Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Scary Poor Guy

“Lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores.”

On the grounds of St. Barnabas we have a statue that looks like a homeless man begging for money. It has recently been moved closer to the front entrance of the church. This, needless to say, has caused some anxiety. I’ve noticed as people walk by it. Especially if it is their first time seeing it, they are noticeably disturbed. I can see the repulsed look on their face, the questioning eyes, the tensing of their body and their body turning away with their head looking back over their shoulders literally walking as far away from it as possible. Sometimes people will even make big loops around the statue to avoid getting close. I’ve had a number of people ask me: “Father, what’s the deal with that statue? Why is there a scary poor guy there? It’s kind creepy, especially for the kids.” And then without any explanation I walk over to it, motion for them to come up close and bend down low. “Look close,” is all I say. And then momentarily, there is a wonderful moment of realization. They see the nail mark in his hand and begin to realize who it is. They get down lower and closer so they can see under the hood that it is the face of Christ. It’s very powerful.

I have to say at first glance I wasn’t sure about this statue either. But I think what makes it a work of art is that it is so effective in conveying the Gospel message and the reality of how we react to the poor. Clement Cody, who donated the statue, told me how the original sits on the steps of Ave Maria University, in Florida, near the Cleveland Clinic. Weekly the police would get a call about the bum on the stairs.

Think about the last time you saw a homeless person on the street, maybe you were going to the air show or an Indians game this summer or a Browns game more recently. How did you react when you saw a homeless person? What was your initial inclination? What did you feel? How did you respond?

I find that my natural reaction has been to avoid, to walk around them, even if need be to step over them.
That is why I think the statue is so effective. It has that same effect on us. It disturbs us. But, when we got over my initial fear, uneasiness, and avoidance and have the courage to approach the figure, stepping up close, we discover that not only is there nothing to be afraid of, but there’s actually something beautiful there. It is Christ disguised as the beggar.

I know that it’s always been very hard for me to approach the poor. I’ve been afraid of them, uncomfortable, and even disturbed by them at times. Wanting to avoid them, I’ve turned my face, stepped around them, and at times, even over them. But there have been people who have helped me to get over that fear and I have come to see the face of Christ right here in the poor of Cleveland.

The Labre project began when students from St. Ignatius High School set out in a van with some left over food and hot chocolate. They went into the streets of downtown Cleveland and gave the food away to the homeless people they saw who were often sleeping on the streets, alleys, and sidewalks. They discovered that they enjoyed the people they encountered on the streets so much so that they went out again the next Sunday; and continued to go out every Sunday after that. This has evolved into the Labre Project. The name comes for Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, the patron saint of homeless people. It was brought to John Carroll University by a group of Ignatius alumni in 2004 and has continued to grow since then. Now Students from Walsh Jesuit have joined by also taking an evening to care for the poor and meet them personally.

I was able to go with some of the students form John Carroll during one of their winter breaks. These students showed me something I will never forget. They know personally the poor people of Cleveland by name. They know where they live: under bridges, down valleys, in the woods, by the rail road tracks, and in shacks and tents beyond the “road closed” signs. Their purpose is not just to give them something to eat and a blanket to warm them up, but also to warm their spirits. They spend some time talking to them, praying with them, taking down notes of anything they need, and asking them if they can help with any social services or personal favors.

One of the men we met lived under a bridge. It was the dead of winter with beautiful thick snow falling down inches in a matter of hours. As the students walked closer they called out his name. There he lay stretched out on a shopping cart, converted to a fold out bed, with mattress and sleeping bag. He opened up his hooded sweatshirt a little from around his face and a puff of fog came from his mouth. He was so grateful that these students came to see him. And you could tell that it was a regular occurrence. He smiled, his eyes began to tear up, and talked and joked with us. “Hard times, he said, but I’m doing all right, I’m actually really warm in here.” “Anything you need?” our guide asked who was a nineteen year old young lady, with long hair, an upbeat personality, and an extrovert, to say the least. “How ‘bout a blanket?” she asked. “No, I’m good” he said, “There’s probably someone else colder than I am. Save it for them.” This homeless man turned down an extra blanket for the chance of someone else needing it more than he did. He did take a fresh pair of socks and some hot soup though. As we talked, I noticed how gentle he was with the young students, and how concerned they were about him.

