Tuesday, December 22, 2009


4 Advent C #12

Mi 5, 1-14
Ps 80
Heb 10, 5-10
Lk 1, 39-45

December 20, 2009
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

Tomorrow is a turning point; the sun turns around. For the first time in six months, the day will lengthen; there will be one or two more minutes of sunlight each day for the next half year, some days even three. The sun is coming back.

Ask anyone what is the most important, the most decisive, the most pivotal event in the history of the world and you might get any number of answers. The answer will tell a lot about that person, what he or she values or thinks is important. The Battle of Marathon? The Defeat of the Spanish Armada? The Discovery of America? Penicillin? The Pill? The Bomb? Christians know that there is only one answer to that question, and that is the Incarnation. The eternal Word of God took on human flesh, became one of us in the womb of a teenage girl in Palestine two thousand years ago. We date history either A.D. or B.C., Anno Domini, in the Year of the Lord, or Before Christ. And so it should be, because the Incarnation is the dividing line, the defining event in world history, not just for Christians, but for all humankind, because “God wills that all men be saved” (1 Tim 2.4). Those who through no fault of their own have no knowledge and so no faith in Jesus as the Christ will be accepted into God’s glory at last, unless they have deliberately turned aside from Truth and Goodness and Love which is God. When Jesus prayed with his last breath, “Father forgive them,” he opened the doors of heaven to us now, to those who went before us, and those who are to come after us, for any who will have it.

A newborn, a little baby boy! We all love the image. Those of us who are parents remember so clearly the first sight of our firstborn. We look – is it a boy or a girl? Ten fingers? Ten toes? A little nose, and two eyes, one on either side. It’s amazing! Mother has come through it all, tired but happy. She holds the infant, takes it to her breast. We are so grateful, we thank God. So it must have been in that stable in Bethlehem. They wrapped the baby boy in swaddling clothes, strips of cloth to bind his arms and legs secure, and then they placed him in a feeding trough for cattle, and all the world comes to give thanks each Christmas in the crèche scene that Saint Francis popularized. All the world!

I once spent this season in Nicaragua. Not knowing the native food, I did what I always do in unfamiliar parts; I went to a Chinese restaurant. You know it’s going to be nutritious; you know more or less what you’re going to get; there will be plenty of it and it’ll be cheap. The Chinese restaurant in Managua had a life-size plastic Santa Claus standing there to greet me, artificial snow an inch above the Equator and a Nativity scene, a crèche. More Hallmark than Gospel, true, but still, it was good to see. Another Christmas, in Baghdad six years ago, in a Catholic church, with Mass in English, Iraqis and people from Africa, Europe and America, and Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity from India, and again, this same crèche. This Friday fifteen million Roman Catholics in Communist China will be praying and celebrating with us! Yes, Communist China, around a crèche!

Easter is the highpoint of the Christian year, the Resurrection. But the story starts here in the stable, with a lovely young girl and her baby boy, the working man Joseph, their protector and the model for Christian fathers, Jews all of them, who gave us their Bible, the Ten Commandments, the Prophets and the Promise, the Promise made to Abraham, that in his seed all peoples would be blessed (Gen 22, 18). We are now to be a blessing to them, so that when the Son comes again in full light he will be peace. He is our peace, a peace that the world can not give. Peace! Shalom! Salaam!

Have a very blessed Christmas! 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The End is Near!

33 Sunday B #158

Dn 12, 1-3
Ps 16
Heb 10, 11-14. 18
Mk 13, 24-32

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
November 15, 2009

Deacon Tom Cornell

“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.” The year is dying. Toward the end of the year the Church reminds us we are going to die. Not just you and I, but the whole world will come to an end. The Jews who first heard these words of Mark’s Gospel thought the end of the world was right around the corner, and they were right, in a sense. Their world did come to an end, the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was razed, the people were scattered.

Walking the streets of Rome or driving through the mountains of Sicily you can’t help but be reminded, even haunted by the memory of a world that is gone, ancient Greeks and Phoenicians and Romans and Moors and Arabs and Normans. A Greek temple stands there on a hill in Western Sicily, not even completed before its builders fled invaders over 2,000 years ago, and an amphitheatre, Segesta. It’s serene. There is no one to be seen on the mountains but a shepherd and his sheep in the distance, and hills and sky. Our ancestors’ world collapsed around them, but they remain. It’s magical. We know them by their ruins. We today face threats at least as severe as they did, no, much more severe.

How are we to think of the End? With fear? With hope? We pray “Thy kingdom come,” and we pray the last words of the New Testament, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “Maranatha!” looking forward to the end. But that does not let us off the hook. We will be held accountable for how we have treated God’s great gift to us. Our neighbor down-River, Pete Seeger, sings, “One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping at our shore, one earth so green and round, who could ask for more? And because I love you, I’ll give it one more try, to tell my rainbow race, it’s too soon to die.” It’s too soon to commit suicide.

Our sun is half-way through its life-cycle. We have thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of years to go, if we care for and build this world that God has given us instead of pillaging it, polluting it, poisoning it, pulling it down. We are near the crisis point, scientists tell us. If we do not make substantial changes in the ways we produce and use energy, and do it soon, we will arrive at the tipping-point, when nothing can be done to forestall massive die-off of species, including our own, a world that is unlivable.

When we were young it was the nuclear threat. The Cold War is over but that nuclear threat is still with us. We still have enough nuclear weapons aimed at Russia and Russia at us that, if a crisis escalated out of control, if there were a mistake, or if a madman got his finger on the button, this planet would be a fit home for cockroaches and not much else. The Popes, our own bishops and our President have called for progressive and complete nuclear disarmament, but it hasn’t happened, nothing near, not yet.

Nations may soon fight over control of water as they do today over oil. No one doubts that oil is why we are in West Asia. Water is becoming a major international problem, worsening rapidly. Too little water here, too much there, all due to climate change and that due to human activity. Five degrees rise in atmospheric temperature will inundate much of Florida, Manhattan and all of Venice. If you have the chance, see Venice while it’s still there. Your grandkids may not have the chance, so take some pictures. The government of the Maldives Islands Republic is setting aside tax funds every year in anticipation of transporting their entire population to another country when the Indian Ocean swallows theirs. They are buying land in Australia. But Australia may soon become a vast desert.

Surely, God does not want us to fear the End. How many times do we hear in Scripture the words, “Fear not!” “Don’t be afraid!” Jesus will come again to perfect the Messianic Kingdom of God. Your names are written in the Book of Life. There is nothing to fear. But just as surely, God does not want us to despoil the earth, the water, the very air we breathe.

The right to life is very important to us as Catholic Christians. We value every human life including the unborn. How then can we deny life to future generations? And that is precisely what we do when we live as irresponsibly as we do! We think nothing of flushing a toilet even though there is nothing in the bowl but a half cup of urine while whole villages in India will soon run out of water altogether. The Himalayan snow pack that feeds the Indus, the Ganges, the Yalu, the Brahmaputra, the Yang-tze and the Mekong Rivers is melting at a rate never known before and it is not being replaced. You think we have an illegal immigrant problem now? Wait till tens of millions of South Asians and Chinese have no place to live and come knocking at our door, or creeping under it. Too little water where it is needed, and too much where it is not.

