Reflection for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Caesar’s Imprint and God’s Imprint

Often I see two kinds of people on the UB campus getting in people’s faces:

The first are: Radical Fundamentalists: Yelling at people things like “Have you taken Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?”

The Second group are: Angry Atheists. They tell things like: “How in the world can you believe in the big lie? There is no God.”

And when I read the gospel today I could picture Jesus standing in the UB Student Union because he’s in the same situation.

He’s with two similar groups of people.

There are the Herodians, Jews who don’t believe in the afterlife and who have aligned themselves with Caesar–an atheist.

And then we have the Pharisees–the religious fundamentalists of the day.

Now the Herodians want Jesus to say paying the census tax is unjust so that they can report to the Roman authorities that he’s gone too far. And the Pharisees want Jesus to say that paying the tax is fine so they can say Jesus is supporting their oppressors.

These two groups have collaborated here to trap Jesus. And it’s no different here on campus where the same thing happens.

And some days I feel trapped between fundamentalism and atheism…and my tendency is to throw my hands up in the air and dismiss them both.

But Jesus shows us in this gospel how we can be set free.

He asks: Whose imprint is on this coin? It is the obvious imprint of Caesar.

His message is in fact an opportunity to ask these groups to look beyond the surface. Caesar might print his image on every coin in the Roman Empire…

But God’s image is on each and every human heart.

Don’t we all sometimes forget that? I know I mostly miss it when fundamentalists or atheists make me angry and make me forget that God’s imprint is on them too. I can’t choose to follow either one…but I can’t dismiss them either. They are made in God’s image just as much as I am.

The message that Jesus wants everyone to hear in the gospel is that It’s pretty easy to see Caesar’s imprint on a coin, but It’s not as easy to see God in each and every person that we meet.

Throughout our lives we’ll are be faced with a choice between two things and we won’t want to choose either one. And Jesus reminds us that when we have two impossible choices, we have to look into the deep recesses of our heart and ask us where God’s imprint is moving us to respond with deep love.

A great example: Maybe we don’t like any of our political officials. The republicans all corrupt, the democrats are all power hungry…

But maybe God is calling us to see where we need to stand up for injustice and Occupy Wall Street. Or work for the poor to combat urban blight in a soup kitchen or to deal with the problem of neglect amongst the elderly.

Jesus reminds us that sometimes we don’t have to choose anything half-heartedly—but rather we can respond to any difficult situation by seeing where God is imprinting himself

I think that’s what it means to be a Christian. It’s not memorizing all the laws like the Pharisees and it’s not falling into hopelessness and despair and believing that nothing lies beyond this human experience like the atheists.

No, the true sign of Christian faith is being able to see God…everywhere.

And in everyone.

Maybe that’s why we come here–because we need to be reminded of God’s image when we miss that in our everyday lives. And at this altar Jesus shows us His image in this Eucharist so that we see not just bread and wine but rather the body and blood of Jesus. We don’t just see a cross of death, we see new life that God offers beyond it.

And we hope that experience changes us so we can see God everywhere.

So let us pray that this week that as we walk through the student union, or wherever life may take us, maybe even among the atheists and the fundamentalists, who often challenge us, let’s pray that we can see God in all things and respond with love to the choices that we are called to make.

And if we do… maybe, just maybe…they will know that we are Christians….by our love.

Could God Be All We Need?

Today’s Gospel tells the story of a King who invites people to a wedding for his son.

But nobody comes.

So he sends servants to invite them again. Not only do people not come this time, but some kill the servants.

Then a final effort is made to have this party and they invite anyone they could find. One however, who does show is not properly dress and is dismissed from the proceedings.

What to make of this? The lesson of today’s gospel is a simple one.

