listenDid Michael Brown hear those words?
Did Daren Wilson hear those words?
Did the rioters and looters in Ferguson hear those words?
Did the serial killer just arrested in Indiana hear those words?
Did Jaylen Fryberg of Maryville, Washington hear those words?
I wonder…

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. Somehow the data suggest that a lot of people have not really heard those words in a way that makes a difference. What I know is this:

These words will be heard by this weekend by Christians who on Monday will gain substantial commissions on financial products that put their clients at high risk of losing their life’s savings.

These words will be heard by Christians who exploit foreign workers, pay them below minimum wage, and threaten them with deportation if they complain.

These words will be heard by Christians who close their eyes to the cruelty, violence, and suffering that affect so many innocent people today. So many that Pope Francis has said we are the midst of a Third World War, but one spread out piecemeal across the globe.

How is it that Christians can live as if Jesus never said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself”?

Perhaps that can happen because when we hear the Gospel we often hear what we want to hear, and in the way we want to hear it, and then we are deaf to those words that challenge and indict our way of living. The problem is not with the words, but with our hearing.

We hear Jesus speak of loving God with all our being and we decide that we fulfill that command by going to Sunday Mass. We think that love of God merely means being at an act of worship an hour a week. Pray and sing, kneel and stand, and then ‘we are done with that till next Sunday.’ An alum posted on her facebook page this morning: “Since I can’t sleep, I might as well go to mass and get that out of the way.” Hmm….

We hear Jesus speak of loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we decide what people fit that category. Neighbors are the kind of people we like living near us, playing with our children, inviting us to their social gatherings, and agreeing with our politics.

There is a problem with our hearing, isn’t there? No matter how well intentioned we might be, until our lives begin to match the life of Jesus, then we have not ‘heard’ the words in the way the need to be heard. We need a set of Christian hearing aids – that will help us in the concrete decisions of our lives be like Jesus who lived those words.

For Jesus, loving God meant making the Father’s will the guide for his life. “Not my will but yours be done,” spoke those Christian hearing aids into Jesus’ ears. In every choice, those words guided his actions.

Loving his neighbors meant associating with the outcast, the powerless, the sinner. It meant seeing those that society ignored and discarded with the eyes of the God who made them. It meant saying from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

So, if Christian hearing aids existed, what would they be ‘translating into our ears these days?’ A quick look at the papers gives us a place to start. Wouldn’t they be saying we need to be standing with the families of both Michael Brown in their sorrow, and Daren Wilson in his fight for a just hearing. That we need to be finding a way to end the scourge of gun violence that tragically has taken the lives of 113 on the streets of St. Louis this year, and 2 people just yesterday at a high school in Washington State. That we need to help the countries stricken with the Ebola epidemic, not just to prevent it from ‘coming here’, but because thousands are dying daily.

And so it goes. We know these words by heart. As did all the Michael Browns and Daren Wilsons and Jaylen Frybergs and each brother and sister who let them bounce too quickly off their eardrums and not into their heart. This week – put on a new set of ears, a new set of spiritual hearing aids – so that the words that truly guided Jesus in all of his choices, might be our guide as well.

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chalice1“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” was the question that Jesus asked. Though directed to his adversaries about the coin in his hand and in the broader scope, – the rendering to Caesar what is his and to God what is God’s – it seems like one of those ‘bigger questions that stands on its own. It is one that kind of ‘floats down the ages’, one that has less to do with politics immediately and everything to do with how we view one another. If you remember way back in that first story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis (vs.26) you hear God saying: “Let us make man and woman in our image …” If we really see whose image is “written” all over the people around us; if we really saw the ‘inscription’ that marked them at God’s sons and daughters by baptism; if we really let THAT truth sink in, wouldn’t it hugely effect how we “spend” our time with them, or how we treat them. If all of the people around us belong to God – and we know this because we can see God’s image in and on them, then this passage is really about how we “repay” or offer back to God, the gifts of those around us.

<<pick up chalice>> This chalice belonged to Msgr. Sprenke. I used it a lot when mine was being repaired. I have always been struck by its beauty. I’ve always wondered about the large diamond that is in the center of the cross. Certainly it is stunningly beautiful. Almost distractingly so, as I usually turn the cross side to face you so I don’t get caught up in admiring it as I consecrate the wine.

So what if our safe broke and I sent this home, student by student, day by day during the course of the year, for you to keep safe and then to bring it back for the following Sunday’s mass – how do you think that would go? Don’t you think that people would treat this as the treasure we know it to be, something of complete value and worth? I’d like to think it would not get tossed on the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of the room. I’d like to think each would treat it with great care, and great honor, respecting both the dignity of its beauty, but also what it is used for – to hold the precious Blood of Jesus. Wouldn’t we honor it and care for it? I think so.

