Sunday, September 30, 2018

Your Choice: Gehenna or To Be With Jesus Forever?

In the Gospel at Mass today (26th Sunday, Ordinary Time, Cycle B) from the 9th chapter of Mark, Jesus mentions "Gehenna" three times.  What's this "Gehenna?"  It's an actual place.  Before the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land, other peoples had used this valley outside of Jerusalem as a place to offer child sacrifices to their idols.  The Jews considered it such an unholy and unclean place that it was good for only one thing--burning garbage.

Jesus used "Gehenna" 11 times in the Gospels as an image for hell. 

Hell is not something you hear about much.  It does show up as an expression of anger or hatred.  We use it to condemn our enemies or someone who has done a particularly heinous crime: "I hope they rot in hell!" 

For many it's hard to reconcile hell with a good, all-powerful, and infinitely loving God.  How could God send anyone to hell?

God doesn't.  People choose it. 

The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" says that the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (#1033). 

And Pope St. John Paul II said that hell "is not a punishment imposed externally by God" because "God is the infinitely good and merciful Father" who "can only desire the salvation of the beings He created" (General Audience, July 28, 1999).  God can only will or want our good.  But God cannot force that ultimate good of heaven upon us.  Love must be free.  God cannot force people into heaven.  They must freely choose to go.  And if they choose not to go, then there must be another option for them. 

There are some things that are simply incompatible with heaven.  There is no room for the jealousy that we see Joshua exhibiting in our first reading (Numbers 11: 25-29).  Nor is there room for the injustice and greed that James talks about in the second reading (James 5: 1-6).  There is no room for sin in heaven. 

Professor and author Peter Kreeft, who teaches at Boston College, has a shocking remark about this.  In his book "Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing," he says that "God does not forgive sins."  Then he goes on to explain that God "forgives sinners and destroys sins" (186).  That makes sense.  God loves sinners and hates sin.  God sees how much sin damages our relationship with him and with one another.  It hurts and damages our very selves and leads to all kinds of misery.  So God wants to free people of their sins and throw them into the garbage dump of the cosmos--hell. 

I grew up fearing God, that God would send me to hell.  I thought that if I were running to church for Saturday afternoon confession in order to get rid of a moral sin and got hit by a car I would hit the greasy shoot to hell. 

I have a different idea now.  It seems more and more clear that death is a process rather than a moment.  We see this from near death experiences in which people have, for all practical purposes, died; their brain waves have stopped as well as their hearts.  And they somehow return to tell stories of an experience of a life beyond this life. 

I believe that no matter who we are and what we believe we all meet Jesus face to face as we die.  And he asks us one question: "Do you want to be with me forever?"  We might hesitate, feeling shame and unworthiness for our sins.  But Jesus presses on, asking us again, "Yes, I know, but do you want to be with me forever?"  Or we might ask if we can be with him on our terms, holding on to something that has no place in heaven.  Jesus will tell us we can't bring that in; we have to let go.

This is so important to Jesus that in today's Gospel he tells us that if we're holding on to something sinful, it would be better to cut off our hand so that it and the sin we cling to do not prevent us from entering his Kingdom.  Or if we hold on to sin with our eyes, we should pluck them out because that sin does not belong in heaven.  It's garbage that needs to be thrown away.

We might wonder: how could anyone say "no" to Jesus' invitation?  I think of how people can hold on to bitter resentments.  I can imagine people answering "yes" but then, as they cross the threshold of heaven they see someone who has hurt them terribly or an enemy.  "What's he doing here?"  Jesus answers: "He admitted he had done wrong and asked for my forgiveness and I forgave him."  And the response could be: "Well, you may have forgiven him for what he did to me but I will never forgive him. I would rather rot in hell than to spend one minute much less eternity with him." 

We are here on earth for one thing: to learn how to live in heaven.  In heaven there is no selfishness, no lustful using other people for one's pleasure.  There is no greed and injustice, no envy or deceit.  There is no racism and hatred.  There is no unforgiveness. 

We have to let go of those things here.  We need to throw out the garbage, lest we end up clinging to it in the cosmic garbage dump that Jesus called Gehenna.  We don't want anything to stand in the way of answering immediately and whole-heartedly "YES!" when Jesus asks us "Do you want to be with me forever." 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Tom Burnett's Offering

In the Gospel at Mass today (Mark 8: 27-35) Jesus asks his disciples what people are thinking and saying about him.  "Who do people say I am?"  People think he is the reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or another of the prophets of old.  Then Jesus asks, "but who do you say that I am?"  Peter gets it right.  Having spent some time with Jesus, he can rely on his own experience and not on what others say about him.  He answers correctly: "You are the Christ."  You are the Anointed One of God, the Messiah.