God’s invitation to us is really all we need, but instead we often choose other agenda’s. I’m not merely talking about God’s invitation for us to come to mass, but that’s a good place to start and the Pew Research Team tells us that only 36% of adult Catholics under 65 accept that weekly invitation. I know how much clarity accepting that invitation gives me each week. I often wonder why people stay away, but then I realize that it is those of us who are churchgoers who often do a good job of keeping people away. After all, how many people did I invite to mass this week? Perhaps those servants who invited the people to the feast weren’t very convincing that this party was going to be rockin’? And perhaps we are like those same servants from time to time–giving a half-hearted invitation without truly embracing the inviting assignment?

And perhaps like those servants, the failure to invite well, will also lead us to our death.

You see, God really does provide all that we need. Paul tells us that in wealth or in poverty, God can provide for us always. And those of us who know just how great it can be in letting God provide for us and guide our lives are often too muted in our enthusiasm for what God has done. We leave Mass and horde God for ourselves and live lives as anonymous Christians.

That guy who isn’t properly dressed: That’s me. There are days that I go through the motions at mass and don’t look around at all that God has provided for me, a feast that should indeed make me shout “Alleluia.” Even when we are a bit more contemplative in our spirituality, does our outer demeanor show that we have indeed be changed by our relationship with Jesus?

I think we all know people like that. People who leave that feast changed by what has gone on here–changed by God’s mercy and love.

And they just can’t wait to spread the news of that joy.

Each day that I am silent, I let others believe that God isn’t quite enough for me. I don’t appreciate that invitation and therefore I don’t invite others well. And maybe those that do accept my weak invitation aren’t as well prepared for that feast, mistaking God for something less than He is: A cheap fix or a quick boost of nutrition instead of a feast that never makes you hunger again.

We are the church. Each one of us has the power to show others that our lives have been changed not by our jobs, our wealth or our education. No, we have been changed by God, by the gift of His son–a gift that keeps on giving and that in our weakness we need to be reminded about at least once a week. Can we sustain that joy and live lives of gratitude and enthusiasm for God for the next six days until we return for a reminder of God’s joy once again?

I’d like to think that we can. I’d like to think that I can. And it is with that great joy that I hope that you can…

Come on in where the table is spread…and the feast of Lord is going on.

Tear Down This Wall

My colleague, Julianne Wallace, reminded me that yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. When I was in college the wall fell and it was a huge surprise. Nobody expected the border to open and people flooded to the scene entering back and forth without any issue. My Physics professor even took a special trip and brought back a large chunk of the wall with him. The destruction of the wall was a major blow to all regimes who think that they can keep people out.

And yet…we’re still building walls. Amazingly the same people who rejoiced at Ronald Reagan’s proclamation to tear down the wall are also in favor of putting one up to keep Mexico and other immigrants from Central America and beyond out.

More than the obvious physical structures though, what other walls do we put up? Do we shut someone out after they’ve annoyed us one too many times so that we exile them to the land of Ne’er Do Well? Do we put walls between people who are different from us always maintaining a “them” vs. “us” mentality? For those of us in positions of power and authority, do we build a wall that keeps others subservient to us and keeps them dependent on us as well?

Recently, a student did something to annoy me. I shared my experience with a friend. She cautioned me. “Mike, stay open to her. Try to find a way to work more closely with her. I know she’s made you annoyed, but shutting her out isn’t going to make working with her any easier and not working with her just continues to divide you as well.”

She was right. I was able to salvage an agreement with the student in question and we’ve been good ever since. In fact, she’s even sought my assistance from time to time.

Do we have hearts that are actually gated communities where it’s fine to let some people in but not others? Or can we challenge ourselves today to open those gates of exclusion?

Our gospel today refers to the dogs that long to eat the scraps from the table. As a crazy dog lover I never miss a chance to talk about my dog, Haze and how he often reminds me of how I fail to be a good Christian. For you see, Haze knows no boundaries when it comes to love. He’s always open and never even remembers the times that I’ve forgotten to feed him or made him wait a long time for a walk or the times I’ve yelled at him for having an accident in the house. Imagine if someone did that to any one of us? Or yelled at a five year old for having an accident? We’d immediately cry injustice!

