Homilies--2nd Series starting Advent 2014












13 A
We’ve almost all heard the famous phrase in Spanish: “Mi casa es su casa”—my house is your house, words of open hospitality.  Not so many of us have heard the other famous phrase from Spain: “Guests are like fish: after three days they stink.”
      Welcome and hospitality play a burden on everyone.  Sometimes the burden is joyfully carried, as when favorite relatives or best friends come to visit.  Sometimes the burden is much heavier—all those jokes about the mother-in-law visiting and the son-in-law is walking on eggs.  Certainly the visitors feel burdened: they know they are imposing, and they feel they have to be almost scrupulous when in another’s house.  “May I use the restroom?” they politely ask.  Do we imagine the answer is ever going to come back, “no”!
      But the Sunday scriptures make clear that the hosts have the larger burden.  It is their job not only to welcome the visitor, but to make the visitor feel perfectly at home.  Elijah undoubtedly felt like he was imposing on the woman when he stayed overnight.  He perhaps wondered if his hosts were asking, “Isn’t he making a habit out of this?”  But, actually, the prophet’s visit was a great blessing to her—so much so that she built a room where he could stay in comfort, assured that he was welcomed.  Her kindness receives an enormous reward.  She gave life through welcoming; the prophet gives life in turn.
      Jesus, in the Gospel, certainly puts a large burden on potential hosts.  As he was a wandering preacher, he is forming a church of wandering preachers.  Would his followers be an imposition on others?  In fact, without hospitality, the fundamental gesture in which we become open to each other as persons and friends, the Church could not have grown.  “Whoever receives a prophet, receives a prophet’s reward.”  Even the smallest gesture of welcome merits abundant reward, because without welcome, Christ’s church cannot be recognized.
      Isn’t this, after all, how God has been toward us?  Are we not to welcome each other because God has welcomed us into a new family, the community in which we become sisters and brothers of Jesus, and therefore sisters and brothers of each other?  God’s welcome of us, even when we have been at our worst, becomes the standard by which we are to treat each other if we have the name Christian.
      And we are not very good at this, coming, as we do, from a very privatized sense of life, individuals who have learned to look out after ourselves, treating the stranger more with wary suspicion than open acceptance.  Of course there are limits to hospitality, but we have not even begun to reach those limits.  Our national character has been to disparage just about every new group that has come knocking on our doors, even when they are the ones to pick our tomatoes and clean our bathrooms. Is not one of the bases of our eternal judgment just this line: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”?
      Every once in a while we hear stories about how one or another bishop has banned the hymn, “All Are Welcome.”  They are thinking of the sinful who should not sully the church.  But unless the “worthy” welcome those who feel “unworthy,” how can change happen in their lives?  Church is not for the clean; it’s for those who, as St. Paul shows, know they need to be cleaned, and Jesus provides the best bath of all.  If we have ourselves been welcomed by Christ, and if we are being continually welcomed by Christ, then we all need to take the hint and recognize just what kind of community Christ wants us to be.

12 A

     Beyond all the political news and confusion, we sometimes get images that go deeper, right to the core of our human souls.  We had two images—searing, terrifying, almost apocalyptic.  One was the 24-floor tower in London that burned virtually in its entirety; they are still trying to count the number of the dead and it may go one for weeks.  The other was the fire, last weekend, in the forests of Portugal.  57 people caught in the forest fire, in one of the driest times on record; they died in their cars trying to drive faster than the flames.
      When I hear stories like this, I invariably ask myself: What would I do?  How would I react?  When I heard the pleas of others?  When I found the struggle too difficult?  When I mentally threw in the towel and figured I had to just sit and wait for the worst?  These thoughts seem almost too much even in my imagination; what must it be like to actually live through—or die through—such terror?
      But we are surprised, aren’t we, at the times we have gone through the imaginable?  How could I watch my parents weaken, get old, and immobile?  How could I bid my last good bye to them?  Or watch my child go through serious illness?  Or lose my job and not find one for years?  Or have my dreams fall apart because the one I loved left me?  We are surprised to see ourselves going through things like this.  We sit quietly and ask ourselves: just where did the strength come from?  How did I go through it?
      Jesus continues to teach his disciples in today’s Gospel; remember that Matthew paints Jesus as a Teacher and a Rabbi.  It’s almost like he’s preparing them for something they cannot imagine.  “Fear no one,” he says, flatly and baldly.  “Do not be afraid of those who can only kill the body.”  Someday everything will be known; the evil and dirt will be exposed and defeated.  “Every hair on your head has been counted.”
      I suspect this kind of language would have seemed like nonsense to Jesus’ disciples—until he showed that he himself would walk into the fires of hell itself, and come back a victor, a champion, a source of eternal life.  We think we can imagine the worse, but Jesus went through the worst for us, to show us the power of God even in and through our fear and pain.  When we think of the scars of the last century—the savagery of World War I, the inhumanity of the Nazi programs, the immense destruction of World War II, Vietnam and the social chaos it heralded; and the scars inflicted already in our young century, from 9-11 to Boko Horan, to ISIS, to the unbelievable destruction of Syria—when we think of this, we want to lose heart, and, in fact, many people do. 
      The earliest followers of Jesus, however, sensed Jesus’ victory over the worst.  In fact, Jesus gave them a share in his victory by making them his people  in baptism, and sending the Holy Spirit into their lives.  Like Jeremiah in the first reading, but with even more hope, they could stare death in the face, and even scorn it.  As believers, we are already on the other side of death.  We have already won.  Christ’s victory, says Pauli, is so much greater than the accumulation of sin and brokenness.  The grace, the power, the victory of Jesus overflows.  “Fear no one,” says Jesus.  And he gives us reason not to—his own defeat of death and the glory of the Spirit given to us.
      The Gospel invitation is a hard one for us this week.  We Americans have learned to live in fear.  Our ears are attuned to listen to the most brutal, and frightening, of stories.  The world we live in seems so fragile that even the richest are building themselves shelters because they expect the worst.  But what if we Christian could live from another level, the level that Jesus won for us?  That Jesus gives us?  That Jesus reaffirms for us at this Mass?  If we could live from this level of total trust, what a gift that could be for our world today.
      Fear no one.  Have I not already won?  And are you not already part of my victory if you stand with me in faith and trust?


Corpus Christi A

      So, if you gave a child $3.00 and said she or he could have anything in the supermarket, what would be picked?  Would it be the yogurt, or the bag of sliced carrots?  Or would it not be something right from the ice cream section?  Likewise, if someone gave you $100 and said you could eat wherever you wanted, where would you go?  And what would you have?  Would you spend your money at some trendy salad place, or would you call up Morton’s Steak House and make the reservation?  Isn’t everything we eat a test, asking us what we really desire?
      We hear the strange phrase in the first reading, that God made the Jewish people “hunger as a test” for them.  It’s a test in two forms.  First, could the Jewish people give up their reliance on the food of their slavery, the food eaten in Egypt?  And, secondly, would the Jewish people come to see that, in their hunger, they could always rely on God?  That God would never abandon them?  Here’s is manna come down from heaven. . . . it may not be lambchops, but it’s a sign of God’s unfailing care for you.
      Those of us who come to Mass, come here to eat.  Almost all of us go to Holy Communion.  Isn’t the Eucharist a test for us?  What are we truly hungering for?  And what does it mean to eat?
      The crisis we see in the Gospel of John (6) is that the listeners of Jesus did not know what it meant to be fed by him.  Jesus had just multiplied the bread, thousands had eaten, and now he says to the leaders, the he is the true bread come down from heaven.  The true bread is this: his flesh given for the life of the world.  This is what it means to eat the bread of Christ, to be part of his body—the body that he gives in self-giving love.
      “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  In effect, the opponents of Jesus use this question to avoid his invitation.  To eat his bread is to be like him, to love like him, to give like him.  If they think they are testing Jesus, he has a yet bigger test for them: will you be one with me as I show the depth of the Father’s love to the world?  Do you want the eternal life that comes only from loving as God loves?  “Unless you eat my flesh, and drink my blood, you do not have life in you.”  How hungry are you?  Are you hungry enough to trust in me, in my self-giving love?
      Paul tells his listeners the same thing.  What does it mean to eat and drink of the Lord?  He calls it participation—a participation in Jesus dying and rising, and a participation with each other.  Because the truth is this: when we, coming as we do from so many different households, cultures, and backgrounds, eat the same sacred Bread, and drink from the same sacred Cup, then we are made closer to each other than any human bond could make us.  We have this same life of Christ in each one of us!  We are part of him.
      Sometimes I wonder if we Catholics grasp the reality of our receiving Holy Communion.  Surely we have the sense that God touches us in a special, intimate way.  That’s what the sign of eating communicates.  But do we realize that we are also making a commitment to let Christ’s life be ours, to let his self-giving death be our way of life?  To let the life-giving cup be our promise to live his life every day?  That we participate, are made part of, his ever-giving love?  And do we begin to understand the union God accomplishes in us by giving us this eternal, and eternally-blessed food, as one life we all share?
      We are, as a culture, obsessed with what we eat.  On the one hand, we should eat healthy and are made to feel frequently guilty.  On the other hand, what’s better on a summer afternoon than a big, meaty cheeseburger?  As a Catholic and spiritual culture, we too should be obsessed with what we eat.  Not only receiving Holy Communion, but always probing what it means to eat the sacred food Jesus sets before us.
 
Trinity Sunday

     We all probably remember the day someone came into our lives—when we first met our spouse, or when we say our new daughter for the first time, or when we ended up in a very long conversation with someone who turned out to be our best friend.  Human existence is billions of people coming into the lives of billions of people—all these encounters which make up the substance of human experience.
      That God would be part of this experience has seemed both remote or impossible for much of human history.  God is so unlike us, we think; or God is so perfect, why would God bother to hang out with the likes of us?  Yet here we see Moses who, as the Scriptures say, talks face to face with God, saying to God: "If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own." 
      Moses is asking God to come along and be part of his motley assembly of people, those Jews who first encountered God in their escape from Egypt and their long years in the desert.  “Receive us as your own,” Moses asks.  And he obviously asks in a way that shows he knows God will answer favorably—God, indeed, will accept those stiff-necked people as God’s own—not because of their love, but because of God’s love for them.
      As we move through this year 2017, we will be hearing more and more about the 500th anniversary of the year when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door.  There has been so much misunderstanding of what Luther did, how Luther reacted, how Church leaders reacted—such that, half a millennium later, we are still trying to clear things up.
      But Luther was saying what every believer knows in his or her gut: that God’s love comes before anything we can say or do.  And God’s love comes despite our brokenness and sin.  Luther was concerned in his day that believers thought they had to make God happy by doing good things-- and God would perhaps be nice to them.  Everyone needs to know that God’s gracious love comes even when we are stiff-necked and stubborn; everything we do is a result of, and response to, that love.
      The Gospel makes clear how much God’s love extends into our hearts  and into our human experience.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”  God gives us Jesus, the one through whom we come to know God and God’s love.  God gives us Jesus as a sheer gift, free, total, unreserved.  It is the gift of Jesus that allows the world to be saved.  Indeed, the Gospel underscores it: Jesus does not come to condemn the world, in rage and fury.  Jesus comes to save the world, and to give the world every chance to respond to God’s love.  Condemnation only comes when we turn against this free gift of love.  We, in effect, condemn ourselves to the misery of our own lives.
      In fact, God’s love is as close as our love for each other.  Paul asks the Corinthians to live in peace, encouraging and strengthening each other, because in this way “the love and peace of God will be with you.”  As disciples of Jesus, we further the world’s knowledge of God’s love by the love that we show each other, and by the love that we show the earth, and the love that we show the world. 
      We are always entering into each other’s lives, billions of us every day.  Every encounter we have can be a way in which God’s eternal love for us can be disclosed.  Our feast of the Trinity is telling us that God’s relationship of eternal love, shown through Father-Son-and Spirit, can be part of our relationships with each other.  When this happens, surely the world’s salvation moves closer to fulfillment.

Pentecost

     We often think of the Holy Spirit as a gift for a person, that the Spirit dwells in someone’s heart.

     But, more and more, we have to think of the Holy Spirit as Jesus Christ’s gift for the world.  The world we experience today is ever more fractured.  Slashings in Portland, knapsacks exploding in Manchester, Coptic Christians slaughtered in Egypt, beheadings by so-called religious people, tens of thousands killed for drugs in Mexico.  We live in a fractured world which only the Holy Spirit can bring together.

     We hear the peoples and nations on the first Pentecost: those Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Crete, Pamphylia, and other unpronounceable places.  Yet the Spirit sweeps through them all, because, before we belong to any group, we first have hearts with hungers only God can satisfy.  Hearts that cry.  The Spirit is the heart of God, given to us in Jesus, now poured into our lives.

     Pentecost is a photo of ourselves, we Catholic believers, united across continents and cultures.  Who could believe that a faith was possible for every human being—one not tied to language, race, or nation?  Who could believe that God could touch all our hearts at once?  It’s not my God against your God.  Or “I have my God, and you don’t have any.”  It’s our God, now revealed in its fullness in Jesus Christ.  And this is us—Catholic Christians tied to each other, from the smallest islands in the Philippines to the grandest basilicas in Italy; from the humblest houses in Latin America to the palaces of Europe; from the most remote tribes in Africa to the urban masses of the Americas. 

     And isn’t forgiveness the first gift of the Spirit?  “Whose sins you forgive. . . .”  Whose offenses you overcome by love; whose insults you nullify through respect; whose rage you demolish by acceptance; whose fanaticism you exclude through your acceptance of all as God accepts all. 

    This is our Catholic legacy, the great work of the Holy Spirit, and one desperately needed by a world that wants to tear itself apart.  Surely in our history there also is pettiness, aggression, arrogance, our dismissal of others; but, just as surely, there is the Spirit at work, in our hearts and in our church, expanding our hearts until they reflect the breadth of God’s love for all humankind.

     This is our Catholic legacy, our life as a world-wide community of faith and love—a legacy needed so desperately by a world more and more divided; and, to tell the truth, also needed by a nation splintered more and more by anger and resentment.

     

     Come Holy Spirit!  We pray this not because you, Spirit of God, are far, but because we have closed our hearts so often to you.  Come Holy Spirit, gift to me, to my family, to my Church.  Come Holy Spirit—through my receiving you, help me bring your gift to the world that it may come to see not division and hatred, but rather universal love and peace—because you are Christ’s universal gift of life.  Come Holy Spirit—into our hearts, and into our world


Ascension

      Some traditional Catholics invoke St. Anthony, but almost every Catholic, and everyone else, goes through an elaborate memory exercise when something important is lost—the car keys or, God forbid, the cell phone.  People sit quietly and go back over their movements in their mind—when did I last see or use what I lost, can the image of a room jiggle the memory, can the missing connection pop into my head. 
      
There are other times in life we adopt the strategy of looking backwards.  Married couples try to retrieve the feelings they once had when they were married.  Tired attorneys try to remember why they thought they’d like a career in law.  Believers look for some consoling or striking moment, a great moment of conversion, when doubts or dryness begin to settle in.  Remember the old song: “I don’t know where we went wrong, but the feeling’s gone, and I just can’t get it back.”
      
In the first reading today we have of the disciples on a hill with Jesus, this certainly seems to be the case.  Luke presents the apostles gathering and Jesus greeting them.  In Luke’s tradition, Jesus had been with them for a long time after his resurrection.  He tells them to return to Jerusalem where the Holy Spirit will come upon them.  Then Jesus disappears in a cloud, the sign of his divine power.  But instead of going to Jerusalem, the disciples are emotionally stuck.  There they are, staring in the sky, looking for the familiar image of Jesus they had come to know.
      
“Men of Galilee,” angels say, “why are you staring in the sky?”  Why do we think the answer is always in the past, in something familiar, in something we have already done?  The Easter Season shows us the Risen body of Jesus precisely to prepare us for something else.  Jesus does not rise so we can stare at his glorified body.  He rises to bestow the Holy Spirit upon us—a spirit we will only come to know when we let the Spirit work in our lives.  Jesus can be known not by staring but by following the way his Spirit leads us in life.
      
In the Gospel we get the tradition as Matthew relates it.  Here Jesus moves toward the disciples; it’s like the first time they have seen him risen.  They don’t know what to do—they believe but they hesitate and doubt.  But Jesus makes it unambiguous for them.  Instead of looking back for some lost memory of image of Jesus, they are invited to find Jesus by doing his mission.  As the Master Teacher, he now sends his pupils out.  “You are graduated,” he says.  And, what must have amazed them, he sends them out to all the world.
      
In the second reading, we have that peculiar phrase: May the eyes of your heart be enlightened.  More than our eyeballs popping, our hearts have to pop.  Because it’s the Spirit energizing our hearts that brings us the hope, the vision, and the capacity we all have to make Christ present again and again in the actions we do on his behalf.  These are the actions that show Christ’s presence continuing in the world.  This is how Easter continues, and how the Kingdom begins to dawn in our lives.
      
We’ve all gotten stuck.  We’ve all tried to go back.  We’ve all tried to repeat something that once seemed so wonderful.  We’ve had our moments of dryness, when faith seemed stale, and we felt we had no energy.  The Spirit would have us learn from the disciples: it’s the journey we take with Christ, into the future, through his Spirit, that shows us the real presence of Jesus in our lives.  

Easter 6 A

     A friend of mine is retiring after years of teaching in public schools; her area is special education.  For decades, she has given herself to helping children less gifted in some ways, but perhaps more gifted in others.  Her principal meets her in the hallway and says to her: “I’m glad you didn’t check out sooner.”  That is, I’m glad you stayed with your passion to teach and help right up to the end.  This, along with other remarks made by her peers, helps her know clearly what she probably knew in her gut: that she was gifted in this area and she gave of her gifts. 
      
We often don’t know our gifts or how well we use them.  It’s so easy to question ourselves and to think that our impacts on other are negligible or even negative.  I suppose that’s why we have so much hoopla when our children graduate: we knew it was in them, but now they know it too!  Now they see!
      
I often think that we Catholics do not appreciate the gifts that we have.  Our older generations were raised when “children were meant to be seen, but not heard,” and when the disciplines of memorizing and being obedient were most prized.  And this was nowhere more true than the ethnic Catholic environments in which we grew up.  We just listened; we just obeyed.  And a lot of this attitude we still pass on to our children and grandchildren: being raised is doing what we are supposed to do.
      
Today’s readings, however, give us another vision of our Catholic and Christian life.  Because our discipleship is hardly just doing what we are supposed to do.  Our discipleship is being open to the power of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that guides, renews, and empowers our Christian lives.  Sometimes we can feel like the Samaritans in the first reading; Peter and John had to visit them, lay hands on them, and help them know just what they received when they began to believe in Christ.
      
To love Christ is to keep his commandments; and those commandments are all about loving others, day in and day out, with the love of God.  It’s as if Jesus knows this might be hard, so he says: I will send you another Advocate, the Holy Spirit.”  What does an advocate do?  He defends us when we are tested; and he encourages us when we are tired.  Jesus says we will know the Advocate from what the Advocate does in our lives.
      
We’ve all been tested, but not broken.  I think that’s the Advocate.  We’ve all been exhausted but not given up. I think that’s Jesus’ Advocate.  We’ve all turned to God in prayer, sometimes from parts so deep inside us, we were stunned.  This is the Advocate at work.  We’ve all given to our children, our friends, those in need.  That’s the Advocate at work.  We’ve all experienced great consolation—ditto the Advocate.  Every Sunday at Mass we experience extreme closeness to Christ, abiding in him and in his Father.  This is the Advocate at work in us.  And day by day, year by year, we live out our faith in a world that has grown indifferent to faith.  This is the Advocate at work in us.
      
Isn’t this the reason why we have hope—in Christ, in his Spirit, in the Father’s love, and in the faith we have received?  Because of the Holy Spirit?  St. Peter tells us to always speak from this hope—because the hope we have, even when life gets difficult—is the evidence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  The Spirit tells us, over a lifetime, what slowly dawns on us: that we cannot live without God, and that God has chosen not to live without us.
 
We are so busy these days: graduations, First Communions, weddings, and Confirmations.   Isn’t it interesting, that the sacrament of the Spirit is called Confirmation?  For all the meanings wrapped up in this word, maybe this day we can point out to just one.  Jesus, through his Spirit, confirms in us what he is doing in our lives, and helps us know what a splendid thing it is to be his disciples and follow his way of life. 

Easter 5 A

     It’s graduation time, and one of the graduates I celebrate this year is the daughter of a long-time friend. She graduated from a large mid-West school in the field of architecture.  I’ll miss the ceremony but I can imagine her parents, filled with memories of her of the years, and now filled with hopes for future years.  It’s a good time to graduate in terms of jobs, they say; unemployment is historically low and employers are hiring.  Maybe she picked a great career economically; but I’m sure her decision wasn’t based only on salary.  She’s doing something she loves.
      
Some of us get to do that with our jobs; many of us don’t because we have to settle for the work we can get.  Millions do hard, dirty, manual labor—often they are the immigrants society debates about; millions more settle for those service jobs over whose minimum wage politicians battle.  How blessed are those who can marry the deepest loves of their lives with their everyday agenda!
      
Of course, if we pull back a bit, and take “jobs” out of the equation, isn’t it possible for us to merge the deepest loves of our lives with what our lives are all about?  This is what the Church means when it says that everyone has a vocation.  I may or may not have an all-absorbing and all-fulfilling employment.  But I am a follower of Jesus, serving to bring his Kingdom into the world, and therefore have the privilege to live for him and his dream for the world.
      
The scene we have in the book of Acts is what we people traditionally think of as the beginning of the diaconate.  There are two things to notice.  First, it was the needs of the Church that caused these seven men to be called to service.  Second, it was the growth of the Church into Gentile territory that is shown by their very names—they are all Greeks, and now the Church is speaking two languages—and will go on to speak many more.  Christ’s gospel comes from more and more lips speaking more and more tongues.  The book of Acts is showing us that everyone can be a follower of Jesus.
      
Even more, everyone can be consecrated in Christ.  Peter makes this clear in his message—we are all part of a priestly people because our job is the consecrate the world itself to God.  The “spiritual sacrifices” that all of us offer is the building up of Christ’s vision in our everyday lives.  Do we imagine God wants us all to move into a temple and offer incense all day?  The incense we offer is the love of Christ that motivates every action that we do.  Next week I’ll be at our Paulist ordinations in New York—three men consecrated priests.  But their priesthood springs from the priesthood that belongs to all of us, that comes from Christ.  And if there’s a shortage of priests, that’s because there’s a shortage of the sense that all of us are living a priesthood every day, letting the Spirit build holiness in the world.
      
And what greater vocation can any of us have than to do what Jesus says his life was all about?  He is our way, truth and life because he consecrated himself into revealing the Father through his words and actions.  This is something that every one of us, in our different vocations, can do.  By the way we live, we can make God’s love more visible; and by the way we live, we can also make God’s love less visible.  Maybe that’s why we have so many self-styled atheists today.  They cannot see God because we hide God so well. 
      
On a day when we celebrate our mothers, we celebrate a calling that uniquely reveals the mystery and beauty of life.  Mothers show God’s love through the self-giving that is instinctual, part of their way of life.  Jesus reveals God’s love by the self-giving that is at the center of his being.  His self-gift sheds light on the potential meaning, the vocations, of all our lives.  His loving self-gift is his truth, his life; he invites us all to make it our way of life. 

Easter 4 A

     Very often life choices come down to which of two things we will select.  Nats or Orioles, law or medicine, Democrat or Republican, strawberry or chocolate.  But the real choices in life often involve a choice of one thing, with an up or down decision: will I or will I not?  Yes or no.
      
Will I trust or won’t I?  Will I love or won’t I?  Will I get out of my shell or won’t I? Will I believe or won’t I?
      
Most of the time we think we’ve made these kinds of decisions but then things happen in life which question that.  My best friend asks me to do something difficult, and I hesitate...  I find myself miserable with my career and job...  I spend less and less time with the family I say I love,,,  I put God and faith on the back burner... Will I or won’t I?
      
The first reading raises the issue right off the top.  Peter puts it to the people—Jesus, whom God sent, was crucified when he should have been accepted. But now he is raised. So, you get another chance with him, with God.  “What shall we do?” they ask.  “Change your lives and believe,” says Peter.  And they do. They say yes.
      
Of course, we are all here today because we believe.  But sometimes our belief is something like a label, or a tradition, or even a habit.  We go through motions—thank God we at least do that—but our hearts seem far from the fresh, committed decision we find in the first reading.  Have we accepted Jesus and his way of life?  Have we put God at the center?  Is Jesus the standard?
      
Jesus in the Gospel is exploring this with his disciples.  In the process he asks his listeners whether they have chosen him as their shepherd?  And he compares himself to the other alternatives they have—people who appear to care, to show the way, to protect.  Aren’t they more like hired people?  Mercenaries?  Don’t they pretend to be shepherds, but they really are in it for themselves?  Who will you choose?  Am I the one you have chosen?
      
Here we have to recognize the enormous competition Jesus has in today’s life.  Of course, we have to live in the modern world—this is the world in which we have been called to faith; we really don’t have this so-called “Benedictine Option” in which we try to create a bubble world to live in.  But in our modern lives, there is so much that can pretend to be our God, our shepherd, our savior.  We live for money . . . for prestige . . . for power . . . for ourselves . . . for pleasure . . . for an addiction . . . the list goes on.
      
I am the true Shepherd, says Jesus.  I am the only way you can enter the depth of life with God and others.  And, as the second reading indicates, this may cost us, but every major choice we make will cost us one way or another.  The question isn’t whether it costs us; the question is whether we end up profoundly enriched despite the cost—enriched by what is truly important, not by the hollow standards that modern life sometimes foists upon us.
      
So there it is.  The basic question: will I believe in Jesus or not?  And, if I do, how will that change my life?  The question becomes more and more crucial today because believing gets harder and harder.  Will we inspire each other by our faith?  Will we witness to the faith we have by living it?  By our presence at Mass, today and every Sunday, we are saying yes . . . at least, it looks that way.  Jesus, the Shepherd, asks us today if our faith is as real as we say it is. 
 
Easter 3 A

    “It just dawned on me.”
     
This has to be one of the great phrases in our language.  It’s flexible too: we can say it slowly dawned on us.  Or that something dawned on us out of the blue.  The image comes from the rising of the sun which sometimes can seem like a surprise, but sometimes seems like a slow wait.
     
“Were not our hearts burning,” Cleopas and his companion say.  This is very close to: “It just dawned on us.”  Because something had been going on all along, but they didn’t realize it, just like something is working in the back of our brains, but we didn’t quite formulate it.
     
Our Gospel takes place during a journey—another of life’s great images.  Because a journey unfolds slowly, with many possibilities.  And sometimes we get so absorbed in the burdens of the journey, we forget where we began, and we lose track of where we are going.  Even though we are on a path, it only dawns on us later that we are headed for some distinct place.
     
How often, then, the Spirit is already at work in our lives, leading us on a road; but it doesn’t dawn on us until later.  “That’s why I wanted to study this subject,” or “That’s what dad meant when he said that.”  Like those walking with Christ, our lives can seem unfocused or unclear, but that doesn’t mean they are without purpose, shape, or direction.  Christ’s risen Spirit is guiding us.
     
Likewise in the lives of others, the Spirit can be at work even though they do not quite see it.  Maybe they have a problem with this or that issue in the Church; maybe they seem to have lost focus and to have strayed.  But this hardly means that God has abandoned them.
     
Just the opposite. God journeys with us, as the Gospel clearly shows us.  This journey shows God’s fidelity to us in Jesus Christ.  He journeys with us through the very limits of our deaths.  “See I am with you up to the end—and even beyond what seems like the end.  You may not see it now.  But, in my Spirit, it will dawn on you.”  And the dawning of things in our lives are only shadows of that great dawning when creation comes to fullness in the dawning of eternal life.
     
For Cleopas and his companion, it was the breaking of the bread that turned on the lights.  The words and the table of Jesus.  How often that is true in our own lives: when we gather at Eucharist, when Jesus speaks his Word and breaks again his Sacred Bread, Easter dawns anew—and with growing brilliance. 

Easter 2 A

    You only get one chance to make a first impression.  So shine your shoes, put on your best suit, get your hair fixed up, and lead with a confident handshake.  Our impressions, after all, represent us, symbolize us.  Just as leaders of nations symbolize the people they lead.  Remember how Saint John Paul would always kiss the ground when he landed in a new nation?  Or how Representative John Boehner beamed with pride when Pope Francis visited?  I heard on the radio, too, that Vladimir Putin likes to keep other leaders waiting, the length of time proportional to how he feels.  He kept Germany’s Angela Merkel waiting four hours, Pope Francis 45 minutes; but our new secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, didn’t have to wait at all. 
    On this Sunday after Easter, when we’ve barely digested the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we feel a strong kinship to the apostles.  Jesus appears to them in the upper room.  We can see them rubbing their eyes, incredulous and overjoyed, trying to absorb what is happening.  “Peace be with you,” he says, twice in fact.  Jesus had to assure them that the fear that made them run away, and the fear that continued to hold them, would not be a barrier to his newfound presence.
     
Then he says something that must have made them question even more: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Of course, Jesus says this to them, to us, and to everyone baptized in his Risen Spirit.  Jesus is saying: as I have shown you the Father by my life and my actions, so you must show me and the Father by your lives and actions. We recall what he said to Thomas: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  Jesus makes the Father transparent; we are to make Jesus and the Father transparent by our actions.
     
Well, what did Jesus do?  He made water into wine.  Aren’t there many occasions when our love and care can change something ordinary into something of joy?  He engaged the Samaritan woman.  Aren’t there people who might seem strange to us with whom we can build bridges?  He empowered the man crippled for years by the pool.  Whom can we empower by giving them hope?  He gave sight to the man born blind.  Can we not go about helping to bring new vision to others?  He multiplied bread.  What can our faith multiply and magnify because it is done in Christ’s love?  He called Lazarus from the tomb.  How can we bring life to others, on many levels, because we know God’s limitless power?
     
But, we ask, how can we do these things?  Jesus was Jesus.  We are only his followers, and not very good ones at that, we feel.  So the next line of Jesus, to his disciples and to us, is decisive: Receive the Holy Spirit.  This is the Spirit Jesus breathed forth on the cross, the dramatic sign that Jesus had completed the mission of his Father.  This Spirit comes to us as, St. Peter tells us, an imperishable treasure.  This Spirit allows Christ to act in us in the daily tasks we face; the Spirit allows us to show God’s qualities of love and liberation on the smaller stages of our lives. 
     
The reading from Acts shows how important it is to realize that we are all reflecting God’s life every day.  People were drawn to Jesus, and his community, by the love his followers showed.  And we’ve known people like this, people who radiate the presence of God because they have been caught up in God’s love.  Maybe people today are not drawn to the Church today because so few of us know the representational role we have, the graced privilege to show Jesus face today.
     
As a typical male, I hate to shop . . .  and I cannot wrap a gift for the life of me.  I’d bring gifts for Christmas and others would tsk-tsk me—“Is that a way to give something to someone else?” I’d see the jagged paper and splotches of tape; yes, it was pitiable.  Pay a few dollars and let the store wrap it!  Christ has wrapped us with the Easter gifts of his Spirit and his sacraments.  He’s done the work; we just have to show it.

Easter A

    Getting ahead.  It’s almost identical with our American DNA.
     
For practically all in the United States, the family stories run parallel: somewhere either more or less than a hundred years ago, people made a trek across an ocean.  They left what they knew and loved to begin a new life a life they believed would make them better off.  (Of course, slaves are the major exception to this.)  Even more, they worked hard, joined unions, and sacrificed—all to get ahead—and to make a better life for their children.  That stood as the test of success: a better life for the kids.
     
But what happens when people no longer feel a sense of getting ahead?  What happens when economies cannot produce more money and better futures?  We presume that government has something to do with it, and it does.  But so do many things beyond government’s control—like globalization, the robot craze, or burning something better than coal.  What happens then?
     
If the purpose of life is to get ahead, then life can seem without purpose when this doesn’t happen.  Maybe our sense of esteem and pride is so broken that people do desperate and destructive things.  Maybe we try drastic changes in society, or maybe we just give up. 
     
Easter offers an angle on this, but not in terms of getting ahead.  Easter’s lesson is more basic.  Why kill yourself trying to get ahead, whatever that means in your life, when the point is getting fullness, a satisfaction of our hearts not by more things, or more money, but by unlimited love and life without measure.  We can think of those people we have loved who have died—just to be with them, to see them smile and crack a joke, to have one hug—this means so much more than any status they ever had or hoped to have.
     
In Matthew’s account of the Resurrection we have a clear contrast.  The soldiers are sleeping, then afraid, and then eventually bribed.  But the women who followed Jesus are stunned out of their minds when they see him.  We hear these words and they amaze us: “And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them. They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage.”  In this moment they are transposed into a different space, a different zone, because now death no longer defines life . . . and tricking death, by striving to make more and do more, no longer is the point.
     
What is the point?  Just imagine these women on Easter seeing Christ, imagine their need to fall on their faces, just to even touch his feet.  They wanted to be with him, and him to be with them.  Because Easter says the point of life is the way we are with each other, and with each other in love and in hope.  It’s the fullness that comes when we are with those we love, the fullness of an afternoon with friends—“where did time go?”  It’s the fullness of a different zone where the rules are defined by who we are rather than how we look to others.  This is one of Easter’s most splendid gifts to us.
     
Of course, every day brings us glimpses of this fullness.  I may not be able to kiss grandma on the cheek, but look at whom I can embrace, look whose hands I can shake, whom I can hug in friendship!  This is the state and zone that Easter brings to us, if we accept it: to see risen life as the beacon that not only guides us into the future, but transforms our present life as well. 
     
But it’s hard to see.  That’s why he rises.  That’s why he embraces us and lets us embrace him.  That’s why we gather here today and every Sunday, being made part of his risen body.  So that Easter never leaves our hearts; so that we always remember.  The messengers say it: “He has been raised from the dead.”  And, in his Easter love, so are we.

Passion Sunday A

      I was named Simon, but today most people call me Cephas, or Peter. 
      
Matthew had the outline right, but that’s all he had.  He says that first all the disciples fled, as soon as the arrest had happened.  But then he says I came back, to the High Priest’s court, to see what would occur.  You see, I was conflicted.  A big part of me wanted to flee, a small part of me wanted to fight, but most of me was suspended, in-between, frozen by fear.
      
I mingled with the servants.  Since I looked like a servant anyway, it was easy.  What was I supposed to do?  They arrested Jesus, bound him, started beating on him.  How could I help?  Was I supposed to yell, or make a commotion?  Take up a sword?   Was I supposed to figure an escape path?  There I was, frozen in fear, in-between.
      
You know how that feels, when a tragedy unfolds before your eyes and you feel you cannot do anything about it.  A child gravely ill.  A mud slide or avalanche.  An army invading.  If you don’t run, if you watch, all you can do is stare, in unbelief.  This cannot be happening, you say.  But it is.
      
I thought I could stay awhile, seeing if Jesus somehow got off, when one of the servants turns and says I was Jesus’ follower.  I thought I could hide, watch from the side, safe in anonymity.  “Aren’t you one of them?” she says. Then I knew it was over, the pretense, the game I was playing.  I wasn’t looking for an escape for Jesus . . . I wasn’t waiting for the chance to help him.  I was hiding—the fear for my own skin was more important than three years of following him . . . my Lord, the one who showed me God as no one ever had, or could, was now a prisoner. 
      
Then he looks at me.  “I told you so, last night, at dinner, when you said you’d die for me.”  He already read my fear, my cowardice, and now he looks right at me.  It wasn’t a look of anger.  Nor a look of disgust.  Not even a look of pity—poor little me.  It was as if he saw inside of me, saw how conflicted I was; he saw my fear, but still he understood it, acknowledged it. 
      
For, after all, he would cover it.  His love, his acceptance, his overcoming of his fear—his death—all would be a gift to me and to all those, like me, who have not yet learned the loyalty that love demands.  His love would cover it, absorb it, conquer it.  He understood, and his understanding was the only thing that could eventually stop my tears.  Maybe because of that understanding, that compassion, I would one day be strong—be the follower I was called to be, even become the leader he made me. 
      
That’s how forgiveness works, not looking down, but looking in compassion.  The kind of compassion that transforms, that changes fear into faithfulness, selfishness into love, fickleness into direction, and even sin into a step toward salvation.  Yes, the kind of compassion that can change even death into unending life. 

