LEARNING SOMETHING FROM MICHAEL PHELPS (nope, not about swimming)

Hi everyone, here’s my homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 26, 2008. The readings can be found at http://www.usccb.org/nab/102608.shtml . Thanks for reading and your feedback - God Bless, Fr. Jim

Homily:

If you had asked me who Michael Phelps was back in April or May I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything about the guy. But since the conclusion of the 2008 Summer Olympics, I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t know who he is.

Phelps has had more press and media attention- which is well deserved - since this summer when he became the first person to win 8 Gold medals at one Olympics competition all for swimming events. In the process, he set 7 new world records while the other one was only (only!) setting a new Olympic record. The New York Times made the observation that if Michael Phelps had been a country of his own - the "republic of Michael Phelps" would have come in 4th for the total number of Gold Medals that a country would have won (after China, the US and Germany) and would have 14 other countries behind him. That’s sick when you think about it. Phelps himself won more medals than 14 other countries.

Despite a nagging thought in the back of my head that he must be part-Dolphin in order to achieve such swimming feats, and in response to more serious cynics who wondered whether he was on any performance enhancing drugs (thank you Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens, and Marion Jones for that) he joined a group called Project Believe where athletes volunteer to be tested for steroids or supplements and all 9 times he was tested, Phelps passed.

So how does this guy get into the condition he needs to in order to be such a phenomenon? He’s been training since he was 11 years old. At that young age, his coach pushed him to swim 50 miles a week. A year later, his coach told him that if he really wanted to achieve his Olympic potential, he needed to abandon every other sport – he could no longer play baseball, soccer or lacrosse and instead he had to invest all his energy in swimming. So that’s what he did. At that young age he gave up all the other sports he was playing and zeroed in on swimming. In recent years, he’s explained what his training schedule is like. Phelps trains about 5 hours a day, 7 days a week. The intensity of these workouts is so severe, that Phelps has said at the end of the day, all he really has energy to do is eat (which he does a lot of, consuming close to 12,000 calories a day in order to maintain his top-notch shape), sleep and maybe watch a little television. He trains everyday - Sundays, holidays, his birthday, Christmas, Easter, Super Bowl Sunday. To put it mildly, Phelps has become this elite athlete because of his single mindedness, his focus, his dedication to swimming.

We kind of sit back and wonder about people like that, don’t we? How is someone able to do something like that? How are they that disciplined, that dedicated - or for that matter, that interested in a singular goal like swimming. He’s put vacations, relationships, schooling on hold because of his belief that this is a once-in a lifetime opportunity that he has right now. And with his goal achieved of becoming "the greatest Olympian ever," people are still amazed, still shocked.

Today, we’re confronted by a feat that we might think as inconceivable to reach or as difficult to achieve as winning 8 Gold medals. The bible tells us a lot of different things in terms of how we should act and how we shouldn’t. In today’s Gospel, this young man asks Jesus - break it down for me, what’s the most important. Jesus basically gives us the cliff notes version of the entire Old Testament when he says: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind . . . Love your neighbor as yourself. Oh, that’s it?
Those words seem to roll off pretty easy, but the radicalness of them, the incredible expectations they place are right there too. I’m sure for many (all?) of us, we wonder, how is that possible?

We immediately think of all the things that demand our attention and affection - our families, our school/work... There’s no shortage to the many things we have to do. And now we’re being asked to be so radically single-minded, so focused, so dedicated to God alone? We kind of think that’s something people like Mother Teresa or the Pope would be able to do, not us.

But God isn’t asking all of us to be Mother Teresa, or the Pope. He might be calling some of us to dramatic service as a priest or a religious. But that’s a different issue. He wants all of us to live vibrant lives - the lives he created us to live. Lives that are single-minded and focused in our love of Him. That doesn’t mean quitting work, skipping class, abandoning all of your relationships and spending all day in a church. It means loving God, finding God in our neighbor in all the encounters, the exchanges, the places our lives take us each and every day.

