HOMILIES--Sketches of Homilies on Sundays

Christ the King A

A town in Vermont was debating last week whether to ban all tobacco products from the town.  People argued for the freedom of individuals to choose what they wanted; others argued for the freedom of towns and cities to determine their own laws.  The spat in this little town helps us see how the environment we set up, by our laws and our understandings, comes to affect all our lives.  What human environment do we want to live in?  Crime has dropped steadily since 1985, but we can all remember before then, when we lived expecting to be mugged. 

 So if you could determine the rule of law of your world, what would that be?  What would you emphasize?  What would you discourage?

 Today we celebrate how Jesus Christ, Risen from the dead, now our King, wants to set up the world of his followers and, indeed, the world of all humankind.  We have this dramatic parable from Matthew 25 talking about the final judgment.  But this parable really is a way to talk about daily life—after all, isn’t it daily life that is judged, and will be judged finally, at the end of time?

 The sheep and goats gather.  The King separates them, one group to be cursed, the other to be rewarded by entrance into the Kingdom.  “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat.”  Simple acts of compassion for people all round us constitute the kind of world that God wants us to establish.  When we cannot see, and respond to, the desperation of those around us, then neither can we respond to God or the joy of God’s Kingdom.  “As long as you did this to one of my least, you did it to me.”

 We might be surprised that many of sheep did not even know they were serving God.  This is Matthew’s great caution.  He, the evangelist who talks most about Church and community, sends clear signals: we should not think we can hide behind the vestments and towers of our church lives.  Compassion calls to every one of us; every act of love and kindness is done for the vast Kingdom of God, and therefore done to God and Jesus.  It isn’t just be being in church and doing religious things.

 We can think, too, this is all about politics, whether we are law-and-order types, or whether we are bleeding hearts; whether we think government should spend money to help others, or whether we think government should encourage people to help themselves.  Just as we cannot hide behind church, neither can we hide behind politics.  The hungry are the hungry, the thirsty remain thirsty, those isolated by illness and imprisonment stay abandoned, and the naked shiver no matter what.  What Jesus has done is demand that the natural instincts we have for our families be extended to all of humankind.

 It’s been two-thousand years.  Surely these words of Jesus have inspired great and generous actions of care.  But the world still sees too much indifference, neglect, and outright violent manipulation of the poor.  Christ’s words have not changed the world; they only will if we put them into action.

 I saw a YouTube of Buddy Guy, the great blues singer, with a 14-year-old, Quinn Sullivan, a prodigy guitar player.  They were going back and forth, each one picking up the rhythm of the other, the notes and the beat.  Between them they created an environment of musical intensity that swept the crowd. 

 I think Jesus wants something like that in our lives: that we, together, create an intense environment of love that transforms human life itself.

 

33 A

I had a professor in grad school who said something that has seemed all the more true as I’ve gotten older.  “Reality is so deep,” he said, “that whatever kind of question you ask of it, you will get a response.”  So ask a scientific question, or a philosophical question, or look at things poetically, or engage in mathematics, or look for social patterns . . . . or ask a religious question . . . these are all ways of approaching the depth of reality, even though they may appear contradictory. 

 Which makes me wonder if sometimes we can ask questions that blunt or distort reality rather than opening it up.  If our biases, or our greed, or our fear, can shape the way we see things—and misshape the answer we get back. 

 The parable we have as we approach the end of the Liturgical cycle shows clear differences.  The master gives three different sums for his servants to invest, “each according to his ability,” as the Gospel says.  Makes no difference how much you think you have, in God’s eyes we always have enough.  Two of the servants please the master.  But the third one is clearly a loser.  What went wrong?

 Look at how the third servant sees his Master.  “I knew you were hard, reaping where you did not sow.”  He sees the Master as a harsh and demanding boss.  That’s why he’s afraid.  His fear leads him to see the Master in a certain way, and his reading of the Master leads him to fear.  The question is: did he misread the Master?  Did his fear distort things?  Did his fear cause him to miss the whole point?

 Clearly it did because the whole parable is about the generosity of the Master, and therefore about the abundance of gifts that God gives each one of us.  And it’s about the way generosity multiplies itself, five getting five and becoming ten, two getting two and becoming four, and one should have gotten one to become two.  Our fear of God, which some people preach as the way to make people religious, actually diminishes what God would do, rather than increase and deepen what God would do.

 Paul talks about fearsome things in the second reading.  Like many today, Christians in ancient times saw the end of the world as something fearful.  But note Paul’s particular message: Christians are the ones not to be afraid of what happens in the night; we already live in the Day.  Christ has become our Day.  Christ has shown us what God is like, his mercy, his peace, his life, his love.  Once we know God, then God multiplies the abundance of our lives by joining them with divine life.

The Scriptures suggest, too, that various ways of life help us see God, in particular marriage.  The passages from Proverbs on the faithful wife suggest the ways in which we support each other by the simple goodness and generosity of our lives.  Beyond the “charm” and “beauty” which offer only superficial readings of human life—as we see so clearly from Hollywood—the faithful presence of another helps ground our lives, and helps us see how God is bound up in our daily lives.  Surely husbands and wives help each other see God, and see God’s love; this enriched seeing only multiplies the experience of love and life.

 What blocks us from seeing God, especially the God of Jesus?  Who helps us see God better?  Do I let my spouse enrich what I see of God?  Do I, by my way of life, enrich the vision of others?  Do I turn the gifts I have into multipliers of God’s Kingdom?  Or do I let my narrow fears actually diminish God’s action in my life, and in my world?

 All of us have all the gifts we need.  Engaging in God’s love makes our gifts grow, in our own hearts and in our relationships with others, far more than Wall Street makes money grow.  At Mass today we once again receive the gift of his Body and Blood.  How can we feel poor and fearful when we see how God has answered the deepest longings of our hearts in Jesus?


Dedication of St. John Lateran

[Start of Scranton Mission]

The first time I went to St. Peter’s in Rome, the experience was unsettling.  It just seemed like a huge space filled with knickknacks from five centuries.  After a few more visits, though, the place grew on me.  I mostly enjoyed how people from all over the world—every nation— were interacting with the images, tombs, and the massive altar.  St. Peter’s seems to work better than another massive church, the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception right down the street from me in Washington; the semi-modern mosaics and statues don’t grab me the same way.  The church that struck me most, however, was San Marco in Venice.  Most of us were able to get in without getting splattered by the hundreds of pigeons that fly outside; I had to help clean my sister off.  But when I went inside, the brilliant light from the windows, the mosaics of gold all over the walls, the realization that here, for centuries, the Eastern and Western Churches met—I found myself drying my eyes because of the beauty of this space.

 We American Catholics, as a people, are fixated on churches—mainly the buildings.  We came as immigrants to a country that took a long time to welcome us.  We built churches at enormous sacrifice; they represented us as a struggling-and-arriving people.  Many of those churches had the only beauty that immigrant neighborhoods would see.  At a time when many church buildings are now being closed, and many parishes are merging, all of this leaves us deeply disappointed. 

It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to realize that our readings—special ones as we commemorate the founding Basilica of the city of Rome, St. John Lateran, and therefore our common church building—talk of two tragedies that involved the destruction of the two temples of the Jewish people.  Ezekiel speaks of a new temple because the Temple of Solomon, built and adorned by the Jews in Jerusalem over a 350 year period, was leveled to the ground by the Babylonians.  It was turned into rubble. And Jesus’ words in the Gospel reference yet another destruction, one which would occur when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, demolishing Israel’s second temple, the last one it would ever have. Jesus’ purifying the temple is an image of the ongoing need for purification, of our not using our church structures to obscure where our hearts actually are.

 These readings are given to us to both underscore the importance of our church buildings—but also to put their importance into perspective.  Paul, in the second reading, says it so clearly: You are God’s building.  Above and beyond any church building, however beautiful or huge it may be, the experience of the people comes first.  And we know this is true because we visit Europe where spectacular buildings remain as museums because so many people do not attend any more.  And this is becoming true enough even in America.  While some dioceses are building churches, mostly in the south and west, many other dioceses are announcing the closing of parishes and churches.

 So the question is: do we want to be church?  Do we want to be the living stones that create the community in which God’s spirit lives?  Do we want to be the vibrant people in and through whom the world can discover Jesus Christ?  Do we want to accept our call to be disciples and to build churches, not with capital campaigns and marble, but with the fervor of our own faith?

 St. Francis of Assisi heard famous words shortly after his conversion: “Build my Church.”  He though it referred to the broken-down chapel where he would meditate and pray.  He eventually saw that the words meant he was to start a revolution, calling a complacent Church back to burning love for Christ.  Given our modern life, and the statistics of church attendance all through the United States, maybe those words are also addressed to us: “Build my Church.”  Transform it from a church of learned cultural behaviors to a church of living disciples, drawing people to Christ’s love by the way we live.

 That is the opportunity we have in Scranton this week when many of your churches come together for a joint Mission.  It’s not my Mission—it’s our Mission, what God is doing in the lives of us Scrantonians.  We have to let God call us to renewed discipleship as we renew our experience of conversion, of prayer and worship, of community, and of service to others in the name of Christ.  We have to let Christ make us Church once again.

 One of the exciting things about Ezekiel’s image in the first reading is the flowing of the water from the temple.  The water doesn’t sit stagnant in a pool; it flows—and it grows as it flows.  This represents, of course, baptism.  But it also represents the effects of baptism—to create followers of Jesus who bring him to the world, until it is flooded with his love.  It’s time to stir the water, to turn on the taps, to swim in the water of the Holy Spirit, and to inundate our lives, our world, with the glory of God.

 It’s time to be Church in a new way.


All Souls

We don’t know what to do about Ebola in the United States.  Try to downplay it, because it’s only a few cases, and you get attacked for negligence; try to underline its terror, and you are dismissed as a fear-mongerer.  Ebola, however you look at it, has everyone spooked for one clear reason: we see death out of control.  And, for a society like ours that works so hard to deny death, it forces the smiley-face mask we wear off our faces.  We think of the Bubonic plague, epidemics of typhoid or cholera, of movies like “Contagion,” and for a few rare moments in our culture we actually get to look death right in the face.

 Death uncovers just how frail our lives are.  Extend the years as we can, develop all the medical devices technology can invent, transplant all the organs we want—we know we are prolonging what is inevitable: whether quickly or slowly, whether this week or in five decades, we will be experiencing the final moments of our lives. 

 One effect of this on us is to make all of life seem as vaporous as death makes it seem: we start to think that we are nothing more than pieces of matter, energized for a short time, here to grab what we can and perhaps lessen the world’s pain; and who are we to make more of life than this?  Are we so greedy and grasping that we think we deserve more than the 80 years or so that life gives us?  “All We Are Is Dust in the Wind,” went the song Kansas sang in the 1970s.  Let’s get over our illusions and grow up, says our culture. 

 But the un-dusty and un-molecule part of us keeps gnawing at us: why are our hearts haunted with the infinite, our dreams so deep and broad, our loves so unbounded, our hopes so ordered to a horizon that seems endless? 

 And it is to this dimension of our lives that God speaks to us in Jesus.  Jesus takes on our very vaporous existence, wears the flimsiness of our skin, tastes the bitterness of our death, and declares himself Way, Truth, Resurrection and Life.  Most of humanity over our history was content to think of life as a slender few moments of experience: we’re here, we’re gone.  And what did that sober dose of realism do for us?  Not much.  Philosophers declared life as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

 What God gives to us in Jesus is not some imaginary denial of human reality, but the embrace of a divine love that shapes and redefines human existence itself.  Whatever we think about human life, once we are in relationship with God, then the calculation is not done just on our side, on the frailty of our flesh.  Rather, God enters the equation, filling with divine hope and life what is lacking in us, taking the dreams and hopes that haunt us into divine life, and giving them a reality in God that they could never claim for themselves.

 Catholic cultures celebrate this day differently; Mexicans visit the cemeteries, have dinner with their beloved deceased, in the “Day of the Dead.”  Other cultures have Masses celebrated and put flowers on tombstones.  Today’s feast is rare—we celebrate All Souls on Sunday.  But it gives us an unusual opportunity: to reflect on our human origins, our destinies, our fears, and our dreams.  But, having done that, to then bring them to our God who shows us, in Jesus, just what God makes of our death; and how divine life overpowers the worst of plagues and fears because, in Christ, Love is stronger than Death. 

 

 

30 A

It’s on YouTube.  It’s called “A Wedding Surprise,” a video that went viral, seen by over 33,000,000 people.  It’s a wedding in Ireland—Chris and Leah O’Kane are getting married.  It begins with voices from Sonlight Ministries finishing a song; we see one girl lean over and whisper to her fellow singer.  Then Fr. Ray Kelley get up and solos a song called “Hallelulia,” adapting the lyrics to Chris and Leah.  When Father finishes, the whole congregation stands and applauds.  One of the YouTube comments, “I’m 67 and have been to many weddings, but this is the most beautiful one I’ve seen.”

 Although fewer people marry today, and fewer still marry in the Church, people, and our culture, still see weddings as the most precious instances of love.  Perhaps at a time of widespread marital failure, we applaud more those who dare to marry—such a bold statement of commitment it has become.  If we use the word “love,” we relate it most on occasions like this—flowers, gowns, tuxedoes, receptions, and a young couple fully in love.

 But the joke goes: what happens after the honeymoon.  We had Jackie Gleason in the 1950s embodying a less elegant form of love in the Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice, pow, right in the kisser.”  And Carroll O’Connor channeled Archie Bunker in the 1980s playing a husband that his wife, Edythe, just has to endure.  We can so easily see romantic love at the wedding; where is it in daily life?

 The Scriptures today are challenging us to link ideas of love even more fundamental than romantic love.  Jesus, who has been questioned left and right by his religious opponents, now receives a question that was widely discussed in his time.  “What is the greatest commandment?”  Jesus answers, to the satisfaction of everyone—but he nuances his response.  Loving God with all one’s heart, soul and strength—that is the greatest.  But then he sneaks in his twist: “The second one is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 How easy for us to separate realms.  In one area we have love of God, with all the sacraments and scriptures, with all our prayers and piety.  Most of this happens for us Catholics in Church, with a smaller trickle of God-love seeping into our week.  There can be a huge gap between Sunday morning and all the other days.  But in another realm we have the loves of our lives, primarily family and friends, and occasional acts of charity in response to crises and emergencies.  As November comes, our hearts soften to the poor and homeless; we will give them gloves, coats and turkeys, which we call “charity.”

 But Jesus is saying there are no separate realms.  Love of God and love of all humankind are inherently woven together.  We can’t be saying pious prayers to God while ignoring the suffering right in front of our noses.  And when we reach out to others in love, we are also loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength.  Perhaps some people do not even know that, when they stretch themselves in care to others, they are loving God as well.

 Yet, how could it be otherwise?  To love God has to mean we love the ones God loves.  And the bedrock of our faith in Jesus Christ is that God loves everyone: in our very being, in our struggles and growth, and in the destiny God has invited everyone to attain.  We cannot love God without also loving God’s beloved.  This is clear in the first reading, from the Hebrew Scriptures, where God tells the Jews that obedience to him means care for all, especially those likely to be exploited.  “I am compassionate; I will hear their cry.”

 So it’s great that Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie finally got married, and George Clooney followed soon after.  Maybe Kim Kardashian will walk down the aisle again too.  And we’ll surely get invitations to weddings of relatives and friends.  We enjoy these; weddings make us happy.  But we are only seeing a part of the mystery, a hint of the reality: that God is Absolute Love, and we know this God only by loving absolutely in return as God shows us in Jesus.

 

29 A

The same question, in different circumstances, can mean very different things. 

 “How are you?”  I could say this to someone I just met . . . or to a co-worker on Monday morning . . . or to a good friend I haven’t seen for a while . . . or to someone just finishing chemotherapy . . . or to someone who is dying.  Same question.  Very different meanings.

 I can say “I am a Yankee fan” in the Bronx and get one reaction; I could say it in Boston and get an entirely different reaction.  Circumstances matter.

 “Should we pay the tax to Caesar?” Jesus is asked by people who are out to get him.  We need to remember the circumstances of this question: Jesus has entered Jerusalem, the city he knows where he will die.  He’s already had several arguments with his enemies, the religious leaders of his day.  And he’s in a city occupied by foreigners, the Romans.  How he answers could mean whether he lives or dies.

 “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” he replies.  First he had them show him a coin.  This was a coin that they used as a matter of course.  If they are going to accuse Jesus of having dirty hands, their hands are already dirty.  They had already developed many arrangements for working with the Romans.  They didn’t care about the tax; they cared about their power.

 Politics can always be complicated.  Look how it works in the United States, how parties struggle with parties, each demanding loyalty, and each promising what they cannot deliver.  Politics can only do so much in life.  It can help in some ways, but it cannot change life itself.  We have the image of Cyrus in the first reading . . . a political figure.  Why is Isaiah praising him?  Not because he is a King, but because he has become an instrument in God’s plan to free the Jewish people from captivity.

 “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but to God what belongs to God.”  Here Jesus is challenging his listeners.  What are you giving to God?  What are you willing to give to God?  Jesus, after all, is willing to give his very life for the will and plan of his Father.  Jesus knows his enemies have all surrounded him, but he will accept his destiny because to give God less than everything is unworthy of God. 

 Jesus escapes his trap, but his question still remains.  Perhaps we are afraid to give God everything.  Maybe God will ask what I don’t want him to ask.  Maybe God will ask me to give up patterns of sin.  Maybe God will ask me to serve others more than myself.  We are afraid of Jesus’ question.  But is it not the truth that once we have given God everything, then we receive everything too—everything in love, in peace, in hope, in life?  God asks but God gives without limit.

 This week can be a time for us to sort out our values, to ask ourselves where God ranks, to inquire whether we put our stock in money, or in entertainment, or in political power—but whether we don’t yet put our stock in God.  Paul says his Gospel comes in action, with conviction, not just in words.  That’s the risk of religion: we can stop with words, but not follow up with the actions of our lives.

 Married people know that the vows they make change as their love deepens and as they face life’s circumstances.  The vows mean more.  The same is true with our relationship with God.  It has to change, to deepen, to continue to transform us as we live . . . .otherwise we haven’t really given our lives to God as Jesus invites us to.

 

28 A

“What are you going to wear?”  “I don’t know, but I think it’s a fancy place.”  “You mean I have to wear a tie?  I hate wearing ties.”  “You know it’s a big wedding and you don’t want to look out of place do you.”  “I guess not.”

 Conversations like this go on all the time because we are conscious of how we dress.  We are afraid of overdressing, being the only one at a pool party wearing a suit; and we are afraid of underdressing, wearing short pants and a t-shirt to a formal event.  It isn’t just that we don’t want to stand out.  More, it’s that we want to show how much we respect the event, the hosts, and the other guests.

 Our Gospel ends in a pretty stark way.  Here’s one of the men dragged in from the street who goes to the wedding party without the wedding gown.  The king gets furious.  “My friend,” he says, but this is full of irony.  “How is it you came in here without a wedding garment?”  Then the man is thrown outside, and the image is one of being condemned—“weeping and gnashing of teeth”—one of regret.

 We can understand this final scene only when we see the shape of the whole Gospel passage.  It’s all about being invited to something important.  The King is throwing a banquet for his son.  As the invited guests—these represent once again those who think they have a monopoly on faith and piety—come up with excuses, the King only get angrier.  Look at what these people are preferring to my banquet—a farm, a business—and these people at least had the decency to try to come up with an excuse!  Others didn’t even bother to make an excuse.  And others—like the tenants in the vineyard last week—turn to violence: they will do anything to keep from accepting the invitation.

 The King destroys the city—obviously a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem which happened before Matthew’s Gospel was fully finalized.  But what happens next is the crucial point: the King sends out servant after servant, to the highways and bushes, bringing in anyone who would come, “the bad as well as the good.”  This is about the guests who come—the whole riff raff of humanity God has called into his Kingdom—people like you and me.  But it is also about the banquet and the invitation.  The Gospel is screaming at us: don’t you know how important the banquet is?  How can you say no?  How can you not know?

 We have a strong pointer to the meaning of the banquet in the first reading.  Isaiah paints one of the most enticing and hopeful images anywhere in all the Scriptures: God is preparing a banquet, a banquet on a mountain, rich and lush.  This banquet will heal humankind of its greatest diseases: our distance from God—that’s why we are on the mountain—and our distance from each other.  God tears away the veil we place between ourselves as individuals and nations.  This veil leads to death—and death God will destroy at this banquet of life. “Behold here is our God, right here, saving us, giving us life.”

 Most of us are vaguely aware of the banquet to which Jesus invites us.  We often go about our daily chores as if these were unconnected with the deep drive inside of us for fullness of life.  Paul says that our God will supply whatever we need—but do we know we need it?  Do we hunger for the Kingdom?  Do we hunger for the fullness that can only come from God?  If we believers can be so blasé about God’s invitation, what about the rest?  The only way we can be thrown out of God’s party is by not recognizing how important it is, and just how much we need it.

So it’s time to dress up, to realize that we have been invited, to clean ourselves up for the banquet of God.  And it’s time to realize that we are also the servants God sends to invite all the others.  “Hey, come on, entrance is free and God has prepared the greatest meal for us.”  Indeed, we banquet here at Mass today so we can one day share the heavenly banquet, the feast of joy that will not end.


27 A

People usually hate paying rent.  “Why do I pay and, in the end, I get to keep none of it?”  The housing bubble of 2008 was, to some extent, the result of the “ownership” philosophy that America had large adopted.  Renters feel perpetually cheated.  The water is dripping, the socket doesn’t work, the walls need painting: the owner can never do enough.  “I’m paying all this rent, and what does the owner do for me?”

 Of course people pay rent when owning is out of reach.  I lease a car I cannot afford; I rent a house that’s beyond my income level to purchase; I can even lease furniture because monthly payments are doable.

 Yet we probably have never been as reluctant to pay rent as these tenants in the Gospel today.  Of course, this is a parable, meant for us to think about.  But, at its root, the renters think they can be owners.  They think giving some of the wine to the owner is too difficult.  They want it all.  As Jesus narrates the tenants’ behavior, it’s pretty clear he is referring to the religious leaders of his day, and to his upcoming rejection as God’s messenger and teacher.   In fact, it is their rejection that leads to God’s rejection.

 So Jesus parable follows upon Isaiah’s in the first reading—this very common image of Israel as a Vineyard.  God lavishes so much upon the vineyard.  All God wants are a few grapes.  Yet God’s investment doesn’t pay off.  We think of what teams lavish on their quarterbacks.  But Robert Griffin III still get injured; Eli Manning doesn’t deliver as New Yorkers want him to; and the Rex Grossmans don’t quite make it to the top.  We expected more.  What happened?

 Of course, God has lavished quite a bit on us.  Sure we are never satisfied with ourselves, but the gift of life, of the ability to love, of finding purpose, of bringing joy to others, of not only knowing God but also being in relationship with God—these are nothing to sneeze about.  And look at the gifts God has given to his Church: the Scriptures, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, all of the sacraments, but especially the Eucharist, our great traditions of charity, of education, of moral vision. 

 So if we have been gifted by God, what are we doing with them?  Are we like underperforming athletes, renters who let the property go down, a stock that underperforms and loses money in the end?

 Part of the issue, of course, is that we don’t recognize our gifts, appreciate our gifts, and realize how much we need to be gifted in the first place.  We are tenants, renters, because of God’s utter generosity to us.  At the deepest level of our being, everything is given, everything is grace.  By ourselves we can make no claims—we cannot even demand our own existence.  It all comes from the one who decided to plant a vine, and, even more, to cherish it.  It’s only arrogance that lets us think that we only need ourselves, and that we can take care of ourselves.  We can’t.  We totally rely on God’s gifts because we are only products of God’s generosity.

 So let’s see the positive side of being a tenant.  Let’s see everything the greatest landlord of all has given us.  Instead of crabbing, we can appreciate and give part of what’s been given us back to God.  That’s what we do every time we come to Mass.  We get close to what lies at the heart of the human mystery: knowing that everything is given to us, we say “Thank You,” not with our mere words, but in the very person of Jesus Christ who is our thanksgiving to the Father in the Spirit.

 Is God disappointed in us?  What disappoints God isn’t that we are imperfect or limited; God made us this way.  What disappoints God is when we overlook the gift—and gifts—central to our lives, presume to take God’s place, and will not give God the minimum God expects, that is, being people of praise and thanks.  


26 A

Ray Rice, formerly on the Ravens active roster, is only the last of a long list of bad boys.  Tiger Woods is perhaps the most famous recent one, and people do not know what to do with Adrian Peterson who did to his sons what was done to him, and probably has been done from time immemorial.  Even in our Italian family, the belt came out regularly.  In similar manner, Time Magazine last Sunday had a list of political bad-boys, starting with Gary Hart and going on down to Mark Sanford of South Carolina.  The list of bad girls doesn’t get as much coverage except for the blurbs about Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton.  Bad girls, bad boys—can they ever come back?

 Some do, but many don’t.  John Edwards is back being a lawyer, but Bill Clinton gets lots of political applause.  It’s hard to know what, in our public relations machines of today, makes a comeback possible.  But it’s not hard to see what makes a comeback possible in the eyes of God.  Jesus clarifies in this parable, the decisive element in how we stand before God.  One son says “yes” but doesn’t go into the vineyard.  The other says “no” but changes his mind and goes.  What is decisive in the eyes of God is changing our minds and following his way.

 Jesus addresses this parable, and a few others in this section of Matthew, at the religious leaders of his day.  The “first son” in the parable clearly can be taken as the leaders of the chosen people.  The “second son” are all those with bad reputations who, in the end, open their hearts to change, to God, and to the Kingdom.  This should make us all worry because, clearly, being religious, even being devout, does not qualify for instant success.  Rather, even the religious can miss the point.  So what does that make of us religious folk?  Are we doing the will of the Father?  Are we working in the vineyard or being pouty children?

 Clearly Jesus is not against religion.  He encouraged all kinds of devoutness on his followers.  Everything we do as Catholics ultimately goes back to him.  But our religious practices do not substitute for serving God; rather, they are the necessary, helpful resources for doing the Father’s will.  If the actions do not follow, then the religious gestures are empty.

 So what does God want?  What is his will?  We have seen this in a variety of ways as we’ve read Matthew’s Gospel this year.  We are to live with such trust in God that we are then freed up to serve each other, generously and openly, in love.  We have read the Beatitudes, Jesus’ teaching on riches, Jesus’ instruction about prayer and hypocrisy; we’ve heard Jesus parables.  So also did the bad boys of ancient times.  The key issue is: have our lives changed?  And am I willing to continue changing?

 On the one hand, many believers, especially in mainline churches, who baptize their children, don’t realize and appreciate the many ways conversion has happened in their lives.  On the other hand, all of us don’t appreciate the need for ongoing conversion in our lives.  This is the message today’s Gospel gives: yes, we can always listen, we can always enter the vineyard.  We are never permanently stereotyped as bad, or lost, or fallen-away.  God writes none of us off.  As Ezekiel tells us, although we are affected by the lives of others, each of us will stand in judgment for our own lives: the things we did, but also the deep decisions we never got around to making. 

 Jesus points his listeners to the actions of conversion that outright sinners were doing in his day.  In a way, this is our invitation to look at those being deeply touched by faith today and learn from them.  If millions have joined Evangelical churches, what can that tell me about taking my own personal faith more seriously?  If Muslims carry around their prayer rugs, what does that say about my commitment to prayer?  If millions are joining prayer groups, what might that say to me?  If millions roll up their sleeves to help others in need, what lesson do I take?  Instead of being defensive and protecting ourselves from these signs, we have to ask ourselves what these signs mean for us in our own lives.  “Even when you saw what God was doing in their lives, you still did not change.”

 Paul gives us the most radical image of Jesus: emptying himself until he dies the most shameful death of crucifixion as a sign of God’s love and grace for the world.  This emptying of Jesus is like the experience of conversion: putting the Father at the center, and doing this again and again, indeed every day.  We empty ourselves of ourselves so our hearts can be filled with God’s. 

 The media will keep showing images of those who don’t meet our modern ideals, shaming them, and asking if they can make a comeback.  But God says every day, every moment, is comeback time.  Every moment is an opportunity to say “Yes” and do it. 


25 A

“Oh, no you don’t.”  These four words swarm into our minds when we see someone jump ahead of us in line.  “I was here first,” we say.  We are all like that, but particularly New Yorkers who think that their time is the most precious commodity in the world . . . and anyone who keeps them waiting is evil incarnate.  The Department of Motor Vehicles, the doctor’s office, waiting to see an agent in the bank—hey, I was here first.  Why is so-and-so going ahead of me?  Just about the only place we don’t want to get picked is . . . jury duty, of course.  Please, pick the person next to me.

 

So we resonate well with the Gospel because we, like the laborers in the vineyard, all have an innate sense of fairness.  We should all get treated equally, from the slices of pie mom cut when we were kids to the buzzers restaurants give us when it’s crowded  And it does seem unfair, these sluggards coming in at 5 in the afternoon, making the same daily wage as the early-morning crowd.  It’s as if Jesus pushes our faces into the issue to see what we think.  “My ways are not like yours, my thoughts are not like yours” we hear from Isaiah in the first reading.  You bet they aren’t.

 

But what if Jesus isn’t talking about fairness; what if he’s using fairness to talk about something else?  Like what?  “Are you envious because I am generous?”  What if Jesus is giving us a test, not about fairness, but about grace and graciousness?  What if God is overwhelmingly generous to every one of us, but we only realize when we are in trouble, when we are in need, when we get a break?

 

After all, it could be that tomorrow laborers might be standing around, but be called in a very different order.  Who says it’s me who works all day every day?  Who says God doesn’t give me a break?  Or many breaks, for that matter.  Or, if the shoe was on the other foot, who says my neighbor might not be quite happy to see me get the daily wage, because my neighbor knows that I need it?  If I don’t resent generosity shown me, why do I resent it shown to others?

 

God’s ways are not like ours, because ours are based on our insecurity, our need to control, and our need to put ourselves first.  Faith is God’s totally-free gift to preserve us precisely from these delusions about ourselves.  As long as we think the world should operate in accord with the narrowness of our instinctual minds, just so long will the Kingdom of God seem remote.  Only when we are wishing every single human being the fullness of life and love—only then will we have the mind of Jesus.  Only when we wish every person the same thing we wish for our children, and ourselves, only then will we begin to grasp the freedom of the Kingdom of God.  And why aren’t we?  Why not?

 

Paul, in the second reading, already knows this freedom.  Imprisoned, he’s facing the prospect of his death.  And, as he does so, he shows death cannot shake him because he has already received the greatest gift . . . the gift of union with Christ.  Should he die?  Should he live?  It makes little matter.  He will continue working in the vineyard, happy to suffer a few years more, for the sake of those he loves, and those whom God loves, and those who have yet to know God’s love for themselves.

 

Before EZ Pass, I just knew every lane I chose would end up being the slowest.  “What’s the matter with that jerk,” I’d say whenever people fumbled for coins.  I was entitled, wasn’t I?  But we are all really entitled to only one thing—to everlasting union with God, the greatest gift we could ever receive.  Not to getting A’s, or the fastest service, or the biggest salary, or the most FaceBook likes.  And we are entitled to this union with God, in Jesus, only because it comes to us as God’s free, abundant, and grace-filled gift.  That is the one precious wage worth striving for.

 

So let’s spread the news . . . God is not cheap . . . and let’s spread it by the way we live.


Sept 14, 2014: Triumph of the Cross

Ever since the start of the 17th century, our ability to see small things has been growing.  Of course, Galileo gave us the telescope, but he also had a hand in building a microscope, a project that Dutch lensmakers seem to have perfected.  A man named Antoine van Leeuwenhoek helped doctors understand what power a microscope can bring to medicine.  Then x-rays.  Then MRI’s.  Then electronic telescopes.  Then the amazing technologies we have to examine almost every part of the body.

 

If we can see it, we think, maybe we can fix it.  We see blue or yellow snake-like images of the Ebola virus; it’s right there, in front of us.  Surely we can kill it, we think.  We have machines that can read out our genes, telling us what the tiniest elements of our bodies are like.  With that information, maybe we can re-arrange what’s wrong with us and make it better.  If we can see it, maybe we can fix it?

 

But how do you see the human soul?  How do we examine the human heart?  We have sociologists and psychologists who can ask questions and often pick up trends going on inside a life or a culture.  But can we look into—not my mind or my soul—but the human soul itself?

 

The feast we have today, the Triumph of the Cross, give us an instrument through which much of the human soul can be seen.  At first glance, it is not pretty.  The death of Jesus points precisely to the lesion that is woven throughout humankind’s spirit: our inability to accept the goodness and love that is offered.  In its place, we often resort to rejection and violence.  In the cross, we see what people did to Jesus, both from political and social angles—the innocent one who comes proclaiming a new Realm of love, now treated like garbage, humiliated to the point of total shaming, an object of torture and scorn.

 

Surely special circumstances wove their way through that terrible moment in history.  But we all know that the anger, the envy, the betrayal, the fear, the violence, the rage—these have all coursed through us at one point or another.  When we look at the cross, where Jesus emptied himself of everything in love, as St. Paul puts it, we surely see a part of ourselves.

 

In the first reading the Jewish people are saved by looking on the image of a bronze snake.  Scholars do not know what historical event this story points to, but the Gospel invites us to look on Christ, on his cross, for our healing, just as ancient Israel looked on the bronze seraph.  To let the cross be a microscope to help diagnose the sickness in our hearts.  But to let it be, as well, a remedy.

 

For, beyond our violence and envy, our cruelty and weakness, the Cross also shows us something else: in the dying Jesus, we have the gift of God’s love given to us.  “God so loved the world that he gave his Son”—to the world, to the church, but also to me.  Jesus, God’s love made flesh, is a gift given to me.  If I can receive this gift, maybe I can find an antidote.  Maybe the ways of Christ can cure my soul; maybe the blood of Christ can absorb the disease of my sin—of our sin—and transform it into divine love.  Come, look on the cross, and see what it tells us, and what medicine it gives us, what hope it promises.

 

I was one of the few people—to judge from the audience size—to see Calvary.  It’s a gripping move and certainly not family entertainment.  But the priest, surround as he is by the doubts and debunkings, by the postures and denials, of modern life, stands tall.  Through the haze of post-modern doubt we see, so often, in this film religious images that seem to hold everything together—the bible, prayer book, holy water fountain, candles, altars, and, most of all the cross.  The movie is, ultimately, about hope, about the triumph of the Cross even in today’s cynical rejection of belief, a triumph of faith over a deadening doubt.

 

If we can see, maybe we can find healing.  If we can look upon the cross more openly, what wholeness can it bring to our lives?


23 A

“We will never forget.”  I saw these words painted on a mural in New York City this last weekend.  The paint looked a little dimmed, but it was pretty clear what the reference was: New York will never forget the attack of September 11, 2001, even with the passage of more than a dozen years.  Some things we make a point of not forgetting, particularly our grudges.  From Ferguson, to Watts; from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust; from the Spanish Armada to the Crusades—we all have long memories.

 

So what might reconciliation mean?  Are we supposed to forget atrocities, crimes against humanity, the Hittlers and Atillas of the world?  Is finding peace a kind of Alzheimer’s applied to the pains of the past—our pains, the pains of our nation, the scars of history? 

 

There seem to be two components in reconciliation from our readings today.  From the Gospel we learn that reconciliation comes not from forgetting, but from facing the issues in front of us.  And from Ezekiel we learn that we are all involved in the pursuit of justice, in making the world better; no one is excused because our lives are intimately connected when it comes to the good of the society around us.

 

“If your sister or brother offends you….”  Don’t crab behind their back.  Don’t trash the person before the office staff.  Don’t give the details on FaceBook.  Go and talk, bring someone along to help set the stage.  Maybe you can change a mind, or have a meeting of minds, and reconciliation can happen.

 

We’ve seen this, say, after the Apartheid regime in South Africa, how Archbishop Tutu conducted forums in which people could come and clear the air—air the dirty laundry, make public what would otherwise be hidden and fester.  And the key here is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing.  “I did wrong.  I should not have done that.  I am sorry.”  These words for us today are almost as hard for us to say as the words “I forgive you.  I want to make peace.”  We are blocked on both fronts.

 

Ezekiel gives us part of an answer here because he tells us that the good of the world around us is the responsibility of us all.  If we can help each other do good, Ezekiel says, then all our lives will be saved.  If we can make the effort to touch the heart of another, then both of us will be saved.  But this can happen, I think, only if we all recognize that we are all in need of forgiveness.  We can easily think of Ezekiel as giving the goody-goodies permission to shame others.  But Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we’ve been reading for almost two months on Sunday, has made clear that we are all culpable, that we all need mercy and, in today’s passage—that mercy is shown in the power of love. 

 

I think reconciliation can be hard for us because we are so afraid of shame: to keep from being shamed ourselves, it’s easier to shame and blame someone else.  But is that not why Christ came to bear the fruits of our sin, to bear our shame: he wanted to liberate us from this environment of shame and move us to an entirely different environment, that of love.  Love bears each other’s burdens, even the burdens of sin and shame, for the sake of bringing wholeness to everyone, and the world.

 

So there’s the story of the old man driving his elderly wife, complaining and muttering.  They are going back to the restaurant where they had lunch.  It seems she’s forgotten her glasses and he is quite peeved.  He walks into the restaurant, steaming, when the hostess recognizes him and says, “Oh, thank God you came back.  You left your credit card and your medications at the table.”  And his wife stands there, smiling to herself, as her husband turns red in embarrassment. 

 

More than being ready to accuse each other, is there a way we can find Christ’s path of love and, carrying our brokenness and pains, bring healing and wholeness to our lives?


22 A

Did I sign up for this?

 

At some point maybe we all get to this question.  Stories of journalists being kidnapped and killed must send chills down the spines of many reporter.  It’s one thing to write and video; it’s another thing to get caught up in someone’s war.  Did James Foley sign up for the atrocity that happened to him?  Did Theo Curtis, who got released, think he’d spent two years a captive?  As an international pawn?  Is this part of being a journalist?

 

But we can also think of Dr. Brant Kently fighting Ebola as a doctor.  Or thousands of police and fire personnel who never know what a call will bring.  Or hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors for whom the word “deployment” remains an unknown factor.  Or parents I know whose two year old daughter was discovered with cancer.  I have several weddings this coming fall, on my niece’s.  As they say the vows, what might those vows imply and contain?

 

Scriptures give us a sharp contrast between Jeremiah and Peter in the readings this week. Jeremiah knows the cost of prophecy; he’s honest enough to say he’d like not to pay it. But he knows it’s part of his calling, his very being.  “If I try to hold in the Word, it has to come out anyway,” Jeremiah says.  He cannot be part-time prophet; retirement is not an option. 

 

But Peter, who just last Sunday pronounced Jesus to be the Christ, doesn’t like what’s involved in that.  Jesus now explicitly transforms the title “Christ”—“Messiah”—into his conscious acceptance of the rejection of the leaders of his time.  He knows what he signed up for.  He’s ready to give everything for the Kingdom, trusting entirely in his Father.  Peter, however, thinks there’s another scenario.  “God forbid this happen to you,” says Peter.  And Jesus calls him a “Satan”—not in the sense of being a demon, but in the sense of someone who paints a false, but tempting, scenario: maybe you can do this without the ultimate gift, Peter, the tempter, says. 

 

“No” says Jesus in effect.  You cannot proclaim the Kingdom without kicking up opposition.  And if you do proclaim it, then you have to follow out the implications, even if it is the kind of death he outlines for his hearers.  Peter is rebuked.  It won’t be the last time he misses the point.  Peter is rebuked.  Are we?

 

Did I sign up for this?  We might well imagine ourselves asking this when we hear Jesus final words to his disciples.  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  There are no short-cuts.  It’s the only way to gain the fullness of life, now and forever.  We immediately think this kind of language applies, if it does, to people who join religious life, to monks and clergy.  But Jesus is talking to everyone who wants to be a disciple, and I think that’s all of us.  Did we sign up for this?  Indeed, we sign up for this every time we claim to be Christians and Catholics.  But let’s unpack Jesus’ invitation before we dismiss his words and how they apply to us.

 

Whoever denies himself or herself…this mean those who learn that we cannot live for ourselves and be happy.  We have to deny the illusion of self-fulfillment if we would be part of the Kingdom of God.  And what is taking up our cross?  That means living with the realities of the life we have, with its joys and often with its pains.  It means seeing our suffering as something that is part of God’s path, not something that contradicts it.  Anyone of us mature enough to truly love another knows that pain is a sign of love.  Follow me—the means taking the path of the Kingdom wherever it takes us.  We don’t know our futures, we cannot predict them.  But we can take Christ’s path step by step, each step filled with the love and trust of Jesus, his grace and his mercy, until they lead to life’s completion.  This is what we are called to do.  This is how we find our true selves, the selves we are shaping before God.

 

I didn't  sign up for this.   Yes we did, yes we do, every time we pray, every time we come to Mass, and every time we leave this church knowing more clearly that we are disciples.

 

 

21 A

There’s a Liberty Mutual commercial on TV: a man sitting in front of the Statue of Liberty talking about his mixed feelings when he gave his daughter her first set of car keys.  It’s exciting of course—the child is growing up—but it’s also frightening because the keys give the daughter entry into a powerful machine which can be both helpful and dangerous.  I know I had the same feeling when my god daughter started driving: what might happen as a result of getting those keys?

 

Keys to a car; keys to a house—how many people have rented their houses to others, only to regret it later?  “You should see the shape they left the house in?” was a remark I just heard about friends who let another friend use the house.  To receive keys is to take responsibility, hopefully for the better.  We hear in today’s first reading how irresponsible Shebna was, and how the keys to the palace would now be given to Eliakim—one who would manage the palace with integrity.

 

Peter receives the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  He is to be the foundation for a new community of Jesus.  “I will build my church” means “I will form my new congregation”—the word for “church” refers not to a building but to a community called together by God.  Jesus, now seeing the rejection of his ministry and teaching, is calling for a new community, one that would put his teachings and values into practice.  Peter, wobbly as he is, becomes the leader of this new assembly.

 

And what would the basis of that assembly be?  “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Peter’s response, on behalf of the twelve, make clear what has been unclear, and what would remain yet unclear for a while longer.  Peter confesses Jesus is the Christ—but does he know what this means?  Like so many of his contemporaries, his idea of “Christ” was simplistic, magical, and triumphalistic.  “I will give you the keys” says Jesus—the future tense.  Peter will see the Christ only when Jesus gives his life in love; only on the Cross, and in the Resurrection, will Peter know what his profession means.

 

The keys Peter receives are “to the Kingdom.”  We think of the “pearly gates” as we popularly say it, some huge Hilton Hotel in the skies, with puffs of clouds and an endless party going on.  We also have the popular image of Peter serving as the bouncer to heaven, keeping out the baddies and letting in only the good.  But the Kingdom to which Peter has access is the reign of God’s gracious love, transforming each human life, and transforming the world.  It’s not a future Kingdom that comes after we are dead; it’s a living Kingdom, a community, transformed by divine love given in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

 

More than the keys to a house or a car, we are given keys to a Kingdom for which we are all responsible.  Peter shows the kind of responsibility we all have—to engage even the forces of death—so that God’s Kingdom, God’s new community, might shine.  Peter would end up giving his life for the Kingdom, as would many of the early followers of Jesus.  Christians are giving their lives, literally, throughout the world for the sake of this new community of Jesus.  How much are we willing to give our lives so that God’s vision, Jesus’ Kingdom, might come about?

 

“Do not tell anyone I am the Christ,” says Jesus.  Because people misunderstood what the title meant back then . . . and perhaps we still do not understand it still.  It’s not like a coronation; it’s not like winning the lotto.  It’s a title of service, of sacrifice, of self-giving. 

 

I heard on Car Talk last week a man discussing how his 18 year old didn’t want to drive.  Tom and Ray, the hosts, thought that might not be a bad thing.  “Most 18 year olds should not be driving,” they said.  Jesus gives Peter the keys—do you want them Peter?  Do you want the burden, the privilege, the responsibility?  And Jesus says the same to us about our own faith: do you want the keys, do you want the name “Christian,” do you want to be “Christian” as I am willing to be the Christ?


20 A

I’ve been hearing it all my life.  “Don’t go down 63rd street or the Spanish people will jump you.”  And the Puerto Rican mothers would say, “Don’t do down into the 50s, the Irish are gangsters.”  And we knew what parts of New York were Italian mobster havens, didn’t we?  Walk in Harlem in the 1980s… are you nuts?  And it even plays out in the suburbs, with our gated communities, our high end developments, or “areas that are changing.”  All my life I’ve been hearing it: this was a great neighborhood until “they” moved in.

 

Our Gospel reading is shocking.  We need to let it hit us in the face.  Jesus comes into contact with a non-Jewish woman from Syria-Phoenicia, and she wants a healing.  Jesus, very clear on his mission to bring the Kingdom of God into full view among the Jews, God’s chosen people, puts her off.  His line is almost insulting: we don’t take food for children and throw it to the dogs do we?  But she’s a sharp as he is: “Even the dogs get the crumbs.  That’s all I’m asking for.  Some crumbs.”  And she gets that, and more, because of her faith—faith which crashes down any barrier.

 

Ever since the beginning Christians have been confronting and engaging with people who seem different: we hear it throughout our readings during the year—Samaritans, people from Crete, Ethiopia, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greeks and eventually Romans.  And it wasn’t always comfortable.  As the Gospel shows, there was learning on both sides as Christians found their faith lived in out in new cultures and languages.  I’m thinking of West Side Story where generic Tony meets Puerto Rican Maria, and then follows the explosion.

 

But the threads of God speaking through the Jewish people to the world have a long pedigree as we see in Isaiah’s startling vision: non-Jews from around the world will find their place in God’s people—the Temple will be a house of prayer for all peoples.  We Catholics see this vision fulfilled in us.  In the second reading, Paul continues his thoughts to the Romans about Jews and Gentiles.  God, in Jesus, has now opened salvation to everyone, without restriction.  He longs for the days when chosen and so-called non-chosen will see that, in Jesus, God has chosen all.

 

So where do we see ourselves as followers of Jesus?  Are we the persecuted chosen folks with a strange and hostile world around us?  Are we believers who kind of live just like everyone else, hiding our faith, or even stifling it?  Are we the interface between grace and everyday life, bringing the Gospel to life by the way we live, engage with others, and reflect God’s grace?  We should make no mistake.  God has not called us to be disciples to keep faith to ourselves.  We have been baptized precisely to be agents of the God’s Kingdom in the world—not looking down on people, thinking we’re better, but helping them see the signs of God right in their midst. 

 

We’ve been called to pray for Iraq today—but whether it’s Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Central African Republic, Harlem, Baltimore or St. Louis: enough of this group in opposition to that group.  God is in favor of us all, and wants to bring salvation to all.  He sends Jesus to say that.  And Jesus sends us to continue the message.


19 A

We have had two stories dominating the news over the past several weeks.  One is the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, the other is the Ebola crisis in three West African nations.  The conflict in the Mideast brings us daily reports of rockets, shelling, bombs, and deaths.  The story from West Africa brings us reports of daily heroism and sacrifice on the part of health professionals and assistants, even to the point of potentially giving their lives.  Dr. Kent Brantly, and his co-worker, went over to Africa as “Christian missionaries,” people showing Christ’s love in the midst of humankind’s darkest fears.  Which story will have the lasting impact?  Which one shows true power?

 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now in its third version, and the fighting has been going on one way or another since 1948.  The setting up of Israel as a nation after World War II was the direct result of centuries of hatred handed out to Jews, Christian included.  Can it be, though, that simple acts of generous human kindness, done in the name of the Kingdom of God, can ultimately outstrip even centuries of violence and sin?  If we doubt this, I only ask you to think of Francis of Assisi, Rev. Albert Schweitzer, Rev. Martin Luther King, Doctors without Borders, Mother Teresa, and, ultimately, Jesus Christ.

 

The first reading has to catch all our attention.  Elijah is being chosen as an instrument to call Israel back to integrity, particularly by confronting its leaders.  He is hiding in a cave, seeking a sign from God.  Notice that all of the explosive symbols of God’s presence are rejected: God is not in the fire, nor the storm, nor the earthquake.  So much for the fire-and-brimstone God that people keep constructing.  Rather God comes as a gentle breeze, a whisper—so quiet but enough to empower Elijah for the rest of his ministry.

 

How we recognize God is also the topic of the Gospel.  The disciples have been with Jesus in his healing, in the multiplication of the bread, and now, with Jesus finally getting a little quiet time by himself, they set sail on a Lake some of them have known since childhood.  Here come the wind and rain—rather like the fire and earthquake of Elijah.  But here also comes Jesus.  Would his disciples recognize him?

 

Not easily, it turns out.  Peter, instead of seeing Jesus as the one solution to the disciples’ fear, feels a need to test the waters.  “It’s a ghost,” they shout—how many of us have not recognized God’s love in our lives because it seemed like a fantasy, something unreal?  “If you are the Christ,” Peter says, betraying his ultimate lack of faith.  Not “because” or “I clearly see you are Christ,” but “if”—one of the biggest hedge words we can come up with.  No wonder he begins to sink.  “Save me,” he says; “O you of little faith,” says Jesus back.

 

The scriptures invite us to examine where we think we are seeing God’s action—whether God remains the distant One who threatens, or the present One who saves?  What are the gentle breezes in our lives that reveal God?  Might it be the life-long fidelity of people who have given themselves to each other?  The unlimited hope we see in the eyes of every child?  The self-less generosity that lets strangers give their lives for others?  The efforts to negotiate rather than blast?  Our quiet moments of prayer?   Do we find God in the gentle moments of our lives, or does our anger and fury often hide the divine from us?

 

All around us, every day, the waves of conflict swirl in our lives.  We are like the disciples, out on a boat, wondering if we will survive and who will save us.  Jesus comes walking by, “Do not be afraid. It is I,” he says, reaching out gentle hands of love and support.  The winds are raging, but he stands before us.  Which one will get our attention?  Which one will capture our heart?


18 A

In the old days, before there were energy drinks, mega-vitamins, and non-stop Starbucks . . . in the old days we had Geritol.  The commercials were hilarious.  A middle-aged person would be drooping, wondering how to get through the afternoon.  “Tired Blood” some official-looking person would say, as if giving out a professional diagnosis.  “Tired blood,” I would think, trying to imagine how blood gets tired.  We needed more iron to augment our blood cells. But however that worked, if we just added Geritol to our diet, all that tired blood would go away and we’d have all the energy we’d need.

 

I hear a lot of tired blood in the readings we have today.  Isaiah is talking to exiles in Babylon, trying to stir up hope.  Paul is writing to people who will suffer persecution, saying that nothing can defeat them.  Jesus sees John the Baptist assassinated and is looking for a place to grieve.  People flock around Jesus, unable to leave him alone and filling him with pity.  And the disciples wring their hands, wondering what they can do for this crowd.

 

“Give them some food themselves,” Jesus challenges them.  I can see them rolling their eyes, shrugging their shoulders, and saying under their breath: “We don’t have any resources ourselves.  We are tired.  We are hungry.  We are empty.  What do you mean—we should give them something to eat?  We have nothing to give.”

 

It is just this spiritual sense of depletion that Jesus wants to address.  He knows that all of us, even when we are serving in his name, can come to the end of our ropes.  He has every right to feel at the end of his rope himself—with the murder of John the Baptist, don’t you think Jesus knows that he is next on the list?  But Jesus pushes the apostles beyond their exhaustion, Jesus pushes us beyond our sense of emptiness and self-pity, to the basic discovery we have to make in life: with God there is always abundance, with God there is always fullness.

 

We keep wondering how everyone ate from those five loaves and two fishes.  If we could figure this out, wouldn’t this be an end to our economic problems?  Free food for everyone! But the feeding, however it happened, is like the parables we’ve been reading over the past few weeks—but here a parable spoken not with words but with human hunger, human flesh.  Just as bread fills a body, so God’s Word sustains your life.  Just as this bread is inexhaustible, so God’s life is inexhaustible.  Just as you can chew and swallow this fish, so you can always trust in my Father.

 

God is free.  The resources of his love are free.  “Come to the water,” sings Isaiah.  Why are you paying the limited capital of your worry and anxiety when you have the boundless abundance of my love and life?  “I will renew my covenant,” says Isaiah.  God renews.  God restores.  God is always there.  This is Paul’s point to the Romans: the victory has already been won, and no threat, no evil, can take it from us.  God is with us on this side of death, and on the other side of death as well.

 

We should be feeling this abundance every time we come to Mass. That bread of Jesus was an image of God’s abundance, but also an image of Jesus’ own Eucharist.  “Here I am, always with you and for you.  I will never leave you.  Come, be one with me.  Eat the endless love that I am.  Drink the endless life that I give you.  Hear the endless Word of God spoken directly to our hearts.”

 

Prosecutors are looking to sue some makers of energy drinks.  They can be dangerous.  One problem is the concentration of caffeine which can scramble growing brains.  The other is that after the high, people crash.  Jesus is pushing his apostles and his followers—he’s pushing us—to see that when we are spiritually locked into him, we cannot crash.  More than tired blood, Jesus energizes our tired souls.


17 A

Only three have done it—won three major golf championships by the age of 25.  Last week Rory McElroy, who won the US Open right here in Bethesda two years ago, joined Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the third golfer to achieve this benchmark.  They interviewed him after this victory.  “You are going to be disappointed,” he said to the news people.  “It was all very simple: process and spots.  I tried to pay attention to the process of my swinging, and then roll my put over a specific spot.  Process and puts, that’s all it was.”  As the interview was ending, Rory indicated where golf was in his life: “When I wake in the morning, I’m thinking golf; when I sleep at night, I’m thinking golf.  Golf is everything.”

 

Maybe this is why Rory’s wedding to his tennis girlfriend got put off: golf is everything.  He doesn’t want to be distracted.  And it raises a question for all of us: what is “everything”—the all absorbing interest of our lives?  I bet most of us would say our families.  Some would say their jobs.  Very few of us would claim our favorite sport.  Yet Jesus puts another idea before us, something else to absorb us: the Kingdom of God.

 

We hear these parables which Jesus cloaks in what we would call economic language: the way you buy a field, the way you bet on the price of an item—that’s the kind of intensity you need to be part of the Kingdom of God.  It might puzzle us, though.  Here we are, Catholics and Christians for many years: have we ever thought of ourselves as living for the Kingdom of God?  Is the Kingdom our buried treasure, or our priceless pearl?

 

Why do you believe?  Why are you a Catholic?  Would we ever say: because I’m living for the Kingdom of God?  More likely because we’d say: I want to go to heaven.  Or, if we are a bit more jaundiced: I don’t want to go to hell.  But behind the images of heaven and hell, which have been so colored and distorted over 2000 years of Christian history, behind them is the singular image of the Kingdom of God. 

 

What is the Kingdom? It’s God’s transformative action in the present moment, and extending into eternity, whereby the hopes and dreams of humankind come about.  Not like a Disney Kingdom, not like some medieval realm, the Kingdom of God can extend to every person in any situation.  It is the radical renewal of our relationship with God, accepting God as the Father of endless love, so that it transforms our relationships with everyone else.  It is a state where kindness, generosity, mercy, peace, and the pursuit of justice reorient the way we live with each other.  It is the era in which God’s qualities of love, healing, and grace characterize our everyday world.  “Thy Kingdom come; they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

To be part of this Kingdom involves conversion and discipleship.  Conversion means we place Jesus, and his Kingdom, at the center of our lives.  Discipleship is the process of aligning ourselves with the life of Jesus.  Everyone in this church today has, to one or another extent, experienced conversion and discipleship—otherwise we would not be here, otherwise we could not receive Communion, otherwise we’d not be hearing the Gospel.  But every one of us needs to grow as disciples, needs to grow in conversion, because we’ve only begun to see the world as Jesus sees it, we’ve only begun to experience the Kingdom.  We’ve not yet invested everything in the Kingdom.