Lent 5 A

   It was amazing film footage, from just a few weeks ago.  We see a dark car driving by in the night when, all of a sudden, the trunk pops open and a woman is next seen jumping from the back, bouncing on the pavement, and then running away.  She was carjacked, forced to get money from cash machines, then thrown into her car trunk.  “Be sure to know where the latch is inside your car trunk,” the newsperson helpfully advised.  Oh, yes, one more thing to think about. . . .
      
But what can be more terrifying.  Locked in a trunk?  Locked in a basement?  A child locked in a refrigerator?  Or, two hundred years ago, a living person buried alive.  Everything inside us pushes to get free, to escape, to live just a little longer.  So maybe Lazarus, locked as he is in his tomb, doesn’t have it so bad.  It’s all over for him, we think.  He’s resting; he’s not trapped.
      
So why does Jesus raise him?  Why are we astonished, along with the crowd, as Lazarus comes forth?  Why is there a part of us cheering for Jesus, and cheering for him?  The revelation of Jesus this day comes on top of all the other gospel passages we have read this Lent, and it deepens them.  It’s one thing to be trapped socially, as was the Samaritan woman; it’s another thing to be trapped in blindness.  But, Jesus says, I will free you from the ultimate trap.  I will free you from your tomb.  I will make Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones real for you.
      
It’s not easy for our culture to hear this.  We have become Stoics, bravely agreeing that death is part of life, and we’ll take the bullet when it comes.  Of course, we want to put that off as long as we can; we’ll bankrupt ourselves on health insurance in the process.  But, once death happens, it happens.  We had our decades; we had a decent enough time—most of us, anyhow.  It would be greedy, selfish, to ask for more.  So down we go, resting peacefully with Lazarus, at home in a world we imagine as nothingness.
      
But Jesus insists that the rock be pulled back.  Oh, no, the relatives yell.  This is messy enough and you’re going to make it worse.  Let Lazarus sleep.  Let us cry our tears, and that’s consolation enough.  But Jesus looks at us and asks: why do you have to look at things always from your point of view?  Why do you think this is about you?  It’s about me and the vision I have of you.  It’s about the Spirit I put into when I saved you.  Pull back the stone, I will show you.
      
For we may have shrunken images of our own lives, but God doesn’t.  We may be content with our few decades, but God isn’t.  We may be resigned to getting what we can and leaving it at that, but God isn’t.  God’s love for us is the measure of our lives, our existence, our meaning.  And, having been loved, why do we imagine that God would stop?  Just because we can’t explain the chemistry?  Just because we can’t grasp it?  But that’s exactly where God comes in, when we seem and look dead, and without any hope, that’s when God’s salvation comes in.  It’s not about what we think of ourselves, but what God loves in us, from eternity and for eternity.
      
Jesus raises Lazarus, however, not only to teach us about risen life.  He wants to teach us what risen life has to do with our everyday life.  If I think it’s just a pile of dirt in the end, I may live one way or another.  But if I think it’s about living forever before God and others, then there’s only one way to live—with his life flowing in and through me every breath I take.  That’s the lesson of Lazarus.
     
That lady escaped from the trunk because she pulled the latch.  But Jesus gives us the biggest escape, far more than the trunk of a car.  He’s pulling the latch the latch of life itself.  He’s waiting to see if we will stay put or if we will come forth, freed, like Lazarus. 
 
Lent 4 A

     Among the things I learned when Chuck Berry died last week—at 90! If you can believe it—was that “Johnny Be Good” was one of the records they included in the 1977 Voyager Launce to find life elsewhere in the universe.  The idea was that space aliens would play this record—that, in itself, would be a trick—and learn about us, and hopefully communicate back to us in a way we could understand.  It’s funny to imagine aliens staring at this record wondering what a record player might be like.  In fact, we have people alive now who have never seen a record player work.
      
But the questions continues: how do we communicate with what we can barely imagine?  How can aliens possibly imagine us?  It would be like seeing something we never saw before, like something totally new in our experience.  That, I think is one of the points in John’s powerful story of the man born blind.  He does something he could not remotely imagine: he sees.  Not that he sees again; no, he sees for the first time.
      
Perhaps artists test the limits of imagination in their painting or film-making, things beyond the realm of the conceivable. No matter how we look at it, it has to be like a gift.  Smack out of nowhere.  Totally life changing.  The Scriptures are telling us that’s the kind of change God wants to give us, the transformation of our lives. We think that this will happen when we die and go to heaven, but faith says that our transformation begins right now, in our present lives.
      
How?  Well, think of the times we had breakthroughs and came to see everything in the world in totally different ways.  Say, the first time we experienced love.  Or the first time a big light went off in our heads and we understood ourselves in a new way.  Or, as Lent is saying, the ongoing process of conversion in our Catholic lives.  The very same thing that we saw before—the same chores, the same daily schedule, the same people—now becomes something different.
      
This now-seeing man is astounded. “The only thing I know is that I was blind, but now I see.”  He not only sees, he sees why he’s alive.  He sees life’s purpose.  He sees God in a new way.  His relationships with everyone are changed.  So great is this transformation that he will not even think of selling it short: when they come after him, he holds his ground.  “My life is changed.  How are you going to explain that?  Maybe you want to be converted too?”
      
His parents are more practical.  When the authorities come after them, they back off: don’t’ bother us, they say, bother our son.  Perhaps they represent a part in all of us to not get excited about faith.  To take it in stride.  To put it on the back burner.  You would think the parents would jump for joy on seeing their son see for the first time.  But the price is too high.  Faith is not worth enough to pay that price.
      
Lent asks us two questions: Can we acknowledge the transformation God is bringing about in our lives?  And: Is not this a gift so great that we would pay any price for it?  The blind man sees.  No one is going to take this new sight, his faith, away from him.  But so often we take our own faith away, by putting it on the back burner, not fully living it, and not letting it transform our vision every day.
      
It isn’t Beethoven who needs to “Roll Over,” as Chuck Berry sang.  We need to roll over, for a renewed experience of grace in our lives, that precious relationship with God that Jesus brings to us.  He doesn’t just touch our eyes; he enters our lives, fills them with himself, and then says that we too are “sent” to bring his vision to our world.

Lent 3 A

     I don’t know where this comes in on the neurosis scale, but for a year or so of my life, when I was 8 or 9, I had the impression everyone could read my mind.  I’d be at the checkout counter and the imagine the clerk looking right into my brain.  Same with bus drivers.  Of course, mothers could always read the minds of their children, so that didn’t count.  Now we find out, via Wickileaks, that government agencies have perhaps co-opted our TVs and microwaves.  Maybe nothing is a secret.  Maybe everything is known.
     For some reason, we find this unsettling, that everything be known.  Perhaps it’s the way we might embarrass others when they hear how we talk about them behind their backs; and certainly the way we embarrass ourselves when we do shameful things we don’t even want to think about, let alone admit.  But what happens when it’s all known, when there are no more secrets?  Maybe that depends on who does the knowing.  If my family discovers some destructive behavior and calls me on it, maybe I’ll be better off.  What if God calls us on it?
    T
he Samaritan woman is rather neglected—she’s getting water at noon, long after all the other women came and went.  People do not like her in the town.  But Jesus doesn’t neglect her.  The two of them chit chat about religious stuff, and then Jesus uncovers her secret.  He knew about her, and knew about her already.  What should she make of that?  Perhaps she is caught and embarrassed; but perhaps she is relieved that someone like Jesus knows and still wants to talk to her.  The pretense is over; she doesn’t have to exhaust herself hiding.
       
Because if Jesus already knows her problems, Jesus has already given her love and acceptance as well.  The worst has happened, and Jesus’ mercy makes it not so bad.  Paul talks about the love of God being poured into our hearts.  That love didn’t start five minutes ago.  It started from the beginning—it was the reason for the beginning—because God creates us purely out of his divine love.  The way water comes out of the rock in the desert, that’s the way God’s love is for us, even in our shame and disgrace.  It cannot be stopped.
      
It is one thing to be caught on candid camera and be shamed; it’s another thing to be caught up in God’s restoring love.  The Samaritan woman shows us something of the confidence we should have when we open our hearts to God during this Lenten period.  The last thing God needs is for us to cringe and run away.  No, God wants us to be amazed that God’s love already is there, despite our failings and shame.  God can best heal what we show him, and when God does, there’s a liberation that we can find nowhere else.
      
All these cameras; all this spying.  Maybe we’ll behave better since we never known when we are being spied upon.  But the Scriptures hope for something else: maybe we’ll behave better because we know we are the object of God’s eternal and infinite love.  I think I’d rather be seen by the God of Jesus than by some government agency, or Google, or malware program.  The more I know God sees me in love, the more I might reflect that love right back—to God and to others.

Lent 2 A

Having so many options doesn’t always make it easier.  I was staying in a rectory recently and the parish asked what I liked to eat.  I said “some oat-based cereal” and they couldn’t figure out what I wanted—there are so many oat cereals to choose from.  I suspect the same is true when it comes to careers and vocations.  Now colleges, vocational schools, and the internet create a cornucopia of possibilities.  No wonder youth graduate college not knowing yet what they want to do in life.  Too many choices.
      
Sometimes, however, it works the other way.  We don’t choose the calling so much as the calling chooses us.  Something in the area of interest, or in the possibilities, make a person gravitate toward a career, and they seem hooked for the rest of their lives.  It often works this way with music, religion, and other forms of art.  It’s kind of like Abraham in the first reading: the call comes, and he can barely resist it.  Go out, go beyond what you know and feel at home with.  Abraham opens a door for himself and, indeed, for all believers.  A future vision drives him forward.
      
I suspect going on the mountain with Jesus was something like this.  The gospel writers strain themselves to describe the glory of Jesus.  Pope Francis has talked about the via pulcritudinis, the way of beauty, as a principal way to draw people to faith.  The searing beauty of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, stuns the apostles.  Indeed, we are up there with them, watching Jesus uncover for us the glory that always lay within him.
      
But even beauty doesn’t always work.  We are fascinated by Peter, wanting to build booths on the mountain—so that he could stay there with Jesus.  As if it were his job to capture the beauty rather than let the beauty capture him.  As if he could hold a transient moment forever.  It’s at this point that the cloud comes, the voice form heaven which leaves them terrified.  “Listen to him,” the voice says.
      
And what does Jesus say? . . . That following him is not in the isolation or safety of the mountain, not staring at him as if he could be captured.  Rather following him means following his way of faithful service, in all the places it takes us, even when that brings us into difficulties and threats.  Peter says in the second reading: bear your share of the hardships that come with your faith.  Because true love looks through the hardships, the pain, the cost, and the fears: true love knows life is a journey and it dares to accompany us every step of the way.  To follow Jesus is to journey will him, even in doubt and pain, knowing that he journeys with us all the way.
      
When people have true love, the beauty never leaves.  What they saw when they were twenty they see, in deeper and different ways, when they are forty, sixty, and eighty.  They see it in the bloom of life, and they see, too, it when the bloom appears to be leaving.  Jesus’ beauty, his radiant, transfiguring light, shines from the mountain onto all of history.  It shines on us who dare to see it, who dare to follow it; it sheds its brilliance upon who are caught up in its gaze. 
     
Ultimately Peter would learn to listen, hard as that was.  When he finally does listen, after he sees the Risen Christ, he sees even more of Jesus’ glory.  We cannot capture glory, but we can be its servant.  The more we let that glory lead us, the more we realize that, at every point, it’s only just beginning. 
 
Lent 1 A

We do not get much desert in modern life. Almost always, it’s the opposite.  Rather than a quiet place by ourselves, we are bombarded with people, information, messages, and obligations.  I think the closest we get to the desert is when something causes a power outage.  I saw a photo on my Facebook feed of people sitting in a living room in total darkness.  Nothing was working.  They had nothing to do but sit there, in silence.
      
What do we tell ourselves in silence?  When we have nothing to distract us?  Is that when we are most honest, or is that when we tell ourselves the biggest yarns?  Because we do a lot of that, all the way from blaming others to stewing in our own self-pity.  We have in the First Reading the central image of Adam and Eve—so utterly alone!  Everyone is blaming everyone else, but no one can look anyone else in the eyes.  They were in the garden, but they created a desert for themselves. 
      
Today, we are invited by Jesus into the desert too.  Not the desert when we tell ourselves lies, but the desert when we try to come to the truth about ourselves.  Not only who we are, but who we are before God.  Jesus goes into the desert, and it becomes the place where his role in life, particularly his mission for the Father, becomes all the clearer.  Can we go into the desert with him?
      
Let’s imagine we are there, all by ourselves, with our phones turned off, nothing on the radio, and not a TV in sight.  Let’s imagining sitting alone, and Jesus comes and sits next to us.  How does this make us feel?  What do we imagine him saying?  What do we say back to him? Undoubtedly there would be some awkwardness . . . because one way or another we are always holding something back from him.  And very often we are putting things and situations ahead of him. 
      
As Jesus puts himself totally before the Father, he invites us to put ourselves totally before him, to become the disciples he has called us to be, and he has made us in our baptisms.  Paul affirms that the distortions of our lives are clarified by Jesus’ giving himself to the mission of his Father, to bringing all humankind into relationship with God.  He has accomplished that mission in himself; it is still being accomplished in us.  It has begun, and Lent gives us the opportunity to further it.
      
We focus Lent not on little, or big, penances we might do, but on the conversion of our hearts more fully to Christ.  In this season when people complete their final preparations for baptism at Easter, we join them by bringing the meaning of our baptisms toward greater completion.  Away from the noise, away from the busyness, away from the half-truths we tell ourselves, we open our hearts as fully as we can and let Christ continue to work in them.  This is what renewal is all about.
       
Jesus, who turned down bread, becomes living bread for us.  Jesus, who refused to play games testing his Father, plays no games with us.  Jesus, who said we must worship God alone, makes us part of his true and authentic worship today.  We go into the desert with him, not to stay there, but to be strengthen by him for our own lives of mission. 

8 A

     I can never tell anyone I’m from New York without the immediate question coming at me: Yankees or Mets?  The next-most-asked question is this: Was I in New York on 9-11?  And as I begin to describe where I was, and what my friends around the city were going through, that day—that terrible time—comes back like wall of water ready to wash me away.
      
The power of 9-11 wasn’t merely the suddenness of the deaths of 3,000 people, some of them right across the Potomac.  Rather it’s in the lingering uncertainty that this attack bequeathed to us.  We can never know when something like this will happen again, so we live in fear: like the child who doesn’t know when the alcoholic parent will blow up, or the teen bullied in school, or families whose loved one is kidnapped.
      
Fear can be one incident; but it can also become an unending state.  Many of our most public decisions arise from fear, just as many of the cautions in daily life—from seat-belts to life insurance—arise from fears as well.  Quite unlike modern life, however, Jesus pushes his disciples, as his Sermon on the Mount rises toward its climax, in a totally opposite direction.  He asks: What do you have to worry about?  Why are you so anxious?  Why do you live in fear?  Jesus has internalized the attitude of parental care that Isaiah urges on Israel some 500-years before Christ: can a mother forget her child?  I will not forget you.
      
This attitude of hopeful trust, even in the face of danger, can seem the most naïve to us.  What can he be talking about?  Didn’t he know how often the stock market would crash, or nations would invade another, to tsunamis would wipe out thousands, or people would be persecuted precisely for their faith.  Anyone who saw—and there weren’t many of us, unfortunately—the movie “Silence” knows the toll that fear and persecution can take.  What can Jesus mean?
      
Jesus’ words seem to invite us to take short-term inventory.  He’s not inviting us to look over years or centuries.  Rather, just look at the present moment in your life.  God’s care is totally undeniable.  Jesus gives us examples like the birds of the air, and the grass in the field, as images to force us to look at the marvel of our very existence.  I am alive.  I am fed.  I have friends.  I can speak and think.  I can embrace and love.  Just look at the present moment in your life, Jesus is saying: doesn’t this tell you what kind of relationship lies underneath our existence.  Sure you can imagine all the fears you want—but they are all in the context of God’s generous, abundant, and surprising love.
      
A psychologist once told me something that has stayed with me.  “If you lose a tooth, you forget about all the other 31 teeth you have.  Your tongue keeps going toward that single hole left by the missing tooth.”  Our minds are programmed for bad news, for disaster, for fear.  Maybe, Jesus says, it’s time to re-program them.  Because fear earns us something; but trust in God can earn us far more.  Fear takes away every safe spot in my life; but trust gives me the most stable platform I will ever find, that of God’s constant love.
      
Just as after 9-11, we could only see threats and doom, so in our daily lives we sometimes can only see worry and anxiety.  But these fears and anxieties can be like a temporary blindness, obscuring what is most true in our lives.  Our heavenly Father, Jesus says, knows about our insecurities.  But into the endless pit of our worries, God pours nonstop assurance.  This is what Jesus wants us to see, beyond the blindness of our fears.  Because only on God’s assurance can I live in hope, and bring that hope to a world that seems ever more addicted to fear.  

7 A

   My two trips to Span were wonderful; not only the cities and sites, the varied landscape, and the terrific food.  More than any of these, the Spanish people impressed me.  Among countries I’ve visited, they seemed to be the most welcoming, friendly, accepting, and solicitous of a stranger’s needs.  On my first trip, I visited the “Valley of the Fallen.”  It’s a huge memorial to those who died in the Spanish Civil War; 90, 000 are buried there, from both sides of the war, and that is only a fraction of those killed. How could these wonderful, loveable, people end up killing each other? I wondered.  It’s a lesson in how we can lose sight of each other and, in the process, of ourselves as well.

Of course, just 85 years after our American experiment began, our Civil War cost over 625,000 lives, 2% of the population.  And we’ve witnessed similar craziness in Syria for over half a decade.  On a smaller scale, on a regular basis, mentally unstable people have gotten hold of weapons and killed others in churches, movie theaters, even in a first-grade classroom.  “Love your neighbor; love, even your enemies.”  The scriptural message seems elusive, for us personally, and for society and nations today.

   


Two factors are at play here.  One, we are afflicted with the disease that allows us to see other people as political forces, as a group different from our own, as things.  And this process of depersonalizing people leads us to fail to attribute to them the same humanity we see in ourselves.  In fact, this doesn’t even have to do with foreigners; sometimes even in own homes, we have stopped talking with each other.  Families can fight and give each other the silent treatment for decades.

The other factor is more challenging yet.  We forget how God loves—universally, without limit, all human beings, even those who oppose and deny him.  We are “to be holy as God is holy”—which has nothing to do with a sanctimonious feeling but everything to do with imitating God’s expansive love.  Do we understand the love that God has for us?  If we do not see the love God has for our enemies, then we haven’t begun to understand the love God has for us.

Some of this depersonalizing can even happen in church circles.  Paul talks about the temple of the Holy Spirit; he is referring not only to individual Christians but in particular to the community of Christ.  The Corinthians have been fighting with each other—who is the wisest, the most gifted, the most important—and Paul says they are tearing apart the very body of Christ.  Of course, for five hundred years Christians have divided themselves into Catholics and Protestants; the temple of Christ has been made tearing apart all these centuries.

The Scriptures ask us to understand the fierceness of God’s love; and then ask us to live that love ourselves.  If I do not understand God’s love for everyone—even those I see as the vilest—then I do not understand God in the first place.  Love those who hate you; pray for those who persecute you.  Indeed, unless we do that, we cannot begin to grasp the very God we have come to worship.

All the time we read about the divisions in our own country now.  Articles talk about families torn apart, people on this or that side of the political spectrum, angry talk followed by angry feelings.  Somehow the Scriptures call us to be above all of this, to be a factor of unity and love, even given the differences that people have.  Divisive and belligerent language cannot build up a society of citizens who understand they are inherently bound to each other.  Before we are parties, movements, labels, we are first of all sisters and brothers—and all the more so if we are followers of Jesus. 

 
 

We Catholics and Christians have perhaps no greater message to bring to today’s world. 

 


6 A 

The cars are going along nicely when, all of a sudden, break lights start to appear.  Things enter slow motion.  “What’s going on?” I think.  Then I see it: those ever-present speed cameras which line the District of Columbia and our Maryland counties.  Boom—everyone goes below 25 because they don’t want the camera to snap their picture and end up with a fine.  These cameras are everywhere, which means only one thing: people want to speed everywhere.  We always want to get around  the law.  If we can whittle down our income tax bill, or get around a regulation, or smoke under a no-smoking sign—if we can cut the corner, and get away with it, we will try.
      
All of which goes to prove that laws, much as we need them, don’t ultimately work.  We can observe this more readily in the difficulties of our court systems, the disproportionate numbers of imprisoned people in the United States, the numbers of innocent people who end up in jail, and even on death row.  Law is just difficult. But how do we get around the limitations of law? 
      
Jesus gives us a direction.  Instead of thinking of the law as something imposed on the outside which we want to resist, think of the law of love poured into our heart by the Holy Spirit?  Instead of thinking how we can get around the law, why not live so you don’t get into trouble in the first place?  If the law is about theft, take greediness out of your heart.  If the law is about using others, get rid of lust in the first place.  If we need laws to avoid lying and swearing, learn to live with integrity.  Then the law is not imposed outside, but it flows from our hearts because they are aligned with God.
      
Jesus tells us that our holiness, our way of life, has to be better than that of the Pharisees, who were obsessed with following the law perfectly.  But to do that we need to play a very different game, one not based on obsession, but on openness.  One not based on rigidity, but on freedom.  A freedom, St. Paul tells us, that comes from the Spirit dwelling within us, giving us assurance of our place in God’s Kingdom. 
      
To follow Jesus, we need to enter into our hearts and work on our spiritual lives.  We need to work on the instincts, impulses, directions, and desires that lie most deeply within us.  This takes prayer, quiet, but also brutal honesty—because it’s so natural for us to fool ourselves.  I’m not getting angry; I’m just expressing myself.  I’m not greedy; I’m just part of the economy.  I’m not heartless; I just watch my wallet. 
      
Jewish life was centered on law, and Jesus certainly revered it.  But Jesus knew that the heart of Jewish life as not the law, but the fundamental relationship, the covenant, the God has made with us.  This is where the power of renewed life comes from: God having sworn on his eternal love to embrace us, to heal us, to save us, to give us fullness of life. 
      
In a little over two weeks, Lent will be starting.  Again, we will be tempted to beat ourselves up, stir up the guilt that we usually try to evade, and do “something special” for Lent.  Jesus points to another direction: why not stop focusing on ourselves and our failures, and start concentrating on the gracious and merciful presence of God in our lives?  Then maybe life won’t be cutting corners, but rather slow and steady progress in Christ’s kingdom.
      
I guess Tom Brady showed he could win whether the footballs were deflated or not.  The Super Bowl was played according to the rules, and that vindicates, and reassures, everyone.   We can get far following the rules and the law.  But we can get even further, Jesus says, following the Spirit who penetrates, and guides, our hearts. 

5 A
     I never saw the miniseries, but the book, Shogun, which came out in 1975, I found totally absorbing.  I suspect for many people the strategies and battles behind the rise of the Japanese ruler were what the book was about; but for me it was when the Shogun explained his strategy.  He knew birds and learned their characteristics carefully: Once you know what a bird does, the Shogun says, you send it to do just that.  You can’t send a pigeon to be an eagle, nor an eagle to do what a cardinal does.  That’s a paraphrase, but it makes the point.
      
So what kind of bird is a disciples of Jesus?  What kind of thing do we have to do that shows who we are?  How do we have to be?  Jesus gives several clear examples that show he is thinking about the core, the essence, of being his follower.  Doesn’t salt impart saltiness?  Doesn’t a city have to shine at night?  Is not the nature of a lamp to be put on a lampstand?  In exactly the same way, the nature of being a disciple is to radiate the Father’s love by the good works that we do. 
      
All the good works we do arise because of God’s grace, of course.  There is no Christian life with God’s grace, God’s unbounded love, at the heart of everything we are and do.  But if that is the case, Jesus says, then should not those works show themselves at every moment of our Christian lives?  And, if they show themselves, people will not stand up and applaud us.  That’s not the point.  If we show good works in our actions, then people will understand who God is, how God loves, and be transformed themselves.
      
Paul conveniently gives us a good example of this in the Second Reading when he talks about how he brought the Gospel to the Corinthians.  He didn’t stand there like some fancy ancient philosopher, garnering admiration for his words and ideas.  No he came in weakness, in brokenness, preaching a Christ who gave himself in love on the cross.  That’s the love that motivated Paul; and it’s the love that should motivate every follower of Jesus.
      
I think showing God’s love begins with attitude.  And this is not easy, because so many of us, just from the pace and assumptions of modern life, think being pushy, showing off our skills, getting ahead, and being an expert critic, is a natural attitude to have.  And so many of us think people and relationships are primarily about us—how they make us feel.  Also we are addicted to the big gesture that gets the headlines rather than the daily, little, endless gestures that can transform the world about us.
      
So when people see us Christians today, often they don’t see the Father’s love.  More often, they see us pushing, sniping, backstabbing, pontificating, begrudging, and showing off.  Probably just the way it was in the days of Jesus—which is why he says we have to let our true light, God’s light in us, shine every moment of our lives.  Otherwise we are hiding an obscuring the God we were called specifically to reveal, who is revealed through our good works.
      
“What’s in your wallet?” the commercial goes.  “What’s in our hearts?” the Gospel asks.  What is the way we are called to be, to act, and be seen?  Are people seeing, through us, the God they need to see?  Or are we putting ourselves forth as Jesus’ followers, but acting, in fact, at cross-purposes to his Gospel?

4 A

A friend of mine told me of a recent visit to Starbucks.  He was on line, with others, when a man burst into the store, walked up to the cashier and asked if his pre-ordered coffee was ready.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  And, unfortunately, this man began fuming and yelling, expressing his outrage. As he stormed out of the store, he bumped into a young worker trying to mop the floor.  He yelled again.  She sheepishly said, “Sorry, have a nice day.”  The man walked out, then returned quickly, and proceeded to berate the worker for saying, “Have a nice day.”  How could he have a nice day?  His coffee wasn’t ready. 
     
How do we get like this: entitled, self-centered, commanding others, enraged and outraged?  In some ways it pervades our culture which is a push-ahead, I’m-on-top, I’m-a-success, kind of culture.  Today we are all exceptional.  Perhaps this attitude ran through history; until our century, it was the attitude of Lords, owners, and bosses.  Today it’s everywhere.
     
When Jesus begins to tell his disciples what it’s all about, he speaks perhaps more challengingly to our times than to any other era.  His starting point is not our entitlement, but our lowliness.  Not our power, but our meekness.  Not our enjoyment, but our ability to weep.  In a basic way, our arrogance and self-presumption are the biggest obstacles to God, and to each other.  Because they give us the illusion that we can be our own God; that, ultimately, we don’t need God.  But discipleship begins with acknowledging the fundamental, radical need we have for God.
     
When we believe as disciples, God becomes our power, our riches, our joy, because our trust in God takes away the gnawing insecurity that leads us to pretentions.  We know, when we believe, that God is our security.  It is the humble, those who have come to trust in God, who will remain and abide, because they have found what is solid, what always is, in their relationship with God
     
Paul reinforces this when he reminds the Corinthians that God did not choose them because they were rich, smart, or high class.  Paul says: You don’t have to act as if you are uppity; you don’t have to boast because you have found God in Jesus Christ, God’s lowly servant.  God uses the lowly and seemingly foolish—because God cannot use the arrogant, the smug, those full of themselves.
      
And what happens when we come to trust in God as the foundation of our lives?  Then we become resources of love and peace for others.  We become agents that can change the world.  Our joy is in working for justice, bestowing mercy, caring for the broken, and being able to withstand even persecution because God has become our center.  We become people of the Beatitudes . . .  people, that is, who know what true happiness is.
     
I remember a poem that Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote, about a man who visited an ancient land.  The visitor saw, scattered in the sand, the collapsed colossus of a monument to a former ruler, Osymandias.  Shelly’s poem ends this way:
 
 
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
 
    Nothing remained of that dreaded king and his monument except broken stones and endless stretches of sand.  So end our pretensions, so ends our pride.  But all abides for those who have become disciples.

3 A

     It’s a strange week when we Americans get to witness two inaugurations.  One, of course, was the inauguration of Donald Trump, not only with the usual Washington tradition of pledges and parades, but also with the prospect of protestors and alternate days of marches.  It is a point of pride—how we transition from one leader to another without violence, although this year has had plenty of verbal fighting.  The other inauguration is the one we read about in the Gospel today, Jesus starting his ministry.
      
The biggest contrast between these inaugurations, of course, is that one inauguration a leader of a state, whereas the other inaugurates the Messiah in the Kingdom of God.  One is colored with lots of pomp and public display; the other is framed as God’s great movement of liberation for humankind.  Matthew’s Gospel makes allusion to the reading from Isaiah in the first reading: the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.  These are lands that had been conquered by the Assyrians about 750 years before Christ.  That Jesus comes from Galilee, these once-conquered lands, shows his identity with the oppressed and even the foreigner, because Assyria repopulated these conquered areas.
      
Jesus is the light shining from those lands of people “living in darkness,” living in conquest.  But what does his light shine up?  His words still shake us even today: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  We have to hear this correctly because we think of the Kingdom as some far-away magical world that arrives at the end of time.  But Jesus says “at hand” because he is God’s instrument, God’s very means to bring the Kingdom about.
      
But how do we see the Kingdom?  How many people have been scandalized by Jesus’ words because the world looks like the same crummy world it has always looked like?  So Jesus tells us how to see the Kingdom: Repent.  Or, better translation: Convert!  Or, even better: Turn your hearts around and start seeing your world in a new way.  Because the Kingdom can only be seen by those whose hearts have been transformed.  Only then do we see the unlimited Love, the unstoppable Mercy, the wonders that exceed our imagination, and the possibility for all humankind to be transformed because we have finally accepted God’s vision as the vision of our own lives.
      
I wonder how many of us Catholics think we are converted?  I ask this question very often when I speak to leaders about evangelization.  “We baptize our babies, so we don’t have conversion!”  Is that the answer we give?  Because that is not correct: we baptize our babies so that they will grow up in the world of conversion, in context filled with God’s grace, in a universe of personal relationship with God.  In fact, everything about our Catholic life calls us to conversion and re-conversion.  Everything in our spirituality—the Bible, the Sacraments, our Moral and Social vision, our community life—especially our Eucharist—calls us to conversion and re-conversion: to make God’s vision the vision of our lives.
      
We see in the second reading that people can have a hard time with this.  The Corinthians are fighting with each other rather than living in the transformed life that God has given them.  Do you not know, Paul says, that only Christ died and rose for you?  That’s how the Kingdom comes, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our ability to accept that as the framework of our lives.
      
We run around looking for salvation where we will never find it.  For all the hoopla about politics and government, George Washington was not crucified for us, nor FDR, nor Barrack Obama, nor Donald Trump.  Our human questions go deeper than what political systems can do for us.  Like the apostles, we have been called to something deeper and fuller; as they respond to Jesus, the Kingdom begins to open for them.  And, through them, to others, even to us in our own day.  As we experience Christ’s special presence once again in today’s Eucharist, so we too see again the great light of God shining in our darkness, inaugurating for us the Kingdom of divine grace. 

2 A

     Sometimes movies make it seem pretty straightforward: the little girl playing the piano at three becomes a concert pianist; the boy staring into his microscope discovers a long-sought cure; the class clown goes on to host the Tonight Show.  Sometimes life happens this way, but most of the time it’s like our own lives: we perhaps have plans and dreams, but they come up against a dozen different scenarios.  It’s anything but straightforward.  How many people actually work in the field of their major in college?  How many end up happily married, but not with their first love?  How many found their identity in life over time, only with trial and error?
      
In our Gospel from John, John the Baptist seems quite certain.  “There’s the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sins of the world.”  And he concludes this passage by saying that, while he didn’t know originally who Jesus was, God told him to wait for the one on whom the Spirit would descend.  This was God’s chosen.  But when we think about it, we understand that John’s statement had yet to be verified; it would only be verified by the actual ministry of Jesus.
      
If we had a contest about which one of us would want to be the Lamb of God, I doubt many people would put their hands up.  John is not pointing to someone who wins an award; he’s pointing to someone whose life will be a sacrifice, a self-gift, framed in meekness and suffering.  The Spirit descending doesn’t make Jesus’ skin glow, or put a halo around his head.  The Spirit that comes on Jesus is the one Isaiah talked about—the Spirit that anoints one to be a servant, to bring hope to people without hope, to proclaim the Gospel to those on the bottom.  Jesus’ identity does not happen in a snap.  It happens in his resolute decision to follow the vision of his Father; and that decision grows especially in the face of opposition. 
      
All of us are forming our identity before God.  Every one of us who was baptized had that identity begin to form when we took a name—our eternal name—before God.  But those waters of baptism began a set of waves that rippled through our childhood, our adolescence, of young adulthood, and, for most of us here, beyond that.  But those ripples haven’t stopped.  They continue to move us and direct us.  Jesus gives the shape, the model, of what it means to follow his Father; but each of us will fill that shape and model in accord with the unique circumstances of our own lives, and throughout our lives.
      
Paul writes to a community—Corinth—with whom he will have many arguments and tough words.  Yet he calls them “holy” and “sanctified”—not because that holiness was accomplished in them, but because the holiness of Jesus has begun to make waves in their lives with an energy that can only be stopped by their rejection of the Spirit—the Spirit God pours into our lives through Jesus.
      
We try to sum up the character of people.  Especially at inauguration times here in Washington, we hear how this present was this way, and that president operated that way.  When did Carter or Reagan, or Bush 1 or Bush 2, or Obama—when did their character finally emerge?  For all we already know about Trump, how much have we yet to know?  But more than character, God calls us believers to identity, an identity with his Son Jesus, one that the Spirit will bring about if we don’t resist the Spirit’s power of love.  Christ wants to be born in each one of us, not in an instant, but in every unfolding moment of our lives.  That’s how God’s Messiah touches the ends of the earth, by being born ever again in the lives of his followers.
      
Perhaps we have our identities in life; perhaps they are still emerging.  But more essential, still, is our identity in God, and that can only be formed when we walk alongside of the Lamb of God, Jesus ready to give himself in love, and ready to let his Spirit spill over on us as well. 


Epiphany A

So many mysteries that are so hard to solve. . . . What did Russia do during our election, if anything?  Who passed on Wikileaks material to leak?  Do people spy on us through our TVs, or computer cameras?  What really is in Spam?  Who killed this one . . .or that one?  Whether Jimmy Hoffa, JFK, Etan Patz, or JonBenet Ramsey?  We’ve gone from a world where we thought there were straightforward answers to a world where we have unsolved mysteries and unanswered questions.  Welcome to the world where truth seems to hide all the time.
      
Are we a bit jealous of the Magi, these representatives of non-Jewish cultures, who could look up in the sky and see both a pattern and an answer at once?  Are we jealous of those who go on a quest and actually do find a conclusion, a discovery, a truth?  People tell us we can hardly believe our own news sources—so how do we look into the sky covered as we are by so much skepticism?
      
Part of the answer of the Magi does not rest with them.  Surely they fulfill a prophetic type such as we see in the first reading, when Isaiah talks to a people, while they are still in exile, about how foreign peoples will come bringing riches to the restored Jewish people.  They fulfill the ideal that if we search with open and sincere hearts, then an answer will come.
      
But something quite different is happening in today’s readings today.  The story is not only about the endless search for God planted in every human heart, whether people acknowledge that or not.  Far more, the story is about God’s search for us and God’s bringing us a vision and a gift that far exceeds any expectation we might have.  For the feast of Epiphany reveals God to the whole world—a Jewish baby, for sure, but whose life and death touches on every human being, in every culture and every age.  Jesus is the Light of God beaming upon everyone who opens her or his heart.
      
Unlike our unsolvable mysteries, with their endless questions, there is nothing hidden or cryptic in the Feast we have today.  This is not a secret to be preserved, or a puzzle to be solved.  This is a reality that God does not want hidden.  No, God unfolds his Son Jesus precisely for all the world to see and experience.  He comes as a child, as huggable as any baby.  Come, take this child in your arms.  Stare in joy with the Magi, just as the Shepherds stared in joy on Christmas night.  The truth in his gaze is the truth of our relationship with God and each other.
      
But also come when he’s a young boy, growing in the Wisdom of God.  And when he shows himself at his Baptism—a servant ready to serve his Father and all.  Come when he preaches in Galilee, when he touches lepers and pours sight into blinded eyes.  Come when he tells us the secret to happiness—exactly the opposite of what we hear today—to live for others and not for ourselves.  Come with him to the Cross when death is transformed into loving sacrifice.  Come as he rises with light even more brilliant than today’s light—the light of the Spirit given to all humankind.
      