And yet, we who are much more in God’s image than this chalice, don’t we treat each other so poorly at times. We can find all kinds of ‘good’ reasons to do so. “He started it.” “They looked down their nose at me”. “They never remember my name.” And those are just the ‘good’ justifications for bad behaviors. And as humans, we can behave in pretty ugly ways toward one another, can’t we, that makes it hard for others to see the God-self beneath our exterior. We can find a hundred ways to forget that question: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” in the person who is before us, as well as the person looking back at us in the mirror.

  • I was on the sidewalk walking to get into the college church a while back on my way to a wedding rehearsal and a young boy about 9 or 10, with his father and a sister a few steps behind approached me. He asked for a handout. I wasn’t prepared for that question coming from a ‘family unit – individuals, maybe, but not a dad and two kids’. I didn’t even make eye contact as I mumbled some kind of response and walked on. I was so busted. Though I may not have been obliged to give them assistance, I was certainly called to treat them with the dignity of the sons and daughters of God.

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

Our faith tells us that God has written the Divine image into each sister and brother and carved their name into the palm of his hand.

Practically this week, as often as a coin comes across your hand this week – ask the question – whose image, whose inscription is on the face of the person closest to me at that moment. Maybe it is the cashier at the store. Maybe it is the roommate who came in drunk last night. Maybe it is the sister you don’t always see eye to eye with. Whoever, it is, treat them as you would repay your debt to God.

chalice2It is an amazing chalice (pick it up). Perhaps one day I’ll know the story of the diamond on the center of the cross that so captures my eye with its beauty. But I can tell you this about it, as often as I pick this up and see that diamond, it is never worth more than you whom I see past my hands as I hold it up. This is just a beautiful chalice. YOU – you are the image and likeness of God.

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” -God’s. Only God’s.

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invitationIt is a strange ending, isn’t it, to today’s gospel passage. The guy is invited last minute to the feast, and then is yelled at and kicked out because he did not have time to rent a tux. How do we understand this? Is it really about the clothes he is wearing? Or something more?

So let me share a true story from our priest’s convocation last month that may help. I had the gift of sitting at the table with the Archbishop Carlson for one of the morning sessions. The work of that morning’s session was to name the values for us as priests to live in our relationships with one another. In the course of our conversation, the Archbishop articulated two ‘negative’ values, as things he did NOT want to see, as a way of helping us own what we DID want to see. He said there is no room in the priesthood for:

  • Priests in private practice
  • and what he called “the second Tribalism” — priests who only relate to those who think the same way they do.

Nothing will destroy a diocesan priesthood more quickly than those two trends. Nothing will prevent the bonds of fraternity from deepening than those attitudes.

I have reflected on those words these past few weeks since our return from Convocation. I realized that I am guilty sometimes of being a “pastor in private practice”. You have been very patient as I have slowly learned how to be a pastor ‘while on the job’ here. But more often than not, I tend to hold my own counsel in terms of decisions, and in terms of the running of the parish. Though that is an efficient way to make decisions, it does not work very well in terms of using the gifts of the baptized. It speaks of an attitude that does not shepherd the community by empowering its leaders. It is easy to be a pastor in private practice.

It, I fear, is also easy to be a parishioner in ‘private practice’. “I come to mass. I get there just in time or on St. Ann time. I say the prayers, lend my slightly off key or wonderful voice to the singing. I receive the Lord in communion. And make my way home without ever having interacted with the people in the pew two in front or two behind me. And more importantly, without ever asking how God might be inviting me to be a parishioner in PUBLIC PRACTICE – connecting, serving, giving of who I am in concrete, tangible ways.”

THAT is why the man is thrown out of the banquet. He was ‘there’ physically, but not there, ‘dressed for the banquet’ – not engaged in doing the work of the kingdom – by being involved in relationships, caring for others, giving of who he was for the good of others. Sure, he could have gotten a garment from a supply that most hosts would have in a side closet. (like the jackets and ties that some fancy restaurants also provide.) But the fact that he didn’t and that he stayed silent said he was only there for the food and nothing else. This little story, tells us exactly what the Archbishop said that morning around the table: there is no room in the kingdom for people trying to go it alone, people unwilling to get involved in life, involved in relationships, involved in caring for others. The bouncers toss him from the gathering because he is unwilling to do what the celebration asks of him.

To put it another way, it is not sufficient just to be called/just to be a catholic. Once one answers the call, one must choose to be ready for the festival, to be prepared for the joy, to dress for the event. Everyone is invited, but the decision as to what you do when you arrive is up to you.