 

Jesus gives a final parable, one more about judgment—the dragnet that brings everything in from the sea.  Like the weeds we heard about last week, the fish will be sorted out.  But the basis of this sorting has already begun.  What makes us useful for the Kingdom is our discipleship, how we have responded to Jesus and let him transform our lives and our world.  This sorting, this judgment, is happening every day, at every moment of our lives as Christians.

 

It’s haunting to be living through the 50th anniversary of so many civil rights events—all those traumatic events in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi five decades ago.  Cheney, Goodman Schwerner; Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks; King and Malcolm X.  Their names come back because of their willingness to live completely for a cause.  People die for civil rights because it is a dimension of the Kingdom, treating every human with their God-given dignity.  Jesus offers us yet a fuller invitation: to live for the vastness of the Kingdom, to live for what Jesus lived for, to live for the vision of God. 

 

It’s time we unburied this treasure and let it shine in our Catholic lives.


16 A

Something was obviously wrong; we could see it from a distance.  We were at Paradise Cove, Hawaii’s most authentic Luau as they advertised themselves, and here was a man yelling belligerently, insulting his companion and making her daughter cry.  It was so out of place—Luau’s are practiced happy places, with lots of food and drink, amazing performances of dance and song, and a way in which Hawaiian culture shines.  But here he was, creating a stink, out of control, unable to get into the Luau because he was drunk—an embarrassment.  “I think they’re calling the cops,” my host said.  “Not soon enough,” I thought.
 
It’s a very natural reaction—get rid of the person, get the problem out of my life, throw the bums out.  And that’s the reaction of the workers in the Gospel who discover that weeds have been strewn in among the wheat.  “Shall we yank them out for you?” they ask, expecting a positive response.  “No, let them grow together, or else the wheat will be pulled up inadvertently.”  We are astonished by the restraint of the owner.
 
One problem, of course, is the difficulty of making judgments.  How often are we ready to read the riot act against someone when we realize that it can be read against ourselves as well?  I am always commenting on the driving of others, but I’m not going to win the AAA driving prize myself.  How often do we create whole categories of people to be damned—infidels, addicts, the homeless, the immigrant?  It’s so easy to put people into boxes, but how do we feel when we end up in someone else’s box ourselves?
 
The other, bigger issue is mercy.  We hear this in the first reading, how God forebears punishment because God is merciful.  Pope Francis has underlined this as the chief characteristic of God—God is defined by God’s mercy.  Before we even can look at God’s justice, we need to understand God as merciful.  Yet mercy is a difficult concept because we only think of it as letting someone off the hook.  We like mercy when it comes to us, but feel shortchanged when it applies to others.  “How did they get off?” we ask ourselves.
 
But mercy is far more than letting someone off the hook.  What God’s mercy does is, at God’s initiative, out of sheer love, to create a space for us to go to be reconciled with God.  God creates a bridge back to divine love and life.  It is like an act of creation itself—because when we experience God’s mercy, we move from a situation of isolation to one of union, to a place in the Kingdom: from estrangement to discipleship. 
 
Of course, the point of the parable is to make sure we remain a church of mercy.  It’s far too easy to write almost everyone off because we want a church purer than any church can ever be.  Again Pope Francis: ours is not a church of the perfect, but a church for the wounded, the broken, for those in need of first aid.  The point that goes along with this is also clear: we cannot be a church of mercy unless we learn to exercise mercy ourselves.  As God creates spaces for us to draw near, so we all have to create spaces for each other—drop the grudges, the postures of righteousness, the holier-than-thou faces behind which we hide our own failings. 
 
We are astonished at dramatic acts of mercy—when the Amish forgave the criminal who murdered their schoolgirls, when mothers publicly forgive those who killed their children, when Saint John Paul II met with his would-be assassin.  We should be astonished because such acts of mercy create a different world—one quite distinct from the world of payback that we usually walk in.  Of course we need integrity, and of course we need principles to live by.  But the Scriptures are suggesting that this world of revenge gets quite small, but the world of mercy is vast and unlimited. 
 
15 A

“Growing pains,” my mother would say whenever I brought up some unexplained cramp or strain.  “Part of growing up.”  My pre-adolescent mind would imagine bones expanding like tectonic plates under the earth, stretching muscles and nerves in the process.  Although the pains continued, I had some kind of explanation for them.  I was growing and this was the price.

 

We normally don’t think of growing a something painful.  We plant things all the time and expect they will spring up out of the soil, and put out leaves and flowers when it’s time.  Our modern evolutionary assumptions give us a sense of a creation ceaselessly moving forward, from little amoeba in the water to creatures like ourselves.  That’s what we do, we grow; growth seems almost inevitable to us.

 

So it’s a bit stunning to read St. Paul’s language from the Eighth Chapter of Romans.  He sees creation moving forward too—toward completion, toward liberation.  But he sees this as a groaning, as if life was in endless struggle to make advances, to conquer the forces that beset it, to find full life completely liberated.  Not only does he see the cosmos groaning; he sees us at the head of this cosmos, groaning for freedom in our prayer, and us bringing the cosmos along with us until God fully reveals the glory of the liberated brothers and sisters of Christ.

 

Jesus, too, hardly sees growth as something simple.  He gives us the image of seed thrown all around by a particularly extravagant, and perhaps wasteful, sower.  We hear all the places the seed falls and we instinctually put them into different categories.  Yes, some seed faced temptation from riches.  Some seed faced temptation from fear.  Some seed simply did not grow.  But some of it did.  I wonder, though, if it is also not possible to see all the different situations the seed face as different phases we face in our lives.  Because when are we free from temptation, from fear, from laziness, from shallowness?  When have se produced even at 30%, let alone 60 or 90%.  Following Jesus is a constant struggle to make sure the Word of God grows within us.  Following Jesus means we disciples can never rest.

 

Yet, as we hear from Isaiah, as much as the struggle involves us, the glory involves what God is doing among us.  “Like rain falling on the earth,” Isaiah, “bringing forth fruit and food, so my Word goes out—and it will not return to me empty.”  God works alongside us, within us, and even through our struggles and fears, to bring about God’s fruit—the fullness of life in the Kingdom.  God works in and through us to move creation forward toward its fulfillment.  No pain we suffer, says Paul, can begin to compare to the Kingdom God is bringing about.

 

Isn’t it true in our own lives as we think back? The times when we had to work the hardest, when we felt least understood, when we faced the greatest tests—when we look back, weren’t these the times of greatest growth for us?  The struggle of the caterpillar to get out of the cocoon becomes the way it grows wings, the way it grows to its destiny of being some far more than a caterpillar—a gloriously-colored butterfly.  God is showing us a way to understand life: growing pains which are part of the emergence of God’s glory in our lives.

 

Last week, in Maui, I saw the famous banyan tree which has taken over the whole central square, spilling life everywhere and covering everything under it with shade and rest.  I imagined the genetic material of this tree—it’s utter urge to succeed, to thrive, to fill the world with itself.  God’s Word is far more than the banyan tree: coming in and through us, God gives us, Christ’s disciples, the ability to succeed, to thrive, to fill the world with the love of God.


14 A

I have the feeling I would never have survived at a Montessori school.  I understand that one of the principles in that system of education is that a child is involved with only one project or item at a time.  When finished, the child puts the object away before taking up something new.  This would drive me crazy.  I am an incurable mult-itasker—having lots of things going on all the time.  I love shifting from one thing to another, one project after another, as if I had a mania.  Who knows what’s behind this—at least a kind of restlessness, no?

 

And perhaps also a bit of vanity, as if busyness were my way of saving the world, pushing here and there, making changes, starting something new.  I wonder what Jesus would have made of me?  Or what I would have made of him—“come to me all you who labor and find life burdensome.  I will give you rest.”  Rest?  Rest!

 

There is a way in which Jesus is challenging the need we have to fill our lives with tons of activities and tons of things.  It’s not by complicating things, Jesus says, that the world changes.  It is by meekness, by humility, by opening oneself to the world rather than by trying to control it, that real life is found.  We hear the first reading from Zechariah: the king comes riding on a mule, not on a stallion or a chariot.  This was written after the Jewish palace had been destroyed by Babylon, and kings had vanished from Israel.  They longed for a king—Zechariah tells them that how their king comes will utterly surprise them. 

 

Paul urges us to be open to the Spirit, not the flesh.  A modern translation of this might well be this: we have to be open to the depths of God’s presence and grace, rather than distracting ourselves by a million novelties.  Is it possible for people to find peace today?  To find rest?  In our modern world, even the quest for peace becomes a dozen new techniques, indeed, a multiplicity of fads.  I am here, says Jesus, to be your peace.  You should try me some day.  Just sit with me and let me share your life, and let you share mine.  We call it contemplation.  We call it prayer.

 

But we should not be fooled by the invitation of Jesus.  Along with the content of Jesus’ invitation—peace, humility, meekness, trust, openness to the deeper things in life—there is also the context of Jesus’ words.  He has sent his disciples out to proclaim Good News—to announce peace, to tell people the Kingdom of God was near, and to bring healing and hope.  The disciples just have returned, filled with stories of what they did in the name of Jesus.  This is why Jesus is so filled with thanksgiving: Father I thank you.  What you have hidden from the clever and conceited you have revealed to these simple people: that when we busy ourselves with the joy of the Kingdom, with deeds of love in the name of God, then heaven shakes with joy.

 

So Jesus is not inviting us to a life of utter stillness.  Rather, we are invited to a life whereby the activities we do, when done with a view to the Kingdom, will bring us profound joy and deep peace.  This is very different than the running around so many of us have to do today.  This is not us saving the world, but us being channels by which God brings salvation to the world.  This is not us being messiahs, but us showing Jesus as the only Messiah to the world.  This is not our agenda list, but our cloaking everything we do with the blessedness of God’s love.  “Take my yoke upon yourselves.”  Jesus says his burden is light because the real burden, the true work, is the joy of helping to uncover God’s grace, the Spirit’s life, in the multiple tasks that come our way.

 

As we run from highway to highway, job to job, task to task, click to click, chore to chore, we show we are debtors to the restless world of modern life.  We may have to live that way, but if we more deeply become debtors to the Spirit, to the sweep of God’s love underneath every moment, if we realize Jesus is sending out every one of us every day, then we may well find that the burdens of life become lighter, and the work we do is filled with the glory of God.  

 


Sts. Peter and Paul

Although the sports world is now fixated on the World Cup, it was only a few weeks ago that we Americans were cheering the San Antonio Spurs who beat the Miami Heat, long considered unbeatable, in a 4 to 1 series.  Much of the applause was for the way the Spurs, led by Duncan, Parker, Ginobili who have long played together developing a sense of team, could defeat Miami for whom Lebron James has become the poster boy.  The star, the go-to-man, the one who might win even without a team.  When Lebron developed leg cramps, my NY Knick friends were ecstatic.  We like stars, but deep down they make us feel inadequate and just ordinary.

 

Of the two saints we celebrate today, Peter and Paul, both have their claim to stardom.  But Paul seems the bigger star.  Almost everyone knows the story of him falling off a horse on the way to Damascus—except the Bible never mentions a horse.  From that time on he seems restless, fierce, unrelenting, moving from city to city, anxious to spread God’s Word.  Paul is a little like Lebron James—he makes us feel inadequate and just ordinary.  How could we ever have a conversion and life like his?

 

Peter, of course, was no slouch, but the Gospel today helps us look at conversion in very direct, and accessible, terms.  Jesus comes to Peter and asks him a direct question: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?’’ We cannot hear this question without putting our own name in the sentence.  Frank, Eleanor, Lucy, Robert, José . . .  you, each of you, do you love me?

 

And how would we answer that question?  In a way, we’d feel sheepish about it because it never seems that we love God as we should.  We always see the failures and inadequacies.  Jesus, of course, knows every frailty and inadequacy of Peter—but he still asks him the question.  Peter says, “You know that I do.”  In spite of the slips and stutters, in spite of the doubts and near-defeats, Peter knows his love, and knows that Jesus knows his love.  Remember, in our relationship with God, God’s love is first.

 

Peter is giving us an image of conversion, of being a disciple, that might be easier to swallow than the majestic image of Paul.  Because we can look into our intentions, we can probe our hearts, and ask ourselves very simply: Do I love Jesus?  Do I prefer Jesus, in some way, to everything and everyone?  Do I love Jesus despite my failings?  Do I love Jesus enough to come to him after I have flopped?  Do I love Jesus Christ?

 

If we can say “yes” to this, then we know exactly what conversion is.  If we mostly want to say “yes” to this, then we know exactly how close we are to conversion.  And all of us should be measuring ourselves in terms of conversion, as lovers of Jesus, as people who want to follow him in the deepest part of our soul, because that’s what it means to be a Catholic Christian—and that’s what it means to come to the Eucharist and eat at his table on Sunday.

 

When Benedict was Pope we heard a lot about the famous shoes he wore, hand-made red leather.  He wore those because popes long have worn red shoes—symbolizing that they walk on ground spattered by the blood of Peter, Paul, and all the other martyrs of Rome.  I think Pope Francis would say: you don’t need the shoes, but you need the feet—the kind of feet that walk in the steps of the Apostles because we have found the same kind of love they had inside our hearts as well.

 

And if we find their love in our hearts, then, for sure, we are members of their team, called by Jesus and sent, like them, into the world.


Corpus Christi A

There is so much conversation about the newly released infantryman, Bowe Bergdahl, because there are so many mixed feelings about him.  He’s become a media football.  But what intrigued me was the story of how hard it was for him to even make a decision—he was told for five year everything to do, what to eat, when to eat, how to eat.  I started wondering what it would be like to eat among capturers.  Then I thought of the 5 prisoners from Guantanamo who were released in exchange for Bergdahl.  So many of those prisoners, caught in a legal and war-time limbo, have even refused to eat.  Judges have allowed us to force feed them.

 

After all, do we not eat best when we feel part of the company and the environment?  Think of Thanksgiving or Christmas.  And do we not have the most difficult time eating when we feel the environment is hostile or unsure?  To take a consumer angle on this, what if friends invite you to a restaurant and, as you go in, you see their kitchen’s sanitation rating is “C”—kind of makes you not hungry, doesn’t it?  You feel out of sort with the environment.

 

Being part of the environment of Jesus—which we call the Kingdom of God—is the heart of the Eucharist which we are celebrating on this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.  The promises made to ancient Israel, this God who always feeds his people and who have brought food to God as a sign of belonging to God, have now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” says Jesus.  I am the Bread of the Kingdom, of new life, of the new community that God is forming among humankind.

 

But it is St. Paul who catches something of the nature of this community.  Is not the bread we eat, he asks, a participation in the Lord?  Is not the chalice we drink a participation in his blood?  The Eucharist is all about how we belong to Jesus in the most graphic and powerful way—the sacramental symbol is the act of eating!—and therefore how we are part of everything he is, and part of his Kingdom, and part of his community as well.  There is no casual eating of this bread.  Jesus says that just as he has life because of his Father, so we have life because of him—a direct dependence, in our very being, on unity with Jesus Christ.  He is our life, the Eucharist says; anything else cannot really feed us.

 

We are, after all, not captives.  We have been freed by the liberating death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is what we share in when we eat his sacred Bread and drink his sacred Wine.  And as we participate in him, so we participate in each other—as brothers and sisters, joined together in Christ.  Just as we cannot casually eat this food without being part of Christ, neither can we casually eat this food without being part of each other—sharing each other’s joys and burdens, pledging ourselves to the same kind of love that Jesus has.  It’s way too easy for us to come together and sit in the same space—but not realize the community we are.  It’s way too easy for us to come, eat, and leave, but not realize the obligation we have to each other.  And we Catholics have to understand this in a new and powerful way. We never eat along in the Kingdom.  We eat together in Jesus.  We are one in him.

 

I love it when parents bring their children up for communion, and the children are just staring at the host, wanting to grab it.  That’s how strong the need to participate is.  It’s instinctual.  That’s the joy we see when children celebrate first Holy Communion.  And that’s the life of participation we have been given in the Eucharist by our liberating savior, Jesus.


Trinity Sunday A

There was a lot of controversy about the Michael Jackson Hologram performance—how technology would allow a 3-d projection of him.  I was on the side of those who thought it was not a good idea.  We have enough trouble, I thought, distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and this blurs the line as much as possible.  “It’s AS IF Michael Jackson were here.”  And that’s my point.  “As if” is not the same as “is.”  I think, for example, if someone could hologram my mother or father it would drive me nuts.  I don’t want their image; I want them.

 

For most of human history, humankind’s image of God has been something like a hologram—a representation more or less vague of Someone transcendent.  People thought of God in the plural, as an extended dysfunctional family, as a master mechanic, as the all-seeing judge you could not escape, as the arbitrary toss of the dice, or as fate.  Even the Jewish people, privileged as they were with revelation, continued to evolve their sense of God. 

 

We Christians believe that God needed no hologram; God, rather, came to us in the human being of Jesus.  This is an earth-shattering revelation because we are saying what seems impossible: that the infinite comes in the finite, the almighty in the human, the totally spiritual in the flesh.  But we Christians look at this paradox not as something to be ashamed of.  No, just the opposite.  God can only be known through symbols; God chose our own humanity as the perfect symbol to relate to us.

 

And this Jesus gave us the deepest, most penetrating, fullest view of God: not as an abstract force, or some frustrated warrior.  God is Father, the font of all love, revealed in his Son, now made flesh in Jesus, and experienced through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  We Catholics need to appreciate again how we think of God—beyond us, beside us, but also within us, totally surrounded by God, and totally enveloped in God’s infinite love.

 

In Dante’s poem, Paradise, in the last chapter, Dante gets to see God.  Of course he cannot describe God.  He can only see three glowing rings of love, endlessly generating life and grace, endlessly filling and fulfilling everything. 

 

Each day the papers carry stories that seem like extended despair—drugs, violence, suicide, people using other cruelly and despicably.  The Las Vegas killings fit this to a T.  I hear these stories and say to myself: People don’t know why they are alive today!  They don’t know why and for whom they are made!  And this despair, to me, seems to come down to this: they don’t know God, the God of Jesus, the God of the Trinity, revealed not in an insubstantial hologram, but in the self-giving person of Jesus Christ. 

 

To know the Trinity is nothing less than to know how Jesus experienced God, and how Jesus would have us experience God as well.  Not from afar, but within the divine life and love itself.


PENTECOST A

I’m always amazed when authorities can take a childhood photo—particularly when someone is missing or abducted—and project it ahead.  “This is what Shirley would look like at 15,” they say.  And they morph the child’s picture before our eyes, broadening the face, lengthening the chin, darkening the hair, as if the continuity between our earlier years and later ones was all that clear.  I know I’ve been surprised to see an old photo of a group and someone says, “There you are, in the corner,” and I have to look for two minutes to recognize myself.  Or others are looking at me when I was 19 or 20; “That can’t be you,” they say.  Sure enough it was.

 

How about the continuity of the Church, Christ’s community of believers.  Can we imagine ourselves in the 1800s in Ireland, or the 1700s in France?  What did Medieval Christianity really look like?  Or Christians in the first millennium?  Would we have felt comfortable in St. Ambrose’s Milan?  Or St. Hillary’s Poitiers?  For that matter, do we see ourselves in the first reading the 2nd Chapter of Acts? 

 

On first sight, it all looks strange.  Blowing winds.  Flames of fire.  People speaking and being heard in a dozen languages.  It certainly doesn’t look like us.  But if we pull back, we can see some distinct features that really show our Catholic Church.  We notice two things right off the bat.  First, people are in Jerusalem from seemingly every known nation.  We just have to look around our congregation to see how we more than maintain that trait.  We are from everywhere.

 

Next is the communication of languages.  Here the Apostles are not speaking in tongues which is when someone utters a totally peculiar language.  Rather, they are speaking their regular language with their Galilean accents.  What happens is that people from all these regions are able to hear them.  People from other cultures are able to hear and accept the message of salvation.  That, of course, is the history of the Church: from one land to another, from one culture to another, from one language to another, the proclamation of Good News.

 

What are those tongues of fire, you ask?  Images to show people whose tongues were loosened so they could share their faith.  What is that blowing wind?  The same wind that has energized the Church from the beginning—wind meaning Spirit, meaning divine presence.  Pentecost is the transfer of Jesus’ Risen life and power to those who accept him.  Pentecost is our biography.  Jesus breathes on them, breathes through history, and breathes upon us—breathing out the wind of divine love and salvation.

 

Still, there are then two aspects we can reflect on as followers of Jesus.  First, to recognize the signs of the Spirit in our own lives and worship.  Do you pray?  Do you read the scriptures?  Do you open your heart to Jesus?  Do you serve others?  Do you strive to reflect God’s teaching in your life?  All of this is the work of the Spirit, from loving your family, to feeling compassion, to sacrificing for another.

 

But more than this, the Spirit of Jesus calls us to stretch.  To be more sensitive to the divine gifts and power in our lives.  Healing is all around us—how do we bring healing about?  Insight abounds—how do we see and point to the signs of God in our lives?  Forces of despair and death hold society in their grip.  How do we overcome them by the greater force of our faith?  God’s gifts are everywhere; we all have them.  How many have we lived?  And how many have we let go sterile?  Perhaps we’ve not yet begun to live in the Spirit Christ pours upon us.

 

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  These words should blow us away—blow us away in Christ’s breath, bow us away in the Holy Spirit, blow us away in our recognition of the mission Christ has sent us on.  If we cannot reproduce the setting of the early Church, so what?  God knows we live in a different era, with different dynamics, and different problems.  But still God sends us forth, Pentecost people, to set the world on fire with God’s love, and soothe it with the refreshing breath of the Spirit.


Ascension A

So why couldn’t they see?  Why couldn’t the friends and neighbors of Elliot Rodgers in Isla Vista see what was going on inside his head?  Why couldn’t his parents see beyond their own frustration?  Why couldn’t he see beyond his own needs and insecurities?  Why could he not see the lives of those he would kill?  The father of one victim asks “why can’t our nation see what guns are doing to us?”  Professionals ask why we can’t help those who so obviously need it.

 

There is, I think, one kind of seeing that happens instinctually.  It’s mostly passive.  Our eyes take things in, we may note one or another thing, and then we move on to something else.  Almost all the seeing we do this way.  When something happens later, or someone points something out, we knock ourselves in the head wondering why we didn’t notice it at first.

 

But another kind of see is not passive; it’s active, engaged, searching, and deep.  We have this striking phrase in the second reading today, from Ephesians: “the eyes of our hearts.”  This is the scriptures’ way of talking about the deeper seeing we need when dealing with God.  Look at so many more people who think they are atheists today.  We want to ask them: are you even looking?  Looking in the right place?  Looking with open eyes?

 

But we ourselves can be like the disciples of Jesus who, with passive eyes, are staring at Jesus ascending into heaven.  We can imagine this is all about outer space, and strange worlds, and the bottom of Jesus’ feet.  “Men of Galilee,” the angel has to say, “Why are you looking into the sky?”  We cannot see the Ascension by staring.  We’ve got to use the eyes of our hearts.

 

What do the eyes of our hearts see?  Deeper, more clearly, more peacefully, with contemplation, in prayer: all that for sure.  But also our more expansive hopes, not only for ourselves but for humankind.  Also the deepest meanings and implications of our loves and our loving.  And, most of all, how we cannot see without seeing things in God.  “In your light, we see light,” says one of the Psalms; St. Augustine meditated on this phrase for most of his life—to see everything in God’s truth and love.  What does God’s light show me?

 

Part of seeing in God involves not only living in God, but also acting in God.  The angel tells the “men of Galilee” that Jesus will return—so they are to live in hope, acting from hope, not with small and crippled visions.  But Jesus himself tells the disciples in Galilee, in this very famous passage from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, that they are live with the kind of hope that drives them forth, helping others see in God’s light, helping others find Jesus with the eyes of their heart, helping the world become his disciples.

 

The eyes of our hearts, when they look on Christ, bring us hope and bring us mission.  The Word has gone out—not only to all the nations, but through twenty centuries, until we ourselves hear it.  We are no different than the “men of Galilee”—we too are told to make the world disciples.  But we can do that only by consciously accepting our discipleship, consciously looking with the eyes of our hearts, and consciously seeking to help the world see God, see God in Jesus, see God with his Spirit. 

 

This doesn’t mean we go to Nigeria or Thailand.  It means right in our own homes, our families, among our friends, in our own living environment.  If our families, our children, our friends and associates, only see us looking passively, how does this help them to see with the eyes of the heart?  If our faith is mostly a cultural form, and not an active way of life, how do others come to see in the light God asks us to shed and spread?

 

Jesus’ Ascension is not an absence; it’s a deeper presence, in the world and also in our hearts.  He continues to return in our prayer, our worship, our daily deeds done in love, in our love for others, in the hopes that allow us to live with conviction and energy.  Enough angry people with eyes filled with violence, enough of that.  It’s time for clearer eyes, light-filled eyes, and love-filled hearts.


Easter 6 A
Commemorating the Ordination of Fr. Yao Hsu, CSP
New York City, May 24, 2014

Imprinted indelibly in my memory are walks I would take with my father and brother.  My father was fascinated by construction, the process of blasting out a foundation from the solid rock of Manhattan.  We would peek through crevices in the fencing surrounding what are now the skyscrapers along Sixth Avenue.  “Look how far down they are going,” he would say, as we peered down fifty or sixty feet, watching huge machines gouge out the bedrock.  “That building will never fall,” he said, fully confident in the might of New York City construction, and in the bedrock that makes it possible.

 

Bedrock.  Foundation.  Solid Ground.  I would notice when I lived in Chicago how different construction was, how trucks would bring in steel beams—dozens of them—which were pounded into the softer land near Lake Michigan.  These beams, 50 and 60 feet long, had to penetrate to the bedrock far below.  As we need bedrock for our cities and our skyscrapers, so every one of us needs bedrock in her or his life.

 

“I will send you the Spirit of truth,” says Jesus.  The Spirit to be the bedrock of our lives.  You know what happens when trauma comes in our lives, how our minds search for something solid, how our emotions tunnel back to deep experiences we had with our parents growing up, or with friends who stood by us in our pain.  Our hearts search for whatever seems solid when our world is threatened.  Jesus is saying to us: I and my Spirit will be bedrock for you.  You will always be secure in us, and in the Father that we show you.

 

“I will send upon you another Advocate,” Jesus says.  Obviously Jesus is the first Advocate.  Now he sends his Spirit to be Advocate with and in him.  It’s a strange word, “Advocate.”  An older form of it was “paraclete,” which simply transliterates the Greek; as kids we would joke about Jesus sending us a parakeet!  But “paraclete” contains a striking image of Jesus and his Spirit.  The word means: someone who calls out—the paraclete, the Advocate, calls out on behalf of us, and the Advocate calls to the depths of our heart within us, assuring us of protection, guidance, support, and love.  Jesus is our Advocate, sent to us in our brokenness, protecting us from all that would destroy us, strengthening us with divine presence.  And what Jesus was, his Spirit continues in our lives.

 

On this Sunday when we reflect on the priesthood, on that special ministry of our Catholic lives, we can understand this ministry as a way to be an Advocate.  Because the priest calls out on behalf of God’s people, speaking the prayers that come from the depths of our hearts and needs, calling out for healing, for mercy, for forgiveness, for human love, for unity, for life.  Every sacrament that a priest celebrates connects us with Christ’s specific saving action at fundamental moments in their lives.  As a presider, the priest gathers us together and embodies our voices in sacramental, in Eucharistic prayer.

 

But a priest does this not only as a sacred icon in a sanctuary doing a sacrament.  A priest does this also in his life, attending to people by his presence and care, in moments of grief, of fear, of illness, of hope, of commitment, of birth and of death.  No one dares to ascend an altar or wear a stole who will not also long to be with people, one with their lives and hopes, one with their needs and dreams.  An Advocate is fundamentally present, helping to reveal God’s presence through love shown in the name of God.

 

“I give you a new commandment—Jesus says—the  commandment of love.”  This is the bedrock of our Catholic and Christian life: the unbreakable love God shows us, and gives us, in Jesus Christ.  This is the hope Peter asks us to be ready to talk about, to share, to give to others.  Love connecting us intimately to God, and love sending us forth as missionaries, as ambassadors, as advocates for humankind.  Christ can give us this commandment because Christ fulfills it by sending his Spirit, that Spirit of love and life, into our hearts.

 

As we approach Pentecost when we celebrate Christ’s greatest Easter gift—the Holy Spirit—we have in these Easter days been celebrating all the gifts he gives us through the Spirit—the Word, the Eucharist, Baptism, Confirmation, Forgiveness, and Healing.  Along with these, we celebrate the ministry the Spirit brings forth in the Church, in every life, and in the lives of her priests, so we may know the love in which our lives are grounded, and the fullness to which our lives are destined. 


Easter 5 A

So if you could be an animal, which one would it be?  Or if you could use a color to describe how you are feeling, that color would be….?  Questions like these sometimes open retreat or planning sessions, and participants have various feelings about them.  Some are intrigued: am I a lion or a squirrel?  What will others think of me when I suggest an animal, or a color?  Is red too aggressive, blue too aloof, yellow. . . just to yellow?  Other just think it’s all silly.

 I was thinking of this when I read a long article by a noted editor who was trying to describe his twenty-year involvement with Parkinsons Disease.  It affects muscles, of course; but it also affects the mind, he was saying.   But how can a mind know when it’s being affected?  Do those tests really reveal what is going on inside our heads?  Can we really describe ourselves, our inner states, or our inner changes? 

 

If it’s so hard to show the inner state of our mind through external words or tests, how does one show the ultimate mystery behind all being?  How does one show God?  This is Philip’s issue in the Gospel.  “Show us the Father,” Philip says—perhaps the boldest thing a Jewish person could say since it was commonplace for the Scriptures to say that if someone sees God he or she will die.  Jesus says to Phillip one of the key insights behind Christian faith:  “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

 

We need not think primarily of the physical body of Jesus.  To look at his hair, or eye-color, or how much he weighed.  Jesus is talking about the signs that he has done, each of which was to accomplish two purposes: to show how God is, and to lead followers to faith.  You want to see the Father?  Let’s see what God is like: let me bring joy to a wedding party, read the heart of a Samaritan woman, give sight to blind people, call Lazarus from the dead. . . let me wash your smelly feet, let me give my life on the cross as a sign of unconquerable love.  You can see the Father in what I do.

 

“Greater works than these you will do,” says Jesus.  He ascends to the Father—that is, he comes to share in the glory and power of God, precisely to allow others to share in his works.  The Spirit that he sends will bring about deeds of love and grace in us.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” says Jesus.  These are not just descriptions of him and his role; these words are a method for Christian life.  For when we live Christ’s risen life, through the Holy Spirit, we discover the truth that Jesus is—that self-giving love is the ultimate meaning of everything.  And this, in turn, allows us to follow Jesus’ way—to make his way our way of life, to become his disciples.

 

When we do this, we reveal something of God even in our own lives.  We see this in the readings from the Acts of the Apostles, how their devotion to the Word of God, and to service, led others to experience God as well.  Become the living stones of God’s new temple, says St. Peter, by the deeds that we do and the way we live.  We have seen so many horrible deeds, from civil war in Syria, to mass kidnappings of girls in Nigeria, to immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean.  These deeds of anger, violence and neglect hide the face of God.  Our deeds should show his face.

 

So would this not be a great examination each night, before we go to sleep: how have my deeds revealed the Father to the world?  How have my actions made God either more visible or, God forbid, more obscure?  For Jesus tells us again and again: he has been raised to send the Spirit upon us, and this Spirit works in us as it worked in Jesus, revealing God’s love and life in our midst. 

 

So, in a little shift here, if you could be a saint, which one would it be?  How about being and becoming the saint that Jesus is making you through your deeds and through his Spirit? 

 





Easter 4 A

The owner of the Clippers.  The CEO of Target.  Banks fined over a billion dollars.  NBA coaches let go.  Senators battling the CIA over secret files.  Low popularity ratings for George W. Bush in his second term; and low popularity ratings for Barak Obama in his second term.  The city of Sacramento in default, the city of Detroit bankrupt.  These are not good days for leadership.
 
Jesus, giving us the image of the Good Shepherd, is doing more than alluding to a popular Psalm.  He’s also talking to us about leadership.  Both points that he makes challenge our modern ideas of leadership which tend to aggrandize the leader.  They say in 1920s, a chief office made six times what executives made; now that number is twenty.  “They earned it,” people say, because the stock price went up.  They earn the ability to make millions while governments squabble over the minimum wage.
 
Jesus tells us that he is the sheep gate, that there is no other way to enter the pasture.  The image echoes his words to Philip, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  Jesus is giving us a definitive path to follow—the path of his sacrificial, saving love.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us definitive signs of God’s presence and love, and none more definitive than his death on the cross.  As he breathes out his last breath, it mingles with the breath he blows upon the Apostles after he rises: take my Spirit, my breath, my life—and make it your own!  See how I give myself, in humble love.  Give yourself in the same way.
 
To underscore this, Jesus brings up a second point, the contrast between the Shepherd who belongs to his sheep, and the hired mercenaries who are only doing their jobs.  The Shepherd serves out of love and personal connection; the mercenary serves only because of the coins he will get at the end of the day.  Leadership is not only loving; it also is generous.  The leader looks to nothing but the chance to serve others; the Shepherd gives his life for the sheep because he stays with them, faithful and enduring.
 
In a world where most of us work for salaries, we surely can point to many who do their jobs not because of what they get paid, but because of the noble purpose they serve.  Police and firemen, soldiers and many in the medical profession; teachers and those who give themselves to serving others in the name of God—clergy and religious.  Parents instinctually will do anything for their children. But even among the most generous of us, there can sneak in the tiniest “What do I get out of it?” feeling. 
 
So Jesus says: enter the pasture, find out what my kingdom is about, and continue searching the ways in which your life can echo mine.  Peter even urges his readers not to worry about their sufferings; we have a God greater than all of those.  And that God is revealed in the gracious self-gift of Jesus who has only one thing to gain—humankind redeemed, renewed, and saved.  As we reflect on our own attitudes toward work and serving others, Jesus invites us to renew the Easter vision—humankind risen in his resurrection, the Kingdom coming about in our lives.
 
Few of us, I think, would have made it as shepherds—cold nights, hot days, hours of boredom, sleeping in fields and on rocks.  But those inconveniences are little compared to the invitation Jesus gives us—go live for others, to live selflessly, and to find that in putting ourselves aside, we discover what God’s love is about.

Easter 3 A

There are hunches.  And there are hunches.  Some hunches turn out right, and some prove misdirected.  Some hunches come to us in an instant, while other simmer for a while.  But I think hunches we have about things are very different than hunches we have about people.  Having a hunch about a stock is one thing.  Having a hunch about a person is something altogether dissimilar.

 

Why?  Because when we have hunches about people that we’ve met, it’s because they already made an impression on us.  They already have begun to affect us.  The hunch we have expresses a relationship already begun.  We have hunches about new bosses, and hunches about teachers—we find out pretty quickly if they are on target or not.  “I thought she was going to be nice.” And we have hunches about friends, and particularly initial hunches about people we end up loving.  We find ourselves in love almost without realizing it—because a relationship already began and eventually grew into something that changed our lives.

 

Cleopas and his companion say something very strange, something we need to think about.  “Were not our hearts burning as we walked along?”  But they only realize this later, after Jesus has broken the bread for them.  As they walked along, as Jesus explored their feelings and explained the Scriptures, Jesus was forming a relationship with them.  But, like someone who discovers she or he is already in love, it only comes together after a while.  They had a hunch, but they couldn’t put it together.

 

So when do our hearts burn?  When does it dawn on us that Jesus has come to be the center, the meaning of our lives?  Some people say they hearts never burned.  They go to other churches, or, unfortunately more often they stop going to church.  “It’s so boring.  I get nothing out of it?”  They walked so far along with road with Jesus without recognizing him, his love, and the relationship that he has begun with us. 

 

I mean, what if Cleopas and his companion just kept on eating after Jesus disappeared?  What if they just shrugged their shoulders?  What if they said, “Well that was strange,” and let it go at that?  Is it possible to be loved but not know it, realize it, accept it, be changed by it?  It seems that way. 

 

So Jesus has taken the first step.  He has begun a walk alongside every one of us.  He has opened the scriptures with the greatest news we can hear—that we are not senseless blobs produced by mindless atoms, but embodied spirits called to an eternal destiny.  As the Scriptures underline: it was necessary for him to die so that we could come to know the extent of divine love for each of us, for all of us.  And, even more, he has sat us at his table, taken up bread and wine, told us to be one with him, because he has become our food, our life.  And he has sent his Holy Spirit upon us, that we may be filled with the same life that filled him—the Spirit of love and grace.

 

How sweet it would be if, after every Sunday Mass, it dawned on us later on that day, and later on during the week, just how privileged we are to meet the Risen Jesus every Sunday, and just how much are hearts have been set on fire because of this meeting.



Easter 2 A


The Devil’s Advocate.  We used to hear this phrase quite a bit a few decades ago, but not so much anymore.  This was the canon lawyer who would try to prove that someone was not eligible for sainthood.  Today, when we canonize two popes –John and John Paul—whose lives many of us directly experienced, we focus not on any limitations they had, but on the way they showed holiness in the world today.  Pope Francis is even permitting the canonization of Saint John XXIII with only one miracle.  So we don’t obsess on the Devil’s Advocate as we used to.
 
But let’s take the case of Saint Thomas.  Although there was no canonization process for the apostles, we can imagine a Devil’s Advocate having a field day with Thomas.  All the other apostles are saying the same thing—“We have seen the Lord.”  But Thomas not only doubts them.  He raises the bar for his own belief.  “I want to touch him.  Touch his nail marks.  Touch his wounded side.”  Surely someone as hard-nosed as Thomas would have a hard time making it through the process of canonization today.
 
But Thomas helps us explore a central insight which we find in two of the scripture readings today.  “Blessed are those who have not seen but still believe,” comes from the Gospel.  And the letter of Peter, written to people suffering because of their faith, says that although they haven’t seen Christ, they love him and believe in him.  The celebration today is trying to tell us about the kind of eyes we need to see Easter.
 
Does Thomas know what he’s asking for when he says he wants to touch the wounded side of Christ?  We heard these words on Good Friday—how, when the soldier jabbed Jesus with his lance, blood and water flowed out of Jesus.  This blood and water represents two things: first, the complete and total gift of Jesus to us; but, secondly, the sacraments of the Church.  Water represents baptism, and blood represents the Eucharist.  Thomas is indirectly asking for the sacraments, and pointing out how believers see Jesus in this way today.
 
We might imagine Jesus hanging around in his risen Body after the resurrection.  But think of how absurd that would be.  Jesus would be like a specimen, like a character in a side show.  We would be gawking over the wounds of Jesus rather than living his life.  If we think back over all the stories we heard from John’s Gospel this Lent, we can see them as explorations of who Jesus is: for the Samaritan woman, he’s a prophet and Messiah; for the man born blind Jesus is the Son of Man; for the sisters of Lazarus, he is Resurrection and Life.  At every point, John tells us that people were coming to believe in Jesus.
 
Today we have the climax, the ultimate discovery of who Jesus is: Thomas falls on his knees, without gawking or fingering, and declares “My Lord and my God.”  With his rising from the dead, we now know Jesus as God come among us.  When we say Jesus sits at the right hand of God, we are saying that Jesus now relates to us as God does, because he is Lord and God, beyond the restrictions of a single body.  We don’t need to see the body to believe; we need to be part of his Risen Body, his community of faith, to experience the life of Jesus.
 
This is what we see in the first reading, the earliest follower of Jesus, having been baptized, now living as disciples, sharing life, breaking bread—the earliest form of the Mass—and discovering the power of the Spirit of Jesus in their lives of service.  Thomas shows us all of this.  Doubt is about what we see or don’t see; but Easter is about seeing the Risen Jesus in our own lives of faith, provided we truly live those lives.  Thomas is saying that The Risen Jesus can touch us in our lives as disciples if we truly walk with him, and with our brothers and sisters, in faith.
 
We may not make it to canonization, and the devil’s advocate may be able to do a job on any one of us.  But the way of life shown by our new saints, and offered to all who believe, is our surest path to holiness, to knowing Jesus, and to life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  



















Easter A

A priest friend of mine tells me this joke: A pastor loves golf.  He wakes up on Easter and sees it’s a beautiful day.  He gives into the temptation and calls his associate pastor, saying, “I’m really not feeling well even though it’s Easter.  Can you take the main service for me?”  Then the pastor drives way out of his area and finds a golf course where he can play.  Meanwhile St. Peter and Jesus are watching this.  St. Peter says, “Jesus, what are you going to do about this.”  “Watch,” says Jesus.  On the first hole, the pastor makes a par.  On the second hole, he makes a birdie.  On the third hole, the pastor makes a hole-in-one.  St. Peter turns to Jesus and says, “That’s a punishment.  You let him get a hole-in-one on Easter. What’s up with that?”  And Jesus smiles and says, “Yes, he got a hole-in-one, but whom can he ever tell?”

 

What’s it like to have good news but not be able to tell anyone?  You won the lotto, but have to keep your mouth shut.  You bought your favorite car, but can’t show it off to anyone?  You got engaged, but cannot wear your ring.  Torture all of it.  Good News is meant to be spread.

 

Today we have the greatest news humans can ever hear—that the absurdity of our death—the limitation of our lives, dreams and loves—has been defeated by Jesus Christ.  Jesus who took on our sin and death on behalf of us, brought them to the edge of despair, but now comes in triumph proclaiming to all the world: Death is overcome!  I have risen!  And I will raise you with me to a life of unlimited love, to a fullness which every moment of your life cries out for. 

 

So we are like Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Matthew—half overjoyed, half puzzled, hearing life-changing news. . . .  And what are we supposed to do with it?  What comes next?  “Go tell you brothers and sisters.  He is not dead.  He has been raised.”  Easter is the Good News we are not to keep to ourselves, but we are to proclaim to the world. 

 

How do we do that? we wonder.  Do I go running around with signs?  So we take out ads in newspapers?  Start a website?  What are we to do? 

 

Let’s begin, in the first place, by being an Easter People.  By living in accord with our deepest faith, which we proclaim together this day—Jesus is raised, so we are not people of doom and death.  Our Holy Father has been insisting that our faith is not for sour pusses.  It’s not about drudgery and depression.  How often have we made our Christian faith into an excuse for our dyspepsia?  No, we are people of hope, people who live in profound joy, and people who radiate that hope, joy, and love into the lives of others.

 

Easter is asking us if we are living in accord with the salvation Jesus has given us.  Are we people assured of life, confident even in our difficulties, hopeful even in our challenges?  Because if Jesus has given us his Spirit, if we share his Life in the Communion we receive this day, then this should show in how we live, how we treat others, how we approach decisions, how we lift others up, how we face every moment of our lives.

 

One of the great bumper stickers of the 80s said: if you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be any evidence against you?  How about it . . . let’s make our joy, our sheer happiness at this life of God given to us forever, our Spirit-filled smiles—let’s make this the first and strongest evidence that we have accepted Jesus, and his Easter life. 


Palm Sunday A

What do we think about destiny?  Often it is claimed, but really, do things have to happen?  Was our nation destined to be as it is—could not the civil war have gone another way—and made things different?  Were we destined to live in the times we live, or is that the way we choose to see it?

 

Matthew’s Passion goes out of its way to show Jesus destined—from the preparation of the Passover meal, to the fleeing of the disciples, to the treachery of Judas.  St. Matthew and the other early Christians combed the Jewish scriptures, seeing pieces fit together like a jig saw puzzle.  But it wasn’t only the scriptures, it was the history of our human hearts that accounted for the destiny Jesus.

 

For the sin we have chosen, and still choose again and again, had to be shown before heaven and earth; surely, the way Jesus was humiliated and murdered reveals the meaning of just these choices.  And the way death robs us of promise and hope had to be directly faced.  How could our death be conquered without going through it, without tasting it, without transforming it into loving gift? 

 

The destiny of Jesus is the destiny of the Kingdom of God, the slow but steady working out of God’s vision for humankind renewed and transformed.  We begin this week in blood; but we will end this week with brilliant light shining from within a tomb.  We may not know exactly how our different personal stories work out, but Jesus continues his invitation: be one with me, make your destiny mine, let me bring you through your fears, your pain, so you can forever drink wine anew with me in the sweetness of my Kingdom.


Lent 5 A

Part of the additional heartbreak in the tragedies we have seen in the lost jet from Malaysia and the town swept away by mud in Washington State comes from the ambiguity, the lack of resolution.  As much as our imaginations can conclude that people are gone, never to return, another part of our imagination works to conjure their re-appearance.  CNN and other news agencies endlessly interviewed one woman whose fiancé was on the Malaysian flight; for weeks she imagined him and the other passengers as captives held by terrorists.  She was sure, then, that he would return.

 

Our Gospel today allows us no ambiguity.  Jesus waits to visit Lazarus because Jesus wants us to confront the definitiveness of death.  A part of us thinks that Jesus is using poor Lazarus to make another point, but the death of Lazarus is like the deaths we all face.  Jesus makes no exception for Lazarus because Jesus knows exceptions are rare and death universal.

 

So Jesus wants to bring us to a special place.  He wants us to face grief.  The Lazarus’ sisters are bawling their heads off; in the end, Jesus bawls his eyes out, not once but twice.  “See how he loved him,” the crowd says.  Because love is at the heart of grief.  And the meaning of our love for each other raises the very question that Jesus wants to answer over poor Lazarus’ dead body. 

 

What does grief feel like?  I think it has two components.  One is sheer absence.  We cannot believe that one who has been part of our lives will be there no more.  I hear the Irish have a saying that the dead visit us three times in our dreams.  This reflects the incredulity we have: how can my husband, my wife, my child, my parent, simply not be there anymore.  They made up my world; they made up the world.

 

The second part of grief is a consequence of the feeling of absence.  We feel as if part of our selves are being torn away.  Death unmasks the illusion we have that we are totally contained individuals.  When someone I love dies, part of me dies, because I am not myself without them.  My self flows beyond me to the deepest connection that I have.  It flows backwards to my parents and siblings, and it flows forward to my children and friends.  Death shows just how radically incomplete we are.

 

When Jesus tells Martha and Mary that he is the Resurrection, Jesus wants to deal with these two components of grief.  If you relate to me, I am eternally present to you, and you are eternally present to me—I am Resurrection and Life. .  There are no boundaries to this relationship, not even the boundary of death.  In our relating to God through Jesus, time becomes relative and irrelevant.  God holds us in the eternal relationship that God is.  And because, in Jesus, we are related to God and to everyone else in relationship with God, Jesus completes our lives beyond anything we can fully imagine.  If death can feel like severing, Jesus’ presence feels like entrance into unlimited fullness, unending connectedness.  His life makes us whole, and brings us into the wholeness of life.

 

The great prophets imagined the Exile like a valley of dry bones; God can bring the dead back to life by the blowing spirit that made creation to begin with.  When we have the Spirit of God, the Spirit that Jesus breathes out upon rising from the dead, then the issues of flesh, of limitation, of brokenness become irrelevant.  “We are not in the flesh, but we live in the Spirit of Christ.”  Jesus is getting us ready by raising Lazarus from the dead.  “Come out, Lazarus.  You are just a shadow of what I am going to do.”

 

Jesus calls for them to untie, unbind, Lazarus.  His bonds were burial cloths.  Our bonds are mental, emotional, cultural—we’ve just resigned ourselves all too often to the materialist, Stoic view of death: it’s part of nature, we have our years and then it’s bye-bye.  Jesus is saying to us: look at the faces of Mary and Martha as they see Lazarus return to them.  Look at how they are connected to each other.  Can’t you see their love, their need, their hope?  God can see these too—they are in all of us—and, in Jesus, God wraps them with the unending life that they deserve.


Lent 4 A

“It’s not like looking for a needle in the haystack; it’s trying to find the haystack in the first place.”  An Australian official used these words to describe what it was like to fine Malaysia 370, the plane whose mysterious disappearance has shaken the world for the past three weeks.  Sometimes it’s just hard to see what’s there—the object is elusive.  We squint; we use all kinds of technology; but we barely make the image out.

 

Sometimes, however, it’s pretty easy to see what’s in front of us, but we just don’t recognize it.  Millions of eyes watch television, without any awareness of how implicit values in television come to take our own value systems.  Or couples get into patterns of arguing about the same things, but don’t see a way to change this.  They keep seeing and saying the same things.

 

Our Gospel, however, points out one more difficulty in seeing.  That we become responsible for what we have come to see, for what we have come to know.  We are witnesses to it.  Contrast, for example, the attitude of the parents of the man born blind with those of the man himself.  When the authorities approach the parents, they kick the football away—“Ask him, why bother us?”  They could not even affirm the life-changing event that came to their son.  But when the authorities come to the son, he dishes it right back to them—“Do you want to become his disciples too?”—because he is more than willing to bear witness to what has happened in his life.  “What I know is this, I was blind, but now I see.”

 

This might make a lot of us uncomfortable because so often we are like the parents.  Our faith is a cultural thing, we don’t want to take risks because of it, and we certainly don’t want to pay the price.  I believe as long as it doesn’t cost me too much.  The blind man might be evicted from the synagogue, but the parents don’t want that to happen to them.  So the Gospel today is asking us if we are willing to accept our faith so deeply that we becomes witnesses for it, that we accept its consequences in our lives, that we live by what we see.

 

Because every time a Scripture is read, every time a sacrament is celebrated, every time we approach the altar, we are seeing, hearing, and accepting a reality.  God is touching us as much as Jesus touched that blind man.  What, after all, was the particular force of giving sight to a man born blind?  It was this—that Jesus made happen something that was not there before.  Something new came into a life. 

 

And are not new things coming into our lives all the time?  The fact of our faith, the way we have come to know love, the children that have been born, the way our vision of life is refreshed again and again, the hope that will not die in our hearts?  Every day we are stepping into a world of wondrous new reality, of marvelous new life.  Every day our eyes are being opened.

 

So like our blind friend, the invitation is clear: live in accord with the wonder that God shows us all the time, to act out of the grace that comes to us every single day.  To let the vision of faith become our primary viewpoint in life.  To bear witness to the life and love that have come to us. 

 

Who knows?  Maybe living this way will not only transform our lives, but also transform the lives of others who are waiting for someone to come and open their eyes.


Lent 3 A

Boy, dating has sure gotten complicated.  We have e-harmony dot com, and now Christian Mingle dot com—their ads are on TV all the time.  “He’s my second chance,” the woman literally cries into the TV camera.  And Match dot com.  And, as I see at so many of the Catholic conventions I attend, we also have Catholic Match dot com.  All these options, and it used to be so simple.  Young men and women would run into each other at work, or at church, or at a party, or at the bowling alleys, as I learned when I was first ordained in 1972.  So what’s with all this dot com dating thing?

 

Perhaps young folks are working so hard these days that, by the time they are ready to get serious, they feel time has run out.  Or, and this is frightening, perhaps people think the computer can do better at picking a mate that good old human instinct.  They can find the logarithms and equations to scientifically find us a match, rather than rely on the basic process of meeting and liking someone.  Of course, folks put out false pictures and blown-up resumes on these sites, so maybe the computer can be dumb too. Who knew how hard to find a date?

 

The Samaritan Woman wasn’t looking for a date.  She was out, getting water at mid-day, instead of the early morning as most other women did, that’s how much of an outcast she was.  And you can see from her dialogue with Jesus why she was an outcast.  Her problem wasn’t getting a date; it was getting too many dates.  In a world where men put women out, she’d been put out five times already.  “Get me your husband,” Jesus says.  “I have no husband.”  Yes, Jesus says, you surely don’t.  You’ve never found the endless well of love that sustains life.  I will give that to you.

 

And what’s the price for this?  One thing.  Not money.  Not influence.  Not looks.  Not charm.  She only has to give of herself, to trust enough, to show her broken crazy life to Jesus.  Get rid of the fake resume, and the deceptive picture.  Show God yourself.  Once she does this, she lets his flood of true love, of divine acceptance, flow into her without limit.  “Give me something to drink,” Jesus asked at the beginning of their date; she finally gives Jesus the water of her life, in exchange for which Jesus will give the water of divine love, of the Holy Spirit, of union with God.  How does Paul put it in his letter to the Romans: “The love of God has been poured into our hearts.”  We only have to open them.

 

Are we envious of this Woman?  We should not be.  Nothing has happened to her that has not, or cannot, happen to us as well.  So many things can block our relationship with God—and, maybe most of all, our pretentions. The way we think we don’t need God that much.  Or can keep from God the scars of our souls.  Or do not trust God enough to reveal all that needs to be loved, healed, and graced in our lives.

 

Lent is an opportunity to drop the pretentions, to stand vulnerable and open before the Lord, to acknowledge sins so that God can overcome them, to experience a deeper level of discipleship.  Of all the people I have to hide from, God is the last one of all.  Come, let’s go on a date, says God.  Let me show you the truth of my love.  At this time of conversion, hundreds of thousands of people across the world are preparing for the sacraments of conversion—modeling for us the earnestness of fresh love that can be part of our lives when we let the Spirit touch us.

 

We’ve bought the illusion that whatever we can do in life, we can do better over a computer.  Our dot coms will save us.  We just need to find the right app.  But God needs no app.  God is ready to flood us with love.  We just have to take off the umbrella of self-pretention, and the raincoat of false security, to discovery the One who tells us everything we ever did, and who loves us nonetheless. 


Lent 2 A

She was waiting for the plane to board.  Like the rest of us, she was killing time.  She took out her cosmetics, worked on her eyebrows, some red for her cheeks, and lipstick to finish it off.  I watched her—not a particularly pretty woman, but certainly not uncomely.  In between the way most of us are.  Who is she preparing herself for?  Who is waiting on the other end of the flight?  Is it a husband, a boyfriend, who?
 
We are more and more occupied with our images these days.  Billions are spent in plastic surgery.  But no matter how we try, our faces grow old, wrinkles appear, and we cannot keep father time at bay.  Perhaps there are other images we should worry about—how our characters appear to others, and how our souls appear to God.
 
Jesus is giving us an image this day, as we start moving into the heart of Lent.  This image stunned his disciples, leaving them speechless.  It’s the image of his glory—but not an image only of his glory.  It’s an image of the glory that God would give to everyone.  The scene on the mountain of the Lord’s Transfiguration stands for the image that God would give each of us—it’s a glimpse of Easter, of the risen life, that Jesus will receive and wants to give to all those who follow in his steps.
 
We are puzzled by Peter.  Why does he want to build tents?  Why does he want to stay there with Jesus?  Of course, the scene is glorious and consoling, so Peter’s desire was natural.  But as soon as he suggests this, we see the cloud come and the voice from heaven say: This is my beloved, Listen to him.  Peter wants to build a tent, but he’s not ready to listen to Jesus.  Jesus is ready to move on to his destiny, to die and rise, but Peter wants only the comfort he can received.
 
Abraham, of course, was comfortable, but God called to him, to leave, to trust, to go forth in faith.  Abraham could not see the final goal, but he was asked to begin moving, to go with God step by step, until great blessings would come upon him, and upon all humankind.  Isn’t it true in our lives, that sometimes we could not see the whole path, but we just walked faithfully, step by step.  That’s Peter’s invitation: not to build the tent for his comfort, but to walk with Jesus as he leaves this mountain, and prepares for the next mountain, Mount Calvary.
 