We are in a complicated world, all the more so because we think the burden is all upon ourselves.  So difficult is that burden that many give it up, retreating into an atheism, or agnosticism, or, more likely, a life of listless faith.  God un-complicates our world this day, giving us eternal Wisdom in the life of one who becomes our brother.  We have lots of time to solve life’s endless mysteries, but it only takes a moment to let this child, God’s light, shine on us, dispelling, in the process, the darkness in which we hide; and revealing, in divine love, life’s meaning in one glorious instant.

New Year, Jan. 1, 2017
     It’s a kind of social experiment I’ve been doing for almost two years now.  Instead of saying “Thank You” to people I say “Bless you.”  I wonder if I’ll get a negative reaction because of the religious connotation of the word.  But invariably I don’t.  Invariably I get a knowing smile, as if the other person knows, just as I do, there’s a world of God’s blessings all around us.  How great we can see it together!
      
“Bless you.”  “God’s Blessings.”  “New Year’s Blessings.”  We use the word ‘blessing” so often we don’t think about it, yet the start of this calendar year makes “Blessing” the theme of readings.  Mary ponders the blessings she has received, and will receive.  And we have Moses’ beautiful blessing to Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
      
Today we are invited to become part of the reality of blessing.  In its simplest meaning, a blessing is saying good about or for another, just as a curse is saying ill about or for another.  But in its deeper meaning, to be blessed is to be part of the eternal good will that God showers upon all humankind—to be part of God’s plan to bring our lives to fullness.  And when we bless God, we are affirming that we are part of this plan, and wish to live in it more deeply.
      
Think of the ideas we have for ourselves, even the sometimes silly New Year’s resolutions we make for ourselves—all with hopes to better our lives.  But God has a vision for us too—far greater than any vision we have of ourselves.  God wills us to have the fullness of life and love, something we can only glimpse in present experience, but something that all of present experience is directed to.  Our moments are tastes of a fullness God wills for us.  God’s Spirit is given to us to advance this process.
      
So maybe, as a New Year begins, we can take a moment and look at our lives from God’s perspective.  What is it that God would will most deeply for us?  What kind of healing, what kind of hope, what kind of new direction? Not the “Maybe I’ll lose ten pounds” vision, but one of greater reconciliation, spirituality, connection with others, one of greater service to the world.
      
God blesses us, but not to be a blessing only for ourselves.  God blesses us so we can be a blessing for each other, for all of humankind, for all of creation, and for the Kingdom.  How blessed we are to be visited by the Son of God.  And how blessed we are to be living blessings in his name every moment of our lives, beginning with these early moments of 2017.

Christmas A

    You never ignore a crowd in New York City, those special, intense gatherings of people that happen out of nowhere.  Usually it means something strange is occurring--a celebrity, or violent threat.  It was a December evening in 1980 when I was walking home in the early evening after visiting people in the housing projects.  People were gathered around the side door of Roosevelt Hospital when an orderly came out.  He told the crowd that it would be announced later, but John Lennon died earlier that day from gunshot wounds.  The message spread like wildfire through the West Side and the City.
     
What strikes me about the event is that it was an orderly who got the message and passed it on.  Everyone else was probably sworn to some kind of medical protocol, but this man, at the bottom of the pole, heard the news and shared it.  And how often that is true—not only about those to whom Mary appears, but Jesus own followers, and even the shepherds we have in the Gospel today.  Why is it always those folks at the bottom of the ladder?
     
Of course, we now officially live in a world of fake news, as it is called, and any of us can be gullible, buying anything if it seems to gain us something.  But I think the shepherds represent all those people who can hear of a message of hope because they have a special capacity to hear it.  For the most part, all they have to live on is hope—that their lowly and often miserable lives amount to something.  At least.  That they amount to the love and care of God. 
     
Our world cultivates itself in non-shepherd language.  Science, technology, precision, electronic transfers of data—our world seems to be about competence, power, and money.  Even the littlest among us mugs beautifully on Facebook, our 15 seconds of fame.  Wherever we came from, we aren’t go back there: we move ahead to a world where we can be respected, and earn a salary commensurate with that respect. 
     
So we try to be our own hope: pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, as the saying goes, we become self-made women and men.  We’re not returning to the smelly sheep no matter what.  However, the shepherds encapsulate the deepest longing of every human being, longings we can seem to bury but still define our guts.  For, no matter how competent I am, what does it take to reduce me to a frightened, anxious, trembling human?  Only a few words.  You’ve lost your job.  Your spouse is leaving you.  Your x-ray doesn’t look good.  Your mamma or daddy is dying.  Boom, just like that, tears come from places we never knew existed.
     
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”  It’s the “pining” that I see in the shepherds, a restless longing that I can only pretend to cover and suppress.  Can I hear the words?  “Glory to God in highest heavens, and on earth peace to people of good will.”  Can the heavens be filled with glory—not just for God but for our strained species as well?  Can the earth be filled with peace—not a truce, not a deal, not a standoff, but the peace that every human being longs for and needs?  We’ve seen the wreckage of Aleppo.  We’ve seen the wreckage of our own political fabric.  God, there must be an alternative.  Indeed, says God, I am the alternative.  If you live in the image of this child, this family, these smelly shepherds, these glorifying angels: if we live the promise of Christmas, maybe our pining has a chance of pointing us where we need to go—to Christ, today a child so accessible we can all embrace.
      
Catholic social writer, Dorothy Day, called her autobiography “The Long Loneliness.”  It was a loneliness that haunted her, without relief or solution, until she joined the Catholic Church.  What haunts us this Christmas morning?  Is there a part of our hearts just waiting for angels to sing, and the smile of a newborn baby as his eyes lock on our faces?

Advent 4 A

t’s a moment of high suspense in many movie themes: someone stranded on top of a building or in a raging river.  A helicopter comes, hovering above.  Down goes a safety line to the desperate character.  We see the rope dangle, we see the hands go up: will they grab on, will they be saved?  Or will they crumble because of their fear?
     
Just as we all get in desperate situations, sometimes not as extreme as in the movies, so we have two desperate situations in the Scriptures today: Ahaz in the first reading, and Joseph in the second reading.  They make for an instructive contrast.  In their desperation, they have choices to make, but sometimes we are so afraid, we will not even choose.
     
Isaiah the prophet is talking to Ahaz when Judah was under siege.  He and all of Jerusalem trembled.  Isaiah is trying to assure him.  “Just turn to God and ask for a sign.”  Ahaz has too much pride—and fear—for that.  What would it mean to ask God for a sign?  I’d have to trust God—and take the risk that maybe God will not be there for me.  Under the pretense of saving God from embarrassment—maybe God is powerless—Ahaz instead protects himself.  “I will not even take the risk of asking.  I am so afraid of disappointment.  I’d rather stay in my fear.”  Isaiah’s trust has to make up for Ahaz’s fear.
     
Joseph has followed all the rules and holds God as the center of his life.  His fiancé, Mary, is found to be pregnant.  You can imagine the ruckus in Nazareth.  They must have made an ideal couple—Joseph, righteous; Mary, so devout.  But this was about the worst thing that could happen in Joseph’s life.  (Our Gospel, told from Joseph’s viewpoint,  gives us no idea of what Mary is going through.)  Joseph decides not to make a brouhaha: let Mary depart peacefully and I will get on with my life.
     
Instead of a prophet, Joseph receives a dream, a standard way of talking about divine revelation.  Here is his choice: Joseph can do the decent thing and let Mary go without embarrassment, or he can stretch his soul to accept what seems unimaginable—that Mary has conceived of the direct power of God.  At the very least, the Scriptures are calling us to see the profound trust that Joseph had—both in God and also in Mary.  The dream opened for him what, instinctually, he must have already known: that Mary’s bond with God was most sacred and, indeed, God could work this way. 
     
In our own lives, do not expect many life-lines.  We figure we are here, mostly alone, making sense out of things as we can.  In this way we are less than Ahaz, for he, at least, had to deal with Isaiah’s challenge—ask a sign from God.  Yet both these stories, this week before Christmas, show us how desperately we need to get beyond ourselves, to get in touch with a deeper trust which will allow God to act more fully in our lives.
     
For what if Isaiah just shrugged and walked away frustrated?  What if Joseph dismissed the dream and missed God’s revelation to him?  What are you and I shrugging off on a routine basis in our own lives?  What graces are you and I missing because we stay within our protective bubbles, not daring to raise our hearts to the level of trust which shows that, ultimately, we rely on God for everything—and God gives so much to everyone, but especially to those who open their hearts in trust.
     
We cannot have Christmas without trust.  We cannot have messages about a Messiah—about salvation coming—about the fullness of life, unless we come to trust completely and totally.  Because only this way do we see God’s possibilities for us.  Until that point, we are, like those famous movie scenes, stranded on a rooftop wringing our hands; or drowning in a raging river—afraid to grab the lifeline.  Jesus is God’s lifeline to us; but the hand we use to grab onto him is the trust which God gives us through the Holy Spirit.  

Advent 3 A

Mission trips.  Twice this week I heard reference to them.  One was from a new campus minister asking if I know anyone who organized them; sure enough, he soon has a picture on Facebook announcing his students would go to the Dominican Republic this Spring.  Another was from one of our own Paulist Students who was asking support as he planned to go on a trip too.  For all the enthusiasm around these trips, I’m often surprised at how I see them attacked as glorified vacations, a tiny dip into a vast ocean, almost a sham because these trips mostly benefit the visitor and not the visited.  Nevertheless our losing vice-presidential candidate demonstrates powerfully how his experience in Honduras transformed his life.
      I
 wonder if the trip into the desert in Jesus’ time was something like a mission trip.  Jesus asks people, “When you went out into the desert to see John the Baptist, what did you expect?”  Then he jokes with them, offering two possibilities that show how people can miss the point.  “A blade of grass?  A prince dressed up in fine purple?  You know where to find these.”  His point is clear: if you didn’t go into the desert to hear God’s last prophet proclaim a time of conversion and renewal, then you missed the point.  Just like mission trips, it’s easy to miss the point.
      
To underscore this, he speaks of John’s greatness—no one born of woman was a greater prophet than John was.  I imagine that his audience was astonished.  Our Catholic brains start arguing right away—Jesus, what about Mary?  But Jesus is not making an argument with us.  Rather, he has something crucial to tell us.  And it’s the next sentence that explodes in our ears: “Yet the least person born into the Kingdom of God is greater than John.”  He emphasizes the contrast: greatest and least, born of woman, and born into the Kingdom.
      
We ask ourselves: well, who is Jesus talking about?  And then the embarrassing realization comes about: he’s talking about us!  He’s talking about his followers!  He is talking about all those who will be privileged not only to see Jesus in the flesh, but to see him raised from the dead and transforming the world through his Spirit.  Jesus wants his words to explode in our head because if people who go on mission trips can be blind, so can people who have received the grace of God also be blind.  Isaiah talks about the Messiah’s task of healing the blind.  Perhaps we followers of Jesus need our blindness healed as well.  Because so many of us take our faith for granted; and statistics show that many of us do not even practice the faith God has given us.  It’s so hard for us to see the greatness of even the simplest things we do as disciples, as followers of Jesus, as Catholic people.
      
Of course, John, the prophet himself, had his hesitations.  He announces Jesus, baptizes him, but from prison we see him sending people to ask Jesus who he is.  Jesus simply points to his ministry and how it dovetails completely with the vision of Isaiah in the first reading.  Indeed, the Spirit of the Lord has come upon him, anointed him, commissioned him.  And Jesus wants that same Spirit to come upon his disciples, upon us, upon all who, whether we know it or not, have it better than John the Baptist.
      
Better?  Yes.  John’s Scriptures were incomplete, not ours.  John knew suffering would come, but we have seen Jesus die and rise.  John drew close to Jesus, but John never received him in the Eucharist.  John went into the desert, but Jesus sends us to our homes, work places and daily lives.  John could prepare people, but Jesus give us more than preparation: he gives us participation in his own life through the Holy Spirit.
      
So when you come to Church, what do you expect to see?  Maybe our eyes have closed without even knowing it, maybe we miss most of the wonder. Maybe our Mass is like a mission trip that touches us only so much.  Jesus then invites us to open our eyes, to see what is happening: the Messiah is at work right here!  In our lives. How could you miss it?

Advent 2 A
     It seems the more we work for justice, the harder it gets. 
      
No theme has captured American TV as “let’s get the bad guy.”  From the first days of TV up to “Law and Order, SVU”, we have rooted for the good guys, and jeered the bad guys.  Yet even as this theme has grown, it gets harder to pull off in reality.  “The Innocence Project” often exonerates people decades after they’ve been put in jail; when I was in Illinois, the Governor determined that 10% of those on death row were there erroneously.  And we know that rich people get one kind of justice; poor people get another.
      
So Isaiah’s reading stirs us deeply: someone will rise from David’s line, from the root of Jesse.  He will be blessed by the Spirit.  And he will become an instrument of God’s justice.  Notice the words: “He shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”  This isn’t the 99% against the 1%, as it’s sometimes put.  Rather, this is evil people who do not mind hurting those on the bottom, the little ones.
      
But Isaiah’s vision of justice has to startle us.  It isn’t just that the bad get thrown into jail or out of office.  Rather, a whole new order appears in which violence itself disappears: lions and lambs lie together, and children play with snakes.  God’s mountain becomes a very different place.  Because God’s justice isn’t punishing the bad guys; God’s justice is leading us all forward into something new.  We keep wanting to go back and even the score; but God invites us to go forward and live a new dream, God’s dream.
      
John the Baptist makes his appearance and he will dominate the Gospel this week and next.  His message is simple: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  But we can easily mistake what the word “Repent” means.  It doesn’t only mean to feel bad about what we did, or to do penance for our sins.  Rather, it calls us to live a new life based on God’s vision for humankind.  We are stunned when John says to the religious leaders of his day, “Do not presume to say that we are Abraham’s children.”  That’s like saying to priests today: Don’t think you are saved because you got ordained and wear a collar.  No, God wants something more than that.  God wants us to dream and live God’s dream; God does not want us to hide behind our labels.
      
Well, we say, I am Catholic, so I am in the Kingdom, right?  Indeed we are, if we lead the life that our faith calls us to.  Paul puts it this way to the Romans: live in harmony in accord with Christ Jesus, welcoming one another as Christ welcomed you.  This is how we glorify God.  We lead lives of conversion when we embrace each other—and all humankind—just as Jesus did, and when this embrace leads to a new kind of community, a community of people transformed by Christ.  Our Catholic faith shows us that we must do that.  But it isn’t the label—it’s the reality which must be there.
      
So this is Advent’s test: to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if our hearts have become like Christ’s.  Have we turned our lives around by renouncing the self-centeredness, the tribalism, the easy stereotypes we lay on people?  Have we repented by accepting the vision that Isaiah gives us—and living for a world without anger or violence?  Have we accepted the dream of God’s mountain where there will be ‘no ruin or harm,” because we have finally let God dwell with us in Jesus?
      
Beyond water, we were also baptized in fire and the Spirit.  Fire, which burns away the obstacles we place before God; and Spirit, which empowers us to live in and for the Kingdom.  Indeed, we’ve been baptized, but have we let it have its full force in our lives?  It’s one thing for human justice to be frustrated; but what happens when we frustrate the justice, the full life that God would bring to the world?

Advent 1 A

     People are into TV serials.  Netflix, Showtime, HBO . . . they get absorbed, they can’t wait for the next episode, they can’t wait for the next season.  They “binge watch” shows, stacking up episode by episode until they cover a whole season in one long weekend.  Someone gave me Season 1 of “The Wire,” and my brother loaned me the rest.  Because I lived in Baltimore for six years, I got extra-absorbed in the program.  But ultimately I’ve decided I’m really not a series person, really.  I don’t want to commit that much time; I don’t want to be owned by something else.
      
Yet I understand how people get hooked.  Each series builds up an underlying tension.  And, for all we are stressed by tension, we are also fascinated by how tension finally comes to release itself.  It’s the resolution of tension that provides the payoff when we are watching a series.  In the old days, it was the poor maiden tied to a railroad track with the train heading down.  In our day, it’s figuring out who the betrayer actually, and what’s going to happen when people find out.
      
Perhaps it’s a stretch, but we start a new series, a new Cycle of the Church’s Worship Year today —Cycle A when we read Matthew’s Gospel—as Advent begins.  And we might ask: if it’s a new series, where’s the tension?  Where’s the drama?  Church can seem so much like the same old thing, year after year; the same old prayers every Sunday.  We may come to Mass, but sometimes we feel like we are looking for the remote so we can change the channel.  We find our TV series much more exciting, don’t we?
      
Yet are not today’s readings full of tension?  Does not Jesus’ discussion of the end of time create suspense?  People eating and drinking—and the flood is about to wipe them out!  Two men in the field—one is taken, the other left.  Jesus creates the drama of us knowing that something astounding is coming, but we do not know when.  And he expects is disciples to live with just this tension.  Every day his followers are to live as if something magnificent is driving them forward, something awe-inspiriting, something that even can be terrible.  Can we live with this tension?  It’s what makes is Christians.
      
Part of this tension comes from our being so incomplete.   We are ever a work-in-progress.  We strive to be ready for the day when life comes to its fullness, but even this idea fills us with awareness of our pettiness, our greed, our using others, our shameful thoughts, and crass actions.  We are not supposed to be children of the night!  Stay awake, Paul tells us.  But we get tired just trying—as if it was all up to us.  So we feel inadequate and unprepared.
      
The other part of the tension comes from not understanding what we are waiting for.  We think of Judgment, of destruction, of fear—like those poor families living in Aleppo, never knowing when the bombs will drop.  But Christ is asking us to be alert for something else—the coming of a new era of peace and love, when swords become ploughs, when weapons of war become instruments of fuller life, when God’s peace reigns between everyone.  This is the excitement of Advent—in this four-week period we capture the longing of every human being for a fullness that we desperately need.  We wait for winter’s darkness to abate—for light to come, the light of the Kingdom of Christ’s peace. 
      
This year Matthew will show Jesus as a master teacher, creating wonderful images of what it means to be a disciple and learn his way of life.  But behind the image of the calm teacher looms this gripping drama—will we be fooled by darkness?  We will be lulled into giving up?  We will be crushed by fear?  Or will we learn to hope through the darkness because we know that Jesus, our light, is coming?  
     Stay tuned.

Christ the King C
     For more than three centuries, many modern nations have thought of their governments as something like a social agreement, a contract between the citizens.  In this way of thinking, each member of the society gives up a bit of power and wealth to create a state which uses that combined power and wealth to protect all the citizens and advance their lives.  The alternative idea  was to see government as an abiding kingdom: people were born into a realm that already existed, and they accepted the power—hopefully kind and forward-looking—that the King or Queen exercised. 
      
Although the idea of a social agreement is somewhat new in history, we see it at play in our first reading which tells about the way David became King of Israel after King Saul.  However you interpret David activities toward Saul up to this point—he was a kind of rebel—in our reading today we see the leaders of various tribes coming together and asking David to be their King.  “When all the elders of Israel came to David in Hebron, King David made an agreement with them there before the LORD, and they anointed him king of Israel.”  There is an agreement and the leaders anoint David.
      
Our own social agreement in the United States, a bold experiment in democracy which has become bolder over its history—just look at how we have extended the right to vote—seems pretty frayed lately.  It is not only the slug-fest we call our elections; it’s the regional and social differences that exist among us that tear at our social fabric.  If our recent election showed us anything, it showed us just what different worlds we live within, and just how frustrated people have gotten with what they feel is an unresponsive government.
      
We can contrast this, however, with what we see happening in this poignant and majestic scene from Luke’s Gospel describing the passion of Jesus.  Two criminals—they were probably what we would call terrorists—are being executed with Jesus.  Neither of them has anywhere to go at this point: their lives are over.  But one of them recognizes the innocence of Jesus.  Who knows how these words came to him? “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  The Kingdom of Jesus is not something we make up by social contract.  Rather, it is a gift to be accepted.  And that’s the only way to be part of the Kingdom—to open our hearts and accept it.  It is not agreement among ourselves, but God’s covenant with us—if we choose to accept it.
      
Maybe there will always be limitations in the governments and political systems that we set up. Maybe there will always be tensions arising from the competing interests of people today.  But God’s love and gifts to us precede any of our needs and any of our interests.  His Kingdom stands as a gift for us to receive.  It is always there, offering infinite love, compassion and mercy, as well as the power to renew ourselves in Jesus Christ, to base our lives on his vision and values.  “Lord remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  We can imagine Jesus saying back: “Do you think I can forget you?  Do you think I can forget anyone who comes to trust me completely and live my life?”
      
We should note how Jesus does answer the criminal.  He spoke about a kingdom, but Jesus speaks about paradise—about that elusive and sweeping image when the fullness of life and love are attained, when the ideals written into our struggling hearts come to completion.  Maybe that’s our modern problem.  We keep fighting over our ideas of kingdom and our kingdoms.  But we haven’t yet learned God’s dream of Paradise, a dream that has finally been achieved in the love of Jesus. 
      
At this Mass, not only do we remember; at this Mass we affirm once again that God remembers—in his faithfulness to Jesus and to all who open their hearts in Christ.
 
33 C
     In some ways, we are a lot like those people who lived at the time of Jesus—we are also fascinated by thoughts of the end of the world.  As our liturgical year nears its end—Advent starts in just two weeks to begin another liturgical year—we are invited to think about the end of the world.  We know from the first reading that these ideas were around before the time of Jesus.  And we know from our Gospel today, and many other passages, that the first followers of Jesus expected the end of the world.  What is the difference?  Those first follower of Jesus actually believed it.  We watch a movie, or read a book, and then go on with our daily lives.  The end of the world, for us, is entertainment.
      
Movies like “The End of the World” appeared in the 1920s and 30s.  Then we have “The Day the World Ended,” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in the 1950s.  We then watched “Dr. Strangelove,” and “Planet of the Apes.”  “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” entertained us in the 1980s, and, as the last century ended, people made millions of dollars with movies and books about the Rapture.  Now it’s visions of global warming, Independence Day, and Terminators that get our hearts pounding.  We watch these, we see and imagine terrible things, and then go on with our normal lives.
     
Why did he earliest followers of Jesus see things differently? Because, for them, when they saw Jesus die, they saw the world starting to end.  They saw the worst that anyone could see.  And when Jesus rose they believed the world’s end was actually here.  They could hear the words of Jesus, they could read gloomy prophets, they could sing hymns such as we read in the Book of revelation, all because of this: the world had ended and begun again in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  If they believed in Jesus, and lived in his Spirit, they would be part of Jesus’ victory, not part of the earth’s destruction.
     
Jesus, then, made it possible for people to face their worst thoughts not with fear and dread, but with hope and transformation.  This is how those Christians could live through not only the battles they saw around them, but even the personal persecution and betrayal that would come into their lives.  “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed,” says Jesus.  You saw the worst, when I died to bring you victory; now live with the confidence that my Resurrection brings to your life. 
     
Confidence, but not cockiness.  Because sometimes the victory of Jesus can make us presumptuous and even lazy.  This is Paul’s problem with the Thessalonians.  Some are saying: well, if the world is going to end, let’s just sit here and wait!  Why worry?  Why work?  Paul is almost comical in his frustration: if you are not going to work, then don’t eat, and don’t sponge off the others that do work.  Because the victory of Jesus should lead us to transformed lives that continue his mission of service, not deformed lives that take advantage of everyone else.
     
Our modern problems are very different.  Paul worried about people presuming the world would end so they could sit back and relax.  Our modern presumption goes the other way: we have what we want, so we don’t care about the end of the world or about judgment.  We presume on the time we have, and most of us live as if we could less about any afterlife.  We are presumptuous not because of our faith but because of our lack of faith.  Jesus states clearly that no one will escape judgment.  And there’s only one way through judgment: a faith in him that changes the way we live—that makes us servants of others rather than egoists living for ourselves. 
     
The way this election went, it felt like the end of the world, and people predicted that if this one won, then it would all be over, or if that one got elected our days were numbered.  We are always ready to invoke the big pictures of destruction, the ultimate images of evil like Satan or Hitler.  But here we are, having to deal with those same problems.  Maybe we’ll see that politics is not the ultimate answer—it may even be a problem—but the victory of Jesus is God’s answer if we have faith enough to accept and live it.
 
32 C

     One of the most popular movies of all time is “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray.  It about being trapped in a cycle that you cannot get out of.  Bill Murray’s character is doomed to repeat the same day, again and again, until he learns the basic lesson of life—that he’s not the center of the world.  I suspect many people like this movie because it reminds them of their own lives: the same old thing every day, with no overarching sense of purpose.
      
The theme of the woman who had seven husbands was standard in the ancient world.  It was a way to explore what one meant by marriage, loyalty, and trust in God.  It was a way to talk about the meaning of marriage—was it eternal or something less lasting?  How often do we have the sense that marriage—and true love—comes from God because when people love it just seems destined?  And yet we witness the tragedy of marriages breaking up every day, causing untold trauma to everyone, especially children.
      
Perhaps it is surprising to hear Jesus say that there is no marrying or giving in marriage in heaven, that we live like the angels.  Certainly, if anyone honored marriage and held it up as an ideal, Jesus did.  Is there no correlation between the sacred love we exchange in marriage with each other, often for many decades, and our eternal lives? 
      
Perhaps it is sexuality seen as primarily generations reproducing that can make marriage seem like Groundhog Day, something that repeats, generation by generation, but ultimately looks mostly to the survival of our species.  Nature instills drives in us just to preserve the human species.  We know how precarious survival can be.  But here Jesus is certainly contrasting our experience of time with the experience of full life in heaven.
      
Jesus knew that the love that we show each other in marriage, even if it is transformed in heaven, directly relates to our experience of God and of eternal life.  After all, how do we begin to learn of the love of God?  It is through human experience—and the astonishing human experience of people being faithfully committed to each other, for better and for worse, without condition.  Our human experience becomes the image through which we begin to view all love—and, most of all, God’s love.  For God is the faithful love who espouses humankind in Jesus Christ.
      
Even more, the way we shape each other through our loves and commitments shapes who we are forever.  Marriage is a way of discipleship, a way in which couples experience the generous, self-giving love of Jesus through the loving joys and sacrifices that are part of their lives.  Try spending days in labor giving birth to understand self-giving love.  Or faithfully visiting my spouse in his or her declining days—sometimes over years.  This selfless love forms in us the form of Jesus.  It helps us know the meaning of discipleship—when we come to live and love as Christ does. 
      
So we are not just trapped in time.  Rather, in Christ, we use time to uncover time’s deepest meaning.  For every moment we have points to a Kingdom of full love and complete life.  Especially those moments of married love.  Each of these moments etch yet a deeper line that fills in the image we have—the person we are— before God: an image we have now, and an image we will have forever in Christ within the eternal love of God. 

31 C
     “Curiosity killed the cat,” my mother used to say.  That was her way of warning us not to be too nosey. But curiosity is instinctual, part of the way our mind works, stretching itself into what it doesn’t know for sure.  We regularly experience a bad kind of curiosity whenever a traffic accident results in “rubber necking” as every driver has to slow down to check out an accident scene.  “Thank God that wasn’t me.” But we mostly see curiosity as something positive—showing our desire to know something, to see if we might be interested.  In this way, curiosity means we can dip our toe in the water before we jump in.
      
Zaccheus is certainly a curious figure in today’s Gospel.  We wonder about his life, how short he was, how much people detested him.  We also wonder what would make a grown man climb a tree to see the visiting prophet from Galilee.  The tree did two things: it allowed him to see, and it protected him from the people and from Jesus.  He had his niche . . . so he could sit and watch as long as he wanted.
      
But Jesus upset Zaccheus’ plans.  Notice how the Gospel puts it: Jesus is the one to take the initiative.  Jesus is the one to stare up in the tree.  Jesus is the one to put Zaccheus—and everyone else—on the spot by saying that he was going to stay in Zaccheus’ house that night.  Imagine how we would feel is people invited themselves over to stay in our house?  But Jesus must have intuited this fact: if a grown man, detested by most of his townsfolk, would climb a tree to get a peek at him, then maybe something else was going on as well.  Maybe something deeper.
      
Although religion and faith get beat up a lot in public life—media is just waiting for us to be seen as hypocrites—people still are curious.  Look at all the buzz around Halloween—the way people seem to believe in ghosts and the spirit world.  Look at the world-wide fascination with Pope Francis.  Look at the way people run to church when something tragic comes into their lives.  Look at the way people are always ready to argue over religion.  People are curious.  Yet even some people who think of themselves as believers are really only curious: we dip our toe in the water, but we haven’t jumped into the pool.
      
Just as Jesus looks up at Zaccheus and calls his bluff, so Jesus looks at every one of us to see how far we will go with him.  Jesus loves us being curious, but Jesus insists on something more from us.  “I want to stay in your house,” Jesus says.  Then he smiles and waits for our reaction.  Zaccheus found out he was ready—giving up his life as someone who took advantage of others.  I wonder if Zaccheus was himself surprised at his reaction.  And Jesus looks at us, asking if we will get off the trees we use to hide from him, and commit ourselves to following him more fully. 
      
Curiosity sometimes kills the cat.  But more often it gives us a false consolation—as if we could stop with being curious and absolve ourselves of anything further.  Life, however, is not lived through curiosity; it is lived only with commitment.  Anyone who has come to truly love another will tell us that.  
      
A toe in the water is not a swim; a faith that is only curious has not awakened to its baptism.  “Come on,” says Jesus.  “I’m inviting you to the most wonderful thing—my Kingdom.  But you can only enter by saying ‘Yes.’”

30 C
     My license plate, like all those in the District of Columbia, says “Taxation without Representation.”  It’s the slogan and the constant complaint of Washington, DC, that with its over half-million people, it has no voice in congress.  The phrase echoes those from the early revolutionary years of our nation when colonists refused to pay taxes because they had no voice in Parliament.  Today, hundreds of years later, our politics runs on the same theme: one politician or the other tries to convince us that, while we have no voice—even though we pay plenty of taxes—they will bring our voice to Washington.  And the more politicians say that, the more people feel ignored and neglected by their government.
      
Of course, there are millions who have far less voice than we do: children, starting with the unborn; the millions of refugees that populate the Middle East; the boatloads of people floating across the Mediterranean for a chance at a better life, escaping whatever in their countries; those whose lives are challenged with handicaps; millions of indigenous peoples in Latin America; and even millions imprisoned in our own jails.  Compared to them, we have plenty of voice.
      
The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the lowly, the voiceless.  Even if everyone else is ignoring us, God is not ignoring us.  How, we ask, does God do this?  By becoming poor and voiceless—by becoming the broken and persecuted one in Jesus Christ.  When Jesus cries out on the cross, Jesus is crying for all of humankind.  And when Jesus rises from the dead, Jesus is showing that God’s vindication, particularly for the lowliest, is certain.  In him all flesh has voice; in him all people can go to the Father of love.
      
That is, if we think we need Christ.  Because perhaps we think we don’t.  Jesus gives us yet another wonderful parable to contrast two men who go to the Temple.  One stays in the back, head bowed, feeling unworthy but calling out to God.  The other stays in the front, feeling perfectly worthy—so worthy he can dismiss the people around him as worthless sinners.  We hear the man boasting and we realize that his voice cannot penetrate into the heavens because it’s so self-centered, it can barely get out of his prideful head.  And I’m sure Jesus meant this image as a warning to all of us: if our rightness, our self-satisfaction, and our spirituality blind us to the pain and needs of others, then we are only talking to ourselves.  Then we have not yet understood God.
      
Even Paul feels voiceless.  He obviously has been on trial and no one has come to his defense.  Yet this has only made things clearer for him. God takes his side.  God will put the crown of righteousness on his head—not Paul.  Rather than crown himself, Paul turns in trust to the God who remains ever faithful to him.  Rather than resort to self-pity, Paul uses his difficulty to come to rely more fully on God.
      
We come to this Mass, each one of us with our own cries to God.  Some of us are tired, some discouraged, some grieving, some afraid.  We come here with our worries and with our worries for those we love.  But we also come here with the worries of the world; after our Creed, we make our prayers on behalf of all humankind, especially those most at risk.  We bring, in our humanity, all of humanity, just as Jesus brings the needs of all human flesh before his Father in prayer. 
      
Catholics like this Gospel because we don’t often sit in the front of the Church.  But where we sit is not the point.  It’s who we come with spiritually, who’s concerns we bring with us, who’s needs we pray for.  And then, knowing more clearly our needs and the needs of others, how we go forth to serve others in their need.  Everyone has a voice before God. And we have the privilege to be part of God’s response, in our love. to those who are left out and voiceless. 

29 C

     Apart from the politics, one just has to stand in wonder at the task of our secretaries of state.  From Madeleine Albright, to Colin Powell, to Condleeza Rice, to Hillary Clinton, and particularly to John Kerry—these people go non-stop.  It’s not that they clock up hundreds of thousands of miles in the air.  It’s that they stay with an issue, year-in and year-out, like they are never going to give up.  Fly to Israel, fly to Palestine.  Fly to Egypt, Fly to Iraq.  Negotiate with Russia, then with China, then with Russia again.  Iran’s missiles, North Korea’s missiles, Russia’s missiles in Syria.  I’d ask them, of course, why do you do it?  It looks so frustrating.  And they’d say: yes, but what about the breakthrough?  What about a different world?
      
After all, that’s how God treats us.  In this year of Mercy, among many of the dimensions of Mercy we’ve seen, we have noted that God never gives up on us.  We are not to forgive a few times; we are always to forgive.  Heaven goes bananas over one lost sinner, no matter how many times she or he has sinned.  God keeps offering us a new chance to reconcile because God wants nothing more than the breakthrough—when our lives are infused with God’s love.  When our world is different.
      
But how does that happen?  Jesus presents another parable that, like so many of his, must have seemed hilarious to his audience—the widow who nags and nags until the dishonest judge relents.  I can even imagine a TV series called “The Nagging Widow,” as she tries one new trick after another.  But she knows what she needs, feels it intensely, and she’s not giving up.  We scratch our heads.  Why do we have to keep telling God what we need?  Doesn’t God know that?  Is God deaf or something?
      
All of this shows how much we do not know about prayer.  So often we approach prayer as some kind of negotiation, or business deal, we are making with God.  But prayer doesn’t work that way.  The purpose of prayer is to open ourselves up to receiving all that God would give us; we are so closed, so blocked, that we prevent God’s working in our lives.  Prayer, after all, is not primarily about things.  It’s about relationships, and how our deepening relationship with God can make new our entire way of life.
      
Paul urges Timothy around the same quality.  Just as you pray persistently, so also persistently read God’s Word, study God’s Word, and share God’s Word.  If we think about the first Spiritual Work of Mercy—instruct the ignorant—it’s about this same theme.  For we are all ignorant of God; we all have so much more to learn of God; we’ve all barely begun to understand God’s way with us.  This can only happen if we open ourselves up, day after day, without letting up, to reflecting on God’s Word, praying from the depths of our hearts, and letting God transform us from within. 
      
Did you hear about the dad who wanted to watch the playoffs, so he put his child to bed early?  “Be quiet, I want to watch TV.”  After five minutes, the child is yelling from the room: “Dad, I want some water.”  Dad is irritated: “I told you to shut up.  I want to watch the playoffs. Go to sleep.”  Twenty minutes later, “Dad I want some water, bring me a glass.”  “Shut up and go to sleep, I said.”  Twenty minutes after that: “Dad, bring me some water.” Dad has had it.  “I’m going to take off my belt and show you how to go to sleep.  Is that what you want?”  The child says: “Well, when you come to spank me, bring along a glass of water.”
      
What is deepest in our hearts?  What remains yet unfilled?  How can God, and God alone, fill the void inside us?  We can find the answers to these questions, the questions of our lives, only by praying—intensely and persistently, never giving up.

28 C
    Someone brings you a cup of coffee.  You say, “Thank you.”  Or you need a ride when your car is in the shop; your neighbor helps.  You say, “Thank you.”  Perhaps, though, you need a loan, and an uncle advances you $10,000.  Again, you say, “Thank you.”  But what do you say when someone takes a bullet so you can live—a policeman giving his life?  And what do you say when you are desperate for a kidney and a donor emerges? You want to say “Thank you,” but you feel you can’t.  The debt you owe is so great, you feel you can never acknowledge it.
    
That’s the depth of “Thank you” that Jesus finds in this healed Samaritan—a non-Jew and someone many Jews would have detested.  As a leper he was consigned to very edges of society, forbidden to intermingle, forbidden even from those he loved.  He lived as a dead man although he still had life.  He and his companions must have felt a ray of hope when Christ came to their village, a hope that paid off with their freedom from that dreaded disease. 
    