Concretely, like that exercise at the priests’ convocation, this week in your prayer, if you had to name a few values or virtues that we, as the people of St. Ann should be living, what would you name? We understand that tribalism and private practice don’t cut it. But what does? Hospitality – certainly we do that. Engagement? And how would you be willing to live that out? By volunteering at one event per semester? Make it as concrete as possible. And then please filter those ideas to me, or to the stewardship committee as they work to move me away from being a pastor in private practice.

The good news is that we ALL are invited to the party called the kingdom of heaven. Get ready for it, for it is not just the party of the season, or the century, but of our eternity.

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fruitful lifeThere was a entrepreneur who deeded some land, brought in a railroad company, built a park and started a racially diverse community. It had its ups and downs, like most towns. But then, THE EVENT happened. So the new owners were forced to send servants to protect the town. It did not go well. They drove one into exile, toward others they threw rocks and bottles and at others they shouted racial epithets. So they brought in the National Guard. Those, they treated the same way. Then they sent one of their own, saying, they will respect him. And they did for a short time. But eventually they treated him the same way. What will the owners of the town do to those protestors?

Perhaps it was just me, but the second part of today’s gospel story was eerily parallel to the experience of the people of Ferguson. It did not take me long to ‘rewrite today’s gospel story.’ And though I am not nearly as good a story teller as Jesus was, like many of Jesus’ stories, where he lets the people draw their own conclusions, we, the people of North County are left to create our own ending. What will “the owners of the town or the people who are protesting, or those caught in the crossfire do?” And the ending we create, says as much about us as it says about the community of Ferguson.

In the gospel, Jesus asks his listeners to answer the question. One interpretation of Jesus’ conclusion to their choice of how to respond was that they got the answer wrong. They wanted to call down vengeance, ‘bring that bad crowd to a bad end.’ To which Jesus says: “THAT IS WHY the kingdom will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” Violence is never the answer in the kingdom. And whether that is the institutional violence of the powers that be, the response of those oppressed, and the resultant next round of violence in response to the response – Jesus says: Wrong answer. Try again. Please. All who think the Kingdom of God is going to be a matter of violence and putting those bad people to a bad end – please reread the story. Reread not just any story, but Isaiah’s story of the vineyard.

Let me sing my friend’s song concerning his vineyard. Every Jew would know Isaiah’s story. Jesus certainly knew it, and he would have known its poignant plea about the vineyard from the heart of its owner: What more was there to do that I had not done? That is the answer that Jesus was hoping for from those listening, and from us. That somehow our hearts would be filled with that same yearning, that same longing at the heart of the Father for each unarmed, black male, each police officer walking that thin blue line, each resident and shop-owner trying to make their imperfect way in imperfect times through an imperfect city here in North County. He would have them know the yearning love from a God who wants not vengeance and violence, but for them to produce the fruits of love and patience and peace.

St. Paul gives practical advice on how to get there. “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise – think of these things.” These are the things that bond communities and individuals together.

Concretely, we can continue to sing the song of God’s vineyard, in the way he wants us to sing that song; in the way that he would write this story in our days. Come and join the Archbishop at January Wabash park this coming Thursday at 4:30 pm – Oct 9th – to pray the rosary, say the Divine Mercy chaplet and pray to Mary, the ‘undoer of knots.” Or find a way to pray those prayers in your own home daily. Pray that Jesus, the cornerstone of peace, might continue to be the cornerstone, not just of Ferguson, MO, but our parish neighborhoods, our families, our homes and our lives.

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vote ad(First, a short homily about the readings for this Sunday.)

I watch just enough TV to know that the mid-term election ads are ramping up. Perhaps because I am becoming a bit more cynical or a bit more realistic, depending upon how you look at it, what I know is this. Promises made in campaigning are not always followed up upon. (Gasp! Horrors! Say it ain’t so, Joe!) A “yes’ to a position in September or October often is followed by a “No” in January. So too, a “No” during election cycles often becomes a “Yes” once elected.

Jesus warns both his disciples and those who were the ‘keepers’ of the law – the powers that be – to be aware of that tendency within us. Who is the one who did the will of God? The one who’s ‘Yes’ was accomplished not in their words, but in their deeds. That truth remains for us, 2000 years later. So, perhaps as a way to get through this election cycle, as often as you see a political ad, certainly evaluate it for the truthfulness of the “Yes” or “No” contained within. But mostly, let it be a reminder to you on your walk of faith of that important question that Jesus poses to US – “Am I saying yes with my words only, or with my deeds as well?”
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

(Now, the ‘state of the parish’ address…)

Today is Stewardship Sunday across the Archdiocese. Many of you have probably already read the short version of the past year’s financial report in today’s pastor’s pen. For those who have not, here is the short summary of the short summary. There are three major issues we face as a parish.

