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Why have you stayed as a disciple?Fr. Barry Moriarity, the dean of formation at the seminary, once said this: “If you want to leave the seminary, you will find a reason to do so. It might be the ‘no facial hair part of the dress code’ or the celibacy demanded of priests; it might be the more difficult teachings of the church, or your own grappling with the leadership role the church is asking of you. But if you want to leave, you’ll find a reason to do so. The challenge is to be in touch with the reasons why you stay!” I find wisdom is both of those sayings – about staying and leaving.

If you want to find a reason to leave the church and the path of discipleship that Jesus calls us to, you will. Some just slip away because they get out of the habit. Others leave because of lifestyle choices which seem incongruent to the practice of faith. Or a decision of the pastor is one that they disagree with and can no longer stomach. Some will leave for other denominations because of a spouse. But many will leave because they will no longer find reasons to believe. Perhaps the experience of suffering or loss makes them doubt the possibility of a loving God. Perhaps what they believe clashes with what they see in the lives of the leadership of the church. They find a reason to leave.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus faces the loss of faith in many he loved. Maybe you know what that is like. Perhaps you are a parent whose children no longer attends church or even believes in God. It can be a deep loneliness when your spouse, friend or sibling not only quit practicing, but think that you are wrong for believing. Maybe you understand the poignancy in Christ’s question: “Do you also want to leave?”

There are so many things I could imagine Jesus wanting to say to them in that moment. “Could you hang in there with the doubts? Don’t you know that there is so much more? Do you trust that there is LIFE here for you?”

Notice, though, that Jesus lets them leave. He doesn’t try to shame or guilt or trick them into staying. Instead, he leaves his followers with their questions unanswered, hoping that they would wrestle with these questions rather than give them easy answers or user-friendly faith. He knew that there are questions won’t go away. Questions about the nature of God. About the role of the church in politics. About ethics. About suffering. And faith. And morality. Questions that people will use to leave the road of discipleship. Reasons why people leave.

You and I, who come here Sunday after Sunday, have known that wrestling with those questions. Yet, we have found our own reasons to stay. Sometimes our initial response is the first line of Peter’s – a not very ringing endorsement kind of: “Where else are we going to go?” That might be a good reason not to leave, but it is not enough reason to stay, is it? Or at least to keep us here long. But I can imagine Jesus arching his eyebrows when Peter says that – hopeful, but wanting more. “You have the words of everlasting life… “AHH! Now you are getting somewhere Simon.”

That is why I stay. I keep coming back to Jesus because in his words –however perplexing – I’ve heard something that rings true. And I experience in my attempts to follow the gospel a life that wells up in me beyond my own small world. And I stay because there is a presence here at this altar that I find NO WHERE else on this planet. THIS experience of communion, this experience of life, gathered around a table, NOT JUST AS INDIVIDUALS, but TOGETHER – I find nowhere else. Here, I feel more alive than I do anywhere else in my world. Not on the golf course, not a dinner with my best friends, or even time with my priest support group. HERE, around this altar, gathered with you in prayer, I know the presence of the One who has life for me, for US, as we walk the road together. Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God… And I can commit my whole life, not because I am sure of myself, but because I am sure of you.

Fr. Barry Moriarity got it right in terms of the seminary – if you want to leave, you’ll find a reason. Peter got it right in terms of Jesus – if you want to stay, you’ll need to find that experience of everlasting life, of everlasting love that wells up within you. Let that question of Jesus – Will you also leave? And the response of Peter – You have the words of everlasting life – be the source of our prayer and reflection this week.

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RCIA…

“Divinely sent to the nations of the world to be unto them “a universal sacrament of salvation,” the Church, driven by the inner necessity of her own catholicity, and obeying the mandate of her Founder (cf. Mark 16:16), strives ever to proclaim the Gospel to all men. The Apostles themselves, on whom the Church was founded, following in the footsteps of Christ, “preached the word of truth and begot churches.” It is the duty of their successors to make this task endure “so that the word of God may run and be glorified (2 Thess. 3:1) and the kingdom of God be proclaimed and established throughout the world.”  Thus begins the document “Ad Gentes” (To the Nations) from the Second Vatican Council.

Every time I preside over a baptism, I am reminded of the call of Jesus to “go make of all disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And in a concrete way, each fall, I am reminded of the ‘how’ of that instruction – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  (RCIA)  By instruction and formation, by prayer and reflection, and by becoming a small faith community, candidates and catechumens and sponsors grow in the knowledge and love of God and, God willing, are accepted into the church during the Easter Vigil Celebration.