Luke, the Gospel writer, says something strange in the story we have.  “One of them, realizing he had been healed, returned glorifying God.”  Jesus emphasizes the point: “Were not ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?”  Perhaps we have a paradox here: that God was working in their lives, but only one in ten realized that.  They surely knew they were healed, but they didn’t know the extent, or wonder, of their healing.  Only the one who gives thanks realizes fully what God has done and is doing.
    
When the Samaritan returns glorifying God, the Samaritan is showing the kind of thanks that every one of us should have—and that every one of us needs to come to realize.  For we are all desperate people, all in need of healing, and all receiving graces so abundant that we cannot even count them, let alone give thanks for them.  But how easy it is for us to be like the nine—not even realizing the healing, and the meaning of the healing, the grace, the love: everything that comes into our lives with our very existence, and even more with our redemption. 
    
And it’s a thanks so deep we don’t know how to express it.  Because if we can feel unspeakably grateful for how our lives have been extended through heroism or generosity, how speechless we have to be before the One who gave us life, continues to give it every moment, and then wraps those moments in the mercy and healing of Jesus Christ?  This is the paradox of our lives: we are unspeakably grateful to God, and only in the thanksgiving of Jesus do we begin to find the words.  We call our Mass the Eucharist: it is our thanks because Jesus makes us part of his eternal Thanksgiving, on behalf of all of us, to his Father.  We have eternal life because we are part of his eternal thanks.
    
Yet we have a crisis of thanksgiving today—outside the Church and within it.  How many even of us Catholics skip Christ’s Thanksgiving, the Mass, almost routinely?  How many of us take God’s love, grace, and mercy for granted—grunting the kind of thanks we would give for a neighbor’s favor, but not the kind of thanks of someone come back from the dead?  And how many of us who come to church do so without getting near the depth of speechless wonder that God’s presence in our lives calls for?  Paul tells Timothy that we may betray God but God can never betray us: God’s love is unshakeable, and unfailingly directed toward us.  Only the Samaritan realized it.  Do we?
    
I was with life-long friends last week; as lunch ended and the waiter brought out coffee, one of my friends said, “Thank you.”  The waiter responded: “No problem.”  My friends thought that was a strange way to acknowledge thanks: rather than welcome and embrace the moment, we are content when someone doesn’t bother us.  “No problem.” 
    
Well, God says, “You’re welcome” to us, again and again, in Jesus.  Welcomed to life, welcomed to life’s gifts, welcomed in Jesus, welcomed in God’s Spirit.  “Oh my,” we say.  “I don’t know what to say.”  But God does . . . and God says it with us and for us in Jesus.  Maybe when we realize this better in our lives, some of the others, sitting on the sidelines, will recognize it better as well—and return to the banquet of eternal thanks. 

27 C

     It was not a form of torture, but rather a psychological experiment.  Take children; put each in a room by him- or herself.  Offer them a choice: you can have one marshmallow now or, if you wait 15 minutes, you can have two.  The cameras recorded the gruesome process of making a decision, some kids smelling the marshmallow, other kids closing their eyes.  The study followed these children in their later lives.  Sure enough, much to our chagrin, the children who waited did far better in life than the ones who couldn’t.  Delayed gratification is an essential skill in life.
     Because so often we want it right away.  A golf pro suggests a change in one’s swing.  “But I tried it and nothing happened.”  The pro says back: you have to practice until the new move becomes part of you.  It takes time.  We admire doctors who take years of study and years more of internship.  Or baseball teams who can take a long-range view and hang in for October.  And how gratified will the newly elected president be in November after this ridiculous and ridiculously long campaign period?
     And how gratified will Jesus’ disciples be if they can hold on to the vision—the vision of the goal we all have of the Kingdom.  Because if any group has to learn delayed gratification, it is the disciples of Jesus.  “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says.  Because that tiny grain of faith will allow you to go through what you have to go through in order to enter the Kingdom.  So that means Jesus is giving us a psychological experiment?  Looking to see if we can put off eating the marshmallow? 
     We have yet another parable from Jesus, and it puts into perspective what delayed gratification means for us.  If you have a servant, Jesus asks, who has been out in the field all day, do you think that, when the servant comes in, the master is going to make dinner for him?  Of course not.  The servant makes dinner for the master, that’s how it works.  “When we have done everything we should, we are only unprofitable servants.  We’ve only done what we were supposed to do.”  But this quip shows us the marvelous vision of Jesus.  When we have learned to serve, then we have become like him.  And when we become like him, we have entrance into his Kingdom.
     
The prophet in the first reading is having a tough time; violence and terror are all around.  But the Lord speaks to him: hold onto the vision, hold onto the promise.  The rash, the restless miss the point.  The one who lives in faith, with trust in God’s future, is the one who will survive.  And that’s Paul’s advice in his second letter to Timothy: Bear your share of hardship, recall the promise you have made, look at how I serve—that is “sound truth” that will ground Timothy’s ministry.
      We
 Christians have had a tough go of things over the past 50 years.  Society used to accept our values; people basically followed along in a set of common ideals.  But that’s not so obvious anymore.  And a lot of structures we counted on, like our Catholic schools, seem wobblier now.  Younger generations seem to walk their own way, with only two out of ten Young Adults involved in church.  We can be tempted—to lose the vision, to give up on faith, to throw in the towel.  And yet it is our faith—in what God is doing in the long-run—that alone makes sense of our lives.
     
Even though our gratification is delayed, we still get a big piece of it.  Because every Sunday, when we come here after seven days of toiling in the field, Jesus pulls a fast one.  Instead of making us wait on him, he waits on us—providing us the sacred banquet of his Body and Blood.  Indeed, if we live in faith, still it’s not all in the future.  We don’t get the marshmallow.  But we do get the Bread and the Wine that unite us to Jesus and give us the greatest pledge, the most marvelous guarantee, of eternal life.

26 C

The adoption of a child is quite amazing.  I realize there have been issues around it, especially how, in more recent times, people feel the need to search out their real roots; to them adoption seems like a dislocation.  But adoption proves that blood is not thicker than water; and that water can become blood, because people take as their own someone whom they did not beget.  Adoption breaks down the simplistic family-and-clan categories into which we put people and things.  Adoption says that there need never be “the other”; in the deepest ways, we can all belong to each other.

 In Jesus amazing parable today, he paints a story so vivid that people have taken it for real.  A part of the piety of people in the Caribbean is to pray to “Saint Lazaro,” the poor man in the story whom they take for an actual character.  What’s actual in Jesus parable is the way the rich man selectively sees and chooses: send Lazarus to my brothers, he says, because he prefers his brothers over the poor man who has been lying in his doorway for a long time.  He wants God to take care of his family, and so he misses the true God who cares infinitely for everyone.

 “They will not believe even if someone were to rise from the dead!”  What a startling conclusion to the parable.  We naturally think that if we saw someone rise from the dead, then we’d be stunned into acting differently.  But Jesus is saying that, in effect, if we cannot see each other, we cannot see risen life either.  Because risen life, the life that Jesus brings us, binds us together in him, makes us brothers and sisters, and brings us beyond the smallness of our human impulses.  To accept Jesus risen from the dead is to accept everyone who can be united with him in his Spirit.

 Our culture seems to be descending into “groupism”: the coasts against the middle, the cities against the rural areas; the rich against the poor; the left wing against the right wing.  And vice versa, of course.  Black lives matter.  No, Blue lives matter.  No, All lives matter.  As long as we keep splitting into groups, defined against each other, we will never really see or listen to each other, nor will we be able to see the amazing, and needed, grace Jesus offers people today.

 The final part of Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, which we read today, refers to the confession of faith that Timothy made, probably at his baptism, and then to the “noble confession” that Jesus made before Pilate.  What was that noble confession?  What is our confession of faith?  God’s Good News is the infinite and unbreakable love that God has for everyone, which he showed forth in the dying and rising of Jesus.  Jesus takes our broken flesh, same flesh of all of humankind, and brings it through death into risen life.  And then he offers that risen life to us in the Holy Spirit, in the sacraments, and in the community of universal love which is the Church.  In Christ, there is no “mine” and “yours.”  In Christ there is the “ours” that he won through his love.  This is the confession, and this is the covenant, of Jesus.

 Maybe when we come to see that everyone belongs to everyone; maybe when we come to realize that we all have the same tears, the same fears, and the same fragile lives; maybe when we see that God’s gift of life makes everyone precious, and everyone connected—maybe then we can lay aside the blindness of the Rich Man in the Gospel and truly begin to see each other again. 

 After all, God has adopted us in Christ, breaking down the barrier between humanity and divinity, and, by doing that, giving us the ability to break down the false barriers of our own lives.

25 C


One of the motifs of almost all cultures is the beloved criminal.  We have centuries-old stories of Robin Hood who roamed Sherwood Forest robbing the arrogant to give to the poor.  And we have characters like Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, in The Shawshank Redemptions—yes, we want him to get out of jail!  How many people rooted for the Godfather figure in those famous movies?  And Edward Snowden—he’s not a criminal as far as lots of people are concerned.  His crime, they say, was exposing hidden tyranny. 
 
Jesus gives us the image of the likeable thief in the Gospel today.  We have to like the steward because he’s been skimming from his Master for years; he’s probably done it right under his nose.  And he says exactly what we would: “You don’t expect me to dig ditches do you?  No, we have standards, after all.”  So how he makes deals, willingly giving up the amount he would have gouged, in order to build himself a safety net—Jesus says to pay attention to what he’s doing.  We can learn from him.
 
But how does Jesus want us to learn?  Not by imitating the thieving part of the steward’s life; Jesus, along with the whole Jewish tradition, could not abide that.  Rather, it’s a question of seeing the kind of greed that operates in our economic world and asking what kind of “greed” should be operating in our spiritual world?  If people will go to the extent they do to line their pockets, what extent will we go through to be part of the Kingdom of God?
 
Here’s another way to think about this: what if the energy we put into being Christ’s disciple was the same as the energy we put into making money?  Now we begin to see the disproportion . . . because so many of us put so little energy into our relationship with Christ.  If we did our jobs that way, how much do you think we would make?  Indeed, if we worried about eternal life as much as we worried about our paychecks, our lives might look a little differently.
 
I don’t suppose there was anyone greedier for Christ’s Gospel than St. Paul.  In the second reading we are winding up our hearing of Paul’s first letter to Timothy.  He is looking at his congregation—and his congregations must have been small—and seeing them as a force for transforming the world.  God wants everyone to be saved . . . even your Gentile neighbors . . . even Gentile rulers!  Pray for them, pray for everyone, pray for the redemption of the world.  No little goal, is it?  Indeed, Paul sees the world of the Spirit as something much more dynamic than Wall Street or Gross National Product. 
 
Discipleship is not a mystery.  Nor is it about running into a monastery or fasting to death. It’s about raising the priority that Jesus has in our lives so that everything is about him, his Kingdom, and the sway of his Spirit in our lives.  Each week we come to Church and get just the ingredients to fortify us in our discipleship; but very often these ingredients are not sifted, mixed, or baked into something in our lives.  We leave church with the ingredients half-stirred on the countertop.  But if we added to our way of life reflection, scripture, prayer, purer intentions, and serving others—if we did this, as it is possible, how much more would we be producing for God, and for ourselves?  And we’d be happier, too!
 
What are you eager for?  What do you think about stealing?  What stirs the deepest desires in your hearts?  Jesus is saying that, in him, we can steal heaven, we can have eternal life, but we’ll have it only in the proportion in which we let his Spirit lead and guide us.  

24 C

t’s one of the longest gospel passages we read, but the parable of the Prodigal Son is worth every word. Few stories stare us in the face as does this one.
 
After all, let’s hear it for the older brother.  With million in our prisons, and millions filing for bankruptcy; our denunciations of illegal immigrants, and denunciations of the other political party; with our racial and economic stereotyping, with our classifications of people into the good and the bad, the deserving and the undeserving—we are all the older brother.  September 11th only furthered this impulse.  We divide into the bad and the good.
 
Yet today we learn that, if we want to blame God for some of the classifications between the bad and the good, God has a heart tender for both, and a love for the lost that will not stop. 
 
After all, although we play the role of older son, pouting as people get away with their transgressions, we are all really the younger son—even the older son is a younger son!  We are all objects of God’s mercy.  We have all put ourselves over God; sometimes it’s the most righteous who do this the most.  We have all used the things of God—whether our talents or our natural world—to suit ourselves.  We squander every day.
 
Yet God stands there, scanning the horizon for the lost to return, and pleading with the self-proclaimed good to open their hearts.  God stands there not because sin makes no difference, not because we should not try to be good.  God stands there because all goodness comes from him, and every one of us has so much more goodness to receive.  Older sons, young sons—all of us—have so much more to receive.
 
We are only good, after all, when we love like the Father, when mercy pours from us as it does from God, when we understand the weaknesses of others just as much as we expect God to understand our weaknesses.  And when we learn to do this even in our righteous anger, even on anniversaries like this--15 years after the terrorist attacks on our soil. 
 
It’s a long gospel, and we’ve heard it many times.  But this particular gospel is still waiting for us . . .  to grasp it . . . and to live it.


23 C

We’ve been haunted for several years by images of Syrian refugees, and especially those refugees who have borrowed and spent every penny they can to buy a dangerous space on a flimsy raft.  Perhaps they can make it to Turkey; perhaps, maybe even Greece.  Will they be become stranded in Hungary or Croatia?  Will they make it to Germany or Sweden where their cousins have already settled?  Images like this echo with so many others—even those of the founders of our country—showing what people will do for the chance to be free.
 
We have a small selection from St. Paul’s shortest letter for our second reading.  He’s writing to Philemon, a friend of his—a friend who owns a slave who has become Paul’s friend; who now serves Paul in his imprisonment.  It’s a masterpiece of persuasion—Paul appealing to a wealthy Christian for the freedom of his runaway slave.  In the letter, Paul says he could insist on the slave’s freedom.  But he wants more: he wants Philemon to voluntarily free the slave, Onesimus, so that Onesimus can return, a free person, to help Paul in his old age and imprisoned state.
 
“I did not want to do anything without your consent,” Paul writes.  And, in doing this, Paul seems to be inviting Philemon, the slave owner, to a greater, and deeper, sense of freedom himself.  Ancient society was divided between freemen and slaves, with far more slaves than free people.  But Jesus Christ offered everyone, slave or freeman, a new freedom in a totally different plane.  For even wealthy, powerful, and successful aristocrats can be enslaved; and, as Paul proves, even prisoners can have a freedom that all the world envies.
 
Jesus is talking about freedom in today’s Gospel, a pinnacle of Luke’s teaching.  Jesus is telling his disciples what it will take to be able to serve his Kingdom.  It’s an inner freedom that might even sound frightening us to: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  In saying this, he exposes the paradox that freedom is not gained by our grabbing things and holding on with all our strength; it’s gained by letting, by being willing to give everything, because one has found total trust in God.
 
We’ve all gotten to some desperate points in our lives when we feel we have nothing to lose.  It feels terrible, sure; but it also feels liberating.  We can now do what is deepest in our hearts because we realize we cannot be hurt anymore; we are free to do what we feel is right because we’ve thrown away the baggage.  This comes close to what Jesus invites his disciples to feel: the freedom that comes from having faced crosses, limitations, fears, and deaths.  Because when we do this, we realize that, ultimately, we are grounded in God’s unshakable love—a love that is the foundation of following him.
 
The parable Jesus gives is telling: people who do not know what it takes to build a tower, to defeat an army.  We started out—but we didn’t have enough.  We fizzled.  In order to have enough to be Christ’s disciple, and in order to sustain that discipleship, we have to find the freedom that comes from knowing we have given ourselves to God, and God has given himself to us in Jesus Christ.  Put this baldly, many of us might feel that we’d fail the test.  St. Pope John Paul, Saint Mother Theresa, canonized today—they can do it.  They are heroic.  But me?
 
But in each of our callings, in each of the opportunities that come our way every day, we have the same choice, and the same opportunity to experience Christ’s freedom.  At each moment, if God’s Kingdom comes first, if Christ comes first, when we give ourselves over the power of Christ’s Spirit, then we are not just carrying our cross.  We are living the cross, facing our daily deaths, but standing in Christ’s daily resurrections.  Jesus is saying that, if we put him first, then we have resources not only to faithfully endure.  More than endurance, we have resources to flourish in eternal life.
 
We all want to be free.  Some know the drama of freedom in desperate escapes from war or terrorism.  But all of us can know the drama of finding that freedom that only Jesus gives: to know our lives are secure in God and, in Christ’s freedom, nothing can truly harm us.  Nothing can enslave us.  Nothing can kill us when we have Christ’ life.

22C

Maybe I’m a cynic, maybe I’m jaded.  But I don’t like hype, particularly the hype associated with politics and the Olympics.  My promise to myself was simple: do not watch; ignore it, pretend it’s not there.  All this hoopla about winning, which country is number one, who is the greatest.  Please.  But, as I read the newspaper one night, they had the finals of the ten meter diving on TV, and I found I could not ignore the drama.  David Boudia was the American.  A Mexican, a Frenchman, and two Chinese men were all diving well.  They would arrive at the platform, concentrate very deeply, and at a moment of great intensity, execute the dive.  Each seemed able to block out the world, seeking to control their flight through gravity in miniscule ways which, in the end, would lead to a score high enough to win.
 
Looking at these men, there seemed something selfless about it in the end.  Although each carried the weight of their country, their years of preparation, and their own fame, as they leaped off the platform all that seemed secondary.  It was the dive, the perfection of the dive, the desire to be one with the perfection of the form—this seemed uppermost.  Chen Aisen won the gold, Boudia the bronze, just behind German Sanches’s silver.  Chen broke into tears, perhaps relieved, but mostly grateful for what was achieved.  It seemed to me an example of the heights of sports—how Tiger Woods played golf for 15 years, how Michael Jordan dominated the basketball court, how Usain Bolt runs: as if the sport was playing itself through these players, so totally had they given themselves to it.  At a certain point, the self vanishes and the form itself ultimately wins.
 
Although we live in a world totally absorbed with winning, making money, looking good, being admired and applauded, these ambitions ultimately get in the way.  And Jesus makes a similar point for his followers: don’t think this is about you, about your being recognized, about your holding something over someone else.  When you go to out to eat, your desire for prestige gets in the way.  When you use faith to get ahead, it works against you.  Indeed, don’t throw dinners for your peers who then will owe you; throw them for the littlest people who cannot pay you back.  Then you’ll know how God is, how God loves, and how God wants us to be.
 
What’s the problem with pride, this sin called the deadliest?  No other vice blinds us as does pride.  We not only put ourselves ahead of others; we ultimately put ourselves in place of God, thinking that everything is about us.  We are the center of the world.  Our wants and desires measure everything.  We so give ourselves to ambition that we, paradoxically, end up being its slave.  Pride also blinds us to others, making it impossible for us to see their gifts. 
 
And, most of all, pride blinds us to the littleness of our own lives—a littleness that saves us if we let it lead us to rely on God. Think about those things we pride ourselves about: maybe looks, maybe brains, maybe strong and supple bodies, maybe money, maybe the gift of gab.  For every gift we have, surely someone has more.  And every gift we have can, in a moment, vanish: the accident, the stroke, the wrong decision.  And, what then?  If I have a scar, or a stroke, or the start of Alzheimer’s, or some other misfortune, am I really less?  In whose eyes?  God’s?  Those who love us?  Do I think I am really superior to someone born with other genes, in other circumstances?  One of the evils of abortion revolves around just this measuring of some lives ahead of others, ahead of the mystery of life itself.  Pride causes us to overestimate ourselves but underestimate how valuable we are before God. 
 
Pride causes us to live for ourselves instead of living, as Jesus did, for others.  Each of us is a servant, beholden to the wonder of existence.  Great athletes, great scientists and scholars, truly great politicians know this: it’s only through giving my life that I can receive and have.  And great saints know this, like Mother Theresa, canonized next Sunday, who even put her doubts in service to love.  In the end, we don’t win the medal or the prize.  Rather, the medal, the prize, mostly shows the values behind the effort, the beauty of the sport.  In the same way, discipleship, sainthood, are not about us, but about the victory of God’s love over everything, even our pride.
 

21 C
s there a day when we don’t hear about some poll or statistical study?  These days, of course, it’s about the presidential election.  Polls are split and diced according to many different categories—age, race, income, geography.  “Don’t trust the polls,” the politicians say, unless the poll is going in their favor.  We also hear quite puzzling studies, like the one that said we didn’t have to floss our teeth because it made no difference.  One dentist I had used to say: just floss the teeth you want to keep!  And all these polls and studies presume an average, where most people or numbers fall, and a much smaller number of people or incidents that don’t fit the average.
 
Average.  We’ve come to prize it.  The average temperature, the average soccer mom, the average blue collar worker, the average official.  In a way we want to be in the average: why should we stand out and look different?  In another way, we want to break the mold.  How many of our movies are about breaking the mold—coming to be your unique self. And there are always the ones who don’t fit the average: that southern male who is for limiting guns, that Manhattanite who wants taxes on the rich to be raised, the household mom who doesn’t want to work.  So we are caught in a bind: we want to be normal, we want to be different.  We all wear tattoos, but my tattoo is different from yours!
 
In some ways Jesus is inviting us not to be normal.  “Enter through the narrow door,” he says.  And then he talks about the many who do not enter through the narrow door.  Who are these people?  They have two characteristics: 1) they presume they are on board, everything is OK; and 2) they presume that only they are on board, and other people are losers or not part of God’s plan.  When we think about it, it’s the most natural thing in the world: to presume our own space, and to disallow someone else’s.
 
So we need to hear how strange Isaiah’s prophecy would sound when he gave it: God is gathering many into God’s people.  Indeed, even some of the pagan people will become religious leaders and priests.  Foreigners will bring gifts to God just as the Jewish people do.  And when Isaiah was saying this, the Jewish people were captives, held for generations by a foreign power.  Instead of resentment about foreigners, Isaiah is saying God will embrace them.  If you are thinking inside the box, the average way like everyone else, you wouldn’t see this . . . but Isaiah does.
 
Likewise, Jesus is talking to people whom he knows will dismiss him and his message  . . .people who presume their own standing with God.  “Come on, we know you like the man next door, we ate at your table and drank with you.”  But to belong is different from being committed; and being committed means being committed to what God is doing.  “Many will come from the east and west and take their place at God’s table,” says Jesus.  But you, who wanted to be average, you will not because you did not see what God was doing—precisely because you dismissed it.
 
The average person acknowledges what God is doing in her or his life, in “my” group; the exceptional person sees what God is doing for everyone, in and through what he does for us. Christ wants exceptional followers.
 
In Hebrews, we are near the end of the letter, and we are surprised to hear the image of sons being disciplined.  “What father does not discipline his son?”  Jesus was talking about physical discipline. Discipline is basically how we learn, so we also know there are other kinds of discipline—such as when our assumptions are turned upside down, and the predictable didn’t turn out.  Such as when we see the Son of Man rejected and crucified when he should have been embraced and adored.  Such as when we are forced to see the breadth of God’s love and invitation.
 
The times we live in might be stranger than ancient times.  Patterns are happening in our world that no one can predict.  But in this world, Jesus is calling us out of our comfort zones, out of the automatic-pilot of being average, to respond in a personal and direct way to his Gospel of love.  Faith is not being part of the majority, or of the mob.  Faith is seeing God’s powerful love generously given to us who have the privilege of responding, and seeing that same love at work in ways that are secret and unknowable in the lives of others.  It’s not a restricted love; it’s a love that brings surprises, a love that nudges us beyond average into a world of divine possibilities.  


20 C

As spy stories go, it must have been tense; it certainly was tragic.  Just last week Iran executed Shahram Amiri, a nuclear scientist, who returned to Iran just six years ago as a hero.  Somehow, in 2009, while he was making the Haj, the great pilgrimage to the sacred sites in Saudi Arabia, he disappeared.  He then turned up in America.  Then in 2010, we went back to Iran with the story that he had been kidnapped by us Americans and brought against his will to the United States.  While Iranian people hailed his return as a great liberation, the Iranian government had a different version: Amiri had, they said, defected to the US and given us vital information about its nuclear program.  Of course, during this time Iran and America were negotiating to end Iran’s nuclear progress in return for lifted sanctions.
 
Who knows what really happened—the conflicting stories about our national events are hard enough, let alone Middle-Eastern international 
events.  But I think about that man, Shahram Amiri, and how he had to wonder where his loyalties ultimately lay. Was he serving Iran?  The United States?  A broader vision of world cooperation?  They showed pictures of him holding a grandchild.  What about his loyalties to the people he loved?
 
Jeremiah, in the first reading, has his loyalties questioned.  “Throw him in the cistern,” his opponents yell; and we can imagine what it’s like being thrown into an underground mud-hole, never knowing whether he might get out, never knowing how slowly, inevitably, he was going to sink.  Jeremiah, a troubled prophet, was called in such a dramatic way to proclaim God’s guidance to the Jewish people; but throughout his ministry, we find him filled with depression and despair.  And here he is, sinking in the mud, looking at death. 
 
In spite of all his doubts and complaints, however, Jeremiah continues his mission.  “I will make you like a fortified city,” God tells him, tough enough to withstand your opponents.  Yes, but who knew how much it would hurt?  Yet like the Iranian spy, he had to clarify his motives through the duress he endured.  He had to see, again and again, who it was who called him, and how precious that message was.
 
Jesus is not very cheery in this Gospel today.  These words of his, whenever he said them, were remembered by followers later on who, because of the Gospel, suffered the breakup of the closest relationships of their lives.  We all know people who “are no longer speaking” with their families, as we say; but what is the price they pay?  Jesus is saying that following him has a price, and he’s asking his followers if they are willing to pay it.
 
It might sound like news to us—that our faith entails a cost—because we don’t feel enormously persecuted personally in our lives.  Bishops worry about the way government might intrude on Church, particularly our teaching and our exercise of sacraments; but for most of us, being a Catholic is like being anything and anyone else: we’ve arrived.  The age of our Catholic persecution ended with the election of John Kennedy in 1960.  Then we joined America, we joined the suburbs, we joined modern life.
 
Still, in case we haven’t noticed it, being a believer is going to entail a bigger and bigger price from us, just like it did for those ancient people to whom the first reading is addressed.  We hear: look what Jesus endured!  You can endure as well so long as you keep your eye on the prize.  Because, as our society gets more secular, we will look stranger.  Not just because of teaching on morality or marriage, but simply because we believe in God, we believe existence has a purpose, and we believe God has invited us to relate to divine life, and to relate to each other in terms of that life.  “You believe that?” they are saying to us, and will say it more. 
 
Is it worth it?  Is your faith in God worth being thought a simpleton, or a romantic, or even a fool?  And yet, like Jeremiah, we are the ones who have to realize that, protest as people might, this is the one message they have to hear: A God of unlimited love pouring that love, and its transforming power, into our world and into our hearts.  There’s no need to make enemies over this, to think that everyone is in opposition to us, to develop a persecution complex.  But there’s every need to be clear that believing in God at some point involves a price.  We have to learn, now, ahead of time, that the joy of knowing this God, and following Jesus, makes any price pale in comparison.

19 C

You go out to eat.  The meal was fine.  Now comes the bill. You look.  It seems correct.  Now for the tip.  Many times these days restaurants will make suggestions for the tip—15%, 18%, 20% and even more.  Most of the time we give a tip without even thinking about it.  But if the service was not good, then we think: hmm, should I show them a lesson, should I let them know that they didn’t pay the attention they should have, that they disappeared into the back room for periods of time, probably talking to their girlfriends or boyfriends.  They should have been more attentive.

 

Jesus tells his disciples that they are like servants waiting at the table.  They have to stay alert.  We can imagine how hard it was for the earliest Christians to stay faithful, given the temptations and given the persecutions.  But Jesus will take no excuse.  Have your belt on, shoes on your feet, and be ready to move.  But what does he want his disciples to do?

 

We can find out in the second reading where the Letter to the Hebrews is making the same point as Jesus—and he gives a long list of people who were faithful, who fulfilled God’s will, who lived in faith, and who shared faith with others.  Jesus wants us to live and share our faith. Since most Catholics today are baptized as infants, many of us can be unaware of the power faith has in our lives.  We just assume images of God, of Jesus, of our teaching; and we assume that everyone else has those images too.  And we impose our assumptions on others.  They have these same images of God as we do.

 

But they don’t.  Today all too many people do not know a God of infinite love, a Jesus who has become our brother, a Spirit at work in our lives.  Too many people think that life is about making all the money we can make, otherwise it’s wasted.  Too many people live using other people instead of loving other people, loving them in Jesus. 

 

I come today representing missionaries throughout the world, those who give their energy, time, and skills to serving others in the name of Jesus—precisely so that Jesus will become known.  They do this because they believe that the lives of others will be enriched by knowledge of Jesus.  They do this so that more people will be able to experience the joy that faith can bring into their lives.  Because faith makes a difference.  Pope Francis says it’s not the same to know Jesus, as not to know him; to hear the Word as not to hear it; to live with Christ’s values as not to do so.  Missionaries make a difference, and our support makes us part of their mission.

 

But if there are special missionaries who give their lives as full-time representatives of the Church to share faith, that does not mean that all of us are not missionaries.  Indeed, each in our own way, every single day, in the ordinary actions of our lives, we are showing others what we believe.  And without our witness to faith, it cannot be effectively lived, and cannot be wonderfully shared.

 

Why are we servants?  Because Jesus is the servant.  He is the mission and the missionary that God sent into the world, showing us God’s love and giving us God’s life, joining us in the Spirit and assuring us of eternal life.  Isn’t he the servant who sets the meal for us, puts on his work clothes, and lays out the Eucharist for us?  Because he is God’s mission and missionary, we can be missionaries too.  He feeds us with his own food, puts his blood into our veins, and give us his mind and heart.  There’s only one kind of tip that Jesus the servant wants: not 15 or 20%, but 100% of our hearts, living his life, and giving it to all who wish to receive it.

 

This week we have begun watching the Olympics . . . the enormous energy young people put into their sport.  We see what they do, and then we notice how little we do for our faith


18 C

So now our presidential nomination processes are complete.  On the one hand, we have a multi-billionaire who regularly boasts about his money, and who tends to divide the world into winners and losers depending on how they are doing economically.  On the other hand, we have someone who made millions of dollars speaking to wealthy groups, including groups that control the mechanisms by which billions of dollars rise and fall through the markets.
 
So it’s fair to say that we are obsessed by money.  How hard we work, who much we make, where we can afford to live, how much is in our pension accounts, how much we can leave for our children—we think of America as the country that gives everyone an equal chance to make as much money as she or he can make.  So when Pope Francis raises questions about capitalism, our eyebrows rise.  And when we hear the ancient prophet tell us that everything is vanity, everything is a waste of effort and time, everything is an illusion . . . we want to say, “Wait just a minute.”
 
“Avoid greed in all its forms,” says Jesus, and he gives a powerful parable about the man who thought he has life totally secure, totally nailed down.  But the voice of God comes and says that he will die that day—so what good did all that money-raising do in your life?  Of course, some people today also think that, with enough money, we can put death off for quite a while . . .  some wealthy people have their bodies frozen so they can be revived at a future time and brought back to life!
 
So what’s the problem with greed?  Isn’t it good to make money?  Doesn’t making money help everyone one way or another because we have a stronger economy that lifts other folks?  However true any of that might be, greed amounts to a fundamental distortion of our vision.  Because, at its root, greed puts things ahead of people, and greed put the things that God made ahead of the God who made them.  Greed means that we end up chasing the possession of things in a way that upsets the establishing of relationships which is the most fundamental human and religious goal we can undertake. Greed means that we are at the center, and we can twist everything in our direction.
 
Because in the end it’s not our belongings, but who we belong to, and who belongs to us.  Of course we have very wealthy people who are miserable because they hate everyone, and everyone hates them.  But we also have very poor people who also are miserable because they hate everyone, and everyone hates them.  But these each have the same problem: at its root, people do not come first. Love does not come first.  Relationship does not come first.  And God, who is the ultimate ground of all our relationships of love—God does not come first either.
 
Do today’s readings mean we have to empty our bank accounts and become homeless?  Jesus, the itinerant preacher, depended on the wealth of his supporters.  Today’s readings mean we have to assess our basic attitude of what we think life is all about, and put money and things into their proper place.  We are called to assess the emptiness, the vanity, that often accompanies our lives.  And we are invited to put Christ, and the love Christ calls us to have, as the foundation of our lives and actions. 
 
In the end, when we come to judgment, all we have is our love, and what arose from that love.  Everything else will not endure; everything else is provisional.  Everything else is a means, but never an end, and not worth our total investment.  God and God’s Kingdom alone deserve that.


17 C (How to Pray)

There are many different kinds of asking.  “Can I borrow a book?” sounds very different than “Can I borrow $500.00”?  Asking a good friend to do something is much easier than asking an acquaintance: do you mind if I use your car for an hour or so?  Young people often ask their parents to co-sign their student loan, without anyone realizing what that might really mean when student debts come due and Junior doesn’t have a job.  A radio show this week explored what it was like asking someone for a date, a first date?  If they say “no,” how do I take that?
 
And what about asking God for something?  Of course we are always doing this one way or another: from, “Dear God speed the traffic up.”  To, “Dear God, help me pass this test.”  But it’s when very serious things come our way that we are forced to explore prayer in a very deep, feeling, sort-of way.  When my child is sick with something mysterious and life-threatening.  When a nation goes to war.  When terrorists directly attack.  At these moments we feel our insides open up, begging God with all our intensity, for what we desperately need.  “God you just have to do this!”
 
Jesus favors that intensity.  He wants us to ask God often and deeply for what we need.  He even gives us what must have sounded like a funny parable, the man needing bread in the middle of the night and the neighbor won’t open the door.  Keep banging, Jesus says, and that door will open.  The person inside opens the door, says Jesus, if not out of friendship then at least out of exasperation.  “Here’s the bread, just go away and let me sleep.”
 
Which brings us to another underlying issue in prayer.  Because how we pray depends a lot on how we think God listens to us.  Does God even care about our prayer?  So the first reading is very instructive, showing a God who, in the image given us, is going to punish the most notoriously sinful city, and Abraham is talking with him.  The point goes to show how disposed God is, not toward punishment, but fundamentally toward mercy . . . for even a few, for even one righteous person, God accepts the prayer. 
 
Often we think that God is remote, pouting, or otherwise busy.  Sometimes even the language we use in liturgy can make God seem like an Emperor who is hard to please; we couch everything in “we beseech” or “if it is your almighty will.”  While there certainly is a danger in presuming upon God, Jesus says the bigger danger is not understanding that God’s gracious and generous love is always at hand, present and powerful even before we pray.  He uses the immediately graspable image of a father who would never give a snake when his son asks for a fish, or a scorpion when asked for an egg.  In one of the great lines of scripture, Jesus asks: “If you, evil as you are, give blessings to your children, how do you think God is?”
 
Well, we immediately think of the toys we never got, or the promotions that never came, or some other way God didn’t seem to answer our prayer.  But that’s the other side of the equation.  One side is how we ask—boldly, confidently, lovingly.  The other side is what we ask for.  Indeed, our lives are so full of gifts already we could easily demonstrate God’s outrageous goodness if we only stopped and thought about it.  But every gift we have, every blessings that has come to us, is part of a much larger gift that God urgently wants to give: The Kingdom: That realm of life and love that has no end.  When we learn to pray in terms of the Kingdom, then we’ve learned to pray with the mind and vision of God.
 
So Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer—the perfect prayer, one so deep we can never pray it fully.  This is the disciple’s prayer, the one that brings us closest to his mind, the one that frames every act of a believer’s life.  We’ll say it today at Mass, and I hope we say it every day.  But say it not with our lips only.  We need to ask Christ to teach us to say it with our very being. 

16 C (Martha and Mary)

“Here comes the food,” the impatient father says to the table.  “Great, now we can eat,” the mother chimes in.  But the two teens are lost in their cellphones, one watching some YouTube thing, the other texting her friends, while the eight-year-old looks totally bored.  “Come on,” the mother says, “put those phones away and eat.”  Reluctantly the phones go in their pockets, but their minds never really show up. 
 
If we have so much trouble even paying attention to the food that is in front of us, how much harder is it to pay attention to the people at the table?  If we are so totally distracted by the chimes and rings of our lives, how do we come to pay attention to each other?  Does it take a tragedy, something that shocks us, to break us out of our routines, out of all those actions that let us go through the motions but allow us to never show up?
 
We often think of Martha and Mary as the battle between those who see faith as a lot of good works and those who see faith as contemplation.  But, the issue is deeper.  “Mary has chosen the better part,“ says Jesus.  But Martha doesn’t even know what she’s missing.  Hard at work, she’s like the teenagers at dinner.  Instead of a cellphone, she has her chores.  Not only that, she cannot even see what she’s missing.  “Tell Mary to help me.” 
 
