

What’s most shocking of all is that any Christian would be shocked by the totally Christian response to such blatant evil. Forgiveness is what Jesus calls us to. The willingness to forgive…at least try to forgive…is what distinguishes us as followers of Jesus Christ. It is our eagerness to forgive even the most grievous offense or insult that makes us images of our God, Who is slow to anger and quick to forgive.

The folks from Emanuel African Methodist Church, who have expressed forgiveness of the man who brought death into a place of spiritual life, are brilliant examples of Christian discipleship. To their great credit, certainly, but also to their great benefit. If they were to harbor hatred and the desire for revenge against him, they would be in the same position as he is today: in prison, facing death! Because that is what the desire for revenge does to us. It imprisons us in a dark cell…and sentences us to the death of joy and peace. Their willingness to forgive has preserved their freedom to live as children of God.

What brilliant images of our God they are!

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 5:17-37
February 12, 2017

It’s possible that, in the near future, there will be a wall separating the U.S. and Mexico. The mere suggestion that a wall be constructed has already divided our nation. We all know the arguments…pro and con. The concern over national security has triggered the discussion. Most recently, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl Game dramatized the arguments in opposition. I don’t raise the issue to weigh in on either side. I mention it because I think it’s extremely ironic that, while the national debate rages as to whether or not “walls work,” or that bridges should be preferred to walls…our Gospel calls us to BUILD A WALL!

The Lord doesn’t use those exact words, but the people listening to Him knew that’s exactly what He was saying.

From earliest of times, Israel understood that, in order to protect their “spiritual security,” more than compliance with The Law was needed. As the generations passed, the expression build a fence around the Torah (the Law) was used to communicate an understanding that when our spiritual lives are at stake…or at risk…extreme measures are in order. Certainly, the Lord was not encouraging self-mutilation. Like the Super Bowl commercials, He was offering a dramatic explanation. His point being: we should take extreme measures to protect ourselves so that we do not wander outside of the protection of God’s Law. In other words, build a fence around the Torah and strengthen the border between good and evil…life and death!

Our First Reading offers another irony to ponder. Consider this: God’s greatest gift to us is our free will. The passage from the Book of Sirach emphasizes that our Creator is (to borrow a phrase) “pro-choice.” God is not an arrogant, iron-fisted dictator who imposes the Divine will. Rather, we are allowed to choose for ourselves how we are to live. We can choose the excitement of fire, which has the potential to harm or even destroy us. The other option is cleansing, nourishing, healing, and life-sustaining water. The choice is ours.

But, Sirach also makes it perfectly clear that “free choice” must not be confused with a license to sin. And so, in God’s infinite wisdom and kindness, God gave us The Commandments as a “boundary” or “border” that keeps us from wandering off into dangerous territory through poor choices and bad decisions. Wisely, the people wanted to reinforce the “boundary,” and so they added to The Commandments an extensive body of rules, regulations, and traditions in order to “build a fence around The Law!

The hope is that a spiritual “firewall” will provide an even stronger barrier between the danger zone of sin and the safety and peace to be had through a life of virtue. Extreme danger calls for extreme measures. Jesus most definitely is NOT calling for self-mutilation in order to avoid sin. He is suggesting that we “reinforce our borders.”

There is another ironic situation to be found as our three Readings work together. St. Paul seems to be telling the Corinthian community that a wise person seeking to remain within the border surrounding the City of God should seek the protection of love! Love of God is a sufficient spiritual firewall, or barrier, to protect us from those things that threaten eternal life. Love of God is the perfect fence, or wall, to prevent us from wandering off into dangerous territory. Every choice that a wise person makes is motivated by love…of God…and of God’s Creation!

So, the final irony to ponder during this sixth week of Ordinary Time is that walls do work…at least spiritual walls…but not to keep people out; rather, to invite them in! When we isolate ourselves from things like fear, hatred, envy, prejudice, and selfishness by surrounding ourselves with LOVE…then our hearts and our doors are open to God and to all of God’s Creation.

It all boils down to this…and there is nothing ironic about it: If it’s safety you are looking for…it is wise to choose love!

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 5:13-16
February 5, 2017

Last week, my oldest and dearest friends invited me to join them on a short trip to Cuba. The “price was right,” so I decided to escape a few days of January weather here in Michigan to enjoy some quality time in warm sunshine with my friends. It was a short vacation, but it was also a very profound experience.

The paperwork needed to enter the country offered a heads-up to the fact that life in Cuba is much more regulated and far less casual than we are used to here in the U.S. The reception at the airport was official; some might even say “severe.” Entry was serious business, devoid of any warm welcome. I found it unnerving.