But Haze’s gate is always open. We actually have a little gate by our back door. The gate’s a safety measure because often Haze is so excited when I get home that if the door were open and he was not prevented from running out he just might run out into the middle of the street to greet me! Once he hears anyone at the door, but especially me, I find him right at that gate, “Cmon! Open the gate! Open the gate! I can’t wait to see you! Come pet me and let me lick your face and let’s play for a bit!”

How many of us are able to have that much enthusiasm even for those we love, much less a perfect stranger?

This woman whom everyone excludes in our gospel today has great persistence. Even the dogs, Lord, eat from the scraps. Just a scrap of Jesus is more than enough for her. Jesus applauds her efforts and I even think it changes his heart a bit, for he was even excluding her himself for some reason.

Universities have a way of excluding people as well. The educated and the non-educated. The academics and the students learning. The staff and the faculty. The religious and the atheistic. But perhaps we all need to have the wisdom to stay open to each other and to call one another friend. As semesters begin in a few weeks perhaps we can form new partnerships in open communities of learning and service?

Let us pray today that we are able to remain open. To unlock our hearts when they would rather be bound up with our own protectiveness. Can we be vulnerable enough to tear down the walls of division that alienate us from those who we fear most?

I think we can. One piece at a time. Who or what will you be able to open yourself to today?

Can You Walk on Water?

Today’s gospel is the incredible story of Peter beginning to walk on water only to become afraid at the first gust of wind and begin to sink until Jesus catches him (and presumably rolls his eyes).

There’s a little bit of Peter in each one of us.

Fr. James Keenan, SJ, a great author and an old friend from Fordham once told me the story of one of his classes where he asked a group of High School boys what would be the “proper” reaction if they had thrown a no-hitter and then a respected adult came up to them and told them how great an accomplishment it was.

One young man provided the answer that Fr. Keenan suspected that they’d say.

“Oh go on! It wasn’t THAT good.”

“The proper response,” said Fr. Keenan, “is ‘Thank you!'”

I never forgot that story and it’s always helped me be gracious and help in building self-esteem. Many of our first reactions to praise is an unnecessary humbleness. For some, it may also be an inflated grandiosity as well.

The truth is that God thinks we all walk on water. We all can be Peter. In fact, it would be shameful if we were not “at least Peter.” Because Peter always fails the test, at least the first time out. At one point Jesus reveals his new name “Rock” to him which doesn’t just mean a firm foundation. Some say that he may have meant it sarcastically, and that he was saying that Peter “had rocks in his head!”

Still he built this church on a guy who was just a bit “rocky.”

Last week I reported that the Catholic volunteers called me a Superhero, for my work with them this year. I was quite honored, but if I’m honest, my first reaction was to humbly state that I was not deserving of such praise. They even hint at my humbleness by saying that a statue of me would be much too much! (If only they asked I would have given the go-ahead!)

The truth is that superheroes are much like our saints. Ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They simple become all that they are, nothing more but more importantly, nothing less.

The wisdom in today’s gospel is that Jesus tells Peter that he has the power to walk on water. And he starts to, but at the first sign of trouble Peter doesn’t think he can handle it all and so, he sinks. When others tell us that we are good, do we believe them? Or do we literally push ourselves down and say “Nah, I’m not so good?”

Jesus always sees us as the best version of who we are. It is what he hopes we can be and what he knows we can be as well. He looks at us as if we were Superheroes. People who can do the impossible….

Like walk on water.

But Jesus also knows that there is a bit of Peter in us as well. We all get it wrong, be it under-confidence (Save me, Lord!) or over-confidence (Get behind me, Satan!). And so, Jesus will always be there to catch us when we fall and to tell us that we have rocks in our head each time we fail to believe in ourselves.

Our students are returning to campus soon. This week I pray for them that they might be confident in their studies and courage to become all that they are. May they find the place that God is calling them and answer that call with vigor and confidence.