Our faith lives are journeys, sometimes clear, sometimes not.  But the biggest temptation is to give up.  Sometimes we just move our feet, going through the motions, but really make no progress.  Many of us Catholics and other Christians have simply stepped off the road, giving up praise and worship, giving up the following of Jesus.  And most of us have no energy in our step because we have stopped dreaming of the end, the goal, the destination—to share with all creation in the glory of Jesus. 
 
Paul is telling his followers to remember the big picture, how God has sent Jesus to bring us to a fulfillment we could not imagine or hope for.  But we live in a world that tells us to worry about the next few minutes, or the next meal, or the next paycheck—to worry just about our immediate needs.  When we only do that, do we not lose the very image of ourselves that God has planted in our hearts, and also the image that Jesus puts forth for us today?
 
So let’s do our exercises, put on our cosmetics, color our hair, take our vitamins and pills so we can look better for each other.  But let’s not let any of these actions fool us.  Ours is has to be a deeper image, the image of our hearts before God, because ours is a much greater goal.  Not looking good for each other, but looking like the image of Jesus. 

Lent 1 A

We all dream of starting over.  If we could go back to grade or high school; if we could study on the college level.  If our marriages could be non-stop honeymoons.  If my hair could be black and curly as it was in 1970.  From facelifts to testosterone treatment, we would love to reverse the clock.

 

So we are tempted, upon hearing the first reading, to play with a strange picture.  What if I was in the Garden of Eden?  What if the serpent was talking to me?  (A taking serpent would certainly be worth a lot of money on the TV circuit, to say the least!)  What if God whispered his command to me?  What would I do?  And we might well fantasize how we would do things differently, plucking oranges and grapes as we wished but leaving God’s fruit alone, staying in paradise forever.

 

Of course, most of this would be our delusion because what happened in Eden happens every day in all of our lives.  Adam’s sin is not eating an apple.  Adam’s sin is his resentment about any limitations on his life at all.  “What do you mean I can’t eat the fruit of this bush?  I want it all.”  Adam cannot say “enough.”  Adam feels cheated by life and by God because he wants everything he sees; he cannot stop.  Now the word “Adam” in Hebrew means “the human”—Adam represents every single one of us.  We are never satisfied.

 

So if we all would actually repeat what Adam and Eve did, how can anything ever be different?  It would never be different—unless God found a way for us to really begin anew.  He sends his Son, Jesus, to be in our place; from our place Jesus reverses the attitudes that Adam generated in his first responses to God.  Jesus doesn’t need to have it all.  He knows he has it all in God his Father.  The tempter comes: don’t you want more to eat, Jesus?  Or, don’t you want to be famous?  Or, the most insidious one, don’t you want to have unlimited political power?  In the face of every temptation, Jesus answers the Tempter back: God is enough, God’s Word is enough, loving God and putting God at the center is enough.

 

The desert was a special place for the Jewish people.  There they wandered forty years, symbolically, under Moses.  For all their griping in the desert, they felt intensely close to God through Moses.  God was a pillar of cloud by day, and a column of fire by night—a way of saying that God was always with them.  Later prophets often urged Israel to return spiritually to the desert, to discover their God afresh.  This is why Jesus goes into the desert.  He’s taking our place, helping us re-experience intimacy with God, and providing the grace for us to identify with God—instead of becoming rivals to God.

 

Lent is a kind of journey into the desert.  Part of our discipline is to simplify our lives so that, with less distractions, we become more alone with God in prayer, as if we were away, on retreat . . . in the desert.  In the desert we can see more clearly who God is, and how we relate to God.  We can see the compromises we frequently make, the excuses we give, and the lack of growth that often represents our spiritual lives.  In the desert we can also see our sin more clearly—the depth of the way we still do not trust God completely, and still want to be our own gods despite the disaster we make of our lives by our blindness and arrogance.

 

So we go into the desert, not to be tempted by Satan, or to be tempted by the talking snake.  We go to be tempted . . .  by Jesus.  Temptation is creating an attractive alternate image of our lives, usually for the worst.  Why be faithful to our vows, our commitments, our moral ideals?  Wouldn’t messing around be more fun?  Jesus wants to give us an alternative image: instead of the resentful greediness of the Adam that lurks inside us, how about the grateful joy of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom, abounding in gifts both numerous and grace-filled?


8 A

One of my long-time habits is reading the comics.  I think I’m the only one in our house of priests and seminarians who does this, one out of 25.  Yet I find their predictable humor consoling—the way the sagas of the characters continues on.  I try to never miss Blondie.  There’s Mr. Dithers, Dagwood’s boss, yelling at him for his laziness and incompetence, never giving him a raise.  There’s Dagwood, still figuring out how to escape the extra assignment at work, hanging out by the water cooler, sneaking his naps.  Mr. Dithers is Type A, production ordered, driven, tough.  Dagwood Bumstead is type B, laid back, corner-cutting, taking things as they come.

 

If we use the Dagwood categories, Jesus is certainly telling his disciples to not be Type A—the kind of worrying, driven, severe people who eventually shorten their lives—and everyone else’s.  Yet we have to be careful because we might think Jesus is saying not to be concerned at all about the things we wear and the things we eat.  Hardly.  He fed the poor in the desert and told the rich to give money to the poor.  He praised hard-working servants in his parables.  Jesus was the son of a handyman who undoubtedly worked hard.

 

It’s precisely the worry that Jesus wants to eliminate, because behind the worry is a lot of unbelief.  Our obsession about possessions, wealth, status, and power often obscures what lies beneath that—that we want to be totally in control of our lives, take charge of everything, and that we do not trust life to take care of us.  Jesus, who keeps pointing to God as a loving Father who freely bestows gifts upon humankind, as the compassionate and merciful One who loves each of us despite our status, wants us to see, and live in, God.

 

And our worrying keeps us from doing that.  Our first reading, short as it is, presents the exact image of God that Jesus shows us, and Jesus relies on.  A mother cannot forget her child.  God the Father is also God the Mother who can never forget us.  Existence is that tender.  Paul, in the second reading, says that he relies on God for the meaning and judgment of his life, that having become a servant of God, he is freed from the gossip and carping of those around him.  Finding God as a God of generous love frees us from a lot of neuralgia and grief.

 

We live in a Type A world, a world that makes worry, anxiety, and extra work a way of life.  In a world like this, faith can become almost obscure.  The words of Jesus come across as naïve instead of the penetrating analysis of our wasted energy and useless fretting, of our premature graying hair.  With Lent coming this week, maybe we can turn our attention not to the giving up of chocolate, but to the inner work of discovering the God of Jesus, the God of surpassing love, the God of unlimited care.  If we can make Jesus’ God our God, then we can rejoice more fully in the lives we have, rather than regret the lives we don’t.  And be all the more generous, to boot.

 

Stop and smell the roses, says Dagwood.  Mr. Dithers jumps up and down saying more work has to be done.  Jesus says keep your hair color and discover the God who really is.  What is it you say?


7 A

We can easily play “fill in the blank.”  What’s it like to be, for example, some famous person?  Fill in the blank. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Gweneth Paltrow, Michelle Obama, Dick Cheney.  Certainly the exploits of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus help us realize that, no matter how much we imagine, it’s almost impossible to imagine really being another person.  But we can vary the game and ask what it’s like to be one profession or another.  In some ways, going to school is a way to test this out: what’s like to be an economist, a nurse, a lawyer, an engineer, a rancher?

 

Our scriptures push this game to a deep and important level.  What’s it like, they are asking us, to be God?  When we hear the word “God” we mostly think in terms of definition—omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, and so forth.  But Jesus is saying that we can learn more about God through behavior than we can through our minds.

 

For example, compassion.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus is obviously playing on the words of his Jewish tradition which our first reading gave us.  They enjoined that we be “holy” as God is holy.  But when we seek to find what these words mean, holy and perfect, we have to do so with the image that Jesus presents.  Does not God let his rain fall on the just and the unjust?  Is not God kind to everyone?  Is not God’s compassion offered to all? 

 

From this we have the whole logic of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been reading in Matthew’s Gospel these Sundays: if this is the way God, your Father, is, then do you not have to be like this if you want to be God’s children?  Do you not need to imitate his goodness, patience, generosity, mercy, and unlimited love?  That’s how we prove we are children of the heavenly Father.

 

But, to go just a little further, this is also how we come to know God.  It is by our own actions toward others that we begin to understand God’s relationship to us and the world.  Only by caring for others do I begin to see what care means, and, then, how God cares for me, for us, for the world.  Only by acts of free and open generosity do I begin to see how generous God is.  I often think, when it comes to weddings, that the love the couple has found for each other—excessive, unconditional, totally absorbing—is only a pale imitation of the love God has for every single one of us.

 

This was Paul’s problem in Corinth.  The arrogance and smugness of the believers, their self-satisfied pride and boasting, kept them from the possibility of seeing God, of understanding Christ.  For them it was all about cliques, putting others down, and being superior.  You’ve got to give that up, says Paul, because only by coming to God in simplicity and trust, only by renouncing our arrogance, can we truly relate to Jesus Christ.  Everything belongs to you, Paul says, if you only truly give yourself to Jesus Christ.

 

Of course, we are here today because we give ourselves to Jesus Christ.  But we are here because we also realize that we’ve not given ourselves completely to Jesus.  We are disciples, but incomplete disciples, often staying on level 101 as long as we can.  Paul will tell the Corinthians that they are babies, drinking milk, but not grown disciples able to eat the solid food of faith.  Babies have a great life, but don’t really appreciate it, do they?  We have to grow if we are going to begin to see real life.

 

That’s the invitation—to become disciples, and then to grow as disciples, to take the standard of God’s holiness, God’s love, as the norm of our lives.  Of course, we can never completely get there but it’s really, when you think about it, not totally up to us.  Discipleship is letting God shape us, being a temple for God’s Spirit, who accomplishes in us what we could never do, so long as we surrender.

 

So let’s close our mental game.  What’s it like to be . . . Jesus Christ?  Because that’s the dare, the challenge, the invitation, the grace.  And that’s what we are saying every time we come to Mass, every time we receive the Eucharist.  We are one with Jesus, not only in our hearts, but also and importantly in our actions.


6 A

Listen to how differently these two sentences sound.  “We’ve got to do better.”  And “We can do better.”  The first way makes us feel inadequate and like failures, looking back at how poorly we’ve done.  The second one, however, has a much more positive feel about it—yes, we have to do better, but we also have the ability to do better.  As one famous slogan put it, “Yes we can.”

 

When Jesus says to his disciples their holiness has to be better than that of the Pharisees and Scribes, he’s raising the bar pretty high, because those groups made piety and devotion to the law the center of their lives.  What does Jesus mean? 

 

Quite clearly, Jesus points to the exact way we need to do better.  We not only focus on the behavior behind a commandment, but we focus on the attitudes in our hearts that lead to behaviors in the first place.  Not on adultery, but on lust.  Not on theft, but on greed.  Not on murder, but on anger.  Jesus’ disciples will be characterized by the way they prepare their hearts internally to keep from sinning in any instance.  That’s how we will be better.

 

But, wow, we think.  Isn’t this nearly impossible?   Instead of saying, Yes we can, we might well be saying, “I’m not sure I can.”  But this is where the whole other part of Jesus teaching comes in—that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to transform them from the inside. 

 

It is not from our own power alone that we are disciples of Jesus.  It’s from the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of us—a presence that often we do not attend to, a presence that we become aware of by giving the time to sit silently, to pray, to beg the Spirit to abide with us more fully.  If we know the Spirit of God is abiding with us, it’s a great incentive to get rid of those impulses toward sin that also exist within us. 

 

It’s not so much our doing better; it’s the Spirit helping us do better, shaping us more fully in the image of Jesus.


5 A

No movie has gotten the attention that “American Hustle” has received: its many awards, its gorgeous women, its complicated plot.  I think the reason for this acclaim might actually be embarrassing—maybe this movie shows all too accurately what’s in our American mind.  “People want to be conned,” is the movie’s theme.  “They keep conning themselves.”  Why?  Because we all think we can get what we want; and, if we do, then we’ll be very happy.  Our greed keeps the Bernie Madoff’s in business.

 

But what if the secret of life is exactly the opposite—not worrying about what we don’t have, but praising God for what we do have, and being willing to give away some of what we have as a sign of trust in God?  This sounds almost nuts, I know, but the “good works” that Jesus is talking about, what makes us salt for the earth and light for the world, is exactly a kind of generous love that liberates us, rather than an ungenerous greed that traps us.

 

Isaiah is very clear about what God asks—the sign of our being liberated from exile, he says, is the care we have for the poor.  Isaiah is singing this poem to a Jewish people long in exile, a people, therefore, tempted to be filled with self and self-pity.  If you care for those at the bottom, Isaiah says, then you will be praising God and doing God’s work.  Because the way I care for another helps me see how God cares for me.  Every one of us, no matter how rich and secure we are, ultimately needs God, ultimately depends on every gift God gives us.  Paul says he comes not in strength, but weakness, because he knows who he needs.  He relies on his helpers, the prayers of his communities, and the strength that God give him at every moment of his life.

 

So instead of “American hustle,” maybe we should try “Christian muscle,” the strength we have from God to love as God loves, to love with the generosity of Jesus Christ.  There can be no laws here, no rules, because it’s up to each heart touched by God.  But maybe we can do this: if each one of us thinks of someone we know in need—whatever the need—and goes out of his or her way to show a generous kindness—if each one of us did this, maybe we’d begin go see the tang of our salt, and the glow of our lamp, have impact on our world.

 

Instead of being conned by others because of our greed, maybe we can be coaxed by God to reach out to others because of their need, and because of God’s freely given, always generous, grace.



Presentation of the Lord

After we get to know people fairly well, they start showing us pictures.  “Here’s what I looked like when I got married.  Or when I was in college.  Or when I was an adolescent.  Look, here are my baby pictures.”  And, looking back, we can see traits that seem constant in a person—how they smile, the way their eyes stare, the shape of their ears.  Looking back, we can trace in our minds lines that seem to connect the present with the past.

 

St. Luke is doing something like this in the Gospel.  He’s showing us the baby pictures of Jesus, and showing us the traits that were there from the beginning which would grow into the ministry of Jesus.  In showing us this picture, he uses both a wide angle lens and a close-up lens to make his point.

 

The big picture brings together the whole Jewish tradition and Jesus.  Simeon and Anna, who represent the little people, the faithful people, from the Jewish tradition appear before us to proclaim that everything that was hoped for and promised by the law and the prophets has come together in the person of Jesus.  Simeon says that he can now conclude his life because his eyes have seen the salvation of God.  Note how he says it: a light for the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel.  In Jesus, Israel touches the dreams of all humankind.

 

But when we look at the details, we see even more.  In particular, the image of Jesus and the words spoken to Mary.  Jesus receives his name and undergoes the Jewish ritual of circumcision, which was a sign of consecration—dedication—to God.  In this first sign of blood we anticipate the fuller sign that would be given later, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  Jesus will bring the Jewish right of dedication to God and make it into the sacrifice of himself, the gift of himself.

 

Next, we are amazed at the words spoken to Mary.  Jesus will be a sign of contradiction, a sign of opposition, which will lead to the rise and fall of many.  And a sword will pierce Mary’s heart.  Here St. Luke is saying that Jesus will call people to make a decision, and that decision will reveal their heart to God.  Knowing and accepting Jesus will not be something easy.  Many will ignore him, many will oppose him, but those who accept him will find salvation.

 

After two thousand years, perhaps this radical choice is a bit hidden from us Catholics.  It’s easy for Christians to coast along on their cultural heritage, to say the words, or fulfill the externals, without thinking about what it means.  How is Jesus a sign of contradiction in our lives—how do we contradict who he is, what he taught, and where he would lead us?  Is Jesus real for us, or just a non-threatening image from the past?  Have I let the sword of decision cut through to my heart?

 

The Church today is saying that the point of our faith is an encounter with Christ.  Have I met Jesus?  Or, have I let Jesus meet me?  Not the Jesus I have made into a tame image, but the Jesus that calls me to live as he lived, to give myself in service, to become a gift for the Kingdom of God?  For we are consecrated—are we not?—in our baptisms, and we are called to bring the light of Jesus to the nations, to our own nation, to our own daily lives, to our homes, to our hearts?  Every Sunday when we gather for Mass, we are presenting ourselves in the living temple of God—at least we say that.  Do we really do that?

 

This Sunday all the world will be bananas about the Super Bowl, the decision about which team is the best this season.  But then the game is over and we await a new season.  It’s a big decision, but not an important one.  The important decisions revolve around this: what is in our hearts when we open them to God?  What is in our souls when the light of Jesus shines upon us?


3 A

Whoever wins the Super Bowl next week, it won’t be much of a surprise.  Many of my New York friends have taken to the Forty-niners; they were saying that their loss to Seattle was not shameful.  Both teams played good games.  And while Denver handily beat Boston, no one would have been surprised if it worked out the opposite.  So whoever wins the Super Bowl, it won’t be out of the blue.
 
Most of the time we don’t like things coming out of the blue.  We prefer our lives predictable, in a range, relatively safe.  Out of the blue come accidents, lawsuits, medical emergencies—we want few of those.  But out of the blue also come some amazing things, like long-lost friends who send us unexpected greetings or gifts, or winning numbers in Powerball, or Samaritans who appear out of nowhere to help us when we are hurt or stuck.
 
For all of the preamble Matthew has given us leading up to today’s Gospel—the long genealogy, the story of the birth of Jesus, his baptism and even the temptations in the desert, Jesus today seems to come out of the blue.  Matthew quotes a passage from Isaiah—the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, the Galilee of the pagans—as if to underscore how far Jesus is from the mainstream of Jewish life.  It’s more than the boonies; Jesus, from Galilee, comes from a land encircled by Gentiles.  At the end of the Gospel reading, it’s the Syrians who are bringing their sick to Jesus for healing.
 
The quality of coming from out of the blue certainly colors the central part of the Gospel passage.  Jesus begins his message saying that God’s Kingdom is at hand, nearby, about to come.  Think of what a bold statement this must have seemed to people oppressed, for whom the ultimate government, their particular kingdom, were the invincible and brutal Romans.  Not only is Jesus saying that a Kingdom will come someday; no, he says, we are on the very verge of it.  That’s his message.
 
But how does this Kingdom come?  The next few sentences show us; again, things that happen out of the blue.  He sees two fishermen by the sea: “I will make you fish for people, for the souls of your brothers and sisters.”  And immediately they followed.  Next he spots James and John.  He calls them and immediately they too follow Jesus, leaving nets and daddy behind.  It’s not the expected that appealed to them; no, it’s the unexpected, the appearance of a prophet from their own area with a message bold enough to sweep them in.
 
If the Kingdom is going to grow, then, it needs people to respond.  It needs people accepting their vocation, their calling.  It needs people willing to follow.  Our Catholic minds immediately jump to priests, sisters, and brothers, but we should not jump too soon.  Jesus is calling fishermen, the unlettered laborers who made up so much of ancient society.  Before they would become the apostles we now name, they would have to stretch their hearts and minds to understand who Jesus was, and what kind of Kingdom he brought.
 
Surely Jesus calls us today, every one of us.  He calls us in our ordinary lives.  He calls us with our weaknesses and fears.  He calls us with our doubts and hesitations.  But he calls us from within the message of faith we have received—making us part of the Kingdom.  Every one of us has been made into someone who can fish, can catch, can involve people in the love of Jesus and the scope of his Kingdom.  Of course we need priests, sisters, brothers, deacons, catechists—religious professionals.  But their ministry needs yours, their vocations need you, Christ needs you.
 
Out of the blue.  So many of our callings come that way—the people we fall in love with, the news that someone is pregnant, opportunities for advancement.  So many things seem to come out of the blue.  But, among those, nothing ranks higher than the call of Jesus; he sees us, not on the shore of Galilee, but in our offices, cars, classrooms, supermarkets, Starbucks…. Come, follow me.  Help me build the Kingdom.  It’s coming, out of the blue.

2 A

If you could be an animal, which one would you be?  If others said what animal you reminded them of, what would they say?  Look at the animal names we call each other, many of them bad, some of them good: a rat, a skunk, a snake, a chicken, a pig—yes, but also a kitten, a puppy, a chick. 

 

I’ve never heard anyone called a lamb.  A sheep, perhaps, or a fox in sheep’s clothing, but a lamb?  “Behold the Lamb of God,” says John, in our Gospel this morning.  This, as we open up the cycle of readings for this year, with passages mostly coming from St. Matthew.

 

It took John a while for him to come up with this name.  John the Baptist, who comes to prepare us for the coming of the Word into the world, had to discover who this Word-made-flesh was.  Greater than John, existing before John, now the Word was here in the flesh.  How would John recognize the Word?  His whole baptismal ministry was to set the stage for Jesus.  He says that he knew, when he saw the Spirit come upon Jesus, that this indeed is the Lamb of God, the one who would take away the world’s sin.  Behold the Lamb.

 

What does it mean to be a Lamb?  On the one hand, as opposed to many images of salvation and saviors, the Lamb represents meekness, quiet, approachability—the kinds of qualities Pope Francis has been pointing us toward, the kinds represented by some of our most favorite saints—Francis, Teresé the Little Flower, or, most recently, Mother Theresa.  Redemption is about drawing near in love, not attacking and destroying.

 

The other sense of Lamb comes from Ancient Jewish ideas of sacrifice.  Lambs were the sign of Passover— escape, freedom—the memory of how the blood of the lamb showed the mercy of God to an enslaved people.  For Jesus to be the Lamb is for Jesus to generously offer himself, whatever the consequences, to accomplish God’s purposes of love.  Later on in John’s Gospel, it is when the lambs are being slaughtered to prepare for Passover that Jesus, on the cross, pours out the last drop of his blood as a sign of God’s love for us.  In Jesus, God is saying, “Here, I give my life to you, and I show the extent of my love.”  This is what John is now seeing in Jesus as the Spirit comes upon him.

 

Later on in the Mass, just before communion, I will hold up the consecrated bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus, and invite you to partake in the “supper of the Lamb.”  In doing this, we are accepting our role in taking away the sin of the world by the integrity of our own lives through the work of the Holy Spirit.  In coming forth for Communion, we are saying that Jesus’ role as Lamb, as savior, a sign of God’s love, continues in our own lives today. 

 

Our second reading begins St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  As we read this letter, we realize Christians have been anything but lambs.  We will see in Corinth a community of conceited, self-absorbed, unloving, and divisive people—more eager to show themselves off than give themselves to each other. We will read this letter not to look down on the Corinthians, but to notice some of these same traits that might be creeping into our own lives.  After all, to come to the supper of the Lamb means we have to live differently, as St. Paul will point out, making the qualities of Jesus our own.

 

We are always trying to find the true nature of celebrities.  A-Rod is in the news a lot now, Tiger Woods a decade ago, Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber, and, of course, Mylie Cyrus.  These people did not live up to their first impression.  They turned out to be different than we thought.  Our Gospel today gives us Jesus’ First Impression: Behold the Lamb of God.  As we proceed through this year of scriptures, we’ll see just how perfectly Jesus lives up to it, and just as clearly how he calls us to live up to his image as well. 



Baptism of the Lord A

I was giving a talk about changes since the Second Vatican Council; it was to an informal group of mostly young people whom I thought would appreciate the perspective of an older man like me.  No sooner had I begun to make my points when a youngish, 30 something, raised his hand.  “Vatican II destroyed the Church,” he began. And persisted with his comments at such a regular pace that that after a while I said, giving up: “Look, I’m trying to present my thoughts here.  Maybe I should sit down and just let you come up and teach.  Then I can ask you questions.  You’ve taken over the class already.”

 

Sometimes teachers glory when their students exceed their gifts; but usually it’s good to know who’s the teacher and who’s the student.  Something like this confusion is happening in the Gospel.  Jesus comes to John to be baptized.  John says, “No, I should be baptized by you.”  Because to be baptized means to become someone’s student, someone’s disciples.  As far as John could see, Jesus was the Master to John, not his student.

 

This raises some interesting angles for us, some two thousand years after the baptism of Jesus.  Is Jesus our Master, is he our Teacher?  Or, like a strange reversal of John, have we become the Master’s, giving Jesus lessons about how to adjust his message this way or that?  For to be baptized is far more than going through a ceremony, or getting a name, or being free from sin, or even joining the Church.  We are baptized when we follow a way of life that imitates the Master’s life, that walks in his steps.

 

Certainly general culture admires Jesus, but we have tamed Jesus again and again, making him into a philosopher, a monk, a King, a social worker, a therapist, a superstar.  In doing this, we pull a piece of Christ out and modify the rest of him to fit into that image.  That is why people cringe, for different reasons, when we identify our country as a Christian culture.  On the one hand, what about non-Christians?  On the other hand, what evidence would we put forward about our Christianity?  Some of those who most conspicuously claim the mantle of Christian often seem the least inclined toward compassion. 

 

But, even more, in our personal lives, we modify Jesus in so many ways, ignoring him most of the time, invoking him when convenient, softening or ignoring the stronger things he says to us, and basically reducing his power, his authority, his Lordship over us.  Just the word “Lordship” drives us nuts.  But if Jesus is not our model, our teacher, our leader, then how can we claim to be following in his steps? 

 

One of the practices that some Catholics are adopting more and more is to let Jesus speak more clearly in their hearts.  They set aside the time and listen to a verse or two of scripture, and let those words sink inside.  They first reflect on them, then sit with them in silence, then say prayers on the basis of those words, and then they act on them.  This is an ancient form of prayer called “divine reading” of the Scriptures.  Other Catholics I know gather together to share over the Scriptures to hear them more deeply.  “The voice came from the heavens”; the voice continues to come. The Spirit continues to descend upon us, so long as we allow it.

 

We all know how infallible our children are in second year high school.  They already know how stupid everyone else is.  Who’s got anything to teach them?  Smarty pants.  Know-it-alls.  But at least they pretend.  When it comes to our listening to Jesus, and letting him be our Teacher, most of the time we don’t even pretend.  We just tune the Teacher out . . .  and then wonder why we never grow. 


Epiphany

Christmas Day was wonderful.  After 7:30 AM Mass, an easy drive to New Jersey where I was able to hang out with my sisters and relatives, eating many courses, followed by many-coursed deserts, all of it aided by wonderful sips of wine.  I was into New York City by 8:30 PM and decided to walk off those extra calories.  On my way to 34th Street and the Empire State building, I crawled through a jammed Times Square. Could not believe the numbers of people there, surrounded by so many blazing lights on the billboards, all of them taking selfies in the heart of the city.  The ultimate selfie?  People were watching a huge, blazing sign that had a camera that was taking a selfie of the crowd.  Waving hysterically, people were thrilled to see themselves being thrilled.

 

Selfie has now become one of the newest words in our dictionary.  The Pope takes selfies with visitors, and President Obama got some guff for his selfie with other world leaders at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  Most of FaceBook are selfies.  What is this, so much self-absorption?  Or is it something else—a way in which people put themselves into larger situations—near famous sights, with famous people, or into the network that FaceBook and its counterparts represent.  The selfie puts is into another scene.

 

So how does God take a selfie?  That’s what God has been doing during this Christmas season, which comes to its climax in today’s feast of the Epiphany.  God sends us an image of himself, not as the Eternal Transcendent, because there can be no photo of that, but as one of us, in our flesh, in our own life.  God enters into the human situation, to taking on our life so we can take on God’s.

 

The Magi represent the sweep of this presence in our midst.  Because when God enters our situation, God broadens it to include everyone, and deepens it to touch every human heart.  God comes into the Jewish world so that God can come into all the world.  These Magi represent all of us, from all races and nations, looking for the God who would draw us into one, and bring salvation to the human situation of sin and death that besets us all.

 

Isaiah captures the sweep of this feast with his majestic language.  In the midst of the darkness of their exile, God has shown the light of his favor.  Jerusalem will be radiant at what it sees—caravans and camels coming with the wealth of the nations.  But God reverses the image, because it’s not the world coming to Jerusalem, but God’s grace going forth to the world.  The second reading puts it quite plainly: the mystery revealed in Jesus is God’s embrace of all the world, that the Gentiles—the unclean and unchosen—are now co-heirs and members of the same body of Jesus Christ.  God takes a selfie in Jesus, and includes us all in the picture!

 

There are two spiritual tasks we have.  First, we have to experience God’s light coming to each one of us, Christ beaming a message of grace, pardon, and love.  For Jesus comes for each of us, as Jesus comes for everyone.  Polish away the tarnish we let build up on our spirit, so Christ can shine in us.  Secondly, we have to see Christ’s light shining on all the world, every person, especially those who seem distant, strange, or estranged.  Each of us has the ability to radiate Christ’s light upon the seekers in our own world, letting them see God’s glory reflected in our own faith.

 

Of course Times Square would be filled even more for New Years.  The ultimate scene for the ultimate moments of one year and the beginning moments of 2014.  God wishes us much more than New Year’s Greetings; God wishes us new life, escape from the darkness that encircles us, and entry into unending light.


Holy Family

Learning a language has some hidden difficulties.  We presume, for example, that sounds are the same.  We also think we can easily make sounds in another language.  So going from English to Spanish, my Latino friends had to constantly correct the way I said “con” because it sounded like “can” to them.  And I had to practice the double rr sound, and learn the double ll pronunciation.  In some languages, sounds in English are entirely missing, and some people can never learn them.  Every time I go near Chinese, it seems like a mystery to me.
 
The same is true in life.  Certain basic experiences are like basic sounds we learn.  We either learn them or we are crippled in life.  Human experience is made up of certain fundamentals—dependency on others, respect, generosity, kindness, love, sacrifice—for example.  We either learn these human, emotional fundamentals or else they become a struggle for us.  We know people, for example, abandoned at birth and how hard life becomes for them.
 
Where do we learn this human language of emotion?  Basically in the family.  Through the rearing of children, parents transmit, in family life, these basics of human personality.  And everything else in life is built upon these—even our faith.  If we do not learn love as children, how we do grasp God’s love for us?  If we do not know sacrifice, how do we understand Jesus’ life and death?
 
In this feast of the Holy Family, we see the implication of the Incarnation, the Word of God becoming human.  To take on our flesh, is to take on our family lives.  In our Gospel, we see Jesus the child being cared for by Joseph and Mary—the risks and sacrifices they made to protect the newborn Jesus.  So Jesus, the Son of God, becomes part of the human interaction which our family lives express.  To be human is to be part of a network of relationships; now God has become part of that network in Jesus.
 
However difficult family life is today—because of changes in society and expectations—it is an essential instrument of creation and human formation.  Family life is something blessed by the infancy and growth of Jesus in the household of Mary and Joseph.  Jesus adds to the vocabulary of family because he brings God’s grace and infinite love as a model and guide for how we live, and how we live in families.  He pushes our human relationships into our relationship with God.
 
We are all dependent.  We are all incomplete.  God brings about new life through the love of two, making us all combinations of our parents.  In my personality, I have something of mom and dad.  We are all connected to others, and to each other.  What grace, then, that God becomes part of this connectedness by sending his Son Jesus to be our brother, to make us part of the Holy Family, and to make us part of his family of the redeemed. 
 

Christmas A

Bah, Humbug….

 

So goes the Scrooge, and so go the Scrooges of the world, people who are increasingly irritated around Christmas time.  Some get upset for religious reasons, many get upset for non-religious reasons.  “They start playing that music right after Halloween.  Please, I’ve had enough.”  Or, from the religious side, “People have turned a religious feast into a commercial spending binge.” 

 

Yet as our culture goes crazy with its business model of “the holidays,” it still creates for us believers an opportunity to reflect on the real hopes that people have, expressed even through the commercial blur of Christmas parties and holiday sales.

 

Good cheer.  Peace.  Joy.  Family gatherings.  Generosity toward others.  Dreams.  Desires for a better world.  Even with all the seasonal banter, we just cannot hide those deep longings that lie inside every human heart.

 

This is the heart to which God speaks, fully and completely, in Jesus.  This is the heart that God would touch with the Holy Spirit.  This is the heart to which our Good News—A Child born in Bethlehem, A Risen Christ has appeared to Mary!—speaks, proclaiming that God has not abandoned us, that divine love encompasses every moment, and that our lives find their fullest meaning in that divine love.

 

I saw a segment on the News Hour, Paul Solman experimenting with virtual reality.  His head was enmeshed with a contraption that looked like an overweight set of binoculars.  Cameras recorded his every move and transferred those moves to an imaginary scene that was sent to his goggles.  Was he in Florence looked at Michelangelo’s David?  Was he walking a plank above a deep basement?  He couldn’t tell.  It all seemed real.

 

Perhaps many of us today live in a virtual reality, our eyes filled with visions and data fed into our heads from a thousand sources.  But we believers know we’ve seen actual reality, the reason why humankind has any hope, the truth of God’s unbounded love, made incarnate this day in Jesus.  Many get the derivative experience of joy and peace.  But we are here at Bethlehem, celebrating the reality from which true joy shines forth. 

 

May Christmas speak to our hearts the reality of Jesus Christ.  And may we radiate that reality upon a world that knows its hopes and dreams, but perhaps not where they can be fulfilled.

 

Blessed Christmas to all.

 

 

Advent 4 A

What shall I get so-and-so for Christmas?  Or where will we go for our Christmas break?  These kinds of decisions take some thought, but they are not earth-shattering.  Other decisions loom much larger: where will I go to college?  Or, even more, what will be my chosen career?  Or, yet more still, whom will I marry? 

 

There are various methods for making decisions—asking advice, writing down lists of pros or cons, or getting out the calculator to figure out costs.  But, sometimes, the best way is to let things sit, to pull back, to do nothing, in order to listen to the deeper voices inside of us.  Sometimes it takes a lot of inner reflection to see what is really in our hearts, or what is the best thing to do.

 

Joseph is in a dilemma in the Gospel today.  He is obviously a man of integrity and faith; but he finds the woman to whom he is engaged now is with child.  What should he do?  He figures out one plan that makes sense for him, if not for Mary.  Then he goes to sleep and an angel of the Lord helps him know what he should do.  He gives it a rest and then makes his decision.

 

Wow, we say, I’d love to have an angel of the Lord help me figure out what to do.  But, when we think about it, maybe we do.  Because what Joseph’s angel helped him see was God’s deeper hand in the confusing events of his life.  He came to see possibilities for God where he did not see them before.  The angel, in other words, helped Joseph get to the better senses that his faith in God would have led him to.  The angel helped him see what, deep down, he already sensed.

 

This is a huge invitation for us in this crazy Christmas season—especially the last days before Christ, with last-minute shopping, a few more parties, food shopping and preparation, packing for a trip or getting a spare room ready for visitors.  Slow down.  Chill out.  Pull back.  Let some deeper voices emerge inside our heads.  Let’s give ourselves the time to see what God is telling us, what the deepest layers of our faith want to say.

 

I’m sure the message is a little different for each of us, depending on what we are dealing with in life.  God’s wisdom, after all, is shaped toward the particular burdens we have.  But the underlying message applies to all: God will not leave us alone, isolated, abandoned, as if we were meaningless creatures in a meaningless universe.  God is preparing to come among us; and, in doing that, God changes everything about us—who we are, who we think we can be, and what we think about our ultimate destiny.

 

So take some time, sit back, turn off the Christmas music, close the eyes, open the heart, and see what God is saying to us.  God speaks wonders to Mary, written in her own flesh; God speaks hope and promise to Joseph, even in his anxiety.  What will God speak to us?  We’ll find out if we give God, and the angels, time.


Advent 3 A

When the explanations started coming for the Metro North train crash two weeks ago in the Bronx, one of the theories was “road hypnosis.”  Staring down the rails for long stretches, our eyes begin to not see what is in front of them.  We get hypnotized, brought into another world.  Of course, almost all of us drivers have felt the same thing on the NY Thruway, or route 81 north of Binghamton.  Our eyes lose focus, we don’t see even though they are wide open.  Throw in a Bluetooth phone conversation, or beeps from texts, and it’s even harder to focus, to see.

 

One of Isaiah’s signs of the coming of God’s coming in the first reading is that the blind will come to see.  This raises for us a basic question: how well do we see?  Are the blind the only blind ones?  Are all of us somewhat blind?  I have a good friend who, after years of trying to see his golf shot—he hit it far longer than me—finally had his cataract operation.  “I can’t believe how much I was missing,” he said. “Colors, shapes, depth.”

 

We are somewhat shocked at the Gospel opening today.  John the Baptist, the one who announces Jesus, is now imprisoned.  From prison, he sends messages to Jesus: Are you the one we awaited, or is someone else to come?  We ask: wait a minute, John: you are the prophet, the seer, you are the forerunner to Jesus.  Why are you asking this question?  But a key truth comes from John’s question: we always have to come to know Jesus more.  We never have completely seen, acknowledged, or accepted Jesus Christ.  There is always more to see, to encounter.

 

Jesus responds by pointing out his deeds—the very things that Isaiah talked about are the very heart of Jesus ministry.  The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and even the dead are raised.  Now we need to be careful here, because we might want to read Jesus as primarily a physician, or a social worker.  Jesus surely wants to heal people, and bring them into unity and peace.  But he does this as a sign of something much greater—what God is doing one way or another for all the world, as signs of the Kingdom of God breaking out in our midst.  And what Jesus did, the Spirit continues in us, in his church, in people who are committed to his mission and vision.

 

Jesus teases the crowd—What did you go out to the desert to see?  What made your curious?  What was the need in your heart?  “Did you go out to see some reed blowing in the wind?”  Of course not.  A blowing reed would not spark your curiosity or answer your need.  You went out to see a prophet, someone who speaks with God’s power to our daily lives.  You went out to see John, the greatest born of woman.  “Yet the least born into the Kingdom of God is greater than John.”  We are, again, shocked.  But Jesus means it: John glimpsed in anticipation.  But we possess by participation.  We share in God’s life more directly and powerfully than even John the Baptist.

 

Why, after all, do we come to church?  To see what color the vestments are?  To watch a candle burn?  To see if the altar servers make mistakes?  To see our friends?  We come to church to encounter Jesus Christ, to be made one with him, to take his life inside of us, and to promise that we will live his life through the week.  “The Body of Christ.”  And we say, “Amen.”  And take his body into our hearts.  Greater than John the Baptist, indeed.

 

Advent gives us an opportunity to pay attention to what we see and what we can see more deeply.  As a time of beginnings, it calls us to start again, to renew our spiritual lives, to see more clearly, to get rid of our cataracts, to get out of our Christian hypnosis, and to encounter Jesus through his Spirit once again.

 

People have been talking about Nelson Mandela and his impact on people.  One commentator said a big part of his effectiveness was that he looked your right in the eye.  He saw you.  And you saw him.  Jesus likewise looks at us right in the eye: I see you, and I want to help you see.  Let me give you my vision once again.  You’ll be astonished at the beauty and the love of my Kingdom.


Advent 2 A

So I was waiting to board a plane, standing next to a mother with her daughter.  They started boarding in the usual way—and the girl blurts out, “Mommy, why are these people getting on the plane before us?”  Mommy looks at the girl, trying to figure out how to answer this.  “They have priority,” she says, kind of stumbling.  The girl, of course, has no idea what this means.  “They are more important than we are,” the mother finally says—obviously disappointed and disappointing her daughter.
 
It’s one of the most normal instincts we have: everyone should get treated the same.  When people jump in line ahead of us, when someone gets picked before we do for no obvious reason, when we get a rejection letter when our friend gets accepted—we feel disrespected.  And if people have some kind of “in” because of a connection—they know the owner, or they have a friend in the business—it really peeves us.  “What about me?  I’m not important?”
 
John the Baptizer says some pretty harsh things today, but the line that sticks out as I read the Gospel is the one that says “Do not say to yourselves we are sons of Abraham.”  John is saying that in the new order that God is bringing about, there will be no favorites.  No one group, no one class, no one approach automatically gets a free pass.  Why are there no free passes?  Because there is only one essential requirement: to open our hearts to God and live in consequence to that opening.  Anyone who does that has a place in the Kingdom which is coming. It’s the only pass that works.
 
It’s easy, I suppose, to get a little elitist about things.  Pope Francis has certainly been taking it to his bishops and clergy, insisting that they do not have some exalted place just because they are ordained.  In his last big message, he noted that there were over a billion lay people, and it’s the priest job to serve them, not the other way around.  Notice how Paul describes Jesus this way—of service to the patriarchs so that Christ’s service to all the world can become known.  I’m afraid all of us Catholics can be tempted to be elitist, thinking that we have a free pass just because we are Catholic.  Our free pass is this: because we are Catholic, to be of special service to others, to the world: this is our privilege. It’s not something to feel smug about, but something to challenge us to more authentic Christian life.
 
Isaiah dreams continue in the second reading.  This week he dreams of a world of complete justice.  God is going to raise up a new king, from the line of David—the stump of Jesse—who will not play favorites, or judge by appearances, but who will bring God’s justice to the world.  What is God’s justice?  When the world is the way God dreams of it—“thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—then God’s justice happens.  So that is the standard for our lives: to live as God would have us live, as God has shown us in Jesus.  When that happens even instinctual animosities begin to vanish—old hatreds and stereotypes—because wolves lay down with lambs, and children can touch the snake without getting bitten.  Nelson Mandela's death this week reminds us of the power of a life completely dedicated to achieving the justice of God, of getting ingrained enemies to embrace in peace.
 
God’s dream doesn’t happen by magic, overnight.  It’s a process of slow transformation.  God shows us the process in Jesus.  His Son Jesus gave himself in love, in sacrificial death, to move the process forward.  He sends the Spirit upon us to advance the process further.  In every little act, in every attitude, in every approach, in every gesture, we have a chance to bring God’s justice to further reality, to move the Kingdom forward.   
 
John calls his listeners—the pious religious leaders of his day—a brood of vipers, a bunch of snakes.  He tells them change is coming—the axe is laid to the tree.  Advent is screaming into our ears: this is a time of change for us, a time for us attend to God’s vision, to live for God’s justice.  Because if we can do that a bit more, then we’ll be a little more ready when the King of Justice arrives. 
 




Advent 1 A
 

So, it’s not really news, is it, that rollouts don’t often go smoothly?  In earlier days of computers, we would be warned not to purchase any version of a product that said 1.0; “They haven’t debugged it yet,” people would say.  “Wait until 1.1.”  My uncle would be cautious about a new model car; all that new stuff they put on it might not work.  And, of course, the rollout of the Affordable Healthcare Act has been the object of endless headlines and cartoons.  Even the often liberal New Yorker showed administration leaders with outdated equipment, trying to reboot a computer with a 5 1/2 inch floppy disk!

 

This experience of disappointment contrasts with our usual excitement of getting something new: shiny, unmarred, with new colors and smells, we treasure our new items, whether a cellphone, a bicycle, or a mini-van, expecting scads of new excitement as we start using it.  Sure we get lemons now and then, but we’ll choose something new over something old 9 times out of 10.

 

Yet little may seem older in our lives than God, and our ways of thinking about God.  Most of us have heard the word “God” since we first learned our language and puzzled what this invisible being might be like; and most of our association with church goes back to pre-Kindergarten years when our parents brought us along, told us to be quiet, and let us crayon our way through Mass.

 

All the readings today want to shake up this association of “God” with “old.”  As we begin a new church year, we are invited to renew, to revolutionize, our sense of what it means to follow Jesus Christ and serve the God he shows us.  Isaiah’s dream of a renewed Zion, the highest mountain to which all the world will come for its joy and wisdom, God transforms into the new Man, this Jesus, who comes from Zion to the rest of humankind, to every nation and culture, announcing the joy and salvation of our God.

 

Can this year be new for us?  Can we look at this Advent as a new start in our lives?  Can we get beyond our stale and stereotyped images of faith and church into a new spirit?  “Wake up,” says Paul.  “It’s not night any longer.”  The readings insist that we wake up—open our eyes, get in touch with our deepest spiritual hungers, get beyond the worn-out routines, and let God really speak to us, touch us, unite with us, and change us.  Can this happen?  The only way it can’t is if we put up resistance.  Only stale and hardened hearts can stop the grace of God.

 

Pope Francis put out his first major document called “The Joy of the Gospel.”  The title seems just right for the start of Advent, the start of our new church year.  He wants the start of a new era for the church.  He says: "More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us, 'Give them something to eat.'" 

 

God is always giving us something to eat.  It’s our jaded appetites that lead us to miss the moment.  Jesus talks about people locked into their complacency; they didn’t see the flood coming.  They didn’t even swim when the waters rose.  Don’t miss the opportunity, Jesus says.  Don’t sit back criticizing the rollout—get engaged, get involved, realize that the very meaning of our lives is at stake by the way we respond to God.  After all, we are responding to a God who has responded to us with the rollout of his Son, Jesus Christ—a flawless rollout, indeed!

 

Our culture thrives on new things.  People will exhaust themselves buying this and that during the nation’s most crucial shopping season.  But most new things will become old, with only a rare few becoming our favorite items.  God can never become old in our lives.  Why be left behind when Jesus comes to take us to new heights on the highest mountain of his love?

 

 

Christ the King C
 

“In short there’s simply not. . . a more convenient spot. . . for happy-ever-aftering. . . than here in Camelot.”

 

We can still hear Richard Burton singing this song, from the musical Camelot, that swept up world popularity in the 1960s.  It referred, of course, to King Arthur’s days, ideal times of moderation and peace, and it came to refer to the aura that John Kennedy, whose killing now reaches its 50th anniversary, brought to his time.  Of course, things were not peachy in Camelot, with Lancelot ogling the King’s wife, Guenevere; nor were things peachy in Kennedy’s day, given the cold war, near nuclear-extermination, the Bay of Pigs, and large political problems.

 

Still often people look at kings as ideal figures, as if they embodied the dreams of their people.  King Arthur’s aura morphs to Princess Diana, and now William and Kate.  Every presidential election in our country tries to find the American “King” just perfect for us.  But our instinct for a king almost always leads to disappointment.  In the first reading, David is accepted as king by his tribesmen.  No mention made of the civil war that led to the toppling of the first Jewish king, Saul; and no mention made of how often Jewish kings disappointed both the Jewish people and God.  How often do leaders embody not our dreams but our nightmares, the darkness inside us?  Just ask the people of Toronto.

 

As we celebrate Jesus as King, we note the differences that God’s image of kingship holds from that which people often hold.  Jesus is mocked as King, on the cross, dying the most disgraceful death ancient times devised.  His power does not lie in calling down thunder and lightning, nor on exterminating his torturers, nor in jumping down from the cross as his mockers wanted.  Rather, it lies in receiving the faith of a dying criminal, and bringing about in this man’s life what he never dreamed.  He dies completely transformed, not as a failed criminal, but as a man destined for Paradise. 

The King we celebrate transforms things not by brutal force or military might; he changes things by revealing, in the most powerful way, God’s infinite love, and the way that love can move hearts, minds, and souls to spaces yet unseen.  What did this crucified criminal have but a life he completely wasted?  Lived in crime, soaked in sin, and ending with shame.  But Jesus, leaving aside his own pain and brokenness, touched him to assure this dying man, and all of us, of God’s power in our lives if we leave open the tiniest window to God’s light.

When Paul presents Jesus, it is not the broken prophet murdered as a criminal, but rather Jesus is the pivot on which all existence hinges.  “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of his own beloved Son.”  Can you feel the energy in Paul’s words?  A dividing line has been crossed.  Powers of darkness distort and defile every human hope; the Kingdom of Jesus fulfills those hopes.  Paul sees everything coming together in Jesus, creation, history, heaven, earth—it all comes together in Jesus, and, from Jesus, in us as his Church.  To be Catholics is to be Kingdom people, swept into the power of Christ.  Our King is not made in our image, but we are re-made into his.

But must we not be clear about that power?  Not a power to strut, to feel self-satisfied, to think that we can coast along—but a power to break through those logjams that keep people from hope, from peace, from life, and from the fullness of love.  That’s the power our King shows, and that’s the power our King gives to us to accomplish for others.  It only took a moment for the thief to look at Jesus, just the tiniest recognition, and divine life took over.  Can we not, in this Mass, give our King a glance, a glimpse, a moment of the deepest part of our souls?  What might our King then fill us with? What grace and freedom might we find?

It’s not happy-ever-aftering as it seemed in Camelot; it’s happy here-and-now, because we are touched by God, with the power to be God’s servants, bringing hope and joy to our world.

 

 
33 C
 

It’s always disorienting to think about how a Gospel passage is heard in different places.  In the Philippines, for example, the words “not one stone upon another” will have a much more drastic feel than they can have here.  And, of course, when we read this passage after the September 11, 2001, attacks, they carried a particular dread.

 

But all of us, this year, hear these words on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  It will seem strange to all of us older folks that the majority of people at Mass this weekend will not have experienced the horror of this murder because, for all of us living at that time, it changed our world.  Not one stone was left upon another, metaphorically speaking.  Our world had come apart.

 

Some of the horror of that experience came from the enormous optimism of the early 60s; we had good Pope John, and now President John, both sending out messages that our world, still reeling from the Second World War and the threat of nuclear destruction, could be different.  Each man called us out of our comfort zones, called us to generosity, called us to a greater future, one of less suffering and more justice.  And three bullet shots ended all that optimism, all that hope.

 

Yet perhaps that is exactly where the readings want to leave us this Sunday, asking how we continue to survive in the face of ongoing tragedy, destruction, and crushed hopes.  Jesus is calling his apostles and disciples to so hope in the working of God that even spiritual or political turmoil, even the upheaval of war, will not stamp out the hope that is inside us. 

 

In Luke’s Gospel, starting with the Ninth Chapter, Jesus has been heading to Jerusalem where, we heard a few Sundays ago, the prophets have all been killed.  Jesus has been marching toward his death, a martyr’s death, a redeemer’s death.  They come to this magnificent building, the enlarged and enhanced Jerusalem temple, the physical embodiment of Jewish survival after their exile in Babylon some 450 years beforehand.  But Jesus, in effect says, do not put your trust in the externals of faith, in buildings; put your trust in God’s power to save in and through our suffering and death.

 

To get the scene, imagine yourself at the Vatican, before the magnificent St. Peter’s, oohing and aahing at that spectacular building.  And then imagine it destroyed, the dome collapsed in, Bernini’s columns lying like broken straws.  This helps us to clarify for ourselves  just how much we have to hope in God, and hope because of what God has done, and continues to do, in Jesus Christ.

 

Perhaps hope is impossible for us modern people, so used are we to thinking we can solve our problems with technological application, so dull have we made our hearts to the reality of death.  But we Christians have to exactly face this vision without hope, and replace it with a vision of the hope that God gives us, the hope of life unending, the hope that every human life makes a claim on eternity, the hope of a Kingdom only God can give us.  Whatever comes in tragedy and despair, not even the hair on our heads will be harmed if, beyond it all, we have put our trust in God, and our faith in Jesus Christ.  That's the kind of hope that Jesus calls us to, and the kind of hope he gives in his resurrection.

 

 

32 C
 

They grew beards.  They would not cut them.  Every Boston Red Sox player sported whiskers.  Some of it was their dream of winning a pennant, and then perhaps the World Series.  Some of it was in response to the bombings at the Boston Marathon which so depressed the city.  “Boston Strong” became the rallying cry for the city.  As the beards grew, so would the city’s resilience.

 

Those Boston players had a vision, a hope; it was out of that hope that they played and eventually won.  Think of the visions you and I have of our lives—the ones that lift us, and the ones that bring us down.  “I can do it,” we say—and, at least, we have a chance.  “No I can’t,” we say, and there’s no chance at all because we do not have enough hope to carry us through.

 

How we hope is how we read the reality of our lives, and the reality around us.  How we hope also shows how we read the possibilities of God.  A group of men confront Jesus in the Gospel—Sadducees, part of an influential group of wealthy leaders for whom life was pretty plain.  They did not believe in spirits, no in life after death.  That is why they can bring this ridiculous argument to Jesus, hoping to show Jesus as someone unlearned.

 

But Jesus pushes back: how you think about life and its possibilities is how you think about God, the possibilities that God offers us.  As pious Jews, they knew that God was alive and a God of the living; and they knew that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs of all the Jews.  But their own narrow vision of life could not help them put two and two together: if God is a God of the living, then all are alive to him.

 

How could not they not see, Jesus asks, that if God can give life at one moment, God can give life at every moment?  How could they not see that by reducing life to money and power, they eliminated so much of life, and almost all of God?  Our world is as big as we think God is.  To put limits on our own lives is to put limits on God as well.

 

Of course we immediately think of there being no marriage in heaven, of being like angels, and perhaps that sounds boring, almost like a put down of marriage.  But we should not think that our marriages have little to do with heaven.  When we marry before God, we marry as disciples.  In our marriage, then, we are growing as disciples, together, husband and wife, each helping the other live more generously and more completely through the obligations and opportunities of marriage.  Husbands and wives expand the vision of each other—they expand hope, life, and our image of God.  For the more we love truly and generously, the more we come to know God as well.

 

We have the gruesome story of the seven brothers, martyrs, even before the time of Jesus.  Notice their hope, their confidence, their conviction of God’s working in their lives.  Our hope in God should make us stronger in all of life, and in our marriages, because hope brings into our lives the force and power of God.  “Yes I can,” we say, “because God does it in and through me.” God is faithful, says St. Paul.  And God’s faithfulness never ends. 

 

Last week 46,000 people ran in the marathon.  I can barely run a few miles, let alone twenty-six.  We imagine what it was like for them, every step they took, their doubts about whether they would make it, their pains, their fatigue.  A dream kept them alive.  So God gives us a dream—not some measly 60 or 80 years of incomplete life, but an unending eternity of full life.  Jesus vision of the Kingdom allowed him to endure his cross; his vision of eternal life allows us to endure any cross, and embrace every joy.

 

 

31 C
 

I was reading an article recently called “The Truman Factor,” and it referred to the Jim Carrey movie in which he plays a character called Truman Burbank who, alone in the world, does not know that every bit of his life is being recorded and broadcast.  Everything in his life is being staged for others to see.  The article said that there were people with a psychological affliction in which they thought that they were being spied upon and broadcast; the revelations about NSA surveillance has not made it easier for these people.  Strange to think of a life broadcast to others; stranger, too, to think of people who would look at this kind of life, watching people in their everyday experiences, the ultimate reality TV binge.

 

As a child I remember going to a movie called “Rear Window,” a Hitchcock thriller, in which a man watches a crime unfold in the windows across from his bedroom.  And, of course, we used to have comedy shows in which pranks were played on unsuspecting folks while the TV cameras were running.  What joy or curiosity do we get from being able to peep on others, to watch them without it costing us anything?

 

Zaccheus seems to have had a very conflicted background, a short guy who ended up betraying his people as a tax collector and cooperator with the Roman enemy.  But he’s curious.  He wants to see Jesus—from a distance, the ancient equivalent of eavesdropping and spying.  He goes up in a tree, not only where his height receives some compensation, but also so he can be safe, out of the way, undisclosed.  Zaccheus raises the question: can we just watch Jesus from a distance?

 

Because a lot of us try, not only those who call themselves Christian but have no discernible faith activity, but even many of us ordinary Catholics or mostly come to Church.  It’s like we can stay on the other side of a window, watching things that happen but never having it entangle our lives.  Like a Halloween costume, we can wear the label of believer or disciple, but it’s no more than a pose. 

 

Is Jesus being pushy?  What kind of sixth sense did he have to know Zaccheus was there?  And, then he just blurts out, “Zaccheus I’m going to stay in your house tonight.”  Think about that.  How would we feel if Jesus knocked on our door and invited himself to stay overnight?  Oh, sure, we’d be excited.  But we’d probably be as intimidated as anything, because to sit before Jesus is to have your whole life exposed, in a deeper way than Truman ever experienced.  Being looked at by others is one thing; being looked at by God is something else.