But then Peter gets it wrong.  As Jesus teaches the disciples that "the Son of Man must suffer greatly, and be rejected by" the leaders, "and be killed, and rise after three days," Peter "rebukes" Jesus.  This must never happen to you!  Jesus in turn "rebukes" Peter, calling him "Satan," the tempter who tries to prevent humanity from following God's will. 

Peter and the disciples think that the Messiah will exhibit great military might and overcome the oppression of the hated Roman occupying force.  Jesus teaches that instead the Messiah will fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, one of which we have in our first reading from chapter 50, in which the Anointed One of God will save through suffering. 

We too are called to know Jesus and not simply know about him.  This knowledge comes from a personal relationship with him.  How do we find that today, so many years after Jesus walked this earth with his disciples?  First, we encounter Jesus in the Scriptures.  There we not only read about Jesus but we meet him.  He speaks to us.  We encounter him in an intimate way in the Eucharist where Jesus renews his total offering of himself for our salvation and gives himself to us in a holy communion.  And we encounter Jesus in the Church, the Body of Christ.  We meet him in one another.

We too are "anointed ones of God."  At baptism we became part of the Messiah's Body, the Body of the Christ and we were anointed.  We became "Christians" or anointed ones through the sacred chrism which we received.  We are anointed as Jesus was and so we share in the work of the Messiah who came not to save Israel from the Romans but to save humanity from sin and from death.  Being Christians does not mean that we will be free from suffering.  Instead, through our own sufferings and daily crosses we will work with Jesus to free the world from sin. 

Last week we celebrated the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001 when terrorists commandeered four planes.  Three of them hit their targets--the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  One did not; because of the heroes on board it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

Some years ago I spoke about these events at a retreat and after my talk a man named Vince came and
told me that his college roommate was Tom Burnett, one of those heroes.  When Vince went to the memorial service for Tom back in his hometown of Bloomington, MN, he thought at first that he had the wrong person.  The man described by those who offered eulogies was someone who went to Mass every day.  The "Tom Burnett" Vince remembered was someone who had drifted away from the practice of the faith. 

After the service Vince introduced himself to Tom's widow Deena and asked what had happened in the years since he had last seen Tom.  Deena explained that Tom had returned to the practice of his faith. She said that several years before his death he had stopped coming home for lunch.  His job, at a medical technology company in California, was close to where he lived and he used to come home for lunch.  When he stopped coming home for lunch, Deena thought he was just putting in longer hours.  Six months before his death he told Deena that he had been going to daily Mass at a local church.  He explained that he felt God was calling him to do something but he didn't know what.  He figured that if he went to Mass and prayed he would receive an answer.  He had a growing sense that he was going to do something big that would impact a lot of people.  And, Deena told Vince, he knew one more thing: it had something to do with the White House.

You can just imagine this ordinary guy having a sense that God was calling him to something that he hadn't planned.  And that it had something to do with the White House.  Imagine him thinking: "I plans to go into politics, much less run for president.  What's my life got to do with the White House?"

On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House.  He knew where that plane was headed.  He and the others acted, sacrificing themselves so that a greater tragedy would not occur.  They couldn't get control of the plane but they were able to crash it in a field near Shanksville, PA.

What Tom and the others did was heroic. 

As Christians we are all called to be heroic--to sacrifice ourselves, like the Messiah, like Tom, for the good of others.  When children put aside their own desires to obey their parents, they are being heroic.  When parents love their children in difficult circumstances, they're being heroic.  When grandparents care for grandchildren because the parents are not there for them, they are heroes.  When spouses care for their husbands and wives afflicted with Alzheimer's, they are loving heroically. 

Where do we get the understanding, the courage, and the strength to be heroes?  Where Tom Burnett did.  From the Word and Sacrament, from the encounter with Jesus, that is available every Sunday, in fact, every day. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Listening Versus Hearing

If you had to make a choice, would you rather be blind or deaf?  I count among my Jesuit friends one who is blind and one who is deaf.  Having lived with both of them at various times, I'm hard pressed to answer my own question.

If you are blind you have less independence.  You need others to help you get around. But often that leads to greater sympathy and help.

If you are deaf you are able to get around and to be more independent but you are also more isolated.  Communication can be a big problem.  When I lived with a deaf man our community took turns mouthing the words of lectures and homilies and what was being said at large community meetings.  And some people, because they had to make exaggerated lip movements in order to be understood, were too proud or impatient to do so.  There is also a prejudice associated with people who are called "deaf and dumb."  In the book and movie "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" there is a deaf man whom some refer to as "Dummy."

