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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24 Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 15:1-32
September 15, 2019

This Sunday, The Church gives us a particularly long Gospel. In fact, and most likely because of our really short attention spans, preachers are given the option of proclaiming only the first third of the chapter (Luke 15:1-10), omitting the very relatable drama of what some might consider to be a highly dysfunctional family. For me, that is like being served a bread basket, followed by small dinner salad, and then told the meal is over…no main course…no entree. I, for one, would leave the table unsatisfied…still hungry.

While both of the shorter parables stand on their own, delivering a lesson about the joy of recovering something thought to be irretrievably lost, it seems that Jesus intended them to be “appetizers” but not the full meal. So, I think if we are to walk away from The Table of The Word on this 24th Sunday completely satisfied, in spite of our really short attention spans, it’s important to be served up all three parables…and then dessert might be something really light…a very short homily.

The problem is, our host has done the shopping, set the table, laid out all the ingredients next to the pots and pans and cooking utensils, and has even opened the cookbook to the recipe…but has left us to prepare the meal. Think about it, there is no ending to the family drama. The Lord has left us everything we need to finish the story…according to our own taste…or preference…or experiences. But, it’s up to us to do the work.

I find the most helpful cookbooks to be those that have a large, colorful picture of the completed dish next to the recipe. That picture gives the amateur chef something to aim for. Very often, when one places their best effort next to the picture, it leaves something to be desired. But the next time they prepare the dish, it gets better. Encouraged, they keep returning to that recipe until it becomes their “signature dish.”

The key ingredients that the Lord has laid out for us this Sunday are patience, forgiveness, mercy, and, of course…LOVE. So what would a picture of this meal that we are invited to share today look like?

The “lost son,” having returned home out of desperation, would be overwhelmed with gratitude for the homecoming. Less out of guilt than from a newfound sense of duty and obligation, he would focus all of his energies towards restoring what he has squandered.

The father, now content that the “lost son” is home and back on track, would turn towards the “faithful son” in order to help him heal from the experience so as to restore harmony to the family. Still, fully understanding how short the human attention span truly is, the wise, patient, forgiving, merciful, and all-loving father would never stop worrying about his children.

While at first angry and resentful, the “faithful son” would slowly respond to the special attention of the patient and all-loving father, and encouraged by the efforts of his brother, would eventually imitate the father’s example of acceptance. Even the long suffering son would come to appreciate the joy in recovering something thought to be irretrievably lost.

That is the picture in the book. How does it compare with what you bring to the table?

Even people who betray you are part of the plan.

23 Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 14:25-33
September 8, 2019

Our Gospel this Sunday begins in a very shocking way. Jesus appears to be encouraging us to hate! Clearly, that isn’t the case, although the opening lines of this passage are intended to shock us and get our attention. It would seem that The Lord wants to stimulate our imagination so that we can enjoy a glimpse of things we can’t actually see…at least not with our eyes. And what we enjoy a brief glimpse of is the Kingdom of God. What Jesus wants us to see with our hearts is such total and complete peace and joy that no person, no relationship, no earthly thing is more important.

The passage continues with two examples of the absolute need to “count the cost” of admission. Moreover, we are told that what is at risk is so important that we have to be in a constant state of preparation.

Think of it this way:

Once again, “hurricane season” is upon us. Together with loss of life, countless injuries, and devastating property damage comes what some experts refer to as “hurricane fatigue.” A life-threatening symptom of “hurricane fatigue” is denial. Worn out by season after season of emergency preparations, and even evacuations, only to have a storm exhaust itself at sea, some people underestimate the threat that looms over them. They convince themselves that this is just another false alarm, and ignore the authority’s advice to get out of harm’s way. Others talk themselves into believing that they are far enough from the sea, or live in a totally secure home, and that no further preparations are needed. They fail to take any precautions beyond stocking up on groceries. Suffering from denial, many have then suffered dire consequences by riding out a storm. Those that survive often declare: NEVER AGAIN!

Evil is like a hurricane. Evil is a swirling, dark force that hovers over every season of our lives, regardless of where we live. Sometimes we experience the outer rings of the storm with garden variety temptations…little more than heavy rain or high wind. Even when we fall victim, there doesn’t appear to be lasting damage, and so we let our guard down. Other times, however, we get trapped in the eye of the hurricane and are literally sucked into mortal danger through mortal sin.

Evil is like that; it is powerful enough to change the course of our lives and drive us so far from the Kingdom that, sometimes, it becomes impossible to find the way back. Most of the time, however, evil just looms off in the distance like a hurricane brewing far out in the ocean. We get tired of preparing. We get so accustomed to the warnings that we begin to ignore them. We underestimate the power of evil that threatens our lives. It’s as if we suffer from “sin fatigue.” We fall into a state of denial that evil will make landfall where we live, and we do little or nothing to prepare to face off against this powerful force. Many have suffered from “sin fatigue” and try to ride out the storms of life without preparing spiritually…and as a result…they have suffered dire consequences.