 

But look at Zaccheus’ reaction: he is so overjoyed to be accepted by Jesus, crud that he is, that he stands before a crowd that was ready to dismiss him, pointing out the changes that he was bringing to his life.  Having met God in the flesh, what alternative did he have?

 

And what will our reaction be—to this visit we have from Jesus this day at Mass?  He has not only invited us into his house, the Church, but also invited himself into our lives, to permeate our lives with his grace, goodness, generosity, and love.  And told us to radiate just these things in our own lives.  Radiate them to others.  In Paul’s day people were obviously anxious about Jesus return in the parousia, the end of the world.  But Paul would tell us that the Jesus who comes at the end is the Jesus who comes now into our lives.

 

Of course, Jesus is infinitely patient.  He gives us time to clean things up, to re-arrange what needs to be re-arranged, just so long as he knows that we’re committed to him, house buddies, roommates, or, to tell the truth, members of his family.  Hey, get down from your tree, or get out from behind your window, or drop the remote: Jesus is here, waiting for us.

 

 

30 C
 

Is the Gospel passage we read today, about the tax collector staying in the back of the Temple, the most favorite one for us Catholics?  Often I jest with other priests about the perennial issue: how do we get Catholics to move to the front in Church?  We love the back pews!  I’ve thought of taping $20 bills under some front pews just to coax Catholics to come forward.

 

Yet where we sit in church is not the exact meaning of today’s Gospel.  It’s how we look at ourselves and others.  We get closer to the meaning in modern parlance by asking who is on the top and who is on the bottom in society.  People on the top almost need folks on the bottom; folks on the bottom keep wondering whether they will ever “make it in,” will ever be included in the heart of society.  Analogously the Gospel is asking who gets included in God’s people and who doesn’t.

 

The point of Jesus’ parable is not where people are, but how we are before God.  The tax collector almost sees no need for God because he has accomplished all his pious practices; he now can hide behind those practices, judge others, and think everything is just perfect between him and God.  In other words, he presumes, he assumes.  The tax collector in the back knows he cannot presume.  He has no piety to hide behind.  He has only one option, to open himself to God.

 

So there’s the paradox.  Our religious practices can end up keeping us from facing God, and in the process keep us from knowing and showing the love that belongs to God.  Even though everything we do as Catholics begins with an acknowledgement of our sin, weakness, and need for God, we can make this lip service rather than an opportunity to open ourselves to God.  The signs of not facing God are twofold: we justify ourselves, and we look down on others.

 

If Jesus teaches us anything, it is this: we can never justify ourselves.  Justice can only come from God who takes the initiative to love us and forgive us; we are always receiving that love, particularly as a form of forgiveness.  Paul writes Timothy near the end of his life; he is not going to crown himself—God will crown Paul because Paul stayed the course, fought the fight—and did so with the grace of God.  He is being poured out like an empty cup, needing God now more than ever.

 

We have to continue acknowledging we are a church of the broken, of sinners.  We have to become more a church where everyone can find a seat.  We have to be people of mercy because we have all received the mercy of God.  It’s hardly a question of who sits in front or the back; it’s who feels unworthy to be here.  We have to open our doors wider, for sure; but we can do that only by opening our hearts more widely, in humble service, as well. 

 

29 C

One of my best friends in the Paulist Father, who has now gone to heaven, used to love telling this story.  Dad wants to watch a basketball game, so he puts Joey to bed early.  “I don’t want to be disturbed,” he says.  “I want to see the game.”  Ten minutes into the game, Joey says, “Dad, bring me some water.” Dad blows up. “I told you to be quiet and not bother me.  Shut up and sleep.”  Ten minutes later Joey starts up again.  “I want some water dad.”  Dad yells back even louder, “Keep quiet and let me watch my game.  I’m telling you.”  Twenty minutes later, Joey starts in again, and Dad says, “I’m taking off my belt and you’re going to get it.”  Joey says, “Well when you come with your belt, bring along a glass of water.”

Persistence can take on many shapes.  We know the people at the office who always have to gossip about the same folk, or the one in the parish who makes the same point at every meeting, or the politician who has made the same argument for 20 years.  Persistence can look like stubbornness, myopia, or being in a rut.  So I think Jesus is calling us to something very different.

How do you like the word “Obsession”?  I know you might think of those silly Calvin Klein perfume ads that run every Christmas, but instead let’s think about those central feelings and goals that shape our lives.  What obsesses you?  What is important to you?  What is your passion?  What do you feel you cannot live without?

The woman in the Gospel has one obsession—justice.  This corrupt judge will not give it to her, but she will get it—because her drive for righteousness will not let her rest.  Her drive for what is right becomes identical with her prayer.  She will not let up.  In her, God is inviting us to get in touch with what is deepest in our hearts by looking at how we pray, and what we pray for.

This, of course, can be embarrassing, because mostly we pray for things that will enhance our own lives, or things that worry us; and most of the time we pray pretty haphazardly for them.  We approach God as if it was the Lotto—maybe I’ll get lucky, but I’m not going to count on it.  Because of this, we barely feel the passion of our own souls, and we certainly do not feel the passion of God.  For when we enter deeply into prayer, we begin to see not only our own depths, but the depths of God, the passion of God, more fully.

What is God’s obsession, after all?  We can know this very clearly just by looking at Jesus.  God is obsessed about us, wants to give us the fullness of life, to bring humankind into a Kingdom of total love, to unite us in divine grace.  He sends Jesus who embodies God’s obsession by giving himself in love, and then continues this love by sending us the Holy Spirit.  “I want you,” God says.  “I want you whole, forgiven, renewed, alive in me.”  And we can only see this dimension of God by letting his Spirit lead us more deeply into prayer, into the kind of prayer that becomes our very lives, that transforms our lives.

“Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed,” says Paul to Timothy.  Be strong in your faith.  Many people were surprised when Mother Theresa’s biography was written that she often had periods of doubt and even spiritual dryness.  It wasn’t all honey and cream for her; there were days when she just had to hang on, trusting in God.  Every mystic teaches us this—it is in fidelity, persistence, staying with the vision that we get through the most difficult periods of our lives.  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on the earth?”  We can translate the word “faith” as “faithfulness.”  And we know the answer.  The Son of Man will find faithfulness only if his disciples let the Spirit lead them into that promise of life which is God’s obsession for us.

 

28 C

It was great while it lasted
But oh lord it turned nasty
You didn't give me one chance to explain
Well is that all the thanks I get

Is that the thanks I get
Is that the thanks I get
Is that the thanks I get for loving you

These are lyrics from Rod Stewart’s song, but they remind me of lines my mother would occasionally use—is this the thanks I get for 9 months of pregnancy, or for hours cooking great lasagna, or for working part-time to help pay tuition?  I guess Jewish mothers and Italian mothers can share some traits.  I can also imagine New Yorkers singing this to Eli Manning at this point--0 and 5!

It’s a great question, though, because it raises the issue of what we mean by “thanks.”  Sometimes I’d have to remind kids of the importance of saying thanks.  But sometimes people utter a rather hollow and perfunctory “thank you,” and think they are absolved of anything else.  That may be fine for a birthday card or little favor.  But when someone does something tremendous for us, how do we say thanks?

Parents know how they want thanks.  When Susie gets her first car, most of the time used, parents say: “Thank us by driving safely.”  When Miguel graduates from college, his parents say, “Thank us by using your knowledge and getting settled in life.”  For the biggest things, we say thank you by the way we live; our thanks are lived thanks.  When Naaman is cured of leprosy—the story is more complicated than the shortened version we have today—and Elisha will not take money, Naaman says, “Give me a pile of dirt so I can offer sacrifices on the soil of Israel for the rest of my life.”  He’s thanking God by changing his faith and his life.

In the Gospel we have the ten lepers who are made whole.  In ancient days, there could be no greater gift than cure from leprosy because leprosy excluded you from all civilized society, even from the ones you loved.  So Jesus gave a huge gift to these ten lepers.  One returns, the focus of the story, showing thanks by praising God and falling at the feet of Jesus.  Where are the other nine?  Jesus asks.

Now this is a very difficult question because we automatically put ourselves in line with the one who returned and gave thanks.  We also think of the millions of Catholics, and even higher percentage of other Christians, for whom worship has become a very casual commitment.  Don’t they realize, we think, what God has done for them?  We hear God singing, “Is this the thanks I get?”

But can we criticize those who worship less unless we come to appreciate more why we do worship?  The thanks we give to God are not some favor we toss to the divine.  It’s the way we realize who we are and what our lives are about.  When we are unable to give thanks, we are unable to know ourselves, and we are unable to grow in deeper awareness of God’s gifts.  When we cannot give thanks, or when our thanks is begrudging, our eyes stop expanding, and our hands start contracting, unable to receive the many more gifts that God continues to pour into our lives.  And when we don’t see God’s gifts to us, how stingy does that make us toward others?  Ho-hum leads to ho-hum. 

God’s gift to us, as we see in the second reading, is God’s absolute faithfulness to us.  “If we are unfaithful, God will still be faithful,” Paul says to Timothy, probably quoting a hymn that was part of worship then.  To know God is always there for us is to realize we have to always be there for God, that’s the arrangement, that’s the covenant.  Please be present to me, says God, so you can know how I am always present to you.

If 60% of Catholics now worship less than once a month, maybe some of that is because of our tepid worship, our unenthusiastic way of setting aside time for God on Sunday or daily, our failure to radiate the joy of our blessed lives.  If mama can get to me by saying, “Is this how you show me thanks?” then what about God?  What will I say when God speaks those words to me?

 

27 C

“Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  President Kennedy, 1960. Is there a more memorable quote from any inaugural address in recent times?  It stirs us at a basic level—that generosity and giving are more important than self-preoccupation and receiving.  What if this saying were read every time the House and Senate meet in session?  Might anything be different?

While a lot of the debate about our nation’s difficulties gravitates around entitlements, it’s not just government entitlements that are the issue.  Rather, as Jesus seems to indicate to his disciples, it’s a creeping sense of entitlement we have toward everything, even God.  He turns common sense on its head when he gives us the parable of the servants who expect to be served by their masters at the end of a long days work.  You have it upside-down, Jesus says. 

This raises the question about whether we have our relationship with God upside-down.  That is, we approach faith and religion as something of an entitlement, something that provides us what we want and feel we need.  This certainly is a tendency in our American version of the Gospel—love Jesus and your life will be better, you’ll get rich, your marriage will be perfect, and all your ills will be healed.  (But I’m still waiting to win big at Powerball….)

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says, responding to the disciples’ request, “Increase our faith.”  Jesus, saying this just before he goes into his parable, is telling his followers that faith has to be focused on service, the service we give to each other in God, and the way we make God the center of our lives—not ourselves.  Faith is not obsessing on ourselves but getting outside of ourselves.

“The just man lives by faith,” says Habakkuk, one of those prophets who held together his people when times were not going great for them.  “Hold onto the vision,” God tells him.  With patience and faith, not with self-preoccupation, God’s vision will come about.  And no one embodies this more than Jesus himself, our Savior, who undergoes passion and death to show us the power of faith, the power of trusting in God rather than worrying about ourselves.

“Ask not what the Kingdom can do for you.  Rather, ask what you can do for the Kingdom.”  The underlying image given to us by the Gospel is that we are servants, all of us, finding our value and meaning as followers of Jesus by giving ourselves to others.  Every saint we admire lived for God and others.  I bet every model in our personal lives—aunt, grandfather, cousin—has this same trait.  What does St. Francis say? “It is in giving that we receive….”

So the Gospel is asking if we resent being servants.  Because Jesus came as servant, he is the one who removes the apron of his own life, he is the servant who feeds his faithful servants even as we are fed in the Eucharist today.  Paul tells Timothy that his Christian service will not always be a picnic.  “Bear your share of the burdens,” he says.  But these are blessed burdens.  Just as it’s a joy to sacrifice for people whom we love, just as Jesus rejoices to bring us life through his death, so our joy comes from self-less following Christ.  We are worthless servants, yes, filled not with our worth, but with the worth of Christ’s Holy Spirit living in us.

 

26 C

Sometimes we miss things by mistake.  But sometimes we are almost deliberately blind.  After the shootings at the Navy Yard, commentators kept going back over the history of Aaron Alexis, the shooter, and his past actions, his descriptions of hearing voices—asking how it was possible to miss such things.  When do a lot of small signals equal a clear picture?  Hindsight is a luxury.  We are always missing clues. 

That’s not the problem of the rich man in Jesus’ searing parable this week.  He’s not missing clues.  He’s just blind, and deliberately so.  This parable, probably a traditional one that Jesus adapts for his use, makes clear that even the dogs knew who Lazarus was.  But not our rich man, nor his family, nor his guests.  The reading from Amos suggests that perhaps a fixation on wealth and comfort ultimately closes us off to reality.

But the rich man cannot see other things a well.  He cannot see the unbridgeable gulf between heaven and hell; he cannot see what the law and the prophets are plainly telling him and his family; and he cannot see that, when we are blind, we pay attention to nothing except ourselves.  In that case, we cannot even see someone raised from the dead.

Few gospel passages unsettle modern Americans as does this one.  “The American Dream” precisely focuses on the possessions we have, our sense of having a right to at least middle-class wealth, and tiny dose of the theory that the poor have themselves to blame.  That people with resources helped others was a common assumption in Ancient Israel, among Jews and Christians.  Earning merit by giving to the poor was a common assumption—as we can see throughout the Gospel.

So this Gospel raises a dark question for us: what is wealth about?  Is God against shopping Malls, nice new cars, playing golf, and going to spas, and Wall St.?  The rich man’s problem was the combination of wealth with blindness, a failure to see what to do with his wealth in service to God.  For what we have, according to the longest tradition of the Church, is all a means to serve the Kingdom—whether rich or poor, whether talented or not, our wealth is about extending the goodness of God’s Kingdom.

Don’t we say this when we come to Mass?  In just a moment, collection baskets will be passed, and wine and water will be brought forth with our offerings.  What do the wine and water represent?  We say it at Mass—“fruit of the earth, fruit of the vine, and work of our hands.”  By this gesture we are saying that we give to God our resources, the gifts we have received, and the work that has enhanced those gifts.  We are saying that we give our offerings for the service of God.  We are not paying rent, or repairing roofs when we give; we are opening our eyes to see what God sees, to see those whom God sees, and praying not to become blind.

We are also unsettled by this Gospel because most modern people don’t believe in hell; but, here it is, clear as day.  Maybe we can begin to believe in hell if we begin to believe in blindness and recognize what it does.  How can such a nice God put people in hell, we ask?  But the same God gives us eyes, gives us light, and gives us many guides our seeing.  The real question is: how can people, gifted with sight, close their eyes to their God, and their brothers and sisters right in front of their faces? 

May this Mass help open the eyes of us all.  

25 C

One of the movies that has entered American Mythology is the Sting, and not only because some of our favorite stars were in it—Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  Just as much a part of the American myth is that rich exploitive people should be taken down a notch or two.  This is our form of Robin Hood.  It yields for us the loveable thief, the charming con man, the backwards way to get justice.
 
I don’t know if the Master in Jesus’ head-spinning parable is like Doyle Lonnegan in the Sting.  But the steward certain is a charming thief.  Caught with his hand in the jar, what is he going to do?  Exactly what he knows: he keeps putting his hand in the jar, writing down the debts owed his Master, and winning the friends he needs.  Even the Master, who has been cheated, has been charmed!  “How clever,” the Master says, in admiration.
 
Jesus tells his followers to pay attention to the dynamics of worldly people.  They know what to do to accomplish their purpose.  We read daily of leverage buyouts, of companies going public or private, of Apple or Samsung doing something clever—all to get ahead.  If greedy people can put that amount of energy into their business, what about you? Jesus say.  What are you willing to do for the Kingdom of God?
 
Amos in the first reading talks about the way the rich exploit ordinary folks—this back in the ancient days of Israel.  So we know exploitation has gone on as long as there have been human beings.  Where is justice, says God?  Can you put as much energy into caring for the little people as you do caring for your pocketbooks?  “I will never forget a thing they have done,” God cries through the prophet.
 
We see another image of justice in the second reading.  God’s justice for humankind.  God wills all human beings to be saved.  So believers cannot look at faith as something only for themselves, or their own salvation.  Pray for everyone.  Pray for civic leaders.  Pray that the one mediator of all of humankind, Jesus Christ, can touch the hearts of all, whether they know it or not, and in this way bring God’s justice to the earth.
 
The scriptures, then, call us to a large expansive vision, living for the physical and spiritual good of all people, with the clever zeal of someone who is committed.  Not with the ho-hum that often accompanies our lives.  Not with the self-absorption that usually characterizes our faith.  Not with the small-mindedness that often crimps our motives.   Jesus wants his followers outraged at the absence of justice, of peace, of grace, of love.  He comes as our mediator to bring us precisely these human and spiritual basics.  He asks us to carry on in his work.
 
Who stole the election?  Who stole the show?  Who stole the children’s bake sale money?  Who stole our public funds?  We love stories about stealing.  Jesus is telling us that, with all the stealing going on, we are invited, yes encouraged!, to use all our wits to steal heaven itself.


24 C

Nothing ties us up in knots more than forgiveness.  “How can I forgive and forget, Father?” people say.  If they forgive, they cannot forget, or get over the hurt they feel.  How do we forgive, given this September 11th anniversary?  The hurt inside of us still burns, particularly if there’s any drop of New York blood inside of us.  So the story of the Prodigal Son drives us crazy.  We are so much the older brother, resenting the young one who goofed off, and even the Father blinded by his sentiment.

I think for us Catholics some parts of forgiveness really tie us up in knots.  On the one hand, many Christians dismiss us as being way too easy with forgiveness.  “All you guys have to do is go to confession and you think it’s OK.  That’s permission to just keep on sinning.”  On the other hand, maybe we Catholics haven’t even gotten into the real mystery for forgiveness.

The first reading sets up the problem for us.  God is angry.  God wants to get even with his fickle children.  God is going to let the skies rain down vengeance.  But Moses comes and begs this angry God to ease up, to give a second chance, and God does.  This leads us to think that forgiveness means primarily that I won’t get punished.

I think it means much more than that, and the fattened cow is the key to seeing this.  The older brother pouts that his daddy never killed even a scrawny goat for him, let alone a fattened cow.  “My son, everything I have is yours,” the Father says.  But the son, in his righteousness and self-satisfaction, never felt a need for forgiveness and, for that reason, never noticed the feasts that were part of his life.  The younger son, having begged for the swill pigs eat, has gotten so hungry, so in need of forgiveness, that he now appreciates what it is, and how much he needs it.

But the image of the fattened cow pushes us further.  Forgiveness of sin is far more than being absolved of punishment.  If we look at what accompanies forgiveness of sin in the whole of the New Testament, it’s pretty hard to escape the realization that to be forgiven means to be inserted into a whole new way of life.  It’s not the past sin that’s the focus; it’s the new life.  Forgiveness is liberation.  And this liberation leads us to community, to love, to prayer, to closeness with God, to sacraments, to living for others as Jesus did.  To leave the world of sin is to enter the world of discipleship, of the saved.

This is what God wants for us—why, in the image at the start of the Gospel, the shepherd goes searching for the one lost sheep, and the widow goes searching for the lost coin.  When sin enters our lives, everything is put into disarray.  When forgiveness comes, not only do we have new order.  We have new life, God’s life, a new way of living that God wants to give us.

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others.”  Bring us into a new relationship of full life, Lord Jesus, and help us to extend that same relationship to others.  Liberate me, Jesus, so I can liberate many brothers and sisters for you.

 

23 C

We often don’t know what we have to do, or how to do it.  What should we do about Syria, if anything?  What should we do about the economy—eliminate debt or stimulate it?  What about the NFL and football, now that they settled a $750 m lawsuit?  Or what should Hockey leagues do?  We can go on and on wondering, hesitating and short-cutting effective action.

What should Philemon do, for example?  We have a selection from a one-chapter letter that St. Paul wrote to the slave-holder Philemon.  Philemon was a Christian convert; and his run-away slave also converted to Christ, under Paul, in prison.  Now the slave, Onesimos, is returning to his owner.  What should Philemon do?  Should he beat him?  Sell him?  Or treat him, as Paul urges, as a brother? 

We often have the luxury of spinning issues around in our heads, sometimes for months, and sometimes for years.  What college will I go to?  Should we repaint our house this year?  Whether to put money into our old car or buy a new one.  Jesus, however, is saying that on one essential point, there can be no ambiguity, no doubt.  We all need to know what we have to do when it comes to following him.

We have to put him first.  We have to see everything in him.  We have to relate everything to him.  We have to be his disciples.  Jesus puts this in a very stark way which we can easily misunderstand.  Hating our parents?  Hating our relatives?  This exaggerated Semitic way of speaking translates better this way: we have to prefer Jesus to everyone else in our lives and to everything else that we do.  That means we have to prefer Jesus’ way, Jesus’ values, the way Jesus loves, the hopes that Jesus puts before us, the vision of the Kingdom he offers us.  In the Kingdom, surely, our loves are not weakened; no they are strengthened.  But we have to put Christ first. 

If we don’t, we won’t survive as believers, and we seem to have plenty of proof of this in contemporary society.  From aggressive atheists to vanishing worshippers, from new-style churches luring folks from mainline churches to shortages of clergy and religious, our faith is no picnic.  We have to live our faith without the comfort of the cocoon that supported many of us forty or more years ago.  This is the cross we have to carry, to develop new styles and motives for our Catholic faith in today’s world.

But it starts with each of us, knowing what to do, and what we have to do, making a clear decision to accept more deeply the discipleship of love that Jesus has invited us to share.  The greatest gift we can do for Jesus, and for the world, is to build, and fortify, a foundation of faith that nourishes and sustains us.  As we do this, we will find something marvelous.  For everything we do, Jesus does even more.  Being a disciple is what God does in us, when we open our hearts, in and through the Holy Spirit.


22 C

 

Every once in a while, for long trips, I let myself get upgraded with the frequent mileage points I’ve accrued.  Still, it feels creepy to be in the front of the plane, sipping the pre-flight orange juice, as the cattle are herded to the back.  I try not to catch their eyes as they go by, judging me as some lazy fat cat who thinks he’s better than everyone else.

We resist feelings of rank in America, yet we are ranking things and people all the time.  Best team, best city, best job, highest income, fanciest neighborhood, most powerful person, whose got the perfect bod….  All of this is a way for people to get the attention of others—their applause, their congratulations, or their money. 

Jesus certainly tells us that being the center of attention is not our goal.  He points out a potentially embarrassing situation—maybe we’ve all at some have had red faces when we were sent to the back of a line after we cut in, or got caught talking badly about someone, or flubbed an answer in the front of a classroom.  But I think Jesus has a point beyond embarrassment.

Jesus urges on us the humility that the Wisdom tradition extolled.  It’s not our role to stick out, to be the center of things, or think we are better than everyone else.  But humility itself has another purpose.  We renounce our pride so we can be of service to the lowly.  Jesus points out to his host just who should be invited—the very people much of society excluded—the blind, the lame, the poor, the shamed.  Jesus wants us humble enough to serve the lowest, because that’s where God’s Kingdom is most clearly revealed.

Look how God has taken on humility to touch us.  The end of the Letter to the Hebrews, our second reading, draws a contrast between God’s revelation to Moses, with all its thunder and lightning, and God’s revelation in Jesus, where even the blood of Jesus cries out for mercy and peace.  God has come close to us, sanctified us, and drawn us into his Kingdom.  If God so treats us, then how should we treat each other?

I imagine Pope Francis is having a field day with this Gospel.  He’s been trying to turn the Church around, not from being too liberal or too conservative, but from being too turned in on itself, thinking it’s all about our grandeur, our importance.  It isn’t.  It’s about who we are for others, it’s about giving ourselves, it’s about service in the name of Jesus.

As I walked around Catholic University last week, it just happened to be the time when students were moving in.  I asked myself: what does college mean for these kids?  For many, it’s just a way to survive in the future.  But for many, too, the idea is: go to college to get ahead.  It’s built into our culture—to always get ahead, to be more, to get more.  Jesus teaches that really getting ahead is not about power or money: it’s about who can show the greatest care for those most neglected.  We have a school that actually teaches this—it’s called the Gospel. 


21 C

It’s a jarring teaser on the radio.  You hear Martin Luther King’s voice say: I have a dream.  Then you hear George Wallace’s voice say: Segregation now.  It continues.  I have a dream.  Segregation tomorrow.  I have a dream.  Segregation forever. . . .  As we come to the 50th anniversary—50 years already!—of the famous ”I have a dream speech,” it’s jarring to remember how dominant the word “segregation” was back in the 50s and 60s.  Of course, there still is segregation, but it’s rarely deliberate, it’s rarely the policy of government.  Even apartheid was toppled in South Africa.  The concept of segregation was one of separation: keep us away from them; keep them away from us.

Strange things happen when you are only in your own group.  You begin to think that your own group is the whole world.  You have trouble questioning the assumptions.  Your world narrows down.  You come to demonize what looks different.  You live in fear of the “other” that your own fences have created.

The first reading is showing the positive side of something that was terrible, the exile of the Jews in Babylon, the scattering of the Chosen people across non-Jewish, pagan lands, the denial of worship, the life blood of the Jewish spirit. Yet here, at the very end of the book of Isaiah, we hear him sing of something wonderful, something totally unexpected: through their exile, the Jewish people have touched the non-Jews, bringing “the nations” faith and values, vision and dreams.  Isaiah even suggests that some of “them”—the non-Jews—will become priests and Levites, that is, part of the inner life of the Jews.

Of course, we Christians smugly read passages like this and say—yes, Isaiah’s dream has come about in us.  We are the gentiles for whom Isaiah’s lines were sung.  We are now the chosen people.  We have no borders, no boundaries.  We are a Church universal, Catholic by definition.  Our very breadth proves our place in God’s eyes.

Then we hear Jesus say, when the disciples ask him the question that every generation seems to ask, “Will many be saved?”—we hear Jesus say to enter through the narrow gate.  Many will attempt to enter, but they will be unable.  But then Jesus continues on, talking about people coming from east and west, north and south, to even take the place of the chosen.  What’s going on here?  Is the Kingdom a small club or a vast nation?

Jesus is pointing out the basic problem with thinking we are chosen.  We start to assume things.  On the one hand we get comfortable with ourselves because we have the right label; on the other hand, we stop seeing what God is mysteriously doing in the hearts of all.  The narrow gate that Jesus invites us to enter is one by which we see both the intensity we need in following Jesus, but also vastness of the work of the Spirit. 

We cannot presume that we can coast into the Kingdom because the sheer unlimited love of God can never be fully captured, even by the greatest saint.  Only Jesus captures and shares that love.  But we cannot presume that others are not being touched by divine grace.  If we are chosen, we are chosen not for ourselves, but for the world, for the greatest expansion of divine love among the most people who can receive it.  Doesn’t love always involve mission?

This anniversary of the famous 1963 speech can help us recall that Martin Luther King was not a sectarian, fighting only for his own people.  He saw his people as instances of a broader injustice that touched most people and all races.  His dream, like Isaiah’s, is still largely unfilled.  But so too is Jesus’ dream, a Kingdom where there will be no people who are “last” because we have come to see that we all should be “first” in the eyes of God—and of each other as well.

 

20 C

I have a hard time knowing why we are so nostalgic about the 50s.  Life was comparatively more difficult back then, and we were just winding up for the crazy 60s.  One element that seemed to make life easy, though, was our common enemy—communism.  From church to country, we painted it as the arch-demon; we knew our enemy, and we were willing to expend lives in Korea and Vietnam to keep it contained.  The Cold War.  Who knew those communist countries would come apart in the 1980s? 

It’s not as easy today to have a clear enemy.  Some would like to make it Islam, and certainly Islamic radicals do not like us; but Islam is different from its radicals. We often turn our fights internally, disparaging the extreme left, or the extreme right—but who fits totally into those categories?  In Church we also have our cultural wars, with so-called conservatives excoriating liberals, and liberals belittling wild conservatives. 

So when Jesus talks a Gospel of opposition and conflict, we can feel confused.  Who is our enemy and what are the lines of persecution today?  Jeremiah is dumped into the cistern and left to die, but Jeremiah, nagging prophet that he was, turns out not to be the enemy; rather, he’s the mouthpiece of God, proclaiming a direction that the King and his circle didn’t like.  Rather than the enemy, Jeremiah becomes one of the three great prophets in Israel’s history. 

We know that society now does not always support the positions that our Church, and other Christians groups, put forward.  Are they then the enemy?  Are we then the persecuted?  Likewise, business does not always follow the social teaching of the Church.  Are they the enemy?  Or secular universities which do not presume the existence of God? 

The conclusion of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us another direction.  While acknowledging the persecution and conflict the believers are experiencing, he turns their attention elsewhere, to their own hearts, their spiritual vision.  “Keep your eyes on the prize,” he says.  The issue is our being faithful to the Lord who calls us, and the greatest danger is our own internal flabbiness, our own spiritual so-so, whereby we do not take God, or our discipleship, or our role as prophets seriously.

I’m not talking about denouncing people, walking down the street with a sign that is saying that the world is coming to an end.  I’m talking about living our faith more clearly, openly, compassionately, and lovingly in our everyday life.  We can, for sure, wield our faith like a hammer and use today’s Gospel as a justification.  “See, they are angry with me; I must be a prophet.”  Or we can live our faith as Christ asked us to, with faithfulness, for sure, but also with joy, and with love, and with mercy.  This seems to be Pope Francis’ tack, and people seem to find it a refreshing breeze in today’s world.

Persecution may and surely will come.  But that’s up to the other guy—to start the fight.  Our job is to be the agents of love and grace.  If people don’t like that, it’s on them.  That we’ve reflected the Kingdom, well that’s on us, to our credit, and to our eternal reward. 


19 C
 

I’ve read some difficult stories lately.  One was the young man who was picked up by the Drug Enforcement Agency.  Told they would release him, they placed him in a cell—and forgot about him for four days.  He went from desperation, to delirium, to kidney failure—not food or drink for four days.  I’m sure the $4 million that he received in compensation felt like pennies to him.  More harrowing was the story of someone arrested by the Syrian security; thrown into a small room with 90 other men, they were fed once a day, allowed to go to the bathroom twice a day, showered once a week, but otherwise they just stayed in that room, with hardly a place for them to sit, let alone rest.  And, of course, we can’t keep the story of those three women in Cleveland from our minds.

 

How do people endure these kinds of things?  Being trapped on mountains, or stranded at sea, or caught in a destructive relationship?  I often don’t know how humans endure, but it’s something that Jesus is calling his followers to do.  He paints the scene of servants awaiting their Master’s return—who knows when it will be?—two in the morning, four, maybe even six.  Parents who care for a sick child know the scene, as do chaperones who take teens away overnight.  “Will you please shut up and let me sleep?”  The endless night.

 

Jesus’ calling his followers to fidelity, to not giving up, reflects the basic Jewish insight into God.  God, for the Jewish people, above all was faithful love.  God makes a covenant with his people; and God is faithful to that covenant with God’s own divine being.  As God cannot deny himself, so God does not deny those in union with God.  As God is faithful, so we, daughters and sons of God, are called to be faithful ourselves.

 

How does that happen?  One strategy is to get tough as nails and defy the outside world.  We admire people like this, though we wonder if it doesn’t get a bit old and a bit confining.  We all know folks who, whatever we say, bring the conversation back to the same argument they’ve been making for years, ideologues, unable to hear anything new.  Faithfulness can sometimes look like stubbornness.

 

Jesus gives another strategy.  Rather than digging in, Jesus says to let go.  “Go sell what you have and build up treasure that can never fade.”  Go, trust God by living with the freedom of God, and you will find strength, resources, riches that will never end.  Abraham is the classical symbol of faith for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  Yet God does not tell him to stay put.  God sends him out, away from Ur, away from what he knows, as a sign of complete trust and faith in God.

 

Our Churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, or Jewish I suspect, are not doing a great job holding on to people.  It’s easy for people to drift away, particularly the young.  Sometimes it can sound like we church people are inviting others to dig in. to them it sounds like we want them to uphold a system or institution or organization.  But people will not begin to see the value of any institution or organization unless they first venture forth spiritually in faith, discover a God of faithful love in their own lives, and seal the covenant on their end by renewed commitment.   And, of course, they will be able to do that to the extent that we continue to rediscover the love that holds us to God and God to us, the love that binds us together as brothers and sisters, and the love Jesus wants us to offer the world.

 

Tiger Woods is back, whatever we might feel about it.  After five years, he has clawed back, now winning more championships than any other player, and perhaps a major one again this week.  He never gives up. Tiger likes to win championships, but we have something more to gain.  Fullness of life, a fullness that keep us growing even when we feel stale, a fullness that can surge again whenever we open our hearts to the Spirit.

 

18 C

It’s a frequent item on the news, whenever there is a disaster of some kind, reporters interview the survivors who pick at what is left of their homes, whether they are flooded, burned out, or toppled by an earthquake.  People invariably say, “I lost everything, but I’m happy just to be alive.  Most of all, it’s the photos that I lost, all the memories.”

It makes us think, doesn’t it?  What if I had five minutes to get the items I could from my house or apartment, what would I take?  On airplanes they tell you if there’s an emergency, leave your items behind.  What?  My laptop?  My cell phone?  My best suit?  I bet most of us, in an emergency, would leave behind the flat screen TVs, our exquisite mattresses, and even our SUVs.  We’d grab the simple items that seem to connect us to one another.

The first reading, and Jesus’ parable, gets at the idea of legacy.  We all have to leave something.  We get so absorbed in possessions—things we want to keep for ourselves, but the scriptures are saying that ultimately we have to let go of these.  Someone else will get my stocks, some others will get the house.  “One’s life does not consist in one’s possessions,” Jesus baldly puts it.

These words can seem jarring to us, just as some of Pope Francis’ words about money and power.  Our whole environment seems structured around money, possessions, income, buying, and becoming rich.  Even as we daily hear stories of rich people who are miserable, even as we would give up any possession we had for a few more minutes with someone we loved, even as our hearts tear apart when he hear stories about the poor, particularly the systemically poor—we still look at everything through the eyeballs of money.  “Pursuit of happiness” seems to be translated into “pursuit of as many things as I can get.”

Jesus’ parable, like the first reading, forces us to think deeply about our real legacy—who we are, who we are becoming, and who we will be forever.  Jesus sticks it to us: growing rich in possessions rather than what matters to God, he says.  What do we think matters to God?  The second reading talks about things of the earth: passions, immorality, and the greed which is idolatry.  But surely the earth matters to God; and God, who gave us our bodies, certainly does not begrudge them.

What matters to God are the relationships we have, and how those relationships are modeled on the relationship we have with God and God establishes with us in Jesus Christ.  Greed, preoccupation with things, lust, violence—these distort our relationships with others, obscuring the divine love that should we should manifest every moment of our lives.  “Keep your eyes on Christ,” the epistle says, and there you will find your height and depth, your true self—true because it is grounded in union with God.

Jesus makes us disciples, that is, students of him; and Jesus, the teacher, most wants to rid us of our illusions.  These illusions about power, money, and pleasure, ensnarl us all the time; that’s why the Scriptures keep pulling us toward reality—God’s reality, shown in Jesus, and manifest in the Holy Spirit.  At some point everything we have will be stripped away from us—we will stand without props before God and before each other.  Disciples live, preparing for that point by debugging our illusions and opening our hearts to conversion. 

Stories show up every day about Wall Street types who lie and cheat, celebrities who are destroying their lives through stupidity, politicians who seem in it for themselves and not for us.  Tsk, tsk we say, isn’t that terrible, when those same patterns can be going on in our lives, perhaps on a smaller scale.  Vanity, O Vanity.  We can spot the fools around us, but it’s hard to see the fools in the mirror. 

Come, says Jesus, let me give you wisdom, the wisdom of a renewed life and a pure, generous, liberated heart.  Come, says Jesus.  I made you my disciple.  The more you learn my lessons, the richer you will truly be.

 

 

17 C

I had two children to baptize last Sunday, not related to each other.  The girl was a sweet as pie, but Kevin had issues.  When I went to sign him with the cross, he pulled back from my finger.  At the pouring of water, he kept turning his head this way and that.  He made faces as he was anointed with the oil of chrism.  He didn’t like the white garment I put over his head.  Finally though, when it came time for the candle, Kevin calmed down and smiled.  I said under my breath: finally he’s trusting me.

We’re frequently like that with each other, particularly people we meet outside of family or already established connections.  We aren’t sure what to make of someone new.  A new boss.  A new neighbor.  A new leader of a nation.  We don’t know how much of ourselves we can show.

So what about God?  How do we approach him?  Abraham gives us one approach—careful, step by step, haggling for every concession.  The point of the reading is obviously the mercy of God, but we tend to focus on how Abraham sees God—as a reluctant giver, a stickler for details, and a God of vengeance.  We still joke about God throwing thunderbolts down from heaven when someone does something God doesn’t like.

Jesus gives us a very different picture.  When his disciples ask him how to pray, we don’t prattle on like we have to win an argument with God.  We simply state the basic needs of our lives, as the Our Father teaches us, trusting that God knows and responds to them.  We need the Kingdom.  We need daily bread—not the whole bakery.  We need forgiveness.  We need protection in the ultimate tests of our lives.  And because we acknowledge God’s holiness, his faithful love, we can rely on God for these and all the essentials of our lives.

In the second reading, we hear the bottom line: God has taken the initiative with us, God has loved and forgiven us in Jesus, God has come toward us in our need, even before we asked.  The notion that God is some remote, aloof, uncaring monarch is one of the greatest and saddest fictions of modern believers.

We Catholics have to underline this because we are fairly formal in our worship.  Particularly with our new translation, which mirrors Latin more closely—and Latin was the language of an emperor or two—we have to get behind the language, the external form, to the inner reality our tradition is trying to show.  We come here because we’ve been touched by God’s love; every time we come, we are embraced by his mercy.  Heaven touches our lives, small and insignificant as they may seem, because God has taken us into God’s very life in Jesus.

So we need to not get hung up on the request side of prayer.  In the very process of asking, of seeking, whole dimensions of our hearts are opened, and our souls, coming to trust God, have been enriched and rewarded right there, far more than any particular outcome could show.

 

I can imagine God saying to Abraham, “Come on, man.  Why do you keep bargaining with me?  Don’t you know I love you?  If that were not so, you wouldn’t even be talking to me.  Stop your fussing, and start your trusting, or else you’ll never really know who I am.”

16 C

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  This play and movie in the late 60s caught the awkwardness and hypocrisy around racial issues in the United States.  Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn played their last movie role, as progressive people who have just found out their daughter has been dating an African American.  In a similar vein, Will Smith’s role in Six Degrees of Separation in the early 90s has a seemingly-cultured African American con his way into the household of an upper class couple on the East Side of Manhattan.

Do we ever know who’s coming for dinner?  Or whom we might run into?  Or for whom we are called to provide hospitality?  Our first reading and our Gospel are all about who’s coming to dinner, and how we react to the visit.  We see that Abraham is happy to be the gracious host to the three visitors (who turn out to be representatives of God); he’s giving orders left and right about such a fine dinner he wants for them.  Of course it’s Sarah who has to run around, doing the chopping and cooking.  Why not?—she’s the woman.

The scene is very different in the Gospel.  We don’t have Abraham giving directions to his wife; we have instead two sisters who seem to have a “complicated relationship,” as they say.  Guess who’s coming to dinner?  Jesus is!  Of course they already know Jesus, and they are more than happy to throw a reception for him with all their friends.  Yet the little spat between the two sisters is very revealing.  Why?

Because the place of women is being radically addressed.  Martha is in the kitchen where her whole society thought women should be; Mary is at the feet of Jesus, hearing and engaging his Word, which is where the educated men would be.  Jesus is letting Mary know that she has a place the same as any of his disciples.  There are not second class citizens when it comes to having access to Jesus Christ. 

Where would we rather be?  Lots of us might want to be with Martha, comfortable in the kitchen, doing what needs to happen, because we Catholics are very comfortable with things, and things to do.  How many of us want to be with Mary, at the feet of Jesus, not dealing with things but with relationships—Jesus sharing with me, and my sharing with Jesus?  Because that’s the invitation, to get in touch with the dialogue Jesus has with us every Sunday, and, really, every day—to recognize that we are all disciples at his feet. 

Have we accepted our discipleship?  Have we made our faith a personal dialogue, as well as a cultural reality, in our lives?  Do we let the Word of God penetrate our lives every week, or is it just thing we endure at Mass on the way to, say, communion?  Do we build upon the Word of God in our ongoing sharing with Jesus in prayer throughout the week?  Or is it in one ear and out the other?

I ask these questions because hoards of Catholics are in Evangelical Churches where they say they now know Jesus—“as they never knew him in the Catholic Church.”  How is this possible?  A priest shared with me just this week how one of his parishioners went on an Evangelical retreat and said to him, “Now I accepted Jesus.”  And the priest asked him: “What do you think happened at Confirmation?”

Let’s be real.  Jesus is coming to dinner, Jesus is moving into our lives, Jesus is the Word who fills us with love and salvation.  We can do our Martha thing if we want, flapping our misalettes, reading the bulletin, or doing the exterior things we do at Mass.  Or we can recognize what is the better part, Mary’s part, and how Jesus offers that to us as the core of our Catholic life  


15 C
 

Before you know who your neighbor is, you have to be able to at least see her or him.  And often, is not this exactly the problem?  Did George Zimmeman and Travon Martin have any chance of seeing each other, even as humans?  Who were or are Paula Dean’s neighbors?  When fanatics put bombs into plazas where they know dozens or hundreds will be killed, are they seeing anything more than symbols of their own rage?  How can I know who my neighbor is unless I can first acknowledge them?

 

We use the word neighbor in strangely elastic ways—sometimes it stretches, sometimes it shrinks.  We talk about our neighborhoods as if we are all friends; but then we have that terrible phrase, “There goes the neighborhood.”  Jesus has to force an answer out of his opponents, particularly the young scholar who “wanted to justify himself,” that is, wanted to show he was smarter, and holier, than Jesus.

 

We call this revealing parable “The Good Samaritan,” but it might just as well be called “The Overlooked Neighbor.”  Jesus highlights that the priest and Levite walk right by.  Yes, they perhaps had their reasons for walking by—everyone one of us in this church has walked by someone at some point in our lives.  They had their lenses through which they viewed reality—and this beaten man was outside the focus of their vision.  Only the Samaritan sees the victim.  What lens does the Samaritan have but the lens of being looked down upon by respectable Jewish society?  Because he has nothing to lose, he is free.  He can see—he can see his neighbor.

 

The plane crash we had in San Francisco certainly got my attention, as a frequent flyer.  I often wonder how I would act in a plane crash—whether I’d be screaming my head off and pushing others out of the way, or whether I’d keep my cool and help the other passengers as best I could.  The close scares I’ve had give me hope that I’d be a cool guy.  Stories of how many got off the Asiana plane make it clear that people in that desperate moment realized they were all in it together, that there was no “me” and “you” but only “us,” and the more we could help the last frightened passenger was the more we showed help to anyone one of us, to all of us.

 

Maybe it’s panic that opens the door to the reality that I am no different, no better, than anyone else; that I have no more claim to existence than anyone else, that we are all products of God’s sheer gracious love.  When we demean each other, when we dismiss each other, when we abort each other, when we exploit each other, when we act as if our existence was in itself better than another’s—are we not messing up the one and only house that God has given all of us to live in? Jesus today is showing us the radical panic in which we all live.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” means that love erases the borders between my dignity and the dignity of anyone else.  To the extent I deny love to anyone, I have denied love itself, and certainly denied God’s love, the God whom we love above everything precisely because this God has loved us above everything. 

 

The commandments of love that Jesus underlines are like each other, and they are connected—my love of God is as real and verifiable as my love of any person, even those that test me the most, especially those I am inclined to dismiss.

 

Every one of us has certainly been dismissed and overlooked at times in our lives.  We know how that feels.  Today Jesus challenges us so forcefully because he wants us to get close to the way he loves.  In Jesus, God has shown love and grace to humankind, making us all brothers and sisters, accepted us in the battered states of our sins and failures, fed us with the Bread of Life, washed us with the waters of baptismal love, and poured the oil of his Holy Spirit into us.  God is the Samaritan who sees the divine image in each of us, and insists that we see that same image in each other, in everyone.

 

This love we have experienced should make us explode—outward, toward others, toward all others—with a love that cannot be suppressed.  Because such an outrageous love is God’s love, and God has given this love, particularly as Christians, to us to impart to all the world. 

 

 

14 C
 
 
For over a month, the world has kept watch at the bedside of Nelson Mandela.  Most of the watching has been anticipatory grief for the death of this man will be an enormous loss for almost human.  He has represented some of the greatest ideals of human nature.  Beyond this, the concern centers around the reaction of people when Mandela dies: would there be riots throughout South Africa and even beyond.
 
If there were riots, it would be as incongruous as the riots in 1968 when Martin Luther King was murdered.  These men each took their inspiration from Mahatmas Gandhi, who elaborated one of the most successful modes of social change in modern times.  These men lived for peace; they saw and demonstrated the enormous power of nonviolence to transform their societies.  To have people rioting in the streets, burning down buildings, is exactly what they opposed.
 
“I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves,” Jesus says.  This phrase does not get much reflection because the ideas behind it might be frightening.  Do not wolves eat lambs?  Is Jesus sending out his disciples to be torn apart by the world, to become victims, to be chewed up and spat out?  In fact, for much of Christian history, particularly since the fourth century, Christians have not gone out as lambs; we’ve gone out as conquerors, with armies, arriving in new worlds on boats filled with soldiers, seeing in the cross not the sign of humble shame but rather invincible might.
 
The thread that Gandhi, King, and Mandela took from their religious traditions insists that simple, humble, loving embrace, the renouncing of force and violence, is more powerful than anything else.  Jesus is not sending his disciples out as lambs so they can be chewed up.  Rather, Jesus is counting on the power of lambs to even changes wolves into something else--having wolves renounce their own violent instincts in order to live more fully.
 
As we hear so much about the New Evangelization, we Christians have to pay attention to the purposes of Jesus so clear in the Gospel today.  After all the instructions Jesus gives his followers, he ultimately sends them out to proclaim a Kingdom of healing, peace, and love.  This is our message to the world.  We come not as an army ready to threaten and conquer; we come as disciples, ready to embrace, accept, heal, and forgive.  This may not always seem be effective, but that’s not the point.  Just knock the dust off your feet and go to another town. Don’t let your seeming defeats discourage you because the power of divine love can never be overcome.
 
Paul talks to a congregation that thinks something other than grace-filled love is important.  Jewish and Gentile Christians were dismissing each other.  “There’s a whole new creation coming about,” says Paul.  “These marks of identity, circumcision or not, are unimportant.  What’s important is having the marks of Jesus,.”  Paul sees in his own vulnerability and suffering the same woundedness as Jesus—the weakness that has conquered the forces of evil.  Isaiah’s vision comes about not through invading armies, or slick marketers, or arrogant spokesmen.  It comes about through humble trust, and trusting love.
 
The biggest battles of the human meaning still continue.  We still are presented with the option of power or weakness, of the strong and the weak.  We keep thinking that by exercising power we ultimately will win.  Whether it’s in the markets, or in foreign policy, or in media campaigns, you’ve got to have the upper hand, we think.  Jesus, however, on his way to Jerusalem to die, sends his disciples out in his name, to proclaim and serve a Kingdom of unending love.  Power comes only in love and service.
 
“Can you trust me?” Jesus in effect says—trust  that your sheer love, goodness and generosity in my name will bring about the true victory?  Or do you think your power will do anything more than keep getting you into corners from which you cannot get out?  We go forth to evangelize Jesus, the one who conquers precisely by giving his life in love for his Father and for humankind. 
 
 
 
13 C

Back in the sixties, one of the images of Jesus that swept into popular culture was “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”  It was on Broadway and then went into movie form in 1973.  We had a sultry Mary Magdalene, lazy apostles, and a Jesus who seems stunned by being turned into a Rock Star by an adoring population.  Of course, on its face, being a rock star was the last things Jesus conceived himself as.  We heard last week that he knew his destiny was not stardom, but rejection.

I wonder, though, if the image of rock star gets to one of the problems we have with following Jesus.  Our image of following him is like that of being a fan.  People go nuts for Justin Bieber, for Taylor Swift, and Tiger Woods, a huge crowd-getter in spite of his failings, is finishing up his tournament in Bethesda today.  Fans get excited about the object of their fascination.  “I’d die for a moment with my favorite star,” people say.  But fans are not disciples.  Much as we might like Elvis or Barbara, they remain distant objects of admiration.

Jesus lays down the outline of discipleship in the Gospel, and we are actually shocked by what he says.  He seems absolute.  He tells the grieving that his Kingdom is more important, he tells the family person that now she or he is part of the family of Jesus, and he implies that the simple desire to follow Jesus is not enough.  “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  Faith is not a comfort zone, as the pope keeps reminding us.

We often think of following Jesus as part of the special vocations we have developed in our Church.  Priests, sisters, monks, missionaries—they have the vocations.  They are the new Elisha’s, turning in the dozen oxen to follow Elijah.  But we should not be deceived in this.  While all faiths developed members who dedicate themselves full time to it, just as we Catholics have done, the vocation of discipleship belongs to all of us.  We all have to put Jesus Christ first; we all have to put our lives under him, being swept by his love and challenged at his commands.

Of course, the full time vocations in the Church have been pummeled in recent years.  Were it not for foreign priests serving here, many dioceses could not supply even the Mass to its people.  Priests have two or three parishes in many dioceses.  Sisters’ communities are vanishing.  We hardly hear of brothers anymore.  And we can analyze the reasons for this until we are blue in the face.  The phenomenon seems to be: once a society becomes middle class, with everyone going to college, then the numbers of people joining full time religious vocations seems to drop. 

But I would not be the exception when I tell you that my life as a priest has been one of enormous joy.  Sure I’ve had my burdens, but what life does not?  Were it possible for me to go back in time and possibly choose another calling in the 1960s, I’d surely make the same choice.  The energy of my calling still continues to expand my mind and my heart, after 41 years of priesthood.  I could not ask for much more than that.

My question is this: if we all lived discipleship as Catholics with more explicit passion and conviction, living more fully in the Spirit, whether we would produce the full time vocations that we need.  If we all started taking our faith seriously, living it overtly, seeing it as a central responsibility rather than a sometime event—would we create the fervor needed for full time ministers in the Church?  In our modern, more affluent cultures, it’s too easy to lose the passion of faith, and, with that, the passion needed to for some of us to give our lives fulltime in service to the Church.

We have one of the most important phrases in the opening lines of the Gospel, one that determines the flow of the rest of Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus knowingly and purposefully sets his face toward Jerusalem, where he knows he will die a martyr to the Kingdom, bringing about the Kingdom through is death and resurrection.  Some of his followers don’t seem to know this; they think it’s like a cruise, but on land.  Jesus is saying to his followers: can you follow me on this journey?  Do you trust me, and love me, enough to risk your all for the kingdom of my Father?  All of us are on this journey with Jesus.  The Gospel is begging us to realize this and act according to the call we have received, and are now receiving.  


12 C

Alice McDermott writes about second generation Irish living in Queens, NY, in the 1950s, when Queens was mostly a suburb.  She had an emotionally wrenching short story in the New Yorker a few years ago: a plain looking young woman wears thick glasses, and so has hardly any dates; she meets a young man with a walking impediment and falls in love with him.  They seem to be growing closer and closer.  He tells her he has something important to tell her and wants to take her to the fanciest restaurant in the neighborhood.  He borrows his friend’s suit, they have a wonderful meal, and as it ends, instead of pulling out a ring, he takes her hand and says he’s going to marry someone else.  He says something like, “O, I like you, sure, but for the sake of my future children, I had to marry someone with good eyesight to pass on to them.”

We know there are rejections that come when we apply for something, or send in an article for publication; we know there are rejections when people judge our work as less than perfect.  But how do we deal with the rejections that happen just because we are who we are?  Because we couldn’t help being who we are?  Our accent, our skin, our economic level, ourselves?

 Jesus shocks his apostles and us when he says the “Son of Man has to be rejected.”  It’s the puzzle of human history.  Here’s it is not just because Jesus is who he is; it’s because Jesus did the good that he did; that he proclaimed and revealed a Kingdom and dared to speak of God’s inclusive love.  Paul puts it clearly: now there is no more Jew or Greek, rich or poor, slave or free.  Now we are all accepted because of the love Jesus reveals to the world.  Jesus will be rejected not because of an inadequacy, but because of his exquisite perfection.

 It gets even weirder because Jesus then challenges his Apostles, who thought that they had won the lottery when they proclaimed Jesus as “The Christ of God.” He tells them that they too must take up their cross.  We’ve interpreted this as penances we do, or sufferings we have to endure, and they surely have their place.  But isn’t Jesus saying that we have to risk rejection just as he did, and for the reasons he was rejected: because of the very directness and power of the love we show, because are like him?  Indeed, it’s much too easy for us to be timid in our Christian life, to be safe, and not be exposed to risks, to possible rejection.

The Pope is certainly challenging us, every day he speaks, to be bolder in our faith.  “Faith is not being in a spa,” he said the other day.  Faith costs, it shares, it gives without getting back, it trusts in God as Jesus trusted in God.  Perhaps that’s the greatest threat to faith today—not atheism or secularism, but our insisting that our faith be safe.  We don’t want to rock the boat, for sure; we don’t want to be fanatics, right?  But do we want to be his followers, to show Jesus to the world, in the bold simplicity of our Christian love and service?

Jesus will endure rejection because he knows his essential acceptance by the Father.  Jesus shares this acceptance with us, giving us his grace and life, assuring us we belong to him.  If being rejected for who we are is the worst, then isn’t being loved for who we are the greatest?

11 C
 
For the next several weeks, the airwaves will be abuzz with the Travon Martin case: what happened that night, and what, if anything, should happen to George Zimmerman. We often debate about our courts, about justice, and particularly about punishment. Are we mostly just protecting society when we imprison people—we Americans imprison more people percentage-wise than any other developed country—or should we actually try to punish people, make them hurt for the hurt they did? I’ve heard all sides argued on the radio.
But that’s not the argument the Gospel has with us. If it came down to a trial, few of us could be remotely considered innocent. Of course, most of us don’t think of ourselves as David, who desecrates both marriage and human life in the first reading, or even this mysterious woman who appears in the Gospel . . . but all of us desperately need the mercy of God.
Paul begins his argument to the Galatians in today’s reading, one of the most forceful points made in all the New Testament. We are saved by God’s initiative toward us in Jesus Christ. God extends the hand of pardon. God offers us love. Nothing we do can earn or merit that love; God already bestows that love, never more clearly than in the self-gift of Jesus Christ. People in Paul’s time thought that being righteous in the law was the key; Paul said it wasn’t.
Jesus said the same thing, in effect, because we see Simon, the righteous Pharisee, who throws a party but seems to know nothing of divine love. He ignores Jesus; he scorns this woman as if she is an untouchable. But Jesus makes clear that love is exactly the point: the one who is forgiven little, loves little. Love and forgiveness go together. We understand forgiveness when we begin to grasp what love is.
Sometimes it seems like it’s only a huge dose of God’s love that can get us to forgive the hurts in our own lives. Not just the circumstances, but the people. It’s hard to overcome the feeling of hurt. But we are seeing here, in our readings, the fundamental rule of God that Jesus reveals: generous, giving, forgiving love is at the heart of everything. It’s a love that allows us to start over again, particularly when we think we can’t. It’s a love that lets us off the hooks we hoist ourselves upon. It’s a love that frees people from sin, and frees us from the blindness of our pride.
We need trials to try to see the truth and to be just. I answered my call to jury duty this week. But God’s justice comes after his mercy. Mercy is always first. As Christians, we have only one sentence to answer, one judgment to meet: whether we’ve accepted and lived that mercy, or whether we’ve looked down on others and written them off, writing off Jesus’ love as well.
 