And may the rest of us be able to be Christ for them when they are sinking and be gracious to all those who do that for us as well.

You Will Do Greater Works Than These


Sunday’s gospel has Jesus imploring his disciples to believe that Jesus and the Father are one. Not an easy idea to grasp in the first place. Then he goes on to tell them that they will do greater works than these…

Well the question I have is what would Jesus consider greater works?

And perhaps we place too much emphasis on the miracles that Jesus performs and even more so, we place a lot of stock in the “magic trick” aspect of Jesus’ ministry.

The truth of the gospel today is that having faith is the greatest work that we can accomplish, because simply put, God doesn’t need to have faith in himself. And when things start to rain down around us, isn’t it almost impossible some days to believe in God at all, much less a God who claims to love us above all things?

When people get cancer or when wars take innocent lives, having faith in God isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. There often crosses that we bear that cause us to forget about that first cross, that cross that some of us wear around our necks. That cross that doesn’t represent violence and anger and death for us, no….we have the gift of being able to look beyond the cross into the resurrection and into everlasting life.

But when we are mired in our own tragedies, it’s not so easy to look beyond them. Our crosses put us in the same place that they put Jesus….

We doubt. We yell, ‘MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME.”

Perhaps, we are called to greater works than Jesus did. Perhaps each time when we are on our cross, we are called to look beyond it into hope. And being people of hope can cause us to act just a bit different, if we are open enough to believe.

Younger people today are often absent from our pews. Studies show perhaps less than 10% of people in their 20s and 30s even bother to show up on Sunday. Can we be hopeful about that? Can we show the world that we can believe in a God in the midst of school shootings, natural disasters and terrorism? Can we have faith that somehow, God turns things all around and redeems our crosses and brings us all into resurrection?

Our first reading is the first ordination of Deacons. And I believe that Deacons, ordained men who hold jobs and have families in the world are one of our strongest signs of faith in the world. But it can’t be up to them alone. We all need to be that sign of hope. We must be the sign of the cross in the world, the sign that says that to the ordinary eye this cross is not the end but rather is a sign of God’s love to all of us. And moreover, we must be the sign that God goes beyond the cross, beyond our death, beyond our remorse and our fear into a new and glorified life.

If we believed that truly in our hearts would we ever be afraid again? Wouldn’t we walk with greater joy? Wouldn’t we have more enthusiasm for our faith? Wouldn’t our young people be drawn here and wouldn’t we all be driven from here on fire for the world’s poor and suffering?

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to believe that we will do greater works than Jesus. And the first of many acts is simply to have faith when our hearts our troubled.

The rest will spring from the joy we express because we believe.

A final story: My wife’s uncle Andy died from complications after a simple surgery. But well before that, he once said to me that he was unafraid to die. He was a deacon in his parish in New Jersey and a father and grandfather. He was a constant visitor to his aging parents and he loved to baptize little babies. At his wake a young man who Andy served as a spiritual director was quite distraught by Andy’s death and after sitting with him for some time comforting him he said something that summed up Andy’s life quite well.

“The truth is often scary. And Deacon Andy told me that when we face our truth and really live lives that correspond with who God calls us to be, we will be freed from that fear that prevents us from becoming all that we are. And more importantly, that keeps us from real joy.”

May we all find that joy, the joy that Andy knew deeply and shared with others. And on this day when we read in scripture of our first deacons may we be reminded by them of that same joy that they bring to the world.

Meeting Jesus in Misery – Update

It was the worst news we could imagine. We never expected it to happen. We thought everything was just sailing along smoothly, in fact life had been better than it ever had been.

Until now…

This week had been a good one for me. I wrote an op-ed for the Buffalo News that got rave reviews. I was elected co-conveneer of the UB Campus Ministry Association. One of my favorite students had been chosen to be a Catholic Volunteer in Buffalo. National Public Radio interviewed me for a story on their website. And I had not one, but two promising book deals on the horizon.