How many times will Jesus visit her house?  How often would she get a chance to hang out, to absorb, to understand, to love more deeply?  How easy to think that the dinner is more important than the guest, that our things, our agenda, are more important than the person across the table!  We have today this famous passage from Genesis.  It’s about hospitality, an absolutely necessary part of ancient life when people traveled long distances in the desert. But Abraham is so intentional about his service: it’s as if his guests were doing him a favor by giving him the chance to serve them.  He cannot take his mind off his guests; and Sarah cannot serve them enough.  To attend to the other is like a grace.
 
How readily we approach Jesus as if it was an obligation; like Martha, we have our routine of actions we do at Church.  How easy to be here every week but not recognize who is at table: how Jesus makes us his guests and pays absolute attention to us because he knows how much richer our lives will be—especially when we come to pay absolute attention to him.  The table of Jesus is not primarily about actions, though we do plenty at Mass.  It’s about gazing, behold, opening ourselves, loving and being loved.  It’s about encounter, the joy of sitting at the feet of the Master who discloses us, as the second reading puts it, the mystery of life—the mystery of God’s unlimited love for us.
 
And maybe there’s a connection.  Our inability to have time for each other might arise from our inability to have time, real time, for Christ, for God, for the Spirit.  For when we gaze upon Christ, and let him gaze upon us, we understand how God’s life and love touches every person, how we are all sacred in the love of Christ.  Yet our treating each other—even in our families—like objects is part of a culture that uses people but cannot see them, cannot find love.  Then we wonder why violence keeps growing.
 
Come, says Jesus.  Sit down next to me.  Choose the better part. Let’s just hang out together for a bit so we can see and love each other more fully, so you can know how my heart is always open to you, and, in my love, you can better see what life is really all about.


15 C (Good Samaritan)
Elie Wiesel’s death last week caused a stir—not because he lived to be 87, nor because he was a famous survivor of Nazi terrorism.  Rather, he dedicated his life to standing as a witness for the atrocities committed in the middle of the 20th Century—millions killed in German concentration camps, framed by tens of millions killed throughout the world.  He stood as a witness because he knew that, without a voice like his, we would forget.  It’s too hard to contemplate the enormity of evil on that kind of scale; it’s even harder to confront it.  So we block it out; we close our eyes.
 
After all, we wonder, how is it possible for people to be involved in such mass killing?  And that killing was only a culmination of a century in which the deaths of millions came to be tolerated, all the way from the attempted extermination of the Arminian people, to the mindless killing of World War I, to the hundreds of thousands killed in the Spanish Civil war, to the millions of anonymous folks sacrificed to one or another scheme to make things better through management in Communism or Fascism.  How are these things possible?
 
But Jesus tells us exactly how these things happen.  His unforgettable parable places before us the image of a man beaten half-dead.  Do you see that man?  Is he invisible to you?  Because that’s how we end up erasing each other: we just don’t see the other, and we don’t see the other as ourselves.  Rather we make “the other” into “the alien,” and, because an alien, we can absolve ourselves of responsibility.
 
One of the best excuses we have for not seeing the other are the rules we create. The priest and the Levite—they have their rules.  On the basis of those rules, this man cannot be helped.  They can walk by, and do so with clear conscience.   But many of us create other rules that block out the existence of others: we don’t speak their language, they have their own ways of helping themselves, they are lazy and refuse to work, they are not my race or religion. 
 
The only problem with this analysis, says Jesus, is that there is no “other.”  We are all each other.  Because someday we will all be by the side of the road, left for half dead, unable even to cry out for help.  Someday we will, each of us, be in need of the attention of another.  And how does it feel when another walks by?  That other walking by is me in my coldness.  In fact, the mystery of divine love has the Son of God himself beaten mercilessly, beyond the pale of help, as a sign of the brokenness that we all face.  How do I imagine I’d dry the tears of Jesus when I am blind to tears right in front of me? His tears are the tears of all, especially the alien’s.
 
The Scribe questioning Jesus wanted, the Gospel tells us, to “justify himself.”  That is, he wanted to make the point that he was right, but he walks away anything but justified.  The point he wanted to make, that I can be choosy about my neighbor, is the point that Jesus denies him.  Because in Christ, God has become neighbor to us all, and has made us brothers and sisters who turn our eyes away only at our own risk.
 
NPR had some expert on Freakanomics saying that we cannot care about the other because there are way too many of them; and we know that all these others don’t really care about us.  But this playing-according-to-the-numbers is another way to be blind: one more excuse I raise to close my eyes to who is in front of me, needing me, calling to me.  It’s my neighbor, sure.  But, even more, it’s Christ himself, calling to us in each other, looking to see if we dare to pass by.  

14 C (Fourth of July)

“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain; for purple mountain majesty above the fruited plains.”  We all know the words and we almost immediately want to sing them.  Of course, “America the Beautiful” is not our national anthem, although many wish it were.  It’s easier to sing, has more accessible language, and even references God.  While we celebrate our independence this week, and not exactly the beauty of our land, that beauty is yet one more example why we think of our nation as blessed, special, and even destined to greatness.
 
Our first reading echoes some of this feeling, with the words sounding almost like a commentary on how many of us feel.  “Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river,” Isaiah sings. “And the wealth of the nations, flooding into Jerusalem, will be like an overflowing torrent”. . . . We hear in Isaiah the riches of our nation amplified by the efforts made, and lives given, to bring hope to everyone on our shores.
 
We know, of course, of the price paid for the ideal and reality of America right from the beginning, particularly the price of human blood given to let us live free.  And we also know our dark side, when the mountains didn’t seem so majestic, and the waves of grain were more like a dustbowl.  America, the land of dreams, has been a land of conflict and war, of exploitation and, despite the slogans, something often far less than equality.  America may dream, but it has had its nightmares.  Today’s worries about Europe are often mentioned with worries about our own torn and frazzled politics.
 
Maybe we have to turn to the Gospel to find inspiration for our nation this day.  Jesus sent out twelve apostles in chapter nine, and now, in chapter ten, he sends out 72—a number that corresponds to the number of nations that they Jewish people though composed the whole world.  Jesus sends his disciples out, if you will, into the world.  And his message is simple and stark: bring healing,   forgiveness,   reconciliation; bring the presence of God.  Jesus sends his disciples out to bring about signs of the Kingdom of God into the lives of the desperate.
 
We separate politics and religion, and that is very good; because, as much as we love our nation, we know it is not the Kingdom of God.  Sometimes politicians want to make it seem that way as they sprinkle the Bible over their political pitches.  But the Kingdom serves as an ideal that we cannot attain; it comes as a gift from God as creation draws toward its completion.  Even so, the Kingdom can serve as an invisible magnet—a goal toward which we help to inch our country forward.  It can serve as a measuring stick for us: are we moving toward healing or are more people being hurt?  Are we moving toward giving the broken hope, or is hope disappearing?  Are we entering the shadows where people hide because of their shame and fear so we can bring people out into the light, into the greater life, into the authentic freedom for which every human being longs?
 
Paul talks about the marks of Christ on his body; what he means is the suffering and sacrifice he was willing to make so that people could come to know, to be, the new creation that Jesus is bringing about.  Whether in the name of Jesus, or just plain human compassion, the holiday this weekend invites us to celebrate our nation, but also celebrate promises greater than the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  Greater even than the platforms of the Republican or Democratic parties! 
 
Ours is yet a greater dream, God’s dream, when hearts are spacious, and the waves that sweep over us are waves of shared sacrifice and love; when the majesty is not only in the mountains but also in the way we lift each other up because we are bound to each other as a people.  We dream of plains populated not by abundant fruit but by people liberated because of the hope that God has given them.  Go forth, says Jesus.  For when you reach out to the broken and poor, in even the smallest ways, Satan and hell’s forces start to tremble, and the Kingdom advances toward its destined completion just a little more. 

13 C

One of my best friends often says, “Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”  Which, of course, drives a semi-compulsive like me crazy.  Come on, get it done right away.  Then you don’t have to worry about it.  Get it done today and then you can relax tomorrow.  But the procrastinators of the world keep insisting that there’s plenty of time and all the worry that we show only makes our heads grayer and our faces more wrinkled.
 
We have a classical image in the first reading, when Elijah is about to anoint his successor, Elisha, to continue his groundbreaking prophetic ministry.  These men are some of the earliest and most seminal of the prophets, laying down approaches and themes which would be taken up by the later prophets in Israel over several hundred years.  But we need to look at the process between these men in order to get some insight into what it means to respond to God.
 
Elijah first thrown his cloak over Elisha.  This is not an ordinary act.  The cloak of Elijah was a huge part of his mission; in a way, it was his identity.  For him to throw it over Elisha was for him to say that he wanted Elisha to be Elijah #2, to do the wonders and proclaim the words that were at the core of Elijah’s work.  Elisha responds by saying: let me go and kiss my family good bye.  He knows this is not some little investment; no, he would have to give everything to carrying on the mission of Elijah.
 
The next lines are fascinating, and have led to centuries of interpretation: “Go back,” says Elijah.  Well, we think, he’s giving Elisha permission to go home and kiss everyone goodbye.  But then we hear: “Have I done anything to you?”  It’s almost a petulant remark.  Of course he’s done something to Elisha—he threw his cloak over him and told him to give up his life to the mission of prophecy.  Elisha was asked; and Elisha blinked, hesitated, thought of what it was going to cost him rather than what God would bring about.
 
Yet the next few lines show something else: Elisha is seen slaughtering the oxen he has been using and then preparing food to send to his family.  In one stroke he is saying: I’ll take care of my family, but I am also giving up my way of life.  I don’t know what a dozen oxen would cost, but I suspect it wasn’t cheap.  He’s ready to follow Elijah—and he does, right up until those chariots come to take Elijah to heaven—and Elisha then walks off doing the same wonders that Elijah did.
 
This story gives us background for Jesus rather stark words in the Gospel.  Luke tells us, in pivotal verses, that Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, where prophets are killed and where he will be killed.  He invites his disciples to follow him.  He gives examples quite different from Elisha—people make excuses not to get themselves ready but to avoid the call altogether. “Gotta bury daddy”—in a culture where people were buried the same day; daddy is already in the ground!  “Gotta say goodbye.”  You can say goodbye any time, but now is the moment to respond.
 
This is a telling commentary on our situation today.  So many people claim to be people of faith, but on their terms.  We cut any corner we can if it is going to cost us.  So many people seem to say “Yes,” yet they don’t follow through.  But we also have so many people who seem to have said “no,” as if they put their faith in the bottom draw.  But Jesus is saying that all of us have to commit; perhaps we have to give ourselves time, as Elisha had time, but we have to commit.  And people will commit only to the extent that the committed really stand committed.  How many people are fickle about faith because they learned fickleness from those who are Christian primarily in name?
 
Paul tells us this is all about freedom, but not the freedom to do as I want when I want.  Rather, it’s the freedom that comes from knowing we have given our lives to the most important call we have received, to following Christ as we are each called to follow him.  This is the Spirit at work in us, God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit.  Any other spirit, whatever we call it and whatever excuse it gives us, will ultimately leave us unfulfilled.  Christ has put his cloak on us—our baptismal robes—and fed us, not with slaughtered oxen, but with his own body and blood.  If that’s not an invitation, and not an incentive, then we’re not very good at picking up the clues. 

12 C

We woke up last Sunday, once again, to stories of mass killing.  Even National Public Radio went into full-time mode; since Kennedy’s killing 53 years ago, we expect to be glued to our TV sets in times of tragedy.  What happened?  What the latest press statements say.  What the keenest angle on the massacres will surmise.  So the first reading feels just about right—this statement of mourning from the prophet Zechariah, and the hopes that somehow hope and faith may arise even in the face of suffering and sorrow.
 
Of course we’ve seen it happen: friends who, when faced with terrible diagnoses, seem to grow stronger.  A World War that produced “the greatest generation.”  Stories our parents told about the depression that seemed to make them stronger, more united, even more hopeful.  We’ve heard these stories and reflected on them, but we wish it wasn’t so.  Why does it take this kind of pain for people to find their strength?  Can we not become stronger without the suffering?
 
This Sunday in Luke’s Gospel we reach that crucial point when the disciples acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.  Peter speaks on behalf of the common faith the Apostles have: “You are the Christ,” he says.  But unlike Matthew’s Gospel in which Peter is praised for his faith, Luke makes this a very bitter-sweet moment.  “He scolded them,” the Gospel reads.  What should have been a moment of triumph, almost one of applause, has been turned into one of recrimination.
 
Did Jesus not like the title, “Christ, Messiah”?  I suspect Jesus didn’t like what people made of the title, as if being anointed, being chosen, were some great and easy gig that God gave someone.  To be chosen is not to be given the easy chair with your favorite TV show and beverage.  To be chosen, all through the bible, is to serve.  To bear the burdens of your people.  Jesus sees that—Jesus sees the extent of the burdens that will have to be borne—but his disciples do not.  They still don’t get him.
 
Nevertheless, he still invites them, clueless as they are, just as he invites us in our various stages of cluelessness.  “If anyone would follow me, he must deny himself and daily take up his cross.”  If anyone would walk with Christ, she or he must become a servant just as he was, carrying the burdens of others, particularly when it costs us.  If anyone would be a Christian, he or she must first be willing to be a “Christ”—anointed in service for others.
 
Jesus undergoes the tragedy of human existence itself, showing us our massacres and genocides, our violence and our common pain, as he is lifted onto the Cross.  Behold the extent of our wounds—our invasions, our World Wars, our jihads, our bombed out cities, and our bloodied nightclubs.  It’s all on the Cross. Jesus suffers to holdup a brighter hope: that in his death, death itself be conquered; that in his rising, we all receive his Spirit of unstinting love and eternal life.
 
We feel helpless in the midst of our seemingly-routine reports of homegrown slaughter.  But it is in the face of this that Jesus tells his followers that we have to be servants—that we have to create another world, another community, unrelying on hate and rage, and unrelenting in hope and peace.  Paul tells us that the breakthrough has happened: clothed in Christ, we now have him as our inner and outer strength.  All our categories—rich or poor, white or black, male or female, gay or straight or in-between—all of them mean nothing in a new world founded on the triumph of Christ.
 
Perhaps all this can sound hollow as caskets are carried and families weep, as violence grows, and peace eludes us here and afar.  It can sound hollow—but only until we live it, only until we make Christ’s Risen life the starting- and ending-point of our lives.  When we do this, at that moment it becomes, not our triumph, but his ongoing triumph of redemption. 

11 C

When the governor of Virginia recently permitted convicted felons, who had served their time and remained free of crime, to be part of the election process, it created a ruckus.  While everyone saw the logic of former criminals being enfranchised again, not everyone was comfortable with the idea.  Some people commit terrible crimes.  What kind of time makes up for that?  When we think about it, who can ever repay a debt like this?  To have hurt people, to have violated some of society’s most sacred values, to have killed?  How do you repay it?
 
We have a very charged situation in the Gospel, one that St. Luke draws with great contrast.  Here is Simon, the righteous Pharisee, throwing a party for people just like him.  And then walks in a woman deemed unrighteous.  Who knows what her sins actually were?  Luke doesn’t tell us.  But everyone seems comfortable calling her a sinner.  “How did she get into our feast?” we can hear the crowd whisper.  Yet she not only enters the room; she walks right up to Jesus and pours expensive oil on his feet.
 
Perhaps, we think, she’s trying to make up for her sins, to treat the local prophet in this exaggerated way.  Perhaps she’s operating out of shame, of guilt.  But Jesus makes clear what her motive is: She is acting out of love because she knows forgiveness cannot happen without love.  Love is the basis of all our deep relationships, especially our relationship with God. 
 
We see a compressed account of this in the first reading.  Nathan is excoriating David for his sins.  David had huge sins: to have committed adultery followed up the craven murder of the woman’s husband.  “I have sinned against the Lord,” David acknowledges.  When Nathan pronounces the forgiveness of God—“you shall not die”—he reveals one dimension of forgiveness, that punishment is set aside.  But isn’t there a whole other level of forgiveness?  Doesn’t David realize that he can now restore his relationship of love with God because God’s love is enduring and faithful?
 
If sometimes we feel we cannot be forgiven, there is also the other problem: sometimes we feel we don’t have to be forgiven.  Simon, unlike the sinful woman, thinks he’s fine.  In fact, he wouldn’t even touch a woman like this.  Jesus points out that he never gets to the level of love because he stays at the level of calculation: I didn’t do a sin, so I’m OK.  Don’t you know, Jesus says, that every one of us stands in the merciful love of God?  Every one of us owes far more than we can ever repay.  Every one of us needs our love restored with God?  When Jesus points out how Simon treated him—took him for granted—he is also pointing out how Simon really is treating God—takes him for granted too.
 
No one was more righteous than Paul.  Yet he discovered a love greater than righteousness.  He discovered the love that Jesus reveals by his death and resurrection, offering everyone what they could never deserve: eternal life.  God’s gift of our creation, which we can never repay, grows even greater with his gift of redemption.  Who deserves to exist, let alone exist endlessly in divine love?  Until we see what Christ did, and does, for us, we cannot know God’s love.  Until then, we think it’s all about us and what we do.  Until then, we are Simon.
 
So here we are.  God has let us all into the feast of Jesus.  “Oh, don’t worry about any special perfume for me,” says Jesus.  In fact, he says, let me do something for you.  Let me give myself to you as food and drink.  Let me let you be part of my Kingdom.  Maybe then you’ll know it’s not what you have or owe. Maybe then we’ll know it’s all about God’s unlimited gift to us in Jesus Christ.

10 C

So the story goes like this: a lawyer, banker, and plumber were at a bar and started talking about their funerals.  What did each one want said over them by friends? The lawyer wanted people to talk about his integrity, his willingness to fight for his client.  The banker wanted people to talk about his honesty, and his giving small people a break.  The plumber says: “Me, when people look at me in the casket, what do I want them to say?  I want them to say: “O look, did you see that?  He blinked.  His hand moved.  He’s alive!”
 
Of course that’s what we want folks to say at our wake, because nothing breaks the human heart more than death.  We might get to the point when cancer or old age beat us up so much that death seems preferable, but, given equal choices, we’d much prefer to continue living, even in a bit of distress.  So when Jesus raises the son of the widow in Nain, we can hear ourselves applauding.  Yes!  The son comes back.  Mom is smiling. Death is overcome.
 
Jesus, in this passage, is the new prophet.  Just as Elijah brought back a widow’s son in ancient times, Jesus brings back the widow’s son in his own day.  People were amazed, astonished.  Could it be that God would work wonders like this, defying the fate, the destiny, of all human beings?
 
But it begins to dawn on us that we really need more from God.  After all, the son lives again, but won’t his mother die some decades later?  And won’t he die himself again?  To bring people back to life seems like a stopgap measure.  It must point to something bigger on the horizon, some greater vision that God has.
 
When Jesus brings back this son, it’s not just about death.  It’s about the whole human plight.  That a widow would lose a son would mean, in ancient times, that a widow had lost all her ability to live.  Money came to women through husbands and sons.  Jesus, in restoring her son, is restoring a whole vision of hope.  He is restoring a network of relationships, of bonds, that end up being as important for our lives as lungs and heart beats.  He’s restoring God’s vision for humankind.
 
When we think of the billions alive now, let alone the billions who have lived before us, one life can seem pretty insignificant.  It’s only when we grasp—as the Gospel forces us to—what every life means that we see that we cannot count human life statistically, against billions.  We have to count it one by one, precious one by precious one.  Because every human life, no matter how limited, has the potential to encounter God, to know divine love, and to experience divine love in return.  And that love does not turn off and on, like a light switch.  That love is ever there, just as we have the potential to always grow in that love, for God’s love has no limits.
 
It isn’t a son who returns to life, it’s not a widow who has a livelihood, it’s not a town that stands astonished: it’s the whole mystery of hope written indelibly on our hearts that receives its validation.  We hear about Paul’s conversion in the second reading.  What would he say?  That meeting Christ was like coming back from the dead: he has met the risen Christ, just as we meet the risen Christ every time we gather here for worship.  We are joined, our mortal flesh with his immortal flesh, now bound to the same destiny he won for us in rising from the dead. 
 
It isn’t people seeing our eyes blink or our fingers move when we’re in the casket.  Far more, it’s seeing what it means to come to know the God of life.

Corpus Christi C

When we come back from vacation, our phones are often filled with pictures, and our suitcases are filled with various kinds of souvenirs, many of which make us ask, “Why did I buy this shirt that I don’t need and probably will never wear?”  But most of all our memories will be filled with tastes, the various foods we have sampled, particularly if we have gone to a different culture.  Almost all the scenes we have in our heads will be accompanied by the pasta, paella, panced, or pizza.  Our association with these tastes connects us to not only the food, but also the context, the situation.
 
That food evokes memories was very clear to Jesus.  His ministry so often took him around the table, and to sit especially with outsiders and outcasts, eating the drinking with them.  The food of Jesus evoked a broader image of the Kingdom, one which sought not to exclude, but to include as many as were hungry.  So our second reading shows Jesus once again at table, this time for his last meal, but leaving the simple food, the food of sacred meals, bread and wine, as a memorial for him.
 
But Jesus memorial isn’t just of the past, the way we might remember our mother’s cooking or an aunt’s special cake.  Because he rises from the dead, memory is not past: it is also present and also future.  Because Jesus, risen from the dead, now lives in the glory of his Father, his memory is God’s eternal memory: the eve-living memory of divine life.  Jesus gives us this food so we will be part of his timeless and endless life.  His covenant is new because it is eternal.
 
But food does more than evoke memories.  It gives us energy.  And this is another dimension of the Eucharist, Jesus’ sacred food.  When we eat the sacred Bread and drink the blessed cup, we receive the resources to continue the mission of Jesus, to carry out his work.  We notice in Luke’s account of the feeding in the desert that dramatic moment that frames the Gospel story: the people have been with Jesus all day, they are hungry and tired, and a crisis is brewing.  Jesus then turns to his disciples with something like a challenge: you give them something to eat?  In the face of their feeling of inadequacy, Jesus teaches them to break and share the bread he provides.
 
This is another way we can think of ourselves as disciples: to be empowered to feed people who are hungry.  When we think about it, most of our lives go into doing this, at least in terms of feeding our families.  We all go to work to put, as the saying goes, bread on the table.  To bring home the bacon.  Yet Jesus challenges us to look at other hungers, to set a table in which many can find a seat. 
 
Here, it’s not merely a question of the hungry in our own super-rich country, as scandalous as that is.  Nor only the hungry in other nations, particularly refugees of war and natural disaster.  We readily open our checkbooks for that.  But what about the other hungers people have: for friendship, for emotional support, for hope, and, particularly today, for faith?  People hunger not only in body, but also in spirit.  And here many of us, because of our faith, can be a means through which God alleviates human needs.
 
As disciples, every one of us has been touched by Christ.  As disciples, every one of us is equipped to notice the hurts and isolation of others.  As people fed regularly by Christ, every one of us is equipped to reach out, to strengthen, to connect, to forgive, to help restore a sister or brother in spiritual hunger.  Every one of us has the ability to feed another from our faith, our hope, and our love.
 
“You give them something to eat?”  That’s Jesus’ challenge to his disciples, and also his challenge to us. To remember Christ, to acknowledge his presence, means carrying out his mission in our daily lives.

Trinity Sunday

Graduation had just ended.  The graduate was sitting around with her family and me, getting snacky kinds of food before the real party was to begin.  She looked around and, disappointed, said, “Gee, it doesn’t feel any different.  I feel the same as before I graduated.”  I took this as a sign she wanted advice from an old man like me, so I offered: “Well, sometimes you see and feel the difference much later, like when you apply for a job.”  She didn’t seem impressed.
 
But we can think of any of the big events in our lives—First Holy Communion, graduations, wedding day, even days that changed our lives—and see very different things in them every time we look back.  We never fully grasp these moments.  In fact, we can sit around with our siblings and think of some event we had in common; yet everyone seems to remember something differently: another detail or a different emphasis. 
 
What this says to me is that reality is so rich, do deep, so many-leyered, that we never really grasp it.  We all see only aspects of something that is always beyond us; we all only get a little piece.  Perhaps we think we can boil things down to something objective, clear, and scientific.  Sure science sees clearly, but only in part, and only in its special language.  Fundamentally we live enmeshed in mystery.
 
All the great events we have celebrated over the Easter Season are reviewed today through a very special lens—the lens of the Trinity, that fullest vision of God that Jesus gave to us.  While scholars have wracked their brains, and philosophers offered distinctions, the truth is this: the point of the Trinity is to help us see more deeply the mystery of Love that surrounds us and sustains us.
 
For Jesus has revealed God as a caring Father, merciful, kind, compassionate, and loving.  Jesus knew how to make his Jewish heritage shine in new and brilliant ways.  He built upon that revelation, as God’s Wisdom come to us, and completed that revelation in his teaching, prayer, and life.  Jesus also showed us the dynamic presence of God in the Holy Spirit—the Spirit that led him into the desert, the Spirit in which he rejoiced in his ministry, the Spirit he breathed out on the Cross, and the Spirit he breathes upon us throughout our Christian lives. 
 
In doing this, Jesus showed us levels of God’s mystery now made present through his own life and teaching.  He showed himself the obedient Son whose trust passes through death into risen life.  He showed himself the Spirit-filled healer who imparts his Spirit upon all who open their hearts in faith.  He showed himself as Son of God, and invited us to be children of God along with him: sharing his life, bringing his life to the world, living his life until it comes to fullness.  Jesus not only showed us the Mystery of eternal Love: he has brought us into that mystery and united us with it.  That is the Mystery of the Trinity.
 
We come to Mass so we can touch this Mystery.  Perhaps we feel, like my graduated friend, that it doesn’t make us feel different.  But what it does do is show us some of the layers, some of the dimensions, which we otherwise don’t realize or forget.  It’s like that gift, the kiss, the meal that seemed like an almost incidental event at the time; but later it came to mean so much more.  The Mass may seem like some incidental event too, but then we realize, at some point, it contains all of meaning and all of life.  It opens up the mystery of our lives, and brings us into the Mystery of God.

Pentecost

As a missionary, you’d think I’d have gotten used to moving.  I cannot count the number of times I’ve put things into bags and boxes, labeled them, and sent them to my new home, only to do it again four or six years later.  But as I go through the process one more time, it’s just doesn’t seem easier.  What to save, what to ditch.  What boxes are going to be too heavy for me to lift?  Can’t I just put all those books on my Kindle and be done with it?
 
But moving always brings surprises.  I move a stack of papers and, underneath, a photo from a family very dear to me.  I take things from a shelf and, wow, the insight comes: that’s where I put something important three years ago.  Or, putting coats and jackets into a bag, I reach into the pockets and, like a gift, a ten or even twenty dollar bill comes out of the pockets.  Moving is an opportunity to see levels of our lives that we often bury and forget about.
 
Today, on Pentecost, God sends the Church moving forward—and it’s an opportunity for us to see the different gifts God has given us.  The second reading from Paul says that we are basically a community—a church—of gifts, and he lists different gifts that the Corinthians were concerned about.  This should get us thinking about the gifts that are essential at this time in the Church’s life—and our own lives: our ability to care for others, the insights that come to us seemingly out of nowhere when we pray, the trust we have in God when life is so difficult, the appreciation we have for other people’s gifts, the great love that we have discovered again and again as we have gone through life, especially when we’ve given ourselves in service.
 
And, in a special way today, the greatest gift of the Risen Christ to us: the Holy Spirit present in our lives.  Sometimes I think the Holy Spirit is like the item on the back of the shelf that I forgot about, or the money in a coat pocket that I didn’t know was there.  Sometimes I fully agree with those who say that the gift of the Holy Spirit is the most forgotten gift and, unfortunately, it is also the most important.
 
Christ has come in the flesh; we live in the flesh.  So as a result we deal mostly and concretely with Jesus.  We focus on his life, his words, his deeds.  We display very vividly his gruesome death.  We depict Jesus Resurrection and somewhat understand the role this event means for all of human history, and for ourselves personally.  But when it comes to the Holy Spirit, so often our minds go blank.
 
Yet there’s nothing more important that the Risen Christ would love us to affirm than the presence and power of his Risen Spirit given to us.  We hear the strange events in the first reading and we say: all those tongues of fire, all that wind, all those breakthroughs in communication—it seems so amazing and so distant.  But those events are meant to awaken in us recognition of the Spirit’s work in our own lives.  For does not the Spirit continue to help us speak?  Does not the Spirit touch all nations through the Church?  Does not the Spirit make our hearts burn with love of God and each other?  Does not the Spirit enlighten us as we see yet deeper dimensions of God’s presence in our lives?  Is not our very presence here today the work of the Spirit in our lives?
 
Jesus’ breathes upon his disciples: Receive the Holy Spirit.  Jesus continues to breathe upon all of us, again and again.  It’s not a breath like ours, wheezing or puffing.  It’s not a breath that comes and goes.  As God breathed into Adam and made him live, so Jesus breathes into us—to make us live dimensions of life and love that Adam could never have dreamed of.  Today, as you come forward for Holy Communion, say to yourself: this is Jesus breathing on me, filling me once again with his Pentecost Spirit.

Ascension

One of the popular trends in modern theater and some television is to give the audience a choice of how they want the story to end.  Does the killer get away or get caught?  Will the mother die or does the doctor find the cure?  Will the teen be able to escape the bad influence of his friends or will he end up in jail?  People like this kind of process because it gives them a feeling of being involved in the story.  It also helps us realize that there are plenty of options in our own lives, that many things are still possible for us.
 
We have in this celebration of the Ascension two narrations of Jesus going to heaven, both of them written by St. Luke, but one significantly different from the other.  In the Gospel, we have the story of Jesus gathering with the disciples, promising them the gift of his Father-the Holy Spirit, blessing them, and then rising to heaven. 
 
Then another ending comes.  The first reading, which gives us the whole opening of the book of Acts, was also written by Luke, probably a little after the Gospel was written.  Here Jesus explains why he died and rose, talk about the promise of the Holy Spirit and then interacts a little more with the disciples. “Are you going to restore the Kingdom now? they ask.  We can feel Jesus being a little exasperated, saying that this depends not on them but on his Father, and then he begins into the heavens.  In this telling, the disciples stay there, staring into the heavens, as if they want to hold onto Jesus as long as they can.
 
Two messengers then appear.  In the Gospels, angels always appear when people have a hard time getting the point.  “Men of Galilee, why are you staring into the heavens?”  It’s as if Luke wanted to point out a particular danger with Christian attitudes: we can think Christian life is all about staring at Jesus, and trying to hold on to our images of Jesus, as if we could put Jesus in cement, make Jesus a statue, freeze him.  And the messengers are saying to the disciples that Christian life is not about staring at Jesus, but living his life.
 
Because as we live his life, we realize that it is Jesus’ power in us, through the Holy Spirit, that brings about the deepest changes in our own lives—and also in our world.  In the second reading we hear that the very same power that raised Jesus from the dead is the very same power at work in the lives all who are believers, who accept God’s love as the primary power and motivation in their lives, and so allow the Holy Spirit to work in them.  This is why Jesus rose—to impart his divine power upon us.  We hear of the surpassing greatness of God’s power, now given to Christ, and now at work in the Church—in the community that carries on his work slowly bringing creation to completion.
 
In our own Christian lives, we can imagine several scenarios.  One scenario has us kind of drifting in our Christian lives, almost feeling powerless, trapped by our patterns of sin or compromise or depression.  Christian life is what we go through.  But there is another scenario that Christ invites us to have: to live in the power of the Spirit that he sends upon us.  This is not a Spirit of recklessness, of magic, of not having limits.  Rather, it is a Spirit that leads us intentionally, by the very force of God’s love, through those things that hold us back, showing us the breakthroughs and conversions that are always possible in our lives.  And it is a Spirit that brings us out of ourselves, to begin attending to others, and to seeing what we can do for them, particularly the ways we can bring Good news into their lives.
 
So, Catholics of the 21st Century, why do we stand there, staring off into space, feeling that we have no direction or energy in our spiritual lives?  Which ending do we want for our lives? Jesus comes again and again through the power of his Spirit.  Wake up, take a good look, and see what God continues to do by energizing our listless lives and making us builders of his Kingdom. 
Easter 6 C

I am always astonished when a famous person dies, especially an entertainer.  I am amazed at the tributes that people are pouring forth for Prince, the singer who suddenly died at the relatively young age of 57.  Everywhere I look I see the color purple, discussion about what was his greatest song, and what his long-lasting influence will be.  People flock to his house and studio outside Minneapolis and, as they frequently do, leave flowers and candles and dolls.  We see this happen again and again when a famous person dies.  It’s so strange that, when trying to preserve the memory of someone, we use things that vanish so quickly: notes, flowers, and candles.
 
Because we are humans, we have to deal with absence; because we are human, we are in this world only so long.  We know the cost of absence: a father deserting his family, a mother dying at a young age, a child who dies at three, a president shot in his prime.  So we try to hold on: some item, some prayer card, some picture that keeps the person in our lives.  Yet is not one of the major themes of the Easter season this: we cannot hold on the same way.  We have to grow to something else.  This is why Jesus tells Mary on Easter morning: do not cling to me!  I must ascend to my Father.
 
And why does Jesus ascend?  This is an imaginative way to talk about what Jesus does in his resurrection.  He rises in the power of the Father so that he can give that power to his followers through the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the way Jesus continues to live among us, bringing us his life in many ways, and empowering us with his actions.  Remember Jesus’ words: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
 
The Spirit brings about Jesus Easter life in us; and it has both the form of continuity and the form of innovation.  We see the continuity in the Gospel when Jesus tells his followers that they will share his eternal life, his Spirit, when they love each other just as he has loved them.  It is by the very authentic love we have for each other in Christ Jesus that the Father dwells in us, and we abide in God.  Our life, in the Risen Christ, can never vanish because we are made one with Christ, and his love, through the Spirit.
 
But the Spirit also brings innovation, something new, because the Spirit helps us to see the implications of God’s love in Jesus as we grow.  In the early Church, it was not clear that Christ’s life was meant for all the world.  People thought it was basically a Jewish thing, and mainly Jews would be saved in Jesus.  But the Spirit teaches the early Church something revolutionary: God’s love cannot be limited or restricted.  It always expands.  See, non-Jews are experiencing the risen Jesus just like us!  So we see the disciples deciding to accept Gentiles, pagans, into the community of Christ.
 
What a lesson to learn in our own lives, because we always feel comfortable among our own and want to limit our lives to our own groups.  So we see through history this group against that group, the Western Church against the Eastern Church, Protestants against Catholics, rich against poor, this race against that race.  The Spirit of God says: tear down those walls!  You cannot put borders around the love of God.
 
Because we are all headed to the same place: the heavenly Jerusalem, the city built on the apostles’ message of God’s unlimited love, a city where God is our temple, our sun, our moon, our life, a city where we have finally come to see that the love that we have now is only a shadow of the fullness of love that God is bringing to us and to everyone who accepts it.  There is no absence in that heavenly city: only the presence of God’s love, now realized in all of us through Jesus and his Spirit.
 
Easter 5 C

Buildings are very deceptive.  They seem so stable, so forever, but they’re not. 
 
Growing up in New York City, I would walk with my father who could not let a building site go by.  Especially if they were excavating . . . digging down fifty or seventy feet into the schist that makes up Manhattan, blasting stone and constructing foundations.  “They have to go deep,” he would say, “and then you can build as high as you want.”  I love the final scene of the movie Mean Streets when Martin Scorcese takes us from the early, farming-based use of Manhattan and, decade by decade, shows the skyline rising, with buildings every taller and stronger.
 
But then we see what happens in southern Japan, what happens in Ecuador: how shifts in the plates under the surface of our earth can turn the seemingly solid into rubber.  Or we see what artillery did in Gaza, or in Aleppo, or in Dresden at the end of World War II—not to mention Nagasaki.  One strange thing I notice: I can walk down a block for years, noticing every detail.  Construction will start, they take a building down: and, for the life of me, I cannot remember what was there.
 
We are surprised, perhaps, to think of God as a builder, but that is the image given to us.  The heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, is being built and is descending upon us as creation comes to its completion.  “Behold,” the scripture says, “I am making everything new.”  The old heaven and the old earth, like a buildings we no longer need, are passing away.  Even the sea, which seemed to the ancient Jews vast and incomprehensible, is disappearing. 
 