So, you’re a parent, you’re kids are annoying you, your spouse is aggravating you - you feel unappreciated, unnoticed.

Or, you’re a student - you’ve got roommates, classmates, professors, advisors. It seems everyone is putting yet another demand, another deadline, another expectation on you.

If we can look at all these typical, daily experiences, these daily struggles, these daily stresses and turn it around and say that we are doing it for God, through God and with God and in God - and if we genuinely want to love Him and love each other more in those situations, we not only fulfill His command, but we start to find unexpected joy and deeper meaning in areas that used to seem boring and tedious before. The monotonous becomes life-giving - and life changing - we start to see that God is an active, present part of our lives, not simply in this hour that we gather for Mass once a week but the other 167 as well.

That sounds more challenging than we’re used to, doesn’t it? And often we handicap ourselves by having an all-or-nothing approach to spirituality that says if we can’t do this perfectly, if we can’t "win the gold" in the loving God/loving neighbor department, then what’s the point, what’s the use?

That’s when the Lord who asks us to love Him so radically reveals to us the depth of His love for us. God can ask us to love Him with such single-minded, dedicated focus because that’s His nature; that’s how He loves us. And so He rejoices right here, right now if one of our hearts is moved, if one of our souls is touched, if one of our minds is changed to see His presence in our lives. God is everywhere, God is calling us, God is giving us the gift of Himself, and challenges us to do the same - to empty ourselves in love to Him, and in service to our neighbor - and only then will we see the fruit, find the fulfillment and achieve the ultimate prize that is Christ Jesus. God's inescapable love is calling us, now.No God won’t be awarding any Gold medals to us (today/tonight), but He is looking for our dedication, for our single-minded - no, more than that - for our single-hearted Love.

"I AM JESUS CHRIST AND I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE" (well I hope so)

This is my homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 19, 2008. The readings for the day can be found at http://www.usccb.org/nab/101908.shtml. Thanks for reading & your feedback! God Bless, Fr Jim

"This election is the most important election you will ever vote for in your life." In some shape or form, we've heard versions of that over the last few weeks (well truth be told, with how long this presidential campaign has run, it's more likely we've heard that over the last few months or even years for that matter).

It's more important than four years ago when politicians told us that was the most important election ever - and in four years we'll be amazed to learn how much more important it is this time.

With such importance, one might be surprised at how many spoofs, parodies and cartoons there are. Some can be mean (or demeaning) - but there are some that are pretty clever and very funny.

For example, a few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to an online political cartoon that poked fun at both presidential campaigns called "It's time for campaignin'" After skewering President Bush, Senator Clinton, and both candidates - Barack Obama and John McCain, they got to the end/punch line of the satire singing to the tune of "The times they are a changing":

Citizens gather from both far and near
for a ritual we practice every four years
when we promise you anything
you want to hear
to win the crown we're chasin'
we spend billions of dollars
to make our point clear
to get you to step up and
cast your vote here
then we spin you around
and poke you in the rear
Oh it's time for some campaignin' (JibJab.com)1

That was probably the line I laughed at the most. Because, like all good satire and spoofs, there's an element of truth to it. In this election environment, we've made a presidential campaign almost a new version of American Idol. People rate debates like "performances." Politicians "focus-group" their campaign statements rather than speak plainly about what they believe and what they will do if they are elected. And yes, billions of dollars in advertisements which tells us precious little other than why the other guy is SO WRONG and this guy is SO RIGHT bombard us everywhere we go (anyone else getting those recorded phone messages?).

Why have these campaigns gotten so trivial, especially when it is such an important thing? We're talking about a very powerful position. Becoming president of the United States is a very powerful position. This leader has the ability to influence not just the course of things here in the United States, but throughout the world. With a mixture of both noble purposes and incredible ambition we are left with candidates and campaigns filled with individuals who seem to be involved in some tug-of-war trying to get the polls (and, they hope, the final election results) to go the way they hope or favor.