1) We were in the red this past year by $21K. And I am proud to say the culprit is our St. Ann school, specifically, our enrollment. Because of the Missouri transfer ruling, we experienced a huge initial decline in enrollment, and slowly recouped some of those students, but still ended the year with a net loss of about 10 students. No one foresaw that coming, and the resultant loss in tuition revenue explains most of the fiscal crunch that we are in. And, salaries and benefits, determined by the Archdiocese, rose by 4.7% from last year.
2) Parish Subsidy: St. Ann parish has always subsidized our school – usually to the tune of $140-150K a year. Because of that loss of tuition, that subsidy rose to $204.5K, a jump of $52K.
3) Cash Flow: As I have written in the Visitation Drive and the Pay It Forward letters, we are a bit strapped for cash because of the boiler replacement of two years ago, and the shortfall from last year. That has been exacerbated by the Alive In Christ revenues – which are a God send, but ONLY hit the books twice a year. Yet we have to pay into it monthly and pay our salaries twice a month. So the cash flow is still problematic.

That is a brief summary of our financial status for this past year. Check the parish website in the next two weeks for a more detailed report.

What is next for our St. Ann parish? Before I answer that, let me tell you WHY we are going to do what we do going forward. And I say that, not in my own words, but in the words of our 7th and 8th grade students. Here is what St. Ann School has meant to them and what it has taught them:

• “I learned at St. Ann that no matter the color you are, we are all equal. We don’t think twice about our color.”
• “Everyone is so kind and this is where I met my ‘family.’
• (in that same vein) “St. Ann school is pretty much home to me.”
• “St. Ann has changed me/taught me how to strive for peace with God, others, myself; even when I feel I can’t do it on my own”
• “St. Ann has taught me what it means to be Catholic and how to live my faith.”

If you have wondered what you might be able to do in the face of the events in Ferguson, MO, you don’t have to look any farther than our St. Ann school. Here we educate not just our 65 St. Ann Parish students, but 12 students from other parishes and 75 non-Catholic students from the neighborhood. This is their family. This is their home, both for their education and for their development as believers in Jesus Christ. This is why we do what we do.

SO, here is what we have done and what I propose going forward.

1) If you supplied us with a working email, you should have received an electronic survey in your inbox. I ask that you take the time this week to fill that out – 8-12 minutes – so we might better help you use your gifts of time and talent as a way of putting your faith into action. Paper copies for others are coming in the next few weeks.

2) To address the issue of Cash flow, I am encouraging people to consider making their gifts electronically. Your weekly or monthly parish gift would be taken automatically from YOUR bank account and deposited in OUR bank account – either using our system of ACH deposits, or your own bank’s Electronic Bill Pay system. This would be for your weekly/monthly parish tithe. Special collections would still use the envelopes. (SHOW FORM) These forms are by the doors. I am not trying to put our money counters out of business, , but I am trying to make it easier for people to put God first in terms of returning to him the gifts God entrusted to them. If you still want to use your envelopes, you need do nothing.

3) We walk a fine line in our tuition increases because our tuition is right at that magic 8% of median income levels at which experts tell us people can no longer afford private school. Yet, because of the higher parish subsidy than normal, we increased tuition by about 5% this year to have parents shoulder more of the actual costs per student. But even that increase will still leave us with an expected shortfall of about $8-9K.

4) So, for the second time in my 12 ¼ years as pastor, I am asking for an increase in your weekly offerings, to fund the mission of our parish and our parish school. While our salaries have risen yearly by about 4%, our weekly parish giving has remained absolutely static for the past 4 years. You know what happens when expenses go like this (upward line) while income goes like this (flat line). Though I am not a whiz on finance, I know that if each household could give an additional $5 a week, we’ll be able to keep treading water, keeping our head afloat. If each household were able to give more, then many things become possible.

Thanks for all you do to keep the vision alive. Thank you for continuing to make me the most blessed pastor in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. I invite you to pray, reflect on God’s goodness to you, and then decide how you will say “Yes”, not just with your words, but with your time, talent and treasure. Together, with God’s help, we’ll keep living faith here at St. Ann’s, just as we have done every year since 1856.

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envy(Or, in today’s gospel story, do you picture yourself in the front or the back of the line?)

• “Check out my new ride. The insurance payment from the accident covered everything! It is so sweet! I LOVE THIS CAR!”
• “It is so good to be dating again. It feels like it has been forever. We’re going to the movies on Friday and to dinner on Saturday and then Sunday we’re…”
• “I’m so excited. I just got a full ride scholarship for my Master in Nursing at Wash. U. Life is so good!