The nature of the city God is building is this: God dwells in it, God dwells with us; God’s life and love are the center.  As we hear in the Gospel, God’s glory does not want to stay with God; God shares his glory with Jesus, and Jesus is sharing his glory with us.  We read further on that the Heaven City has no moon or sun: God alone is the light.  The city is as bright, and as strong, as God is.  Christ’s resurrection, his risen Spirit, is transforming creation into the eternal city of love.
 
We are all not only invited to that city; we are its inhabitants.  We see Paul and Barnabas returning from their missionary journey in the first reading.  It was hard work.  “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships in order to enter the King of God,” they say.  And we can visualize those hardships as we imagine them moving from city to city, sailing from port to port.  But they are doing what the Church has done from the beginning: proclaiming God’s Love and baptizing people into that Love—indeed what the Church does today.  When we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into the Eternal City.  When we come to Mass, we are eating Christ’s eternal bread, the food that lasts forever.
 
Buildings come, buildings go.  In fact, cities and civilizations come and go, but we rarely live long enough to see it.  God’s City, however, abides.  And we abide in it whenever we live according to its principles of faith, hope, and love—and whenever we fulfill our calling to build up that City in the lives and opportunities God gives us. “As I have loved you, so you are to love each other.”  These are the bricks of the eternal buildings of divine love: those moments you and I give selflessly to each other, in sacrifice and joy, all of them coming together to form the Kingdom that God is slowly, but unstoppably, bringing about.


Easter 4 C

Once the fear begins, it’s hard to stop it.  We know what’s like to be in Brussels now, or to be in Parish; we were on September 12, 2001.  It only takes on crazy person to make it start again.  Always looking over our shoulders.  But we can hardly imagine what it’s been like to live in Aleppo, or Homs, or some of these bombed out Syrian cities; how can you ever forget the months of artillery, the snipers, even the poisonous gases?  Thirty years ago Kitty Genovese was killed on a Queens street; people on that street were just so worn out from crime and fear, they weren’t going to get involved.  Why make it worse?
 
So when we start to fear, it’s contagious.  And if any people had reason to fear, it was the earliest followers of Jesus.  Once it became clear that following Jesus was a different way of life, opposition would come, from the Jewish community who could not comprehend these Christians, and from the non-Jewish community who saw things only in terms of pleasure and power.
 
Every Easter Season we celebrate Jesus as the Good Shepherd; part of the image of shepherd is that Jesus protects, Jesus shelters, those who are bound to him.  The sheep hear his voice; they understand Christ and live in accord with his message.  Some of that message might be obscure for us who live in relative security, who know little.  The voice of Jesus, after all, is saying that if we are one with God, if we completely trust God, then we can never be hurt; not even death can hurt us.  These earliest followers of Jesus felt his resurrection so completely that they could trust even in the face of persecution. Jesus showed them, and shows us, what’s on the other side of death if we die in God.
 
We see in the first reading that hearing the voice of Jesus is not easy.  It was because some could not hear that voice—for whatever reason—that Paul and Barnabas decide to bring that message to a bigger audience, to those who were, even though pagans, more open to hearing God’s Good News.  And, of course, the openness of the pagan people, the Gentiles, began the great missionary expansion of Christianity, bringing it to continents and lands where our own predecessors lived.
 
Perhaps we do not feel today we need to follow the Good Shepherd out of fear or persecution, although Christians in the Mid-East and other cultures certainly do.  But it is also our comfort and relative affluence that should drive us to our Shepherd.  Because we can fall for the illusion that it’s all about money, pleasure, fame, and escape.  We can forget that our comforts can kill us as readily as any enemies can.  We can have our ears so filled with sweet nothings that their emptiness blots out even the voice of Christ.
 
And what does that voice say? “Trust in me, turn to me, rely on me, be with me.  I have been through the worst, I have felt your greatest fears.  I have knocked on the doors of hell.  I stared death itself in the face.  As the Father was there for me, in my suffering, so I am there for you, for whatever life throws at you.  My sheep hear my voice, and they know it’s the only voice to hear.”
 
Tonight we’ll probably turn on the news and, as always, the news will make us shudder.  Terrorism from afar, crime from next door.  This fear not only drives national politics, but, even worse, how we feel about ourselves every day.  But after we are riled up, after we fume one more time, we might ask ourselves what we gain from our cycles and fear, helplessness, and anger.  Maybe, Jesus says, it’s time to try something else. 


Easter 3 C

Most people find golf boring, but for golfing fans it’s a very exciting game. And this weekend we have one of the most important tournaments of the year, the Masters, from Augusta, Georgia.  Because golf is not a team sport, it tends to wrap itself in words of character—what must be inside a person to win: the integrity, the clarity of mind, the control of emotions, the will to win.  A lot of that can sounds like self-congratulatory hype, but I think it is a huge thing to win any tournament, let alone the Masters.  It is four days of near-constant pressure, questioning every shot and putt, knowing that one stray shot can end any chances of winning.
 
Of course I think we find that true often in life.  People dedicated to their professions such that they work sixty or seventy hours a week—how do they do it? we ask.  Or first responders who walk right into a fire or disaster.  We also watch our parents go through the unthinkable—six months of dying for my father, six years of battling cancer for my mother. How did they do it?  Where does the resilience, the strength, come from?
 
Easter gives us time to reflect on how much of our lives comes from God, from the Holy Spirit living in us.  Easter is the feast of abundant surprises.  A man is buried after a brutal and tortuous death and three days later, the tomb now empty, he comes back brimming with life.  Fishermen spend the night catching nothing, exhausting themselves, and now their boat is swimming with fish.  Jesus looks right at Peter and asks what’s inside of him, and Peter finds abundant love.  The apostles, in the first reading, are brought in before religious leaders and find a strength that they didn’t have just weeks before.
 
We can so easily forget this.  I mean most of us feel like we are threading water, running here and there, questioning ourselves and our capabilities.  Society makes it much easier for us to feel inadequate about ourselves because media is always projecting ideal, staged, cosmeticized images.  If Jesus asked us what he asked Peter, we’d want to shrivel up and die.  We never feel we are good enough.
 
And yet goodness keeps coming out—caring for our kids, keeping track of mom’s illness, dad’s spells of dizziness; one more meal, one more car pool bringing this one here and that one there; one more smile of encouragement; one more prayer of hope.  It keeps coming out of us because Jesus has poured his Spirit upon us, and that Spirit brings us unexpected and unbounded strength from we-don’t-know-where.  It keeps coming out of us because Jesus makes all of us signs of Easter, signs of risen life, signs of God’s strength through the gift of the Spirit.
 
We’ve heard a lot lately about people being sorted into winners and losers.  While we want to be a winner, we fear being losers.  We fear others seeing us as losers—so much so that we’re willing to see ourselves as losers just to escape from the scrutiny.  But we learn in this Easter season that we are all part of the heavenly liturgy of Revelations—we are all singing the song of the Victor, the one who wins. 
 
After all, Christ has joined us to his victory; and that victory happens every day of our Christian lives.
 
Easter 2 C

So what is the problem with doubt? 
 
I hear more and more doubt as our ridiculous election cycle crawls to the conventions that will be held this summer.  More and more people are saying they don’t know who they will vote for and how they will vote holding their noses.  And we certainly have reason to doubt whatever we think is happening in the Middle East.  Distinguished people, even more, will tell us that the age of growth is over economically, and other distinguished people will tell us that boom times are just ahead.  People are always saying: a situation has happened in their lives, and they aren’t sure what to do.
 
We have the image of the doubting Thomas, this man who will not accept the testimony of his brother and sister believers, and who demonstrates the kind of skepticism that we tend to applaud in modern times.  “Unless I put my finger in the nail marks . . . “  We want to know for ourselves and not take things on the word of others.  But even then it’s harder to know what that means, to know for ourselves.  One of the leading edges in criminal studies is how unreliable eye-witness testimony tends to be.
 
If today we reflect on doubt, we also reflect on Mercy, the theme of this Year of Mercy and the particular focus that Saint John Paul II gave to this second Sunday after Easter.  And one of the things that Mercy means is that God is able to handle our doubts.  How do we understand Jesus’ words to Thomas—“Come on, Thomas, put your finger here”?  Do we think Jesus was putting Thomas down, or do we think that Jesus knew full well the doubts Thomas had and was quite capable of dealing with them?  Even inviting Thomas to draw near?
 
You can come, Thomas, doubts and all.
 
We have a strange phrase in the first reading about how the disciples met on a portico and the others looked on.  “None of the others dared to approach them, but the people esteemed them.”  At the same time, the passage talks about the numbers of people who kept being added to the growing community.  It’s as if the faith of Jesus was a curiosity and even an attraction, but people kept their distance.
 
But Mercy doesn’t know about distance.  Mercy only knows love, and a love that penetrates everyone and everything.  Perhaps people stayed away because, although they could see the faith of the believers, they could not see the love.  Perhaps that’s why people stay away from the church today:  perhaps they see our fervor, or our obedience, or our certainty.  But they do not see our love as clearly as they should, or could.
 
Mercy penetrates everything, even doubt.  Thomas is not driven from the room.  He comes to see not because of the dare Jesus gives him—remember, he doesn’t take up Jesus’ dare—but because of the faith that has broken through his resistance.  Mercy penetrates everything, even our hesitation.  In fact, mercy can break down the strongest resistance we can bring.  It isn’t that Jesus lets us touch him, but that Jesus touches us, again and again, even in our fears and doubts, even in our brokenness and sin. 
 
All Thomas has to do is enter the room.  Maybe all we need to do is start drawing nearer to the Risen Christ.  Mercy is there.  And maybe all people have to do is draw near to us, as we, most of all, show God’s love.  Mercy is always there, and mercy sends us forth. 


Easter C

Sometimes it takes fresh eyes.  Living as I do in North East Washington, I see the Capitol building and Union Station all the time.  I’ve taken dozens of people to the Mall.  It’s always funny when I ask guests if they want to visit the Mall, and their children say, “Do they have Old Navy?”  But I had a young visitor this week who had never seen Washington.  Taking him around to the monuments was like seeing them for the first time.  Lincoln’s image in his Memorial moved me in yet a new way.  And the King Memorial, which always means so much to me, having experienced the riots in 1968, had me feeling King was alive again.  Fresh eyes made me see, and feel, anew.
 
I suppose we can get jaded about many things, even about each other, and even about life.  It’s all a routine.  We do what we have to do.  If we can get a few hours watching a game, or maybe see a movie, these seem like extra special treats to an otherwise blah experience.  Whatever our political process is showing us, there seem to be a lot of disappointed, even angry people.  We thought there would be more.
 
Maybe Easter is trying to give us fresh eyes.  There was no disappointment greater than that of the followers of Jesus.  He stirred the pot, got hopes up to a fever pitch, and then, as the first reading showed us, the balloon popped.  “They killed him, hanging him on a tree,” is the terse way Peter puts it.  But now the Gospel has these same disciples in a fever pitch.  We follow the trail of clues: first the stone is gone, then Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus’ body has been robbed, then the burial cloths, then Peter’s sees the head covering is separate from the other cloths.  Finally, the beloved disciple enters the tomb and puts it all together: indeed, he is raised.  In fact, did he not have to rise from the dead?
 
Maybe that’s what Jesus was doing all along: giving his followers different eyes to see things.  God was not some strange being lurking in the sky.  Nor was God some arbitrary tyrant playing with puppets.  Nor was the point of life to endure forty or fifty years of drudgery.  Nor were we meant to stay stuck in our destructive patterns.  He showed us a life filled with signs that pointed, with or without miracles, to a God of gracious, personal care.  His deeds and words said that every person was important.  His love became a model for the love we could have for each other, for we were all, in the end, neighbors.  Indeed, in the end we were, and are, all brothers and sisters.
 
But this Easter Day gives us the newest and brightest eyes of all.  The disciples enter the dark tomb but emerge with blinding light in their eyes.  For if Jesus is raised from the dead, what does that make of your life and mine?  What does it make of the possibilities we have?  Of the destiny toward which we are heading?  Of the hopes we can have, not only for ourselves, but for humankind itself?  Doesn’t Easter wrap a radiance around every moment we have?  It’s as if we’ve been walking around half asleep, half blinded, and someone finally woke us up.
 
For that’s what Jesus does, this day.  Wakes us up.  Blasts the heavy stones that we hide behind, shines divine light into the caves of our hearts, sends angels with world-changing messages, and appears in multiple ways to his followers, even as he appears in sacrament to us this Easter morning.  These days, unfortunately, many of us get only so far with Easter clues: we see a moved stone, we peek into a cave, we blink and scratch our heads.  So many would-be believers keep a distance, only go so far.
 
Don’t you want to go further, asks Jesus?  Don’t you want to see what Easter faith can bring to your lives?  Don’t you see that unless you let my Easter light shine on you, you only half see, you walk mindlessly by life’s monuments of grace, unamazed and unphased?  He sends his Spirt, Jesus does, to fill our hearts with love, and bring new vision to our tired eyes.

Palm Sunday C

The buzz.  It’s all around us.  The words we hear all the time.
 
Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, the price of oil, the jobs report, baseball’s starting, Justin Bieber, caucuses and primaries, Syria, ISIS, immigration, and breakfast all day at MacDonald’s.
 
They heard it too, back then, 2000 years ago: Caesar Augustus, occupation, Messiah, Temple, restoration, Kings and Kingdom, false pretender, revolutionary, Pontius Pilate, crucifixion.
 
The buzz.  Everyone heard it.  Even those crucified alongside him, condemned with Jesus.
 
“If you are the Messiah,” the crowd jeered, only adding to his scorn, the shame of Jesus, failed Messiah, empty hope.  The thieves heard it all, the desperation and disappointment.  “If you are the Son of God,” they cry.  But one in despair, the other in hope.
 
Perhaps that’s our choice: the way we sort through the buzz, the words in the air, the vision society thrusts upon us.  We can do so in despair, or we can do so with hope.  Because hope sees more, something beyond the buzz, beyond the scorn, the need to shame another and give up. 
 
One sees beyond the cynicism, beyond the pain and despair.  “Remember me, Lord, when you come into your Kingdom.” 
 
Kingdom.  Another way to live.  A way to live with the vision of God, and not just the buzz, the words we pass, unthinkingly, among ourselves.  A way that dreams, in spite of it all, of paradise and fulfillment.  And because one thief sees, because one thief finds a speck of hope, a Kingdom opens: a Kingdom now dawning because Christ has punctured our cynicism and despair.  He makes his death the greatest act of hope, of love, and gives it to the world.  “This day you will be with me . . .´  Because you dared to hope, to see more, to see beyond the buzz.
 
Perhaps a tiny part of us thinks: unknowingly, what a joy for them to die alongside Jesus, such a privilege.  Perhaps their pain eased his just a tiny bit.  But he looks upon them both, blood-filled eyes staring with a searing love: I never wanted you to die with me; I never wanted to die myself.  Far better to live with me and for me, to live my dream: I open a Kingdom, a universe of love and grace.  That’s where I want you, with me in joy.  Can you see it?  Can you hope?
 
Can you get beyond the buzz?  Can you dream my dream?  Can you live with me forever?

Lent 5 C

Like most people, I couldn’t believe that the OJ Simpson story was back in the news.  After 20 years, a knife turned up, in the most bizarre circumstances.  But the reporters jumped on this more than the antics of Donald Trump and company.  Could it be: we found the murder weapon—not the smoking gun, but the bloody knife to go with the bloody glove?  All of this speaks much more of our fascination with evil than the solving of a mystery.  We keep returning to the scenes of crimes like flies attracted to old bananas. I knew he did it!  Who really killed JFK?  When will we know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
 
Part of our fascination is just the human mind at work.  We like to know what happened.  Whenever we hear of Indonesian flight MH 370 our ears perk up: how could a 777 airplane just vanish?  But another part of our fascination, which the Gospel exposes for us today, is this: when we look at someone else’s sin, it makes us feel better.  When we focus on what someone else did wrong, we feel a little better about ourselves.  Catch a politician?  Catch a CEO?  Catch a priest or a nun?  Catch a sports hero?  Let’s revel in their sin, so our sin can be hidden a little more.
 
“Let the one among you without sin cast the first stone.”  We all know the Catholic joke about Mary, standing in the crowd, throwing the stone because she was without sin.  But the Year of Mercy forces us to a more careful examination of ourselves: why is it so easy for us to throw stones at others rather than look in the mirror?  There may be many reasons for the decline of Catholics celebrating Reconciliation by going to confession, but one of them seems clear: it’s as if facing our shame and spiritual illness is the worst thing we can do.  Far easier to shame others than to have to stand ourselves in the middle, before everyone, with faces blushing bright red.  Even whispering our sins in a secret box!
 
But the challenge of the Gospel today is subtle.  We don’t know what Jesus wrote on the ground, in spite of what old movies like The King of Kings led us to believe.  But we do know that he challenged the elders, the ones who sit in judgment, to use another standard of comparison.  After all, if I compare myself to a woman that we trapped in the act of adultery, I come off looking pretty good.  But dare I take Jesus as my standard?  Dare I measure myself against God?  “If no one condemns you, neither do I.  Go in peace.”
 
That’s what the Year of Mercy ultimately dares us to do: to take God, and the standard of God’s infinite love, as the basis of our lives and actions.  Listen to Paul in the second reading: he has found Jesus Christ and now everything else in his life looks like rubbish.  All his old ways of thinking and judging, all his former presumed certainties—everything he knew is relative now that he knows the love of God in Jesus Christ.  And we, brothers and sisters, can know the love of God in just the same way because, day by day, Mass by Mass, this is exactly what God shows us.
 
If someone cornered us and asked us what was so good about being a Christian, what would we say?  We might be speechless, trying to come up with words.  But the Good News is this: God’s love comes before everything, transforms everything, has been shown to us in the fullest way in Jesus, and is given to us by the Spirit of Jesus every time we open our hearts in faith.  God has not only removed us from the circle of shame, God has not only said we will not be condemned; no, more than this, God has given us Jesus Christ, divine life, as our way of life.
 
CNN, FOX, Headline News: they’ll always come up with some absorbing story of crime.  But there’s a bigger story out there: the story of God’s generous grace, God’s free love, given to free us, make us new, and empower us to free each other in mercy.


Lent 4 C

It was absolutely shocking when Dyllan Roof, after sitting through a bible study in South Carolina, shot 9 people to death at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  It was even more shocking when, later at his initial hearing before a judge, people from the church, some of them relatives of the people he murdered, called out from the court benches: we forgive you!  How could this happen we say, at a time when we think only of protection and retaliation?  It was like the time the Amish people forgave the crazy person who killed four girls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. 
 
The parable we have today, certainly one of Jesus’ most powerful, is like a Rorschach test: where do we see ourselves in it?  It’s all too easy to see ourselves in the younger son, because our impulses have often lead us into embarrassment and trouble.  We want forgiveness for our impetuous sins.  It’s much harder to see ourselves in the older son, but, probably, that’s where a lot of our modern soul actually lives: we tried to be good, we paid the price, and we didn’t get rewarded as we thought we should.  The older son represents rectitude and justice; who can be against that?
 
But the father in the parable is almost unimaginable—his son walks all over him, spends half his money, and comes back only after he’s filled with self-shame.  The younger son is as self-centered as ever.  How can the father receive him back?  How can he throw a party?
 
Yet it is the father whom we have to see in our meditation: this man who knows that life is worth more than money, that love is more essential in our lives than being offended.  The father represents the readjustment of our fundamental values: to move beyond our things and our customs, so that love actually transforms the situation.  It isn’t that the father sees the wayward son and then decides to have mercy; it’s rather that the mercy is there, from the beginning, in the father, because life and love are the keys to our existence.
 
That’s the thing about mercy: it’s always there.  The only question is whether we will avail ourselves of it, whether we will see that the heart of God’s Good News is the Spirit-given strength to start over again, to change our minds and hearts, to accept a world of love and grace that we could barely see before.  What happens in our parable isn’t only that the father accepts the son; it’s rather that the son finally sees what the father is all about.  And what a challenge to us: to see what God is about through the eyes of endless, eternal, unrestricted Love, and to make that our way of life.
 
“Evangelization” is not an easy word for Catholics; after 50 years of use, we still shy away from it.  But that word is only describing what Jesus showed us about the Father, and how the Father’s love is poured into us through the Holy Spirit.  Yes, this is Good News, transforming news, news that can bring the broken to wholeness, can bring the dead back to life.  And our privilege is to experience this Good News and show it in our lives, by the way we extend divine love in our daily relationships.
 
Part of the problem the Church has today is that it looks way too much like the older son: pouting in the corner when God has begun a party.  Yet every Eucharist is just this: a feast, a party, to say that our time of wandering in the desert is over—as our first reading says; that God’s love can bring vision and joy to our lives and world, if we only accept at a deeper level and make it our way of life.  In the midst of our violent and often crazy world, God’s Good News is really the only alternative in the long run. 

Lent 3 C

When it comes to persuading people, we have developed some petty cynical lines in our modern culture.  “Everyone has a price,” we hear, for example.  That is, whatever we think of believe, if someone gives us enough money, we’ll change our minds because money is more important than what we believe.  Or, from the Godfather, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  That is, if someone is resisting, then we’ll send the bullies in because, whatever someone thinks, they’d prefer to change than to get their legs broken . . . or something worse.

Resistance.  There’s resistance everywhere, inside us and around us.  How do you overcome it?  The first reading sets up one of the great dramas about resistance in the whole of Scripture: God and Pharaoh.  Pharaoh represents one who completely resists the pleas of God through Moses, such that he was willing to have his nation subjected to a succession of trials.  Only with the death of his firstborn, the ultimate Godfather-like strategy, does Pharaoh ultimately give in.

But Moses has resistance too.  We hear it a bit in the first reading, with Moses asking what God’s name is, otherwise no one will believe him.  He’ll resist again by telling God that he does not know how to speak well.  Moses is like so many of us: we may not be like Pharaoh, we are willing to talk to God, but we keep putting up excuses to put things off. But here it is not threat the persuades, but rather an ideal, the vision of freedom which God will give to the Israelites, letting them escape from slavery—a vision of the freedom God will give to all humankind—once we show we want it.

It may seem that God’s persuasion is fear and threat.  We have plenty of that recorded in the Bible and we have heard plenty of that in our religious upbringings.  Jesus even alludes to this the first part of the Gospel, talking about disasters that happened.  “Do you think those people who died are any worse off than you when it comes to sin?”  In effect Jesus is saying that whatever happens in our lives, we all have the opportunity to turn to God; no one is any worse off than anyone else when it comes to God.

But the second half of the Gospel gives us a different picture.  It’s a God who is patient and merciful.  Here’s the gardener, and here’s the tree that doesn’t produce fruit.  Should we cut it down?  “No” says the gardener.  “Let’s put a little fertilizer on it and see if it produces.”  And this is the state of everyone who has begun a relationship with God.  God is giving us time, giving us nourishment, allowing us to grow from disciples that do not produce to disciples that do produce—not because we are threatened, but because we have encountered God’s abundant love.  This love is what Moses glimpses, what the prophets saw more clearly, and what Jesus brings into complete focus.

Oh, we say with a bit of relief, so it’s only about love?  As if love were not as severe a judge as anything else.  Love is the greatest judge because, having loved us completely in Jesus, God expects that we reflect that love—even though it may take time—in our own lives.  The same compassion, patience, concern, generosity, peace, grace, and mercy.  It’s the opposite of a threat.  It’s the sweetest honey, and most gracious incentive, God can send.  With God, we don’t have the carrot and stick: we have only the carrot, the carrot of love, and that is more powerful than any stick.

Paul tells his Corinthians not to presume on God’s love as if we could coast on it.  Look at the Jewish people—freed from Egypt, they still rebelled.  We, freed by Christ, can still rebel.  That resistance is always possible, always inside us.  God’s love can overcome that resistance, but only if we allow it.  That’s how much freedom God gives us.  We can pull a Pharaoh, letting God’s love only boost our pride and anger.  Or we can pull a Moses: having quibbled and hesitated, we finally have given ourselves to love, and the freedom only love can bring.  How do we prefer to have God overcome our resistance?

 

Lent 2 C

We used to see something like this when groups were going on retreats or weekends of facilitation: the facilitator would ask a question like this: if you could be an animal, what one would it be?  Depending on our answer, it was supposed to show a lot about our inner personalities.  Of course, I never heard anyone respond that they would be a skunk, or a slug; we all wanted to be lions, or horses, or eagles.  We find the same kind of nonsense on Facebook: what month of the year are you, what color are you, which apostle would you be, which century should you have lived in.  Makes me wonder why we have such a hard time knowing who we are, that we need these devices to put images in our heads.
 
Who are we?  And who are we called to be?  The readings from the Second Sunday of Lent put this question before us.  Because Jesus is transfigured before the eyes of his disciples, and before us, precisely to raise one clear and unavoidable question: do we see our future in Christ?  In his glory?  In his eternal life?
 
Because we often are content for images of ourselves less exalted than this.  We live in a secular age which says if we get seventy or eighty years without too much pain, that’s enough for us.  If we can live comfortably, have a few episodes of excitement, and avoid great shame or pain, then we’re content.  But today Jesus looks right at us and asks, Really?  Does not your heart invite you to something more?
 
Maybe we have a hard time seeing this in our own lives, but we surely see it in the lives of those we love.  We don’t think of them as temporary, as people destined for a few decades.  No, our love for each other shows the eternity that is at the heart of our human existence: we want those we love to live unendingly, in the greatest glory, loved by everyone, and loved eternally by God.  When we embrace our spouses, when we look into the eyes of our children or best friends, we don’t see a lion or a horse: we see the outlines of eternal life, outlines that Jesus fills in for us in his transformation.
 
But it’s easy to miss what this is all about, just as Peter does.  He wakes from his sleep, sees the glory of Jesus in the presence of Moses, who represents the Law, and Elijah, who represents the prophetic tradition: and he wants to stay there, hang out on the mountain of glory forever.  Jesus has been talking with Moses and Elijah about the path to glory, his exodus, his transition to transformation: one attains God’s glory only by the gift of oneself in love.  Not by staring.  Not by hanging out.  But by giving oneself.
 
Jesus teaches his disciples again and again what it means to follow him, but they keep missing the point.  There was a story about a man in Canada who went from Kitchener Ontario to St. Catherine’s Ontario but then hit his head; thirty years later he suddenly remembered his former name, who he was.  Sometimes I wonder if we Christians are not like that: being baptized and confirmed, we hit our heads and forget what it means.  “Let’s hang out on the mountain. Let’s stay comfortable.  Let’s think this is all about us.”
 
It is then the voice comes from the cloud: this is my beloved Son—you must listen to him, accept his life, walk his path of self-giving love.  It’s often easiest for us to think of ourselves as members of a church, parishioners.  But until we think of ourselves as disciples, we have not understood what it means to be baptized, to follow Christ through his death into resurrection.  Only by dying, by giving ourselves, can we attain the glory that is embedded in our very lives.
 
So do we know our true selves by the choices we make?  I wonder if that’s true, say, with the Oscars . . . the choices we make and the choices that we don’t even get to make.  But our basic question is not what horse or flower would we be, or some other forced choice, but what kind of disciple Christ calls us to be.  Peter shows us that we can be the kind that sleep, the kind that are dazzled, or the kind that are afraid.  But the image Christ offers us, the one that  he has for us, is this: disciples that follow him in generous service into the glory of Easter.
 

Lent 1 C

“Lead us not into temptation.”  We pray this so often that we barely think about it.  What temptation?  The daily impulses in my body, or suggestions in my head?  Or something deeper than this?
 
Jesus shows us the kind of temptations we face—those that make us who we are, those that show the central core of our lives, those that reveal what parts of us will endure forever with God.
 
Temptation is more than a suggestion of sin.  Rather, it’s the background of the central battle of our lives: do we stand with God, have we made God the center of our lives, do we trust God with everything?  We hear, again and again, those phrases from the heart of Jewish faith which Jesus actualized in his ministry.  We do not live on bread alone—we need something more than this.  We do not live by the words in our head, but by the Word that God puts in our head.  And we do not make sense testing God to see if God is on our side.  We make sense by coming to realize that God is always on our side, and we live totally in God’s love and care.
 
I saw a much talked-about movie, Hail Caesar!, which was a spoof on the sentiments of the 1950s as America depicted itself in the movies.  We saw the 1950s stereotypes: cowboys, Ethel Merman-like swimmers, the Ben Hur type of religious epic.  But the central question was whether the studio manager, Eddie Mannix, would take a far-easier job with an up-and-coming aerospace manufacturer, or whether he’d stay in the endlessly crazy job of running the studio.  In his heart, he chose the studio precisely because he needed an interesting life, he needed the craziness of the studio. Through this temptation, he knew his heart all the better.
 
We are always being tested because we always live in the end-times, the Kingdom that Jesus brought about by his death and resurrection.  His brutal death shows God’s mercy to us; his glorious Resurrection give us the power of his Holy Spirit in our lives.  Every day we clarify our lives by the central test God gives us: Have we come to know God?  God’s absolute love?  God’s love shown in Jesus?  God’s love experienced in the Holy Spirt?  God’s love lived-out in the mercy and care we show others?
 
The first spiritual work of Mercy, “To Instruct the Ignorant,” is not about teaching others the catechism or showing how smart we are.  It’s about realizing that we are all always ignorant in some ways: we always have more of God to come to know and love.  Lent gives us an opportunity to grow more in our knowledge and love of God by seeing him more clearly through prayer, self-sacrifice, and caring for others.  Lent gives us an opportunity to instruct others in merciful love not by our mouths but by our lives.
 
God tests us.  It has to be this way.  Just to relate to God means I have begun to know God.  And to know God means I am called to reflect God in my own life.  Paul tells us that God is not far: his love surrounds us, fills us, expands us—if we let it.  That’s our test this Lent: to draw close enough to God to let God change us—to pass the one test we need to pass, the test of God’s love.
 
God can lead us into temptation because God is always with us, in and through any temptation, any testing.  What’s in our heart?  Are we ready to hear God’s word and live God’s life more fully?  Are we ready for the test of Lent?

5C

The dog ate my homework.  Pretty old fashioned excuse, but we have newer ones: Wi-Fi went down; we lost power; my sister wouldn’t get off the computer.  Or, around the house: my brother forced me to break it.  Honey, I was going to do it—it was the next thing on my list.  Dear, just as I drove up the store closed and I couldn’t get the milk.  Excuses are so convenient, and some of them might actually be true.
 
What’s our excuse before God?  Isaiah gives the perfect one: Lord, I am an unclean, impure, sinful person.  I cannot do it.  Peter gets close to that himself: Lord, I am a sinful man, you should get away from me.  And to each of these God says, So What!  Do you not think that I am greater than your sin?
 
Of course, we say, if God asked me to do something directly, then I really wouldn’t have an excuse.  Paul elaborates the appearances of Jesus after his Resurrection, giving a list of the witnesses as they were traditionally remembered even in these early years when Paul was writing his first letter to the Corinthians.  Sheepishly he adds: “Last of all, as to one abnormally born, he appeared to me.”  Paul is talking about births that might not fit the full nine-month cycle, babies who come too soon, babies who are still in need of development.  Yet Paul, the premie, makes no excuse: he has seen the Lord as the others.  He is an apostle too.
 
Thank God, we are saying, I haven’t seen the Lord.  Then we don’t have to come up with an excuse.  We can be like people overhearing a conversation, or a stagehand where others are the actors and stars.  But you and I know we cannot use this excuse because we have seen the Lord, heard the Lord, been touched by the Lord, and have responded to his love.  Every Easter we learn the same lesson: the Risen Lord doesn’t come as flash before our eyes.  Jesus comes in multiple ways into our lives through the life of the Church.
 
We haven’t heard the Lord?  Then what was the Gospel I just read?  We haven’t seen the Lord?  Then what will be the consecrated bread and wine that I will hold up before all of us in just a few minutes?  We haven’t touched the Lord?  How, then, do you propose to receive Holy Communion?  The Lord hasn’t given me authorization?  Hasn’t the Lord authorized all of us through the power of his Holy Spirit poured into our hearts?
 
Indeed, we have no excuse.  If Paul thought of his faith as like what happens to a premature baby, we have had more than 20 centuries of Christian faith to mature us, to make us even more equipped than the early believers.  If Paul can expect his Corinthians, screwy as their faith was, to be disciples and apostles, then the Church has every right to expect that of us as well.  We’ve all gone into the waters of baptism, and therefore we all are fishermen and fisherwomen, fisher boy and fisher girls.  We all have someone we can touch in faith because of we too have met the Lord.
 
And maybe the more each one of us accepted our call, the more people in our Church will respond to that special call of God, to serve full-time as an explicit minister giving witness to Christ’s life.
 
There’s hardly a sentence more memorable than Isaiah’s confidence at the end of our first reading: “Here I am, send me!”  And there’s hardly a need in our Church today greater than a sense of confidence in all of us Catholic believers.  Yes, you and I, sinful and inadequate as we are, each have people that God has sent us to reach.  Yes, you and I, rattling off excuses as we do, each have a job to do.  Now this is an interesting project: to reflect on the week ahead and think about all the occasions when you can bring and be God’s Word—in the family, at our job, hanging with friends, FaceBooking, texting and talking.  Whom shall I send?  Just to make it clear: it’s too late, we already volunteered.  God is sending us!

4 C

When New England lost to Denver last weekend, there were tremendous groans, but also wild cheers.  Tom Brady went down!  Isn’t that terrible?  Or is that great?  Coming, as I do, from a city that has multiple teams, fans are torn: if the Mets’s season ends early, should we root for the Yankees?  Some do, figuring it’s loyalty to one’s city; others see this as supreme disloyalty, as being unfaithful and fickle.
 
Our Gospel passage is hard to understand because St. Luke compresses so much into this part of his Gospel.  Just last week Jesus gave his inaugural talk and people were astonished at him.  And this week the same people, while being astonished, are soon dismissing him.  “Who does he think he is?  He’s only our local town boy, the son of Joseph.”  They even want to throw him from the ridge on which their town is being built.  The folks in Nazareth, like people everywhere, were fickle, changing their minds in a flash.
 
So where is loyalty?  Where is constancy?  It is in God’s love for us, a love that our disloyalty and fickleness cannot overcome.  God sends Jeremiah to proclaim God’s word.  Even though they will resist and resent, Jeremiah is still sent.  God’s love is constant and faithful, because that is the nature of God.  “I have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron,” God says to Jeremiah.  If you read the rest of Jeremiah, you’ll see his job was no picnic, often leading him to darkness and depression.  But he still is iron.
 
We should not be surprised at this.  We live in an age of fickleness ourselves.  Almost weekly there’s a new survey of people who are turning off any explicit connection with a church.  Like the people of Nazareth, it’s easy to be disappointed.  Churches are far from perfect, but even if they were perfect, people still might write them off.  It is far easier to curse the darkness than attend to one candle.
 
This is why Paul waxes so deeply about love—not the Hallmark kind of love that we have romanticized beyond recognition, but the love that is God’s unbroken fidelity, the kind of love that should permeate our own lives.  Paul is writing to the Corinthians who were among the best examples of fickleness: bickering with each other, caught up in their pretentions, blind to their own failings.  When Paul writes them, he’s putting iodine on the wound of their half-hearted faith.  These words will sting, but they will also bring healing.
 
Things come and things go, but love remains forever.  Not necessarily our loves, but necessarily God’s love—because that is who God is.  And just as God raises up people like Jeremiah to represent his faithful love, so God incarnates that love in Jesus Christ.  But, as we see in the Gospel, even the embodiment of God’s love can cause ambivalence: we can take Christ or leave him—and many are leaving him.  We don’t throw him off the cliff; we just relegate him to the burner furthest back.
 
Our coming to Mass, to worship, seems more and more like a prophetic sign—witness we give to a world that thinks worshipping God is not important because they think God is not important.  When we come here, to feed on Christ’s body and sip his blood—something amazing happens to us.  As we receive the sign of God’s unbreakable love, as we are made one with the new and eternal covenant of Jesus, we also become charged, afire, transformed by that love.  We become part of it because God’s love becomes our way of life. 
 
So we are sent, like Jeremiah, like Paul, to proclaim a steady love in an ever fickle world, always with the hope that God’s love, in the end, will transform hearts because God’s love ever endures.

3 C

The pen is mightier than the sword.  We believe in words, the power of words, the ability of words to change situations and change minds.  Our American imagination is filled with oratorical sparks: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.  Ask not what your country can do for you.  It’s morning in America.  But words in today’s Internet world have a very different effect.  We listen to the debates of those who want to be president, waiting for the zinger to come.  But that zinger becomes fodder for the next attack ad, or non-stop TV and Internet criticism.  Who could not be struck by the State of the Union address? The same words caused some people to cheer and others to jeer. 
 