We don’t seem to have a problem spending a billion dollars a week on an insane war in West Asia. That money should be spent on educating our children, making college affordable for all qualified students, helping old people stay in their homes when they can no longer pay ever rising property taxes, re-building our infra-structure, our bridges and highways and railways and research into sources of renewable energy, so we can do what must be done. We worry about paying for health care for all those people who insist upon getting old and sick! Aren’t priorities a little askew when we cry about taxes to care for our sick and we don’t scream about pouring our wealth and our sons’ and daughters’ blood down a bottomless pit half-way around the world?

What are we to do? Take personal responsibility! For a start, install a low-flush toilet and don’t flush for everything. Do you really have to take a shower every day? How about a low flow shower-head? Lower the thermostat and put on a sweater. Our house was sweltering in the summer heat, so much so that I thought of installing an air conditioner. Then Monica planted some maple trees for shade. It took a while, but it worked! Eat less meat. How about going back to meatless Fridays, and maybe Mondays too? Don’t take the car out unless you have at least three errands to do. Wash your clothes in cold water and dry your laundry on a clothes-line in the sun and breeze; they’ll last longer and smell better. Look for ways to live more responsibly and let your representatives know what you think. Learn about these issues. See, judge, act. That’s an old Catholic slogan for how to bring about social change through personal responsibility. It’s going to take a massive effort and international cooperation to avert catastrophe, but every giant leap starts with small steps by individuals like you and me.

The End will come. But when it comes, when Jesus comes again, let him find us building the City of God, not tearing it down. Before the lights go out, for they will go out, let us do our best to honor God in his creation by loving it and tending it and loving and tending each other and being light, each one of us light to the other. God loves this Earth, and Jesus loves the children.

The Universe is immense, a sign of the immensity of God. He will bring all things right in due time, for the worst has already happened and been repaired. The worst? Our sin nailed Jesus to a cross. And repaired? He is risen! Alleluia!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


29 Sunday B #146

Is 53, 10-11
Ps 33
Heb 4, 14-16
Mk 10, 35-45

October 18, 2009
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

(Is knowing and believing the same? What can we know about God, really know? Everyone has at least a vague intuition of The Other early in life, the Mystery we call God. One opens to the mystery, or one does not, and believes, or does not. And even if one does not, God is known to pursue, the “The Hound of Heaven,” relentlessly. When we open ourselves to God, our consciousness expands. That’s if we pray, not just mouthing words but really pray. Then we are more aware of everything. But human consciousness cannot capture the Infinite. We can not imagine God, that is, make an image of Him. We can not take hold of Him, capture Him. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that God is involved in history, God cares. He didn’t just create the world, walk away and leave it at that. He called Abraham out of Ur to form a People and He led the People out of Egypt.)

The Hebrew religion is about a book, and the Muslim religion is about a book. But the Christian religion is about a man, Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, who we believe is the ultimate revelation of God, the God-man. Eternally begotten of the Father, he became one of us. Jesus is what we can know about God, all we need to know.

If you want to know what God is like, then look to Jesus. You want to get closer to God? Then develop a personal relationship with Jesus, a real, a personal relationship. Picture him in your mind. That’s what the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross are meant to do, to help us to imagine Jesus, to picture in our minds the scenes of his life, and his mother’s life, and to enter into them. Make a mental image. Imagine. Talk to him, every day, several times a day. And know that no matter what happens, good or bad, Jesus is with you, by your side, your best friend. He will never abandon you. He taught us to pray “Thy will be done.” “Let it be,” said his mother, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” But we have our part to play too in God’s plan. Pray “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Then turn to Jesus.

Picture Jesus? The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus looked like, the color of his eyes, his height or weight or complexion or build or voice. Did he have blue eyes, and wavy blond hair? If you want to imagine him that way, go ahead, but that’s not likely. He was a Palestinian Jew. So he probably had brown eyes and skin darkened by the desert sun. But picture him as you will. The Shroud of Turin may or may not be the burial cloth of Jesus. But it’s easy to imagine that Jesus looked like the mysterious, unaccountable imprint on that cloth. I see a well-built man with a manly face, a large nose and full firm jaw and chin, with deep-set eyes, not beautiful, not even handsome really, but strong, commanding attention. His strength radiates gentleness by the way he carries himself. His voice is strong too, but it is soothing, reassuring with quiet authority.

People gathered around him to hear him preach, thousands of people at a time. He taught sitting down. That was the custom. There were no microphones in those days, no loudspeakers, so he must have had a powerful voice. He went on for hours, long enough for people to get hungry and need to eat a meal. So he must have had a strong voice. And he must have had physical stamina too.

He died after only three hours on the Cross. Of course he had lost a lot of blood from the scourging. He fell, maybe even passed out three times on the way to Golgotha. A large man will die sooner on a cross than a small man because the weight of his body will pull him forward and inhibit breathing. So there is every reason to believe that Jesus was a large man, imposing, dark, with piercing black eyes and a powerful voice. But at the same time, he was gentle and kindly, humble, meek even, seldom moved to anger. But then he could ring out condemnation like thunder. The meek and gentle Jesus could in a moment rise up in righteous wrath casting the money changers from the Temple, or castigating hypocrites, pious frauds.

God looked upon his creation and saw that is was good. Jesus looked upon the Father’s creation and saw that is was good. He was intensely aware, of everything. That is what happens when we allow God into our lives. Our consciousness expands; we become more aware. We can see His traces in a grain of sand or the starry skies or the eyes of a child. And at the same time we are able, as Jesus was, to empty our minds, to peer into the void. For some few destined for the highest spiritual development, God hides in a “dark night of the soul,” as with Mother Theresa. God seems to withdraw, to be absent; all spiritual consolation is withheld, only to purify the soul of any delusion. Even Jesus had a moment like that when he cried out, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

All through his life Jesus loved everything he saw, the earth, the sea, the sky, birds, his home, his tools, flowers, rocks, rain and sun and children. He loved people, not with a sentimental love. The love that moved God at the Creation is Jesus’ love, the love he revealed. Men had turned away; they rejected God’s love in mythic Eden. But Jesus revealed it once again, to take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh, eyes to see, ears to hear, to love as he loved, even to the Cross. He loved everyone, but especially the lowly, the outcast, the ones nobody else wanted. He ate with them. That was the ultimate sign and act of friendship, solidarity in those days in Palestine, to eat together, and it still is. Jesus ate with tax collectors, even fallen women, and public sinners. He did not encourage sin. Quite the contrary. When Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned, he forgave her but he told her to go and sin no more! But the fact is he forgave. And he still calls sinners to the table. And forgives.