Today’s Gospel begins in a shocking way. It is intended to alarm us and to hold our attention. The Lord is offering us a vision of what we might lose if we aren’t prepared to defend it. Storm warnings must be taken seriously. Spiritual storm warnings demand immediate action….eternal life is at risk.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 14:1, 7-14
September 1, 2019

There was a time, not so long ago, when a person who had undergone cataract surgery, to remove a cloudy lens that distorted or totally obstructed vision, was easily identified. Following the fairly serious and invasive surgery, the recovering patient had to wear, what was commonly referred to as: “coke bottle glasses.” These “spectacles” magnified the person’s eyes in an uncomplimentary way. The weight of the thick glass lens was also burdensome. Thankfully today, there is a much less invasive, out -patient procedure, with a 98% success rate. Following the removal of the cloudy lens, a tiny, plastic “inter ocular lens” is implanted. There’s no longer a need for “coke bottle glasses.” In fact, many patients, post -op, recover 20/20 eye sight. If you meet someone over the age of 74 without bifocals, they either have exceptional genes, or they’ve had cataract surgery.

Just as the lenses in our eyes can fail due to age or injury, our spiritual vision can be obstructed or blurred as well. In fact, if you read the whole of Luke 14, from which today’s Gospel was lifted, you might well be left with the impression that Jesus’s dinner companions were all suffering from poor spiritual vision.

The fact is, all humankind, inherited compromised spiritual vision from the First Parents. Adam and Eve tragically made a deliberate choice not to see things “God’s way.” The result was an injury that infected the genetic code. It being God’s will that we all see reality with clarity, God gave Israel The Law and The Prophets as a means to spiritual correction.

Through “The Law” many people began to see and live God’s will and God’s ways. Others found this remedy too weighty or burdensome and rejected it. All of the guests invited to dine with Jesus, it would seem, looked at life through the lens of The Law; they were probably all Pharisees or Temple authorities. But for some reason, reality was still blurred or distorted for them. Maybe they had the wrong prescription, or need to clean “their glasses” of arrogance and pride. Whatever, the reason, they could not see Jesus for Who He is and appreciate what He brought.

The Father, desiring that humankind recover perfect spiritual vision, sent The Son to introduce a radically simple remedy, which when followed has a 100% success rate. Through Baptism, that which clouds our vision is removed without pain. Implanted in the place of human frailty, is the HUMILITY OF JESUS CHRIST. But, this “spiritual implant” which restores our vision needs to be maintained and supported. So with it, Christ introduced the other Sacraments, intended to be celebrated within the family of The Church.

When we gather for the Sacred Meal of the Eucharist with purity of heart, unlike the guests at the dinner party described in this Gospel, we enjoy a clarity of vision that enables us to see Christ…in one another and in ourselves as well. When we leave the Eucharist, we are nourished by what we have been served, enlightened by God’s Word, and strengthened by one another’s companionship. Then, we leave the Church and move back into the world and the week ahead of us. By virtue of the vision we enjoy through God’s grace, we are better able to see how things are, how things could and should be….AND…what we can do to make the world a better for everyone. Then, in all humility, we undertake the work of discipleship.

Because of all this, we are easily identified. Not by “coke bottle glasses” or the absence of bifocals in our elder years. People know who and what we are through lived humility…the HUMILITY OF JESUS CHRIST. Amen!

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 13:22-30
August 25, 2019

If you complete a form online, pay a fee (rather substantial), make an appointment for a personal interview (not always easily arranged), and present the proper identification at that time, then you might be TSA pre-approved. Simply put, this means that when you arrive at an airport to catch a flight, you qualify to pass through a special check point (the narrow gate).

Besides the fact that the process is less intrusive (you don’t have to remove your shoes or belt), at any given time, the majority of passengers who enjoy this privilege wait less than five minutes to be cleared for travel by the Transportation Safety Administration. I am not one of the 7 million Americans who have gone through the process. First of all, because I so rarely fly, it isn’t worth the expense, but mostly because the advantage of “pre-approval” status is vastly diminished once you pass through the “narrow gate.”

Regardless of how long it took to get through security, all passengers still have to make their way to the boarding area, wait for the boarding call, endure the inevitable delay occasioned by some warning light that necessitates an inspection and follow-up paperwork. Whether or not you are a pre-approved or a first-class passenger, or you are crammed into the middle seat in the last row of the aircraft…everyone has to sit and wait while the plane taxis out to the runway where it sits (oftentimes as long as 45 minutes) until the flight is cleared for take-off. Everyone (eventually) arrives at the destination at the same time.

Some read Jesus’s words reported in today’s Gospel as a fairly sobering suggestion that access to the Kingdom of God is extremely limited…granted to very few, and only after a severe screening process. And while it is certainly true that The Lord is encouraging us to make an effort to be pre-approved for admission, the reality is that the discipline required for entry through the special, narrow gate is rigorous to the point that it is beyond most people’s capabilities.

For example, martyrs step out of the line and are waved forward without any further screening or waiting. But martyrdom is not something you apply for. Moreover, giving your life up for love of God is something that is beyond the strength of many otherwise good and faithful Christians. One’s very life is a substantial cost that Jesus willingly paid. Few other human beings, however, are that totally and completely selfless.