 
10 C
 

I don’t know exactly how I ended up seeing Star Trek: Into the Darkness, except it looked like rain, and one of my best friends thought it would be good.  We certainly weren’t going to see Will and Jaden Smith after the bum reviews they got.  I’m not much of a science fiction person, especially when the plots seem endless.  Older men can only take so much time in a movie seat.  So I am not exactly sure what all the plots were about, but I know Kahn, reincarnated here, was the new villain against which Starship Enterprise had to contend.

 

As I watched the movie, the theme of life kept repeating, how these various populations from different civilization had people they loved massacred, and how that called for justice.  Kahn is furious about the way a former commander killed off his civilization.  All he has are seventy-two bodies, conveniently being kept in a frozen state, until at some point they can be unfrozen, revived, and continue Kahn’s almost exterminated progeny.

 

Even though we watch movies where dozens, hundreds, even thousands are killed, death still makes no sense.  Even though we live to be old enough to come to see death as a kind of relief from the indignity of prolonged sufffering, we still run to our doctors and medical technicians, hoping that some great medical feat can prolong our lives.  A friend e-mailed me recently: with some replaced parts, he said, I could easily go another twenty years.

 

The aversion to death which is built into us, into every fiber of our lives, is the same aversion that God shares.  We see Jesus approach this widow who now has no one left in her life; in that culture, to be a woman without any man was to be at the bottom.  Jesus walks up and, without her even asking, without even the slightest hope from this poor woman, he touches the bier.  The God from whom all life comes is a God who will continue to give life.  Just as any of us would love to do what we see Elijah doing in the first reading, given his warmth, his breath, his life to preserve the life of a beloved, so God seems to share the same instinct. 

 

Does it seem unfair, we wonder, that this widow happened to be in the lucky spot?  What about all the other widows?  What about all the other mothers and fathers?  What about all the children who lose their parents?  What about us?  Hey, Jesus, if you are so against death, what about us?

 

This is why we need to see Jesus’ action as a prophetic sign, something that points to something else.  Indeed, Jesus himself will undergo a death that his disciples begged him to escape, that even he prayed to avoid.  But the sign is not the fulfillment.  To relieve one young man by reviving him for a few years is only to Bandaid our human condition.  Jesus revives this young man as a sign of the revival of all humankind, the revival of the very promise of our existence, of the place we have before God.  Jesus makes death into a passageway, into a transition, into a direct route into eternal life.  He will show that in his death and resurrection; here he shows us a sign of it, like putting down the king in a card game, revealing a hand he would play out on Calvary.

 

The question for us is this: have we so lowered our expectations, have we become so jaded, that we think this life is enough?  Have our medical advances, and our modern techniques, made life pleasant enough that the 80 or so years we expect to live are, well, just fine.  We don’t want to be greedy, right?

 

For when we have done that, we ‘ve lost God’s vision for us, we’ve lost the sight of that transcendent hope which charges and changes every second of this life, every breath we have, every hope for ourselves and those we love.  It’s almost like we’d be that widow, saying to Jesus, “No, it’s OK.  I’ve accepted death.  It’s time to adjust and move on.”  It’s like we’re saying we don’t need the compassion of Jesus.  Well, there may be lots of ways to lose our souls, but shrinking down our vision, and not seeing the utter desolation of our death, may be the most insidious.  Hey, Jesus, don’t pass us by.  Come and touch us.  Give us the sign, in this Mass, of the life you hold in promise for all who keep their hope in you.

 

Corpus Christi
 

I keep buying these Powerball tickets; just maybe, I think, I will win.  $600 million jackpot last week, and someone won it down in Florida.  I buy the tickets mostly for the fantasy—what would I do with millions of dollars?  I imagine the funds I’d set up, the schools I’d endow, the mission efforts I would foster.  Wow, wouldn’t that be great?  And maybe I’d take a vacation too.

 

But if I won $600 million, what would your fantasy be?  I think that would be pretty easy to guess—Hey, Fr. Frank, why don’t you give some of that to me?  Wouldn’t you want a million or two from me if I had it?  Sure you would.  Folks who win lotteries keep saying that relatives they didn’t know they had start calling them.  “Hey, don’t you remember me?”

 

And it’s natural, I think, for us say that when people have a lot, then maybe they should share it.  Why keep it for themselves?  And that is exactly the attitude we see in Jesus.  Why keep it to ourselves?  He gives away bread that people didn’t know that he had, distributes it, with 12 baskets left over, just to let people know that this is a God who gives, who wants to give, who cannot stop giving.

 

Jesus may not give us a million dollars, but he gives us something far more.  Jesus won the whole jackpot—the salvation of humankind, by his death and resurrection.  He has reconciled us to God, broken down the barriers, and let God’s life pour into our lives.  The eternal life that he has, the forgiveness of sins, the renewal of humankind, the sense of union with God—these Jesus does not want to keep to himself.  He won them so he can give them to us.

 

We see in the second reading how he does this.  He is sitting with his disciples the night before his death.  All his disciples know he has been speaking about being captured and killed.  He takes the bread, says the blessing to his Father, and gives the broken bread to his disciples.  “Look, I give you myself,” Jesus is saying.  “I give you my own life in the sign of bread and wine now converted, now changed, into my own life.  Will you eat it?”

 

And this is what happens at every Mass—the greatest blessing anyone can have, the life of Jesus in his victory of death and sin, the life of Jesus in the Spirit with glory, given to us.  Every week he offers this to us.  Every week he asks if we will truly eat it, if we will truly accept the riches he gives, if we will become his body, his blood, his life.  He gives himself so that we can be him in the world today.

 

And that means, of course, giving away what we have received.  The bread is broken again and again, until all the world’s hunger is fed.  The bread is given to us so that we might give Christ to others through our lives.  “How can we feed so many?” the disciples ask.  “Give it away,” Jesus say, in trust, in faith, in daring. 

 

If I had millions, I’d surely give you some.  But I have more; I have what Jesus gave the world.  I give it to you, not to be hoarded.  I give it to you so that, eating and drinking the Lord, you can be the Lord’s life, love, and forgiveness today, given to the world.

 

 

Trinity Sunday
 

When do we ever know a person?  I was in Cleveland this past week at a convention for catechists; no one can think of Cleveland without thinking of Ariel Castro, the man who held three women captive for more than a decade.  “We did not suspect,” his neighbors say. “We didn’t know,” his own brothers say.  Indeed, we even surprise ourselves with occasional actions that seem totally out of character.

 

So how do we know God?  Can we know God?  God is not like any one of us, nor is God like any thing that we can name or use.  And the short answer is, not easily; to name the mystery behind everything is to try and name the unnameable.  We Catholics name God the way Jesus taught us to name God, a name we hold up on this feast of the Trinity.

 

Our readings help us see the ever deeper dimensions of God which are part of the divine three names.  The Wisdom of God, always with God, forming the patterns that underlie our existence; that way that Wisdom has become our brother in Jesus Christ who bears our humanity with its joys and pains; and the way that Wisdom dwells in us through the Holy Spirit.  Unlike so many other world faiths, we do not say “God is out there.”  We say, as well, “God is alongside us.”  And “God is within us.”  Father, Son, and Spirit; Origin, Savior, and Power for Holiness within.

 

When we saw the terrible tornadoes this week, especially the one that wiped out Moore, OK, what did that say to us about God?  How easily it is for us to confuse God with terrible events in nature.  Even the Hebrew Scripture writers thought that thunder and lightning was the voice of God.  But God is not nature, God is not hail and thunder, and God is not tornadoes.  Our life of faith calls us to continually debug the distorted images of God.

 

But if God is all powerful, we think, why could God not stop those tornadoes?  Which brings us to yet another distorted image of God, as if God was some magician, waving a wand to make this happen, or uttering an incantation to stop something else.  The power of God, as we have seen throughout the Easter Season, is the power of infinite, absolute love, drawing all creation into a community of love.  God’s power is not lifting weights, or blowing things up, or beating people down.  We saw God’s Power on Good Friday, on the cross, bearing the brokenness of the world; we saw God’s power on Easter, when God affirmed that not even criminal violence and shameful death could defeat ultimate love.

 

None of us can comprehend God’s power and its true force in our lives, a power that erupts at times events we call miracles; a miracle is an event that causes us to wonder in such a way that it leads us to God.  Miracles are everywhere, if we but open our eyes.  But miracles are not magic.  And prayer is not manipulating God, but opening ourselves up to the ever deeper expressions of God in our lives.  When we pray, we aren’t changing God, for God’s infinite love is always there; we are changing ourselves, so that we can receive this love all the more fully in our lives.  God’s power was far more manifest in the way those Oklahomans helped each other than in the spinning winds from the sky.

 

We cannot know God without prayer.  We cannot know God’s names personally without opening ourselves in deeper relationship with God.  We cannot know God’s name without engaging with Jesus Christ.  God is all around us, always beside us, indeed within us, this God of Jesus.  We know God’s name when we know God’s love, God’s life, and God’s vision for us.  We know God’s name in Jesus.

 

When we know God’s name, we know that we always exist in God, now and forever.


Pentecost C


I just can’t. . . .  I think I can . . . . .  I certainly can!

Think about the difference in these attitudes.
  When asked to lift a heavy object, my 68 year old back says: I just can’t do that.  When golfer Sergio Garcia faced the island hole last week at the Players tournament, he though: I can do that!  After putting two balls into the water, maybe he couldn’t.  When teams like the Caps get into the playoffs, they have to keep telling themselves that, yes, indeed, they can, they can beat the Rangers! It worked until last Monday night. . . .   

We not only face these questions in our own lives—from can go to college to can afford a particular house, or car—we also face these questions as Christians.  Can we live our Christian and Catholic lives today?  Can we be disciples?  Pentecost, this great and final feast of Easter, answers this questions: Yes we can!

Whatever happened in the upper room—St. Luke gives us images of wind and fire, ways to express divine presence—the first disciples of Jesus went from quivering disappointed followers of Jesus to proclaimers of the Word.  Tongues of fire—tongues that cannot stop talking about what God has done.  Tongues that burn with the passion of faith and cannot be shut up.  The gift of divine presence within us, the Holy Spirit, alone explains the transformation from bewildered to bold.

Not many of us feel powerful in our faith in today’s world.  Sometimes it feels like the world would be happier if we believers just went away.  So today’s feast asks us if we have let God’s Spirit into our hearts.  Today’s feast asks us . . .  if we can!  If we can do it in God.

Can I open my heart more deeply to the Holy Spirit and let the Spirit console me, challenge me, empower me today?

Can I give more quiet time to the presence of God inside me, letting God speak to me through his Spirit?

Can I pray more regularly every day, several times, opening myself to God’s Spirit?

Can I let the words of the Gospels I hear every Sunday linger in my mind and puzzle my heart?  Can I let them change my life?

Can I be less hidden as a believer, more open in my faith, in my own home, and in my circle of friends?

Can I be an instrument of the Spirit in helping others sort through problems, encouraging people who are wobbly, helping others carry their burdens, being present in their pain?

Can I spark a little fire with the joy I feel knowing I am united to Jesus through his Spirit?  Can I bring the Spirit’s joy more clearly into my world?

Can I reach out to people who seem different, knowing that the same God is at work our all human hearts?

Can I be sent as the Father sent Jesus, and as Jesus sends the Spirit on us?

Maybe we’re saying, “No, I can’t.”  But if we think about it, the Spirit already is helping us do these things and even more.  We cannot imagine that lady in Bangladesh who survived 17 days underground.  How many times did she say, “Can I do it?”  But she did. Who says we can’t?  Not the Holy Spirit!

Ascension C

The nation was stunned this week by the escape from a Cleveland house of three women, missing for over 10 years and presumed dead.  Now they were alive.  Questions swirled.  How could these women be in a house for 10 years without anyone knowing?  What did the neighbors see?  What did the police do during all these years?  How could they be kept captive so close to where they disappeared?

 
Disappearance is disturbing.  We had an 83 year-old woman from Barbados disappear from the Washington DC airport, only to be discovered dead two days later.  How can people just vanish, disappear from our sight?  

Do we think Jesus disappeared?  Is that what the feast of the Ascension is telling us? Jesus died, and caused enormous grief among his followers.  Then, after his rising, Jesus ascends to heaven, causing even more grief.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells them.  We should instead rejoice that he leaves, that he goes to the Father.  This is how his life continues.

This feast of the Ascension is not so much about Jesus’ departure but rather the new empowerment that happens when Jesus, raised from the dead, is associated with his Father in the transformation of the world.  For Jesus ascends in power to bestow power upon his followers.  Jesus vanishes from our midst in one kind of presence in order for us to be empowered by the Holy Spirit he sends upon us. 

The angels make this point in almost a comical way to the Apostles.  They stand, staring up into the sky, looking at Jesus as his body vanishes.  “Men of Galilee,” they say, “Why are you looking into the heavens?”  This is just like the angels message to the women on Easter morning: Why are you looking for the living among the dead?  He is raised.  Now we can live in his resurrection.  He does the same thing to the disciples on their way to Emmaus: once they recognize him, he vanishes from their sight.  The point is not his risen Body, as essential as his resurrection is.  The point is that we are now empowered to live his life and continue his ministry.

This is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us: our prayer, our service, our care for each other, our witness to Jesus in our lives, our inviting, our sharing—all of this is the power of Jesus given to us through the Holy Spirit.  Jesus wants no pity-parties.  He wants no extended grieving.  He does not need us to cling onto his body.  Rather, filled with the same power of God by which Jesus was raised from the dead, he wants us to live risen lives, to live Easter and be Easter in the world today.

Ten years later, missing women were found in Cleveland.  But twenty centuries later, the life of Jesus is still being discovered, in his followers, as the Holy Spirit allows us to see him, not in his body, but in his ministry, his power, and his Spirit.


Easter 6 C
 

“Are we here yet?”  These four words are the bane of every parent driving children somewhere.  Whether going to a big vacation place, or only a local store, or even grandma’s house—“Are we there yet?”—comes out of children’s mouths.   It’s a cry of impatience.  I want to get this trip over; I cannot wait to get there. 

 

Adults feel this too, of course, and the travel industry has tried to accommodate these feelings of impatience adults feel by making the journey part of the destination.  “Would you like to upgrade to First Class?”  Sure, for an extra $100 or so bucks I can sit in the front, have attendants wait on me, and get into a real party spirit.  Or, even better, cruises, where the cruise, the trip, IS the vacation.  We can’t wait for the fun to start, so let’s begin now, even when we’re on the way.

 

How about our patience as Christians, as believers?  For many centuries our state of life was described as wayfarers, “viatores” in Latin, people only on the way.  We thought of this life as one of drudgery, what we had to endure, until we got to our real home, heaven.  “If you don’t wear the crown of thorns,” we were told, “you cannot wear the crown of glory.”  Our life here basically meant making our way out of this life to our real life, in heaven.

 

But it’s hard to have just that feeling when we read from the Gospel.  “If you love me, you will keep my word, and my Father and I will come and dwell in you.”  We need to reflect on these words. It’s as if, even in this life, we can become antennas, receptors of God’s very life, if we follow the word of Jesus.  And we heard that word last week, the new commandment, that we have authentic love for each other.  That we love each other in God.  That we let the Holy Spirit, God’s love, be the love in us, and between us. Through love in God’s Spirit we are involved in the very life of God.

 

We have an even more astonishing image today in the second reading: in the holy city, the city of life, the city of resurrection, there is no need for a temple, no need even for a sun or moon: God’s life will be so full in the Kingdom that God will be immediately present to everyone, as light, as air, as life itself.  We will not have to travel in order to experience the presence of God, as if going to Mecca or Jerusalem: the city itself is the temple where God dwells. 

 

“Are we here yet?”  In a way, we already are here.  In a way, God has already begun a home for us, given us unity in the divine life, and filled us with divine grace.  This changes everything.  This means that heaven is starting even in the fragile moments in which you and I are living.  We come to church not because God is absent from the rest of our lives, but so that we can remember and celebrate the glory that has begun in us.  Otherwise we forget.  Otherwise we start thinking that our daily routine is only our daily routine, not the path that leads to God.

 

We learn of the effects of God’s dwelling in the first reading.  Here we see a new stage in the development of our Catholic Church.  The disciples realized, from the action of the Holy Spirit, that God’s grace was not limited to only one group, or one small collection of saved people.  Rather, the apostles saw the Gentiles receiving faith just as the Jews.  In this famous passage from Acts, the Church acknowledges and welcomes the news that everyone can be part of God’s household, that divine life is all the richer the more widely it is received by humankind, that God would invite all humans into his life.

 

Jesus is going on a journey in the Gospel.  “Rejoice that I am going away.”  Not that Jesus has gone far.  Rather, he leaves in his physical presence so that God can be present in the Spirit who is sent upon all humankind.  Jesus invites us to travel with him, a trip where the destination is already starting, where the joy keeps growing, where life continues to know the boundlessness of divine love.   How can we keep this message to ourselves?

 

 
Easter 5 C
 

“All you need is love,” sang the Beetles over 50 years ago.  “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”—as  if love was something relatively easy, something we could drop into life like an ingredient in the spaghetti sauce.  Yet much as we extol love and make it the center of our songs and movies, the track record is not that good.  Just look at the divorces, even among Catholics, the isolation parents have from their children, the seniors ignored by their families, and the way we use each other in the name of love.  “All you need is love” –yes, but where do you find it?

 

Our Easter season moves now to some of the richest themes of the resurrection of Jesus.  “I give you a new commandment: as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.  This is how all will know you are my followers, if you have love for one another.”  Jesus, as part of his farewell message to his Apostles, is pointing them to the Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s very dwelling inside of us.  The more love shares in God, the more readily it becomes a power in our lives.

 

There are several dimensions of love.  One of them we saw in Boston just a few weeks ago, just as we saw it in New York in 2001.  The first responders did not run away from the trouble, but instead they ran right into it, willing to risk anything to be of help to another.  They echo the sentiment of Paul, that it is necessary to suffer many hardships to be part of the Kingdom.  This heroism shows the first level of love: that we put ourselves aside for the sake of another. When Jesus talks about being glorified, and glorifying the Father, he is referring to his gift of himself which reflects the gift of his Father to the world.

 

But this dimension does not exhaust what we mean by love, because if we all sacrificed our lives there wouldn’t be any of us around to show love.  Love has another dimension, one that is not easy for us to see.  Love also means communion with another.  It’s easy for us to distort this meaning of love because so often our attitude is to possess another, to have another wrapped around our finger, to derive pleasure from the other, to make another ours.  Communion, however, is something different.

 

We have communion when we abide in the other for the sheer joy and goodness of the other, when the other draws us beyond ourselves in admiration or in care.  Love brings us to the very edge of ourselves, and then brings us further, until we have a sense of union with the ones we love.  It’s like we live in them, and they live in us.  Love as another reality has come upon us, a state, a way of life, a change in how we think of ourselves. 

 

“Behold God’s dwelling is with the human race,” sings the book of Revelation.  This is what the new city, the city of Resurrection, the city of God is like: God is the very love that we share with each other, existing in us, between us, and through us.  “Behold, I make all things new,” God says.  New, because things have finally been infused with the fullness of love.  Think of what we wish for our children and our loved ones: isn’t that the fullness of love, where all love our beloved without reserve, where love is everywhere and everything.  A world only of love.  That’s our dream, our deepest wish.  And it’s God’s too.

 

At this Mass we symbolize this world of love.  God comes to us in communion, in Jesus, his life now given and living in each one of us, and in all of us together; his love pushing us beyond the edges of the boundaries we set up for ourselves.  At this Mass, at every Mass, we enact the sacred equation: as the Father has loved me, so I love you; as I have loved you, so must you love one another. 

 

Dionne Warwick sang a different song: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”  She didn’t presume the world had love, nor did she presume it was easy.  The world needs love, but it has a God who shows us unlimited love in Jesus, who gives us this love, and calls us to show and give it as well as a sign of our risen life

 

Easter C 4


One of my friends would talk about the first warm day of spring in New York.  All of a sudden people would be out of their tenements and apartments, crowding the street, enjoying the end of winter.  That was when, my friend said, you could how different things were now—who had moved into the area, who had moved out, whether they were richer or poorer, what the population trend might be going into the future.

We love markers like this, when minorities become majorities, when glass ceilings and color barriers are broken, when an era has arrived.  The election of Kennedy, and the terror attacks on 2001 and this week in Boston.  But it’s not always easy to see these things, is it?  Is this now the age of China, as opposed, say, to America?  Has American imperialism started to exhaust itself?  Has the internet really changed everything about us? 

Luke, in the book of Acts, is painting big strokes for us, giving us pictures of a very complicated history.  Paul and Barnabas seem to make it pretty clear that the Gospel is now going Gentile, and not Jewish, as if this was some hard and fast marker.  In fact, there was a lot of Jewish experience left in the first century of the Church, and lots of it even in the book of Acts.  We can be deceived by the big pictures we paint. 

Because whatever big trends there might be, first there are people with hearts and minds—where God works with his Spirit.  This is where God calls to us.  Jesus presents himself in today’s Gospel as the Good Shepherd, not because we are all part of some generic flock, but because he cares for each one of his sheep.  He develops a personal relationship with his sheep, and the sheep know his voice the way we know the voices and movements of our family members.  He protects us in our greatest fears and terrors.  If Easter is available for all groups of peoples, that is because Easter is available to each single person.

It’s not easy to hear the voice of the Shepherd.  It’s not easy to listen to listen when change is in the air because we get so used to the patterns of our lives.  How long did it take Christians to understand the contradiction of slavery?  How long will it take us to incorporate in our personal lives the changes to which Christ is calling us?  Either way, Easter is calling the world, and us, toward change until Christ’s Risen life is more fully manifested in our lives.  My sheep hear my voice. Do we?

The book of Revelation gives us this week a very helpful big picture.  Written in a time of oppression and persecution, a time of martyrdom, when followers of Jesus had to feel totally under siege, Christians receive an alternative vision, one of God’s victory.  Behind all the big trends, the statistics, and the demographics, there is God’s underlying pattern—to bring his sheep, those who hear his voice, to full life in Jesus.  This pattern is stronger than our personal ups and downs, and stronger than the world’s political transformations, stronger than acts of terror.  This divine pattern is what Easter invite us to see.

 


Easter C 3


We love suspense, but it cannot go on forever.  We built up such a hype throughout all of March, starting with 64 college basketball teams, but it all came down to Michigan and Louisville on Monday night.  Gone were all the Jesuit colleges, the smaller colleges that might be the up-setters, and the other large state schools.  The suspense was only raised when Kevin Ware, of the ultimately winning team Louisville, suffered a compound fracture to his leg earlier in the month.  He hobbled out to get the souvenir basket net at the end, amid all the frenzied cheering. 
 
For all we enjoy suspense, working up to some climax, there has to be some resolution, some way to bring things to conclusion.  We need this not only in sports, but also for the major decisions of our lives.  We cannot spend decades waiting to get married, or get a job, or know why we are living. It’s so striking to see the clarity of the apostles in the first reading: having been arrested, standing before the leaders, considering themselves blessed to be persecuted for the name of Jesus.  How did they get to this clarity?
 
It was not only the vision of the Risen Jesus, but their interaction with Jesus that brought them such clarity.  And it’s to the Gospel we have to go to find out how this works: how the beloved disciple is the first to acknowledge that Jesus is on the shore, how Peter then concludes that it is Jesus, how they all sit around with Jesus as he makes a baked-fish breakfast for them without daring to ask whether it’s him, and how he dialogues with Peter.  In these encounters, the disciples have to decide not only on what they think of the Risen Jesus, but whether they will be committed to him.  It’s the commitment that brings the clarity, that brings resolution.
 
Are we jealous of Peter?  Being so close to Jesus, being in such intimate conversation with him?  There’s something sweet about the exchange—Simon, do you love me?—but there’s also something drastic about it.  How would we feel to have Jesus look us in the eye and ask us if we love him?  What does this evoke in us?  All the compromises we make, all the token actions, all the lip service… all this would rise to the top and we’d be embarrassed.  And we’d feel this because it exposes how unresolved our own love of Jesus is.  But only when our love gets totally resolved, only then do we have the clarity that we see in the Acts of the Apostles.  Only then are our hearts at rest.
 
Of course, with Peter it’s not just the exchange.  If Peter loves Jesus, he has to show this not by ogling his Risen Body, but by serving others in the name of Jesus.  Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Let others know that my grace is available for them, for anyone.  Our clarity with Jesus involves the clarity of our love, care, and sharing with others.  We come to church on Sunday precisely to answer the question Jesus asks—do you love me?—and also to be strengthened so we can be Christ’s ambassadors in the world.  Every Mass we attend speaks to our hearts, and asks us to speak to our world.
 
The selection from the book of Revelation really speaks about the promise of our Catholic faith: people of every race, language, every creature in creation, praising God because of the unity they have with God in Jesus Christ.  This is who and what we are supposed to be—all of creation, expressed in the vastness of our Catholic community, praising God for the infinite love God shows us, the infinite love we share.


Easter C 2

Video cameras caught it, and it seemed ominous.  Two people walking near Central Park in Manhattan, a van drives up, people get out and throw the two walkers into the vehicle, and the car drives off.  A terrible abduction in the middle of New York City?  No, the news said, it was a prank, part of a surprise birthday party—what a party that must have been!  But we had April 1st, April fools, with even big tech companies getting into the hoax business.  How do you know when it’s not a trick?

This is a good question for Thomas in this most famous of Gospels, read every Sunday after Easter, as if to ask us: do we think Easter is real.  Thomas seems like our kind of guy, no-nonsense, I’m-from-Missouri-show-me.  It’s hard to know what he made of the others who had experienced the Risen Christ—or why he still hung out with them after a week.  Why stay with a group of people you think are deluded?

Unless, of course, his doubt was the real hoax, the trick his soul was playing on him to keep him from affirming Christ.  We know his problem was spiritual.  Playing CSI was not the point because when Jesus comes, we do not see Thomas playing the pathologist, examining the wounds.  No, he falls down in faith.  He knows the emptiness of his doubts.

“Blessed are those who have not seen but do believe,” the Gospel says.  Do we feel blessed, because that description describes us?  What would we have made of the physical body of Jesus?  What would we do?  Ogle, gape, match expectations with what is happening, try to think of something intelligent to say?  The point of Easter is never just the physical body of Jesus—it’s the Easter of his risen Spirit.

“As the Father sends me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  Be an agent of forgiveness and hope in the world.  Be my Easter throughout history.” That’s the challenge Jesus sets before his disciples, and before us.  And we might be wondering how we do this.  After all, faith can seem almost like a magical dream, something separated from daily life.  This Sunday, we begin reading from the book of Revelation today, a book that many in Christian history have made out as some magical map into the future—instead of a book of consolation for the oppressed, which was its original purpose.

So let’s go to Acts, where we see Peter and the other apostles putting Jesus’ words into practice—doing the deeds of Easter, through compassion, forgiveness —acting as signs of divine love, as instruments of healing.  In our own way, we can do each of these every day—we can be Easter in the lives of others.

The hoax is not Jesus’ Resurrection.  The hoax might be this: we keep hearing the Easter message year after year, we keep smelling the lilies, but we still cannot quite get all Easter’s meaning.

Easter C

 

Punxsutawney Phil disappointed us.  I realized this when I saw a picture of a groundhog on my FaceBook page, a groundhog holding a sign that said, in big letters, “I lied.”  In February, with lots of hoopla, the folks in Punxsutawney, PA, declared to the world that Phil had come out of the ground and had seen his shadow, and therefore the remaining weeks of winter would be light.  “Sure,” I told myself as I pushed two inches of wet snow off a car last Monday morning, and as I waited for the plane a Regan Airport to get de-iced on its way to Texas.  You cannot believe everything that comes out of the ground, can you?

 

What about Jesus?  What about the emergence of Jesus from the ground of the earth, from the confines of his tomb, from the bonds of death?  How do we come to believe this?  For cannot Easter, and the preceding story of the death of Jesus, seem like something that happened in a world far away from ours, in a past of great remoteness?  What does it mean, what can it mean, that a preacher from rural Palestine was murdered by a regime that murdered thousands?  What can the extinction of one life mean?

 

So as we gather this Easter morning, direct descendants of those who heard the first Easter message, it’s important for us to review the message and get it straight.  What serious sin does is tear existence apart, break the harmony between divine love and our existence, leaving us to versions of life filled with pettiness, anger, greed, lust, violence and death.  We have more than bible stories to verify this; we have our own experience as individuals and as a soceity.  How do we repair that tear, this brokenness that pervades our life?

 

God repairs the brokenness, God restores the tear, in Jesus Christ.  The cross is the sewing God does to weave our existence and his love back together.  “Did not Jesus have to die?” Luke will say again and again in his Gospel these Easter weeks?  Why?  Because only a death like his shows the brokenness of our lives, shows what we do to each other, and what we would do even to God.  Only a death like his holds up the wound, the pain, to the full light of day.  Jesus’ death is the scar left from the healing, his wounds still terribly visible, but now shining in triumph.

 

And Easter is the showing of the victory to the world so that the power of his resurrection can begin to reshape human existence here and hereafter.  Two messengers in the tomb have to tell the women what their minds cannot reach to grasp. “Why look for the living among the dead?” Something new has happened in human history, but something all humans have desperately looked for.  Something new happens when we realize that we are no longer defined by death, but by unlimited hope and life.  Easter demands not only belief in the risen Christ; it demands belief in a transcendent vision of human existence.  It’s more than grinding out life, avoiding pain and increasing pleasure; it’s more than making money, and living long.  It’s the very breadth of human life, its scope and its depth, that also calls for belief.

 

Perhaps a lot of modern culture just ignores this, content with its smallish account of human life.  And maybe some people today can get to where Peter was, having heard the women, running down to the tomb, he stares into it and let’s himself be puzzled.  Something else is going on here, he has to be saying.  Something I cannot yet grasp or fathom.  Maybe some people today can acknowledge the mystery.

 

But hopefully many of us will get to where the women are in the Gospel; stunned at the message, staring at a tomb now empty and death garments strewn around, they run to the others with the message.  He is not dead, he is alive. They stun their companions and the world with their words, words they cannot keep to themselves, because with the rising of Jesus everything now is different.  From the ground has come the greatest truth we can ever hear—about God, about ourselves, about the destiny of our existence.

 

Easter, of course, is not just simply believed; it is lived.  It becomes real when the Spirit of the Risen Jesus takes over our lives, fills us with compassion and reconciliation, with generosity and joy, with the commitment to lift the burdens of others and strengthen those filled with fear and doubt. Easter lives when we testify to it by our lives and our words.  Easter faith leads to Easter life—a life we have here today, gathered in community around the Lord’s table, where he once again enters our midst and asks if we see it, if we get what God has done, and if we understand what this means to us and to our world.

 

 

Palm Sunday C


We call him the good thief, though he was hardly a thief.  Terrorist might be the better word, rioting and killing.  We even have a traditional name for him, Dismas, although there’s no backing in tradition for this.  We’ve meditated long and hard on his words, his final act of faith, whether out of desperation or insight: “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

But I think about the other one, the one crucified on the left, the other terrorist we never think about.  What was the difference, I ask myself?  Why could one see Jesus’ innocence, and the wrongness of his death, while the other one mutters curses?  And, while we reflect hard on Dismas, the one we call good, is it not the case that we are all much more likely to be like the other?

What the other thief, the other terrorist did, was what most of us do all the time: he mouthed the gripes of the crowd, he echoed the popular opinion.  Seeing Jesus jeered and abused by Romans and Jewish leaders alike, he would spend his final hours joining in.  What they were seeing, and saying, seemed true to him—how could Jesus be God’s son, dying as he did, and leaving him to die as he did?  Far easier to ape the crowd than truly stare and see the Christ.

At this point in our history, doesn’t it easiest for us to drift along with those who have the largest voice?.  What have we to lose?  There’s a comfort in being like everyone else.  But there also is a price in doing this.  Jesus, of course, forgave both terrorists—but only one could accept that forgiveness, only one could respond. 

 Maybe that’s the invitation of this Palm Sunday—to get beyond the voices of everyone and see how Jesus, in his dying, uniquely calls to us; to get beyond the popular babble to the truth of Christ’s love and the chance we have to respond to it, to receive it, to live it.  Maybe that’s our work this week: to truly see Jesus, the kind of death he is dying, and the kind of life he offers. 


Lent 5 C


Our world is fascinated by women in trouble.  Our news agencies spent almost an entire year talking about Casey Anthony, the woman who was accused of killing her child.  This year it’s Jodi Arias, the woman who shot and stabbed her boyfriend but claims she does not remember doing it.  And, of course, fifteen years ago it was Monica Lewinski.  And, on a regular basis, the activities of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton get a lot of notice.

All of that reminds us of this incident in the Gospel of John when the religious leaders bring a woman who was caught committing adultery.  Of course, she was not committing adultery alone, but we never hear of the man.  Culture, ancient and modern, always seems ready to attack and blame women, just as we so often blame victims. 

What makes this incident different is that the religious leaders are blaming this woman so that they can blame Jesus; they are using a scandal to create a scandal for Christ.  But it does not work?  Why?  Because Jesus points to the real scandal, the real sin, which the leaders refuse to see.  But this sin, which is the cause of all other sins, is absolutely necessary to see.

“Let the one among you who is without sin throw the first stone?”  It is their presumption that they are better than this woman, it is their presumption of their own innocence, that is the big lie.  It is their pride which allows them to feel superior to others, superior even to Jesus, that really is blinding them, keeping them from seeing what everyone must see.  Because pride takes away the truth of our total dependence on God—for everything, and especially for forgiveness.  When we think we do not need God, or God’s forgiveness, then we show total ignorance of ourselves, and also ignorance of the God of Jesus.

Our whole Catholic life is founded on forgiveness.  Baptism, the first sacrament we receive, is a celebration of forgiveness.  Penance and reconciliation, which are part of every Catholic life, are totally necessary for us in our relationship with God.  To think that we are better than others is to overlook who we truly are: all of us need the mercy and forgiveness of God.  The saints know that most of all.

This Lenten season helps us accept our need for mercy because it underlines the kind of God Jesus shows us.  “Behold I am doing something new,” sings Isaiah the prophet.  And what is that new thing? In a week that brings a new Pope with many firsts, it's essential for us to see the new thing God does for us—to see that God is not a God of condemnation, but rather a God who pours forgiveness upon all who open their hearts to him.  “Does no one condemn you?  Neither do I. But go and find my power to overcome your sin.”  Paul feels such newness in his life that he considers all of his past as trash compared to what God has given him in Christ.  God makes us new in his grace.

The Lenten question then is this: will we open our hearts to accept the mercy of God?  And will we show that we have received this mercy by our own attitudes of compassion and understanding for others?  Insofar as we want to throw stones at others, to that extent we have not yet come to know God.

Scandals will come and will go; they will sell newspapers and expand our gossip.  But the real scandal is this: we have seen God’s love in Jesus but have not really accepted or lived it in our own lives.


Lent 4 C

 

“Mi casa es su casa,” is the way the Spanish say it, “My house is your house.”  And it feels more expansive than the way we say it in English: Make yourself at home as if the guest has to do the work.  There’s a feeling of warmth, of openness, of acceptance with the idea that someone’s house has become my house, that I am totally at home with them.  Even so, it’s not easy to feel comfortable when in someone else’s home; we don’t know the boundaries, we aren’t sure when we are burdening our host, we don’t want to be an imposition on others.

 

When are we at home?  It’s not that easy to answer.  Surely we think of a physical location—a house where we have lived for a long time, or an apartment from your youth.  But home, when we think about it, is never just about a place.  More than anything, it’s about relationships.  It’s not my mother’s kitchen, but her presence in the kitchen; it’s not my father’s workroom, but the way he made it his own.  We are at home when we feel connected to people, when our relationships are bound to those we are for, and those who care about us.  Think of how a lost child feels, until it sees mommy or daddy.  It’s the connection.

 

Our Gospel is about misconnections, all the way around.  The younger son misconnects with his father, not even realizing the bond his father has with him.  The older son feels connected but only on one level, that of burden and responsibility.  But the father’s connection to both sons, the father’s desire that his generous love be seen and accepted, remains the key drama of the story.  The father is offering both children a home, a place of bonding and unity; when will they see it?

 

Lent is about renewing our sense of connection with God and with each other.  In some ways, many Catholics feel disconnected from their faith; in other ways, we can all be far from the God who shows such generous love, even we who worship regularly.  God sends Jesus Christ precisely to bond with us; God is in Jesus, reconciling the world to himself, making a place and a space where we can all meet God, and God can meet us.  Yet Jesus can appear remote from us—not because he is ever far, but because we grow far from him.

 

Our first reading gives us a sense of when the Jewish people felt at home.  It looks upon their time in the desert as a time of transition, a period of homelessness; now, having come to their own land, they no longer rely on the manna of the desert, but rather on the crops of their harvest.  But this view can be illusory.  How easy to take God for granted when our crops are coming year after year.  How easy to think that the Land is more important than God.  The greatest prophets in Israel would turn this image upside down: it was in the desert when we were closest to God, because there we knew we needed God.

 

In some ways, we are always with the Jewish people in the desert.  The whole experience of this life is one of exile, of pilgrimage, of partial life.  What we experience in this life, the closeness we have with Jesus and with each other in Jesus, only anticipates what our true home will be like, the Kingdom, when God is all and all, and when we are totally present to each other in God.  We accept the Father’s love in Jesus, knowing that we have so much more to learn about his house, and so much to experience in his grace.

 

“Mi casa es su casa,” God is saying: “I will be your house, your dwelling, your abode.  Come as close to me as you can, anticipate what I will offer the world, and bind yourselves to me and to each other in my Church.  Give up your waywardness; give up your posture of duty.  Give into the vision of love that I show, because in that vision you will finally find your fullest life and your truest home.

 

 

Lent 3 C

 

I was flying all night and making a connection through Miami.  Just two hours and I’d be back in my own office.  When was this trip going to end?  The flight was filling up.  Passengers were taking every seat, and filling the overhead bins.  A man comes on at the last minute.  His tie is in disarray around a crumpled shirt and fancy suit.  Where was his overhead space?  Who are these stupid people, he was saying, taking all the space?  The flight attendants were saying they’d check bags for free, but that was not enough for Mr. Morning Glory,  “Who do these people think they are?  Where can I put my bag?”

 

I’m wondering: well, why was he the last on board?  What would be the problem with him checking his bag?  Why is he grousing at everyone else, when they did what every other passenger had done—put their luggage in the bins as long as there was space.  Or do things apply to everyone else, but not to him?  Was everyone else the problem, but not him?

 

We have these attitudes all the time.  Other nations are making trouble.  Our neighbors do not keep up their lawns so well.  Our co-workers are slackers.  The other political party is the problem.  So Jesus uses some pretty stark language, almost shocking, to get the attention of his listeners.  Do you think it was only the Galileans, do you think it was only the folks on whom the tower fell, who were the sinners?  Don’t get your hopes up, brothers and sisters.  Because you are no better than they were.  Before you point a finger, look in the mirror yourself.

 

It’s easy to think that everyone else needs conversion, but not we ourselves.  Jesus is telling us that conversion is everyone’s business.  We cannot exempt ourselves because we all stand under the same judgment, however that is coming to us.  So don’t blame the unlucky or the misfortunate as if they are the losers.  We all stand a good chance of losing, unless we turn our hearts around.  Paul argues this exact point to the Corinthians—warnings were given in the past to the Jews, but these were really warnings to us.  Wake up!  Pay attention!

 

We see in the first reading what judgment will consist in: standing before God, the God of unending love and true freedom.  The Scriptures put us there with Moses.  The judgment we face is this: how is that total, unbounded love reflected in our lives?  How have we found true freedom, and helped others find it?  God is a mystery, for sure; Moses is stunned.  But God’s mystery is revealed by God’s interaction with—and in us.  My sister, who is a nun, tells the story of the woman on retreat who could not feel forgiven.  The woman talks to the retreat master who discovers that this woman has not talked to her sister in over 20 years.  What was the issue, asks the retreat master. “I cannot remember,” she responds. “Why don’t you call her up,” suggests the retreat master.  “I could not do that because that would mean she was right.”  Yes, we are all in need of more love and deeper liberation.  We’re all stuck.

 

Lent give us the opportunity.  It’s the time Jesus talks about in the Gospel, the time of patience God gives us while we the time as pilgrims.  Lent asks us to stop looking at others and start looking inside, where real change has to happen. 

 

We got all excited about the Oscars last week; and we are all excited about the start of baseball.  No harm in any of that.  But when do we get excited about God, and God’s offer to us?  When do we realize that we are, every Sunday, closer to God that even Moses was in the burning bush?  When do we say to ourselves: “I cannot let this pass by.  I have to go see what this is.  Not a burning bush.  But God come to us in total love in Jesus.”

 

Lent 2 C

 

Why is it that the most vivid memories I have almost always come from my travels.  My dreams seem stranger.  And the situations I get into—whether traveling or engaging with foreigners—seem to return again and again, with smiles or groans.  I will forever remember a trip in the Basque country of northern Spain—after a tremendous meal of shrimp and lamb with 40 members of the extended family of our host—walking through the mountains.  Fog seeped from the ground, sun dazzled in the leaves above, horsemen appeared with their mounts and disappeared into the mist, cows with bells wandered along our side.  Where was I?  What was this?  Had I temporarily left earth?

 

When we travel, we leave our ordinary course of life.  As a result, we can see things that we usually cannot see because we get so used to the everyday, our categories of life.  Go on a retreat, go on a trip, meet someone entirely new—the categories break open, the everyday starts to radiate with mystery.

 

Jesus is on a trip. St Luke shapes his Gospel with Jesus slowly moving toward Jerusalem, where he must die.  The visit on the mountain today with his innermost apostles serves to illuminate the meaning of the whole journey.  Up on the mountain, things seem magical, enchanted, eerie, and also frightening.  Along with the light, we find the clouds.  In this dramatic moment, when Jesus shows us the glory that hides within him all the time, the disciples have to confront their own attitude toward him.

 

“Let us build three tents,” says Peter.  Indeed, he forgets that he is on a journey.  He wants to stay where he is, bask in the glow of the moment, watching Jesus as he wishes to hold Jesus in his mind—the glorious Jesus of triumph.  Can he see what Jesus is doing, talking with Moses and Elijah, dialoguing with the Jewish tradition of law and prophet?  And what are they talking about?  It’s a striking word in the Gospel, only Luke uses it: they are talking about the exodus he had to accomplish in Jerusalem.  What is an exodus but the most decisive journey of life, a journey of testing, a journey of escape, but ultimately a journey of freedom. 

 

“This is my beloved Son, listen to him”—so comes the voice from the cloud, the cloud that obscures the light and puts it into context the glory of Jesus.  There is only one way to glory, and that is through the journey that Jesus takes, through the gift of himself, in sacrificial love, for the sake of the Kingdom, for humankind, for the liberation of all humankind.  Peter, do you want to take this journey?  Do you want to enter into God’s mystical moment?  Do you want to be truly enchanted? Even Abram knows that glory comes from sacrifice, from the gift of oneself.

 

Paul is writing to people who have pretended to walk the walk, but they are in it for themselves.  He’s almost shouting, so disappointed is he with those who began the journey but then gave up.  There is only one path, the one Jesus shows us.  Lent puts signposts up again and again, pulling us out of ourselves so we come to see the Christ who leads us, his glorying shining not in magical escape but in full awareness of the reality of God and humankind.

 

For years I lived in New York with tourists always wanting to go to places that, as a native, I had never visited.  “Why do you want to go to the top of the Empire State Building?” I’d ask.  They could see splendor where I could not.  What splendor are we missing in our faithlife because we never fully undertook the path of Jesus?  “This is my beloved son, Listen to him.”  Where would you lead me Jesus?  Let me come.

 

Lent 1 C


 After the Budweiser Clydesdales, the next most popular Super Bowl commercial was the kid with the Audi.  He seems out of sorts as he dresses for his prom as he’s going alone.  Dad comes in and throws him the car keys.  “Have a great time,” he says.  The kid is emboldened, I presume from the Audi, but who knows.  He drives to the prom, parks in the principal’s spot, and the camera follows him through the crowded room filled with kids dressed to their best.  He walks up to this beautiful girl and begins kissing her passionately.  The girl smiles in secret glee. Her date, obviously King of the Prom and an athlete type, comes over the pummels the kid for taking his girl.  Final scene, he’s driving home, smiling outrageously, with a black eye; then we see the four circles of the Audi Logo.

 So  this kid dared himself.  Hyped up so much by driving that Audi, he surprised himself.  “I did it,” he smiles.  There’s something about a dare, whether we dare ourselves or another, that stiffens our spines.  What do you mean?  I can do it.  Go ahead a dare me!

 So Satan, the tempter, is daring Jesus in our Gospel this morning.  “If you are the Son of God.”—Prove it.  Make bread.  Jump off a tower.  Rule the world.  In doing this, the Tempter does what tempters do—pushes us to the edge to see what is inside of us, what our real commitments are, what we are really going to live for.  Satan dares Jesus—do something crazy for me.  And Jesus responds by refining what his life and ministry will be all about.

 It’s a sober lesson for us Americans.  For us, faith so often is about what we get out of it, the consolation, the benefits.  You cannot look at much of American religion without finding one or another religious hipster talking about how religion will make you rich, or fix your problems, cure your cancer, or whatever.  Jesus clarifies the purpose of faith: to relate us to God, to orient us to the ever-generous God whose grace fills our lives.  Having fasted and prayed, he shows us this God more clearly than ever.

 You shall not test the Lord your God—why?  Because testing God means fundamentally mistrusting God, and fundamentally not seeing the blessings of God that are always present.  Moses in the first reading offers the bread of thanksgiving because of what God has done for the Jewish people.  And only a particular blindness on our part leads us to resent God, not see the abundance of his love, and pout like over-entitled babies.

 Can we go with Jesus into his desert?  Can we do Lent with him?  Can we clarify our own faith, our own focus on God, our own living for the sake of God and others as Jesus does?  Can we give up our approaching God with a calculator in hand, like we are making deals, and come to that trust to which Jesus invites us?  Lent is not about giving up candy or beer; it’s about conversion, coming to focus our lives on God as the center, and living our discipleship more deeply.  Pope Benedict has called our modern life a “desert” because we’ve banished God from it?  Can we un-banish God from our personal lives, can we let Jesus make God the center of our lives again?

 Paul tells the Romans that God’s word is not elusive, abstract, a million miles away.  God’s Word is as close as our hearts, when we open them in faith.  So here’s a good Lenten dare: I dare you to undertake the spiritual renewal God invites you to—this Lent.  I dare you to make Lent a time to transform your life.


5 C

Of the two sports I sometimes do for recreation, fishing works better than golf when it comes to excuses.  In golf, I only get explanations: I went back too fast, I moved me head, I didn’t follow through.  Things I did wrong.  But in fishing, I can blame whole host of things for my failure: too much wind, too much sun (the fish can see us!), it rained the night before, the wrong bait, or -- the classic -- the fish just were not biting.  What could I do?  Whether I catch fish or not, I still claim the reward of a nice drink and dinner at the end of a long day.  Wasn’t my fault we didn’t catch, was it?

 

Won’t be my fault, we keep hearing in the Scriptures of these weeks.  Last week, when God calls Jeremiah, he is saying: I’m too young.  This week, when God calls Isaiah, he’s saying: my lips are not pure.  And when God calls Peter with the most astonishing catch of fish, after Peter and his crew were skunked all night, Peter comes up with the profound statement: leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man.  As if Jesus didn’t know that.  As if that wasn’t true of everyone.  As if that was a good excuse.

 

I will lead you to catch people, other sinners, Jesus says, just as weak as you are, because you have seen my power, the power to draw crowds that hunger for my word, the power to gather boatloads of fish.  This is not about your weakness, Peter.  It’s about God’s action in our world.

 

And we have excuses, do we not?  Sinners, simple people, shy and not sophisticated, not spending hours a day reading our Bibles or Catechisms, not comprehending the Gospel readings we hear week by week, being over occupied with work, school, family, Netflix, or whatever.  We have our excuses, and we use them, to run away from the discipleship that belongs to every one of us through baptism.

 

Paul, the least worthy of all, doesn’t excuse himself.  He knows the presence of God in Jesus, and he cannot refuse it.  It’s grace, God’s grace, given to all.  And surely, though in a different way, we too know the presence of God: in the Scriptures, in our community of believers, in the power of the Spirit shown in a dozen subtle ways every day in our lives, in the joy and struggles of our families, and in our Eucharist.  “The Body of Christ,” the priest or minister says. “Amen,” we say, acknowledging the presence of Christ as much as Peter did, as much as Paul.

 

Let’s go fishing, says Jesus.  I have fish that only you can catch, people only you can touch.  And I will help you.  Just, promise me, whatever happens, I’ll get no excuses from you. 

 

 

4 C

 

Not everyone is happy.  Joe Biden is not happy with Beyoncé because she lip-synched at the Inauguration.  Millions are not happy with Lance Armstrong because he successfully lied for almost a decade.  Katie Couric was not entirely happy with Manti T’eo because she could not smoke out his entire story.  Almost no one is happy with Congress, nor have they been for years.

It’s easy to be disappointed with others, because they often let us down.  It’s not comfortable to feel like we’ve disappointed others because we do not want to let people down.  Feeling incompetent, inadequate, irresponsible—not us.  We like to think ourselves honest, conscientious, and ever ready.  Too bad we are not always that way.

But why did Jesus disappoint his own town?  We saw last Sunday how Jesus was invited to do the reading at his local synagogue, read from Isaiah, and said that Isaiah’s vision was going to be completed before their eyes.  But, just like a political candidate, Jesus sinks in popularity, with people ready to drive him over a cliff. 

Part of the reason was their own familiarity with Jesus—hah, we know this guy, we’ve known his people for years.  And part of it must have been the sheer boldness of his words—he dared to offer them something new, something that would answer their deepest needs.  Nah, they are saying, we will just settle for the lives we have.  Don’t both us with those prophecies.

So prophets have a problem.  Jeremiah’s stirring call quickly descends to God’s blunt charge: you will have to challenge my people; it will be like tearing down a wall.  How does a prophet shake people from their complacency?  How do we learn how to dream again?

After all, modern people seem pretty complacent about their faith.  Most Europeans call themselves Christian or Catholic, but small percentages are involved in Church.  Are they disappointed?  Americans are among the more religious people in the world, but most of us are not involved in Church on a regular basis—only 4 in ten Catholics, and even fewer Protestants.  We have 65 million Americans responding “none” when asked about their religious preference.  Are they disappointed? Are we disappointed, coming to Church, putting in our time, going through the motions?

Perhaps we’ve become too familiar with Jesus, thinking we know all his lines, that we have settled down to our relationship with him.  Perhaps we too no longer expect much from faith, from Jesus, from life, settling down to eking out what we can out of life’s immediate pleasures.  Perhaps we have our own modern form of indifference.

But no indifference, no disappointment, no resentment, no coldness can nullify the work that God has done for us in Jesus, and God would do even more powerfully in our own lives.  Jesus, surrounded by disappointed towns-people, just walks right through them.  What can crush God’s love? Jesus has his mission, to bear love to the world, a love that Paul tries to instill in his Corinthians, a love that perhaps has grown cold in us.  Go on, says Christ.  Ignore me if you can.  But I will still be for you, and with you, as much as you’ll let me in your heart.



3C

 

Even though we are no longer a nation of long-worded statements—we hardly listen to speeches, hardly make them, and take our information in small doses and tweets—we do get mesmerized at times by what seems like an important speech.  Sometimes a bishop will give a powerful sermon, or the pope write an important teaching, and a politician give a talk that garners a lot of buzz.  President Obama gave his second inaugural—some compared it to Lincoln, others thought Obama continued to ignore the folks he needs to work with.  Whatever the commentary, going into a second term is very different than a first term—a president knows the limits, and knows more clearly what he wants to do.

 

St. Luke gives us Jesus’ inaugural speech.  He shows Jesus in a synagogue in his hometown—how often do our political leaders return to their birthplaces to launch a campaign—where he is well known.  The tension of the reading seems to build gradually—they hand Jesus the scroll, he unravels it to one of the later chapters of Isaiah, he reads one of the more stirring passages of that great prophet, and when he sits down people cannot take their eyes off him.  Luke is underlining just how important this inaugural speech is

 

 “Today this reading is fulfilled in your hearing it.”  What Jesus must mean is this: from this day forward, Jesus will implement the words of Isaiah in his own ministry right in front of everyone’s eyes.  In fact, Luke’s Gospel will be a succession of deeds of healing, mercy, justice, and outreach to those on the bottom, because Jesus has come as God’s jubilee—God’s anointed instrument of mercy and reprieve—for humankind.  The paradox is this: those mighty deeds of love and justice which bring so much hope to the folks on the bottom become the reasons why Jesus himself will suffer and die on behalf of some of the folks on the top.

 

 Yet this does not hinder Jesus from announcing his purpose.  He is like Ezra in the first reading—Eara returns with the Jewish people to a devastated Jerusalem after 80 years of exile, Ezra has to encourage a broken people.  He stands on a platform; we can feel the tension and excitement here—the books of the law are read—the failure to keep the law accounted in the mind of the Jews for their failure and defeat.  Ezra is giving them a fresh start: renew the covenant, put God at the center, and we can rebuild and be greater than before.

 

Ezra and Jesus each demand the attention of their listeners. Yet we cannot help but notice the contrast.  Ezra is calling people around a rebuilding project; Jesus is calling people around a renewal project.  Ezra is trying to construct the framework for a new community.   Jesus is beginning the reconstruction of humankind itself.  Ezra calls a dispirited people to rejoice; Jesus calls a complacent people to conversion.  

 

 And what is the conversion?  To recognize that God can only be seen in the service that we give each other in the name of God’s infinite love.  Jesus reaches for the imprisoned, the broken, the blind, the folks on the bottom—it is in the charity he shows these people that God’s love is revealed.  Paul argues the same thing—that we all belong to one body, even with our different gifts, and therefore we all are responsible toward each other, with all of us being equal in the Spirit, and equally empowered in the Spirit.  Every role we have in Christ is exalted because each one of us is infinitely valued by Jesus.  We are his body, both at Mass and, just as much, in the world, carrying on the inaugural vision of Jesus Christ.

 

Our nation is getting hyped for the Superbowl, one more way we show that might and power are what we treasure as a nation.  Who will be stronger?  Who will dominate?  Who will win?  Our faith says that Jesus has already won, through his destiny of lifting others up, and  being raised from the dead to bestow his Spirit of life upon us.  The vision is revealed.  Will we let Jesus implement it in our lives?

 

 

 

2 C

 

Being in Seattle this week, I am very happy not to be in Washington, DC.  It’s a great stroke of luck to miss the crowds who will be coming for the second inauguration of Barak Obama—subways clogged, highways jammed, people lost, connections missed.  They say this inauguration will not be as crowded as the first, four years ago, when the novelty of an African American president promising hope and change seemed so alluring.  This goes to prove, I guess, that you only get one chance to make a first impression.

 

What kind of impression is Jesus making in the Gospel today?  Even though we are wearing green vestments and we call it Ordinary Time, it still feels like an extension of Epiphany—another first appearance of Jesus, after his Baptism which we celebrated last Sunday.  Here he is, with his companions, all of them guests at a wedding.  “They have no wine,” says Mary, words so few that she must have presumed Jesus understood the situation.  “Do whatever he tells you.”