Don't misunderstand me - it is an important thing for us to be plugged in. It is important to vote. It is even more important to look at the issues, and to understand why the Church teaches that some issues, like the Life issue are more important than some others. And to go beyond just the 30 second commercials, the commentators, the celebrity endorsements and actually find out what the candidates support or oppose.

But what seems to be lost in all political campaigns is a true sense of where true power, true authority comes from. Because in this seemingly endless campaign, there's a refrain repeated over and over by both politicians supporters - that if you just vote for our guy, all our problems will be solved. World Peace will be achieved! Economic certainty! And every other issue that you are concerned about, yeah, we'll take care of all of that to.

And we become disappointed when they don't accomplish those things. We get confused and start to wonder what are we to do? Who are we to vote for? Which candidate does Jesus want to win?

The scriptures today, comes (as it so often does) at a perfect time. While our country seems immersed in this campaign over "the most powerful position in the world" today's scriptures remind us where true power comes from.

In the Gospel we just heard, there are two groups who are trying to in a sense trap Jesus, confine him to one side or another – They want Jesus to agree with their party, their side of things. There's no middle ground here. There's no bi-partisanship. They ask Jesus - Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? The two groups are the Herodians, who align themselves to Rome, and the Pharisees who were an influential group of Jewish leaders.

If Jesus said"Yes" to the question he would be aligning himself with the Romans (and basically going against the belief of every Jew who believed it was a violation of Jewish law to have to pay this and to recognize this secular authority). If he said "No" he could be arrested for going against the government.

Who's power would Jesus bow down to? Which side would be able to win his support? Would Jesus endorse the Pharisees or the Herodians?

In a master stroke that would make the political masterminds of today be jealous, Jesus seems to side step the issue complete. He doesn't validate the Roman taxes, but doesn't let the Jewish people off the hook from paying it. We can look at it as an ancient example of the "triangulation" of a political issue. He says "repay to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what belongs to God."

The wisdom of what Jesus is saying is lost though if we simply try to make Jesus this master politician who confounded these two parties battling each other, each believing they were more right than the other. The point Jesus is making is distorted if we as Americans try to make Jesus' answer of "repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" as the biblical support for the "separation of Church and state."

Jesus is asking us who do we belong to? Whose image are we made in?
Are we simply a Democrat or a Republican?
Do we find our identity just in being Americans?
Is my allegiance to a group or an organization my main focus?

Or do we recognize that we are created in the image and likeness of God? And that He is beyond nationalities and ethnicities . He is beyond party affiliation, beyond any individual political platform, beyond any candidate. God tells us who he is in that first reading from Isaiah: I am the Lord, there is no other. Words like that make everything else really trivial.

In a few weeks, this election will be over (well, remembering the 2000 presidential election, I guess I should say, hopefully it will be over). And in this very charged environment, it's likely that some will be happy and some will not with the results. As important as the election is, we give it a more exalted importance if we forget that the Caesars, or the McCain's or Obama's will have their time in leadership, but that the one unchanging, constant is our Heavenly Father.
Jesus isn't saying one way or another who's right and wrong - his answer today, as it often does asks another question of us, "what on earth does not belong to God?"2


-- endnotes: 1 - "It's time for some campaignin'" - found online at Jibjab.com
2 - quote comes from the lectionary commentary for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time found in The Workbook for Lectors and Gospel Readers LTP publications, 2008 edition

CONGRESS LOWERS DRINKING AGE


Here is my homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 5, 2008 – http://www.usccb.org/nab/100508.shtml . Thanks for reading and your comments!
God Bless, Fr Jim

HOMILY:

You ever have one of those moments where you see something - but you can’t believe you saw what you just saw and you do a double/triple take???

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the City [for those of you reading this outside of the NY Metro area reading it, that would be New York City] I was sitting in a lobby and saw a newspaper on the table. It looked like any of the other newspapers that were on the table - there were pictures of John McCain, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi on it. And what made me do my triple take was I caught part of a headline. All I saw was "CONGRESS LOWERS DRINKING AGE".