On my part, I am happy to line up the volunteers, organize the syllabus, coordinate the classes, and prepare the nuts and bolts of the process.  However, you can have the most amazing program set up, the most wonderful sponsors, the most powerful prayer services all lined up to be put into practice, but if there is no one to teach, then that part doesn’t matter so much.  This is where you come in.

You are the ones who know the relative who is married to a non-Catholic spouse who might be interested in learning more about our faith.  You are the ones who live next to the neighbor who is un-churched, or perhaps is in that ‘seeking phase’ for a community of faith to land in.  You know the co-worker or friend who might be open to the process of becoming a Catholic Christian.  Now is the time to invite them.  Perhaps you can begin by pointing them to this link: archstl.org/catholicscomehome/noncatholics.

But in a more direct way, you can invite them to attend (with you) a ‘no obligation’ session – kind of an overview if you will – of the Catholic Faith, entitled: “These are a few of my Favorite Things” on Wednesday night, Sept. 5th, at 7p.  This session will be held at the Catholic Newman Center.  It will last for one hour.  You can RSVP to me or to Pat Marstall at the rectory with the names of those attending.  Hope to see you then.

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Do you know what a foodie is?A “Foodie” is a person that spends a keen amount of attention and energy on knowing the ingredients of food, the proper preparation of food, and finds great enjoyment in top-notch ingredients and exemplary preparation.  They go to great lengths to make sure what they eat is healthy, nutritious, and appetizing.   Here is perhaps the main difference between a foodie and a gourmand.  A foodie will never answer the question “What are you eating” with the answer: “I don’t know.”  A foodie will never answer about his food: “I don’t know what this is or where it came from.”

It seems that the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel would have flunked the foodie test.  Remember the context.  This discussion follows immediately after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.    And remember, John does not have an institution narrative at the last supper.  Instead, he gathers the teaching of Jesus about the Eucharist into one place.  Today’s reading is the summit of that discourse.

 “I am the living bread come down from heaven and the bread I give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  Jesus is trying to help them, in our modern parlance, become a foodie – understand what the food is that he offers and where it comes from.

Scandalized, the Jews retort: “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”  Eating of flesh with blood in it was strictly forbidden all through the Old Testament.  Blood was the principal of LIFE – and belongs to God.  So no one can take it upon himself the prerogative of eating flesh with blood.  Yet here is a fellow Jew saying “UNLESS you eat my flesh, you will have no life with you.” And the language he uses could not be mistaken for symbolic language.  Sarx =  MEAT.  That would be extremely objectionable for the Semitic mind.  And yet, rather than back down from that language, rather than try to mollify the crowds, to get the foodie in them on board, Jesus insists on the reality of this language.   He uses the Greek work TROGAIN which means “gnawing” – in the same way a lion would eat the meat off its prey.  Unless you gnaw on me, you will not have life within you.

This discourse is the ground for the catholic belief in the real presence.  What Jesus is offering – this bread from heaven, is not just a symbol of Jesus, not just a sign of his love and sacrifice.  It is the Body and Blood, the soul and divinity of our Lord  that we consume at this table.  On the level of substance, on the level of ‘being’ –the bread and wine of the Eucharist change.

How do we explain it?  We know that some human words change reality.  When a couple says: “I take you to be my wife/husband” their reality changes.  When a police officer tells us: “You are under arrest” our reality changes.  There are certain human words that change reality, that effect what they say.  So when an umpire says: “You are OUT” – the reality of the game changes moving forward.

So too, we know from the stories of Genesis the creative power of the divine word.  When God speaks – reality comes into existence.  Let there be light – and the light was.  The Divine word is creative, not just descriptive.

So, when Jesus, the Son of God, says over the bread and wine – this is my body and this is my blood, he says that not just as an ordinary human being who is speaking symbolically.  What he says IS.  What he says BECOMES.   By his power as God – the bread becomes his body.  The wine is his blood.  Really present.  And we have his promise: “The one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

This is the life that Jesus promises you and me, each time we come to this table.  The Bread that came down from heaven –  the very, real presence of our Lord, welling up within us – that is the food we gnaw upon here at this table.  And as often as we feed upon him, there is the reality of His life, greater than our own, welling up within for eternal life.  Food for the journey, strength for our living.