These are common experiences, aren’t they, as people share their world and their life’s story with us. If I am having a good day, it is easy to rejoice with them, isn’t it? “That is great news! Congrats! Way to go! If I am having a ‘not so good day’, I might say those same things, but when I lay down in bed and have my little talk with God –my truer feelings come out.
• “How come I’m still stuck with that clunker that burns oil and seems to be nickel and diming me to death?”
• “Great – they are out on a date, and once more, I am in my room on a Friday night. ALONE. AGAIN.”
• “What gives, Lord I’m working two jobs to pay my tuition at UMSL, and they’re getting a full ride? And who has the time to fill out scholarship applications anyway?!”
When that green monster of envy appears, it is so difficult to rejoice in the good fortune of others.

The people at the back of the line in today’s story found that to be true. All they could think about was their toil, their labor, their suffering. What they had endured, and therefore, what THEY had earned in terms of reward. “WE have labored all day in the scorching heat…” They were so trapped in their own world that it was hard for them even to phrase what the experience might have been for those in the front of the line. “How exciting for them!” was not even in their vocabulary, much less their hearts.

Of course, in my mind, I am always toward the front of the line – not the first group, but close enough to be glad for the people in the front who received such generosity, who were the recipients of good news. Of course it is easy to celebrate success in other people’s lives. That’s me, Lord! No green monster of envy lurking under my bed. Or so I thought until this Thursday.

We had an opportunity on our convocation to make a holy hour, and they had the option of the sacrament of reconciliation. I wasn’t planning on going. So, I was praying in the back of the room. And in the quiet, I found myself looking around the room at some of the guys and thinking, “Boy, he’s got a plush assignment – no school and no financial worries. And what about him – a school that is full and two full time associates. What a sweet life. I’m a lot busier than him, and his associates combined…” And that little ‘pity party voice’ was playing in my head: “They don’t HAVE to work as hard as you do, Bill Kempf. ” And there was that green monster staring me right in the face. And suddenly I was in the back of the line in today’s gospel, one of the grumblers, one of the murmur-ers, instead of being excited by the gifts that these, my brothers, bring to their parishes and assignments. After that, I put myself in the line for the sacrament of confession…

What do you do when jealousy rears its ugly head? And how easy is it for you to celebrate the good fortune of others. Among the many things that this difficult parable asks us to do is just that – to open up our hearts in rejoicing for the good that happens in other’s lives. Instead of being threatened by it, as if the world is a zero sum game and there is only so much goodness that God is going to mete out, we are called to rejoice that God is generous in the lives of so many people. In some ways, it is a little barometer of our life in grace – that ability to give thanks to God for goodness and experiences of generosity wherever and whenever we find it. And that is the best antidote I know to the green monster of envy – gratitude for what I have been given by a loving God.

So, this weekend, – give thanks for the good that God has given to you, but even more so, find reasons to celebrate the good that God is doing in others. Be generous with your love, and even more generous with your enthusiasm. And whether you find yourself in the front of the line or the back of the line, be ready to dance a jig to the tune of the amazing grace we all have been gifted with….

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crossIt was a simple wooden cross that marked the far wall of the Trappist monastery at Snowmass, Colorado. It was about 5 feet high by 2 ½ feet wide. It was made of what looked to be oak. I didn’t think much of it when I first saw it in their chapel. It was plain and simple, like everything else in that place of worship. About mid-week, that all changed. I heard a remarkable thing during lunch. You see, the Trappists take their meals in silence, while a monk reads out loud from the latest book that they are using for their Lectio Divina. In that reading, they explained that the wooden cross on the wall of their chapel would become a grave marker. The cross hanging on the wall in their chapel would mark the grave of the next monk who would die from that monastery. What an amazing tradition. Each monk lives and prays in the shadow of the cross. And not just any cross, but the one that might mark the end of his personal journey through Calvary to Jesus.

I took a walk that afternoon and found the graveyard of the monks. There were 14 crosses that marked the passing of monks from this place of prayer and solitude. Fourteen crosses filled with the memory of the hymns and songs and prayers of the community that journeyed together toward their God. Fourteen crosses – fourteen symbols of the power of Jesus to save and raise up those who come under its spell. And the remains of fourteen lives lived under the triumph of the cross. How do YOU live under the shadow of the cross?

You see, we are invited to live our lives, as did the monks, under the shadow of the cross. We are invited to let our lives echo the life of Jesus that we hear of in St. Paul’s hymn – in that self emptying of love for the world. Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather, he emptied himself. And then he emptied himself again upon the cross. And there, free from all pretensions, free from all images of self and importance, free from everything but his father’s will, he was triumphant. There, ‘lifted up’ as John tells us, Jesus reveals to us who we are, whose we are, and how we are to live.

It is the pattern for us to live into, the truth about our lives. The cross is everything that the world is not – powerlessness, surrender, and suffering. It is about finding life in death, finding meaning in suffering, finding the deepest truths about living in the giving of ourselves away. And you and I live under that cross, whether we trust it or not. The monks made that very visible in their chapel. We are called to make it very visible in our lives.