OK - so considering where I work, whom I work with - in that moment I thought "have I completely been out of the loop???" Did I miss something? I know that there’s recently been in the news the idea of TALKING about the drinking age, but they lowered it already? Something tells me that at least one or two Montclair State students would have talked about it/told me about this.

So as I did my triple take, I looked again and now I saw the masthead - the newspaper is "THE ONION" - which is a spoof/satire of the news. And the full headline reads "Congress lowers drinking age to 17 Just for Jenny’s Party" - the second headline says "‘Okay, just this once’ says Congress." Here’s the article:


Overturning a law that has been in place for 24 years, Congress approved a temporary repeal of the Minimum Drinking Age Act Wednesday upon learning that Benjamin Harrison High School student Jenny Larsen is celebrating her 17th birthday with an unsupervised party at which attendees are expecting to consume alcohol.

H.R. 874, more commonly known as the Jenny's Turning 17!!! Bill, will go into effect Friday, as soon as Jenny's parents leave for their weekend trip to Vermont. "Our system of laws is not inflexible, and at times it is necessary to make adjustments to our federal statutes to more adequately serve the interests of the American people," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said. "It is therefore the Senate's opinion that Jenny only turns 17 once, and that she deserves to have a party that is both totally awesome and permitted under United States statutory law."

"Furthermore, Brad is going to be there, and it is our understanding that Jenny really, really likes Brad," Sen. Reid added.

Reid went on to defend a number of the bill's addenda, including a provision authorizing Paul Woodard, 17, to pick up the keg, and $25.74 in federal funding to purchase a bottle of Jenny's favorite alcoholic beverage, vanilla Absolut.

Although the bill was passed by a wide margin in both the House and Senate, it has received criticism from some members of Congress, who call the law "favoritist" and "totally unfair."

Most legislators, however, voiced their full support of the bill. "These children are quite popular, and they should be treated as such in the eyes of the law," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said. "Plus, they're going to drink anyway, so we might as well make it legal."
"Come on!" Boxer added. "It's Jenny's B-day!"
[Full article can be found at http://www.theonion.com/content/news/congress_lowers_drinking_age_to_17 ]

One of the things I laughed the most at was they had those photo captions on the side and one of them had a picture of a young girl with the quote "THIS LAW S*(#& [stinks] - WHY DIDNT THEY PASS A LAW FOR MY 17th BIRTHDAY" - with the person identified as Alexis Larsen, Jenny’s Older Sister.

A funny spoof. Just comedy? Well, as all good humor stories do - there’s an element of truth to them.

Tonight’s Gospel parable is a difficult one. When we listen to it, it’s easy to disconnect from it. Oh yeah, we think - this parable is Jesus talking about what the Chief Priests, the Jewish leaders were going to do to him - he’s the son in the parable and Jesus is saying that they are going to reject him and kill him. And that’s true. But the Gospel isn’t meant to be a history book. These readings aren’t intended for us to sit back and think about them as recollections of what happened 2000 years ago.

Jesus parables are meant to challenge us - make us uncomfortable, just as he made his initial listeners a bit uncomfortable (so much so, they would follow through on the parable and kill him)
And what he’s trying to make us see in tonight’s parable is that sometimes we can take all that we’ve been given – for granted. We kind of think we should be treated like Jenny - that the world should revolve around us - change for us. We have so many blessings and can still feel something’s owed to us.

Just walk around campus and you will hear people say (or maybe you say things yourself) like "I hate this place" "This place stinks" "Why do I have to do this" "My parents are so demanding" "I don’t care" "I’m skipping class" "I’m going to get wasted" "Just blow that off"

Maybe it’s not as comical as Congress lowering the drinking age for my birthday - but it’s the same principle - Whenever we do or say those things -we’ve in a sense become the tenants in the vineyard. We’ve squandered the blessings, the gifts that God has showered down on us and said "it’s mine - and I can do with it as I please". The world revolves around me and what I want.