We wish life were like the situation presented in the first reading, when Nehemiah and Ezra could read the book of the Law, probably the bible book we call Deuteronomy, and all the people would bow down, say “Amen” and submit to God’s Word.  Here we are, Sunday after Sunday, gathering at Mass to celebrate and hear the Word of God.  Every Sunday the prophets and the gospels are read to us.  “The Word of the Lord,” we hear; “Thanks be to God,” we say.  But how much has the Word changed our lives?  How much have we submitted to God’s revelation?
 
Jesus clearly is creating an oratorical event in the Gospel.  It’s his home town, his own synagogue, where he grew up and learned what he did about the Scriptures.  Of all the passages he could have chosen from Isaiah, he chooses this one, from chapter 61, a ringing proclamation of the transformation God will bring to the world.  Isaiah’s original words consoled a people in exile 500 years before Jesus.  Jesus is using them to proclaim the end of another exile, an end that would take place in and through his ministry.  “This scripture is being fulfilled as you hear it,” Jesus says.  And people stare at him with their mouths wide open, totally astonished.
 
Jesus can say what he did because he’s is pronouncing a Word that he intends to accomplish.  Healing, insight, freedom, forgiveness, grace: this is what Luke’s Gospel will present in one incident after another.  We have the initial verses of Luke’s Gospel today, telling us that he’s arranging all he has learned about Jesus in an order that makes sense.  In fact, the order that makes the most sense is the one that comes from this quotation from Isaiah that Jesus uses as he begins his ministry: Jesus comes as God’s effective instrument of freedom and salvation.  He will do exactly what he says.
 
But what comes after that?  Well we see how Jesus program continues in the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, showing how Jesus’ Spirit empowered his followers to continue his ministry.  Clearly Luke wants this to be a program that continues—from Jesus, through the Apostles, to the other disciples, down through the generations of the Church—even to our own generation.  Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy is to help every one of us continue Jesus’ work of proclaiming freedom and forgiveness.
 
So here we are, hearing this Word, listening to Jesus’ vision of ministry and life.  He fulfilled that vision—and asks us to continue fulfilling it.  Jesus’ words can have effect, impact, and power only insofar as we let them shape our own lives.  I’m sure, in the first reading, after people said “Amen,” they went back to their ordinary lives.  God’s Word is effective not because it is some magical formula, but because it can lead us, in our daily lives, to slow, but certain, transformation.  We make Christ’s Word powerful by letting its power shape our lives. 
 
Every one of us knows someone stuck, someone hurting, someone without perspective, someone living in fear.  Every one of us can be a force of freedom, consolation, and healing.  Every one of us can support another, as St. Paul describes how our bodies work together, with each part supporting another.  We hear these words—God’s Word—today and we say “Amen.”  But “Amen” has to be not just what we say, but what we let the Spirit accomplish in our lives. 

2 C

How much money do we think we need?  People have been going bananas over the huge Powerball jackpot—over a billion dollars—as they have over other Mega Millions jackpots.  Wow, a billion dollars!  They interview people about what they are going to do with their money—buy some houses, go on vacation, they say—which you ca do for a million or two, let alone a thousand million dollars.  How much money do we think we need?  Or, for that matter, how much wine does a wedding party need? 
 
When Jesus turns six huge jars of water into wine, we have almost 150 gallons.  I’m sure that could have kept Cana going for over a week!  Yet it’s the excess of this, the first of Jesus’ signs, that is the point: God comes into our lives with an excess, an abundance, that overwhelms us, once we learn to see it.  As the guests  had to discover water turned to wine by tasting it, so we have to discover an abundance in our lives that we often overlook.  The abundance we think we need of money tries to substitute for the abundance of divine love and life, all around us, if we only could see it. 
 
Jesus comes as the bridegroom of God, as God’s love incarnate.  The wine he supplies is the joy that he brings from our encounter with God.  That joy comes from the Holy Spirit—the Spirit Paul talks about—a spirit of divine life bringing forth in our lives an abundance of gifts and graces.  Just as we often ignore the beauty of nature around us, so we often ignore the signs of the Spirit’s presence in our lives.  Praying, caring, reflecting, consoling, contemplating, singing, greeting, being faithful—the gifts are all around.
 
Jesus says that his hour has not yet come.  But Mary seems to provoke the moment.  The signs that Jesus does will inevitably lead to his “hour”—when all his signs will climax into the final sign of God’s salvation: Jesus’ death and resurrection.  From that self-gift will pour forth the Holy Spirit, a spirit that makes us like Christ, and empowers us to continue, in our own way, Jesus’ signs of mercy, grace, and joy.
 
So often we think of our lives only as water, plain, colorless, almost tasteless.  That’s because we have not recognized our “hour”—when we discover how God sends us forth to accomplish God’s mission.  So our lives seem ones of obligation, of routine, of just moving onto the next thing.  But when we realize that God has called every one of us to be an ambassador of divine love, when we realize that every one of us has an “hour” to accomplish, then the wine of our lives becomes clear.  Nothing we do will ever be ordinary.  Rather, God’s grace is transforming it all.
 
At Mass, it’s not water that changes into wine, but wine into the blood of Christ.  The Jews believed that life was in the blood; blood made us live.  So in the sign of his chalice, his cup of blood, revealed in the consecrated wine, we see that Christ’s hour continues, and the hours of our lives become part of the abundance he brings to the world. 

Baptism of the Lord C

There’s lots of discussion, these days, about prequels and sequels—the way show business wants to re-use a theme to make more profit.  We had how many sequels to Rocky and Rambo—it’s hard to count how many?  But nothing has equaled the success of the seventh Star Wars movie—a sequel so nostalgic that it uses many of the actors from the original movie—Episode IV, which came out in 1977 when many in this church were not yet born and I was a mere 32 years old.  The latest sequel has broken all the records—with estimates of making a billion dollars.  So that’s a sequel for the history books.
 
Today we conclude the Christmas-Epiphany season with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, reflecting on St. Luke’s account—which can seem a bit like a sequel.  Even in the passage we have, John the Baptist is the focus—he does all the talking.  And much of John’s message to people in the desert Jesus will take up and make part of his message as well.  How is Jesus not a sequel?
 
Part of the answer revolves around John’s own words—he’s not worthy to touch the sandals of the one who follows him—and, even more, John’s sequel—the one coming after him—will be mightier because he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  John knows that history has arrived at a climax.  He knows that he speaks for the past and looks to the future.  He awaits that future with joyful anticipation.
 
After such a build-up, we are surprised at how subtle Jesus’ appearance is in the Gospel today.  Unlike the other gospel writers who have a long conversation between John and Jesus before the baptism, Jesus’ baptism almost seems like an afterthought.  John baptizes those at the river, and Jesus is standing right alongside all the others.  He goes into the water just like them.  It’s only later that a voice points out that history now will never be the same—the dove from the sky, the heavenly endorsement says it all: God’s beloved son has appeared in our midst.
 
John spoken in prophecy; Jesus is prophecy fulfilled.  John spoke in anticipation; Jesus comes to bring participation to his followers.  John looks backward and forward; Jesus looks ahead at the mission before him, and at the heavenly Father whom Jesus loves with the fullest consummation of his will.  What makes Jesus the Beloved Son is the unlimited love Jesus has for the Father.  The Spirit that comes upon Jesus is the same Spirit he will pour upon all those who open their hearts to him in faith. Love now has a name, a form, and a mission: Jesus, the Beloved Son.
 
I suspect St. Luke has Jesus in the middle of the crowd to emphasize that Jesus does not see his mission in isolation from others.  Sure, he is the one specially designated by the Father.  But he is also the one who comes in our flesh, stands alongside of us, and pours his Spirit upon us.  It’s as if Jesus is pointing out, right from the beginning, that his mission will need many followers, many co-workers, many who also participate in his Spirit, if that mission will be accomplished.  Jesus is looking for people to be his sequel—not that we can ever equal him, but that he continues his work in us.
 
We have Jedis, and we have jihardists.  But what Jesus wants is disciples—Christians who live his life of loving service.  We will see this unfold in the next chapters of Luke’s Gospel over the coming Sundays.  Jesus comes as one ready to inaugurate God’s Kingdom.  He’s looking to those who have been washed in the same Spirit-filled water of his baptism.  The ripples of his baptismal water swell over all of history for those who accept his life. He stands at the shore, in the water, looking at us with expectation. 
 

Epiphany C

“We’ll leave the light on for you. . .” Whatever we think of the Motel 6 chain, they have a great motto.  How often we are consoled by seeing that a light is left on, that we have a place to go, that we will feel at home.  After a long drive, we arrive back at our home, the light shining on the porch. .  After long flight over the ocean, we see lights that show we are now over land.  The long flight is over.  People lost in the woods suddenly see headlights of cars on a roadway.  Someone will help them.
 
Today’s feast of Epiphany is essentially a feast of light.  It revolves around the figure of a star in the sky, but it ends with the three wise men beholding the baby Jesus, who is light for the world.  The wise men represent the searching of all humans for truth, love and wisdom, how God’s light begins to shine on all human beings who open their hearts in honest searching. 
 
The image of light has two aspects.  One is that we see it.  The other is that we reflect it.  Many people today claim to be spiritual seekers, so they are like the wise men.  But didn’t the star shine on many people back then, but only the wise men noticed it?  How many looked to the heavens and then just went on with the lives?  How many never stopped to even look up?  Because God’s wisdom can be seen only by those who take the time to look for it.  Epiphany calls us to contemplation, to pull back from the hundreds of smaller and distracting lights so we can see the light of God that we need to see.
 
But light doesn’t stop unless it’s blocked.  Last week we all marveled at the full moon on Christmas night, the first one in 28 years.  The moon reflects the light of the sun.  Those who find Christ reflect his light in their daily lives.  What does this mean?  We try to incorporate Jesus’ spiritual vision in our daily lives—that we so trust in the God of love and care that Jesus shows us that we show that love and care in our daily lives.  This doesn’t mean that we become monks, or escape from our daily routines.  It means that our daily routines become infused with the values of Jesus—how we live in our families, how we do our jobs and relate to our co-workers, how we volunteer, how we give time and attention to those with less than we have.
 
If we live in a time when people question religion and faith, maybe that’s because of the way believers live their faith.  We are so good at keeping our faith to ourselves!  And we so often live our faith begrudgingly, seeing it as a burden or an obligation, rather than as the way to joyfully encounter the God of Jesus.  Pope Francis has begun a year of mercy, calling on all of us to be missionary disciples—that is, followers of Jesus who show his quality of mercy to others and to the world. 
 
The wise men brought gifts; they had them all along and intended to share them with God’s newborn king when they found him.  The last thing they wanted was to lug their gifts back home!  Do we not find this true in our own lives—that when we give away the gifts of love and compassion, of generosity and kindness, that God has given us, then we see our lives take on meaning?  Just as light wants to shine everywhere, so the gifts that God has given us do not exclusively belong to us.  God has given them to us so we can give them away—and grow in joy as we do that.
 
We’ll leave the light on for you!  God has shone the light of Jesus upon all of us, so that people can see God has left the light on for everyone through us! So that people can see in us the way to the consoling light that is God’s unending love. 

Holy Family C

Family values.  For decades these words have been used in a political sense to protect the presumed values of the nuclear family.  At the same time, shows like “All in the Family” created a tradition that exploded our naïve and untested assumptions about modern family life.  As the number of non-nuclear families increased, with family life expressed in diverse ways, this feast of the Holy Family gives us the opportunity to look at family values again—not the ones the precede our definition of a family, but the values that emerge from family life itself. 
 
For family life gives us the relational vocabulary that is essential for all the rest of our lives—our relationships with others, our sense of integrity, our involvement in community, and especially our faith.  Without the radical acceptance of each other, the unconditional love, the give-and-take, the forgiveness, the compassion, and the honesty that emerges in family life, we simply do not have these qualities to bring in our relationships with others.  How can the Pope talk about love, mercy, and faithfulness unless the rudiments of these have been received in us as human beings—mostly in the family?
 
We immediately want to interpret the Gospel we have today in terms of modern adolescence—the slow and difficult process whereby children begin to test boundaries as part of the process of growing up.  Is Jesus’ staying in Jerusalem like the way I snuck cigarettes and started smoking as a teenager?  Or the way some kids explore the bottles of booze in the family cabinet before mom or dad get home?  Is Jesus rebelling—and giving us permission to increase the anxiety of our mothers and fathers?
 
I think our reading of the Gospel has to be deeper than this.  Luke is not giving us a picture of dysfunctional family psychology.  Rather he’s setting up his Gospel for the dynamics of loving sacrifice that will mark the whole career of Jesus.  For Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem as a young man foreshadows his reappearance in future decades as the prophet from Galilee.  As Mary and Joseph have to realize Jesus’ mission is central to his life, so the world will see, in the self-gift of Jesus, that mission accomplished in a way that transforms human existence.
 
So family binds us together—Jesus returns to Nazareth to be with Mary and Joseph—but it also prepares us for more.  The bonds that we have in family love are bonds that prepare us for what we must do beyond the family.  The ideal of family is not to stay at home in some protected bubble.  Rather, the ideals of family are precisely to give us the strength to give ourselves to others in service.  “Did you not know I had to be about my Father’s work?”  Do we not know that we all have to be about the Father’s work—to build and extend a Kingdom which would link all humankind together in God’s love—to build a Kingdom which is God’s extended family across all categories of age, race, nationality, and language?
 
Pope Francis calls this the Year of Mercy.  He also calls us all “missionary disciples.”  Part of what we learn as members of families is to take the crucial values of human life and extend them as far as we can.  Likewise, part of what we learn as members of Christ’s family is to take the crucial value of mercy and extend it as far as we can.  For the basic value of Christ’s family is mercy—the transforming forgiveness that reshapes human life.  This is God’s business, God’s work, from which none of us is exempt.

4 Advent C

Everyone is looking out for the little guy, but it’s hard to know who the little guy is.  Of course, every presidential candidate wants to lift the little guy up—that’s why they’re running.  For most it’s the middle class which has been kicked around for the past two decades.  For some it’s the corporations who have been deluged, as they put it, by reams of regulations which keep them from making money.  For others, it’s big corporation executives who have been getting such bad press.  For a few it’s the hourly wage earner at the bottom: $15 an hour, and nothing less. You don’t hear much about those living in poverty, but I’m sure someone is rooting for them.  If you are an immigrant, or a Muslim immigrant, you’re almost so little everyone has forgotten you even exist, except to double-check your visa or your papers. 
 
But God knows who the little guy is—the one at the bottom through whom God works.  Bethlehem—a turkey of a town if there was one—becomes the town of Kings.  David from Bethlehem, the seventh and overlooked son of Jesse, is chosen King, and prophets looked to Bethlehem to produce another King, an ideal king, one who would outstrip even David, as Micah’s prophecy shows us. 
 
We see how “little-guy” God thinks in the Gospel when Mary, who has just received this astonishing revelation through the Archangel Gabriel, doesn’t prance around Nazareth like a queen; rather, she runs through the hills, hastening toward the house of Elizabeth, the elderly woman who has become pregnant and who surely needs help.  Elizabeth says: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  Yes, Mary knows she’s among the little guys.
 
Because Christmas is mostly for those so small, so overlooked, so desperate, they only have dreams and hopes to live on.  God’s definition of a “little guy” is this: one who never looks down on another because “little guys” already know they are at the bottom.  For many people it’s the bottom of the pecking order, or the economic ladder.  For all of us, it’s the bottom of our hearts, those ultimate needs and longings that can only be fulfilled by God, and which tie us all together into the frail human reality which God assumes in Jesus.
 
It turns out that Jesus himself, the new King whose birth we closely await, is himself a little guy.  For his life is defined not in terms of what he gets but in terms of what he gives.  The second reading give us the angle on this: upon entering the world, Jesus says that he lives to accomplish the will of his Father, the desire of Absolute love—to give himself that everyone else’s life may be deepened, enriched, fulfilled, and redeemed.  To give himself, showing us the pattern of divine life: that we are great only insofar as we live for others, especially those overlooked by fame and fortune.
 
In a few days we celebrate the feast of Christmas—the Incarnation, which is the big word we use—when the Word becomes flesh.  When this happens, all flesh is changed, even the lowliest flesh.  God is reaching down, as far as God can.  And who are we to think we don’t have to?
 
So Mary runs through the woods, a simple young woman rushing to help a simple older woman. Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, leaps for joy because God’s love for the lowly reaches even into the womb.  No one is discarded in the eyes of God.  Every life makes a claim on divine love, for none is too little.  That’s why he comes as a baby, a child.  With no $500 stroller, $300 car seat, no Oshkosh or Nautica clothes, Jesus comes to accomplish his destiny of love and show us, in the end, we can all be little guys, the blessed, if only we realize the depth of our need for him. 


3 Advent C

The response is the same in survey after survey: people do not like annual reviews of their jobs.  After all these reviews can go in a variety of ways.  On the one hand you can have a micromanager of a boss, looking over everything you do.  The scrutiny you receive keeps you from doing your job well.  On the other hand you can have one of those passive types who hardly say anything; it’s only at the annual review that you find out you’ve been a disappointing employee.  We want to say: Just tell me what to do and leave me alone.  Once I know what you want, I’ll do it!
 
We might be surprised in the Gospel we have today, our second view of John the Baptist this Advent: people are coming up to him and he is telling them what to do.  And, most surprising, he is basically telling them to be honest and have integrity when it comes to doing their jobs.  Tax collectors, who were seen as detested traitors, should only exact the tax that’s right; soldiers should not go around bullying people.  If you have something you aren’t using, give it away to someone who needs it.
 
Wow, we say.  All God wants me to do is my job.  So if I’m a teacher, care for the children and teach them.  If I’m a lawyer, act with integrity.  If I repair things, don’t hold people over a barrel, treat them fairly.  Yes, this sounds great—to simply live with integrity, I can do that!
 
But later on John says something that seems to push things further: I am baptizing you with water, he says; but someone greater than I is coming—and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.  It’s almost as if the Gospel is saying that we begin on one level, and then we are ready to move to another level.  We begin with John’s message of integrity, but that is only to get us ready for Jesus’ message of Spirit and holiness.
 
After all, what happens when I try to live with integrity?  Two things.  First, I want to do more than this.  As I start treating people fairly, as I start doing the obvious that God asks me to do, I feel I want to do more.  I feel called to be something better.  Secondly, as we start to live with integrity, not only do we want to do more, but we find we have to turn to God to have the grace to live with way we should, and the grace to grow even deeper into God’s life.  We find ourselves turning more deeply to God’s Spirit.
 
In the year of Mercy, God’s forgiveness is a way to invite us further.  God knows that we make mistakes, that we compromise and cut corners.  But God’s love, the Spirit in our hearts, urges us not to settle for this.  A half-way world is an unrealized, frustrated world.  But even more, God’s Mercy calls us to look at everything we do from a different angle—how we can make our daily deeds into acts of love, compassion and openness to others?  How we can radiate God’s love because everything we do is charged with the love and peace of God?  It’s not just what we do, it’s how we do it, in God.
 
So, as Paul tells us, our kindness should be known to all.  Because it’s not just our kindness, but God’s.  Our trust and peace should touch all we do, because it is God working joy and peace through us.  God’s coming in Advent should make us ambassadors of Advent—people who help God come into the lives of others.  Our joy at seeing God come in the flesh in Jesus should lead us to treat every human being with the love that God has for them, for they have the same flesh as Jesus.
 
At the end of the Gospel, it sounds like Jesus would be a pretty tough boss—his winnowing fan is in his hand.  Will we be chaff?  Or will we be wheat?  But the judgment of Jesus is quite easy and sensible: in our lives, did we try to reflect to others the love that Jesus showed us?  Jesus is neither a micromanager, nor a passive, distant boss.  Jesus sends his own Spirit into us, giving us his power, so he can work along with and within us—until we finally know that our baptism in water was also a baptism in his Spirit.


2 Advent C

Let’s set up the meeting.  Let’s find a place we can settle things..
 
Sometimes meeting places can be sensitive.  In the Godfather, part 1, after the murder attempt on Don Corleone, Michael Corleone wants a meeting—a safe place—where no one will be shot.  Business people will inquire if negotiations are going to take place: “My place or yours?”  The presumption is that the one who controls the territory has an advantage.  And we have famous places like Yalta or Glassboro where leaders met in dangerous times, trying to find formulas for peace.  The beginning of reconciliation often entails a safe place to meet.
 
How does God meet with us?  How does reconciliation happen?  Often the Jewish people thought that God went away, or God’s face was hidden; but that really would be only the consequence of what Israel did first—Israel grew distant, Israel rebelled, Israel closed its ears.  The decades the Jewish people spent in exile in Babylon—called the Babylonian captivity—was interpreted as a separation from God, physically and spiritually.
 
The song we have from Baruch, one of Jeremiah’s disciples, in the first reading is like much of the writings of the great prophets who were sent to console the Jewish people during their exile, and also to help restore them after the exile was ended.  Here Baruch sings about the return of the Jewish people from exile; we can feel the excitement as people, now long removed from their land, return to their ancestral home, return to where they came to know and worship their God. Nature itself will cooperate, Baruch sings, because God is re-creating a space for God’s people once again.
 
This theme of return from exile forms the backdrop of Luke’s presentation of John the Baptist.  John is in the desert—the place where Israel first came to know God in the covenant and the sacrifices—but, in our Gospel, God is leading people to John much like God led people from exile in ancient times.  With the coming of God’s last prophet, John, the exile is now over.  Not the exile of Jewish people from their land, but the exile of all human beings from the kind of relationship that God wants with them. 
 
Note how Luke goes out of his way to situate this in terms of history.  In Luke’s Gospel the emphasis is on the universal salvation of God.  Notice how the quotation from Isaiah ends with the words: all flesh will see the salvation of God.  What God is doing was not for one small, specially chosen group.  For when God chooses, God chooses someone or some community through whom God will touch many.  When God chooses his Son—his Elect—God is choosing all humankind in the flesh of Christ, the flesh for which we prepare during Advent. 
 
God then sets up the meeting place, where reconciliation and peace will happen, where walls will be broken down, where hills will be flattened, where valleys will be filled in: to make a smooth, straight road whereby we can encounter God and know God’s mercy and grace once again.  Celebrate, Baruch says; rejoice, says Isaiah the Prophet.  Prepare says John the Baptist—your God is coming to you in the clearest form of love, in the closest way possible: your God comes to you in your own flesh.
 
If we feel the affection Paul shows the Philippians in the second reading, we get a hint of the affection that God wishes to show humankind.  Even in our violence, in our dysfunction, in our frustrations, in our obsession with things—even here God wants to create a space for us, so we can come to see things differently, turn our hearts around, open our eyes, and finally see who we are in Christ.  We worry we will never be good enough for God.  But God worries that we will never see what God is doing in our lives and in our world: breaking down the walls, creating a smooth path, setting up the meeting place where divine love is poured upon everyone who trusts enough to open her or his heart to God. 
 
God has done it. God has opened the doors to mercy and love.  Pope Francis’ Jubilee Door is only an image of that.  Our job is not to resist.  And our Advent hope is to let God draw nearer to our hearts, our families, our communities, our world—as God brings to fulfillment what he has begun in us and in history.


1 ADVENT C

We knew in 2001 that things had changed.  From New York to Washington, we watched smoke arise, saw travel disrupted, and began a month-long celebration of funerals that seemed to never end.  Strangers hugged each other and cried on the streets.  Who knew what was coming next? We could only fear everything.  Attacks these past two weeks in Europe can only bring these feelings up again in us, how ordinary life can be disrupted by sudden destruction, how nightclubs turn into warzones.  And this European terror only reflects a tiny percentage of what has been felt in the Middle East, in Syria, and in parts of Africa.
 
Jesus lived in similar times.  Although there were not nuclear bombs or plastic explosives, ordinary people lived in fear of sudden disaster—whether from criminals, foreign armies, or from foreign domination.  Yet his attitude seems markedly different than what we hear in so many places around us: “When these things begin to happen, raise your head high because your redemption is near at hand.”  Do cower in fear, don’t panic, don’t live with non-stop suspicion.  Rather, be people of hope.
 
Where did this hope come from?  We hear from Jeremiah the prophet some of the images that circulated at the time of Jesus, images that helped Israel recover from sixty years of exile.  God is a God of justice: from the stump that is left of the Jewish Kingship God will raise up an agent of justice who will remove terror and fear from the land. We are not told, however, how this happens; we only see that, as Christian believers, in Jesus.
 
Let’s play with the word justice because so often it means for us “getting even.”  Sometimes people are sentenced and news people interview folks connected with the trial.  “It wasn’t a harsh enough sentence,” we hear.  “Let them burn in hell.”  We certainly feel that and, when assaulted, that is our first instinct.  But justice has to mean far more than vengeance because vengeance only breeds a greater desire for vengeance, in a nonstop spiral that makes life worse.  Justice has to mean God’s dream of our lives finally fulfilled, finally renewed, finally united in divine love.  Justice is when all things are made right—not in our eyes, but in the merciful eyes of God. 
 
We see what this means in the second reading when Paul, in the first letter we have from him, 1 Thessalonians, tells the Thessalonians that how they treat each other, how they live with integrity and love, is part of the Kingdom that God is bring out.  Luke tells us to lift our heads high because we believers live with a different vision, one that carves from a world of violence and fear another world of affirmation, love, and healing.  Justice can be far more accomplished by healing and mercy than by recrimination and anger.  But only faith sees that because only faith has seen the alternative vision of God.
 
We can grow drowsy, says the Gospel: we can lose the vision.  We can give up on life.  How many have given up on life, emptying life of meaning: terrorists because they cannot see a relationship between this life and the paradise they long for; and many modern people because they think there’s nothing beyond this life’s pleasures and pains.  You cannot hold your head high when you think you ultimately are nothing.  You can only do it when you’ve caught the vision of God, the justice that is transforming the world for those who receive and share God’s mercy. 
 
Advent starts—a new church year.  A year of mercy, of Jubilee, of expansive forgiveness.  In the midst of our fear-filled generation, God calls on us to offer humankind a different vision.  And we can do that only by offering and living a different way of life.  Note all the talk about the tribulations at the end of the Gospel.  That should remind us of the prayer we say every day.  You know the ending: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The victory has already been won; let’s show the world we know it by living as a people of hope in a world fixated on fear.
 
Christ the King

“Gotcha” is a game people play all the time with each other—using their statements against them to embarrass them.  And this seems to be some of the complaining in the presidential campaigns this year.  One of the usual “gotcha” points revolves around whether those seeking the presidency are out of touch with the rest of us.  Gotcha—you’re too removed to be our president.  They made a lot, in the past, about Bush 41’s not knowing the price of a loaf of bread, and then we had John Kerry on his yacht.  The billionaire Trump uses mostly populist tactics; yeah, he thinks the way most of us think.  He’s really one of us!  But who is that senator who ran up big bills on his credit card and seems to be financially daft?  Wait a minute, doesn’t that make him just like all of us?  Wow, maybe we should vote for him!
 
In the musical Camelot, Richard Burton sang Richard Harris’s song where the people say:  “I wonder what the King is doing tonight?  What merriment is the King pursuing tonight?”  But as the song goes on, the King tells us of his nervousness and his fears. Isn’t the price of leadership, of kingship, of presidency, that one ends up isolated?  Surrounded by cronies, buffered by staff, protected by armies.  Lonely is the head the wears the crown; lonely is the president—even when surrounded by voters.
 
We call Jesus a “King” this day—we would never call him president because presidents go out of office. Jesus does not.  Yes the basis of Jesus’ Kingship is not how far removed he is from us.  Rather, it’s how closely he has identified with the deepest strata inside of us.  Jesus is King because he has taken the depth of humanity to the Father.
 
What is that humanity?  The Gospel sketches some options.  We have Jesus and Pilate, the Roman-appointed Governor, almost debating each other.  “So you are a king?” Pilate asks.  We can imagine that question said with puzzlement, or with sarcasm, or even as a dismissal.  This question comes from a man propped up in power who displays so often what we think power is: the one with the soldiers, who can execute, who can rub his enemies out.  Even though democracies have instituted terms for leaders to protect ourselves from the worse abuses of power, we still think of rulers in terms of might and decisiveness.  We want them to smile, but also to launch the missiles.
 
Jesus stands in contrast to this, knowing when the interview with Pilate is over that he will be beaten, insulted, crowned with thorns, and dragged to death.  No gold for Jesus.  Just the closest tracking with all of persecuted humanity, all the abuse, all the insults, all the violence.  Gazing from his blood-soaked eyes, Jesus has seen humankind not in its pretense of power, but in its brokenness.  This is what he takes to the Father.  This is the dimension of humankind that needed redemption—our victimhood, our brokenness, our death. This is what our Lordly King is not afraid to touch and, yes, accept.
 
In the second reading, it’s the blood of Jesus that earns him victory and kingship, the blood poured out in unmitigated love.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” we hear: his love is the source and the completion of all that exists.  That love is the key to true power, God’s real power, Jesus’ true kingship.
 
Jesus comes as a witness to, a martyr for, truth—the truth that is in the beginning and will be the only thing that remains in the end, the truth of sacrificial love.  How often we think God plays “gotcha” with us, waiting for us to commit our foibles so we can stand in shame.  But God plays no games.  God does not stand on the side, distant from us, musing or amused.  In Jesus, God takes what is best in us into the Kingdom and sends his Son to be so close to us that even our brokenness can be part of God’s victory.
 

33B

I first heard the album when I was 15 years old, back in 1960, and I thought it was one of funniest sketches ever done.  The album was called “Beyond the Fringe,” one of the forerunners of modern, satirical comedy, done by British comics, the most famous among them being Dudley Moore.  In the sketch we hear a group of people slowly climbing a mountain, muttering excitedly among themselves.  They belong to a sect that believes the world will end in just a few moments.  The climax builds.  The pastor-leader of the group closes his eyes and yells: “Behold the end of the world.”  Then . . . nothing, absolute silence, until one of the congregants asks, “Is that it?  Has the world ended? Is it all over?  ” 
 
Of course it wasn’t all over, which was the joke of the skit.  But few themes have occupied the human mind as much as that of the end of the world: when it will happen, how it will happen, and what the consequences will be for me—and, perhaps, for you, too.  When the year 2000 came, people said we were toast.  Then came the Mayan Calendar—it was all over.  Nope. Then some preacher who got way too much publicity; he was sure the world would end a few years ago.  Last week a strange light appeared over Los Angeles.  But here we are, still spinning around on mother earth.
 
We are given a short selection from Mark’s Gospel, the collection of lines about the end of time and the judgment.  We find similar lines in Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s; but John has no language like this.  We have other themes in the Scriptures, for example something that people call “the Rapture,” which has been vividly imagined in the past decade—making publishers and movie makers millions of dollars.  We have tons of seemingly hallucinatory images in the book of Revelation, all of that ending with Jerusalem coming out of heaven like a jewel-clothed bride. 
 
What are we to make of all of this?  Well, Jesus himself, as God’s Son, says that this is all mystery—not even he knows when history will be complete—that’s how today’s Gospel ends.  But we can be sure that, however and whenever it comes, it will be for all of humankind a profound judgment.  In fact, it will be a judgment that, however it ends, has already begun, and is taking place as you and I live.  Jesus alludes to this when he says that the Son of Man will return before his present generation has passed.  What? We ask.  The world didn’t end.  It’s still going.  We are still here!
 
But Jesus is talking about his death and resurrection, the decisive moment in history, and the decisive moment of judgment in history.  On Calvary God has revealed the utter darkness of the human heart, but also the definitive sign of God’s conquering Love.  In those crucial hours the world began to end and the point of God’s judgment became clear: can I accept, and live by, the love that Jesus shows, and can I live by the Spirit that he gives?  Or will I opt for something else: living for myself, my illusions of power, my quest for pleasure at the expense of others, my willingness to destroy?
 
This is the dividing line of history, what prophets saw coming, what Jesus said and did, what history has been unfolding.  I imagine in parts of Syria it looks exactly like the end of the world, for there the tribulation of history seems totally clear at this moment.  But is it less in the quiet of our lives, in our day to day choices, in the visions we hold in our hearts?  Christ has come.  History has come to its completion.  Our only choice is how we respond to that.
 
Sometimes when catching a plane I arrive at the gate a little late.  “Have they started boarding yet?” I ask. Sometimes it isn’t clear.  But for us it is.  The Kingdom of heaven is being boarded.  Some of us have heard the call.  Others are hanging by the newsstand or the bar.  The plane is leaving.  It’s almost always ready.  This is one flight you don’t want to miss.  You either get on board, or your life will seem pretty pointless both in the few moments you and I have now . . . and especially when time will have no end. 

32 B

One of our senior priests told me this joke about the attitudes of our genders.  God created Adam but Adam was lonely.  So God said he would create a perfect mate: kind, generous, compassionate, always agreeing with him, and never complaining.  Adam said, “Great.”  God said: “But this will cost you,”  “How much?” says Adam.  “It will cost an arm and a leg,” God says.  Adam thinks and says: “Well, what can I get for a rib?”
 
The point is not about the endless differences between men and women; it’s about Adam’s reluctance to give.  He’s looking for a bargain.  He wants to hold on to what he has.  And in this story he represents that part in all of us—men and women—to hold back, to be secure, to give up as little as we can to get as much as we can.  Bargains!  We always want bargains.
 
Jesus contrasts in the Gospel the attitude of the religious leaders and the widow at the temple.  The religious leaders have things set up for themselves.  They pontificate, they dominate, they dictate, and, in a chilling detail, they devour the houses of widows.  They use piety to their cynical advantage—something we’ve seen since the beginning of Christianity, in just about every form it has taken, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, ancient and modern.
 
In contrast here is a woman who understands what piety is about: this widow knows that it’s ultimately about coming to a total trust and total dedication to God.  She only has two coins, but they represent everything.  She gives it in trust, knowing that God’s care extends beyond the two coins.  She is like the widow in the first reading who can count how much flour is left, but still trusts the words of the holy man, Elijah, that the food will not run out so long as she trusts. 
 
It’s not a gullible trust, as if this was a magic show and she is testing God to see a trick.  Rather, it’s a trust the bores to the center of her spirit, and the spirit of all those who authentically believe: that we either trust God and put ourselves in God’s hands, or we run around trying in vain to make ourselves secure.  At some point, we have to give ourselves completely.  At some point the bargaining must stop.  At some point we have to realize that faith is us giving ourselves to God because we see that God has given Godself to us in Jesus Christ.
 
I bet a lot of us think we’ve never done that.  And maybe we haven’t.  Jesus is pretty clear that we can use religion for our own gain, whether in terms of riches or in psychological massaging.  But I bet many of us do this on a regular basis—we have said, I give myself completely.  I have heard these sentiments in the confessional.  I have witnessed this when couples marry.  I have watched people at Mass.  I have observed them on retreat. I've seen the care they give in sickness and weakness.  In so many ways God asks us: Do you give yourself to me?  And at points ever deeper in our lives we say: Yes, Lord.  I trust.  I hold nothing back.  And this ongoing give of self forms the basis of our spiritual lives.
 
We continue reflecting today on the letter to the Hebrews, the image of Jesus the priest, presented to people who were persecuted and in doubt.  Look at Jesus, the author says, how faithful he is.  Surely we can be faithful too.  Jesus knows our weaknesses and shared in them.  But he gave it all, and gives it all, and knows that we will only find our deepest selves to the extent that we give it all as well. 
 
By the way, we should observe that that’s what our Mass is about—every Sunday.  We don’t come here to cut deals, but to give ourselves in Jesus for the sake of the Kingdom.
 

All Saints

Sarah Silverman, one of the stars of the move “I Smile Back” was being interviewed by Terry Gross on her NPR show, Fresh Air.  She had a very striking, memorable description of depression.  She was telling Terry about how own depression in life, with the first bout coming when she was 13.  She said: “It was like I was homesick, terribly homesick, but I still was at home. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling.”  This metaphor for depression makes us wonder what it’s like to feel at home, and when we are really at home in our lives.
 
We have all kinds of phrases about “being out of sorts,” and “not feeling myself.”  These speak about ways in which we do not even felt at home inside ourselves.  Some people talk about an “out of body” experience.  We could think of growing up as simply the process of leaving one home and finding another, coming to the ability to set up a home for oneself.  At the same time, we Christians have often thought of ourselves as “in exile”—as if this life were the deception, and the true life, our real home, would come later, in heaven.  So when are we at home?
 