In a matter of a few hours, our van covered the east side, while the second van went to the near west side. On the west side, we probably saw a dozen people like that before finishing at one of the drop in centers that sheltered people overnight. Each homeless person kindly helping me see, “Christ is in the poor, do not be afraid to approach him.” These dedicated college students introduced me personally to the poor of Cleveland. Hopefully, I will never have to turn my head from them, walk around them, avoid them, or step over them again.

Today’s Gospel reading haunts me:

'My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.'

How do we prevent this chasm from beginning in our lives? We prevent the chasm by eliminating the rift that exists between us and the poor in this life. When we see someone poor on the streets and turn our heads, we create the chasm. When we live very comfortable and elaborate lives failing to care for the poor and the needy, we are digging that chasm. When we encounter poor literally at our feet and fail to acknowledge them, stoop down to them, and see Christ in them, we are deepening the chasm.

Christ does come to us disguised as the poor beggar. We can only get over that fear if we come to know him. I know of no better way than meeting them personally. We, here in the Diocese of Cleveland, are blessed with many ways of doing this:

-The Labre program is one way to meet the poor.

Read quotes from others experiences

-Another of my personal favorites is the West Side Catholic Center Here you can cook for the poor, give them clothing, register them, or just share a meal with them and learn their story.

-Cleveland Catholic Charities does just about everything that you can imagine for the poor and disadvantaged

-And, here locally at our parish (and likely at your own parish) is the St. Vincent de Paul Program (Call the main office 330.467.7959 and ask for Mike, from St. Vincent de Paul). There are poor right here in our parish and in our area who come to the doorsteps of the church.

If we avoid caring for the poor both personally and financially, we deepen the chasm between us and God in everlasting life. I know that meeting the poor helped me personally to get over the fear. Do you avoid the poor? Do you give to them on a regular basis? Are you willing to give up some comfort so that other’s may be comforted? If the answer is no, then maybe one of these programs will help you see in them the Body of Christ. And the next time you see “the poor lying at your door” you will not avoid them, but encounter them, comfort them, see the face of Christ in them, and help destroy the chasm that exists between us.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Marriage, a Sacrament of Enduring Love Where You Cannot Serve both God and Mammon

No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon."

This is Catechetical Sunday. Each year during this Sunday a new theme is announced for the year. Last year’s theme was the Year for Priests. This year’s theme is “Matrimony: Sacrament of Enduring Love.”

So I’ve tried to weave together the theme for the year and the readings for today’s Liturgy – which warn us not to neglect the poor. It was an interesting challenge.

St. Ambrose “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”

So many married couples operate under the premise that their primary responsibility as a parent is to provide for the material well being of their children – a house, cars, food, education. This is all well and good, but it is NOT your primary obligation. Your primary obligation is to live out the Gospels in your own life. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

As I began to reflect on this and some of the married couples that I know that live out this Gospel call to serve the poor, a few couples immediately come to mind. These three couples have witnessed to me how married love can be lived out in a way that serves God and not mammon.

From the dunghill he lifts up the poor (today’s Psalm 113:7)

The first couple I would like to reflect on I actually know through my father. My father’s doctor growing up was Dr. Phil Gigliotti. Over the last few years I have gotten to know Dr. G on a very spiritual level. Whenever I stop to visit him at his office I notice he is always talking to his patients, his drug reps, his staff about Jesus. He has stacks of bibles in his office that he gives to random people that stop in. One time when I was there he got a call from a girl considering an abortion. He told her “I need you to drop what you are doing come in here right now because we need to pray.” But what I have come to love and admire most about Dr. G is that he and his wife have been to Mexico a handful of times together (Dr. G has been there over 25 times). They take their vacation time and go to the Garbage dumps where people are living in absolute filth. Dr. Phil and his wife drive up in a bus and set up a table and chairs in the mist of the piles of garbage and talk to the people, pray with them, give them vitamins and medicine, clothes and toiletries and toys. They are literally lifting the poor from the dunghill. He has shared with me how his whole life and his marriage has been impacted by this. They clearly are a couple who serve God and not mammon. You cannot serve both God and mammon."

St. Barnabas is blessed to have a mission team that goes to El Salvador. Maybe God is calling you to come to know the poor in this way. It is a big step and a sacrifice of time and money, but it will change who you are forever. Could you imagine what that would be like if you; husband and wife came with us to “lift up the poor?” Maybe there is a group in your own parish that does this or it is something that you have always wanted to do. Take the radical step and your life will be forever changed.