Think of the titles given to Jesus: Lord, Messiah-Christ, Son of David, Son of Man, Son of God, High Priest and Prophet, Savior, Redeemer, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Teacher, Rabbi Rabboni, Good Shepherd, Morning Star, Dawn from on High, Comforter, Everlasting Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Lamb of God, Way, Truth, Life. He is all of that and more, Holy, Mighty Immortal! And yet so close, so near, Emmanuel, God-with-us, one of us, one with us, brother, friend. Need we ever fear, can we ever be thankful enough? 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Health Care Debate

25 Sunday B #134

Wis 2, 12. 17-20
Ps 54
Jas 3, 16. 4, 3
Mk 9, 30-37

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
Sept. 20, 2009

Today’s Gospel follows a pattern, as in last week's: Jesus predicts his passion, death and resurrection, his disciples fail to understand, then Jesus instructs them on the true nature of discipleship. The disciples can’t take it in and they are afraid to question him. They are distracted, their minds are elsewhere. When Jesus asks them what they were just arguing about out on the road, they are so embarrassed they can’t answer. But Jesus knows, of course. They have been trying to establish a pecking order, who is going to be number one, number two &c. So Jesus offers them a lesson about what it means to be a true disciple of his. He introduces a child, enfolding him in his arms. In this way Jesus forges a new set of relationships: welcome the little child and you welcome me; welcome me and you welcome God himself. The point is, stand with the powerless, the marginalized and the disenfranchised rather than seek favor by catering to the powerful.

In this story, the disciples are mirror images of ourselves. Their failures, their unwillingness to understand, prefigure the patterns of future generations of disciples over the ages, people just like you and me, slow to understand the radical message of Jesus, and slower yet to follow. Jesus didn’t give up on the first disciples. He won’t give up on us either.

Today the nation is debating health care, or more precisely, health care insurance. Our bishops have insisted time and time again that health care is not a privilege, not something to be earned or something to be bought and paid for but a right, a natural right we are born with: every man, woman and child has the moral right to medical care because each and every one is made in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. “How about immigrants, how about illegal aliens?” you may ask. If the illegal alien is in the womb? Of course! We Catholics believe in the right to life. We are against abortion. We all know that! But how about just after she is born, if she needs special care to survive? Does she have the right to life then? Does the right to life end at birth? How about the parents? Alien, citizen, what does it matter? They are brothers and sisters in Christ! When Joseph fled to Egypt with Mary and the Baby Jesus, did he have a valid visa? These questions are silly and distracting, and they are meant to be. Don’t fall for it! Don’t be distracted! Keep your eye on the prize, hold on: access to health care for all as a matter of right! The problem is how to make a moral right a legal right.

This is not the place to advocate one political solution to the problem of health care, or the lack of it, in our country, over another political solution. This is not the place for politics. But this is the place to insist upon the right to life and the right to the means to life for each and every one, not eighty percent or ninety percent but all, one hundred percent. And further, let me suggest that, as you examine the political debate, you take a look at those who are sniping at every effort for real reform. Are they speaking the language of unity and compassion, or are they speaking the language of division, hatred and fear?

The language of hate and fear was not the language of Pope John Paul to the General Assembly of the United Nations thirteen years ago. He urged us to set aside fear. He spoke of a common effort “to build a civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty.” Health care is a matter of justice, because it is each person’s due. It is a matter of solidarity, because we are all of one body. It is a matter of liberty, because the sick are not free. It is a matter of peace, because where justice is denied peace can not flourish. It is a step, a small one, but a step toward building a civilization of love, and a small step away from the brink of disaster.

Fear is a mighty weapon, a weapon of oppressors. The truth will make you free. The truth is that there is nothing to fear, nothing to fear but sin, and it is a most serious sin to kill the innocent. Fear sin! It is a sin to deny our brothers and sister and their, our children the means to life, and a healthy life at that. Human decency demands no less. Authentic religion demands no less. God demands no less: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God (Mi 6,8). If this is not the place to say so, this place has no reason to stand. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Take and Eat

20 Sunday B #119

Prv 9, 1-6
Ps 34
Eph 5, 15-20
Jn 6, 51-58

Deacon Tom Cornell
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
August 16, 2009

For the past three weeks and again today we hear Jesus speak of himself as the bread of life, “The Bread of Life Discourse” it’s called in the Sixth Chapter of John’s Gospel. We’ll hear the rest of it next week. This is the center to our lives of faith: Jesus gives us his own body and blood as food and drink. Next week we will read how many of the Jews who heard these words turned away from Jesus. “This is too much to bear!” they said. It sounds like cannibalism, doesn’t it? Outrageous! Disgusting! Especially from a Jew to fellow Jews who were very careful about what they ate! The very improbability of Jesus’ claim that we must eat his body and drink his blood recommends its truth. Nobody could have made it up.

“How can you believe such a thing?” some people ask. We believe because we want to believe, not because we can prove anything, but because we want to. The very wish to believe is a gift of God. We can not begin to understand the mystery of it, the reality of it, the real presence of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity in what looks and tastes like a little wafer of bread and a sip of wine unless it is given to us to believe. How we accept that gift or reject it will play out in how we spend eternity.

Spiritual hunger and thirst in our time is palpable. Too many people look for satisfaction, as for love, in all the wrong places – Tarot cards, psychics, fundamentalist sects, crazy religions that spring up like mushrooms in the woods after a spring rain. On the other hand, you will hear some people say that they aren’t “religious” or that they are not “believers” but that they are “spiritual.” Wish them well. Without a tradition of faith, without a community of faith, I wish them a lot of luck! Maybe in fact they will grow spiritually. God is good. They are admitting a thirst, a hunger, for God, whether they know it or not. They yearn for meaning, meaning that we are blessed to find in our Scripture and our sacraments, in our tradition and our community of faith.

Every human being hungers and thirsts for meaning beyond what we can see and touch. There is a reality that is beyond our vision, beyond our grasp, beyond measurement and weight, beyond what we can locate in time and space but a reality that gives meaning to all the rest, and meaning to our lives. Call it the reality of spirit.

Perhaps it was easier in times past to believe in spirit reality than it is today. For the past couple of hundred years or so, we in America and in Western Europe have become better and better at measuring and weighing things, locating things in time and space, so good at analyzing things that we now have a scientific mind-set and tend to assume that what we can touch and feel, weigh and measure, things, is the only reality. Nothing could be farther from the truth or more menacing to our common welfare. General Omar Bradley, a hero of World War II, once said, “We have learned the secret of the atom, but we have forgotten the Sermon on the Mount.” We here have not forgotten the Sermon on the Mount! But too many have. As a society we have forgotten the Sermon on the Mount, if ever we got it!

Maybe it was easier in times past. Grandma was more aware than many of us today of the reality that lies beyond the reality we can measure and touch, the reality that underlies things, the spirit reality that gives meaning to everything else. She spoke to Saint Francis and Saint Clare, to Saint Anthony and the Blessed Mother, to Jesus, to God every day as if they were right there with her in her kitchen. And they were! We can do the same. Turn off the TV and try it! That’s the point of Saint Paul’s words to the Ephesians today. Quiet down, listen, pray! Forget about things and get in touch with reality.

