Saturday, February 26, 2011

Homiletic Reflections on Matthew 5: 38-48

Last weekend I had the privilege of delivering the homily for the parishioners of St. Matthew's Church in Voorheesville NY.  The passage from Matthew is a continuation of the readings taken from the Sermon on the Mount.  I just wanted to share a few of the thoughts I shared with the folks in Voorheesville.

Jesus gives us two very difficult challenges in this passage.  He says:  You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil....You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you....  This is a difficult challenge for us.  When someone has hurt us - especially if they have hurt us badly - our first reaction may be to "get even."  "I'd like to do to that person what s/he has done to me!"  Yet Jesus tells us not to do this.  I am reminded of the scene in the musical Fiddler on the Roof when some of his neighbors tell Tevye that he should strike out against the recriminations being felt by the Jews in the community.  They remind him of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."  He tells them that if everyone followed this way of thinking "soon the whole world will be blind and toothless."

Loving our enemies or those who have offended us many times requires forgiveness by us.  Forgiveness doesn't come easy but we are called to it.  Is there someone in our life who needs to be forgiven?

The other challenge Jesus presents is very difficult indeed.  He says:  So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."  Lord Jesus, can you give us a break here?  We are weak and sinful creatures.  How can we aspire to be perfect?  We cannot do it without help, the help we can receive from the Holy Spirit to guide us in the way of perfection and by faithful attendance at Eucharist where we can be nourished with the very body and blood of Jesus to give us the strength we need to persevere as we try to lead a more perfect life.

No, it does not come easy.  We need to pray for the help we need.  Perhaps we can use the words of an ancient Christian prayer:

Dear Lord, do not think of the sins we have committed or of those we still commit.  Put out of your mind the failings we give way to night and day.  Do not impute our offenses to us, whether we did them on purpose of whether we could not help them.  Remember, Lord, that we are apt to make slips; we are a spineless race, given to blundering; think of our build, our limitations.  Our skins may be sound, but there are sores underneath.  O God, you are well disposed to us; give us the strength of your support.  Give us encouragement, give the light that goes with it.  Make us live by the truths of the faith preached by your holy apostles and the high teaching of the Gospel of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.    (Adapted from Ouchmounen Papyrus)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What's In a Name - Part II

In my last blog I asked for some help in renaming my blog.  At my daughter's suggestion I wanted to say something other than the fact that a deacon named Neil had a blog.  I received several suggestions and I want to thank my relatives and friends who made those suggestions:  my daugher Christine, and my niece Kristen, my son Paul, Amelia Stack, Kathy Sousa, Nate Giroux, Arnie Schultz, my deacon brother Gary Picher and my presbyter brother Jerry Gingras.  A few of us even jokingly tried out some Latin possibilities such as scriptus electronicus or tabula telae.  Fortunately they never went very far.

As you can see from the new title I have settled on A Servant's Message:  Words From A Catholic Deacon.  The subtitle came from my friend Nate Giroux (thanks again, Nate).  I selected the main title after giving some thought to what a deacon is supposed to be.  The word deacon comes from the Greek diakonia meaning "service."  Thus a deacon is one who provides a service.

It is my hope that my blog will bring a message from one who wants his words to be a service to the readers.  I will continue to present my thoughts and views on a variety of topics some of which not everyone will agree with.  Hopefully, however, they may be seen as coming from a desire to have people understand the issues of the day and how they may impact our lives.

Pray along with me that my words will serve my God and the people who choose to read what I have to say.  Thanks again for being a part of my life through reading my servant's message.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What's In a Name?

As I come to the end of almost six months of blogging, I was given a challenge by my blogger daughter.  She suggested that I might want to "spruce up" the name of my blog rather than keeping the (should we say banal) present name of Deacon Neil's Blog.  When she began her blog she asked her friends to suggest a name that would include the word "grace."  She came up with Grace Lines, a good name for what has become a great blog.

So I'm going to do the same.  I'm going to ask my readers to suggest a new name for my blog.  I do wish to keep the word deacon in the title but beyond that, what suggestions might you have for a new name?  You can let me know by e-mailing me at:

I look forward to hearing from you and I will be glad to let everyone know who suggests the name I will choose.  This has been a good experience for me and I would like to continue to share my thoughts about a variety of subjects.  Thank you for taking part in my seach.  God bless!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Vulnerable In Our Society

I have wrestled with how to approach this post as it concerns two groups that I feel are among the most vulnerable in our society today.  Focusing on these two groups was a result of an article I recently read in my diocesan newspaper The Evangelist and a tragic story of abuse that has unfolded in our area over the past few weeks.

The two groups I speak of are the unborn and our children.  I realize that the beliefs I may hold about the sanctity of human life as it is found in the unborn may not agree with others in our society who are good and well-meaning people.  They may have a different view concerning the morality of abortion than I do.  Nevertheless, I feel compelled to say something about the issue with the hope that those who do not agree may at least hear what I have to say.

In January of 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States rendered a landmark decision concerning the issue of abortion in the now (in)famous decision known as Roe v. Wade.  That decision spoke to what the Court saw as a right of a woman regarding how she dealt with her pregnancy.  It is a decision that sparked great controversy and still does so today.  I know that many of those who may disagree with my belief that abortion is the taking of a human life (since I believe that life begins at conception) also feel that we need to find ways to reduce the number of abortions in our society.