 

What he tells them to do is remarkable, to fill up water jars with almost 140 gallons of water, all of which will become wine.  Just imaging that much wine here in your parish—it would more than do for a party!  Even if there were 500 people, there’d be plenty to go around.  What is Jesus up to? 

 

We have to pull away from the physical facts to get the spiritual impact.  Jesus is beginning his mission.  “My hour has not yet come.”  “Maybe it has,” Mary is saying, in effect.  And what is that hour, that mission, that purpose?  To bring the fullness of God into our human experience, to help us see what our God is like, and how God is toward us.  Jesus ministry will be a follow-up of this feast, one more glass of great wine after another.  Because the wine represents the sweetness of God, divine love, given to us in Jesus and poured abundantly into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

 

What a challenging image for us!  Christian life, Catholic life, spiritual life, as a feast of joy. . .  as a banquet . . . .as an abundance of God that overwhelms us.  It’s so easy for us to think of faith as some set of obligations, or some kind of bargaining system with God (I’ll do this if you’ll do that), and so hard for us to recognize the overwhelming joy that God wants to give us and the world.  It’s a joy of healing, of forgiveness, of promise, of new life, of unending love.  It’s a joy that flows from God in and through and between us.  It’s a joy that God continues to touch and renew us, and will do so now and forever.

 

I’m always amazed that so often Christians do not see this joy.  Isn’t this joy what we are showing in every Mass we celebrate, how we gather and let Christ come among us, come within us, come to the world through us?  Isn’t every Mass we celebrate a sign of God’s saving joy?  Jesus is making an outrageous gesture, transforming all that water into wine, to call our attention to the excessive love that we experience when his Spirit draws us together, when we feed on his body and blood, when we affirm our discipleship once again—when we become the Eucharist!

 

Often we do not appreciate the very rituals we do as Catholic Christians.  It’s like we were at Cana but missed the main action.  That’s why we need to be reminded of the point of our faith—joy, abundant joy, joy poured upon us and the world.

 

Water becomes wine.  Wine becomes blood.  Blood becomes life.  We become member of Jesus Christ.  It’s more than taking on a role, like becoming a lawyer, or a librarian, or even a president.  It’s becoming who God wants us to be, becoming our fullest selves, letting the water of our everyday experience become the wine of spiritual life.

 

 

 

BAPTISM OF THE LORD C

Sometimes you cannot stay on the sidelines.  Everything inside you is pumped and prepped.  The situation looks very clear.  You have to step in.  You cannot say “no.” 

Certainly there was a lot of conversation about Robert Griffin III, and his playing in the playoff game against Seattle.  Should coach have put him in?  What did the doctor say—or not say?  What about his knee?  Was he ready?  But RGIII himself said it—the game was on, and he was going to be in it.  In some ways, he was incapable of staying on the sidelines.

For centuries theologians have asked why Jesus was baptized.  He did not have sin, was not in need of baptism, so why did he do it?  Of course, John’s baptism was nothing like ours.  John’s baptism was a baptism of preparation—a statement that one was going to give one’s life in expectation of what God was going to do.  Jesus steps forward because he is saying he is prepared—he’s not staying on the sidelines.

After he is baptized, in the narration we have from Luke, there comes the voice and the sign of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, in his humanity, has stepped forward; the Father confirms, then, the divine mission of his beloved Son: to be the chosen one, to be God’s transformer of history.  The Father of love confirms the divinity of the Chosen One. The one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit now has the Spirit descend upon him: God’s life now works overtly in the ministry of Jesus. 

We imagine that being chosen by God must be sensational.  Think of the Pope, or think of our bishops, in all their regalia.  Think of the great figures in history.  Yet such thinking on our part only shows that we have fallen for the trappings of power rather than the actual message of the Gospel.  We think of Constantine, or of Charlemagne, not of Jesus Christ.  Isaiah’s reflections underlie all the baptism passages: Jesus is the chosen, beloved Son, because he is sent not in power, not in threat, but in humble service.  He’s not stomping on the broken reed, he’s not pouring water on the smoldering fire.  He’s not making a fuss.  But his humility will make the coastlands shake because, through it, we will see the power of God’s love.

Jesus is baptized to show his preparedness, his readiness to enact his Father’s will.  He also is baptized as an example—how his followers should be, our readiness to be humble servants of the vision of God.  For the Lord shows no partiality, no preference; all are called to be instruments of service.  From every nation and culture, every continent and demographic, the Spirit of Jesus has come upon the baptized, to empower all of us to be servants of the Kingdom, to show God’s love and compassion, to reach out to those without, those on the bottom.

Many ask if Catholicism has made being a follower of Jesus too easy.  Do we Catholics just stand on the sidelines?  Do we say the lines without meaning them?  Call ourselves disciples without being ones?  Hey, the Spirit is always ready to descend, to revive, to renew, to conform us more closely to Jesus.  God is always ready to empower his chosen, as soon as we know that it’s not our job to stay on the sidelines and watch.


Epiphany C

 

What good fortune I had this past week, to visit good friends on the westerns side of Puerto Rico, enjoy the sun, pretend to play golf, and read on the porch in the afternoon. As I went through piled up copies of the New Yorker and some theological articles, I could look down the street where several families lived. Their children were obviously enjoying their Christmas toys, one after another. I'd see them bring out skooters, up and down the street they'd go, for ten minutes, then bring out their new bikes, up and down the street for another ten minutes, then something like batons, swinging them in the air, for another ten minutes. Then back to the skooters, then the bikes, then the batons.

I could not help but wonder if these children were mimicking the rest of us, always with something else to do, something else to try, at least for a bit of time. The exercise equipment piles up, the electronics, the used CDs and DVDs, as we move from one immediate perceived need to another. Advertisers keep us going, telling us needs that we weren't sure we had. . .  but now we know we do. When did we start going fanatical about how white our teeth are? Or when as men we suffer from low "T"? Or that we needed to condition our hair or else?

This feast of Epiphany challenges this manic need we have to keep having and trying new things, this restlessness inside of us. There are two contrasts. Herod, the insecure king, who pretends to like the Seekers from the east, and who will do anything to hold onto whatever power he has. Do we need to kill the children? Then do it. What else do we need to do. Herod, the seeker who never finds. And then we have the Magi, the Seekers, who represent all of non-Jewish humankind, who after searching here and there, finally know what they want, finally find, and finally give themselves to what was most important to them. They give themselves to God.

These Seekers stare us in the face today. What are we searching for? Why do we grow tired in our obsessive desire for what we think will make life more comfortable, more secure, more luxurious? If we have not sought and found our God, then no amount of searching will satisfy us, no amount of obsessive spending will gain us peace. That's the lesson of today.

The other side, of course, is that God seeks us. Whatever there is inside of us, we strange creatures who have evolved on this planet, strange creatures whose minds roam all of existence, and whose hearts seek the fullness of love--whatever we seek, the truth is that the Fullness of Love sends countless stars into our lives, guiding us to divine love. The Fullness of Life sends endless signs into our lives, wondering when we, in adoration, will accept true Life.

Our coming to Church today is both a seeking and a finding. For all we have received in faith, there is so much more left to receive. How can I receive that? we ask. As the Magi show us, by falling down with open hearts before our God, made a brother in our midst so we will not miss him. He comes to us, offering us everything, if we can turn to him in total trust.

We've done the Herod thing long enough; isn't it time to be the Magi, to point to the world the Star that is God made visible, and, in contemplative faith, show our world what it means to seek and to finally find?

In Puerto Rico they have a cute custom for Epiphany. Children leave grass or hay on the floor of their relative's houses on January 5th; when they return on January 6th, there is a gift for every pile of grass they put down. Their grass turns into a gift! When we come, however we are, and give ourselves to Christ in commitment, our gift turns into God's Gift, for we are united with Jesus Christ, God's Gift and Light for the world.

 

 

Holy Family C

 

During Advent I had se veral opportunities to hear children's confessions. "Bless me father for I have sinned. I have disobeyed my parents ten times." Just about every child says this. Mom wants me to clean my room, but I didn't do it. Dad told me to go to the store, but I hid instead. Little actions of tension between parents and children. Of course, when they become teenagers, disobedience is not a sin, it's a way of life, a point of pride. They are growing up and don't need mom and dad anymore.

We might be tempted to think that the incident we have in the Gospel is about the disobedience of a young boy. But it's more about the obedience of a young boy to the calling that would define his very existence. Jesus going to the temple, where sacrifices were offered, happened twice in Luke's account, when Jesus was presented in the temple and at the age of twelve. In each of these accounts, we learn deeper meanings to obedience from Jesus himself.

 

Jesus, of course, will become in the new Temple. His visits to the temple as a young man are harbingers of his ministry and destiny. At his presentation, we know that his life will be one of self-offering. At this moment in today's Gospel when Jesus stays behind in Jerusalem, we know his life will one of speaking God's wisdom and being consecrated to the Kingdom. "I have to be in my Father's House." This is also translated, "I have to be about the business of my Father." In other words, Jesus comes to do the will of his Father, showing God's unlimited love by his life, death, and resurrection. Everything is subordinate to that, even the relationship he has with Mary and Joseph.

 

We often think of obedience as power. Who is the boss, who is the general, who is on top. Sometimes people play games with the power they have--making other squirm, giving orders without consideration of others, or just being arrogant. But obedience has little to do with power and everything to do with relationship. We are obedience when we relate to each other, hearing each other deeply, in the center of our souls. The Holy Family is Holy because their relationships show God's relationship with us. Our families are holy when we listen to, and love each other from the depths of our hearts.

 

Honoring a parent, cherishing a child, supporting each other, being present for each other, sharing life and laughter, sharing life and tears--this is family life, and these are the relationships that make life real--and the relationships that help us know God. If we come to believe, it will be because of what we have learned in our families.

 

So let our families be sacred. Let them be sacraments. Let them be ways in which we learn the depths of life, and the ways in which we learn the heart of God. We are all to be "in our Father's house" because, in Jesus, God keeps coming to our houses and into our lives.

 

 

CHRISTMAS 2012


It’s interesting what feels urgent over time.  Back in the early 70s, when I was ordained, it was the long-distance phone call.  Wow, that had to be important, and expensive, so I better get it now.  Then this morphed into the fax.  “Frank, there’s a fax for you.”  Oh, I better drop everything and read this fax.  Then it was e-mail, in the days before spam. Then it was the cellular phone call, vibrating away, demanding that I pick it up.  Now it seems to be the text message.  Bing Bing, text message here.  “Let me see who it is.” 
 
It’s hard to figure this out, particularly the text message.  After all, it is far less personal than a call, but it appears even more enticing.  One can dangerously drive a car and talk on a phone; but one cannot text and drive no matter who you are.  Yet you see people texting away.  Thinking of the next cool remark, the next emoticon, the next knowing reference.
 
Today we have God’s message, not a fax, nor a call, nor a text.  But a message in our own flesh and blood.  It begins as a child, someone you have to draw near to because infants are vulnerable, fragile: they need us to survive.  But the message grows into a prophet who cuts to our hearts by bringing us the Word of God, a healer who reaches our deepest parts where pain is deeper than bodily hurts, a story-teller who involves us so powerfully in his stories they end up interpreting our lives, and a savior who brings the liberation of God to our sin and even our death.  The child begins by needing us; but it ends up that we need him.
 
I hear the baby cry.  I see the young man run.  I watch the adult come out of the desert.  I see the man reaching those at the bottom, those ignored by society, while he is attacked by those on the top.  Ring, ring, ring.  God’s message is calling.  He comes in our flesh so we get the point.  I will love you from the inside, and I will bring you inside my life.  Ring, ring, ring, God’s message is calling.
 
We come today to acknowledge that message and the baby looks at us wondering if we will do more than that.  It’s a message that can change lives, can even change the world.  If we answer it will not be a tweet or a nifty text.  It will be a heart, the heart of Jesus, bringing us into the heart of God, asking for our hearts in return.  “Lord, can I give you my heart.  If I do, what will be left?”  The message waits our reading, our hearing, our loving, our living.  “If you give your heart, you will lose nothing; instead, in my Son, you will gain it all.”
 
Blessed Christmas.

ADVENT 4 C

I was out for a walk last Saturday around the Washington Hospital Center. Temperature was a perfect 55, and I got up to a good pace as I went along. Going down Irving St., a large street that goes by the hospitals in North East Washington, I first noticed some Latinos passing coming by me, with big smiles and warm greetings. As I moved further up, I saw something that looked like a demonstration, a row of people walking down Irving on the driving pavement, blocking all traffic. As I got closer, I saw the Mexican Flags, the Papal Flags, a truck with a microphone leading the Rosary, and about 200 people praying, carrying roses, on their way to the National Shrine. Behind them were lots of frustrated drivers wondering what they had run into, now that they could not make their way onto Michigan Avenue.

Later I went to the National Shrine, well over 1000 people, mariachies blaring, and hymns filling the vast space. This might seem like some nationalistic demonstration. It was, however, something else. The roses told the story. Here was the sign of Mary's visit in Tepeyec, to a people being conquered, to people looking for their place in the world now that everything they knew was turned upside down by the arrival of the conquistadores. The roses were the sign of God's care, though the most tender human interactions; the roses showed that God's graciousness never departs.

We cannot overlook the tenderness of the events we celebrate in this season--a young woman about to give birth, a fiance trying to figure out his place, and the simple gesture of visit that we hear about this morning. Mary, having encountered God in the form of an angel and the power of the Holy Spirit, runs in haste, through the countryside hills,  to see her cousin Elizabeth, whose pregnancy she just heard about. Having been visited by God, she now visits in the name of God. And when she does, the world is charged with love and grace.

The baby lept in my womb, says Elizabeth. "For who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"  Indeed, who are any of us to be cared for by this God, always present to us? The leaping of the baby, the feelings of joy, come from that essential knowledge that we have been loved eternally by God. And now we know it, because now God shows that love completely. We might forget it most of the time. We might even act against God's love. But God still comes, filling us with grace, lifting us from the brokenness and the incompleteness of our lives. There is an energy in every meeting we have with another, pregnant with the possibilities of kindness, friendship, and love. What kind of energy, then, comes from this God who draws intimately near us in Jesus?

Mary experiences this intimacy as powerfully as any human can, apart from Jesus. And what does she do? She spreads it. The visit of God to her through the Angel generates her visit to Elizabeth, her kinswoman. We see her running across the hills, overwhelmed by the news of the births about to happen, and overwhelmed by the prospect of the rebirth of humankind. Visits lead to visits. God's visit to us in our faith leads to the visits we make every day in our lives, with our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers. Through us God visits the world today. We are the roses God sends as signs of divine presence.

Last Monday our eyes were fixed on the ongoing sadness in Newtown, CT; people came together to be with each other, clergy and dignitaries came, and the president himself arrived. He acknowledged that his words could do little in that scene of endless tears. But still he came because when we cry, the worst thing we can do is run away from each other. When we cry, the last thing God does is run away from us. God comes, through the simple humanity of a woman, a humanity transformed because she is totally open to God. Angels, messengers, for sure come to us all the time. God visits us at every point in our lives. As God has come to us, as we open ourselves to this God, so, in God's name, we go to each other, we go to the world, filling it with the energy of divine grace.


ADVENT 3 C

Back in my days of opening Christmas presents, sometimes parents would tease us.  Which box do you want to open first? they’d ask.  So you’d be torn.  Here was a plain box, and here was a present wrapped in golden shiny paper.  Or here was a box that felt rather skimpy, but this other box felt heavy and made a thunky noise when you shook it.  What could be in there?  Which one do you open first?

We are inclined to go for the fancier boxes, aren’t we?  To go for the ones with the larger ribbons, or the ones that look bigger, or seem heftier.  Why not?  They must have a greater present.  Of the two, we naturally want the present we think will be best.

Today’s Gospel begins to give us a contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus.  It comes on a Sunday when we light the rose candle, a color brighter than Advent purple, a color that brings a smile.  We hear the word “joy” throughout the readings—this used to be called in Latin “Gaudete Sunday”—from the opening of the Latin text of the day—rejoice!  So the Gospel is telling us something about joy.

The contrast between John and Jesus plays out in a subtle, but powerful, way.  The people, aroused by John’s words, ask him, “Well, then, what are we to do?”  We are almost disappointed by John’s reply.  He says, in effect: do what you should do.  If you are a soldier, don’t bully people.  It you are a collector of taxes, stop cheating people.  If you have extra, then give your extra to one who needs it. 

There’s a way in which, when we do what’s expected of us, we feel satisfied—and we should, given the numbers of people who do not do even what they are supposed to do.  They do not even approach the minimum that’s expected.  Look at how faith is practiced today?  Or the businesses that have to be fined just so they do not launder money, or sell phony investments, or produce corrupt and dangerous products.  Or the service we often get as customers.  Yes, no one should put down people who are meeting expectations.

But one is coming, says John, who is greater than I.  Greater because he baptizes, not only with water, but with water and the Holy Spirit—that excessive, love-brimming, joyful, and generous Spirit of God.  Once one receives this Spirit, life is far more than the minimum.  Rather than doing just what we have to do, we want to do all that we can do.  Like a young lover, we cannot do enough for the beloved.  Here, take it all!  Jesus is the greater present—not, the greatest! 

The winnowing fan in the hand of Jesus removes the chaff, that is, those who think that following Jesus can be a stingy and small thing.  Of course not!  Joy expands, makes us laugh, gives us a feeling of exploding from happiness.  That’s why Christ comes.  Taking on the sadness of our lives, he pours the Spirit into our hearts—a Spirit that makes us like him, exalting in life’s abundance.  If we catch the Christmas spirit, it is exactly this: one of excessive joy.  One that should radiate from us because Christ has touched us.

We don’t have to guess what’s in the box.  John, the prophet, tells us who we should follow, who is the greatest prize.  John feels unworthy to touch the sandal of Jesus.  But Jesus lets us touch his whole being, coming to us in the Eucharist, filling us with himself, and sending us forth in his Spirit into our often glum world.  Not to be miserly semi-Christian Grinches, but joy-filled witnesses of his coming.

ADVENT 2 C

 

I am told there’s such a thing as a Lipitor brain and I suppose I use that as an excuse for my growing inability to recall dates, names, and facts.  Often it’s like I’m rummaging around inside my head, knocking on mental doors, trying to find out the information that I want.  “I know it’s in there,” I’m thinking, but it just won’t come out.  So I greatly admire those folks who have a great command of data, history, details.  I know people who can not only tell me about Ancient figures in obscure lands, but details of generals from World War II.  How do they do that?  How do they master all that information?

It might feel like Luke is showing off all he knows in the first part of the Gospel reading.  He lists prominent figures, and the realms they governed, with names that challenge anyone reading the Gospel.  What’s he doing here?  Is he giving us a history lesson?  It has to be more than that.

Luke is elaborating here something that is essential to his view of the Gospel.  For him, Jesus did not come just for some small chosen nation in the Middle East.  For him, Jesus came to change all of world history.  Jesus came for every nation, for every culture.  That’s why when Luke gives us the origins of Jesus, he goes back not to Abraham, but to Adam.  And that’s why when the second book in his collection, the Acts of the Apostles, comes to its conclusion, we find Paul not Jerusalem but in Rome, in the central and major city of the civilization and culture that he knew.

We can think of our faith as something primarily for ourselves, our little group that is privileged to have the sacraments, the Scriptures.  But that’s now how Luke sees it.  He uses the language that we read in Baruch, in the first reading, and which we also find in Isaiah.  God is building a highway, a straight road; just as the ancient Jews would be able to return to Jerusalem after the exile, so in Jesus God will be able to touch all of humankind.  Lower those mountains; fill in the valleys.  There will be no obstacles, no moats, to keep God from touching human life.  All are involved in the salvation God offers.

This should challenge us in a big way because we now live in a culture that seems to resist the Gospel and faith.  More and more, our modern world seems to want to rid itself of religious language, and focus itself on money, power and business.  How do we speak faith there?  Pope Benedict often uses the phrase, “desert,” to talk about modern life, a world without reference to God.  How do we raise a voice in the middle of this desert?

To be sure we do not have trumpets and huge banners to accomplish the proclamation of faith today, but every single one of us interacts with our world.  Every one of us talks to neighbors and friends, is involved in our commercial world and the work place.  It is through the witness of our faith, our everyday conversations, the way we show our values, that faith speaks to our modern world.  We have to be the prophets crying in today’s desert.

How we prepare for Christmas, the religious attitude we take during this sacred time, is part of the prophetic voice that God would speak to our world.  Our reception of the Word of God at Christmas, as individuals and as families, is part of the Wor God would speak today.  We can do that only if we let God’s voice penetrate us, let Advent hope seize us, during this season.

In the two-thousand-thirteenth year after the birth of Christ, when Barak Obama was re-elected president of the United States, and war raged throughout the Middle East, when Vincent Gray was mayor in Washington, and Justin Beiber ruled the hearts of teen-age girls, the Word of God came to earth, and a Catholic people, in the desert of modern life, brought that to their world….

 

 

Advent 1 C

There are two debates raging around education.  One concerns teachers, their tenure, their competence.  The other revolves around testing.  How, after all, do you know what children are learning without giving them a test?  Behind all the published scoring data about how much, or how little, children have improved in reading and math, we have millions of children sweating and straining as they take these exams.  What does a test show?  Is it a fair measure?  What if I don’t get an A?

In some ways, tests show at least how you prepared for the test and where you ended up.  Because often we know a result from how it ends.  One of my peculiarities is that I love to watch golf.  It sounds strange but how a golfer ends his shot is one of the most important parts of the shot.  Off balance?  Leaning to one side?  Shortened swing?  Where the club ends up shows the trajectory of the club from the beginning.  The end tells the story.

We have the great paradox of Advent when, every year, we begin a new liturgical church year reflecting on the end.  Each year we hear the imagery of the moon and stars, the heavens shaking, of wars and tribulations.  What a way to start off? we might ask.  Why begin with downer images like this?

Because we can only live our present life if we have images of hope, if we have a picture of the end in mind, if we know what we are working for.  “When you see these things happen,” Jesus say, “hold your heads high!”  Everyone else may be gasping and dying in fright, but not the followers of Jesus.  Why?  What do they know that the rest of the world does not know?

What  they knew, what we know, is that God has offered humankind infinite and overflowing love, and that the whole point of our life now is to be swept into that love.  “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another,” Paul writes, because the love we have for each other is God’s love poured into our hearts.  Only if we keep in mind the fullness of God’s Kingdom will we live in response to that Kingdom.  Because the truth is that the Kingdom of God is always coming upon us, the end of the world is being worked out in every moment, and every second of our lives is a judgment.  How we end up shows how we got there, how we lived.

Some of the excitement of our faith, the tension of love and grace, can dim.  When I was in Rome in October for the Synod on the New Evangelization, I heard our Holy Father talk about Catholics growing tired in their faith, forgetting the great drama of our lives: to receive God’s promise of justice and life, to accept Jesus Christ as the center of our lives, and to walk in the path that he shows us. 

Yes we can grow sluggish, walk around like people who drank too much as the Gospel puts it, thinking that life is about my next meal or the next click on my entertainment device.  Life is about God, the passion of God for us, and the passion we have for God’s cause, God’s Kingdom, God’s realm of love and life.  Wake up!  Like a coach telling his team about the victory to be won, God begins this year inviting us to look toward his victory, his triumph in Jesus Christ.

Some of us smarty pants like tests; most of us do not.  God’s test, however, is something else.  It is not about our failure, it’s about God’s victory and our openness to be part of that, to receive it, to accept it.  For we who live in Christ, the test is happening.  When we choose to follow him, we begin to see that our redemption is already at hand.  Come, says Jesus, come to the head of the class.

 

 


Christ the King-B

One of the most common mental games we play is: what if I could be . . .  Sometimes it’s about callings in life—a singer, a doctor, a golfer; but very often it’s about a leadership position—a mayor, a king, a president.  I think every priest plays the game: what if I were the bishop!  Some even move it higher: if I were the Pope, I would . . .  And, when you unpack these fantasies, they mostly deal with having unlimited power, if only for a short time.  I’d raise taxes, or bomb some country, or allow married priests, or get rid of some cabinet position. 

This shows that, underneath, we think power is all about arranging things for ourselves, as we want them.  We envy the most powerful people in our culture, be they politicians or, much more likely, financiers.  They have big bucks, they can do whatever they want.  In doing this we ignore the often repeated phrase, “Heavy is the head the wears the crown,” or the lessons of movies like Lincoln which show how hard being a leader can be. 

Of course, we could have saved ourselves a lot of work by meditating on a feast like we have today, Christ the King.  How is Christ a King?  We see him, stripped and bleeding, in front of Pilate who basically banters about power with Jesus.  The passage we have stops one line short of Pilate’s most cynical phrase, “Truth, what is that!”  As if to say, I have power, so I can make my own truth. 

But in the end, it is the beaten and dying Christ who has ultimate power.  He shows the powerlessness of power, and the power of being totally faithful, in love, to his Father, in complete trust, as he engages the death that was his destiny.  Why his destiny?  Because Christ came among us in love, loving us to the end, loving us to the ultimate weakness of our mortality, our extinction.  This love to the end unveils the ultimate power of existence, the emergence of the Kingdom of God from within us limited and lowly folk.

What is the dominion that Jesus receives?  We read these words of Daniel which, at certain points in history, might have undergirded a rather triumphalistic image of Church.  Look, we have all these nations under our power!  But Christ wins them not by conquest, but by giving himself; and he wins them not to dominate them like an autocrat, but to extend the kind of love that he shows, to extend a Kingdom of service and grace.  All look upon him—the Alpha and the Omega because in Christ the beginning and the end of life, of human life, now has meaning in his self giving.  All see the one who was pierced, whose heart breaks open in total gift.

And we are here because we have been admitted into that Kingdom, admitted as a priestly people, identified with his sacrifice of love, his bearing of our burdens, his total giving.  The songs of glory throughout the book of Revelation, where our second reading comes from, flow into our own congregations, as we gather around the Lamb, who was slain to show us true life. 

“My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus, because he doesn’t have our crazy ideas of power.  But his Kingdom is coming into this world, indeed in our very worship today, and into the hearts of all who can see the truth of his self-less power.


33 B

The debate about climate change intensified when Hurricane Sandy hit southern New Jersey and brought enormous surges of water into the New York area.  Governor Cuomo said it was obvious that climate was changing; most people might agree with that—without agreeing on the cause.  Rising seas are making Venice’s flooding worse than ever.  We see icebergs turning to liquid before our eyes.  On top of that, large earthquakes in Japan last year, near Hawaii, and then by Nicaragua, seem to be a more regular occurrence. Bees and bats have had strange and devastating diseases.  Flesh eating bacteria lurk in our hospitals.  E-coli hide in our hamburger.

In all of this disaster news, however, we hardly hear language such as we find in the readings today.  Sure, people look at the Mayan calendar as some kind of prediction of the world’s end in December 2012, but that’s heard almost on the level of entertainment.  We live as if the world will be here forever, as if science could adjust to the big issues of today and, like a knee-replacement or heart by-pass, string us along for another few centuries. 

 Just as our culture pushes against ideas of the end of the world, so modern people push against ideas of death.  On the one hand we think we are not going to die; on the other hand, we look upon death as a kind of stoic relief to unburden us when we get old.  We rage when someone dies too young or with obvious injustice, but we take death as nature’s inevitable course, letting its drama, its finality, drip away.

Jesus, however, sees a lot of drama, not only about the meaning of the world, but even more about the meaning of every soul, of every life.  He urges his followers to live with expectation, with eyes alert.  You can interpret the skies, he says; you know when seasons are changing.  Why can you not see what is happening in and through the events of your lives? 

 So where do we look for the signs that will give meaning and direction to our lives?  If we don’t think the world is going to end tomorrow, or next month, how do we interpret things?  If no one knows the day or the hour, how do we live in-between?  Jesus gives us the necessary lead: heaven and earth may pass away, but his Word will not.  Our lives are a dialogue with the Word of Jesus, the challenging and comforting Word of eternal love offered to us and to the world.  Every day we are either responding to this Word or ignoring it.  Every day this Word can shape us for unending life, or our running away from the Word will mis-shape us for unending distortion.

 Behind all the comforts that we have, behind every convenience and gadget, life is still a test, one that stands before us at every moment.  We so often live as if there will be no judgment, but every moment is, in fact, a judgment.  When death calls us, it will be from this life that you and I are constructing every day—the life that you and I are letting God construct in us every day.  In the past some pious people would conduct a daily examination of conscience.  Perhaps that would be good to resurrect again—one daily time when we pull aside, turn the TV down, and ask ourselves how we have furthered the love of God, or how we have hindered and hidden it.

 When Jesus says that his generation will see the judgment, I think he meant the judgment of his death and resurrection, what you and I celebrate and proclaim every Sunday.  Here is victory over death, here is a world that will never end, here is love undying and forever given.  When people get hysterical about a world going to end, we Catholics can say: It did end, when Jesus died; and it began anew in his Resurrection.  We can say to people: You can get on board by living Christ’s risen life.  Or you can spend forever knowing that you missed the one train you had to make.

 

32 B

Whoever would have won the presidential election, history was certainly being made—in the frantic way both candidates raced from state to state the last days before Election Day—each one going to several states several days in a row.  It got dizzying to see reporters draw the lines from Iowa to Wisconsin to Virginia to Ohio.  It got tedious hearing the same stump speech place after place.  It was ironic to hear their raspy voices.  But each one fought to the end.

It had to be that way, in an election predicted to be this close: after all, which candidate was going to spend the next four years thinking, “If only I’d have gone to Pennsylvania one more time.” Which candidate was going down in history with the judgment: he didn’t try his all.  I know that’s my feeling when getting on the subway—I race like a madman; that way I know if I missed the subway, it wasn’t my fault.  I gave it everything.

To what do we give everything?  In fact isn’t it hard to keep the intensity up?  Even when we give everything to a career, vocation, to a wedding and marriage, the intensity wears off and we feel after a while like we’re slacking.  Even more so, I suppose, when it comes to our faith. 

So we have the remarkable story of this widow that Jesus and his companions observe as she puts her two coins in the temple collection.  The point is not her two coins; it’s rather what Jesus points out: she gave from everything she had.  She gave her all.  It’s a powerful image to receive after last Sunday’s Gospel about loving with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Now we see it, in its simplest form.

Isn’t the lesson, however, really about trust?  Like the widow in the time of Elijah who puts her last resources into what she thinks will be her last meal—if I give everything, if I trust, perhaps I will receive everything.  Or, more sharply, if I give everything, I know I will receive everything because God responds to hearts that trust, to hearts that are open.

Contrast this with the way we hedge everything in life—we even have hedge funds for the superrich who probably can afford to lose a coin or two.  We keep things guarded in our own control, perhaps sometimes letting out a trial balloon or a little bit of volunteering.  We do not get down to the deepest parts of our souls, where we ultimately discover what we rely on.  We play it safe.  It’s built into us, reinforced by our cautious culture.

Yet does not Jesus himself put out his all?  Does not he place his trust in his Father, hanging on the cross, resolving all our hesitations?  “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.”  And isn’t this the Jesus we come to receive, to unite with, at Mass?  Come, says Jesus, give me your cautious heart.  If you cannot trust for yourself, trust in me, trust in my trust.  There you will find a treasure you can never measure, and a victory that does not end.


31 B

So how badly do you want it?  Barak Obama, Mitt Romney?  Detroit Tigers? Lance Armstrong?  Eli Manning?  Donald Trump?  How badly do you want it?  How much are you willing to work, to dedicate all your efforts, to give everything inside yourself for what you want? 

 How badly do you want it, Christian believer, Catholic of the 21st Century?  How much are we willing to give everything?

 When you apply the standards of Deuteronomy, in this most famous passage which every devout Jew hangs on the door to the house, it becomes a kind of litmus test.  What does it mean to love with our heart, mind, heart, and soul?  What does it mean to love with everything?  Our culture looks at love as an emotionally overwhelming feeling, almost a helplessness, that comes upon us.  Cupid shoots the arrow?  In the lingo of Godfather II, the thunderbolt comes in a flash.  But the words of Deuteronomy seem to probe deeper than even modern sentiments of love.

We forget that the Jewish vision was, ultimately, an encompassing way of life.  Wear this law on your forehead, hang it on your doorways.  Of course, we know that these ideas grew throughout Jewish history; indeed, Deuteronomy was forged in the heated and bitter kiln of exile, in Babylon.  There Jewish people were able to look back at their tepid following of the God who covenanted with them; there they learned that if you don’t do it with all your heart, you are not doing it enough.

When this young scholar approaches Jesus, it feels like the confrontations that have beset Jesus since the start of Mark’s Gospel.  But the scene turns out quite differently.  When Jesus tells the scholar that following God with everything, and linking this to one’s neighbor, encompasses what God asks of us, the scholar engages Jesus, begins to grapple with the insight, and affirms Jesus’ correctness.  The passion of Jesus is contagious, is it not?

When we look at the New Evangelization today, it speaks to the way we have become tepid in faith, lowering it on our list of priorities, feeling we can love with only half a heart, and think with only half our minds.  Love doesn’t work that way, because God doesn’t work that way.  God has loved us with all the divine being, confirming this in the death and resurrection of Jesus—see how God’s love is written with blood, which represents life.  Hebrew’s vision of Jesus as the eternal priest springs from the realization that Jesus is the complete priest, giving everything and bringing everything into the realm of God.

“You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” says Jesus.  Even with the total intensity of Jesus, he acknowledges when someone is in process, making his way, coming along.  How our own sense of faith can sometimes blind us to the ways others are on the way to see it!  The love of our heart, intense and uncompromising, is still a love that is expansive, compassionate, generous, giving.  It includes a love of neighbor, not a judgment of neighbor.

How badly do we want it?  How badly do we want to live the Kingdom?  Jesus tells us: we can only enter the Kingdom with all our hearts, and those hearts need to be shape by his divine compassion. 


30 B

 

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Didn’t we hear this question last week, when James and John approached Jesus.  And we hear it again, as the blind man finally makes his way up to Jesus.  Wow, we think, Jesus seems to be saying that to everyone.  Is he saying that to me too?  What would I ask for?

Of course, it seems silly for Jesus to ask the blind man what he wants.  Isn’t it obvious?  The man is blind.  Of course he wants to see.  But that presumes that we always know our needs, and that seeing was his deepest need.  After all, don’t we often get things that we think we need, and then find out we could have lived just as well without them.

Perhaps Jesus keeps asking the question in this Gospel because he wants us to deepen our answer as we continue our dialogue with him.  In Jeremiah’s time the Jewish people were craving to get out of exile; the blind seeing, the lame walking, the women now bearing children—these are all symbols of leaving exile, of finding where we belong.  They ask us a very deep question: what exile am I in, at this point in my life, and what freedom am I asking of Christ?

Perhaps the greatest freedom is to have this ongoing dialogue with Jesus, with his love probing deeper into our hearts, offering us greater levels of freedom as we discover greater levels of need.  At the Synod on the New Evangelization, the key point was this: our Catholic life is one of personal relationship with Jesus Christ, this ongoing dialogue of back and forth, as Christ brings us more deeply into conversion.  Our High Priest has borne our burdens, but he would carry us further, beyond our burdens, into the Kingdom of unending love.  “What do you want me to do for you?  Would you like, in the deepest part of your soul, to enter my Kingdom of divine love?”

 

29 B

 

I have seen it happen again and again.  People want to advance at work.  They take extra courses at night, stay late at the office, accept extra assignments and, sure enough, when the next round of promotions gets underway, they are selected for advancement.  Usually, that is, to a management position.  Then I hear the other side:  I never knew supervising people could be so difficult.  People are petty, they bend the rules in their favor, they don’t keep deadlines, they bicker with each other—ugh, say the chosen, I’d rather be back where I was.

We often talk about the advantages of getting to the top of the class, but not the disadvantages.  All of a sudden, we have to perform at a higher level, more people are watching and waiting for us to fail, we have to clean up the mistakes of others and end up with countless thankless tasks.  We all want to be stars, executives, bosses, leaders, recognized—but the price can be high.

We can see the motives of James and John from the reaction of the others to their request to be right next to Jesus when he comes into glory.  “Who do they think they are?  Who are they to be pushy like this?”  The scene in the Gospel today is a continuation, and vivid example, of the conversation we saw among the disciples a few weeks back—who would be number 1 in the Kingdom?  The more Jesus talks about his destiny, the less his disciples get it.  “You do not know what you ask,” says Jesus, with devastating accuracy.

What does it mean to be number one?  We keep thinking God is all about glory—we think of popes being hoisted on their papal chairs before the world, of all those scarlet cardinals.  But being chosen by God is first of all a vocation of service, and Jesus tells us what the implication of that service is when he responds to our ambitious duo.  Can you drink the chalice I’m going to drink?  Can you receive the bath, the baptism, I will receive?  Will you live and die in service to others?

We have to smile when the two pushy disciples answer: “we can.”  They have no idea, of course, what service in Jesus is all about, even though he has told them.  They have not yet learned how Isaiah’s searing image of servanthood, some of which we hear in the first reading, will become the prism through which Jesus whole ministry will be understood, particularly his death and resurrection.  Isn’t being chosen to be the big cheese?  Not with Christ, not with the Messiah that Mark keeps presenting to us.

Do we not often see this issue in our own parish lives—how we want titles, but cringe at the responsibility, how two or more people will compete for a role because they think it’s a way to boss others around, how jealous we get at the “success” of another parishioner, how the ordained think that ordination is about them rather than their service to others?  Mark gives us these words of Jesus because he saw how the community of Jesus can become a community of bosses rather than a community of servants.  Just look at the way we keep extolling success in our world, as if it gave people permission to manipulate those below them—it’s a pretty good picture of how we associate leadership with selfishness rather than leadership with profound service.

It’s not for me to make you number two, says Jesus, but rather for those for whom it has been prepared—for those who truly understand what the heaven of Jesus is all about.  For the Kingdom of Jesus echoes the Messiahship Jesus has been revealing, and the kind of God Jesus has been showing us.  It’s a Kingdom of service, of self-giving, of glory through the renunciation of self.  It’s a Kingdom where the High Priest takes into himself the burdens and brokenness of others.  It’s a Kingdom where success is not measured in dollars or spotlights, but in sacrifice.  Jesus gives us the bossiness of the Gentiles as a foil: his life is exactly the opposite, exactly 180 degrees, from that.

Of course, we are in this church at Mass today because we’ve received Christ’s baptism; in a few minutes, we will approach the altar and take to our lips the cup of the Lord’s blood poured out in service.  God has chosen all of us—but not to sit around in luxurious comfort, or to seek our own spiritual consolation and assurance. God has chosen us to bear each other’s burdens, and to carry the world’s brokenness, because unless we do, God’s love remains hidden, and Christ’s Kingdom will not grow. 

 

28  B

 

So you want to buy a little carry-on.  You know the size and the quality you want.  You go to one store, and the price is, say, $70; you go to another store, and the price for the same bag is $65.  It’s pretty clear which bag you would buy, all things being equal.  Because we certainly do not want to spend more than we have to for things we want or need.

This obvious trait is the root of analyzing human nature as fundamentally economic, homo oeconomicus, as some professionals call humankind.  This view says there’s a part of us that simply calculates what is going to be in our advantage, and we take it.  Adam Smith, who wrote about the “invisible hand” of economic laws at work in daily life—the economic rules we follow by instinct—helped modern scholars and governments come to think of economics as an almost invariable set of rules that hold sway in human relations.  There’s a way we operate—and it’s mostly for our own favor.  Debates about economics now run through all of modern life; the US Presidential debate essentially revolves around economic theories, as do Europe’s issues.  What set of rules will get the most money for the most people, without bringing on inflation, or bubbles that eventually crash?

So what sense can we make of this Gospel, this young man as Mark presents him, who comes up and asks about eternal life?  Very gripping, as Jesus hears his recitation of his credentials, how he has kept the commandments from youth, is the way Jesus loves him.  The Gospel almost makes us wonder if we’d be loved like this guy.  Is it his sincerity, his noble desire, his innocence that sways Jesus’ love?  Jesus, we want to say, we’ve tried too.  Love us the same way. (Of course, he does!)

So Is Jesus asking this man to do what he cannot do?  To violate the basic rules of economics?  To resist the invisible hand that controls so much of human behavior?  Or is Jesus raising the stakes: it’s not about the economics that you count with your fingers, but the economics you count with your heart—the rule that says the more you give the more you ultimately will get back?  We wonder if Adam Smith, or all those Washington think tanks, ever posed that question—that utter generosity will open for you utter abundance.

We hype entrepreneurs of money; what about entrepreneurs of the heart, of the soul, or life?  Jesus is asking this young man: make a decision—you can keep all those things you have, or you can have eternal life.  Which seems to you the bigger bargain? The bigger advantage?   The best way to get ahead?  The man walks away sad not only because he has many things, but also because he calculates the value of those things over the longings of his own heart.  Even Solomon, who ended up a rather needy and grasping person near the end of his Kingship, is able to sort through all this in the first reading, choosing wisdom over money; here, perhaps, is where the two-edge sword of God’s Word cuts too close to our modern, economic, American bones.

God has not asked many of us to sell all we have and give to the poor; but God does ask us to enter God’s economics of generous abundance in the way that makes sense for us.  Jesus is saying that we all cling to something, whatever that is, needlessly; and it prevents us from having the freedom to put God at the center of our lives, to love all things in him.  We are all perhaps more like that young man than like Solomon.  But, in being so, we end up driving the poorer bargain.  We violate not the laws of economics, but the laws of our basic relationship with God.

The Synod on the New Evangelization will spend a lot of time talking about, in its now famous phrase, the “tsunami of secularism.”  I am not sure what exactly they mean, but the tsunami is not happening apart from us—each of us, by not putting God at the center of our lives contribute to a world in which God is more difficult to see. God says that if we trust divine love, then whatever we think we are giving will come back a hundred times.  That’s a tsunami of a different kind—not secularism but true life, not more money in the bank, but a heart so expanded we begin to see God and live God’s life for real.  That’s God’s offer—what do we say?

 

 

27 B

 

It is one of the fiercest athletic competitions, and the fan involvement is immense.  The players receive no money for winning.  They play not even for the glory, but for their respective countries.  It happened last week outside Chicago, the Ryder cup, in which Europe came back from a strong American lead, embarrassing the US golfers and silencing the 40,000 fans who flocked the sidelines. 

Soccer fans, too, get enormously involved, and even baseball fans once the playoffs start—this fierce identity with a team, a group of men or women, who somehow come to represent ourselves, how we see ourselves.  Perhaps ultimately US politics has come down to this—getting people to so fiercely identify with one or another party, one or another position, that their whole lives seem to be at stake in any election.

Why do we identify as we do—with our nation, or our city, or our group of friends?  Why, even more intensely, do we identify with our relatives and families as we do?  And, most intensely, why do we come to love another even more, we feel, than we love ourselves?  What leads us, in the theme of our Scriptures, to give our lives to another in marriage?

The story of the creation of Eve—“woman” who comes from “man”—hints at some of the deeper dynamics.  Adam is created, complete, master of the world, but utterly alone.  It’s not things or creatures Adam needs.  God drawing Eve from Adam, from his rib, during a deep stupor gives us the mysterious clue: every human being is drawn beyond him- or herself, needing to live with and for another, at the deepest level of commitment possible.  This is built into us.  To think we are totally content all by ourselves, individually, is an illusion; we can only be truly content living for another, one way or another.

Of course most people marry, though some do not.  But being married or not does not eliminate the dynamic.  Catholic clergy do not marry, but we are not called to less of a passion—we, in an astonishingly powerful way, are called to live for others.  Because the truth is that we are all called to live and love as God does—a God who blows divine breath into humankind out of sheer, unmerited love, and so a God who sets divine love as the ultimate norm for all love.  This is why Jesus, the divine bridegroom, can speak as he does about marriage and divorce.  More than a moral lesson about keeping our vows, which it is, Jesus’ teaching is rather a description of the ultimate divine love that defines all human and spiritual interactions. 

Humankind historically took a long time to come to this insight; and even today, as we know, marriage often and tragically fails the ideal.  Broken marriages represent more than broken dreams.  They represent broken human spirit, persons made incomplete because of the rupture of love that has occurred.  Far more than listing faults and failings, we believers have to heal, restore, console, and strengthen those shattered by shattered love.  Far more than being tempted to be smug, we followers of Jesus have to strive without resting until the ideals of faithful love, God’s ideals, come to structure human love.

Fans may be disappointed, teams may falter, humans may fall short of the visions in our heads.  But God’s vision, God’s ideals, abide forever.  That is what we Christians testify to—when we come in worship, when we care for each other, and when we pledge undying love in marriage. 

 

 

26 B

Last week had to be one of the stranger weeks in my life.  I was in one of the oldest original Dutch settlements, Flushing, NY, preaching a parish renewal.  Although the parish spoke Spanish and English, I was already in the area for a three days when it dawned on me: outside the church building and rectory, I have not heard English all week.  On the streets, block after block, were thousands of Asians.  I presume most of what they spoke was Mandarin, and I know there were signs with Korean characters, and plenty of Vietnamese restaurants.  I was in another world.

This can, of course, be exhilarating.  But it can also be disorienting.  To be situated in some other culture—what does that say about my own culture, and the relativism of all culture?  What were the dreams and ideals of these thousands of Asian New Yorkers who streamed down the streets, wheeling their children, hustling to make some money, working in dozens of fruit stands and hundreds of restaurants—and all of them powerfully straining ahead into their futures?  How are they like my grandparents and parents? How was I a part of this?  And how could I never be part of this?  Can I ever feel that I belong with these people?  I was aware how easily my ear turned to any European language, relieved at the familiarity. 

It’s true, isn’t it, that we get comfortable with what we are familiar with, our circle, our group, our identity.  And we feel threatened by what we are not familiar with.  We’ve done this politically for most of human history, often the point of killing what seems strange because it looked like a threat.  And we’ve done it religiously, often thinking that our group had the only truth, and we had to crush the other.

Jesus, for sure, is not endorsing religious relativism in the Gospel today; what we believe does make a difference. But he is challenging his disciples to see God’s gifts wherever they are.  How can these people be using your name, Lord? So the Apostles complain.  Just as, in the first reading, people complain because the power of the prophecy spilled over onto some who were not part of the initial group.  Can it be that God’s gifts and love are so ample, so abundant, so rich, that they would cover the earth—but our insecurity tries to fit God into our little thimbles, rather than expand our hearts to the scope of God?

James give us an example of another “us and them” –the owner and the laborers—that plagued even the early Church, an “us and them” that seems to run through all of modern life.  God has said there is really no “us and them.”  There is only God, and God’s love brimming over all creation into the diversity that we are.  Surely the search for God’s truth has this one marker: how it opens us to accept all of God’s creation, all God’s people, in love, just as God does.  Have not we Catholics benefited so much from the Ecumenical movement, one that opened more fully for us the breadth of our own Catholic tradition?  Our Church is God’s big tent—the bigger the better. Standing for God’s truth, we want to embrace the world.

We are all precious; that’s why God cannot abide the scandal that causes the least person to fall away, that causes God to become obscured to anyone.  We’ve all been, especially we Catholics, superabundantly blessed by God.  That superabundance is a direct challenge to us: can we see the world in the broad vision of our Catholic faith, in God’s sweeping acceptance of all peoples and cultures?  How God is blessing all humankind through our faith?  And can we further that vision, the vision of God’s Kingdom, in our daily acts and attitudes, especially to those who don’t seem to be exactly like us?

 


25 B

It’s always great to come to New York City again.  It’s the city where I was born and raised.  And a city that I proudly announce to everyone as the “Greatest City in the World.”  My father spent many years trying to get out of New York, to a quieter setting, but he and my other instilled the truth that New Yorkers absorb: New York is built on greatness.  From the numbers in the population, to the number of immigrants, to the length of the subway, to the height of the Empire State Building, to the wealth of Wall Street and the suburbs—everything is great in the greatest city in the world.

So how do we do with humility?  Sometimes our pride is lowered and our sense of being number one is shaken.  The Yankees do not always win; the Mets haven’t won since 1969.  Some years our number of crimes seems to surpass the number of dollars in our banks.  Some years we have riots; every year we have poverty suffered by millions of people.  We cannot always stand tall, even we New Yorkers.

In the Gospel today, Jesus confronts the pride of his followers.  He has just announced that his role is to be a servant who suffers right up to the most humiliating death possible under ancient Rome.  But his disciples are discussing their greatness, still thinking that faith is all about what it brings to us, rather than about how we give ourselves in trust.  So he pours shame upon them: What were you talking about on the way?  Do you not know that there is only one measure of greatness—being a humble servant.  We cannot follow Jesus if we are filled with pride.

Why not?  For one very clear reason: ultimately we have to put all our trust in God, and everything else will fail us.  Ultimately we cannot stand on our own strength or determination.  Ultimately, our souls will be opened to the deepest question we can face: can I put my whole self into hands of God?  And unless we are willing to do this, to find the freedom that comes from relying totally on God, we cannot know the mind of Jesus, nor can we follow in his steps.  Jesus will cry from the cross: Father, in your hands I commend my spirit.  So must we commend our spirits.

Have we?  Or do we hesitate when it comes to trust?  Do we keep falling back on our own petty desires and designs, as James points out, bringing frustration and strife, or have we gotten beyond ourselves and come to live in God?  Have we put on the mind of Jesus?  Have we experienced conversion?

We have renewals in our Church so we can raise these questions again.  No matter what external things we have accomplished, or what material things we have acquired, we must renounce our pride and experience conversion in trust in order to follow in Jesus’ steps.  Jesus puts a child before his disciples in part to shame them, but also to teach them—what kind of openness they need to have. 

New York likes it pride, but it also likes its toughness—it’s capacity to endure through difficulties.  We depend on our pride to offset our troubles.  Jesus gives us a better path: not pride, but trust; no arrogance but the simple peace that comes from faith.

 

24 B

 

They’ve already spent millions, and are set to spend millions more.  Unfortunately, we in the Washington, DC, area have the misfortune to live next to a battle ground state, so we will have to suffer through three more months of increasingly pointless political ads.  We know the punch lines, the talking points, the angles of praise and attack.  And we had two weeks in which, so we were told, Romney had to define who he was, introduce himself to the American people, and Obama had to re-define who he was, and show that he had not run out of ideas.  As if we didn’t know who these men are, or at least what they stand for.

In the Gospel we’ve been reading this year since Advent, Jesus has been slowly defining himself.  That definition today comes to a head.  Before this point, demons have called Jesus the “Holy One” of God and Jesus shut them up; blind and crippled people have been restored, and Jesus had told them to tell no one. Marks’ Gospel is not a “who done it,” but “who is it.”  And when Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus gets his chance to say who he is.

The problem is the word “Messiah.”  We hear it through the music of Handel and, at least we Catholics, through years of staring at the crucifix.  Peter had only the diffuse ideas of his time, concepts of kingship, of political glory, of a renewed priesthood, all wrapped up in the desperations of ordinary people and the political schemes of the powerful.  So when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am,” and Peter answers on behalf of the Twelve, Jesus gets to clarify things for them, and for us.

He goes to the imagery that Jewish people read from Isaiah for over 500 years, the image of the servant who, not by power but by generous suffering, brings wholeness to the Jewish people.  Jesus immediately stresses what his fate will be—because he is the Messiah, because God’s glory will be shown through brokenness and martyrdom, not through a triumphant army.  Peter’s reaction is not too far from ours—“You’ve got to be kidding!  Surely faith is all about power and pomp.”  No it isn’t, says Jesus.  The God Jesus shows us is about love, service, sacrifice, and self-giving.  That is the only path to God, to the fullness of life.

James keeps correcting our images of faith.  Last week it was how we clothe our dismissal of others in words of faith; this week it is how we think faith is all about our own consolation.  In America, popular religion has made faith into some kind of breakthrough emotional experience, or some evidence of God’s special love for us through a huge bank account.  We Catholics certainly love our pomp and ceremony.  Fine, fine.  But let’s not miss the point.  Salvation is not the glory of having made it; it’s the joy of selfless gift of self, of triumph through a cross.

In New York this past week, after some linguini and clam sauce, I took the E train with a friend to the World Trade Center.  It was late, the memorial was closed, but thousands surrounded the square blocks of Ground Zero because September 11 was coming the next day.  My friend and I stood looking at what New Yorkers hope will be the tallest building in the world, we stared at the two blue beams of light soaring into the night, we felt the tinge that all of us feel at senseless death and destruction, at memories of horror that will never fade. 

But that building—what is it saying?  You cannot knock us down?  We are stronger than you?  America is invincible?  Or is it saying, along with the memorial, that God has the ultimate say over life, that God triumphs even in and through death?  Yes, the road of the Messiah is not what we often suppose.  Yes, Jesus says, follow me, follow my way, every day, in the crosses that inevitably come to us, crosses that arise from compassionate love, for that is the only way to wholeness.

23 B


“I don’t want to hear it.”  That was my mother’s way of ending a conversation when we children would keep pushing her.  I’ve found that phrase useful myself, when, say, someone on a staff keeps grinding the same axe, preventing the discussion from moving forward.  So we can selectively hear; we can, as they say, become conveniently deaf.

But what about inconvenient deafness, when we simply cannot hear.  We know from communities in the Washington area, such as Gallaudette, how people have to work around this limitation, often developing extraordinary compensation through other senses.  Jesus’ healing in the Gospel directly echoes Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading: a sign of God’s presence and victory comes in the restoration of all those things that cripple and hinder us.

Yet is there not another kind of convenient deafness, convenient handicap, when we are simply unable to see, hear, accept, and deal with what is right in front of our noses? This is like a spiritual handicap:  “I don’t want to hear it” can often be the way the deepest parts of our souls resist the invitation of God.  Is there not a way in which we come to rely on our handicaps, our spiritual deafness and blindness, because they allow us to resist change? 

James gives us a powerful example from his own congregation, how they could not see the ways they treated those who had money, and the ones who did not have money.  Can’t you see?  Can’t you understand?  How do you claim to love with God’s love when you make these kinds of distinctions?  Similarly, how do we claim to have God’s life when we close ourselves to each other, resist the conversion God invites us to, continue to put ourselves at the center, pursue patterns that we know lead us to trouble, dull our own hearts to the love God wants us to experience with each other in Jesus Christ?  In some ways, we are all conveniently deaf, dumb, blind.

The Gospel has some graphic imagery; we should not cringe when we hear it:  Jesus sticks his finger in the ear of this deaf man.  Jesus puts spit on his finger and puts it into this man’s muted mouth.  It’s as if Jesus says I’m giving you directly what I have; when I touch you, I can change you.  Makes us wonder, doesn’t it, if we would want the spit of Jesus in our mouths?  Would we want to be touched this way by him?

But look what happens at Communion—it’s not Jesus’ spit, but his very being—our Catholic theology says “body, blood, soul, and divinity”—poured into us as food and drink.  It’s an even more intimate interchange with God through Jesus than the Gospel shows us today.  If Jesus could liberate that deaf and mute man, helping him know the liberating power of God, then what kind of liberation is Jesus inviting us to?  What kind of hearing?  What kind of speaking?

The Gospel urges us to get in touch with the power of Jesus.  Unlike the deaf man, Jesus does not restrain our speaking out.  We can, and must, proclaim what we hear: the ways God has given me freedom through divine love, and the ways God would free up all of humankind, if only we would accept God’s touch, God’s healing, God’s saving word.