To believe is a gift of God, pure grace. God gives his gift to the simple and to the not so simple alike. Saint Augustine said, “Believe, and you will come to understand” (“crede ut intelligas”). Saint Augustine goes on to describe grace as the quiet assurance of God’s love. That love comes to us in the form of bread and wine consecrated at the hands of our priest, God’s gift to his people.

The bread of life, come down from heaven. This bread, Communion as we call it, nourishes our souls and strengthens our faith. The word communion is from the Latin, cum, which means with, together with, and unio, a state of being one. In receiving Communion we not only remember Jesus, his sacrifice and the example he left us us, but we become one with him, one with God and one with each other in the Mystical Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. In this experience of faith we come to understand, little by little. In this Communion there is no Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative or black or white or Jew or Gentile or Irish or Italian or Polish or German or Chinese or Korean or Vietnamese or male or female. From the realization that we are one flows an impulse of charity, or love, to be the guide and the lodestone of our lives. In this realization we understand more deeply, grasp more firmly the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the way to live, the way to life. And maybe some day we will rid the world of the atom’s threat, with God’s help.

God has called us here, to this table, to be one with Him and to be one with each other and all God’s people, the ones we see and the ones we don’t see, in love, in justice and in mercy, and to stand humbly and gratefully before our God. This is our faith. We are proud to proclaim it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Obey Him!

12 Sunday B #95

Jb 38, 1. 8-11
Ps 107
2 Cor 5, 14-17
Mk 4, 35-41

Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church
Marlboro, N.Y.
June 21, 2009

“Who can this man be that the wind and the sea obey him?”

“The love of Christ impels us,” drives us on, Saint Paul writes. Since one man died for all of us, all of us have died. That is, we live now not for ourselves but we live for Christ, and since Christ died for all, we are to live for all, not just for some, not for the deserving, but for all.

The old order has passed away. No longer may we judge between those who deserve our love and mercy and those who do not.
“He makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” “Judge not lest you be judged.” “By the measure you judge you will be judged.” “Who are you to judge? There is one judge!” There can’t be any doubt about what these words mean. They mean what they say!

There is still a tendency among us to judge, let us say, the “deserving poor” as opposed to the “undeserving poor,” and under that rubric to deny even children the means to life. The majority of the poor are children, you know! That’s a fact! The governor of California suggests that the children of the poor might pay the state out of its debt by forgoing health care! Decent pagans would blush! Who is the undeserving child? If there are any undeserving children, show them! What have they done? What have they failed to do?

Jesus came to announce good news to the poor, not to the “deserving poor,” but to the poor. What do you suppose good news sounds like to the poor? “Some of you have been found deserving, so you have my blessing. On the other hand, you laggards and slackers, you can take your lumps! Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps!” It’s hard to imagine Jesus saying anything like that. It sounds like blasphemy, doesn’t it?

Let me tell you about Randy, a black man 32 years old but still a child, mildly retarded and epileptic. He was almost naked on the streets of Waterbury, Connecticut, wearing a hospital johnny-coat in sub-zero weather for three days in February. When he threw an epileptic seizure at our soup kitchen I called an ambulance, and because I have a clergy pass, I was able to get into the Emergency Room and stand by his side while he was being examined. The doctor told the nurses to clean him up. Then he said, “It’s amazing this man is still alive…. Dismiss him!” Dismiss him?

Monica and I took Randy home. It took a year and a half but at last we got him into supervised independent housing instead of a grave. That’s one reason why I feel such anger that the denial of medical care still goes on in this land that calls itself Number One, the richest country in the history of the world. Shame! Shame is too weak a word!

Woe, vae, guai, veh! Jesus became angry. He hurled these words at the hypocrites of his day. Hypocrites in our day preach thrift and hard work to the poor and the working people and then fatten themselves on what they have stolen from them. Who are they? The insurance companies, the pharmaceutical industry and the politicians they buy! The love of Christ impels us to tell the truth, to name them and demand an end to this. Lord have mercy on us all!

Jesus was no misty-eyed sentimentalist who did not understand evil. Jesus knew evil all too well. He saw it from a cross! He conquered evil, the great evil of sin and death. The tomb could not hold him. He has overcome and we who are in him, we shall overcome too. Do we really believe it? Then leave the separation of the sheep from the goats, the deserving from the undeserving to him in the hope of mercy for ourselves, but save the children. That’s the way to overcome.

The wind and the sea obeyed Jesus. They had no choice. We do. That is our glory and our dread. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Blown Away!

7 Easter B #60

Acts 1, 15-17. 20a-20c. 26
Ps 103
1 Jn 4, 11-16
Jn 17, 11b-19

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
May 24, 2009

Deacon Tom Cornell

How green it is with all this rain, trees in full leaf, the grass, the vines. The very air is tinted green. Green is the color of hope. Today’s rain will help settle the seedlings we have just planted in their beds. All is well. Even farmers take a day off, to rest and to remember Jesus and to pray for a good harvest, that all might have enough. And we remember our fallen this Memorial Day weekend and all victims of war, man’s most wicked folly, as we hope and pray never again. We remember.

The first Christians – they weren’t even called Christians yet – gathered to remember Jesus on the First Day of the week because that was the day the Lord had risen from the dead, Sunday. Most of them had gone to synagogue the day before, the Seventh Day, the Sabbath, their Jewish Day of Rest. But on Sunday they gathered at someone’s house to sing hymns and psalms and to remember Jesus and the salvation they found in him. They recalled his words and told stories about him; they shared their memories of Jesus, those who had seen and heard him, and what they had been told about him and they pondered, trying to understand more deeply what it all meant, what it means.

After singing a hymn they would read prophecies about the Messiah from their Hebrew Scriptures, about the Christ who was to come. If they had a letter from Saint Paul they would read that, but nobody read from the Gospel because there was no written Gospel, not for decades after Jesus’ Resurrection. The Good News was proclaimed orally, “Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, Jesus Christ is Lord, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”
Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest, the first document in what came to be called the New Testament. It was written about the 50th or 51st year of the Christian Era, almost a generation after Jesus’ Ascension. The first Christians thought the Second Coming was right around the corner so they didn’t think to write their memories of Jesus down for posterity; there wouldn’t be any. It wasn’t until 68 or 69 CE that Mark got around to writing the first Gospel account.

After the readings and a sermon or maybe an open group discussion and more singing, the people would gather around a table. Bread and wine would be presented to the bishop or his priest. Then the bishop or his priest would call upon the Holy Spirit to change these gifts into the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord. He would then recall the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Take and eat, for this is my body…. This is my blood.” They would share the sacrament, then say a brief prayer, sing another hymn, receive a blessing and go home. The deacons would then take some of the consecrated bread to the sick in their homes and pray with them there. Just like today, all of it.