And then there was Thursday…when the phone rang.

“Hello my sister!” I said, happy to hear her voice. “How are you?”

Her response was blunt, “I’m full of colon cancer.”

The world stopped right there. I was on the road to what I thought was a wonderful summer, a wonderful end to the semester. And now…well, I didn’t know what to think.

This was not unlike our disciples today who also had high hopes for Jesus–the one they expected to redeem Israel. And then….

Crucifixion. Death. Entombment. And then crazy women told them that he was alive. It seemed like a cruel joke when they returned to the tomb and found it empty but didn’t find Jesus.

That 7 mile walk, must’ve been quite disconcerting. What were they to do? They had given up their very lives for this Jesus and now he was dead. All was lost and the worst possible news had indeed happened.

We all end up on the road to Emmaus, at one point or another. It’s a road that none of us want to be on. It’s scary. It’s unfamiliar. It’s an unexpected experience. It’s a road that nobody ever wants to walk on alone.

And these two disciples were no different knowing that they needed one another for support in these most dire of times. And then luck struck. A stranger who comes and offers them more companionship. Sometimes isn’t it just great to get an unbiased opinion of things? And this guy turns things upside down and gives them hope, renews their faith so that they just might believe one last time that perhaps death and suffering may not be the final word.

We don’t know what is going to happen to my sister. For our graduates tonight, you don’t know what awaits you either as you leave. But we do know two things:

The first is that no matter how many good things happen to you, the occasional bad one will come your way and it will stop you in your tracks. None of us escape suffering.

But the second one is the good news of the gospel…whenever we are on that scary road to Emmaus, when all seems lost, Jesus comes and will meet each one of us on that road. And quite often, we’ll all be too tied up with our our fear, or hate, or stubbornness, or pain that we will just miss him altogether. We’ll need a reminder. And so we come here and break the bread and have our eyes opened and are called into belief one more time, supported in belief by a faith community.

Eventually on that road, we all come in for a rest stop. We are able to come to a place where all are welcome, indeed where there are no strangers. Where each of us meets that Jesus in disguise–in one another–and we are never the same again. It is there where we realize that he is alive again…and has been with us always even in the most troublesome times of our lives. It is when we come around this table that we remind ourselves that suffering, or poverty, or losing a job, or failure….

Or even Cancer will not have the final word.

No, God always offers us something else. Something better. God offers us Himself. And it is more than enough.

May we always be able to see that. And may our prayers for one another keep that sure and certain hope alive and burning in our hearts….

No matter what hand life deals us.

UPDATE for those interested: My sister received some preliminary good news yesterday. It seems as if no “fast moving cancer” is in her system. We’ll know more about the stage of colon cancer and prognosis once blood work comes back in 5-8 days. I think my big sister is about to kick cancer’s ass. Thanks for the prayers.

So Just Who the Hell is in Hell Anyway?

Most would find it unbelievable that the Catholic Church has never definitively claimed that anyone is in hell. Not Judas, Not Hitler, Not Stalin, Not Bin Laden.

Now that also doesn’t mean that none of these people aren’t in hell either. It’s just that we can’t claim definitive proof.

The Christian Century blog took up that topic and David Heim makes some interesting points including this summary of Hans Urs Von Bathasar’s teaching on hell.

In his book Dare We Hope ‘That All Men Be Saved’? the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar does not deny the existence of hell or argue for anything like universalism, but he does show how nuanced the discussion of hell can be even within the parameters of strict orthodoxy. Balthasar argues that the salvation of all is the will of God (as scripture says) and that it is proper for the church to pray that God’s will be done. Therefore, he concludes, if the church is truly acting out of love and hope, it can and perhaps must pray that all will saved. (emphases mine)

Balthasar’s approach would, I suspect, lead to the same practical approach to the world as (Rob) Bell’s assertion that God’s love “wins.”

Perhaps the best wisdom on hell is summed up by this old axiom: Only an ass would deny the existence of hell, and only an ox would pretend to know who is in it.