Prepare a full account of your stewardship (today’s Gospel)

The second couple I would like to reflect on is a couple that I met on my internship parish at St. John Vianney. Don and Anne Craven have taught me a lesson that has forever impacted my priesthood. When I was newly ordained and after being a student for almost thirty years I was finally getting a salary. Don offered to help me set up a budget. I warned him that I don’t even balance my check book and I don’t want to. He laughed and said that he had worked with worse. I trust Don because not only is he a man of integrity but he is also a very savvy business man. He develops and manages hotel operations all over and oversees huge projects. As he sat with me and told me about different things that should be in a budget he said this is one thing I would really encourage you to build into your budget – tithing. He than witnessed to me how he began to tithe, giving 10% of everything he made to the poor. If he got a Christmas bonus, say $10,000 at the end of the year. He would hand the priest a check for $1,000. Every pay check that he cashed – 10%. He and his wife taught their children this as well. With every allowance they received 10% would go to whatever organization they wanted to give to. He went on to tell me of the blessings that came with tithing and how God multiplied and gave back in abundance. You cannot serve both God and mammon."

This layman and his family have been my inspiration. Because of their witness to me I have been tithing from the time I was ordained. Every gift I have received – 10% goes to the poor. Every pay check I have cashed – 10% goes to the poor. Every stipend that I receive from a wedding or funeral or talk or card with a little money in it – 10% goes to the poor. I can’t begin to tell you what a privilege this has been to me and a joy to have this practice of tithing. I share this, at the risk of “already receiving my own reward” to show how a couple fully living out their vocation to marriage, and giving to the poor, has helped me to be the priest that I am.

Tithing is a wonderful way of Stewardship and a way to serve God and not Manna? Do you tithe? What would it be like if you and your spouse and your children gave 10% of everything you received to the poor?

No servant can serve two masters. (Today’s Gospel)

The third couple I would like to reflect on I got to know my first year at the seminary. Every year we were assigned a different ministry: prison ministry, teaching at a grade school, visiting a hospital, or volunteering at a shelter. My first assignment was to go every to the West Side Catholic Center. I went there on Wednesdays and I met a couple who had been going every Wednesday for years. He would work in the kitchen preparing the meal for lunch and she would work up front at the counter registering people, assigning them mail boxes, getting their mail, arranging for social services, or giving them access to a shower. To this day any Wednesday I stop in they are there. This couple has given me a beautiful example of a married couple in service to the poor. You cannot serve both God and mammon."

We have a great opportunity this weekend to help the poor with the “Father Beiting Appalachian Collection.” Take this opportunity to go through your house with your children and give some of your own possessions to the poor and needy. Every parish has a St. Vincent de Paul or similar organization that you could volunteer with.

The West Side Catholic Center is always in need of help both with donations and volunteering. Can you imagine the lesson this would forever teach your children if you went down there as a family? What a way to serve God and not mammon.

Dr. Phil and his wife lifting the poor from the dunghill and garbage dumps, Don and Anne who taught me how to tithe, and the couple that witnessed to me service to the poor at the Westside Catholic Center, I have been inspired by the way that they live out their marriage. During this year where we uphold the dignity of Marriage as a Sacrament of Enduring love, may this love reach beyond our own families and touch those who are poor. “You cannot serve both God and mammon."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Homily: The Return of the Prodigal Son, Thinking Rationally

“What made the Prodigal Son take those first steps in coming home?”

I think it was disappointment in the world. He’d spent and wasted his entire inheritance and when he was hungry no one gave back to him. “He longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but no one gave him anything.”

I know when I’m not at home when I invest myself and my resources and find myself depleted. When I keep trying to be fed by someone or something that can’t feed me in the way that only God can. I think it’s basically the nature of addiction that we try and try to feed ourselves with something that will never feed us. The definition of Insanity is “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What allowed the Son to come home is that he did something differently and began to think rationally. The scripture says “He came to his senses and thought.” Instead of asking the same people over and over again and acting irrationally and insanely and trying to feed on the swine and the prostitutes and the partying. He had a movement of rational thinking…. “Hmmmm… I bet if I went home to my Father, he would feed me.”

A good indicator of irrational thinking is: Frustration, irritability, exhaustion, compulsion, shame, guilt, denial, despair, desolation. If you are experiencing any of these you may be acting irrationally and you may have unknowingly walked away from the Father’s embrace.