In that first and second century, the church spread rapidly, starting from Jerusalem, spreading to Greece and Africa, to Mesopotamia and West Asia and South India, to Italy, France and Spain and by the 5th and 6th century to Ireland and Great Britain, then all Europe and in the 15th to the New World, America. It wasn’t the Conquistadores who brought Christianity to America. They brought death and destruction. It was the priests and the monks, the friars and the sisters who brought the faith. What is most interesting to me, and a proof that God wills it, is that throughout that vast area and through those centuries, without any of the modern means of communication, hardly any communication at all, the structure of the church is the same now and everywhere as it was in those first days in Jerusalem. Languages were and are different, cultures, histories, social structures, but the church everywhere had then and has now the same structure of bishops, priests and deacons, the same baptism and the same sacrament that is the center of our lives.

This is the year of Mark, but we have been reading from John’s Gospel. Matthew, Mark and Luke each has a year in the Lectionary, but John’s Gospel gets chopped up and inserted each year in certain places, for a reason. John was the last to write, about 90 CE. His purpose was not so much to tell what happened to Jesus and the early community, the others had done that, but to try to explain what it all meant.

I hope you don’t think it any disrespect on my part, but I can’t help imagining Saint John as a very old man, nodding, maybe in a wheelchair – I know they didn’t have wheelchairs in those days – with a deacon pushing him around, and the people just a little amused at the old man who seemed sometimes to be heading into his second childhood. “Here he comes again, old ‘Little children, love one another John,’ ” they would say, “ ‘God is Love’ John!” Maybe I’m projecting. John’s words rolled off my back when I was a boy. I heard them but I didn’t hear them. Suddenly, I won’t say how long it took, they sank in, and they blew me away.

God is Love. Love is the measure by which we will be judged. The first question is why is there anything instead of nothing, and the answer is love. Some say that struggle, struggle to survive, or class struggle is the engine of history. Others hold that the will to power is the driving force of history, and others say that sex drives history, no kidding! Still others say blind chance – all of this blind chance! I’m not making this up! We know, John tells us, our faith tells us, that love is the motive force of history. God is One and God is Three because God is a community of love. God did not have to create anything, yet he moved, the Unmoved Mover moved, and what could have moved him but love, to share being? At the very first, God’s love moved the elements, “the sun and all the other stars.” Then God so loved the world that he gave his only son. At last he will come again and take us to himself, in love.

Heaven is a banquet, a love feast, and life is a banquet too, even with a crust of bread, where there is companionship, where there is love. To love one another we must know one another. The disciples at Emmaus recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread. And we recognize each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Maybe you remember these words of Dorothy Day; I’ve used them before. I do it often. And John’s: “Little children, love one another, for God is love.” When these words we have heard over and over again finally sink in and connect with what we know, what we have experienced in life of love and its counterfeits, and what we hope for in our deepest hearts, they will blow you away. You will never be the same. 

Saturday, May 16, 2009


2 Easter B #44

Acts 4, 32-35
Ps 118
1 Jn 5, 1-6
Jn 20, 19-31

April 19, 2009
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

“Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side!” Words hard to forget. When we were children we were taught to repeat Saint Thomas’ words at Mass, at the elevation of the chalice after the consecration, “My Lord and my God!”

We all have moments of doubt. It’s normal to have questions. But remember, a mystery isn’t just an article of faith that can not be explained by reason alone. A religious mystery invites us to enter into it, to experience it. Another word for mystery is sacrament. From the inside, in the experience of the mystery itself, doubt is dispelled. We enter into a new reality.

Thomas entered into the mystery of the Resurrection, his doubt dispelled, and he was filled with power. After the first Pentecost, Thomas traveled east from Jerusalem through what is now Iraq and Pakistan and India. He established churches along the way, ordaining bishops and priests and deacons to carry on the work of remembering Jesus in word and sacrament. Many of those churches are still there today. Some of them are flourishing. There were over fifty Christian churches in Baghdad in 2003, before the invasion, most of them Catholic and Orthodox. There was even a section of Baghdad called “The Little Vatican,” there were so many churches and convents there, and a marvelous seminary. Christians lived side by side with Muslims in Iraq for hundreds of years in peace, but in recent times many have had to flee. In the State of Kerala in South India, the Catholic population is 20 percent. They are beautiful people, intelligent, educated and hard working. All these people claim Saint Thomas as the founder of their churches.

Closer to home, as we all know, we have a new archbishop. I was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for his installation last Wednesday. Archbishop Timothy Dolan preached with passion, warmth and humor, and he was thunderously received. He said so many memorable things in defense of life, in defense of the poor and the powerless, immigrants, the elderly infirm and the yet unborn. He referred to the supposed wealth and power, prestige and influence of the Catholic Church in New York. He said those days are over, if they ever existed at all. He said our real power is and always has been our faith, not buildings and real estate, nothing but faith in Jesus the Risen Lord, faith in the power of Truth, faith in the power of the Spirit, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, the power of Love and Life itself, the faith that conquers the world.

John tells us that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God, his sons and daughters, sisters and brothers of Jesus. “Everyone begotten of God conquers the world, and the power that conquers the world is this faith of ours. Who then is the conqueror of the world? The one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

What can that mean, to conquer the world? And why conquer the world in the first place? The world is good, isn’t it? We read in the First Chapter of Genesis that God created the world and saw that it is good, very good. And in that most famous verse from John’s Gospel we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his son….”

When John uses the word world in today’s letter, he means those institutions and structures, those forces that create and maintain immense wealth and privilege for the few and poverty, misery, want and deprivation for the many. God meant his creation for all people, everything for everybody. The early Christians knew this. That’s why they sold all they had and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles in the Jerusalem commune. That didn’t last very long. Communal living is hard, I can tell you.
Everything for everybody. We know that’s not the way it is. But that is the way we should be aiming, “to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.” But it would be terribly dangerous for us to imagine that we can get there, to a world of equality, peace and justice on our own. On the other hand, it’s just as bad to be satisfied with things as they are. God lays the task upon us. He does not demand that we succeed, only that we never give up. He will bring the success at the end.

To be a Christian is to follow Christ. It is not enough to obey the Ten Commandments, to be good and to live honestly in this world. Jews are good and Muslims are good and Hindus and Buddhist and Zoroastrians are good. Jesus demands more. If we believe in Jesus we must believe him, what he taught, follow his example as best we can. “When he was insulted he returned no insult, when he suffered he did not threaten.” Rock bottom, he told us to love, not just our family, not just our friends and neighbors, but to love our enemies as well, to bless those who curse us and to do good to those who would do us harm. That is not what the world teaches. But that is what makes Christ’s teaching different, new, the Way to a new heaven and a new earth. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Do Not Touch?

6 Sunday B #77

Lv 13, 1-2. 44-46
Ps 32
1 Cor 10, 31. 11, 1
Mk 1, 40-45

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
February 15, 2009

Deacon Tom Cornell

Today’s Gospel reading is a simple little story, but there’s more to it than meets the eye at first glance. The leper approaches Jesus and the crowd that has gathered around him. He has to push his way through, touching people to make room. That was a no-no! We just heard in our First Reading from Leviticus that lepers were excluded from ordinary society. This man had no business among healthy people, no less touching them. But he left his place, where the Law assigned him, away from other people, on the margins away from the community, “outside the camp.”