Let me suggest three possible ways to live into this.

1) If you are familiar with the play, Les Miserables, you might remember the last scene opens up with Jean Valjean praying at a small table in his room. At the ends of that table are two silver candlesticks. Reminders of the act of a kindly Bishop who instead of having Valjean put into prison for stealing the silver table goblets they had used at dinner, gave these as well to satisfy the police of his charity. Though Valjean sells the goblets to start his life over, he cannot part with the candlesticks. Each night, as he prays, they are there as the visible reminders of the price paid for his redemption. Is there a cross in your room somewhere? Do you have a visible reminder in your dorm room, apartment, home, that reminds you of the journey made for you and the journey you are to make?
2) Take on the same mind as is in Christ this week –that of self-emptying love. Do the dishes that your roommate left in the sink. Stick a load of laundry in for your mother. Take out the trash even though it is not your turn. Discover the freedom that Paul spoke about – the emptying of the self so there is only room for God.
3) Offer up a suffering you are undergoing for the good of someone who is struggling. Don’t complain about an ailment, don’t whine about a small thing – instead, transform that suffering into a prayer that someone else will know a moments peace in an addiction, a bit of relief from their grief, a moment of joy in their sorrow.

The monks had it right – to physically remind themselves the mystery they stand under – the Triumph of the Cross. May we, who gather under that same shadow, learn how to live the redemption we celebrate at this meal.

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bikerI grew up next to the neighborhood grouches, as near as I could tell. In their defense, their house was sandwiched between a family of 8 on one side (us), a family of 5 on the other, their back yard connected to families of 9, 7 and 6 respectively. Perhaps because of that, they were not the most kid friendly house in the neighborhood. Theirs was the first set of fences to go up, and they didn’t have a dog. You would never really see them in their yard, but boy did they keep watch on that back yard. And if a baseball or a whiffleball or a soccer ball went into their yard – if you weren’t super, super quick in hopping that fence, that back door would fly open, and she’d come out, and that ball would be permanently gone, disappearing into what we presumed was this huge box of balls that would then become the property of her grandchildren. (They kept such a watch, that before each game, we designated the ‘fence hopper’ so we would not lose precious time arguing over who would face her wrath in retrieving the ball.) Needless to say, they were not the favorite neighbors on the block. But they did know how to keep watch on their back yard.

I suspect that ‘Watchman’ has never been a popular profession – even while it remains an important one in our society. Part of the fracturing and pain of our neighbors in Ferguson is that sense of betrayal by the ones who were supposed to protect and keep safe. On one level, we understand the need for someone to watch over, to look after, to oversee, so that we can be safe. But many times, our experience of that role is like my experience of our neighbors – while we ‘got’ they have the right to protect their yard, we didn’t like how they did it…

“I have appointed you watchman for the house of Israel.” I suspect Ezekiel was not exactly thrilled at that calling. Yet, he faithfully did just that – speaking for the Lord and inviting his contemporaries to a change of heart and practices. And here is the kicker, by the power of our Baptism, each of us is appointed to be priest, prophet and king, and in so being appointed, is called to be watchmen in our age and time. So, what might we do best in that role? In what areas might watchmen be needed more than ever? Let me suggest two quick areas.

1) We need watchmen to point out the blind spots in our individual and collective consciousnesses. If there is one thing that the death of Michael Brown has brought to our awareness – isn’t it the blind spot that hides the reality of privilege. Our system is set up unfairly. I think we can say and admit that now. Being a young black male growing up in an area of poverty and low opportunity is kind of like being a biker who wants to commute to work in St. Louis. You can’t presume there is a path that will get you from door to door, like drivers do. More so, there are some streets without shoulders to ride on – forcing you to ride, as is your right, in traffic. And then, there is the question of how ‘cyclist aware’ the drivers are or are not as you make your way. How many people will yell at you simply because you are a person on a bike in a world that is set up for cars? And cyclist always lose in a battle with a car. Riding in a car is a privileged place in our society – because the structures are set up to accommodate cars, and not bicycles. That is how privilege plays out in our world.

So, if you are a black male, ‘cycling’ in an area of poverty, the odds are stacked against your long term success. We know that better than many in St. Louis as we have watched our Normandy school district slide deeper and deeper into failing our young. And now, like never before, we are having conversations about racial profiling as it exists in our justice system. Perhaps, in a good way, the turmoil of these days has exposed a glaring blind spot in our society – that those who got, get more. And those who don’t… (Shrug) We need watchmen to help us see when privilege becomes injustice.

2) We need watchmen for our values and laws and legal decisions – to evaluate them in terms of who is forgotten and overlooked and harmed by any law or rule or policy we put in place, on the school, parish, neighborhood, city, state, national and international stage. Brian Westbrook, a Newman Center alum who works tirelessly for the unborn in the Forty Days for Life Coalition, has a simple message in all his work. “Whenever we talk about life within the mother’s womb, the starting place is that that life is a human being – and nothing less.