In the Gospel at Mass today (Mark 7: 31-37), Jesus opens the ears and mouth of a man.  He facilitates that man's ability to communicate--to hear and to speak.  But there is a deeper meaning to what Jesus did and we see it in a short ceremony within the Baptismal rite.  At one point the priest or deacon touches the ears and mouth of the one being baptized and says: "The Lord Jesus made the deaf to hear and the dumb speak.  May he soon touch your ears to receive his Word and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father." 

This little ceremony shows us that it is not enough to hear and to speak.  We must listen and act.

Recall last week's second reading from chapter 1 of the Letter of James: "Be doers of the word and not hearers only." 

In today's second reading from James (2: 1-5) we hear about the prejudices and judgments that people make between those who are rich and those who are poor, those who are well-dressed and those who have shabby clothes.  We must not only "hear" the words of James.  We must listen to them and respond, making sure that we do not treat our brothers and sisters, all of whom are made in God's image, differently based on their race, country of origin, or economic status.

And in the first reading from Isaiah (35: 4-7) we hear the challenging words: "Be strong, fear not!"  It's not enough to hear those words.  We must listen to them, take them to heart, and live them.  In other words, the best way that one can "proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father," as the Baptismal rite prays, is to receive this Word of God, allow it to transform one, and then live the transformation one day at a time. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

"Be Doers of the Word"

In the summer of 2006 I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Our group of about 45 stayed in various hotels around Israel where every morning we enjoyed a fabulous breakfast buffet.  One thing was invariably missing at those meals--bacon and ham and pork sausage.  We were clearly in Jewish territory.

In today's Gospel from Mark chapter 7 Jesus says that it is not the food we eat that makes us "unclean" but rather what we think and what we do--"evils [that] come from within and they defile." 

Jesus also confronted the purification rites of the Jewish religion.  Eating a meal with "unwashed hands" was a not a matter of hygiene.  At the time of Jesus it was a religious ritual by which people purified themselves of the "unclean" world before sitting down to share a meal with other believers.  In going against this purification ritual Jesus was declaring that the Creator made the world "good."  We find God not just in temples or churches but in the goodness and beauty of creation. 

Tomorrow we will celebrate Labor Day, the last holiday of the summer, a day on which we honor the dignity of human labor.  It's a good time for us to remember that we give worship to God not only when we gather in church but in every moment of our lives.  Our entire life, including our work and our recreation, is meant to give honor and glory to God. 

This is where our Second Reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James comes in.  James writes: "All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights...."  Creation is a gift from God and shares in the goodness and holiness of the Giver.  Human talents and skills are also gifts from God, given so that humanity can be good stewards of creation, caring for it and developing it for the good of the entire human family.  When James writes "Be doers of the word and not hearers only," we can remember the word God spoke at the beginning--to labor together in caring for good creation. 

Thus we come to our First Reading from chapter 4 of the Book of Deuteronomy which speaks of obeying God's "statutes and decrees."  These are God's commandments and not the human rituals regarding unclean foods and purification rites.  God's Law goes deeper and affects our well-being on earth and in eternity. 

We are all familiar with the laws of nature.  We do well to follow them, for if we don't, we end up hurting ourselves and others. 

For example, physical objects follow the law of gravity.  It's built into their nature as physical creatures.  Humans are physical creatures and need to follow this law or get hurt and even die.  We are free not to follow it, to rebel against this law that restricts our freedom to launch ourselves off a high tower and flap our arms hoping to fly like a bird.  God's law of gravity will still be in force.  We won't so much break that law as break ourselves in thinking that we are above God's law and don't have to follow it. 

But we are more than physical creatures.  We are more than bodies that need to follow the law of gravity for their own good.  We are bodies with immortal souls.  We are spiritual creatures.  And just as there are physical laws built into our nature as physical beings, so there are spiritual laws built into us because we are spiritual beings.  We are free not to follow those laws but if we rebel against them we end up hurting ourselves and others.  Like physical laws, these spiritual laws are not arbitrary, nor are they imposed from on high to restrict our freedom.  They are part of nature, part of the reality of who we are. 

Ultimately, Jesus summed up the spiritual laws of nature in one word--love.  Love God and love your neighbor.  It's not enough to hear this word from the Son of God who only wants our good.  We must be "doers of the word" and put it into practice.  Following the law of love means being true to our nature as creatures made in the image and likeness of God who is Love itself.  If we do this then we will, as Deuteronomy says, "give evidence of [our] wisdom and intelligence."