What are we eating?  Where does it come from?  The Catholic foodie in all of us knows…

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Of Popsicle Socials and repairs…

It may never make it to into the Hallmark Calendar of ‘Days to give cards to people whom you love’, but nonetheless, the “Popsicle Social” marks the unofficial end of summer and heralds the beginning of a new year of school here at St. Ann’s. With the finishing touches going into the updated computer lab even as I write, a whole summer of upgrades and repairs are drawing to a finish. Let me say a HUGE word of THANKS to Dave Marstall for once more overseeing ‘the big picture’ in all the repairs that needed to be made. And for meeting the roofers and electricians and plasterers and tuck pointers and glazers and…

So, what have we done? Fixed the gutters in a few places where the rain would rush so quickly down the roof that it would ‘jump’ over the gutters, run down the brickwork and find its way into the plaster walls of the school. A kind of ‘splash guard’ is in place that should prevent a re-occurrence of those persistent plaster issues this caused in the school. And the bricks have been tuck pointed and sealed. Our own George Copp has done the repairs to plaster walls and ceilings, both to the front of the school and to the storm damaged areas of the school from the spring hail storm/rains. Blake flooring did the repairs to the damage flooring from the same storm in the gym. Dave M. and company did the usual refinish job to the wood floors in the gym.

Leaks and potential weak spots on the roof were sealed and painted with a reflecting paint to ease some cooling costs. Sr. Celene and Jane Patterson stripped and cleaned tile and terrazzo floors throughout the school building. Bud Casteel, a retired handiman, built a new cabinet (with a separate a/c unit) in the computer classroom to house the Server, firewall and switches that control our computer network in the school/rectory. Kevin Kirchgessner has spent uncounted hours configuring and installing the Server. He and Mr. Clark are finishing the hard work of the committee that oversaw the scope and planning of the Dinner Dance funded “Computer lab Extreme Makeover”, including the necessary dedicated electric circuits needed.

And then, to top it off, bright and early on Monday morning, the Albert Arno Heating and Cooling trucks showed up with the new boilers in sections (7 per boiler, weighing about 350 pounds each…) and have begun the work of building/installing our heat source for the winter. And this doesn’t even count the Men’s club remake of the Soccer field turf with a hearty hybrid grass that should wear well, even through the many, many games of the 51st Annual Sprenke tournament. Thanks to Ed Eisenhart for overseeing that project, and for Bob Reid’s help as his faithful sidekick..

To quote Garrison Keeler: Other than that, “it has been a quiet summer here in Lake Woebegone.” Thanks to one and all, named and un-named, who helped in this ‘extreme St. Ann Makeover’ kind of summer…

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What do you do when you want to throw in the towel?Of the many memorable moments of this Olympic games, the story of a sprinter from South Africa by the name of Oscar Pistorius caught my attention. He made it to the semifinals of his individual event – the 400 Meter run. He came in dead last in his heat. It wasn’t even close, the distance between him and the 7th runner in the event, not to mention the first place finisher. Yet, you saw him running as hard and as fast as he could throughout the entire race. It would have been so easy for him, seeing all the runners way, way ahead, to throw in the towel. His Olympic dream, to make it to the finals, obviously dashed.

What makes his story amazing is the fact that Oscar has no legs below the knee. Born without the fibula in both his legs, he is the first double amputee to run in the Olympics. Though you can draw a thousand examples from his life’s story, what was inspiring to me was the fact that he never stopped running in his individual event, even though it was clear he would finish dead last. So too, with the 4 by 400 race. The team also came it dead last. With two huge excuses to throw in the towel, he did the exact opposite. He strove with every ounce of his energy.

Today’s first reading tells of a testing moment in the life of Elijah. Unlike Oscar Pistorius, Elijah has just completed two HUGELY successful victories – the ending of a 7 year drought in Israel, and the defeat of the prophets of Baal in a high noon kind of show down. God had showed he was God in obvious and incontrovertible ways. Yet, hunted down by the authorities, driven into the desert, his faith falters. “Let me die. It’s too much, this struggle always to be your voice. It’s too much to be your prophet.” I’m throwing in the towel.

I think we have all known that moment of struggle. “God, I’m doing everything right. Everything by the book. I’m speaking out in the market place. I’m on-board with the fortnight for freedom. I’m standing up against the death penalty. And yet my life at home is a shambles. My daughter doesn’t go to church any more. My son has some friends who are leading him down the wrong path. Where has all this ‘goodness gotten me? Why do I bother trying? Can’t I just throw in the towel?”