The people around Jesus were startled to see him; many of them must have been afraid. They knew that leprosy is contagious. That’s why the Law of Moses excluded lepers from the community, to live away from other people, as best they could. Some of them lived in cemeteries on the edge of town, where relatives and former friends might leave them something to eat, where they could build a little lean-to or shed propped up against a tomb, not too far away, but away.

The leper says to Jesus, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus does a no-no too! Instead of commanding the leper to get back where he belongs, Jesus stretches out his hand. He even touches the leper, taking the risk that he himself might contract the disease. That’s a radical way of identifying with this poor man. The leper is made clean. Jesus tells the leper now cured to go and show himself to the priest. He is not to tell anyone on the way what happened to him, but only the priest, and to make the customary offering. That will be a proof to him.

A proof of what? Proof that the man has been cured, yes, but more, proof about Jesus, that his ministry is authentic. The priest would understand that Jesus is not just another wandering preacher and faith-healer exploiting simple people’s credulity. There were people like that, in those days. There was something different about Jesus. That was clear. But what? Jesus keeps his secret, the nature of his mission, but little by little as the Gospel unfolds, Jesus will reveal himself as the Christ, the Messiah of God.

We don’t know what the priest thought or if the leper ever got to him. We are told only that the leper now cured could not keep his story to himself. He was so overjoyed that he began “to publicize the whole matter.” The Greek says he “preached the word.” The leper is not only cured but he is welcomed back into the community and becomes a herald, proclaiming the good news of Jesus. He is healed and the community is healed and Jesus’ fame spreads from town to town. In the last verse, Jesus identifies with the leper again by going out by himself into the margins, to deserted places, if only to get away from the crowds.

Today’s story teaches the lesson of unity and compassion, a compassion that becomes love, the love that casts out fear and restores community. Fear can be a legitimate defense mechanism. There is good reason for us to be careful, to avoid contagion, to wash our hands before we leave the bathroom and to sneeze into a handkerchief. We have to teach our children simple precautions, how to cross the street and not to take rides from strangers. But we can overdo it.

Thomas Merton taught that fear is the root of violence; fear is the root of war. Love casts out fear, and we are called to love, not to fear. How many times in Scripture do we hear the words, “Fear not!” “Don’t be afraid!” If fear becomes our primary way of looking at things, if we look at everything and everyone through the lens of suspicion and fear, then we blind and cripple ourselves. Fear will keep us from stepping out onto an untried path, or from stretching a hand out to a stranger, or from taking a chance, the chance that might open up a whole new world to us. Fear will keep us stuck in old familiar ways of thinking and acting, even long after they serve any purpose.

In the Book of Proverbs we read that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear is not a good translation of the Hebrew word here; it is misleading. Reverence says it better, or reverance and awe. “Awe-filled reverence of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The Holy Almighty Immortal God showed himself to us as a little baby, to love, then as a criminal on a Cross, in love. That, as the kids say nowadays, is truly awesome!

Today’s story points to the basic truth in all authentic religion, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, all ways to Wisdom, to God: truly religious people sense in their hearts unity, the unity of all Creation, the whole universe “charged with the grandeur of God,” and the unity of the human family, no one left out, and from that a sense of compassion, a “suffering with,” feeling the pain of the excluded. Unity and compassion. That is the profound lesson of today’s simple little Gospel story.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Is it I, Lord?

2 Sunday B #65

1 Sam 3, 3b-10. 19
Ps 40
1 Cor 6, 13c-15a. 17-20
Jn 1, 35-42

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 18, 2009

Deacon Tom Cornell

This Sunday begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We remember Jesus’ prayer to the Father that all his followers be one so that the world might believe in him and in his message, his Good News of peace and reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins (Jn 17). Christ wills it, God wills it, that all be one. So it will be, one way or another, in God’s time. There is indeed one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, so that in fact, in a way, imperfect though it may be, we are already one. That lays an obligation upon every one of us Christians, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, to put away all resentment at past wrongs, hurts we may have suffered, and to forgive. And we beg those whom we have offended to forgive us as well. We must put away envy and pride even as our Catholic Church has a unique fullness of the means to salvation. That should make us all the more eager to serve our fellow human beings, Catholics or not, Christians or not, believers or not, in cheerful humility, always ready to proclaim and defend our faith, but gently and with respect for all.

Tomorrow we celebrate the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the next day the inauguration of a new President. We can all take pride in the way Senator John McCain and President George W. Bush have welcomed a Black man to the presidency of the United States. Neither of them voted for Barack Obama, we may safely assume. But each of them acknowledged the significance of this event. Two generations ago, my father witnessed a lynching. One generation ago, it seems like yesterday, Father Dugan, Father Richard John Neuhaus whom we buried last week, and thousands of us put our lives on the line in Selma, Alabama so that Black people might be able to vote. That civil rights campaign of the Fifties and the Sixties cost lives, so many lives, even four little girls’ lives, killed when their church in Birmingham was bombed. Young people need to know this history. We have to tell the story lest we forget how it came to be, how we won, how we changed America. Nonviolence won, the nonviolence we learned from a Hindu saint, Mahatma Gandhi, and from a Baptist minister, Martin King, and from our own Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez. The power of nonviolence has not been exhausted. In fact, it has been barely tapped. We may well have reason to turn the tap full open, and soon.

I’m sure we all join President Bush and Senator McCain in their best wishes and prayers for our new President and the success of his administration. But we will hold Barack Obama’s feet to the fire in the defense of life, of the life of the innocent, of the vulnerable, of the weakest, of the unborn and the elderly, of immigrants and the poor, of our own and the children of Gaza and the West Bank and Israel, of Iraq and Iran, of Pakistan and Afghanistan, all life, Mister President, all human life! We have the tools of nonviolence. We are prepared to use them. And if we must, pray God give us the wisdom and the strength to stand up, for we all called, all of us called to justice.

Today’s readings from First Samuel and from John’s Gospel are about a call, a vocation. “Is it I, Lord? I heard you calling in the night,” so goes the hymn. Yes, it’s you! Every one of us has a call. Just what is it that God is calling you to? Is it priesthood, diaconate, religious life as a sister or brother, marriage, lay life? How do you know? In today’s Gospel we learn of Jesus’ call to his first disciples. Matthew, Luke and Mark have Jesus address fishermen by the shore. He calls them directly, bluntly, “Come, follow me!” They leave their boats and their nets and follow. John tells a more subtle story. John the Baptist points Jesus out, “There he is, the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples then follow after Jesus. He notices and turns around to ask them what they want. They ask, “Where are you living, rabbi?” Jesus answers, “Come, take a look!”