Concretely – I need to know from you who I might be forgetting, or overlooking, or is in my blind spot as pastor of St. Ann. I promise not to shoot the messenger. And I invite you to seek your own feedback among your family and friends and peers. Let the watchmen of your life call you to not just to keep safe, but to keep doing God’s will.

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icebucket challengeIf you have been on any social media these days, chances are very good that you have heard this phrase, or a variation of it. “I challenge N. to either donate a $100 to ALS or to dump a bucket of ice on your head. You have 24 hours.” Former presidents have done so. Family members of victims have done so. Football teams and actors and a veritable host of famous people have taken the challenge. Even Kermit the Frog has done the ice bucket challenge. Most seem to do both a check and the ceremonial dumping of the ice on their heads. (The best one I have seen so far is of a guy who gets a whole concrete truck of water poured on him followed by a front-loader’s worth dumped on top.)

It has been an amazing boon to raising awareness of this horrendous disease, as well as raising funds for research. And there is a good Catholic option, by the way, to this – instead of sending money to the ALS society, you can send it to the John Paul II research facility which uses adult stem cells in their research for ALS instead of embryonic ones.**(See mailing address below homily)** Or you can donate directly to an affected person to help with their medical and treatment costs. In the short term – the ice bucket challenge is the hottest thing going. And it is the most hopeful thing my friends Dave and Ann have seen since Dave’s diagnosis a year and a half ago. But will it have a lasting effect on research? – that is the question. And will it truly raise awareness past just the few days and weeks that fads such as these run?

Jesus – aware that people are prone to ‘flash in the pan’ fads – to ideas that spring to life and then just as quickly fade away, begins to ask his disciples who the crowds say that he is. Is he just another person doing the ice bucket challenge of his day – the itinerant preacher gig, proclaiming good news one day and then gone the next, or is there something more, something else going on? What’s the buzz, what is the atmosphere around me and this little movement?” Because he knows he wants what he is doing to be something more than a fad, something more than a one-time gimmick and response, he makes a direct challenge to his disciples: “And you, who do YOU say I am?”

I suspect that the disciples knew by both the tone in his voice, and the place where he asked the question, that he was wanting more than a one-time-within-24-hours kind of response. You see, Caesarea Philippi was at a pagan cross roads. It was about a 2 and a half day hike from the shores of the sea of Galilee through some pretty inhospitable country. But the city built where the underground snow melt from far away Mount Hermon broke through the ground in lush springs, and to this day, it is the most important fresh water resource in the holy land. And because of this huge stone wall and immense cavern, the place was replete with temples and shrines and wall niches to almost every kind of deity and worship style and religious fad that existed. So much so, that the Jewish people (a mono-theistic religion) referred to that spot as the gates of the netherworld because of the many gods. Here in that spot – Jesus asks his disciples THE question. “Am I just “One of these gods, one of these fad religions, here today and gone tomorrow to you, OR… is there something more to me and to what I am going to demand of you than all this?

That was the ice bucket challenge of Jesus’ life, still rolling down the ages, addressed not just to his disciples with him, but to anyone whom would seek to follow him – WHO DO YOU SAY I AM? And unlike the ice bucket challenge, he is not interested in a 24 hour response time, but rather a 24/7 response.

But here is the other truth about Jesus’ challenge – it is one that is seldom spoken out loud, or delivered via a facebook message. Rather, it happens when:
• You are wounded by a boyfriend/girlfriend, or by a loved one, or a family member and you have the chance to ‘let them have it’ and the question is there: Who are you about to say I am in your response?
• You struggle with viewing images/movies that are less than dignified – and before you open the website or buy the ticket, the question is there: Who are you saying I am in this?
• You are approached for the 10th time this week by that same awkward kid down the hall, asking for help with math, and as you think about your response, there is the question: Who do you say I am
• In a positive way: When you decide to be a part of a peaceful prayer vigil at Michael Brown’s shooting site or donate to a Ferguson food pantry that is short on supplies because of the turmoil, you say who Jesus is.
• When you sacrifice your time to be with an elderly neighbor or to cut the grass of a friend who had knee surgery; you say to Jesus who he is…

I hope, for my friends Dave and Ann, that the Ice Bucket challenge makes a huge difference in the fight against ALS. But more so, I pray that you and I might give answer again and again by how WE LIVE to that most important challenge that Jesus gives to us: “Who DO YOU say I am…”

So, I’m calling all of you out, right here and right now, to take the “Jesus challenge.” Only, it is not a one-time challenge, and you don’t have 24 hours. Rather, you have between now and that moment when you come down to receive our Lord in communion to renew your commitment for 24/7 in every decision you make and every action you take… Who DO you say he is?