The fact that a person is not called to be a martyr or has led such a blameless life that The Church calls them “saint” does not mean that they will be denied entry. Our Second Reading tells us not to be discouraged. And while Jesus certainly points out that once the door is closed, it will not be reopened, the whole of The Gospel entitles us to hope that no well-intentioned person will experience the disappointment of a traveler who sees the plane still at the gate, but is denied entry because the craft has been secured for take-off.

We are a pilgrim people…travelers…refugees. Our time in this world is little more than a layover as we wait for the call, inviting us home. Our Readings leave no doubt that there is a screening process prior to departure. Although few will be pre-approved, a disciplined life, involving commitment to the Gospel and guided and supported by our Church and Sacraments enables us to wait our turn with the hope that we will not be left behind.

Travelers are asked to empty their pockets, open carry-on baggage, and abandon excluded items at security. Just so with our lives, as we leave time in route to eternal joy. But, no one will be allowed to travel with things such as hatred, greed, envy, bigotry…the list of prohibited items is exhaustive. We need to be purged of everything contrary to Christ’s message of peace, justice, and love before we are waved through the gate.

The good news is this: Once we abandon those things…a warm welcome awaits us. So, try not to prolong the process. Empty your lives of everything contrary to Christ prior to approaching security. And know that the first to cheer your arrival will be those who were pre-approved. How can I say that with certainty?

I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance. (Luke 15:7)

20 Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 12:49-53
August 18, 2019

Last week, I was a guest of my oldest and dearest friends at their summer home on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was a wonderful few days…actually a reunion…because over the past years, our lives have been so busy that we haven’t been able to spend very much time together.

One evening, they invited their favorite neighbors over. We sat outdoors in a circle on lawn chairs under soaring pine and spruce and birch trees, listening to the waves break on the shore and watching the sun set. There was no actual campfire burning, but we were having that kind of experience. It was a “campfire evening.” It was perfect!

Except…the next day, I felt a pang of regret.

You see, as I was getting acquainted with the other guests, who are wonderful people, the fact that I am a Catholic priest came up. After a little while, and totally out of context, because we certainly were not talking about spiritual matters, the neighbor lady looked across the imaginary campfire directly at me and said: “You know, I was raised Catholic.” It came out of the blue, those words: “I was raised Catholic.”

It seemed to me that she placed a special kind of emphasis on that word “was.” I heard a tone in her voice as she spoke that single word, “was.” But, as I said, we were not talking about spiritual matters, and I had just met this delightful couple. I wasn’t quite certain as to why she highlighted the word “was,” so I simply replied: “Oh? Is that right?” But her “was” stuck with me. It hung with me like the smell of a campfire clings to your clothes.

So, the pleasant “campfire” conversation continued, and after quite a bit of time, the lady again looked over at me, and once more, totally out of context, said: “I had all of the Sacraments.” She continued, almost as if to prove her point by naming them: “Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation…and my brothers did, too. My parents saw to it.”

Because of the circumstances, I felt uncertain as to how to reply and simply said: “It’s good to give kids a faith life.” Pretty lame, if I do say so myself. My bad!

Finally, just as we were about to get up and move into the house because it was getting chilly — as I said, there was no campfire — she looked right into my eyes and said: “Those were good times. Happy times. Things were better then.” She went on with a few more thoughts that I can only paraphrase. Basically, I understood her to say that she missed the certainty and security that she once felt when she “was” Catholic.

I bumbled through something that I intended to be ecumenical, non-judgmental, even pastoral, without sounding too preachy. But, when I woke up the next morning, I felt the sense of regret one feels after a missed opportunity. I had fallen short. And that feeling was only intensified when I sat down to reflect on and pray with today’s Gospel.

One of the most unsettling feelings we humans experience is: I should have said. I should have taken the opportunity to say to this good woman, With Christ, there is no such thing as “was.”

At the very beginning of the Baptism ritual, the priest signs us with the cross and says: I claim you for Christ! And although some people think of their relationship with Christ and the Church in the past tense, with the Lord, there is only “The present” which leads to a future without end. Once Christ claims us, he never rejects us.

No matter how much time might pass between us because our lives have become too busy, or because our feelings have been hurt and we leave the circle, or because we feel that we have “outgrown” the friendship, no matter how much we highlight the word “was,” Christ always claims us as His own.

So I wonder, if when Jesus tells us that he has come to “light a fire,” I wonder if maybe he is talking about a warm and inviting campfire, a fire far more brilliant than anything that can be lit with a match. I wonder if the Lord is talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit — the kind of fire that people can gather around, sitting shoulder to shoulder under a canopy of trees, looking at the sunset and listening to the music of the lake, while sharing thoughts and feelings about “happier times.” Times when we felt totally secure and certain about God’s unconditional love, and the unfailing friendship of Jesus Christ, reassuring one another that there is no “was” with God…only “is” and “will be.”

I should have told that woman all of this…but I missed the opportunity. But now, I am telling you. When Jesus speaks about lighting a fire, I wonder if what he had in mind was a warm and inviting campfire?

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