During the taxi ride into Havana, we passed through a neighborhood that the otherwise silent driver described as one of the more elegant and fashionable areas of the city prior to the revolution. He then offered the comment that when Cubans “who left” return home, “they turn their heads.” He gave the impression that these words had become an idiom to express the feelings of pain people experience when they see how formerly beautiful things have severely deteriorated.

One evening, we enjoyed fine dining at its very finest. My friends splurged and took us to a restaurant that only “the 1%” of Cubans could ever hope to patronize. As one person explained to us: “What you Americans call expensive, we Cubans call impossible.” Arriving early, we were escorted to a rooftop bar. A cool ocean breeze added to the glamorous décor and the festive atmosphere. From our vantage point, we got a view of the entire capitol city. At first glance, it was magnificent. But, it suddenly occurred to me that I was looking at a city in darkness. Even the imposing capitol building, modeled after ours, was completely dark. There are almost no streetlights in Havana. Most of the homes and even the businesses are “shuttered.” What little artificial light there is comes from a partially opened door or window, or the headlights of a passing car. When the sun sets, Havana contradicts today’s Gospel. It is literally a hidden city. A city of shadows.

The next day, in the almost blinding sunlight, we toured an enormous cathedral/convent complex dating back to the Spanish colonial times. Unlike most of the buildings from that era, these were perfectly preserved and maintained; no longer a place of worship, however. After the revolution, Castro nationalized all Church property, declaring this overwhelmingly Catholic country a bastion of Soviet style atheism. Historic churches were repurposed to things like museums and concert halls. In fact, as I walked through the nave of the cathedral, an orchestra was rehearsing. The beautiful music, for me anyway, re-sanctified the church that “the revolution” tried to de-sanctify. The government tried hard to suppress Christianity. There was an attempt to put a bushel basket over the Light of Christ. But of course, The Light of Christ cannot be extinguished. The Holy Spirit cannot be driven out of a building, a nation…or the hearts of the faithful.

Only 90 miles away from the United States, and, in spite of the fact every Cuban has a cousin in Miami (an expression used to convey the financial support that native Cubans enjoy from ex-patriots living in the U.S.), very few speak English. They have been isolated from American influences, including spoken English, for almost 60 years. The younger generation has not been taught our language. Likewise, while many Cubans still bring their children to the few churches that have reopened to be Baptized, we were told that very few practice the faith. Why would they? Like English, they have not been taught our faith. They have been estranged from the Body of Christ. They have nothing to pass on to the next generation other than the memory of Christ and our Sacraments…and desire!

Finally, a word about the Cuban people. They seemed to me to be reserved or distant. Folks on the street were not unfriendly, but neither were they engaging. There was a reference in a guidebook explaining that the isolation they have suffered for decades has left them wary of Americans. The few that did share their feelings explained just how hard life is for them. Even the more privileged wrestle with concerns over “feeding the kids.” Low wages, shortages, and deprivations across the board drain the joy out of day-to-day life. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? Possibly hope! Hope can re-season even the most desperate of lives. And it seems that the average Cuban has enjoyed an infusion of hope in recent months through the visits of President Obama and Pope Francis.

The average Cuban hopes that restoring relations with the U.S. will revitalize the extremely depressed economy, even as American business interests see a lot of potential for profit in restoring Cuba to its former glory. U.S. dollars might help to light the city…but money will not bring the Light of Christ to Havana. You can’t buy the City of God. You have to build it. And the work begins by teaching the language of the Gospel. American business interests might be looking to Cuba with an eye toward fat returns on investments, but Christians should be looking to Cuba with the hope of re-sanctifying not just buildings, but a people. Disciples are called to take the bushel basket off the lamp and place it high…on a stand. Our First Reading explains just how to do that. Live Jesus! Live charity and love! Then your light shall break forth like the dawn!

Investors might well be looking to normalize relationships in order to open new markets, but Christians should be pondering ways to reunite our estranged sisters and brothers with the Body of Christ. Our corporations might very well help to put money in the average Cuban’s pockets, but Christians should be anxious for ways to restore joy in their hearts.

I had a profound experience in Cuba that left me with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for this week’s Gospel. I saw firsthand a hidden city, efforts to extinguish The Light of Christ, and lives lived without the seasoning of joy and hope. But, it isn’t necessary to travel to Cuba to have this kind of profound experience. We drive by dark, abandoned, or repurposed churches in our own cities. As we pass by, we should not turn our heads. Instead, we should look for ways to turn the lights back on.