The question that started Jesus telling this parable (and the one we heard in last sunday’s Gospel) was when the chief priests basically said to him - What gives you the right to teach like you do? Who do you think you are?

In a sense it’s the same question we’re faced with. We’ve made Jesus a type of RA who has the unfortunate task of keeping us in line - a type of enforcer, where we view him as the cop taking us in for stepping out of line.

That’s what we’ve made him. Jesus isn’t trying to make you and I feel bad. He’s not trying to makes us get down on ourselves and think we’re just ungrateful people. But he’s not going to just rewrite laws just this once for our benefit. God’s commandments that we will love Him with all our hearts, souls and strength and each other as ourselves is the heart of the Gospel.

Each of us has been given the gift of life -

Each of us have been given a piece of the vineyard to live that commandment - whether it be in our classrooms, our dorm rooms, our homes, our families. We have to appreciate the vineyard we’ve been given - nurture it, see that it brings forth good fruit.

And we do that by taking all that is within us - all the great things around us - all that is good and to see that the Father HAS blessed us - the Lord DOES love us and he has given us all of these gifts with the hope that we will use them for His glory.

When the Son comes, will we welcome him or be threatened by him?

RESPECT LIFE


RESPECT LIFE
The following is my "column" from our weekly bulletin as the Catholic Church marks "Respect Life Sunday" throughout the United States this weekend. This weeks homily will be on later tonight
Thanks for reading and all your responses as always! Fr Jim
Today the Church celebrates "Respect Life Sunday." People seem to get uncomfortable with the very mention of "Respect Life." Probably because in recent years, for some in our country, "Life" seems to have become basically a political issue and debate (and a pretty volatile one at that).
It might be surprising for many people reading some of the different statements the Church has issued on "respecting life," – why the Church teaches what she teaches would seem to many to be very uncontroversial:
"All human life is sacred, for it is created in the image and likeness of God" - Pope John Paul II
"Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person...; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat laborers as mere instruments of profit... all these and the like are a disgrace." – The Second Vatican Council Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
I would think most people reading those statements would agree with them. They're statements that reflect Jesus command in the Gospel of Luke 10:27: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
Yet when we say we respect life, that we are "pro-life" the reality is it does cause controversy. That's not because any of these teachings of the Church are new. In fact, stemming from our Jewish-Christian roots, our pro-life teachings are thousands of years old.
Where "Respecting Life" has become controversial comes from this idea, this theory that "well I don't agree with that- I think it's wrong, but I can't tell someone else how to live - it's a free country, right?"
When I was in college, I was often swayed by that argument. It seemed reasonable to me on some level. I was (at least I thought I was) always "pro-life." But I had been lead to believe that I needed to "respect" other's "right to choose." Truth be told, I never was fully comfortable with that, but it seemed to be a way to deal with a controversial issue (or, more accurately as I reflect back now - to not deal with it).
What really made me reevaluate things was when Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1995. In one of his homilies during his visit, he said a line that really changed my perspective on a lot of things especially on "respecting life." He said "Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought."
On this Respect Life Sunday, I share that quote with you and hope the words of the late, great Pope cause you to reflect on what you believe and how you live out those beliefs. How are we as Catholics and Americans not only respecting the gift of life we've been given, but respecting the gift of freedom we've been entrusted with?
As each of us reflects on those gifts of life and freedom, we're struck by the times we haven't respected those gifts. We might mourn the choices, the decisions we've made in the past and that can discourage us, weigh us down.
Which is why it's essential for us to remember that the same God who calls us to respect life, calls us to respect all life, including our own. If we want to help change the culture, to influence the world around us, to bear witness to the fullness of life that God is calling us too - then we have to keep before us always that we too are created in the image and likeness of God - and that in Jesus, our past failures, the sins of the past are wiped away. If we truly believe that in our hearts, then "respect for life" becomes a reality one person, one life at a time.