We can very easily and quickly get ourselves into bad situations. It begins with small steps, a few lies that we tell ourselves or others and before we know it we can get ourselves in some pretty unthinkable situations.

Is there something in your life right now that is not life giving? Is there something that is draining you? Are you involved in something that you never thought you would be involved in? Is there some way of living that is totally irrational for you?

So what changed in the younger son? Ultimately it was his thinking. He came to his senses and began to think rationally.

What could have been his irrational thoughts that kept him miserable and kept him from returning home?

-nobody loves me.

-I have to take care of myself.

-I’ve destroyed my life.

-I can never go back

-I’m disgusting

-I am a pervert

-I want this life of indulging my feelings

-I want to be independent. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.

-I’m never going to find work

-I’m never going to be fed

-I’m never going to be happy

-my life is worthless

-I’ve gone too far and can never go back

-My father will never forgive me for what I’ve done

-I’m not worth anything

-I’m no longer his son

-things could never be the way they were

These are all untrue and irrational thoughts. These could have been some of the thoughts that allowed him to wallow in the mud. And these are thoughts that we all may experience when we are at our worst. But what changed in the prodigal son that allowed him to take those first steps home? He began to think rationally. At one defining moment “He came to his senses and THOUGHT.”

Coming to his senses he thought,
'How many of my father's hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."'

Instead of: “Nobody Loves me.” A more rational thought is: “Well yes, actually there is one person that loves me: My Father. “

-I have to take care of myself. Well, no actually, I don’t have to. I was never meant to, that’s what the Father is for.

-I’ve destroyed my life. Nothing has the power to destroy what God creates. There is nothing he can’t redeem. I may have made some bad choices, but the Father can restore me.

-I can never go back. I can go back – he will run to me and love me.

-I’m disgusting – I am created in the image and likeness of God, I am beautiful in his eyes.

-I want this life of indulging my feelings – the indulgence brings such a temporary satisfaction and it’s never enough, I always want more than I can get. What I truly want can only be fulfilled by the Father.

-I want to be independent. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. Following my own will has led me to this place, maybe it’s time I listen to God and the Church.

-I’m never going to find work. I’m having a difficult time right now, but God created me to take part in work and if I return to him he will give me work.

-I’m never going to be fed. I’m not receiving the sustenance I need right now, but if I go back to the one who is the source I will be fed.

-I’m never going to be happy. I’m having a difficult time being happy now because of the circumstance that I am in, but the Father does promise me happiness and he desires it for me even more than I desire it for myself.

-My life is worthless. My life is not worthless; it has a value beyond what I can imagine because I am created by God.

-I’ve gone too far and can never go back. The Father is never separated from me and He always invites me back. Nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord.

-My Father will never forgive me for what I’ve done. I can’t be sure he won’t forgive me, but I can give him the chance.

-I’m not worth anything. I have worth because I am my Father’s son.

-I’m no longer his son. I am still his son and nothing can change that.

-Things could never be the way they were. With God all things are possible. Maybe things won’t be the way that they were, they could be even better.

It was in that moment of coming to his sense and thinking rationally that the Son had the courage to take those first steps. And as enterers onto His Father’s property, the Father sees him, is filled with great compassion, runs to him, embraces him and kisses him.

All it takes is a step onto the property one moment of rational thinking. Just as the Son knew intrinsically that the Father would take him back. You know deep within too that God will accept you. Just give God a little indication that you want to come home and he will run to you. If you find yourself in any situation that is draining you, demoralizing you, imprisoning you, starving you, saddening you, depressing you, and you’ve repeatedly done the same thing over and over and gotten the same results. Stop the insanity, stop thinking irrationally. Come to your senses and think rationally. Do something different. Take a step back onto the Father’s property.

Think about it. You don’t have to be miserable. You can come back to him. Seek him in those that know you and love you. Seek him in the sobriety that can come with counseling and community. Seek him in the sacrament of confession. Seek him here in the Eucharist where he does feed us. Come back to his embrace and stop seeking it in places where you are not finding it. You are loved, you are welcome back. God is filled with compassion too as he sees you take that first step onto his property. He will run to you, kiss you, hold you in His arms and rejoice because the “son of his that was lost has now been found, the one who was dead has now been brought back to life.”