That’s what I want to say to the young people here today. Come, take a look! How do you know that you are called to priesthood or religious life? If ever you have the slightest idea, talk to someone, to our pastor. Just as with Samuel, there is something mysterious about a call. Ignatius of Loyola didn’t know he was meant for priesthood until a cannon ball smashed his leg during the Battle of Pamplona. Don’t expect anything as dramatic as a cannon ball! It’s more like a whisper, as with Elijah on the mountainside waiting to hear the voice of the Lord. It wasn’t in the earthquake, or the fire or the storm; it was in a small still voice that only he could hear (1 Kings 19).

By virtue of our baptism we all share the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are to be mediators between God and our fellows, each one of us. That’s what a priest is, a mediator with God. We are to care for each other, not just spiritually, for we are not disembodied spirits. We are meant to care for each other soul and body, body and soul. God cares, Jesus cares, his Holy Mother, and our mother, cares, and the Church cares that you have decent work to keep a roof over your head and food on the table and fire in the hearth. We are heading into hard times. There is not an empty bed at our farm, and we have people sleeping on the floor at both our men’s house and our women’s house for the homeless in the City. It’s going to get worse. But our first needs are spiritual. Those needs are met with prayer, the sacraments, the nourishment that comes from studying the Bible and the lives of the saints. Ordained priests, like Father Ed, share the bishops’ role to sanctify, to teach and to guide the local community, set apart for that, not above but apart in sacramental priesthood. It is no secret we need more priests. There may be one young man here today, there may be more than one in this church right now, who are being called to priesthood. It may be you. Come, take a look!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Faith & Family


Gen 15, 1-6. 21, 1-3
Ps 105
Heb 11, 8. 11-12. 17-19
Lk 2, 22-40

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
December 28, 2008

Deacon Tom Cornell

The Sunday after Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. God came to us as a baby, in a family. Jesus, true God and true man, was a true baby, diapers and all, and a true toddler and all that means, and a true adolescent, like us in all ways but sin. He grew up in a family. He was formed in and by a family. His earthly father, the carpenter Joseph, is a model for all fathers, and his mother Mary for all mothers. The Holy Family is supposed to be a model for all families. Well, supposed to be. It doesn’t always work out that way. My most famous American relative was Lizzy Borden. Remember her? “Lizzy Borden took and ax and gave her father forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one.” Yep, that’s Cousin Lizzie, a cousin on my father’s side. Our common ancestor was hanged by the neck until dead for murdering his mother, in 1673. There were worse, far worse in England. But that was long ago and I never knew any of those people.

The family I knew, my real family, was my mother’s family, off the boat from Italy a generation before I was born. Unconditional love was lavished on us kids, especially boys, until we were about twelve years old. Then boys were expected to go to work, part-time during the school year and full-time when school was out. Every Friday, the boys and the men handed over their pay envelopes to Mamma. The men risked their lives at hard and dangerous work, some died, “Christ in Concrete.” The women risked their lives giving us babies. That was the deal. We knew who we were.

For most of us, married life is the best, the best we can hope for on this earth. Mine has been wonderful, given the occasional bump in the road, but still, wonderful. We knew from the beginning, Monica and I, that if we tried to do God’s will, God would provide. And he did. I thank God and I thank Monica for seven descendants.

Our readings today are about family and about faith. Today’s reading from Genesis picks up the story of Abraham and Sarah when they were still called Abram and Sarai. The Lord told Abram, “Your own issue shall be your heir. ...Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the Lord, “and it was credited to him as righteousness.” That is, his relationship to God was right, correct. That’s what righteousness means, a right relationship to God. Thenceforth his name was to be Abraham, and Sarai’s Sarah, to signify that they were now new-born in faith.

We read, “God did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age,” when Abraham’s body was as good as dead. And in fact his descendants are as many as the stars, for Abraham is the father of all the Hebrews through Sarah and their son Isaac. And he is also the father of the Arabs, through his son Ishmael born of Sarah’s servant, Hagar the Egyptian. And if your heritage is Sicilian or Southern Italian, you too may well be a descendant of Abraham, because the Arabs controlled our ancestral lands for over two hundred years, long enough to leave a genetic contribution. The first time I went to Cairo I was amazed. All the men on the street looked like my uncles! Whatever our physical lineage, we are all spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah in faith, Jews, Christians and Muslims too in the Abrahamic faith. These days we are not encouraged to strive for many descendants. But let me remind you, dear friends here in this former home town of Margaret Sanger, the future belongs to the fertile!

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us of Abraham again as an example of right relationship to God by faith. Before our reading begins there is this. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists.” Then we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out.... He went out, not knowing where he was to go.”

You may have heard, our young people certainly have or will when they get to college, of the so-called “new atheists” and their books, best sellers on the market. There is nothing new about atheism. We read of village atheists in the Psalms, written a thousand years before Jesus was born! “In his heart the fool says there is no God.” You young people, if you begin to have doubts, don’t let that throw you, don’t be afraid. Come to our pastor, Fr. Ed, or to your college chaplain or to me. Our faith has to grow, mature and deepen. We do not go through life with the same understanding we had when we were children. I have had it out with quite a few atheists, some of them very good people. I could truly say to them, “The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either. Your notion of God, your notion of what we Catholics believe, is silly, infantile.” Be that as it may, Dorothy Day taught that the true atheist is the one who refuses to see the face of Christ in the poor and the suffering, no matter what pious incantations he or she may make in or out of church!

Our Gospel reading today is from Luke, the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. This is one of my favorite scenes in all Scripture, more so as I age and identify with Simeon and his “Nunc dimittis.” The old translation is so much more poetic. “Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
Nunc dimittis! When we go we take with us what we have made of ourselves, and obviously I don’t mean our bank account. I mean what we have made of our relationships, first to God, the God revealed by Jesus Christ who is Truth and Love. Then our relationship to our fellow human beings, first of all our families but also to the poor and suffering and the young. Then our relationship to all the rest of creation, the animals and even the earth we walk on and the air we breathe, as we have come to realize so much more clearly these past few years. All things are not relative, but all are relatives. Saint Francis called him Brother Earth and her Sister Moon. “Praised be thou oh Lord our God for Brother Wind and Air and Cloud and Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure!” Praise him!
From our family to all your families and our whole parish family, Happy New Year of Our Lord 2009. May you live in the light and love of the Holy Family of Nazareth now and forever.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Election 2008

31 Sunday A #148

Ex 22, 20-25
Ps 18
1 Thes 1, 5-10
Mt 22, 34-40

Newman Parish
University of Rochester
October 26, 2008

Deacon Tom Cornell

I have here a long sermon, about 2,000 words, five pages single-spaced. When I showed it to Fr. Brian he said, “Oh, no, Tom! These are college students. Give them a break! They’ve been lectured at all week! Have mercy!” Okay, here, I’ll put it down.

In a week and two days we go to the polls, many if not most of us for the first time. Our bishops have instructed us to consider “the life issues” as we decide how to vote, abortion and embryonic cell research, euthanasia, intrinsic evils, and the death penalty, and unjust war and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. And our unjust immigration policy, poverty here and abroad and the threats to the earth and sea and sky, the very air we breathe by climate change and our part in it.