Many of our children are baptized, but are never taught the language of the Gospel or the traditions of our faith. It’s as if they are isolated from the Christian community that’s not 90 miles away…but right across the street from them. Parents need to be more faithful to the promises they made, first in Christian marriage, and later when they presented their children for Baptism. A greater effort needs to be made to teach our kids our faith.

And as for us, we should be eager to offer a warm…inviting welcome…without formality. When people who have left, then “return,” they should encounter Christ at the door of our churches…that haven’t been closed but have certainly been diminished. We live in a culture that is as toxic to our spiritual lives as oxygen deprivation is to a candle. We need to open ourselves to the cool, refreshing breeze of the Holy Spirit so that the flame of faith grows bright…and can push back against darkness.

We attempt to season our lives with possessions and entertaining distractions of every sort, only to find them lacking. And so, we turn to addictive distractions that rob us of our freedom and our hope. We need to reawaken our appetite for Eucharist, which is the only thing that can season our otherwise bland lives with hope and joy.

After my short trip to Cuba, I came to see our Readings this week as a call to revolution… a spiritual revolution. We are called to revolt against darkness by rekindling the fire of faith. We are challenged to place the Light of Christ above everything else in our lives, so that, as we hear in our First Reading… light shall rise for us…and from us…for those around us…and the gloom shall become like midday.

We need to revolt against anyone…and anything that tries to estrange us from Christ!

And the revolution begins with you!

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
MT 5:1-12A
January 29, 2017

In our First Reading, the Prophet Zephaniah depicts “the law” as a kind of shelter for the righteous. This makes sense. If you remain within “the law,” you are safe and protected…or at least you should be. When you step outside of “the law,” you put yourself at risk. The problem today is that “the law” seems to be in a state of flux. The trend these days seems to be towards rolling back, repealing, and abolishing various policies and laws. Some feel that certain laws, as they exist, are not effective. In other words, the vision the drafters had in mind has not become reality. And that may well be the case. But still, changes in our laws and policies can be confusing. It makes it difficult to find dependable shelter when laws keep changing.

Presently, in the USA, there are a number of laws and policies being debated, reconsidered, and re-evaluated. Some will fall, some will stand, and some will be modified. Even within our Church, there is palatable tension, if not about “the law” as written, then about how it should be interpreted or administered, especially in “the penalty phase.” Pope Francis’s teaching letter , is the target of harsh criticism from some well-respected Church leaders because of its pastoral tone. How sad that is! And so, it would seem that our Gospel on this 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time is particularly relevant to today’s world.

When people charged Him with trying to abolish “The Law,” Jesus was very clear that He had not come to abolish or repeal EVEN SO MUCH AS ONE LETTER of the law. Nevertheless, through “The Beatitudes,” the Lord seems to be “rolling back” the enormous and burdensome policies, that, over the generations, grew up around “The Law.” Even good laws do that. Over the years, they accumulate policies and interpretations that weigh them down and cloud the vision that inspired them in the first place. So, with the Beatitudes, Jesus seems to be rolling back those things that cloud “The Law” and make it more difficult to provide dependable shelter to the righteous.

Many, whose vision of life does not include God, have been critical of “The Beatitudes,” charging that this teaching is a way to pacify the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. They see Matt. 5:13-19 as a way of anesthetizing common folks, like St. Paul is writing to in our Second Reading….those not wise by human standards…not powerful….not of noble birth…the weak. The Godless dust away this extremely important teaching like sappy words in a greeting card. Or worse, the un-Godly use Jesus’s Words to encourage people to accept suffering…quietly.

So, it is very important to remember that “The Beatitudes” have a two-fold purpose. First, they offer us a vision of how things will be when Christ returns in all of His Glory. But, additionally, they inspire us in how we should live, here and now, while we wait for the Reign of God to come upon us in its fullness. What the Lord has given us here is a guide to form policies for the interpretation and administration of “The Law”…GOD’S LAW…THE LAW OF LOVE!

“The Beatitudes” are an instruction to lawmakers…both civil and church leaders alike…in how to offer dependable shelter for the righteous who strive to live within “The Law of Love.” Civil and Church laws alike should provide both comfort and blessing to the righteous…especially to those in greatest need.

Moreover, we, who have been baptized in Christ Jesus, have a duty to insist that “The Beatitudes” be more than a vision. Our Second Reading begins with these words: Consider your calling, brothers and sisters!

Our calling is to insist that the beatitudes are not merely a vision, but a reality, here and now! Our calling as citizens, and as members of the Body of Christ, is to push back against any law or policy or penalty that is contrary to GOD’S LAW…THE LAW OF LOVE!

And should you ask: But what can I possibly do? Take special note of St. Paul’s words: Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.

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