Indeed. And that’s exactly what we’ve been saying all week.

Is It Wrong to Celebrate Bin Laden’s Death?

Linton Weeks from National Public Radio emailed me after reading some of my comments on the need to forgive Bin Laden. And he wrote this outstanding column exploring much of the same questions. I’m quoted extensively in this so I’ll just quote from there and let you read the remainder of the column.

Not ‘Our Finest Moment’

The Roman Catholic Church responded to the news of bin Laden’s death with this statement: “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.”

“I think that’s on the mark,” says Mike Hayes, a campus minister at the University at Buffalo. “As a Catholic Christian, I cannot celebrate the death of anyone, especially when it is done violently. Naturally, my human nature fights against that idealism, especially when I think of those who I lost personally that day and all those who lost their life on 11 September.”

However, adds Hayes, who runs the Googling God blog for young adults, “I don’t think that the celebrations in the streets were our finest moment as Americans, and reminded me much of the anger I felt at seeing Afghans dancing in the streets at the fall of the Towers on that dreaded day.”

Hayes says: “We are called to forgiveness. And that is the only way that we can be truly free. Holding onto our hatred keeps us in slavery to bin Laden’s madness and gives the terrorists continued power over us.”

There is also a sense of false elation, he adds, “because many believe that the world is a safer place because of this death. That relief is probably misguided.”

Misguided indeed. The world might indeed be more precarious today that ever before. As a former New York City resident and now a resident of Buffalo, I remarked to a friend, “It’s a good day to live in Western NY. I don’t think I’d be too eager to take the subway today.”

Milennials certainly have grown up in this culture of terrorism and now that Bin Laden has died, there was a need for a collective sigh of relief, a sigh that grew into rampant celebration–something I found to be detestable, but understandable.

A former intern of mine wrote me from Singapore yesterday and had a good comment or two.

Its a catharsis for our young generation that the bogey man is dead. Not all bogey men, but one of them…the problem is in the real world the bogey man still is a human. And we must recognize him for his faults and maybe his virtue.

But right now we all have a lot of emotion kicking around that gets in front of that vital point, emotions that are valid, and real. Give it a second, and you will see the millenials will figure it out. To paraphrase an Irish writer I can’t remember. “its good enough to know that he was a man and that he lived” usually thats reserved for the over eulogized, but in this case its equally poignant.

Indeed. Excellent comments. A colleague of mine today asked why the world is any more precarious for the millinnials then it was for children of the 50 and 60s with the fallout shelters and air raid drills. As a Gen Xer we were scared to death of the Russians. However, today, we don’t really know the enemy as well. We don’t always know where the enemy will turn up. That, coupled with the over-parenting that many millennials have been raised with and the world can often seem far too scary and that we have far too few ways to battle back.

And JK on the NPR Website added this:

J K (phillipaj) wrote:
I’m glad that this question is being asked. Frankly, I was disturbed by the pictures and video of people rejoicing, jumping up and down with the American flag, and holding beers. This man was a killer and the world is safer without him, but to celebrate anyone’s death seems morbid and inappropriate to me.

Osama Bin Laden killed thousands of people – those people are still dead. As a result of 9/11, we invaded two countries – we are still there. Soldiers have died, been maimed, been severely injured, committed suicide – they are still dead or injured. Civilians have died, been maimed, been severely injured, committed suicide – they are still dead or injured.

To see mostly college students, who are here safe in America spending their days in the library, celebrating with beers while soldiers and civilians are still fighting and dying and trying to just survive another day, seemed to me disrespectful and out of touch. And I write this as a recent college graduate: I know that I was and am removed from most of the real implications of the after-effects of 9/11. Osama is dead, but let’s not forget that the impact of his actions and others’ reactions will continue to affect the world for many, many decades to come.

We continue to pray for peace and hope that we can show more decorum so that the rest of the world can continue to respect us.