The right to life covers a broad area. The right to life does not end at birth. And the right to life includes by necessity the right to the means to life. That means food, clothing and shelter and medical care. But it also means the right to education and training for an honest job that pays a living wage because without these there is no decent life for us or our children. And let me add torture. Torture is also a crime against life, condemned by the Second Vatican Council.

Our bishops have not addressed issues that address the political order as such, for instance the erosion of civil liberties in the so-called “War on Terror.” In a university setting, it is not inappropriate to take note of the expansion of the powers of the President these past eight years, usurpation of powers to put it more accurately, under the concept of the unitary executive and how that affects human dignity: the power to override Congressional oversight in every aspect of government from energy policy to health care, the power to wage undeclared war, the power to create military courts to try civilians, the power to seize and transport anyone to secret prisons in foreign lands, to authorize torture. Never has the Constitution been under such attack, and few seem to notice. In these days of economic turmoil, our attention is on matters closer to home.

No party and no candidate fills the bill when it come to our needs at home or our foreign policy. Neither party comes clean on Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to weigh matters and all too often we have to choose the lesser of two evils. No candidate and no party has offered a full employment goal or a living wage policy. A family should be able to live on the salary of one full-time working parent. That has been the teaching of the Catholic Church in this country since World War I. And yet we still don’t have it. In fact, for the past thirty years, under Democrats and Republicans alike, we have been going backwards.

The American worker is the most productive worker in the world, we like to boast. For every hour of work the value of what the worker has produced has increased. In the past, wages and productivity have risen together, more or less in step. If workers produced more, then they earned more. But not for the last thirty years. The buying power of all but the top 10 percent of our population has actually declined since 1973. The minimum wage, if it had kept up with increased productivity over the past thirty years, would now be close to twenty dollars an hour instead of less than the seven dollars it is today. Everybody’s wages would rise as we shared the product of our own labor! Take a guess where the extra profit has gone. It’s gone to the same people who engineered the economic crisis we are now entering, the worst since 1929. Democrats as well as Republicans have allowed this to happen. The blame lies at both their doors, and at our own too because we let it happen. We were asleep at the switch.

No matter who wins on November 4th, our country, our society will have much the same problems we have today. Our problems are at base spiritual. Because our problems are at base spiritual they must be addressed spiritually, with the weapons of spirit. The weapons of the spirit are first of all prayer, the prayer we say with or without words alone in quiet and the prayer we pray together here today as we break open the Word of God in Scripture and share the Sacrament of the Altar breaking bread together, the Body and Blood of the Savior.

Then the works of mercy, the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless and the rest. We must cultivate a merciful and loving attitude to those in need, not a judgmental one, not a “Why don’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” way of thinking. Pray God’s mercy upon us. Pray that he take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. And the spiritual works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are as important as the corporal: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting those in grief, pointing out their errors to those who are on the wrong path in the spirit of charity, forgiving those who have hurt us and praying for them.

Our national problems, our societal problems can be laid out on the grid of the seven deadly sins. The same vices that beset our private lives bedevil our common life: pride, greed, envy, sloth, lust, anger and gluttony. The cure for them can be laid out on a grid too, the virtues that are their opposites: for pride humility, for envy kindness, for anger patience, for lust self-control, for gluttony temperance, for greed liberality, for sloth diligence.

Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama mentioned greed in their last debate. They might have gone down the list to include each one of the vices. Gluttony! If everybody on earth wasted as much as the average American does the earth’s resources would run out in a very few years. Our bishops pledged that they would voluntarily abstain from eating meat on Fridays as a sacrifice for peace. Meatless Fridays are no longer obligatory, except in Lent. That’s why it’s even better to skip meat on Fridays, because you don’t have to, you want to. And it’s a good idea to skip a meal or two every week and send what you save to a soup kitchen or a food bank. Fasting and almsgiving cancel out sins, so the ancient fathers taught.

Voting is important, a duty, but it is not enough. This country has never made any social advance unless the people rose up and demanded it. So we learned in the labor movement, so we learned in the Civil Rights Movement. So we learned during the Viet Nam war on the streets and in jail cells and in prison.

The kind of struggle we need, this country needs, will be long and hard and it’s going to cost. The kind of struggle we need can not be sustained by weak tea, I mean by a watered down faith. We need a strong and deep faith, strengthened and deepened by prayer and the sacraments.

Let me tell you a story. My friend Igal Roodenko was born in Philadelphia of a secular Jewish family in 1911. His first language was Yiddish. Igal was very well loved in our Catholic Worker community, although he was an atheist. He earned a master’s degree in plant pathology at Cornell University before World War II so that he could go to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state there, “a land without people for a people without a land.” That’s the founding myth of the modern Israeli state, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” But then as Igal completed his course work, it occurred to him: there are people in Palestine. They are Palestinians. They have been there for thousands of years. They would resist having their land, their homes and farms and businesses taken from them. The Zionists would have to kill lots of Arab Palestinians to control Palestine! Igal could not eat meat. He was a vegetarian. He couldn’t even eat a fish! How was he going to kill an Arab?

Igal went to prison in World War II for three years for refusing to kill Germans and Japanese. He told me more than once that he would have loved to be able to join the army and take part in the great adventure of his generation. But he couldn’t go. He just couldn’t. In prison he met men he would never have found in the course of ordinary life, men who thought as he did. There were, and are, few of them, but more of them today. Together they studied the nonviolent theory and practice of Mahatma Gandhi. These men studied and argued about nonviolence and about our country’s social problems, and came to the conclusion that race is the fault-line in this society. They determined that after the war, after they were released from prison, they would apply Gandhian nonviolence to the race issue. The first Freedom Ride was not in 1960 – the photos you may have seen of the bus burning in Anniston, Georgia. The first Freedom Ride was in 1947, and every man on that ride spent World War II in prison for refusing military service. Igal served thirty days on a chain-gang in Virginia for sitting next to a black man on a bus. Those men sparked the great movement that finally dismantled the legal structures of racial segregation in this country, and, it is not too much to say, they saved this country.

Not long before he died, Igal reminisced. He said to me, “I’ve been in the Movement for a long time.” (He meant the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the peace movement.) “The Thirties, the Forties, the Fifties, the Sixties, the Seventies and the Eighties. There were all kinds of radicals. There were Communists and Trotskyists and Socialists and anarchists and you Catholic Workers. Now they’re all gone. All gone but you. And you are stronger than ever. You know what it is, I think, what keeps you going?” “Tell me Igal, what is it?” “I think it’s your religious faith!” Igal did not die an atheist.

Today’s Gospel has Jesus restate the Two Great Commandments of love, love of God and love of neighbor, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan he expands neighbor to include even the foreigner, even the enemy. If we love God with all our hearts and all our minds and all our strength and our neighbors as ourselves, then we will not be content just to vote. We will want to take our part in the struggle for peace and justice with all our hearts and minds and strength, the nonviolent struggle for the beloved community, the only struggle that can truly claim to have God on its side.