Or maybe it is that pesky habit of gossip that gets us at the workplace. Everybody is talking about the new boss, the new employee, the rookie intern. And there, around the water cooler, I can either have nothing to say or throw in the towel to taking the higher road by joining in…

Perhaps it is the lonely nights when you are missing your spouse who passed away, or the job that was outsourced with no prospect on the horizon. And like Elijah, you wonder – wouldn’t it be better if I just threw in the towel?

How do to keep on keeping on? Sometimes it is something huge that keeps us going, like the thought of competing in the Olympics that kept Oscar Pistorius’ prosthetic blades pounding the pavement,. But most of the time, isn’t it just the simple choice to do the NEXT thing before us. We don’t have to live our faith all in one moment or one decision – we just do the next thing before us. When a college student I know was struggling, the best advice someone gave her was to “just breathe.” “I can do that. I may not be able to do much else. But I can do that.” That was enough to get her ‘unstuck.’ It was Elijah’s choice to eat the food provided by the angel that gave him the strength to complete his journey. And I believe it is OUR choices to walk with God even when God seems distant, that will sustain us.

Ready to throw in the towel? Elijah was. Jesus could have been in today’s gospel – as people start murmuring. Instead, he does the next thing – “Let me tell you about the bread which sustains. Let me tell you about my Father and his care. We’ll figure out next steps after that. In the mean time, we’ll just do what is before us.” The good news – we don’t have to do it all at every moment in our walk of faith. Just the next thing. Just the next step. Just one thing that keeps our life hoping and trusting and believing, even when it is difficult. And then, like Oscar Pistorius, we know that the race is always worth the running, all the way to the very end.

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“Sir, give us this bread always.” Sounds like a great request. What is not to like about hungering for the Bread of Life? But at this point in the unfolding of the ministry of Jesus, no one, (including the disciples), was thinking about Jesus in the Eucharist when they were asking for this bread. More likely, as we heard in Jesus’ retort, they were hoping for a kind of perpetual soup kitchen. The crowd he fed yesterday was hungry again. It was time for Jesus to feed them yet again. “You are looking for me…because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Instead, he says, seek “the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

The content of the dialogue matters here, because it sets the stage for Jesus’ response. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert…” Manna is that mysterious stuff that seemed to ‘fall from the skies’ to feed the Israelites. In her book, One Thousand Gifts, author Ann Voskamp reflects on that gift of manna. “For forty long years, God’s people daily eat manna – a substance whose name literally means “What is it?” (or in another translation: “What is this stuff?) Hungry, they choose to gather up that which is baffling. They fill on that which has no meaning. More than 14,600 days they take their daily nourishment from that which they don’t comprehend. They find soul-filling in the inexplicable (the “What is it?” of life). They eat the mystery.

The command Moses gave when the people gathered the manna was simple. Take ONLY enough for one day. Be present to the “What is it” of your life for one day at a time. You don’t need two days worth. Or a week’s worth or a month’s worth of worry. Just today’s stuff, just today’s mystery. Trust that each day, you will be given enough ‘mystery’, enough unfolding of God’s life for you to be fed and nourished. That is all you ever need ‘do’ and ‘gather’ for yourself. THIS is the invitation to become a daily contemplative.

It is hard to do, isn’t it? At least for me. I am always trying to think down the road, to look to the next bend, to give myself some kind of illusion of control and power in my life by ‘planning’ as well as I can. The invitation to trust that each day’s “what is this” is enough for my prayer and reflection – that is a bid harder to swallow. Shouldn’t my life as a priest, a homemaker, as a carpenter, a retired worker, as a student, as a ______ (fill in the blank) be much more glamorous or exciting or something? Can God really give me in the concrete experience of my life, enough mystery to eat, enough “what is this” to fulfill my deepest hungers?

It is in that context that Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.” I am the ‘mystery’ the daily stuff upon which you will feed, which will satisfy you in a way that no soup kitchen can, that no steak nor choice wine, nor rich food can ever do.

How to do that, to become a daily contemplative? An invitation that changed Ann Voskamp’s life and mine, is to begin a gratitude journal. A little book that you record just 3 things each day for which you are grateful. Three things of the “what is this?” of your life to bring to your relationship with Jesus. (If you want to make it tougher, make sure it is three DIFFERENT things each day – no repeats on your way to a thousand. And build it into your nightly prayer with your kids. Invite each one to say one thing they are grateful for. Or around the Sunday supper table, share one gift, one moment when God has blessed your world.

You see, Jesus has come to satisfy a hunger far deeper than one that growls in the human body. Jesus has come to feed a hunger of the heart and spirit that could only be satisfied by a relationship with him.

“Give us this bread always, Lord. Give us this bread ALWAYS.”

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