Since the decision in 1973 over 50 million unborn children have been aborted in the United States.  I recall a friend of mine who told me once about a woman she knew who was expecting a child.  She and her husband wanted a boy and she told my friend that if prenatal tests showed the sex to be female that she would have an abortion.  I wonder how many of the 50+ million unborn who have been aborted were just "inconveniences."  I also wonder how many of them might have become the doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, computer programmers, athletes and artists had they been allowed to live.

I know the heart-wrenching decisions some women have to make when faced with an unwanted pregnancy.  We need to support these women to help them make a decision that will uphold both their dignity and that of their unborn child.  The child does not ask to be conceived but since it has been does it have no rights?

In the Book of Deuteronomy (30:19) Moses says to the people:  I call heaven and earth today to witness against you.  I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.  I would pray that those facing a decision concerning abortion might choose life.  For those who have had an abortion and are now troubled by that decision, they should know that there are programs available to assist them.

Again as I see what has occured in our country since that decision in 1973 I am also reminded that in our Declaration of Independence the fundamental rights cited by our forefathers spoke first of the "right to life..."

The second vulnerable group I mention today is our children.  This past week in a court in Massachusetts, a priest who used to serve in my home diocese was convicted of raping two children when they were altar boys some years ago.  In addition to the two counts for which he was found guilty there were a number of other instances of his abuse of children over his years in ministry.  While he was removed from active ministry when the allegations were reported to the diocese two years ago, the specter of child sexual abuse raised its ugly head again.  Our Catholic Church (and other churches as well) has seen the suffering of thousands of individuals molested by a priest or deacon of the Church.  There is no question that the Church often did not respond appropriately to this terrible scourge and it has caused a large number of people to reject the Church and what it stands for.

Having said that, we need to be reminded that over 97% of our priests remain faithful to their vows and do not bring harm to our children.  But the fact that a few violate those vows leaves a stain and a scar on the body of the Church.  We need to make every effort to assist those victims of abuse and provide them with the necessary tools to deal with the violations perpetrated against them.  Pray for our priests that they will continue to serve our people faithfully and with commitment to their vows.  Pray for the victims of this abuse and yes, pray for the perpetrators that they will somehow find a way to realize the great pain they have caused and repent for it.

These are two groups of the vulnerable in our society today.  But there are others: the homeless, the poor, the immigrant, the disabled, the elderly and you could add others to this list.  Our obligation as Christians is to reach out to all of these groups and make their lives more wholesome in whatever way we can, for as Jesus has told us:  Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.  (Matt. 25:40)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Our National Anthem

Thanks to the reaction over this past weekend concerning the rendition of our national anthem at the annual Super Bowl, The Star Spangled Banner is getting a lot of press.  I have my own reaction to the latest rendition which I will shortly describe.

To set a little bit of an historical stage, however, we should look at how we arrived at having this piece of music become our national anthem - our national hymn.  The lyrics came from the pen of Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 when the country's banner continued to fly amid the shelling.  It was later set to music but it may not readily be known that the music was originally called To Anacreon in Heaven which was a drinking song in men's social clubs in England frequented by the Anacreonic Society.  While the music was originally a drinking song, because of its prominence in becoming the nation's anthem the music rose to new heights.  It is a stirring piece of music but one not without its difficulties.

Because of its vast melodic range it has often been cited as difficult to sing.  To a voice not used to such stretches of melody it can become a hurdle; I witnessed this once at a baseball game when a local person was asked to sing the anthem (without any accompaniment).  Before it ended the singer had traversed at least three different keys.  For most good singers, however, it is not an insurmountable task if sung in a pitch of a comfortable range.

One final historical note (which I only recently became aware of) - this musical piece did not officially become our national anthem until 1931 during the presidency of Herbert Hoover.  Yet is has become enshrined as the national hymn and therefore deserves respect.  It is a stirring moment when one hears a marching band begin the piece; it raises pride in our hearts when, for example, we hear it played at the Olympic Games as gold medal winning Americans receive their medals.

This brings me to my concerns about how I believe the anthem is becoming abused.  One can criticize the performer this past weekend for fumbling the lyrics (any person - professional or not - can have this happen under pressure) but she is not the first to have this happen.  No, my concern is not with someone messing up the lyrics - it is with the addition of all kinds of extra notes and slides and glides to the point that one almost doesn't recognize the original melody.  Is the singing of our national anthem by "superstars" more about how they look and sound or is it about honoring America?  Let's get back to singing the anthem the way it was written!

I must insert a plug here for a local music group with which I have had the privilege of being connected.  They have rendered the anthem at a number of sporting events in places such as the Saratoga Race Track and a major league baseball stadium.  They are called One Man Short (sometime I'll tell you how they got their name) and are a men's singing group that presents a wonderful rendition of the national anthem.  In fact after they completed the anthem at the major league stadium one of the women in the crowd said to them as they left the field that "you sang it the way it should be sung."  Why can't groups like this be invited to a Super Bowl?  They'd do a much better job of honoring America than some of what passes as musical renditions of the national hymn.

Francis Scott Key wrote four verses that became part of the anthem - the other three are mostly forgotten.  Let me close by quoting the final verse because it says much about what we are about in this country:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

May it ever be so; God bless the United States of America!