22 B

David Eagleman is getting a lot of publicity these days.  His hardbound book, Incognito, has just come out in paperback.  He has gotten spots on NPR, and the New Yorker had an article about him.  He writes and talks about our brains—all that goes on in them, and how we are often unaware of the process.  He offers this image: a brain is like a gang of rivals, like President Lincoln’s cabinet, rivals that somehow learn how to get along together.  He seems to think of our brain as competing layers, and our conscious layer does not always win.

When scientists talk like this it has to make us think.  Do we know who we are?  Do we know ourselves?  For centuries we have presumed that looking inside our heads more carefully would lead to a purer knowledge of ourselves.  We spent the whole twentieth century talking about the “unconscious” as if it was almost another person inside ourselves, one that was hard to know.  Rodney Dangerfield has a funny routine of someone who went to see a psychiatrist so he could find himself.  When the therapy was over and it was time to pay the bill, the patient said, “Send it to my old self.  He’s the one who agreed to pay.”

Jesus is not giving us psychology in the Gospel today; he’s trying to get things clear with those who opposed him religiously.  Back in his time, as in our own time, a lot of attention was paid to external actions.  Why do not Jesus and his followers follow our traditional behavior, his opponents want to know.  Jesus points out the devastating truth—that we can have all the external actions we want, but if the heart is not there, what does it mean?

Jesus’ particular battle was over the category of “ritual purity”—how purity has to be more radical than ritual.  As he does in other teachings, Jesus underlines the small ways subtle vices come to dominate us.  It is not just our external world, with its multiple temptations; it is the world inside of us, the environment of our own heart, that affects so much of what we do and, therefore, who we are.  Jesus is saying that, whatever kind of external conformity one might have, internal conformity to God is the essential ingredient.

We should not be fooled by the first reading from Deuteronomy, perhaps the most important book on law in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Observance of the law is no mere external drudgery; it is rather responding with our lives to the gracious love, unmerited love, we have received.  Doing this brings peace and life to us, and bears witness of God to the world. There is no opposition between internal and external, between grace and works.  One leads to the other.

However David Eagleman thinks about the battles going on inside his head, or how many brains are competing, someone wrote his book, someone drew the line and refereed the competing ideas and brain levels, someone made choices behind the writing of his book—one that he’s making lots of money with.  He made choices that shaped the outcome. 

In a similar way, we are called to mediate between all the things to go on inside our souls, until we let the Holy Spirit shape us into the image of Jesus—until we find our truest selves and make ourselves loving instruments of God’s kingdom. 

21 B

It’s pretty easy to feel disappointed today, with our business leaders, with politicians, even with what’s on TV.  We have more and more options—a plethora of places to shop, and huge bundle of cable stations—but things just don’t suit us.  A bad meal in a restaurant, discourteous treatment in a department store, and, baby, that’s all history.  We are just not going back.

It’s always shocking to get near the end of the 6th chapter of John, as we finally do this weekend, and read about those who would not follow Jesus anymore.  How could anyone be disappointed in Jesus, we feel?  Why are people fighting with him?  How can they decide to quit him?  But can it be that, if God gives us the ability to choose, God takes the risk that we will not choose him?

That certainly seems the theme in the book of Joshua.  Though the Jewish people had come all the way, over all these years, in the desert and were now entering the Holy Land, Joshua knows that not everyone is on board.  What we have in the reading is the renewal of a covenant, when Joshua asks people to renew the bond they have with God, precisely because of what God has done for them, God’s liberating work, in their history.

As we come here each week to renew the covenant we have with God in Jesus—this words of consecration say this every week—the New and Eternal Covenant—are we conscious of how much of a choice this is?  We should be, because so many in our church, and indeed across all churches and faiths, do not seem to be choosing God.  Our Catholic parishes reach only 40% of our membership each Sunday, and statistics are worse for many other Christian denominations; indeed, they are not so great even for our vaunted American megachurches.

Peter is the one who gives us the way forward.  “Where can we go, Lord, for you have the words of eternal life?”  In other words, when you look at all the real options you have to make sense out of life, and to make life correspond to the deep meaning in our hearts, Jesus really is the only choice for believers.  He alone gives us his flesh for the life of the world, to use the image from last Sunday; he alone shows the ultimate meaning of God’s generous and saving love offered to humankind.

Perhaps many today are not precisely choosing against God; they just haven’t sharpened the options, thinking life is only about financial success, or living comfortably, or having a nice family.  Perhaps we moderns think we can lay aside the question of life’s full meaning.  But we do so at the risk of diminishing our own depth.  When we believers come here we are saying that, with all the things God has blessed us with, none of those can have their fullest meaning apart from Jesus.  Jesus is the core choice of our lives.

Listen at Mass, how we say it: Through him, with him, and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory, and honor, is yours forever and ever.  Amen.  That’s our choice. That’s our decision for Christ.

20 B

I am always shocked when I go to an eatery in New York City.  They passed a law saying that many eateries have to list the calorie count of the foods they offer, especially fast food places.  So I go down the list.  Wow, that salad which I thought would keep me healthy and trim has over 1,000 calories!  Can that cheesecake really be as fattening as that?  This is all part, of course, of our national obsession with what we eat.  Is it making us healthy or is it killing us?  Looking for a station on TV last week I heard a commercial.  “I lost 90 pounds without doing anything at all.”  Sounds like a perfect diet, right?  “Just sprinkle this substance on your food and the weight melts away.”  Yeah, right!

Ancient philosophers contemplated what we eat, and how it nourishes us, and they had strange theories because they did not understand digestion.  They thought that the food we ate made us what we are.  Clearly that is not the case except in some general way—sloppy eating shows a sloppy attitude in life.  But, spiritually, is this not exactly right?  What we take into ourselves shapes who we are, and what we do.

For the fourth Sunday we continue to contemplate Jesus as the bread of life, with his body given as flesh for the life of the world.  What does it mean to eat the flesh of Jesus?  It has to be more than physical.  Surely we Catholics believe that the bread is no longer bread, but Christ’s body; and the wine no longer wine, but Christ’s blood.  Something real is happening here.  That’s why some of Jesus’ followers are puzzled—“how can he give us his flesh to eat”?

But we can eat all the consecrated bread in the world, but if we do so without consecrated minds and hearts, without realizing what it means to be one with Christ, are we really eating his flesh and drinking his blood?  Christ’s flesh and blood are true when we realize what it means for us to eat and drink—that this is an action by which Christ is transforming our lives, by which Christ is making us like himself.  We can only eat this food of Christ if we eat it with faith—with our spirits craving for God’s transformation.

Will I take Christ into me?  Will I make his vision my vision, his passion my passion, his justice my justice, his love my love?  Will I become the food that God gives me the privilege of eating?  Will I receive the Eucharist with the deepest faith I can bring every Sunday?

Society is always debating whether things we see and hear affect our behavior.  Do violent movies make us violent?  Do smutty books and shows degrade our minds?  I suspect society does not really want to hear the answers to these questions because we know our environment affects us, just as we know jelly donuts don’t make us slim. 

The Eucharist is inviting us to make Christ can be our environment, our wisdom, our sustenance, our life.  For if I truly eat, if I truly make Christ my life, then everything does change, then life does become eternal because it really is life in Christ.

 

19 B

350 million miles.  That’s how far Curiosity, the space rover, went to reach the planet Mars.  Of all those miles, of the years it took to make its voyage, they say the final seven minutes were the touchiest.  Seven minutes of terror, they called it. Scientists had to slow the spacecraft down from 16,000 miles per hour so that it could make a soft landing on this planet whose gravity is one sixth that of Earth.  It was ten years and billions of dollars in the making, but that’s what it takes to get to Mars.

Knowing what we have to do, and how far we have to go, is crucial to having the resources we need to arrive at a goal.  Elijah, in this Sunday’s first reading, does not believe he has the reserves.  He’s ready to die.  Exhausted and depressed, he’s just going to lie down and throw in the towel.  It sounds strange to us, but haven’t we all known people who suffer great discouragement, even to the point of depression?  They cannot go on.  The angel nudges Elijah—get up, eat.  After two such feedings, Elijah walks as long as he needs to in order to get where he needs to go—all to accomplish his prophetic task.

Where do we need to go?  If we think surviving for the day is enough, or living hand to mouth as some people in our society end up doing, then we only need so much.  On the other hand, if we think we have to be important lawyers, or prominent doctors, or elected politicians, then one needs years of study and lots of money.  But what if we need to go even further, what if we need to arrive at the meaning of life, of all life—what if we need to arrive at God?  What then?

For the third straight week we read from the 6th chapter of John.  People continue to murmur against Christ—not because he promised them so little, but because he promised them everything.  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  As if they understood what the flesh of Jesus meant.  “The bread I give you is my flesh for the life of the world.”  They must have been stunned.  The bread Jesus offers them is the gift of himself, unto and beyond death, that alone brings life to the world.  To eat the flesh of Jesus, to consume his bread, is to live in generous love for others. 

So maybe they didn’t want this bread, they didn’t want his life.  Maybe it was way more than they could ever care for or deal with.  Far easier to live with the little interests of our lives, to care maybe for family and some friends—but to care for the world?  To live for the world?  To love so that one’s love encompassed everyone?  That’s to live like God, isn’t it?

And that’s exactly what Jesus is offering.  “No one can come to me unless the Father draw him,” Jesus says.  The word “draw” can mean, on the one hand, to “drag,” or it can mean, on the other hand, “to attract, to allure.”  God, I’m sure, has to drag some of us, but God wants most of all to draw us, draw us by the divine vision of infinite love, of boundless gift, which is what the deepest parts of our souls really crave.  Once we see this vision of God, then we can understand Jesus, then we can understand the passion of Jesus’ life, the bread he gives us.

Do we want to go this far?  Do we want risen, unbounded, life?  Do we want to be fed with the flesh of Jesus, so that his life is ours—one that does not die because it can never stop loving until it is completely full?  How far do we want to go?  Jesus has the food!

 

18 B

 

We have had almost non-stop reporting on the Olympic games, with much focus on the athletes themselves.  You have to wonder what their motivation actually is.  Sure, they want a gold medal, or any medal, but when you think of the thousands of athletes, and the few medals anyone can win, it makes you wonder.  Why do they keep at it?  On top of that, you see one person win with a time only microseconds shorter than another—both trained years, both prepared, that one person got gold must look a lot like luck.

So I think the motivation cannot simply be the chance to win gold.  At some point, you have to do it simply because you love your sport, the rhythm, the strength, the timing, the flow.  Once you have this love, everything else is extra.

Jesus, in the Gospel today, is questioning the motives of those who follow him.  “Are you here because your stomachs were filled, or because you saw the sign?”  It’s a puzzling question at first—wasn’t the sign precisely feeding the multitude?  But maybe it wasn’t.  Maybe the sign was seeing the point of feeding the multitude, namely the abundant love of God which is the foundation of all trust.  They keep coming after him because they’re thinking that religion is to make their lives easier, not because they’ve seen more deeply into God, into Christ.

This has to raise questions about our own motivations in religion.  Why are we involved?  Why are we Catholic Christians?  Why do we come to Mass?  Is it because we’ve seen more deeply into God who has become the prime motive of our lives, or is it for some other reason?  Like?  Like residual habit.  Or to complain about our lives?  Or see our friends?  Or to look good to others?  I’m sure there are many motives in our lives, but have we gotten to the basic one: Jesus has brought us to the depth of God, and now we live for God, and for God’s cause.

“What is eternal life?” the people ask.  “Know God and the one whom he has sent.”  Knowing that God cares enough to send.  That God comes into our lives as a brother in Jesus.  That God feeds us with divine life in the body of Jesus.  It could be we have come to church for years and still not gotten it straight.  Sure, there will always be lower motives, and God doesn’t mind us seeing our friends, or hearing our problems, or acting out of our traditions.  Those are all fine, just so long as we have given our hearts, in love, to God and have discovered that God alone is the real food that we cannot live without.

We may not get ever a gold medal, but if we have found God as the motive of our lives, we’ve found way more than gold can ever give us.

 

17B

   As one of our seminarians was going off for five days of retreat, I slipped into his bag my old, 1960 copy of the “Story of a Soul” by St. Therese, the little Flower, who lived, and died young, at end of the 1800s.  Her life was simple, almost insignificant, but she expanded our view God in such a way that I believe she shaped the whole 20th century of Catholic life.  She wanted to be a foreign missionary, to be martyred sharing the faith, someone extraordinary, but, instead, lived cloistered, hidden in a convent, dying at 22.  What mighty deeds would she do for God?  Just this: she would do every little deed in her life out of love for God.  That would make the ordinary great.

    Every little deed.  Every little gesture.  Every little moment, though they seem insignificant.  We are still absorbing the tragedy in Colorado, but like so many of these tragedies, including even Sept. 11, 2001, the stories come down to not only the victims, but also to the heroic acts of those who were there.  “She protected me,” “He took a bullet for me.”  “They were climbing the stairs when the building collapsed.”  And what do the heroes always say, if they survive? I did nothing great.  I did what any person would do.  I am only ordinary.

    The Gospel in a particular way challenges us to think about the little things we do, and how we do them, and what the consequences of them can be.  A little unnamed boy has five loaves and two fish.  “What is that?” Andrew comments, unimpressed with the boy’s offering.  But in the hands of Jesus, it feeds the multitude and comes to represent the abundance of God in and throughout our lives.

    “What is that?” we hear so often.  As a society, we never feel we have enough.  Bigger, better, more.  All of this a demonstration of how much we want to squeeze out of a life that we think cheats us.  And the big picture that society paints today is that we are not much—over-evolved creatures on a meaningless planet in an insignificant galaxy in a heartless universe.  Specks.  Scraps.  Here and gone.  “What is that?”  “What are we?”

    This is why we have to attend carefully to the Gospel.  It’s not about the “more” we squeeze out of things, but the generous abundance that staggers us once our minds are opened by faith.  Who knows if we are the only intelligent beings in the universe?  Most people think there are aliens everywhere.  But one scholarly book I read this year says that is unlikely, that any life is unlikely, and human intelligence the most unlikely phenomenon of all.  Yet with these little minds and hearts we are able to relate to the absolute love that frames all existence.  We are the universe, opening up to what is beyond.  We are created existence opening up to God.  We are seemingly insignificant humanity with whom God has a relationship, to whom God has shown unending love.

    The scraps left over—what do they represent?  So many baskets left over.  I think they represent us, all the others, the abundance of all the other believers who would come to be, to stare out on the world, and, instead of saying “What is that?  I’m disappointed,” come rather to say, in faith, “Alleluia.  All is love.  All is of God!”  Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what Mass is about?

16 B

It was a strange list, the first one to come up when I asked Google for the ten most prestigious careers.  Number one was astronaut, number 10 was photojournalist, and in between were athlete, engineer, military person, judge, sea captain, pilot, firefighter and doctor.  Strange list.  So I searched further and Forbes had the results of their survey.  Number 10 was Engineer, number 1 was firefighter, and in between were more recognizable professions starting with doctor, then nurse, scientist, teacher, military officer, police officer, farmer—and, yes, clergy.  I wasn’t sure if we would be ranked lower than politicians, given peoples’ feelings today.

While farmer made someone’s list, I didn’t see shepherd.  No surprise there, I suppose, since we don’t see many shepherds in the United States.  The big surprise is that we see shepherd all through the readings today because, back in ancient Israel, shepherds were near the bottom when it came to prestige.  Lawyer, scribe, priest—these were the biggies, along with king or governor.  But shepherd?  Anyone could do that—it took no skill and was a boring, smelly job.

Nevertheless, shepherd ranks high on Jesus’ listing.  He compares himself to a shepherd, because he compares the people to sheep—prone to wander, prone to scatter, prone to get lost or even killed.  The shepherd is the one who cares for the sheep.  The shepherd has value in Jesus’ eyes because of the compassion he has—he feels what the sheep feel, and he sacrifices to protect them.

In many ways, from political to personal, our lives are scattered.  Between deadlock in our capital and a zillion messages in our inbox, our heads are spinning one way or another.  Who will pull us together?  What can bring  us together?  Can faith?  Jeremiah has a very famous diatribe against the leaders of his time because they were poor shepherds, using the people to serve themselves.  For this reason, they will be disqualified.

Faith can pull us together if faith leads us to truly serve each other.  This kind of service, as we learn in the second reading, can overcome division, that between Jew and Gentile in ancient times, and between people at this time, because it is selfish self-preoccupation that so often pulls us apart.  Faith can pull us together if our faith imitates Jesus who feels the physical and spiritual hungers of the world. 

In our church, we are all shepherds, not just the hierarchy and clergy.  In our church, we are all called to compassion.  In our church, we are all called to feed and guide each other with the compassion of Jesus.  We all have the charge to bring about union through loving service.  After all, we’ve all been baptized into Jesus, priest, prophet, and King.   But before Jesus is any of those, he is, first of all, a loving shepherd, willing to give up his vacation, his little time away, to reach out to those he loves.

15 B


My sister had an unusual problem.  It seems like some pigeons in Queens decided that her window sill would be the perfect place to nest.  Right outside her air conditioner.  Right where all the urban dirt that pigeons accumulate would blow into her room.  Every morning at 4:30 they start their cooing, almost non-stop.  Every evening she wondered what lice and insects they are harboring and bringing into her life?  “I’ve decided,” she said, “to push the nest off the window.  I’ve got to do it.  They’ll take care of themselves.”

I have no doubts about the robustness of New York City pigeons.  And I suspect that these pigeon chicks are now old enough to fend for themselves.  They know better than we do that you cannot stay in the nest.  They know that getting out of the nest is the only way to survive.

Jesus is nudging his disciples from their nest; he sends them out in today’s Gospel—his first organized outreach in Galilee.  He asks them to extend his own mission—to confront evil, to pray for healing, and to announce the Kingdom of God.  All you need, says Jesus, is an environment of peace—where people trust each other, where people are open to each other.  Once you have that, the Kingdom can spread.

This outreach turned out to be a great success.  Later on the in Gospel we hear Jesus saying, when the disciples return, “I saw Satan fall from the sky,” as he rejoices in what his disciples accomplished.  And look what they accomplished!  They began a movement which has spread to every continent, every civilization, every culture.  They began a missionary energy which has infused all of Christian history.

Is that impetus slowing down?  Pope Benedict, like the recent popes before him, consciously worries about this.  He has begun a Secretariat for the New Evangelization, and has called a Synod for the New Evangelization to convene in October.  Christian life in the West has gotten very weak, particularly in Europe, but also in the United States.  It’s time for a New Evangelization.

This kind of talk can make us cringe.  The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that we have all been chosen, but sometimes we don’t feel chosen or, when it comes to living our faith openly, don’t want to be chosen.  Keep it private.  Keep it personal.  We don’t want to get into the position of Amos who is being shushed for being a prophet.  But Amos will not renounce his call.  The question is, will we?

Perhaps we make being a missionary today seem too difficult.  Jesus tried to simplify things for his disciples—don’t take all that extra baggage, he says—and we need basic pictures in our heads.  What Jesus is asking us to do is, when it is appropriate, to talk about our faith in a way that helps others.  To share what God has done in our lives.  What we experience by living as a Catholic.  What God does for us every Sunday at Mass.  How important the Eucharist is in our lives.  Can we get in touch with our own faith, in simple ways?

And can we think of people who are searching, questioning, looking?  I’m sure we can.  Jesus didn’t ask his disciples at this point to take on the whole world, just to speak to their fellow countrymen.  The New Evangelization is asking just this of us—to talk to those nearby who do not live the gift of faith about the blessings that can come to them—to speak from our own experience of God’s love.

If we stay in the nest, our faith cannot grow.  Not in our own hearts, nor in the world.  “What you have freely received, freely give as a gift,” Jesus tells his followers in another place.  Others are waiting—for a word of faith, of mercy, of healing, of consolation.  Others are waiting . . . for us!


14 B

 

   Tiger Woods won at the Congressional Country Club outside Washington last week.  The commentators of golf, who always have so much to say, seemed cautious.  Three years ago, they would have roaring about Tiger, how he was invincible, due to break every record in golf history.  But after Tiger’s personal, moral, and physical breakdown, he’s been unpredictable.  They don’t know what category to put him in now because they don’t know what to expect of him. 

   Jesus’ compatriots didn’t quite know what category to put him in.  It’s almost painful to read these sentences from Mark’s Gospel.  In one verse, they are filled with amazement at his mighty deeds; just two verses later, they are asking, “Who does he think he is?  He grew up down the street.  We know his family.”  Mark ends the passage with a bit of disappointment: he could work no wonders there because of their lack of faith.

   Think of how expectations shape our lives, and the lives of others.  How we subtly hint at which child will get into the best college, or which one is the most handsome or most beautiful, at what kinds of careers each one might pursue.  And in our own lives, how we settle for where we are, thinking we’ve exhausted our possibilities, that our life is what it is.

   The Scriptures ask us to look at our expectations, not only from our perspective, but from God’s.  In the first place, what do we expect of God?  Do we shrug our shoulders because we think God has not done such mighty works for us as, say, for the people next door?  We do categorize God into some compartment in our lives; God stays there, while we ignore God with the rest of our time and energy? 

   Or what do we expect of ourselves as believers?  Have we settled for a ho-hum Christian life, doing the minimal because our parents, or our culture, taught us to do that?  What kind of praying do we do?  Do we ever deeply open ourselves up to God, and what God can do in our lives?  Do I think faith is magic, where I push the button, or say the prayer, and, presto, something happens?  Do I expect God to carry me through every moment of my life, enriching and transforming me, opening for me paths of love and service I could not even imagine?  Or am I like the villagers in Jesus’ day—barely having faith, barely expecting anything of Jesus, and therefore barely allowing him to touch me?

   Commentators have long speculated what the thorn in Paul’s side might be.  It was to keep him humble, keep him from being presumptive of God.  But maybe the thorn in our modern, Catholic side is the slow dulling of faith, making everything tepid, blocking us from the fullness of God.  We learn from Ezekiel that faith will not always be a rose garden.  But faith will always bear fruit if we dare to let it be real.

   When Tiger wins he sometimes raises the putter up high, like a trophy.  Raised arms are a sign of great things that have happened.  We come here to Mass, and do we not raise our hands, especially when the Preface begins, or at the Lord’s Prayer?  Sunday is our day of triumph, to celebrate what faith is doing in our lives throughout the rest of the week, to bring our commitment to God to a new height because we have let God work more fully in our lives.

13 B

   It’s hard to watch anything on NBC without getting hyped about the upcoming Olympic games in London later this summer.  There are two elements of the games, one I do not like, and the other I do.  I’m not a fan of all the nationalism, whether one country will defeat another—particularly when they make it look like it’s the good old USA against the world, and we are better than everyone else.  But the part I like is when we see athletes struggle to achieve the best they can, to break a record, to push the envelope, to go beyond what anyone expected.  It’s the image of humankind straining beyond its own limits that fascinates me.
   Of course, there are many ways in which we push the limits, particularly in science and medicine.  Each week seems to carry a breakthrough story—particularly in battles against cancer.  Yet  there are other ways in which it seems hard to move down the field, to make progress—in terms of human relationships, for example, and world peace.  But we see the greatest limits in the readings for this Sunday—grave illness and death.
   “What do we think of death?” the scriptures ask us.  When times are comfortable, when we live to old ages, death does not look like the demon it is.  It can even look like a friend, coming as a relief.  But what about when it takes a third of Europe’s population during the Black Plague?  Or when twenty million die in World War II, six million of them Jews in concentration camp?  Or when it strikes a child of 7?  Then death shows its miserable teeth, chewing into the meaning we try to find in life.
    The story of Mark in the Gospel is complex.  The urgent pleas of Jairus, the Synagogue official, are interrupted by the story of the old woman, bleeding—and therefore unclean—for a dozen years, having given ever last penny to doctors who could not heal.  But the two stories go together—in both these stories, people are stuck, up against the limits of human existence, with nowhere to go.  In Jairus and the old woman, we see ourselves.
    God is not a God of death, we read from ancient Jewish Wisdom.  This was a teaching that developed late in Jewish thinking.  For most of Jewish experience, God’s covenant was with the people.  If the people survived as a whole, that was enough.  But is it?  What kind of God do we believe in?  What kind of God does Jesus show us?  Is it not a God who relates to us intimately, who sends his Spirit into us, the Spirit of life itself? 
    Today, with our attitudes, we can look like these Jewish people who almost mock Jesus.  He interrupts their grief.  He interrupts their acceptance of death—it’s just part of life, it’s the way things are, what more should we expect?  Jesus knows what it means to expect death.  He knows the opposition has already begun to mount against him.  But he also knows that a God who has definitively offered love and life is a God faithful to life because God’s unending, divine life, now is given to us.  Jesus pushes our notions of God, and the ancient Jewish notions about God, beyond their limits.
    We humans are unlike any other material creatures we know.  Transcendence is built inside of us.  Just look at how our minds range the entire universe.  Just look at how are hearts long for love between all of humanity.  Just look at the restlessness built inside of us—how we always push beyond the boundaries.  Just look at how God lets us into God’s own life.  When it comes to death, God breaks the barriers, God pushes for us, taking on our death to give us divine life, or, in the image of Paul, taking on our poverty to give us divine riches.
    When a champion breaks a record, the excitement surges, the applause rings.  But only for so long.  When God breaks the power of death, there is astonishment and amazement, but it is not momentary.  No.  Because what we are seeing is God’s life break into our own, telling us our ideas are often too small, our expectations often too meager, and our lives are way too short.


Birth of John the Baptist

Last Sunday I waited for a little longer than I wanted at the airport.  The plane was a half hour delayed, nothing to worry about.  I sat reading the New Yorker and sneaking peeks at what my co passengers were doing to fill in the time.  A bunch of young people were there, leaving for some sporting event.  CNN was blaring in the background.  “Rodney King died yesterday,” came the news, and over half the young people turned their heads to the TV, trying to figure out what this meant to them.  Immediately afterward came another headline, “Young people seem to have less belief in God than before,” blared the headline again.  Not one head turned.  No one looked up from their cell phone or their tablet.  It was a non news event for them.

So has the world gone deaf when it comes to God, to faith, to religion?  One of the most impressive moments of my life happened when I was 18.  We were just starting college and one of our notable Paulist priests was talking to us.  This man was famous, almost infamous, as a radio personality and as the priest to the world of Jazz.  He spoke in almost a whisper.  His hair looked like Einstein’s.  He said to us: The tragedy of your generation will be this.  You will have the greatest tools to communicate faith in the history of the world.  But the more you speak, the less the young world will listen to you.  Hmmm. 

Whatever our feelings about this statement might be, all of this means that we, today, are more like Zechariah than John the Baptist.  We believers feel like we’ve been silenced.  We feel like we can watch events but not move them forward.  We feel like we can gesture, scribble on a tablet, but if we speak, our voice will be unheard. 

So what is it that frees Zechariah’s voice?  When they ask him the name of his child, he gives a name that stuns them all.  “His name will be John,” he writes.  “Why,” they ask, “no one in your family has ever been called John.”  Exactly.  Because in John the Baptist, God is doing something new, something that breaks the pattern, something that redounds far beyond the family of Zechariah, or even the people of Israel.  “It is too little,” we read in Isaiah, “for you to speak to just my people; I will make your voice go all around the world.”

John, of course, did not have a peachy life.  He spends most of it in the desert.  He spends the last part of it trying to clarify his thinking about Jesus.  “Are you the one we expected, or should we wait for another?” he asks Jesus at a later point.  And he spends his last days in prison, wondering when crazy Herod will, in spite of his good feelings, finally do him in.  In other words, John spoke out of faithfulness, faithfulness to a vision he could not entirely comprehend, but he knew was coming about.

We have come to a crisis in the passing on of faith to younger generations.  Studies show this; the lives of our children and grandchildren show this more.  Today we feel more like Zechariah. . .  but we are challenged to be more like John, to faithfully proclaim the totally new thing that God has done in Jesus, the best way that we can, because at some point that voice will be heard more even more clearly and powerfully than ever.  This feast tells us that we cannot still the Voice of God.  

One thing for sure: if we are not proclaiming that Word, it will never be heard.  Another thing even more for sure: if we are not living the Word we proclaim, it will never be heard.

God is doing something new.  God is always doing something new in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit.  Maybe we cannot see the outlines of God’s design all that clearly.  Maybe God is more subtle in working today than in earlier times.  Surely, we are more distracted as a people than in the days of Zechariah, or John, or Constantine, or Napoleon, or even the days of Hitler and Lenin, for that matter.  It’s a new world.  God sends us into it, to proclaim not a little message but the greatest one—the coming of Jesus which changes everything.  This calls us to faith, and to faithfulness as well.  When we’ve exhausted everything on the Internet, God’s Word will just be beginning.

 

 

SUNDAY, 11 B

We naturally carry around images in our heads, ways to think about big things.  Cities have images like “The City on the Hill,” or “The Big Apple,” “Tinsel Town,” or “Most powerful capital in the world.”  Teams have mascots.  Dioceses have patron saints—you cannot visit Venice without seeing images of a Lion—it’s St. Mark’s icon, he is the patron of that famous port.  Today people debate about the image of the United States; are we the world’s policemen, are we an empire, or are we, some suggest, even a dying empire?

 The first reading from Ezekiel gives us a much-used image from ancient Israel.  Trees and vines were often used as images of leadership.  Isaiah sung of Israel as God’s vineyard.  Ezekiel is talking about flawed leadership, how God will pluck out one plant and put in another—from the shoot of a tree a new, abundant, tree will flower.  The image, then, is about judgment—how God expects certain things in accord with his love.  God will wither up the green tree that is wrong, but give life to the brown one that is faithful.

 Paul, in the second reading, explicitly brings up judgment.  It can make us cringe.  Every one of us must give an account of our lives, receiving what we deserve, in accord with the good or evil we have done.  These words make our brains freeze.  Do I want God looking over my life?  Do I want anyone looking over my life?  We believe in privacy!  No one has a right to know our secret thoughts and hidden sins, we say.

 So here is where the Gospel helps us.  It uses part of the imagery for the first reading, but it also helps us know what our judgment will be about.  Jesus compares the life of his disciples, of his Church, to images of plants.  One image shows how imperceptibly faith grows, from person to person.  We just have to look into our own hearts to see how faith has grown in us.  Often when we least expect it.  The other image is the mustard seed—how small it is, but how it grows to be a plant that gives shelter and sustenance to all.  This is what Jesus wants his kingdom to be like—flowering in such a way that “all the birds of the air can come and find shade.”

 Judgment will surely be about our sins, but it will be mostly about the way we helped God’s people flower, to be a haven for all those who seek refuge, a home for all those who want to draw close to God, a hand for all those who need help.  Our faith is not just for us; it’s for others, and for the world, because faith is a dimension of love.  What we celebrate most about our fathers this Fathers Day is not their strength, or their ability to assemble bikes or make pancakes on Saturday morning; it’s the self-less, open, way they give themselves to their families.  They don’t need spotlights or applause; they just need the chance to give and serve.

 Catholicism, which gets such a bad rap in today’s culture, represents the form of Christian life that most fulfills the image of the parable.  Because our heritage is so deep, going back to Christ, and so broad, extending to all nations, we have become the haven and home to every culture.  We express the vastness of God’s love.  How we do that—or how we shrink God’s love down—is exactly what our judgment will be about.

 What kind of parables, images, are we?  When people see our lives, what do they see?  Do they see the Kingdom?  Are they drawn to Christ?  Are we icons, images, of Christ for others today?


Corpus Christi

 

   The numbers are key. Gotta see those numbers. What’s the cholesterol number, how much “good” cholesterol, and how much bad. It all comes down to blood work. I go for a physical and the doctor barely touches my body. “Go downstairs and let them take your blood,” he says. If the numbers come in within range, they think everything is perfect. So my triglycerides were high. My cardiologist says, “lose 10 pounds.” I’m thinking, I weigh less than you do! But then begins months without pasta and bread, near death for an Italian. “Take fish oil,” someone says. Sure enough, 6 pounds and many fish-oil pills later, my triglycerides are great!
   So today we think that blood tells the story. It reveals what is going on in various parts of the body, our blood-sugar numbers, our PSA scores, irregularities in other parts of our bodies. Is there another story blood can tell?
   Unlike the focus of this Feast in other Cycles, our current Cycle B readings emphasize not the Body of the Eucharist, but the blood. Our reflection on the blood begins with a reading from the book of Exodus where the blood of an animal sacrifice is sprinkled. The most surprising thing is when we are told that Moses sprinkles it on the people. Where’s the Clorox? we moderns think. But we don’t need Clorox. We need to see that the ritual was saying that the blood of the animal, given as a sign of love and dedication, was now the blood of the people.
Covenant—blood of the covenant—blood that says: I pledge, I show my love, I show my dedication. Blood that says ultimately we are bound in death and in life. Blood that says God bonds with us, in death and in life.
   This happens most graphically in Jesus, where his human blood becomes the effective sign of God’s covenant with us. Hebrews tells us that the blood Jesus shed brings us into the heart of God, the temple not made with human hands, but the eternal temple which is divine life. Jesus brings our blood to God, in love and dedication. Jesus seals our covenant with God. Every time we gather for Eucharist, we see presented before us this giving our blood to God in Jesus, this dramatic love, this world-changing self-gift, of our Savior. Every time we gather for Eucharist, we renew the covenant God makes with us in Jesus.
   So what does Jesus blood say? That the alienation of humankind from God is now bridged by God’s gift of his Son. That the brokenness of our lives and deaths is now transformed into love by Christ. That no part of our lives need be distant from God, because God, in Jesus, has mingled blood with us.
 Take this, all of you, and drink from it: This is the Chalice of my blood, of the new and eternal covenant. Poured out for you and for many to bring peace, life, and forgiveness. This blood is very good indeed, God’s and ours, in Jesus. The Red Cross can do nothing like this!
 
 
Pentecost
   A fellow-pastor in Chicago used to write great columns in his bulletin. One of his stories really stuck with me. He told of the situation where he was in an elevator with a group of people. The elevator had mirrors in it. He was struck by the image of very old-looking man—only to realize a few seconds later that he was looking at himself. He did not know how old he looked. He did not recognize himself in the mirror.
    That can be how Pentecost seems to us. We hear this story in Acts of the mighty winds and tongues of flame—it all seems so strange, almost like a scene from outer space—and we miss the opportunity to see ourselves in what Luke is telling us. What can this scene have to do with us? The actions of the Holy Spirit can seem so strange.
    St. Luke is using symbols of his day to describe not just one unique moment, but all of Christian life. What he presents here can serve as the preface of his whole book. In synopsis, he is giving us the outline of what will unfold throughout the rest of the book of Acts—the scenes you and I have been hearing every week since Easter. The wind symbolizes the power of God now come upon us; the language that everyone understands represents the growth of faith throughout the nations. The hearing of one message shows that the Word of God is being received by all. The fire shows us the power of God’s word.
    The image of “tongue of fire” seems almost impossible to imagine. But is this not a way for Luke to talk about the power of the life that we have received—God’s passion communicated to us? The ardor of God for us is now given to us in the Spirit to become the fire, the passion of our life as disciples.
    The tongues burn, they cannot stop speaking, just as God’s wind has come down through the centuries, just as God’s Word enflames us now. Can we hear this passage without feeling it, without saying to ourselves: How can I respond? What am I to do?
    Yet so often we let this flame of God grow dim inside us, even hide it, because we do not open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit. We feel listless, dis-animated—which is to say, we don’t feel the Spirit of God inside us.
    Do we Catholics fear the power of God’s Word? Do we want to hang out in the upper room like the fear-filled apostles. The Risen Christ appears to us as he did to them, blows his Spirit upon us as he did upon them, and sends us forth in mercy and love. This is the power of Pentecost alive in us. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you!”
    Jesus sends us with the same mandate, the same love, the same Spirit, so that we can manifest God to the World. We are sent! We have received the Spirit! Why do we fear?
    We forget the power of Pentecost. That is why we have this feast, and all the glory-filled days since Easter—to help us remember what Jesus has left us, not as a legacy, but as a way of life.
    Tongues, foreigners, new languages, one message, one world-wide community united in Jesus Christ—that is us, that is the Catholic Church, that is the continuation of Pentecost. Pentecost continues to happen in us.
    Last week I was at an ordination; the bishop and dozens of priests raised their hands to invoke the Holy Spirit. It is such a powerful gesture. But didn’t this happen when we were baptized? Didn’t it happen when we were Confirmed? Isn’t the Spirit constantly being invoked upon us? Come on… let’s open our hearts to receive the Spirit again. Come Holy Spirit.

 

Ascension B

    Heads have been rolling lately. Ina Drew, who made almost $15 Million a year, had to resign over JP Morgan Chase’s losing $2 Billion in a so-called hedging strategy. CEO of Yahoo, Scott Thompson, who once ran PayPay, had to resign when we found out he padded his resume—as if he had to in the first place, and as if people wouldn’t find out. Two weeks ago several agents had to resign from the Secret Service for actions that brought shame on their agency and the United States. And Dale Hunter, coach of the Capitals, was let go because they almost went onto the Hockey Final, but almost is not good enough.

    All these heads rolling, and who knows who will be next? After all, don’t we have expectations of people once they get a job, once they rise high on the totem pol? In fact, given the mood of many people today, we cannot see enough heads roll, seeing how dysfunctional we have become in government, in business, in education, in almost everything.

    What, then, do we expect of Jesus? Today’s feast, the Assumption, is not about geography; it’s about position. Jesus, in his humanity, ascends to the “right hand of the Father,” a way of saying that he fully acts with the power of God. Of course, the eternal Son of God was never without divine power; but the Son of God born-into-time, Jesus, now shows in his humanity what the resurrection means: bestowing the Spirit of God upon humankind. This is the “promise” of which Jesus had spoken; now he and his Father send the Spirit.

    The Apostles seem puzzled because their sense of power is quite distinct: “Are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” they ask Jesus. They have not begun to get the point. It is not longer about Israel, it’s not longer about some new governmental arrangement, it’s no longer about kicking the Romans out. It’s about the Spirit of God coming upon humankind, not restoring a Kingdom to Israel, but making human existence itself in the Kingdom of God.

    Jesus gains power, but it is not the kind of power that CEOs or American Presidents have; it is not military power, or sovereign majesty. Jesus is about something entirely other: bringing all people into relationship with God—a relationship that will transform their sense of God, ours sense of ourselves, and our relationships with each other. This is why Mark’s Gospel has Jesus sending the Apostles forth “to proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” Jesus uses symbols of his day as a way to say that nothing—not persecution, not evil, no kind of poison—will stop the growth of his Word.

    This is also why the angel has to nudge the Apostles who stand with their mouths open staring into the sky. It’s not about staring into the sky, about trying to hold on to a past image, about trying to confine the power of Jesus. Rather, the power of Jesus will be revealed in the mission that the followers of Jesus undertake, in the powerful deeds of preaching, serving, healing, teaching, and transforming that we are all called to do. Jesus ascends into heaven to permit us to accept his Spirit more deeply and continue his work in the world.

    So Jesus, our CEO, does not hog the power, does not sit in the office dictating. This CEO, this leader, bestows his leadership, his power, on his followers. This might t sound strange to many of us Catholics who often cower in our faith, feeling pretty listless and insecure. This must sound strange to generations of Catholics who grew up thinking of faith as something passive, something quietly held onto.

    That’s why we have this feast right before Pentecost. Next week we see God’s power in Jesus; next week we see the drama of the Spirit’s coming. This is not about some other group. This is all about us, who we are in Christ, and who the Spirit empowers. In our case, the danger is not that we will act poorly and be fired. No, the danger for American Catholics is that we will not see ourselves acting at all.

Come Holy Spirit!

Easter 6B

It was a heart-rending video clip, and they played it just before I was support to give my talk.  It showed a woman crying, lamenting the death of her 19 year-old son.  Next it showed a man, in his thirties—the one who had killed the nineteen-year old.  It had taken the mother 12 years to visit the man who shot her son dead.  But when she saw him in prison, she found herself hugging this man, saying she forgave him.  My mind was overwhelmed.  How was something like this possible?  Was this man the only remaining link to her dead son?  Was this desperation?  No, I saw as the clip went on for another minute, this was actually forgiveness, this was actually love.  “I call him my son,” she said pointing to the ex-con.  “I call him my son.”
 Well, how do you give a talk after that?  After that kind of demonstration of mercy, of forgiveness, of love.  We usually think of love as the overly-romantic attachment that younger people have for each other.  Here is a different image, one of acceptance of another even despite the limitations, the brokenness, one sees in another.  Here is an image of love as gift in the midst of adversity.  Of one love bringing healing and love to another, someone broken and nearly unforgiveable.
 Mother’s Day is one of the greater days of love we celebrate because the love of parents is, in many ways, so much clearer than the love of young lovers, filled as that is with impulsive, and maybe self-centered feelings.  Romance does that to you!  Mothers, parents, love their children without condition, from the child’s first emergence as a struggling newborn.  Parents love turns out to be a an image of the love of God, the love that grounds all our lives, if we could only see it, the love of the one Jesus calls Father?
 “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” Jesus says.  The Father from whose side Jesus came to show divine love—this is the same love that Jesus gives to us, and with which Jesus sends us out in his name.  Love alone defines God; love alone should define those who follow God in Jesus.  Love that breaks molds and bends categories, because it fits into none of the limited packages we have for love.
 We are called friends because Jesus has revealed to us what God is all about.  Because we are friends, we are therefore commanded—that is to say, there is no choice about it—if God loves this way, then how are we supposed to love?  We can’t do it, we think.  That’s why Jesus sends his Spirit to love in us and through us. 
 How outrageous is the love God has!  It’s not limited to our beloved, as so much human love is.  Not limited to just our families.  Nor just our kin or relatives.  Nor just our tribe.  Nor just our national or racial types.  God’s love is universal—covering everyone, and penetrating to the depths of everyone, and challenging everyone to love in the same way.  God chose us; and God asks us, in Jesus, to choose everyone else in his name, until love covers all human existence.
 God shows no partiality, we learn from Acts.  The God who chose us is choosing the world in and through us.  The love we celebrate in our mothers, the love we’ve found in our lives, the greatest love we’ve ever discovered—that’s a hint, God is saying, to the transforming love we see in Jesus, and the kind of love that can transform the world.


Easter 5 B

Cutting things out is one of the hardest things we are called to do.  I know, for example, when I have to write something that is 250 words, and I’ve already got 275, I go crazy trying to figure which 25 words I’ll get rid of.  And I suppose it’s much harder for a coach who, say, has 25 fine players, but has to get his roster down to 20, or a mother who has only so many hours in a day—and has to cut things out to fit in her responsibilities.

So while the image of cutting, which Jesus gives us in the Gospel, may initially put us off, Jesus is driving home something which we are all familiar—to make progress, we have to get rid of things; to stay focused, we have to remove things that clutter up our vision. 

Why?  Because of the main point that Jesus wants to make—the implication of him calling himself the vine, and calling us the branches.  Jesus is dealing with his own life, divine life, pouring into us the way sap pours into branches.  He’s talking about identity, about unity, about one life shared between himself and his followers—and between his followers with each other.  Can anything be more crucial for believers than to have unity with Christ?

But so many things in our lives can slowly begin to choke the flow of Christ’s life into us.  Number one, I suppose, is our own egoism, how we think the world revolves around us, and how entitled we feel we are to just about everything, and how resentful we feel when we think we’ve missed something.  If Christ’s life is fundamentally love—that divine love which underlies all existence now flowing into us—nothing crimps this love more than our big fat egos.  Just look at our marriages, our friendships, and our basic loyalties—how all of these are damaged because we keep putting ourselves in the center.

Another factor that slows God’s life in us is our closed-mindedness.  It’s easy, isn’t it, to shrink the world down to what I know and what I’m comfortable with, and to dismiss or put down anything else.  Perhaps racism has receded a bit in our society, at least in its more outrageous forms; but are we not always pulling rank, putting people into pigeon holes, wrinkling our noses at others we think are inferior?  Just look at what Paul has to go through to get accepted into the Christian fold—of course the Christians had a right to be suspicious—but look at how he spent his ministry expanding the minds of people to accept others into the Church who looked different.

So do I want Christ’s life?  Do I want divine life abiding within me?  Do I want my vision expanded to the breadth of this God who lets rain fall “on the just and unjust,” as the Gospel says, on the pretty and the less pretty, the smart and the less smart, on all of humankind?  Do I want to live with a sense of constant unity with God, with the sap of Jesus flowing inside me?  Do I want to be a branch of his vine?

If so, there has to be some snipping, some cutting, some throwing out.  We all have dead twigs inside us.  We all have lifeless limbs inside us.  We all need as much of Christ’s life in us as possible.

It’s spring.  People are cleaning their houses and getting their gardens ready.  Putting down mulch and getting rid of winter debris.  If we want our lawns and houses to look good, how much do you think God wants us to be cleaned out and looking good—looking like his Son?


Easter 4 B

 

This past week, Dianne Rehm was interviewing Russ Douthat, the somewhat conservative New York Times columnist, who is also a committed Catholic. His book is called, Bad Religion: How We Become a Nation of Heretics. Behind the provocative title is one clear thesis: that Americans reject formal religion because they think religion is only inside us, in our hearts, in our feelings. Douthat says that, with this view, we have nothing outside ourselves to correct our distortions.

Even apart from the way Douthat pokes at the bees nest, it is a very good question: do we think we need a guide in religion? Do we think there is anything objective, beyond ourselves in faith? Or, in the image of the Gospel today, do we think we need a shepherd?

A shepherd does two things: he protects and he guides. Plenty of generations of Christians have felt a need for protection; how many centuries were filled with overt persecution? How many more centuries were filled with religious wars? Perhaps our own culture, when there is no overt hostility, however, has the most danger in it: our faith can be sweet-talked away. We can be seduced from even having a vision of faith.

And a shepherd guides. Why Jesus can guide us is pretty clear in the Scriptures. Jesus has come to take on our life, and to live that life ahead of us, to the full, guiding us even through death. In other places in the New Testament, Jesus is called a "pioneer" because he goes ahead of us. “I lay down my life on my own,” Jesus says. Giving himself completely, he invites us to follow him; he even talks about extending that invitation to all the world—the other sheep not of his fold. Where is it that Jesus would lead us?

To his path of absolute, generous love. To his path of living for the cause of his Father. To his path of total giving. Not an easy path, is it, for us to follow? Not a path we can readily do without guidance, inspiration, encouragement, help.

There’s a part of us that feels awkward with the words “sheep” or “children”—we feel that our modern life has given us tremendous technical ability, vast insight into the human mind, tons of information literally at the tip of our clicking fingers. We think we can figure it all our on our own. Why do we need a shepherd? Why do we need a church? Why do we need a church that has the audacity to guide us?

This modern disposition shows why we need to pay special attention to this shepherd. Jesus wants to show us places where we would never go on our own. He wants to take us beyond our own natural default of self-concern, self-interest, our comfort zones where we are not stretched beyond ourselves. He wants to bring us to a daring love of self-gift and self-sacrifice. He wants our hearts to expand to his heart, to the heart of God.

The shepherd guides. He does not beat his sheep, does not jab his stick at them. He walks ahead of us, calling out with syllables of love. Perhaps his voice is harder to hear today than ever before. But it is there—in his Scriptures, in his sacramental presence, in his moral vision, and in his community of the Church. We may not feel we need a shepherd. But if we dare to follow his path, to walk in his steps, we’ll find the opposite is true. Our partial self-wisdom pales before the divine wisdom Jesus imparts.

Every eight grader believes he or she knows everything. Thank God mommy and daddy are around! God guides us no less surely, no less lovingly.

 

 

Easter 3 B

 

If you go to TGIF to eat, you’ll notice, in small text beside each order, the amount of calories an item contains. It’s pretty shocking. One piece of chicken might have 400 calories, and another 1400. Salads, which we all think are ways to stay slender, sometimes have 1500 calories, almost enough food for the average person for a day. In spite of all this calorie counting, every once in a while you hear stories that outlandishly buck this trend. I heard about one restaurant that offered a “heart attack burger,” with over 3000 calories, just in the burger, let alone the fried potatoes and milkshake that went with it.

All of this obsession about our food, whether we are eating too much or too little, shows pretty clearly that food is an inescapable part of our lives. Whatever eating disorders beset modern Americans, however we study food and talk about the best way to eat, we do have to eat. We like to eat. Food defines us.

There should be no surprise, then, that Jesus, who spent so much of his ministry at table with his disciples—and with the reprobate—now eats with his disciples in his Risen body. The point is not biology. Rather, the point is the victory of Jesus over the forces of death. Just as he shows them his wounds—signs both of defeat and Easter triumph—so he eats with them to show them that his body, once broken and buried, now represents the triumph of God over sin.

There is a sense of justness, even of necessity, in all these Easter readings. The logic of the scripture puts it this way: it was necessary for Jesus to die; it is totally appropriate for Jesus to be raised from the dead. Jesus’ death demonstrates that the brokenness of sin, of our relationship with God, cannot be eliminated by some magic wand. Sin tears apart the fabric of existence itself; sin scars all our lives, body and spirit. Jesus being hoisted on the cross shows sin in its undeniable force.

Jesus’ Resurrection, then, represents the definitive sign of God’s overcoming of sin: though people might do anything to eliminate the totally Just One, ultimately God’s love and life will conquer in ways we could not imagine. “Peace be with you,” the Risen Jesus says again and again. God’s reconciliation has been accomplished. God’s peace now lies open to all who draw near.

We draw near when we eat with Jesus, when we are part of his Eucharist, his ongoing meal of reconciliation. Do we not say this again and again in our new translation—the sacrifice of reconciliation, the sacrifice of Jesus that shows God’s reconciliation with the world. In the Eucharist, Jesus continues to eat with us. “Lord I am not worthy,” we say; but the Lord makes us worthy by joining his flesh with ours, by becoming our own food, by letting us feed on his Resurrection.

When Jesus ate with his disciples before he died, Jesus anticipated eating again in the Kingdom. This eating happens through the sacrament of his Body and Blood, now made food for us, now given to us to sustain us and transform us. How are we transformed? Be becoming what we eat, by being Christ’s living Body, by being, through the way we live, Christ’s life in the world. As we feed off the Risen Christ, so we, through our service and love, help the world feed off our faith, our Easter faith, our unity with Christ Jesus.

We approach the altar Sunday after Sunday, but often we do not reflect on what it means to receive the Lord. We think of it as a pious thing, Jesus coming to us. But it is also a dare that Jesus places before us: will you live my life? Will you accept my conquest over death? Will you live my reconciliation? Will you extend my Risen life to the world?

We Americans are obsessed by the food we eat, alternately stuffing and starving ourselves. But we dare not refuse the meal Jesus gives us. The physical calories of our bread and wine are miniscule; but the Easter energy we receive can bring true health, real healing, to the world.

 

B Easter 2

 

I have a very good friend who cannot swim. He tells me this with a slight hint of shame, and a bit of defensiveness. I imagine, naturally, what it would be like to teach an adult to swim—and also remember how I learned to swim in the small pool on West 59th Street, one open to every apartment-dweller in our neighborhood. I assure you, they used lots of chlorine. I remember, particularly, how impossible it all seemed to me, how I would go to the shallow end of the pool and flail my hands in mock imitation of swimming. Once a teacher got me to float—fill those lungs with air and just rest in the water—then the fear vanished. If I could float, then I would not drown. Then I could swim.

Some things are like that. We can only overcome our fears, or our doubts, by engaging in action, a process, a method. It’s the behavior that overcomes our doubts. Riding a bike. Driving a car. Having a child. Preaching a homily. All our hesitations start to shrink when we begin to act.

In the powerful Gospel we have today, there are many things going on. Perhaps it’s typical of us modern people to move immediately to Thomas, doubting Thomas as he’s called, because we live in a world marked by doubt, especially religious doubt. It’s easier for us to believe what scientists tell us about little specks in the sky millions of light years away than it is for us to hear about God. Doubt is easy, faith seems hard.

Doubt, of course, has many functions. It not only deals with what we can touch with our finger, to use Thomas’ words. It also deals with the way we get out of things. If I doubt I can swim, I don’t have to deal with water. If I doubt I can do college work, I don’t have to deal with SATs. If I doubt the Easter message, I don’t have to deal with the life-changing hope God sets before us.

Thomas’ doubt is quite specific. He doesn’t believe his brothers and sisters—those who said they saw the Risen Christ. He’s still part of the group, but only somewhat. He can play on the sides, the way many modern people do, calling themselves “spiritual” but being reluctant to commit to anything specific. He wants it from the horse’s mouth. He wants it from Jesus.

And he gets it from Jesus, in the humiliating detail in which Jesus invites Thomas to verify the resurrection. “Come, put your finger right here. I dare you!” Dares Thomas to touch those wounds, the wounds of defeat and now of victory; dares Thomas to get involved with him. Curiously, Thomas doesn’t use his finger to verify things. He uses his heart, he uses his faith, he sees what he refused to see—not a risen body, but a whole world open to him. “My Lord and My God,” he cries. You don’t see that with eyeballs, that’s for sure. Only with faith.

For me the exciting part of the story happens not with Thomas, but with Jesus’ first encounter with the disciples. He breathes on them. He blows the Holy Spirit upon them. He does this right after saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” I mean, don’t these words just explode as we hear them. As the Father sends Jesus—in service and love to accomplish the Father’s works—so Jesus sends us! We are sent. It’s part of Easter, and it’s part of Easter faith. Only by doing the works of Jesus—his compassion, his affirmation, his outreach, his humble service—does our doubt begin to resolve.

This is why we can be as blessed as those who saw Jesus’ actually risen body. The same sending, the same empowerment, the same faith can come to us, because the same Spirit empowers us and makes the Risen Christ present through us. It’s all right here for us, if only we give up our hesitations, our hedging, our doubts, and embrace the Risen Christ.

Renewal doesn’t stop with Lent. It goes on, even more spectacularly, in this Easter season when, week by week, we see the Easter gifts God bestows on us through the Risen Christ.

There are many things that make us flinch, make us hesitate, make us doubt. There’s a bit of Thomas in all of us. So Jesus comes before us, in his Sacrament and in his Spirit. He’s not asking for our finger, but our heart. “Come, give me your heart, and then you will begin to see Risen Life.”

 

B Easter


Over the past 5 weeks, the unsettling killing of Trayvon Martin has grown in our national conversation and our national conscience.  It is one of those ambiguous situations that teaches us how conflicted we are as a people.  We may never clearly know what happened on a Florida street, just as we may never clearly know the ambiguities, conflicts, and racial drives of the American mind right below the surface of our lives.  Can the killing of a 19 year old be justified?  Just who was wrong?

 This contrasts strongly with the feasts we are celebrating.  We may never know exactly some details of the death of Jesus, but it seems unambiguously clear what happened.  A preacher from Galilee, performing remarkable signs to show a new relationship between God and humankind, utterly innocent, is unjustly murdered in a power play that still shocks us.  “We want Barabbas,” the people shout, as the pieces of the plot against Jesus all fall into place.

 So the contrast could not be clearer: innocence and goodness attacked by people with base and self-concerned motives; trust and faith besieged by plotting and conspiracy; the author of life, as the Scriptures put it, caught up in the forces of death.  This is why Easter is the decisive event in human history.  The battle has been all laid out for us—and today, in the Resurrection , we learn who wins the battle, what is the greater force, what is the foundation of our existence.

 “He is not here,” the angel tells the women—angels always tell us what we cannot surmise on our own, what makes sense in God’s vision.  The women worry about who will roll the rock back,--but the rock has already been rolled back.  God has already acted in human history, things have already changed—when will they see it, and when will we?