John Paul II Medical Research Institute
540 E. Jefferson St., Suite 202
Iowa City, IA 52245


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crayonsWhat could we learn from a box of crayons? Depending on how long you’ve had you box, you will notice that some of them might still be sharp while some are pretty used up; and a few are broken. There are all different colors, some of which have pretty unusual names, like apricot and orchid and periwinkle. All these differences, but they all have to live in the same box. As different as they are, they all have to live in the same box.

So do we. We are so different – at least externally – on so many levels. Yet, as different as we are, we, too, all have to live in the same box. Certainly the tensions and violence in Ferguson these days have made painfully clear the challenges of doing so. But the challenges in Ferguson right now, are not new.

700 years before Christ, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the dream that was in the heart of God that ALL God’s children would come together as one; holy and happy on God’s holy mountain. That the prophet proclaims such a dream tells us it was not yet happening.

Nor was it happening by the time Jesus walked the earth. In today’s gospel we see that the challenge was still just as real. The disciples were trying to keep a woman away from Jesus because: well, first she was a woman. Secondly, she was a foreigner. Finally, she was a persistent complainer, making her need known early and often.

It is important to remember that these disciples had been walking with Jesus for a while. They saw how inclusive his life was. They saw that the preached – and lived- in a way that again and again welcomed the outcast and the outsiders INSIDE his box of crayons. Jesus saw – and proclaimed – that we are one. If it was still that hard for those disciples – who walked with Jesus himself – how real the challenge will also be for us.

It IS hard for us. Yet that does NOT free us from the responsibility of the work of inclusion; the work of justice, the work of bringing people together into the one box of crayons God created for us.

I learned this profoundly on the eve of the feast of the Assumption, summer of 1981. I was standing on top of a small hill, overlooking the soccer field of Ballyoran school in Portadown, Northern Ireland. I was with a group of volunteers during the high point of ‘the troubles’ – trying to make a difference. To ‘honor’ Mary, ostensibly, the Catholics have their bonfires, a response to the Protestant bonfires of July. They start out peacefully enough, but like what we are seeing in Ferguson, they become a flashpoint for all the frustrations to come out as the evening wears on. So the volunteers stay indoors – remaining neutral, having a sing a long, playing games and just interacting. At one point, I stepped outside to clear my head from the smoker’s haze.

teargasI became aware of a presence…a local walking the grounds to make sure we were safe. So we starting talking. Mid-sentence, he stopped, said “Achh!” (and something else I won’t repeat here) “It’s started.” “What?” “The riots. There – the sound of a plastic bullet being fired. And another and another.” With a sickening feeling in my heart, I realized that less than a ¼ mile from where I stood, a riot was going on. Here – it’s about 4 miles as the crow flies – and riots are going on. Just then, the door opened behind me, and I heard them singing. And the song that they were singing was “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It froze me to the spot. Before me just beyond the top of the low income Catholic housing project, were people from one country, two political/religious/social realities who could not seem to find a way out of the spiral of violence. Behind me, were students representing 6 countries, 4 different religions and an agnostic or two thrown in for good measure, who found a way to love each other with all our differences. And as clear as day, it was as if a voice spoke in my head. “Both of these worlds were created by the choices that people make. Bill Kempf, which world will you create with your life?

That, I think, is the challenge of these days for us as believers. How do we see in such a way as to create the “Puff the Magic Dragon” world? How do we teach ourselves to see what Jesus saw across the board? How do we make sure that we remember that people whose gender attraction, whose religion, politics, skin color, country of origin are different than ours – are precious to God. How do we recognize that we are all called because of our faith in God to create that kind of world?

I don’t claim to have that figured out, but I suspect a lot will be in baby steps: the jokes that I choose not to pass on or forward that demean people; the choice to absorb some pain from people’s treatment of me, instead of transmitting it; the decision to be involved in writing to and working with our politicians to create a less heavy handed way to respond. What I do know it begins with a choice. A choice about what kind of world we will create, what kind of life we will lead to make that happen.

<> One interesting piece of information about the evolution of crayons. It seems that the people of the Crayola company had to learn just that. When I was young, (back in the 1800’s) my box of crayons had a tan-colored crayon that was named ‘flesh’. I wonder how many children looked at that and wondered: “Why do they call that “Flesh”? The people from the Crayola company changed. They realized that human flesh takes on all different hues, and whatever our differences, all people smile in the same language. And if the people from corporate America can learn that, the we, looking at the world with our eyes of faith, can’t we learn to acknowledge that we are indeed, brothers and sisters in Christ.

We could actually learn a lot from a box of crayons. With all the different colors and names, as different as they are, they all have to live in the same box. So do we. So do we…

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