 For if the forces of evil are defeated, if the powers of life are established in us and for us by God through Jesus, we still often live as if this has not happened, as if the rock were still there, as if we were stuck and immobilized.  The messengers—the angels—tell us that death has been overcome, but we still live caught up in the grip of death, with our attention only on the next moment, on mere survival, on the next passing trophy to enthrall us.

 If Jesus is raised, if he has bestowed his Holy Spirit, if death is defeated, then why do we live so often without hope, or with only half hope, or hedging our bets, or without ultimate faith in the power of God?  When do we see that the rock has been rolled back already, that God has already given us the beginnings of eternal life, that the deepest loves and values of this life are forever secure in him?  He is risen!  Do we believe? 

 This week I became one of millions of people who have seen The Hunger Games.  It’s a gripping story of many levels, but a story that we Americans seem haunted by—the survivor, who will last, who will be the biggest loser, the apprentice, the one left standing at the end?  But as I think about it, The Hunger Games is only partially about surviving.  Kateniss wants to survive, not for herself but for her sister, for her family, for others.  Isn’t this what Jesus shows us today—that our lives are always about more than survival, about living for others, as God lives for us, as Jesus gives himself to us?  In Jesus we have true survival, because in Jesus, and his Rising, we finally see our world suffused with life-giving love.


B Good Friday

No writer of a Gospel gives us more of Jesus’ saying from the Cross than does John.  Two of them might be particularly puzzling.  “I thirst,” says Jesus.  And, “It is finished.”  Each of these phrases springs from themes that weave long threads in the Gospel, and they show us how John wished to present the death of Jesus—as a triumph, an accomplishment.

 We cannot hear Jesus proclaim his thirst without thinking of his first sign, at Cana, when he fills a town with enough wine to party for a weekend and more.  Or when he proclaims that he is himself the Fountain of Life.  “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink,” he cries out; the water that gushes forth will be the Holy Spirit, the life Jesus gives through his death.  The normal thirst of a dying human, whose last drops of blood and water are dripping from his body, becomes a proclamation of the gift of the Spirit.  Jesus’ thirsts to bestow his Spirit, his own Life, upon us.

 Throughout the Gospel Jesus has referred to his hour, his works, and his work.  Jesus had a distinct mission to accomplish—to show us what God is really like and to give us the Spirit.  Jesus shows us God in all his great signs.  The death of Jesus is itself his last and greatest sign, the giving of himself completely—to the end—in love for the world, as a definitive sign of the Father’s love.  Now he has done this, hung in shame and disgrace, the ultimate victim of human hatred and sin.  Having suffered the worst, he can now show God’s life and love are even greater.  “It is accomplished.”  It is completed.  It is finished.  Jesus has won.

 In just two days, we will see Jesus standing before his astonished apostles, proclaiming peace.  Then he will breathe on them—a pun for the same word as Spirit—breath—wind.  “Receive the Holy Spirit.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Jesus’ work now continues in us, in his people, in the Spirit bestowed upon them and giving them life.

 The Spirit comes as Jesus loves us to the end, because the Spirit is love, God’s love, poured forth in his Son and now in his Spirit.  When we hear Jesus’ words in this Gospel, we are hearing our own destiny as believers.  Drink in his water, the waters of baptism, the waters of new life.  Jesus thirsts for nothing more than this.  Continue his accomplishment, love completely to the end, without any half measures.  Jesus work is done, but ours, in a way, is always just beginning, the work we have yet to do in his Spirit.

 



Palm Sunday


After reading the shattering words of the passion, we feel overwhelmed, and empty, often at the same time.  The story moves along, figure after figure, each with its own drama.  Our minds, of course, cannot pick up on all these figures, so they usually settle on one person to reflect upon.  One person caught up in the drama of the death of Jesus.
In Mark’s Gospel, there is one figure that always raises intrigue, the young man who was so desperate to get away that he let the authorities grab off his clothes, so he could run away almost naked.  It’s only one sentence, but Christians have reflected on this figure for millennia.  Who is he, was Mark signaling something, was he Mark himself at a moment of weakness?
In a way this figure is the whole lot of us.  He certainly represents all the other disciples who were so desperate to get away.  The women hang around; the men, with all their virility, run away.  This strange figure speaks to anyone  who has ever preferred our his or her own safety to any danger, and who have ever preferred themselves to the Lord.  It’s easy to pay lip service; it’s hard to be faithful.  What kind of absolute trust in God does it take to face danger unflinchingly?
This man certainly particularly represents us as well, getting close to Jesus but not too close, following Jesus but often with some kind of escape hatch.  The naked man obviously changed at some point, otherwise Mark would not know of him; at a later point, he undoubtedly joined the followers of Jesus.  He probably thought back at this moment of self-interested survival, embarrassed but changed.
Maybe his story can help us reflect, this Palm Sunday, on the changes needed in our lives so we can live with greater trust, and greater faithfulness.



Lent 5 B

 

It’s a situation we all dread.  We’ve made a contract.  A reliable company is going to repair a part of our house.  We are all excited.  We give the contractor a wad of money.  The work begins and the house is in disarray.  Then the problems start; there are delays.  The work stops.  We’re out of money, patience, and time; and our frustration is endless.

What about the contract?  What about our agreement?  What about the conditions?  What about the lack of faith?

We can look upon our relationship with God as a contract; we call it a covenant.  We’ve been reflecting on covenants over all these weeks of Lent.  God has made an agreement with humankind, but we are like the contractor who stops showing up, the worker who quits.  We frustrate the designs of God.  What can be done about that?

On our part, perhaps little.  On God’s part, however, everything can be done.  Jeremiah tells us that God will put his love and life into our hearts.  I will place my law in your hearts.  I will do the work for you because you cannot.  You may be like Lazarus, inside the tomb, lifeless and powerless; but God’s life comes to us in Jesus, who takes on our pain, takes on our death, and brings us to God through his faithfulness and his love.

What is the work Jesus does for us? He carries our burdens, shows the rupture between us and God, between us and life, through his sacrificial death: God takes on what breaks us, so that we may be enriched by God’s own life.  He takes our death and fills us with the Spirit that gives us life.  He offers us a way to finally be faithful to the love of God.

Every Sunday we renew ourselves in the new and everlasting covenant—the covenant of the blood of Jesus, his death and his life.  But so many Sundays we come without consciousness, without enthusiasm, without passion—we get too used to what God has done for us.  Lent gives us this opportunity to realize what God has done in Jesus, and to make his work our work, his death our death, and his life our life.  Lent gives us the opportunity to renew our discipleship.

Perhaps we will never be totally satisfied with our dealings with others.  Perhaps others will always let us down.  But it can be otherwise with our dealings with God. In Christ, we can give to God what we must—our hearts, our dreams, our love.  When we do, in Christ the servant, we finally are set free.

Lent B4
 
“Strike,” yells the umpire.  Boos echo throughout the ballpark.  “That wasn’t a strike; it was a ball.  You could see how high it was,” people yell from around the park.  So America’s favorite pastime starts up, baseball, a game of careful watching and close scrutiny.  Most of the time, umpires and fans agree.  But do we not all enjoy the endless arguments that arise when the ump sees one thing, and everyone else sees another? 
 
Of course, we all deal with not seeing things clearly from time to time.  The sun shines on our car window, our bi-focals give us split images, we cannot find a pen that is right under our noses.  When it comes to declining sharpness, it’s hard to know if our eyes are worse than our brains.
 
But what about deliberate blindness?  Not the blindness that comes from losing one’s physical sight, as  in the famous Gospel image, being born blind.  But rather the blindness that simply refuses to see?  How can we begin to understand this?  If the man born blind stands as an image of someone unable to see, Nicodemus stands as an image of an enlightenment that we refuse.  It’s the refusal of enlightenment that Lent wants to challenge.
 
We find a sober reflection from the second book of Chronicles, one of the later history books in the Hebrew Scriptures; it’s a blunt acknowledgement of the failure to live up to the covenants that God made with Israel, covenants we have been reflecting on in a particular way this Lent.  Did it take that kind of devastation for people to recognize how far they drifted from God?  The passage talks about the generations spent in Exile, after Jerusalem is destroyed 580 years before Christ, and how Cyrus, a pagan leader, finally let the Jewish people return home.  Did it take total collapse?
 
Chronicles can see its blindness so clearly, looking back; but what helps us see the blindness of our own lives?  Because we all adjust our vision, allowing in only so much light, not wishing the light to shine on the little, and big, compromises we have made in our own following of Jesus.  Where does this blindness come from?  Of course, it’s our willfulness, our pride, our insistence that we be the centers of our own world.  It’s substituting our small vision for the brilliance of divine light.
 
Lent challenges this blindness.  It probes the edges of our comfort, the distorted eyeglasses we wear looking at life, and God.  It proclaims that God has given us Jesus, the eternal Son, as our brother and guide; it reminds us that we all walk, as Ephesians says, in the grace of God, or else we walk in delusion.
 
What do I want to see?  What do I want to avoid seeing?  Will I take the time to look into my own heart?  Will I take the time to behold God’s abundant love, given to us in Jesus, as God’s eternal covenant offered to all of humankind—offered to me?  Do I prefer the darkness?
 
Strikes, balls, touchdowns, and puts—we can argue about all of those.  But not about God’s unbounded love.  That’s there, for everyone to see, if only we’d just open our eyes, or, better, let God open them for us.

LENT 3B

So what is Jesus doing in the Gospel today?  Is Jesus involved in some kind of protest, kind of like “Occupy Wall Street” or “Occupy Washington,” which we saw in the second part of last year?  People were not sure what all of that was about, except that the protestors opposed the 1% who had it all, and represented the 99% who didn’t.  Older members of the congregation might even feel shades of older protests, such as ran through our nation in the 60s, civil rights protests and, later, against the war in Vietnam. 

 It would be easy to be simplistic, to think that Jesus is protesting an old, sterile, harsh law—that he’s demolishing the claims of Jewish religion.  Some very influential teachers, particularly from Lutheran Protestantism, make a big distinction between the law and the Spirit.  They saw the law as something that captured people into superficial religious slavery, and Jesus as the liberator.  They might think he was attacking the Jewish law itself.

 For Jewish people, and for Jesus, however, the law was not a form of slavery; it was a way to freedom.  We see this in the first reading, once again a deepening of God’s covenantal relationship with us which we are exploring this Lent, where God provides the basis of relationship, not only with the divine, but also with other humans.  It’s our modern nutty ideas about freedom that lead us to see these commandments as things that tie us up, hold us back, get in the way of freedom. 

 In reality, as ancient people could so easily see, these commandments provided a way to escape the heartless and cruel ways we treat each other, to provide a path whereby humans could live, and humans could relate to God. To honor our parents, keep our vows, live with integrity, and keep from killing each other was, in the ancient world, a huge step up.

 No, Jesus was certainly not against the law, and certainly not the law of God.  Jesus was, rather, against what humans can do with the law, or do in the name of God’s law. In particular, Jesus’ action, like the actions of ancient prophets, tried to call people to the reality underneath the law, and underneath their cultural practices.  They saw faith as something they could adapt for their gain, not as something that made a claim on their very hearts.  Jesus definitely was not into superficial religion, or the façade of faith.

 What an admonition for us!  How easy for us to accommodate our faith to our own comfort zones, for us to go through motions but skip the internal change those motions are intended to represent, to make faith into a cultural shell rather than the heart of our own lives.  Jesus is not doing political protest, but he is being radical—trying to root us radically in God, trying to get us to see more clearly what our religious external deeds are about.

 This past week we saw harrowing images of towns devastated by tornados.  In an instant, the world people knew vanished.  But after the wood, steel, brick, and mortar was torn down, after people were stripped to seemingly nothing, they realized in a deeper way what life as about, and how much they meant to each other.  Lent can be like a tornado, stripping away the outside, so we can see the inside—our hearts—more clearly once again.

 

Lent 2B

 One way to heighten drama in a story is to have an impending action—someone hanging from a roof, a woman being stalked at night by a shadowy figure.  Another way is to give someone two choices that conflict with each other.  “Your money or your life,” is a short-hand way to put this; or, as in the opera Tosca, the heroine either gives in to the lewd desires of Scarpia or she sees her lover tortured.  Which one will she pick? 

 Does Abraham have a choice like this in today’s famous first reading?  Your son or your faithfulness, which one will it be?  This reading from Genesis has caused theologians many sleepless nights because it seems to pit two values against each other—love of God, and love of a human being.  We cannot believe that God would pose this kind of choice.

 That’s why we have to remember that scripture describes this scene as a “test.”  It’s primarily a way to see what is inside Abraham.  How absolute is his love of God?  One might think, for example, that Abraham actually mishears God—he thinks he hears God asking for this sacrifice, but God later clarifies it—“I do not expect you to sacrifice your son.”  Or one might think that scripture used this story to attack the practice of infanticide widely used in neighboring countries.

 Either way, we are also put to the test.  How absolute is our love for God?  How close have we gotten to placing our love and loyalty to God above everything else in our lives?  This can be strange territory for us Catholics whose faith can often stay conventional, mellow, safe.  How passionate are we about God?  Does God’s love weigh above everything else in my life?

 Only an attitude like this can helps us approach the great scene of the Transfiguration—the glowing Jesus, with Moses and Elijah dialoguing with him.  The glory of the Lord confirms the total closeness of Jesus to his Father: “This is my beloved Son, my chosen,” precisely because Jesus lives for God alone.  Jesus brings to a new and greater perfection the witness of the Hebrew people, the faithful loyalty of Moses and Elijah. 

 Meanwhile Peter just doesn’t get it.  He wants to built a tent to watch the glory of Jesus; the dark cloud comes upon him and his companions showing us that Peter cannot enter into the fullness of the experience yet because his love of God is yet untested.  “This is my beloved—hear his voice,” reveals what Peter must do.  The next words of that voice find Jesus explaining to his disciples that he must die in order to find the full glory of being raised from the dead. Jesus finds glory for us by giving himself in love.

 We ourselves can live most of our years of faith in the cloud, kind of understanding the passion of God’s love, but kind of missing it to.  Abraham clarifies that God is not one to force us to reject human life for his sake.  God’s love encompasses the love of all.  God is the God of life, as we saw last week with Noah.  But, with this realization, God still does raise another issue: can we prefer God to our own love of self?  Can we love as Jesus loves, giving himself as a sign of the absolute gift of God’s love to us?

 Only such selflessness helps us enter into the glory of the Tranfiguration.  Only such selflessness helps us see that, in Christ, once we have identified our lives with him, absolutely nothing can hurt us.  This was Paul’s experience, one that he elaborates with total joy to the Romans—what can separate us from the love of Christ.  For to know that love, and live that love, is to begin now, in this present life, the glory God promises for all who have opened their hearts to absolute love.

 It isn’t that the choice is our glory or God’s glory.  Rather, the invitation goes this way: only in God’s glory can our glory be secured.

 




1 B Lent

 

A little bit of snow had just fallen and the wind was starting to blow.  We were staring at the Rocky Mountains which loom over Colorado Springs.  My driver pointed to Mount Cheyenne.  He explained the bunkers of military control rooms built into the mountain, the tons of granite protecting those rooms, the ability of those bunkers to take everything that the Russians could throw at us during the Cold War—and still allow us to retaliate.  Mutual Assured Destruction.  That was the arrangement, that was the deal. 

 

This was almost like a covenant between nations that had nuclear arms in the 1950s.  We paradoxically felt safe because we felt no one would be crazy enough to attack; the ensuing destruction would be unthinkable for everyone.  That was the understanding.  Except for a close call like the Cuban Missile Crisis, it mostly worked.

 

This Lent we explore relationships, arrangements, covenants.  Each Sunday we will see another aspect of God’s relationship with us.  We have Noah today, the rainbow shining in the sky, as God’s pledge that humankind would not be destroyed by water; but it is more than that, it is God’s pledge to preserve the human and earthly life he created.  God is on the side of life; God is not our enemy.  In further Sundays we will see other covenants presented and explored.

 

But the Gospel today begins to show us God’s ultimate covenant with us.  If the Old Testament puts the covenant this way: I will be your God, you will be my people; the revelation of Jesus puts it this way: in Jesus all of humankind can find redemption.  In Jesus our human burdens are borne by God.  God takes on our life that we may take on God’s divine life.

 

Mark gives us a short form of the temptations of Jesus, but the shortness should not fool us.  All of temptation comes down to this: what are we living for?  What is the center of our life?  Jesus tells us the center of his life, for his testing by the Satan leads him back from the desert to the towns of Galilee proclaiming what would be the central project of his life—the Kingdom of God.  Jesus has no illusions about the Kingdom; his kinsman, John, has been executed, so Jesus knows what is in the air.  Still he undertakes his mission, living for the Kingdom’s fullness in our world.

 

So the arrangement with God comes down to this: will we experience conversion, the opening of our hearts and minds, and come to see the Kingdom as the purpose for which we live?  Will be become disciples of Jesus Christ and enact in our own lives the vision to which he calls us.  Will we be with him as the cost of that mission is exacted?  Will we trust his Father even in our adversity?  Will we accept his Spirit?

 

These are not new ideas in our lives, because Lent ultimately only puts before our hearts the same basic issues of faith—only more intensely so.  Now that we’ve washed the ashes off our heads, what will Lent mean for us?  Can it be a time of conversion?  Can it be a time for me to appreciate the calling I have, we have, in Christ in a fuller way?

 

We know we have been baptized; Noah serves as an image for us.  But we can make our Catholic lives into a dozen little chores; we can flatten our baptisms down to a comfortable agenda.  Lent can be small penances that protect me from its deeper questions.  Lent has only one question for us: Will we be part of Christ’s new and eternal covenant?  Will we live for the Kingdom of God, making God’s agenda the central purpose of our lives?  Will we truly be Christ’s followers?

 
 
 
Sunday 7 B
 
I had played golf with him before, a kind, gracious 72-year-old whom I meet in Puerto Rico when I get to travel there.  The last time I visited he told me how, when he won the lotto, no one believed him.  We were talking about blessings and he said, “I had my greatest blessing ten years ago.”  “When you won a million dollars in the lotto,” I suggested.  “When I was cured of colon cancer,” he replied.
 
When you think about it, winning a million dollars is spectacular, but not having cancer easily trumps that.  You can’t spend your million if you are dead.  So if we had a choice, either win a million or be free of cancer, most of us would know exactly what to choose.  We’d want the healing.
 
What if the choice were put the way it might have been put in the Gospel today: be freed of your paralysis or be freed from sin.  What if that were the option?  What would we choose?  It’s not so easy, is it, because we know and appreciate what it would mean for a young man to be freed from life-long bondage to a stretcher, dependant on others for everything.  But do we know, and appreciate, what it means to be freed from sin?
 
After all, is not sin exactly like paralysis, and even more extensive?  Does not sin come to permeate our whole being, our vision, and our actions?  Does not sin fill us with debased and shamed images of ourselves?  Does not sin tear apart our human fabric?  Does not sin cut us off from the very center of being and life, from God?  Does not sin shrink and cripple our very ability to live full lives?
 
When Jesus addresses this young man, Jesus fulfills in an astonishing way what Isaiah sings about—God is doing something new here.  God is repairing our relationships.  God is letting us start anew.  God is taking from us the gene of spiritual and human death.  The Pharisees cannot believe what they are hearing?  Who can forgive, but God?  And how often does God do that?  Who is this Jesus to embody the power of God’s liberating forgiveness and love?
 
When Jesus, knowing the smallness of their minds as he knows the smallness of ours, heals the crippled man, when that man gets up from his bed, Jesus and that young man give us an image of what it means to be renewed in the forgiveness of God.  Though we dull sin, sin still stalks and kills us. Our dulling of sin in our consciousness makes us not realize how essential forgiveness is. 
 
When Jesus forgives the paralytic, he is, in effect, making him a disciple.  Disciples know they are forgiven, and know they must lead lives from the power of forgiveness, thanking God and forgiving others.  Disciples know they must praise God, live Christ’s life, and be prophets of God’s new life in the world today.  As I look out at this congregation, am I not looking at all of us, forgiven and loved by God, forgiven and called to be disciples?
 
But so often we do not realize our discipleship.  We dull this awareness, just as we dull our sense of guilt.  But we have an antidote to this, the start of Lent this week, the rubbing of ashes on our heads as a sign of our renewal in Christ.  Get up, off those beds of self-pity and shame.  Rise up, be a disciples in the world.  Stand up, realize your conversion and re-conversion because your savior has come near.
 
New York is excited about something new, Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American Knicks player who seems to have come out of nowhere.  Apple computers continue to dazzle us with new, sleeker, and niftier devices.  So much news, so much newness.  But the newness God wants is only one place: deep in our souls, deep inside our hearts.
 



6 Sunday B
 
It was one of those everyday moments that one never forgets. I was on the New York subway on one of my regular routes. I sat reading some book of theological articles, and, a few stops later, a young man, obviously from the “hood” sat across from me. He had long Jamaican braids, earrings and gold chains, and sunglasses that he seemed to hide behind. A few stops after this, a young Latina mother entered the subway with a two year old girl in her carriage. As the train moved, the girl looked at me, waved her hand, and got me to wave back; then she looked across the aisle, waved her hands toward the man from the hood, and he waved back. Pretty soon we were all smiling across the aisle at each other as if we were one family. Little things one never forgets.
What was that little girl but a bridge, between cultures that seemed to be totally disconnected. Waving and smiling, she brought people together. And if you think of today’s world, with its constant divisions, you wonder if we could only find a bridge, a way for people to see themselves connected, how different would we be? A bridge, say, between the left and right, between the haves and have-nots, between factions within Islam and Islam and the rest of the world, a bridge between peoples and continents?
The Gospel shows Jesus as exactly that. There are two world in the Gospel that we have—one is the world of everyday Jewish life, the other the drastic world of lepers in ancient times. Our first reading paints just how isolated these people were—standing apart, yelling to others to stay away because they were “unclean.” Jesus, remarkably, in the Gospel touches just this uncleanness, just this piece of humankind that everyone else was ready to discard, just this representative of human sickness, of human brokenness. “I do will it,” he says, as if asserting a positive directive from God. “I do will that you no longer be cut off; I do will that you join us, again, as a brother.”
According to ancient laws, Jesus, touching the unclean, becomes unclean himself. But has not Jesus come to show us a different kind of category, something beyond the ones we use to separate each other? Jesus is saying that everyone can become clean in him. It’s a question of faith, of acceptance in a community, of belonging to a new world that God is opening for us in Christ, a world that unites even Jews and Gentiles, as St. Paul reminds us. Remarkably, we have all gained admittance to this world, been found acceptable even in spite of our sins and failures, been included around the Lord’s loving table. In Jesus, we can get beyond the categories we use to judge others, and to judge ourselves as well. “Lord, will you make me clean?” A prayer as simple as that.
Mark makes quite an issue of this healed leper, who now wants to go proclaiming Jesus to all. Jesus is not ready for that because, in the logic of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not ready yet to define his new image of what it means to be Messiah. Perhaps Mark builds this scene up to goad his fellow Christians, and to goad us—how willing are we, accepted and transformed in Christ, to proclaim what God has done? How much more willing are we to put our heads in the ground and think that salvation is all about me?
We proclaim the Gospel by becoming the same kind of bridge that Jesus was; Jesus empowers us to touch others who are isolated, fearful, insecure, feeling themselves unworthy. He empowers us to be connections between the unconnected, ambassadors with those who feel estranged, reconcilers with those who are, and feel, unclean. Being cleaned up ourselves by God, we are excellent candidates to do this. With the coming of Lent in ten days, we have a special opportunity—to invite, to share, to involve others in conversations about God, to reflect God’s love a little more forcefully on a world that struggles so hard today to sense that love.

 
 
 
5 Sunday B
 
The arguments we have seen in recent years over healthcare in the United States reflect some of the deep ambivalence we have toward healing. Of course, we say on the one hand, when someone is hurting they should be helped, cured, healed. But when it comes to figuring out a way to do that, we start taking about death panels and financial mandates. And, should a doctor, in whom we put almost unlimited trust, not heal someone, the next name we probably will call is the lawyer.
We expect so much of healers, even though we know that healers suffer limitations too. Sickness, which is as much a part of human existence as our own bodily existence, deeply unsettles us. Why do we have to get sick? Why cannot everyone be healed? Why cannot science and medicine provide all the answers? Sickness unsettles us because it points to the truth we spend most of our lives evading—it points to our limitations and our mortality.
We can make a mistake when we hear of Jesus’ healings in the Gospel. We might think of them mostly as relieving the ailments of a sufferer. And surely they were that. But they were doing more than just bringing relief. In the time of Jesus, sickness of any kind was an incredible threat to life; it was the shadow of death and the grasp of demonic forces. Jesus heals the sick to demonstrate something essential in his ministry. Jesus not only rids Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever. Far more, he is demonstrating the ultimate power of God over what we fear the most, even over death.
We hear these words from Job and think—well, Job has a tough life. It is not exactly self-pity but it gets close. Job is at least reveling in his misery; like most of humankind, the experience of living was pretty wretched. Job’s voice cries out to God; in Jesus, God shows us that Job’s voice is heard. If sickness represents the deepest fears we have, Jesus represents divine assurance in the face of those fears.
It can be that our relative health today hides the fundamental battle behind human reality. It can be that our reliance on medicine—something that we value and absolutely need—can obscure the deeper dilemmas of human existence. After all, no matter how many replacements, no matter how many operations, no matter how many transplants, we all face death. Jesus heals to help us realize this deeper assurance from God, that not even death can defeat the ultimate life of God, given to us in love.
Jesus seems anxious to get the message out. “Stay in town, they are just getting to like you,” the disciples say. “I must be about preaching to every town; my message cannot be contained or localized.” Mark’s Gospel is one of non-stop energy. The Word of God wants to sweep us up in its movement, its force, its unstoppable power for good. Even the poor woman healed of her fever has to get into the act, serving Jesus and his disciples as soon as she is better.  This means, in part, that concern for our own healing has to involve concern for all of humankind, for the ultimate salvation of all.  We must move on from our private, personal, concerns.
In our new translation, we are often asked to reflect on the things of heaven. It asks us to raise our eyes above our immediate concerns. Maybe this is the only way we find real energy in our lives, beyond the humdrum agenda of our days, and beyond the crises that put that humdrum at risk. If we could only realize what we were living for! Jesus healed people to show them the things of heaven. He continues his healing in every sacrament, in every Eucharist, in every heart open to him, so that we will not forget how sick we really are—in soul if not in body—and how no medicine can compare to his.


Sunday 4B

 

I thought I misheard her.  “I am going to become a consecrated virgin,” she said.  “Why don’t you just become a nun?” I asked.  “Because I am not called to be a nun; I feel strongly called to be a virgin, and to live in the world.  This is my marriage to Jesus Christ.”  I went away scratching my head.

 

Maybe I have absorbed a lot of the attitudes toward virginity—and sex—that color the modern world, even though I have taken vows myself.  How does the world make sense of virginity today?  So long as we maintain our modern biases toward sexuality and sexual activity, it is totally baffling.  Even though our modern attitudes—that almost all sexual activity is fine so long as it is not criminal or lead to unhealthy consequences—make no sense at all, we still have trouble prizing virginity.

 

It was not so for most of Christian history, as we can see from Paul’s writing today.  Almost immediately, the radical call of Jesus—we heard some of that last week—meant that one just could not live the same way as before.  We Christians were to live with a radically new relationship to God in Jesus, and we had to live with eyes on values that transcended the ordinary.  The twentieth-century has tried to debunk efforts to restrain sexual activity—in the 60s, when I grew up, there was a slogan that went: Chastity is its own punishment.  But Christ’s radical message still remains.

 

The Gospel is about Jesus’ authority which surprised so many of his contemporaries.  He was not like the others who probably hemmed and hawed over issues of faith and law.  Jesus underlined the essential, the important.  “Authority” can mean power; but I think it can also mean “compelling influence.”  There was something decisive about Jesus—his relationship with his Father, of course, and the confidence, and power, that arose from that.

 

So Jesus is presented as the prophet, sketched in the book of Deuteronomy centuries before Jesus, one who speaks on behalf of God with power and conviction.  God would raise up a prophet, the scripture says; and, in the Gospel, we see this prophet in action.  “You are the Holy One of God” shrieks the unclean spirit—“holy” meaning the one totally consecrated to his Father, one able to bring the Kingdom into human experience because of that consecration.

 

So how do we live as if we have heard the radical message of Jesus?  Certainly by the confidence we have in our own faith, by our willingness to share faith with others as they can hear it, and by our own commitment to be consecrated—holy—to God.  Certainly this can be done in daily, contemporary life; we all know holy people.  But, certainly, it becomes harder to do that because we have trouble keeping our eyes on values that transcend the ordinary. 

 

As a result, believers have less authority—compelling influence—on the world; we look like we are hemming and hawing about our faith.  The clear lines of faith become obscured.  We look blah. This may be why we need virgins, and to prize virgins once again, because their lives prophetically call us to ponder God.  And we surely need laypeople, priests, religious and bishops who show their consecration to God in every deed they do.

 

Aren’t people looking for prophets today?  Where are they?  Or, more pointedly, where are we?

 

 

 

Sunday 3B

 

That Denver was crushed by the New England Patriots in the playoffs last weekend hasn’t stopped discussion about Denver’s quarterback, Tim Tebow.  Tebow, as I’m sure you know, has become one of the major objects of conversation because of his famous pose, one knee down on the ground, saying prayer to God before and during a football game.  People imitate Tebow, half in admiration, the other half spoofing him.  “Tebowing” has become a verb.

 

Fans of Tebow like the way he wears his faith on his sleeve—is open about his values and what keeps him centered, in a world that more and more dismisses faith, all faith, including our Catholic belief.  Opponents of Tiebow think that he brings expressions of faith where they do not belong, and, like some religious practicioners in our society, shoves his faith down your throat. 

 

In view of the Gospel we have today, however, I wonder if the problem for all of us is that faith, even that worn on our sleves, does not go nearly as deep as it should go, that what Jesus is talking about, what drew his initial followers, was something far more profound than our modern attitudes of faith.  What Tebow does is a bit of a variation on what Catholics did years ago, when they would make a sign of the cross before shoot for a basket or getting up to bat.  Faith is what makes my life better.  Faith is God on my side.

 

Jesus, however, presents a faith that goes way beyond our own conveniences and benefits.  Notice how Mark frames it: Jesus sees the arrest of John the Baptist, and then begins his ministry.  Jesus’ whole ministry lies under the shadow of persecution and death.  Jesus knows what the stakes are.  But, given this perspective, what do we see Jesus inviting people to do?  He invites them to conversion.

 

And what is the conversion to which they are invited?  We hear the word “repent” and think that’s what Jesus was talking about—some set of regrets with some promise not to eat chocolate.  But the word Jesus uses means far more than regret, or repent: it means turning our whole vision around, upside down, coming to see everything anew.  And that vision is related to the central message of Jesus: we turn our minds around so we can see the Kingdom of God.

 

Most of the time, we can see only our own interest.  Even the Ninivites, detested by the Jews, repent mostly out of their self-interest.  It’s something like the way we religious leaders talk about how many people flock to church when they feel under threat.  We can always turn to God when it suits us.  Jesus, however, asks people to turn to God because it suits God, and because it suits the ultimate purpose of God—we turn to God so we can make the Kingdom of God more visible in the world.  We turn to God to accomplish the project of God, namely, the renewal of humankind.

 

The Kingdom is not some Disneyland thing, nor is it our pale images of ancient Holy Roman Kingdoms, or popes commanding armies.  The Kingdom rests in this: a whole new understanding of God’s relationship to us, as a loving Father, and therefore a whole new way of living, in freedom and generosity, with other because our whole lives rest upon total trust in an every generous God.  This is what gets those fishermen to give up their nets, and their relatives, even though they’ve barely begun to understand it.  This is what lies behind Paul’s radical language in the second reading—how can you live the same way when you know what God is doing in the world.

 

In this vein, on a weekend when we think about Roe v. Wade, it’s clear that overcoming America’s blind spots about abortion is really about conversion, bringing about a new vision of humankind, God’s vision.

 

As we listen to these opening words of Mark, the question is not whether conversion is a social irritant or not.  The question is whether we have begun to accept the radical conversion that Jesus calls us to.  It’s far more than whether my team wins, or whether I look pious, or how politically correct or incorrect we are.  It’s about either seeing what God is doing because our eyes have been opened, or missing the Kingdom altogether.


Sunday 2 B
 
I rarely watch TV, or even read many novels.  So over the holidays, I sometimes get a TV series I haven’t seen, spreading the shows out over a week.  It’s like reading a long novel.  So I saw year 1 of Mad Men after Christmas, a very disturbing show.  It overdoes the way we were not politically correct in the late 1950s, dispelling any lingering idealist picture we might have of that time.  But it’s basic theme is the emptiness of much of modern life, reflected in the emptiness of advertising.
 
Don Draper, the protagonist, is one of the most debonair people one could meet.  But he’s escaping a traumatic childhood, even to the point of changing his name and throwing away any connections to the past.  So he is rootless, and, in his own way, ruthless in business.  He knows how to win clients over, knows what will persuade rich corporations to invest in his work, but he doesn’t know who he is himself.  He floats through life, with only short but intense attachments, even to his own family.
 
Who is Don Draper?  Can we know that?  Perhaps we cannot know who anyone is until we see them find a purpose in life.  Perhaps we all wander around without roots until we find something that we can live for?  Perhaps every human life needs a calling.
 
We see the initial contacts between Jesus’ first disciples in the Gospel we have for Sunday.  We notice their excitement, their sense of expectation, their feeling of having found something, Someone, different.  Jesus calls them by name and, in the case of Peter, even gives him a new name.  From this initial scene, we can project forward to the future events of their lives—following Jesus, experiencing his death and resurrection, and then becoming apostles through the Holy Spirit.
 
But what does it mean to be called by Jesus?  We see Samuel in the first reading hearing the call—he cannot know fully what this means.  When God calls Samuel, God is beginning something new in Israel—a tradition of prophecy, a tradition of calling people back to their first relationship with God, a tradition of speaking on behalf of God to a world that does not always hear him.  “Prophecy” in its root means speaking on behalf of God.  To be called, to be chosen, is to speak on behalf of God, and to give oneself in selfless service to others for the sake of God. One cannot be a prophet only sometimes; one lives one’s whole life on behalf of God.
 
What has to shock us today is that we each have been called by God.  “What is your name?” we ask adults when they are baptized. “What name have you given your child?” we ask the parents.  We invite those receiving confirmation to receive a name.  All of this is speaking about a new identity we have in Christ, to be his followers, to be his servants, and to be his spokespersons in the world today.
 
It’s easy to think that faith is a leisurely watching of the heroism of other people—the saints, Mother Theresa, Fr. Mychal Judge.  But it isn’t.  Faith calls us all to involvement, to ministry, to service.  It calls us to be disciples, active followers of Jesus.  We sometimes realize this when a particular scripture hits us, or we suddenly see a particular need.  But most of the time we don’t see it, we don’t see this call to discipleship, to live out our baptisms fully.
 
Maybe that’s resolution for the New Year, when we listen to the radical power of the Gospel of Mark in the coming weeks, when we, too, get to react to those first, powerful deeds of Jesus.  Otherwise are we not Christians without roots, floating, connecting only a bit, but never knowing who we really are in Christ?
 
The Iowa caucuses are over; so is New Hampshire.  On to South Carolina—all to find a nominee, all to see who is called to run for president.  Christ’s process is very different—there is only one election—his personal choosing us, calling us by name.  Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Peter, Mary: can we see our name on that list as well?

 

 

 

Epiphany B
 
When we weren’t hearing news of the endless Iowa Caucuses, we occasionally got pictures of New Year’s celebrations.  The first one they showed was Sydney, Australia, well ahead of the rest of the world.  The commentators said that it was far better than New York’s.  But don’t tell that to a New Yorker.  Even when it’s not New Years, Times Square is ablaze in movement and energy.  The lights cover whole buildings; you can see them shining from over a mile away.  When I’ve brought people to visit, it’s almost like Disney World—to be surrounded by so much color and light.
 
Because there’s something about night’s darkness that scares us—just try driving a country road in the dead of night, or hearing strange noises while camping.  The darkness seems to narrow our vision, narrow our world, because we cannot see what is coming after us.  The discovery of fire not only cooked our meals; it gave us light to see in the darkness.
 
Today’s feast is about light.  The whole tenor evokes darkness, from Isaiah’s reading to the Magi’s traveling by a star lighting up the night.  The name of the feast means literally, The Shining Forth.  Christ is shining forth into the darkness of our lives.
 
But what is that darkness?  What is it that causes us to narrow our vision?  What is it in our human experience that needs Christ’s light?  Of course the list is endless—just about every vice we can think of is a form of darkness, even when movies try to make violence and immoral sex attractive.  But I think Herod, who plays an important role in the background, gives us the best clue to the darkness of our experience.
 
Herod is arrogant.  Arrogant because he is insecure.  He is afraid at the birth of a baby.  What does he fear?  The loss of what he thinks his power is.  He is filled with so much self-importance that it leads him to quiver, to lie, and ultimately to destroy the innocent.  Herod, like so many of us, has to hold on to the illusions of what makes him important that he cannot recognize where his strength really comes from. “Go, find the child that I too may adore him.”  But that’s Herod’s problem, he cannot adore.
 
But the Magi can, putting the gifts that represent their importance before God-made-man who comes in the utter lack of arrogance of a child.  They find their royalty not threatened but reinforced by the newborn king.  They trust enough in God, in the graciousness of God’s being, to find meaning in the light God has sent to us in Jesus, a light brighter than all the stars of night, a light brighter even than the sun.
 
We all have our illusions, our desperate self-images we use to prop ourselves up.  Often they help; but often they hurt.  Can we let Christ’s light shine on us, a light that tells us our meaning, our self-esteem, rests in God’s gracious love?  Can we lay aside our arrogance and place the tokens of our esteem before this child whose gentleness and love reveals the true heart of God?  Can we do what this Mass, what every Mass, invites us to do—adore and worship?


Jan 1, 2012
 
Marley is dead. Those words, from Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” framed by Christmas day. I heard them on NPR radio on Christmas eve which presented a re-broadcast sponsored by Campbell’s soup from 1939; and on Christmas Day, my niece put on Jim Carey’s version of the story, done by Disney in 2009. Ebenezer Scrooge, painted as the stingiest and most grasping of people, becomes transformed because of the ghosts who visit him. First it is Marley’s ghost, with his face almost falling apart; then the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
What Charles Dickens has shown us is the transformation of his character through reflection. The ghosts give Scrooge something he didn’t have before, perspective. His angle on life had been flat: life was about making money. People who could not pay should be punished until they paid what they owed. Only when the implications of his actions became clear, primarily in the suffering of his employee’s family, only then could he change.
So what are the ghosts we let visit us?
That is to say, what kinds of image of our lives, in broader stretchess, do we reflect on? Embarrassingly, we have the option of hardly doing any reflection today—we have so many things we have to do, so many distractions we can involve ourselves with, so many channels on cable, we can spend our lives looking outside ourselves, hardly ever inside ourselves. How our pasts have come to haunt and limit us—how we shrink our lives down to very narrow ranges—how we look ahead without deep visions: it’s easy not to look, to see, to understand.
So we are given the image of Mary, to whom so much has happened in such a short time, precisely as a model for us. Mary ponders. Mary reflects. Mary prays. Mary sees what God is doing in her life; this ability will allow her to engage with all those events "Yet To Come," especially the saving mission of her Son.
This Sunday is dedicated to peace, and rightly so, because so much war, so much fighting, so much residual hatred and resentment arises precisely because we have so little perspective. One nation feels enraged by another nation’s actions. One person feels disrespected by that of another. The fighting goes on because we cannot take the time to think, to reflect and ponder.
As we begin a new year, we are struck again by the passing of time. What has last year meant? What will this year bring? What have my former years meant? What will the years I have come to mean? Ponder, says the Word of God, reflect, see how not ghosts--but the Holy Spirit--will lead us forward, to lives of greater blessing and peace, because they are lives of deeper prayer and reflection.

 

Christmas Cycle B

 

Without children, Christmas would not be the same.  They provide, I think, most of the excitement.  It’s one thing for adults to exchange gifts, it’s another thing for a child to open his or her present.  How can they stand the waiting?  How can they be patient?  What will Santa bring?  Will it be what they wanted? They tear the paper off their presents without a shred of patience.

 

In fact, adults spend a lot of time picking up clues as to what a youngster might want.  In a Toys-r-Us store that I dropped into out of curiosity last week, little boys were all over the miniature cars they could drive, but electronic games and gadgets drew the biggest crowds.  Will little Tyler get what he wants?  Will Tiffany get exactly the doll she’s been dreaming about?  Will José get that Mongoose bike?  We pick up the hints they drop; we fulfill their expectations.

 

But, as we think back, isn’t it true that some of the greatest gifts we’ve gotten are the ones that we didn’t ask for and didn’t begin to expect?  Isn’t it true that the presents that blew us away were the ones that came as a surprise?  An antique ring from grandma.  Or a watch that once belonged to Dad?  Or a set of drawings by a grandchild?  Or a bit of software that opened us up to whole new directions? 

 

That’s the brilliance of this feast we celebrate: Christmas is God’s surprise.  It is what God gives us beyond all our expectations.  Ancient people maybe hoped for a King to drive enemies away—let’s get rid of these Romans.  Or some Priest that would establish religious identity on a higher level.  Or, at the least, just a few years without some oppressor breathing down our backs.

 

This is why the skies light up, and angels fill it with song, and shepherds stare in wonder.  What could shepherds expect out of life?  The same sheep, year after year, the same menial but essential occupation, the same expectation of going nowhere.  Angels always tell us what we can never surmise, pushing our hearts in new directions.  “I proclaim to you Good News of Great joy that will be for all the people.”  We can see their eyes open, far more than even the eyes of a child who got exactly what he or she wanted.

 

All of us are like the shepherds.  We are all people whom Isaiah says live in darkness.  Angels are all around us, telling us of the great light waiting to shine upon us.  Messengers speak constantly of God’s wondrous glory—now given to us, a gift of love and life beyond anything humankind could have imagined.  “Do not be afraid,” the angel says.  In fact, instead of fear, this day is one for unexpected wonder.

 

 

Advent 4 cycle

 

My attention will be taken up this week with the celebration of a wedding.  Weddings have always gotten enormous attention, but I think more so now than ever before, especially weddings celebrated in church.  To marry now seems braver than at any other time.  Marriage today takes place in the midst of all the questions that modern society raises about it, and, most notably, the number of marriages that do not work out.

 

Marriage, though, is not a bad way to think about our lives in this last, fourth, Sunday of Advent.  The messenger from God, Gabriel, associated with divine help, comes to a young woman obviously in the process of being married.  Mary represents all our hearts as God’s message comes to her.  This is a proposal.  Not will you marry me, but will you be involved in the most dramatic and unique demonstration of divine love?  What will Mary say?

 

It is, perhaps, a marriage after all, a divine marriage, not between man and woman, but between God and humankind, coming to its critical point in the heart of this young woman.  Will she undertake the role of bring Christ to the world, as hazy and unformed as that role must have seemed to her?  Will she be the expression of God’s new and eternal covenant, as we say at Mass now?

 

In the first reading, we have not so much a marriage as the outline of the terms of marriage, the terms of our relationship with God.  We call it a covenant.  David wants to build God a house of prayer, as if God needs a house.  God says to David, “I do not need you, though I love you.  You need me, and I will be with you in special relationship.  I commit myself to you; can you commit yourself to me?”

 

Of course, that is the drama of human history, our inability to complete our side of God’s one-sided, abundantly generous and grace filled relationship with us.  That drama will play out for 1000 years since the time of David.  The drama now is raised to this moment in the Gospel—will Mary say yes, so that we will hear, know, and accept God’s yes to us definitively in Jesus?

 

Be it done to me according to God’s will, says Mary.  She, filled with grace, shows us how grace works, empowering us to love God in return for God’s unmerited love.  She, filled with anxiety and questions, shows us how to trust a God on whom we really have no choice but to trust—who else will always be there for us?  She, filled with love, becomes the instrument by which God comes into our world in the deepest way, in Jesus.

 

So there’s the deal: covenant of love.  There’s the question: will you say yes? There’s the model, a simply woman figuring out her life before God.  And there’s the result: Christ given to the world.  So what do we say?  How do we respond?  How ready are we for Christmas, for the celebration of unending divine love now shown in the midst of time?

 

 

3 Advent B
 
I have to classify last Sunday afternoon as unrepentant laziness. I spent three hours watching the Chevron Golf Tournament where, for the first time in two years, Tiger Woods finally won. The suspense only grew as Tiger and Zach Johnson seemed to take forever to hit their shots. But when that final put dropped, relief and applause surged forth together. One of my friends texted me—did I think Tiger found redemption? Makes me wonder what we think redemption is.
Did Richard Nixon find redemption after he resigned as President? Or Bill Clinton? What will redemption look like for Herman Cain? When we find some deeply flawed trait in someone we admire, does that make them unredeemed? Is redemption going back to square one, getting a second chance, starting over?
We have God’s image of redemption in this highly influential passage from Isaiah, the 61st chapter, which Jesus attributes to himself several times in the bible. Redemption, in Isaiah’s poetry, means the complete transformation of our lives. It’s far more than not being punished, or not being shamed by others. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” Redemption in the United States is often viewed as “personal.” “I am saved.” In God’s view, it’s creation itself that will be saved.
This happens because of the coming of Jesus in whose birth God has given the world the definitive sign of peace, and in whose resurrection God has begun the process of renewing existence itself. In fact, when we come to Mass, we are doing nothing less than sharing in that renewed existence. Heaven comes down to earth; we anticipate the final days.
John shows tremendous humility when proclaiming the coming of Jesus. “I am not worthy to untie his sandal strap.” John is not the light; his privilege is to announce the light. Our new Missal translation, for sure, emphasizes humility in a clearer way. Approaching God seems more cautious, more gingerly. It seems that every prayer adds something like, we pray, we plead, we beseech. The liturgy will not let us presume. Jesus comes, as the preface says, to take on our lowly flesh.
But John’s humility is only half the equation. The other half, which we celebrate on Christmas, is this: God comes into our lowliness, God touches us in our poverty, Jesus enters our very humanity and, from within, brings renewal and transformation. Our humility, then, frames God’s enormous generosity toward all of creation, and toward all of humankind. God raises us by a self-lowering that leaves us speechless.
John becomes an ambassador, one who proclaims the Christ. We ourselves, touched even more profoundly than John, are called to be ambassadors as well. We each have the responsibility to contribute to this new world that God wants to bring about through its redemption. We each have to give up our arrogance and our refusal to reach out to others; we each have to mirror the absolutely generous love of God. Are there not the broken, the imprisoned, the confined, the sick, the isolated in our lives? What does it mean for us to bring Good News to them? To be part of God’s redemptive design? We each, embraced by Christ, are charged by him to embrace the world in love.

 

2 Advent Cycle B
 
One of the TV series that tanked this year was called “Pan AM,” another replay of the good-old-days of the 1950’s, this time under the guise of how luxurious it was to fly back then. Well, not any more. I was on a brand new 737 this week; the gate agent was almost in ecstasy. It was even more cramped than the old 737s. What was supposed to make life easy—swift and comfortable flight—has become a nightmare.
It starts with arriving at the airport, trying to figure out the screens on the kiosks, then going through security. It’s particularly dreadful at Terminal C at Reagan airport. They have those new machines that scrutinize every square millimeter of one’s body, so you just about have to strip to get through the scanner. Belt here, wallet there, laptop in one bin, liquids in another, and where did I put my ID? Yikes, panic, I think I lost it.
So travel is now, for many of us, a series of obstacles, in the air and, let’s not forget, driving, between tolls and traffic jams. This is a dominant image in the readings we have this Second Sunday of Lent—getting rid of obstacles. Isaiah’s 40th chapter begins what is called the “Book of Consolation,” Israel being consoled after 50 years of exile in Babylon. God’s building a highway for them to return—no obstacles, not even the valleys, not even the mountains; all will be level for God’s people.
This same image frames our encounter with John the Baptist. He is now in the desert building a highway for God’s people. Our spiritual and human exile is now ending. Obstacles are being removed. And what obstacles are being removed? Mark makes it clear: our lack of conversion and our entanglement in sin. That’s John’s primary message: God is going to do something new. Change your life so you can experience it. “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
The implication is perfectly clear. Among the obstacles in our encounter with God is sin, our sin, the deeds of our lives. While once Catholics looked like we were filled with guilt, we’ve now gotten to the point where we cannot even see our sin. Not just the small imperfections of our lives, but the ways we distort and break the relationships that we have with God and with others. For sin is much more than breaking a law or commandment; it’s breaking a relationship. It’s tearing apart the fabric of our existence, and tearing a hole in reality itself.
One of the ways to see this is to think about how our sin distorts our vision, how we get comfortable with our failings, how we shape our lives around our vices, how we let excuses cover up our dealing with the facts of our lives. I’m not rude, I’m just in a hurry. I’m not ignoring you, I’m just too busy. I’m not critical, I’m just doing my job. I’m not indecent, I’m just curious. I’m not greedy, I’m just doing what I need to do. I’m not angry, I’m just letting off steam.
What all this does is cloud our vision, distort the very souls we need to see God in God’s pure love and grace. What this does is block the way we see each other, creating blind spots that isolate us and obscure others. What this does is limit our sheer experience of life, crimping us down to the pettiness of our own selfishness. Obstacles, all of this, to the vision God would give us in Jesus. We get pretty straight talk from John and from 2nd letter of Peter, all of it trying to wake us up, to get us to see how short time is and how we keep cluttering things up through our sin.
I’ve always been curious about the way Mark put’s the mission of John: in the original language, it’s called a “repentance or conversion into the forgiveness of sin,” as if forgiveness is something we have to grow into, make our own; as if it’s a goal that we have to seek. It’s one thing to make it to Chicago or Dallas by plane. It’s another thing to make it to heaven, to life’s full meaning, to God’s fully love accepted and realized. Travel may not get easier, but God’s grace, once accepted, can become joy itself.

 

1 Advent, Cycle B

 

When people find out I’m from New York, invariably they ask “Yanks or Mets?”  When I say that baseball is a bit boring, they ask “Jets or Giants?” It’s at this point that I shock them by saying, “Well, I like to watch golf.”  “Golf!” they cry.  How boring is that!  Then I go into my spiel, how exciting golf is, so much suspense because every shot counts.  As their eyes blur over, I then say, “Right, and the other thing I love is fishing.”  “Fishing?”  And then they give up on me.

 

I find a great excitement and tension in these sports.  With golf, it’s the unpredictability of my shots, or my amazement at the shots the professionals make on TV.  With fishing, it’s the edgy expectation that some fish may start biting, the little tugs on the lure, the jiggle of the pole: maybe this will be it!  Maybe I’ll catch this thing!

 

That’s the kind of attitude the scriptures call us to cultivate on this, the First Sunday of Advent.  The Mark’s Gospel ends with one word that wants to cast its spell over the next four weeks: Watch.  Jesus’ parable about the lord of the house who goes away, warning the gatekeeper to stay alert, makes his listeners stretch and strain.  You can never let up.  You can never be blasé.  You never know when the line will jiggle, when the putt will drop, when life’s fulfillment comes.

 

Jesus certainly knows that the greatest threat to faith does not come from outside, great as those threats might be.  More, they come from within, from the way we take faith for granted, or, really, the way we take God for granted.  Our faith can become like an accessory in our lives, not the center.  Our faith can lose its edge, becoming dull like an over-used pencil.

 

From where, then, does the sharpness, the tension, of faith come?  Advent says it comes from living in constant expectation.  Expectation of what?  The coming of Jesus.  But in what way?  Because it isn’t just the historical celebration of Jesus’ birth that forms the core of our expectation.  Commercializing Christmas as we have has pretty much burned us out over December 25th.  Instead, it’s the continual, ongoing presence of Christ in our lives, a presence which, powerful as it is, we can regularly miss.

 

Isaiah, whom we will read a lot of during Advent, shows the correlation between our attention and God’s presence.  Would that you would come down from heaven, Isaiah cries.  And, immediately after, would that we were mindful of your ways.  It’s our mindlessness that Advent is trying to shake up, our automatic pilot, our not prioritizing God or the things of God, and our missing the presence of Christ in our daily lives, our families, our tasks, our care for the poor, our outreach to others.

 

St. Paul makes clear what Christian life is about—being continually prepared for the Day of the Lord, the full coming of the Kingdom, the fulfillment of humankind which stands behind every moment of our temporary existence.  Yes, these moments that we have, the simple tasks of our lives, the relationships that surround us—these are pregnant with the Kingdom.  These are filled with the presence of the One who became Incarnate for us, who took on our lives precisely to relate our human lives to God.

 

So what is boring?  Fishing?  Golf?  Baseball?  Church?  God?  Advent says if we are bored with God, maybe we haven’t really gotten to know the God of Jesus just yet.  But, hey, there’s still time.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, Christ the King, B

 

We continue to have great fascination with the rich, the powerfully, and the royal.  Whether it’s a sport’s star, or some celebrity, a Donald Trump, or some prince in England, we perk up our ears when we hear their stories and incidents.  The world-wide outpourings of grief over the death of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson prove this true about modern life and society.

 

Along with information about their fame or wealth, we are also interested in the unfamous parts of their lives.  We love it when the butler tells what it was like to serve tea in some British palace, or when we find out where our favorite star shops—yes, we say, they are just humans, they are just like you and me.

 

Today’s feast asks us where we locate God in our field of interest.  In what way does Jesus command the focus of our attention?  Christ is called King, but that’s only the beginning of the question.  King, indeed, but what kind of King?  Is Jesus the kind of King who orders servants around, expecting people to fluff his cushion every time he sits?  Is Jesus the King who holds our fates arbitrarily in his hands?

 

We learn from the Gospel that Jesus indeed is a King who holds our fates, because Jesus remains the ultimate standard of our lives.  Having died and risen, he now stands before us as the fullness of life.  We measure ourselves by him; or, more precisely, we measure ourselves by his love.

 

Here’s where the scriptures surprise us.  Not whether Christ reins, but where Christ reigns in our lives.  Christ comes as the shepherd-king, not to tax us, not to order us around, but to show us that the power of his love must hold sway not in the heavens above, or in the palaces of the rich, or in the bright lights of celebrity, but among the least, the lowest, the neediest, those in most need of compassion and peace.

 

Ezekiel’s shepherd, who stands in sharp contrast with the religious leaders of Ezekiel’s day, himself does the loving and caring, the giving and rescuing—because the leaders were not doing this.  If the King is shepherd, the King is also servant, ranking the sheep so high that the shepherd would give his life to preserve them.  Jesus comes as our King because he first is shepherd, he first is lamb, coming among the least, taking on their lives—our lives—to show us what his Kingdom is about.

 

It’s not a Kingdom for talkers.  This should scare us modern Americans who have made faith into some nonstop testimony about ourselves, or how we are touched by God.  Not because God does not touch us, and not because we don’t have to recognize that—for sure we do—but because talk means nothing unless it is embodied in action.  What kind of action?  Precisely the kind Jesus shows us in the Gospel—sharing with the hungry, clothing those who have nothing, sitting with the sick and isolated, visiting those whom society discards as criminals. 

 

Here’s where Christ’s Kingdom has its power; here’s the fame Jesus shows us.  This King will judge us not on what we felt or thought or said, but by what we did that reflected his love.

 

Of course we all dread judgment because we think it will show our weakness.  Will judgment be like Bernie Madof’s perp walk, or Kim Kardashian’s publicity-plagued divorce?  Jesus tells us not to fear our weakness or our sin.  Our fear should concern, rather, those moments when we overlooked the weakness and needs of others because that’s something our God, our King, our Shepherd would never do. 


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