Today’s feast of All Saints ask us where we think our home with God is.  Just like heaven, we often think of sainthood as something “out there,” something “far away,” that only a few exceptional, or exceptionally crazy, people could achieve.  We try to balance our images of saints with exceptional stories—like St. Paul, or Theresa of Avila, or St. Francis Xavier—with images of saints that you and I have known in our own lifetimes.  We all saw St. John Paul II on TV and many of us in person.  Many of us lived during the life of St. John XXIII, and we expect Mother Theresa, by now a household world, to be canonized.  But sainthood can still seem far, aloof, not something we are, or we are called to actually live.
 
The Feast of All Saints and tomorrow’s feast of All Souls help us debug this attitude of distant sainthood.  Saints are people who live in the Kingdom of God.  You and I, by virtue of our baptisms, are members of the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is not something that only comes later, at the end of time.  The Kingdom is being built even as we speak, in our own lives, in and through our own history.  The Kingdom is where God’s sway of love takes place and shapes the world.  That is the Kingdom Jesus showed us, and the Kingdom in which we are, even now, called to live.
 
The Gospel shows us two doorways through which Christ’s disciples enter the Kingdom.  The first is that of utter reliance on God.  Jesus at first seems crazy to say those who cry, or are meek, or are poor, are happy and blessed.  How can that make sense?  It makes sense because when we know our utter poverty, our weakness and pain, or smallness, then we know that we can only depend on God as our Father, that he alone is our strength, our richness, our pride. 
 
The other doorway comes after the first.  Because we know God as the Father upon whom we depend, then we are free to shows God love to others—by working for justice, extending mercy, bringing about peace, and seeking the wholeness of every person and all creation.  If I depend on myself, I am never free enough; but if I depend on God the Father, as Jesus his Son showed us, then I can place my anxiety aside and give myself to those in need.
 
Notice how Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God IS theirs.”  The Kingdom comes about as you and I act, as we open our hearts to God, as we let the Spirit work in us, as we reflect God’s love in our lives.  The first reading gives us a strange image—those who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb and made them clean.  What can this mean?  Christ’s blood is his life, his spirit of love, his selfless self-giving.  When these become ours, we wear his robes, the robes of glory and resurrection.  That’s what you and I celebrate at every Mass, when heaven touches earth and the Kingdom shines forth.
 
Sometimes people pass on YouTube images of crowds—perhaps in shopping centers or restaurants—when all of a sudden someone starts to sing something glorious: opera or the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  One sings, then another sings, then the entire crowd is surrounded by song.  It’s as if the music shows the glory that always surrounds us, but we often overlook.  I think that’s how the Kingdom is: already among us as the tune we can’t get out of our minds, as a melody that won’t die.  Slowly it builds until, when times becomes eternity, the whole symphony bursts forth as God’s glory revealed in our midst—how do the words of the Mass put it? “As saints among the saints in the halls of heaven.”  I imagine Jesus’ first words to the saved: “Welcome home.  You’ve been in heaven all along.”


30 B

Sometimes it’s a genie in a bottle, sometimes it’s a leprechaun in the woods, but it amounts to the same thing.  Some strange figure appears and asks you to make a wish, or three wishes; and how the story turns out—usually not well—depends on what one asked.  We have the commercial where someone asks for a million bucks, and his lawn and house are instantly infested with deer.  We also have the ancient character, Midas, whose touch turns things to gold; unfortunately, his daughter embraces him . . . and that’s that.  Whenever we buy lottery tickets, as I regularly do, it’s a test of wish and fulfillment—what would I do if I won $60,000.000.  Wishes are tests for our longings and souls.
 
For the second week in a row we hear, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus ask in a rather formal way: “What do you want me to do for you?”  Last week it was the request of the two disciples, and his question seemed rather open ended.  They could have asked for anything.  But this week, Jesus asks a blind man—and it makes us wonder why.  Bartimaeus was obviously blind; he kept calling out for Jesus.  Wasn’t it clear what Bartimaeus wanted from life, from God, from Jesus?  He wanted to see.  Unlike the deaf-and-dumb man a few weeks ago, Bartimaeus’ heart has already been opened; Jesus makes clear that seeing is an extension of his powerful faith.
 
Maybe Bartimaeus was lucky, though.  His blindness was clear to him and clear to everyone else.  He had an obvious problem, so he had an obvious solution.  After all, in how many ways are you and I blind so often in life but we don’t even know it?  We can easily begin with the subtle and overt racism, sexism, and classism that operates in most of our lives, often even without our intention or awareness.  Did I really prefer this person to that?  Did I really dismiss the concerns of that other person?  Did I really clutch my wallet or pocketbook in fear?  It’s pretty obvious from Ferguson to the presidential election, we all live in America, but we see very different versions of it. Many of us must be missing things.
 
But there are deeper blindnesses yet.  There’s the blindness that comes from our bitterness, the way we think life has cheated us.  Or the blindness from our self-absorption, thinking we are the center of the world.  Or the blindness from our need for control, thinking we have things pretty well in control, so God, and faith, and grace, are all unnecessary things.  We have a culture now that thinks if its IRAs are worth enough, they then have security; we have a culture that seems incapable of asking the meaning of life, or probing our relationship with God, or even the implications of our relationships with each other. How seldom we cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”  We are blind very often to our own need of God.
 
Jeremiah speaks to a people who often cried out in their need.  Like so many of the prophets, he writes to a people in exile, in Babylon, estranged from their land and homes.  To return to their land, to have their temple restored, to do their religious observances once again—this was like receiving back their sight.  Indeed, it was like being raised from the dead.  And this is what God would do for all of us—give us the deepest vision, and fill us with the greatest life—if only we could open our hearts in faith as ask.  Jesus, God’s High Priest is given to us, to lead us to the deepest needs of our lives, to lead us to God.
 
So often it’s easy to see faith as a set of practices, things we do.  Occasionally when we get kicked in the gut by life, we might cry out with true need to God.  But Bartimaeus is teaching us that we need to see our radical need for God—that we are blind and broken without God—and that only by opening our hearts daily, in the deepest way, to Jesus can we begin to see, to hope, to truly live.  This is what our Catholic faith is about—allowing us to encounter Jesus, personally, in an ever deeper way.  We call this discipleship.  Doesn’t Pope Francis make clear in every way that our faith is calling us to disciples, seeing and living and loving in Christ?
 
So I have my Lotto fantasies: the trusts I would set up, the mission programs I would fund, parish debt I would make disappear, the friends who lost their homes in 2008.  But these are not my deepest needs.  “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.  If I ask for anything less than life in him, for his love and vision—and the chance to share those with others—then I’ve kind of missed the point.  Haven’t I?  Then I have not yet come to see.

 

29 B

It’s one of my favorite internet stories, about Sr. Mary, with a nursing background, who works serving seniors in her parish.  She visits them, helps them with medical issues, prays with them, and brings them communion.  So she’s ready to go out and notices that she’s out of gas.  The gas station is only two blocks away.  She asks the attendant for a portable tank to take gas to her car.  “Sorry Sister.  We only have one and you’ll have to wait till it comes back.”  She looks at her watch, sees she doesn’t have time, returns to the car and starts looking in the trunk.  There she finds a bed pan.  She brings the bed pan to the attendant, asking if he’s put gas into it.  He shrugs, “Why not?” and gives her some gas.  In the next scene she’s putting gas from the bedpan into her car and two men are watching across the street.  One nudges the other: “I don’t know about you, Harry, but if that car starts, I’m going to become a Catholic.”
 
This cute story reveals a lot about the way we approach religion, especially in this country of consumerism: religion is a way for me to get what I want.  Surely Jesus encouraged us to pray for what we need; no one can doubt that.  But when the others see James and John asking to be at Jesus’ right and left, they are steamed.  Who do they think they are?  Are they following Jesus just to get ahead?
 
Because, if they were, they picked the wrong way to do it.  Jesus tells them that they will be bathed in his bath, and will drink his cup: they will be one with him, as we are, through Baptism and Eucharist.  But little do they know at this point that Baptism will be identification with his self-giving death, and Eucharist will be drinking the cup of the New Covenant.
 
What is that New Covenant?  We hear those words every time we come to Mass.  They are like the words New Testament, but we are not sure what that means either.  The New Covenant doesn’t wipe away the Old Covenant—God’s eternal Covenant with Israel—but shows us how God is faithful to it: by giving us his Son, so that his Son can give his life as a definitive sign of God’s Eternal Love. This self-gift of Jesus leads to resurrection and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. 
 
So the paradox of Christ Jesus is this: we find ourselves only by giving ourselves.  We achieve only by letting go.  We are enriched only to the extent we are willing to be poor.  The way of love is not acquisition but selfless giving.  Are we shocked?  Are we like James, John and the other ten apostles, stunned at the central message of Jesus?
 
We shouldn’t be.  This pattern is written into our human lives, the same human life the Son of God takes on and lives out, as the second reading shows us.  We know that the more we think about ourselves, the emptier we feel.  We know that the more we have, the more we want.  We know how empty selfish people are—we see it all the time.  We also know the joy we have felt in giving ourselves, whatever it cost, for those we love.  And, indeed, even for those we might not love so much.
 
How remarkable that Pope Francis chose Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton as prime examples of American spirituality.  Every one of them faced a point in their lives when they knew it was all or nothing, when they knew what the cost would be.  By their sufferings and self-sacrifice how much healing has come to so many others!  By giving themselves, life was not lessened.  Rather, it was enriched and multiplied.
 
Our culture exults bossy, wealthy, aggressive personalities—our CEOs, our politicians, our TV heroes and heroines.  As in Jesus’ day, we American Gentiles think it’s all about being on top.  That shows how much more conversion our culture needs, how far we are from the vision of Jesus, and how much more witness we Christians need to be giving.

28 B

It’s a regular and funny set-up.  A pilgrim, a seeker, is looking for wisdom.  Only by climbing a high mountain can wisdom be found—from the guru, the wise man.  “What is the secret of life?” the seeker asks. And the guru comes back with something like: Metamucil.  Or maybe: chocolate chip cookies.  Or maybe: insider trading.  We chuckle at these set-ups because of the disjuncture between the very profound question . . . and the trivial answer that comes back.  And the inference is clear: don’t sweat the big questions, just have your chocolate chip cookie and be happy.
 
I wonder, though, after we’ve lived long enough, whether we would not have something to say.  If someone came up to you and asked, “What is the secret of life?” what would you say?  Unlike the joke-cracking guru, we might well want to communicate something about life, human relationships, love, struggle, and the useless detours we have taken on our journeys.
 
We should be shocked at the Gospel story, the young person who comes up to Jesus asking how to attain eternal life.  While earlier generations fretted over eternal life, sometimes we wonder whether this is even a concern for younger generations today.  Survival seems more pressing than eternal life.  But when Jesus gives the answer to the young man, to give up his riches, we realize that this man was right to walk away.  Jesus gave him the opposite answer he would expect.  The man has everything.  Why would he give his riches up?
 
Jesus is saying that the very thing his man relies on has come to take the place of God.  Give it up.  Do not let anything take the place of God.  We hear echoes of the first reading, Solomon asking for wisdom, who is rewarded because he placed wisdom above riches, power, and glory.  He knew what he could not do without, God and God’s wisdom.  Jesus is pushing the young man to realize what he cannot do without—being in the company of Jesus. But he cannot see it.
 
What would God say to us?  It probably would be different for each one of us, for we each have something that we put into competition with God.  Maybe it’s our ambition.  Maybe it’s our pride.  Maybe it’s our natural charm or looks.  For some, it may be money.  For some it might be reliance on our smarts, or our quick judgment.  We all have something we rely on, and Jesus is saying that the greatest wisdom is this: to know that we can rely only on God, ultimately.  Everything else is idolatry or illusion.
 
The short reading from the Letter to the Hebrews has a gripping image of Scripture—one that we usually associate with the statue of St. Paul who always has a sword in his hand.  The sword of God’s Word, which cuts flesh from bone, which cuts right to the bone, which brings us beyond the tales we tell ourselves to the truth of our lives.  God’s word cuts right through us: What I live for, what I rely on, what seems precious to me, shapes who I am.  What if I lived for God?  For the Kingdom?  For Jesus and the Spirit?  How might my life be different?
 
In this political season—never-ending—each candidate dangles before us something we think is necessary for our lives.  All together, the candidates make up a Rorschach of the American appetite mind.  What do our fears, or dreams, say about us?  Jesus is trying to bring clarity to our dreams.  Yes, we might like this, or that.  But will we ever get to the point where we need to arrive?  Will we see that God, and God’s Kingdom, ultimately has to come first?  Or do we walk away sad, like the young man, knowing we’ve missed something, but never quite sure what it was?

27 B

It is strange to be in Iowa during a presidential campaign.  One sees advertisements everywhere.  Every other TV ad presents yet another smiling face, another pithy slogan, and some idealistic scene.  Each potential candidate appeals to some value that resonates with our culture: freedom, honesty, justice, taxation, and American history.  This one will restore this; that candidate will fight for something else.  Whether any of them can really change things is another question. 
 
But can humans live without ideals?  We all have pictures in our heads about the way things should be, and the scriptures this week underscore an ideal I’ve heard again and again in my decades of preparing people for marriage: every couple wants their marriage to be total, permanent, exclusive, and filled with love.  Every couple expects its marriage to endure.
 
Of course, it’s in the very nature of love to give oneself to the beloved.  And if we are going to do that, we cannot do that only in part.  We don’t truly love with only part of ourselves, or only for a part of our years, or only under certain conditions.  The values of marriage which we believers have upheld, in Christ, are the values that speak to the truths of human love. 
 
With the World Meeting on the Family in Philadelphia last week, and the upcoming Synod next month, these ideals will be articulated with particular strength.  They are important not only for what we think marriage is about, but also for the reality of our families.  Children need the faithfulness of their parents.  Children need the stable and abiding love of their mothers and fathers.  If this love is missing, if they cannot sense this love, it takes many years to find a stable base, to overcome the self-questioning: what happened with mommy and daddy?  Was it my fault?
 
Of course, we have this ideal about marriage because we have this ideal about God.  God loves us totally and completely, unconditionally, and shows this love in Jesus Christ.  Breakups, divorce, infidelity—these have nothing to do with the love that God shows us.  How can they be part of our lives?
 
Yet they are, aren’t they?  Marriages break up despite the best intentions of the parties when they marry.  People grow apart.  Things happen that destroy the relationship.  And this is a burden not only for the couple, not only for the family, but for society itself.  We all carry the scars of vows that were not able to be fulfilled.  When faithfulness is broken, we are all broken.  What then should we do?  Two things.
 
First, we have to support those people who have suffered the breakdown of their marriage.  Beyond any fault, beyond any shame, we have to be with people in their trauma, if only to accompany them.  Divorce is a great experience of separation, almost one of abandonment.  Divorced people should not feel further abandoned.  We can treat divorce better as a wound than as a moral flaw.
 
Secondly, we have to, as believers, rally around those elements of society that support faithfulness, and put aside those elements which do not.  So much of our public media presumes unfaithfulness, casual attitudes toward sex, a personal freedom at any cost.  We see this on TV, in movies, and in the books we read.  All of this creates an environment in which the ideals we hold, and the values of God, become obscured.  Without being prudes or prigs, we have to speak up and say what our values are, because this speaks the truth of our own natures and the truth of God.
 
The Letter to the Hebrews talks about the way God has united himself to us in Jesus who becomes our mediator, one among us.  Christ took on the brokenness of our lives that we might overcome brokenness in his Kingdom.  When we live our ideals, and live the pattern of love God gave us, the Kingdom becomes clearer, more accessible, more fully present in our lives.  With Christ, we treasure every vow we make, especially those that reflect his life and love.

26 B

So a Pope comes to the United States.  He’s an instant celebrity.  Any pope would draw crowds, but even more one as popular as Francis.  All those millions of people following the news; all those thousands waiting hours just to catch a glimpse.  And what are we seeing?  Religion is supposed to be in decline.  Catholicism in particular is said to be losing millions of people, mostly from younger generations, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the greatest generation.  But here they are, trying to catch a glimpse of a man talking about humility, service, and love.
 
Sometimes we want to draw the circle around who is in the family very tightly.  This is the implication in the Gospel when disciples turn against some “who is not of our group” who is performing miracles in the name of Jesus.  This clearly echoes the first reading when the gift of prophecy fell upon people who were not part of the original group.  Are we jealous of God’s grace?  Is God’s love something that we need to dole out, spoonful by spoonful, or does it flow like the greatest of rivers?  Does the Spirit come in tiny bursts, or does the Spirit flood the world with God’s love?
 
Of course we need a core.  Of course we need people to be committed than ever, and even more committed than they are.  But Jesus is probing the attitudes of those who claim to follow him.  He warns directly about the way the behavior of believers can scandalize those who do not believe, but implied in this is the opposite side: how the faith-filled lives of his followers can bring transformation to others. 
 
Although it may look like Catholicism, along with a lot of other churches, has fallen quite a bit in the past fifty years, the truth is that our faith has focused on a basic challenge, one that comes from the Gospels, the early leaders of the Church, and the Second Vatican Council:  Namely: Can we live as disciples?  Can we live with our motivation coming not mainly from fear or our surrounding culture, but from our personal commitment to following Jesus?  Can we live our faith because we have personally encountered Jesus and therefore feel we must follow him just as his first disciples did?
 
Pope Francis keeps telling us that it will be from the joy and power of our personal faith that our Church will be renewed, and people will be drawn to us.  We have so much to do as Christ’s followers.  We have so much yet to grow personally.  So many people think of church only as rules and procedures, only as cultural behaviors, even though Christ has come into their lives in some basic way.  How you and I live can transform the images that others have of faith; we can help people move from somewhat knowing of Christ to having Christ as the center of their lives.
 
The Pope comes; the Pope leaves.  Lots of stirring, but what remains?  What remains is the power we let the Gospel have—in our lives, in our parish, in our Church, and, ultimately, in our world.

25 B

Fr. Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who runs a very successful ministry with gangs in Los Angeles, was telling a story on National Public Radio.  His ministry is called “Homeboys,” and it involves getting former gang members into society by involving them in various businesses he organizes.  One of them is a café run by former women prisoners.  The famous actress Diane Keaton came to the café to lend her support to one of Homeboys’ projects.  She was trying to go unnoticed.  As she was being served by a woman ex-con, the former prisoner said, “I’ve seen your face.  I know you.”  Keaton brushed it off: “Oh, I have one of those faces that looks familiar to everyone.”  “No, no,” the woman pushed back.  “You can’t fool me.  You were in the prison with me, on the same block, just a few years ago.  I know, I never forget a face.”
 
Sometimes we think we are looking humble and meek, but it just isn’t enough.  We cling to those shreds of dignity, power, and position because we believe these are so important to our sense of self.  How paradoxical that, happening just this week, a pope who has put humility and service before everything else will tie up traffic in three major cities and cause millions of people to wait hours just to get a peek as he drives by.  I suspect he thinks he can use the fame to speak of our need to renounce arrogance.
 
Obviously in the time of St. Mark the Christian community had already become a place of envy and striving.  Jesus has no sooner told his disciples that service and suffering are at the heart of his ministry, when they are jockeying among themselves for the number one place.  St. James, in the second reading, gets at the psychology: all these passions inside us are at war, creating the illusion that we need to possess and dominate.  The trick, he says, is praying correctly.  We think James is telling us to pray for what we want instead of grabbing for them, hurting others for them.  But I suspect he’s telling us that if we prayed, we’d realize we’re better off without those passions running our lives in the first place.
 
The book of Wisdom, in the first reading, talks about passions too: the way people so resent another coming in simple goodness they will destroy just to get rid of him or her.  Obviously this is an outline for what happened to Jesus two centuries later: how ironic that the followers of Jesus can have the same passions in their heart as those that led to his capture and brutal execution.
 
We keep holding onto the shreds of our own prestige and power, needing to look strong and good.  Jesus gives us the image of one who empties himself, even to the point of losing the false images that prop us up.  But we cannot do this unless we go where Jesus went: to the deepest levels of trust, where our hearts hang in the hands of God, relying on nothing but God, finding ourselves only in God. 
 
This is the path that Jesus invites his disciples to take—his path of humble trust.  Like them, it seems so hard to us.  We keep puffing ourselves up, even as a Church, when we need to be emptying ourselves of our illusions.  The world we live in runs on arrogance, power, bullying, pomp, all of that used as a wedge against others.  Just look at what we are calling presidential politics today.  Francis undoubtedly will have much to say about today’s world this week.  But it’s up to us to live something different, to witness to an alternative way, to walk down the same path as Jesus.
 

24 B

“This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.”  People in this congregation of a certain age will both recognize and smirk at these words, pronounced by generations of parents when they were about to discipline their children.  Children didn’t think “discipline.”  We thought: hit, beat.  But parents endured disciplining their children because it seemed like an ordinary way to raise them.  “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  Even the letter to the Hebrews says that every father shows love to his sons by disciplining them.
 
Well, sometimes in the 1970s Dr. Spock wrote his books, and spanking went out the window.  That’s why children of the past 30 years are so much better adjusted than we older people were: far fewer neuroses, far greater sense of esteem.  Well, maybe not entirely.  However fashions may come and go about raising children, it would be unfortunate to try to raise anyone with the impression that life comes without pain, that we can smile our way through it.
 
Jesus describes what, to the minds of his contemporaries, was indescribable pain and, even worse, incomprehensible humiliation—the rejection, scorn, shame and death that would befall him.  So Peter’s reaction is perfectly understandable: God forbid this happen to you!  Mark uses the extra strong words: Peter rebuked Jesus.  Wasn’t the Messiah going to take away our pain?  Wasn’t the Messiah going to be a figure of triumph, of restored kingship?  This made no sense.
 
We often fall into Peter’s trap, thinking that faith is a way to take away pain.  I’ve seen videos about certain distinctly American preachers who promise all kinds of healings and riches if only people would “plant a seed,” that is, give a donation.  Of course, the bigger the donation the greater the healing.  But even we Catholics can look at faith as some kind of bargaining with God to lessen the hardships of life.  “I lit candles.  I said the Rosary.  I made a Novena.”  When I was pastor in New York I was always back at the St. Jude statue throwing away the false promises spread through Xeroxed sheets of paper: if you say this prayer seven times a day for seven days, your petition will be answered.
 
The truth that Jesus tells us, and the truth that we know, is that pain is part of life.  We can never escape pain completely.  The Son of Man has to suffer not because his Father made him, but because suffering is built into our human condition itself.  Which doesn’t mean we should go about increasing our suffering, or, more likely, the sufferings of others.  But it does mean we need to face it.
 
There are three options. One is to avoid it—and the massive problems with addiction of every sort in our country show us that plenty of people try that.  Our need for drugs has distorted the economy of half a hemisphere.  The other option is to endure it—and let it fill us with resentment and bitterness.  The third is the option Jesus gives us: to turn pain into a gift of love.  While this does not take pain away, it changes its meaning, its power, and its effect in our lives.
 
The Son of Man suffers to show us precisely the eternal love of God for us, selfless and generous, without limit, as is the dying love of Jesus.  He shows us the inner reality of God.  And he shows us that, by our acceptance of suffering with the same generous love, life can be transformed.  When I was in NY two weeks ago, Stephen Colbert’s picture was everywhere; that’s how much CBS is hyping his show.  But Colbert made a bigger splash three weeks ago when he wrote about how even the punishments he has received in life are gifts from God.  Suffering is not God abandoning us; rather, God accompanies us in a special way in our suffering.  Isaiah, in our first reading, sings of the suffering Servant who probably is an image Israel itself: the pain of its exile will purify it and bring salvation to future generations.
 
The last thing we need to do is think Christianity is all about suffering and gloom.  We’ve done that for centuries, distorting the Gospel itself in the process.  “Offer it up.”  “You owe a price you cannot pay and you better feel miserable because of that.”  This is not at all the Gospel of Jesus.  Rather, the reading from James shows us the heart of Jesus’ teaching: you don’t need to go out of your way, beating yourself, to suffer.  The best way to suffer is to care for others, to feed the hungry, to lift up the broken, to get out from our egos and begin to show compassion.  That is what it means to be “Christ,” to be so free that we do not even fear the loss of our lives—to be so free that we transform our burdens and pain into sacrificial love.

23 B

When I was seven or eight, I visited a cousin who was about 10 years older than me.  “Do you want to see some card tricks?” he asked.  Sure, why not?  After he did a few tricks shuffling cards and finding a special one, he said, “Watch this!”  Then he rubbed his hand on my elbow and, presto, pulled a card right from the side of my arm.  “You didn’t know you had a card in there, did you?”  No, I didn’t, and for days I rubbed my arm near the elbow, totally spooked out that there was a card inside of me and I didn’t know it.
 
Because separating what is outside from what is inside is a big part of the way we think of reality.  It amazes us that doctors can cut us open, take out gall bladders, appendixes, parts of other organs, and tumors, and we are still who we are.  How can they re-arrange so much in our gut and we still remain the same?
 
What Jesus does to this deaf man almost makes us cringe.  It isn’t the process of helping the poor man hear—that is wonderful!  All of us aging folk wish we could hear better.  But it’s the way Jesus does it, putting his finger inside the man’s ear and, even more, putting spit on his finger and touching this man’s tongue.  That seems like a major violation of our assumptions about inner and outer space.  My spit is my spit.  My inner ear is my inner ear.  And here’s Jesus meddling with them.
 
Of course, the whole transaction between the deaf-mute and Jesus is a miracle that points to an even greater wonder: the process by which God transforms what is within us by God’s saving presence.  For what seems more like our “inside” than our own minds?  It’s the continuity of our consciousness that seems to be what is most inside of us—who we are, how we speak to ourselves, the secrets we have, the sadness we carry—and this is exactly where God want to meet us, change us, transform us, by letting us know God’s presence in the depths of our hearts and minds.
 
Jesus is carrying out the great vision of Isaiah the prophet who announced the end of the misery of Babylon’s exile.  Isaiah uses that exile as a symbol of what causes all of us to be in exile—the distortions, betrayals, destructive patterns, and limitations that are part of human experience.  What Isaiah sings, what Jesus does, is a symbol pointing to the ultimate liberation God would bring everyone: our total liberation, inside and out, because God has become part of our consciousness, our life, our very being.
 
We stay a lot on what is outside: obsessed as we are with how we look, how many pimples we have, how fact or skinny we are, whether we look like a football player or a geek.  The second reading makes fun of the ways we judge people by the outside, on how they are dressed or how they strike us.  The invitation of the reading is to pass from only thinking of the outside to concentrating on the inside, the heart, the part of us that most resists God’s Word, the part of us that leaves us deaf and dumb spiritually. 
 
After all, Jesus does far more to us than he did to that man.  He gives himself to us as our food and drink, entering into us as fully as possible.  Each week we eat and drink, but so often we don’t get it, we don’t get him, we don’t let Jesus into our hearts the way he wishes.  But the Eucharist is no card trick, no illusion, no vague wish.  It is God coming to transform every part of us, making us like his Son.  Let’s open those ears, open those hearts, and let’s God become what is most inside of us. 

22 B

One of my favorite, all time TV shows was “Law and Order.”  I loved the New York sassy style, the cultural tensions, and of course the crucial moment when the truth finally came out.  But the phrase, Law and Order, also represented a trend in law enforcement that began in the late 1970s, in reaction to the crazy drug and crime years of the 60s and 70s.  Three strikes you are out.  Throw the bum in jail and throw away the key.  The law is the law, make them pay.
 
Now that we have the largest percentage, by far, of imprisoned people compared to every other nation—including China—we hear the same ideas put forward with regard to immigration.  They broke our law.  They are illegal.  Throw them out of the country.  One candidate even wants drone strikes over the border.
 
Certainly law is key.  I’ve been mugged three times and it’s not a comfortable feeling, I can assure you.  But is law the only thing.  We have a classic passage from the book of Deuteronomy—the name in Greek means “The Second Book of Laws”—that espouses the classic viewpoint of much of Jewish thinking: keep the law and things will go well.  Break the law and you will be cursed.
 
But can we know the law absolutely?  Can we know how the law applies in every moment?  Is there a law that always applies?  Jesus’ approach to law in the Gospel would seem like a complete scandal to the standard Jewish viewpoint.  How could his disciples not be doing what the law required?  “Why do your disciples not wash their hands before eating?”  Jesus responds by saying that not all law is the same.  Requirements of tradition are one thing; getting to the heart of things is something else.
 
He goes on further to say that whatever dietary laws might mean—remember that questions about Jewish diet became crucial as soon as non-Jews accepted faith in Jesus Christ in the earliest years of the church—the state of our hearts is far more important.  What goes into our gut does not make us unclean; what comes out of our heart is what makes us clean or not.  So what then is the standard?
 
For us Christians, Jesus is the standard.  How he lived for his Father, expressed the Holy Spirit, and gave himself selflessly for others—this is the law of Christ, and the law that always obtains.  The letter of James, written from a Jewish-Christian perspective, says that the way we show compassion and love is the heart of our following God.  “This is undefiled and pure religion, to serve the needs of the poor, the widows and orphans.”  That is, to care for people who have no way else to receive care.
 
We Catholics have something else to add to this conversation.  For we believe that, even if what goes into the body does not make us unclean, still what goes into the body can make us immaculate.  For we receive the body and blood of Jesus, take Christ into our very selves, not because we are worthy, but because Christ can make us worthy by forming us in his image every time we receive communion.  Sure, it’s more than the eating.  Unless we eat the Eucharist in faith, we are hardly receiving it.  But if we are receiving it with growing faith, then the One who kept the law perfectly, Jesus Christ, progressively becomes our heart.
 
I guess it’s human nature to look for something absolute, black and white, win or lose.   Jesus asks us today not to be tricked by this impulse.   More important than black and white, right or wrong, is living the meaning of love, God’s love, as that becomes clear in our daily lives. 

21 B

Julian Bond’s death last Sunday ended a rich, action-filled, and effective life.  As the radio listed all the things he was involved in, right up to the end, one had to feel admiration and even a tinge of envy.  He knew his cause; he lived for that cause and helped thousands of others live for that cause.  From his earliest college days right through his 75 years, he made equality, justice, and peace the center of his struggles.  Despite Ferguson, Staten Island, Charlottesville, and so many other continuing signs of racial unrest, Julian Bond stood tall in his leadership of his people, and all America, in the struggle for justice.
 
We may stand for one thing or another—I think sports helps us do this as we root for the Nats or the O’s, the Yanks or the Mets—but most causes seem amazingly complex, yielding no simple answers.  Over a dozen Republicans, and almost a half-dozen Democrats, claim to be running for the presidency; how can they sound clear and strong when everything they say will be spun one way or another, and every new idea will be called a flip-flop.  And a billionaire is ready to sponsor someone else next week?
 
It used to be that we could stand tall for our faith.  We’d read passages like the one from Joshua—will you stand for the God who freed us or the gods of Egypt?—and see ourselves standing for Jesus, our Catholic tradition, and our way of life.  Now it’s all too easy for faith to be only a preference, not the central core of our lives; and, for many, a preference so mild it seems almost invisible.  Listing cities where the largest faith sector was “Catholic”—like Boston, Chicago, and New York—a recent survey said the next biggest group were people without a church.
 
So when Jesus says to Peter, “Will you too leave?” it’s a question that cuts through some of the most persistent attitudes of faith today.  Faith—I can take it or leave it.  Faith—it kind of helps me now and then.  Faith—so long as it doesn’t cost me too much.  Faith—it doesn’t make that much difference.  It’s a question that each of us has to answer by looking at the deepest layers of our souls.
 
Peter says he has nowhere to go because Jesus alone has “the words of eternal life.”  In other words, Peter is saying that Jesus is leading them where no one else can lead them—to the fullest experience of God and the widest experience of love.  Jesus does this not only by his teaching, but especially through his actions which disclose a God so radical, so loving, so intimate, that this God, once met, cannot be ignored.  In offering us the “bread of life,” Jesus offers as well a whole way of life, centered on a God whose love makes every difference in the world.
 
Today’s passage from Ephesians shows the direction of God’s love: the way husbands and wives embrace each other in their life-changing union of love, that is only a shadow, an image, of God’s love for us, and Christ’s love for his Church.  The tragedy isn’t that people saw Jesus and walked away; the tragedy is that people never saw, felt, or encountered the power of God’s love in Jesus in the first place.  They only went so far. This is what keeps Peter and the disciples faithful to Christ; and our seeing this is the only thing that will keep us from joining the growing crowd of people with weak, or invisible, faith.
 
Yes! Take a stand.  It feels so liberating when we can.  Our heads spin with opinions about immigration, taxes, health care, and foreign affairs.  But if we let Jesus look us in the eye, and love us as only he can, we know exactly where we stand because we know exactly where he stood, and stands, for us today.

20 B

A teenager’s perfect diet: breakfast is three pancakes, sausage, bacon, three eggs, and a bagel; lunch is a super whopper burger, French fries, washed down with a milkshake; dinner is a big piece of steak, bread with lots of butter, baked potato with cheese, and 7 layer chocolate cake for desert.  My God, if this were a steady diet, what would one become?  But when the doctor says cholesterol is high, or there’s a blockage in an artery, or diabetes is out of control: presto, a very different diet: breakfast is yogurt and fruit; lunch soup and salad; dinner a small piece of chicken surrounded by chick peas and string beans.  And with this kind of diet, one would look very different.
 
Of course, doing scientific studies has made us obsess over what we put into our bodies; although these studies contradict each other—tell that to the egg farmers—we still think we are making progress.  Our diets are making us better. But we concentrate less thought into what we put into ourselves mentally or spiritually.  I was with two younger priests of a different generation; occasionally they looked up, but most of the time their faces were in their cellphones.  What could they be looking up?  Reading?  Taking into their heads?  But this is modern life. We know all kinds of things get into our heads from one media outlet or another; we may be more informed today, but we are also pretty bonkers.
 
As we continue looking at the sixth chapter of John, the Scriptures invite us to focus on what receiving the Eucharist does for us.  After all, if ordinary food can dramatically shape our bodies, if websites can dramatically shape our minds, what will the Body and Blood of Christ do for us?  One thing is for sure, if we say we come here to receive the Body and Blood of Christ and it’s not changing our lives, then there’s something the matter with our spiritual digestive system. 
 
The Scriptures tell us that the God’s food puts us in a totally different place.  A place, say, of Wisdom, as we hear in the first reading.  When we live from the Wisdom of God—from those values that endure because they flow from God—we live differently.  We don’t lunge from one thing to the next; rather, we center on God’s presence in our lives. The Book of Proverbs says: “Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.”  How’s that for a challenge: to live without foolishness?  We’d have to give us most of our TV watching!
 
Ephesians tells us the same thing: we can drink a kind of foolishness that makes us drunk, silly, superficial; or else we can feed off the will of God, the values that we see flowing from God’s heart of love.  When we start making God’s love and peace our diet, then we have authentic life.  God’s Word, and the community we have around the Eucharist, create just this environment that leads to the fullness of life
 
All of this is background to the passage we have this week from John 6: that the food Jesus gives is real food and leads to eternal life.  Just as Jesus has life from the Father, so Jesus wants to pass on this life from the Father, in the Spirit, to us.  Real food he call it.  Food by which we can live forever.  Instead of all the unhealthy things we put in our bodies and our heads, try eating the real food of Jesus. 
 
But we can miss what this food is, even we who come to communion every Sunday.  Jesus has told us for the second week in a row, what his food is: my flesh for the life of the world.  To eat his Eucharist, to accept his wisdom, is to learn to live in loving sacrifice for others.  The disciples, and the people, do not know this yet, because Jesus has not yet given himself in loving death. But they will know, when Jesus rises; just as we know every Sunday. If we want to eat the bread of Christ, then it has to show in lives that mirror his own loving service.  Whatever our way of life—married or single; executive or staff; professor or student—our way of life, the pattern of Christ has to emerge in us.  We eat his body to let God bring this about.
 
Not a day goes by without another diet being proposed; not a minute goes by without another website being produced.  Lots to eat and lots to take in.  But none of it can begin to compare to the food Jesus gives us.  Take, eat; take, drink.  I give you the pattern of life whose results will abide forever. 

19 B

“I am no better than my fathers.”
 
These words of Elijah in the first reading startle and threaten us.  We all live with the assumption that life will be better for our children than it was for us, as parents pass on a better world.  But some generations got their energy exactly from being not like their parents.  Hippies scoffed at the generation of the 50s, the generation that Tom Brokaw calls the “greatest.”  Generation X scoffed at the Hippies.  Millennials look back at all of us: what we have made of life and what their destiny will be?  Each generation is supposed to make life better for the next, but sometimes things seem beyond control.  Pope Francis is telling us that all of us are making the world hopelessly worse for all future generations.
 
When Elijah makes his complaint, in effect saying that he is not worthy of the task that God gives him, he is aware of the iffy heritage of his forbearers.  They “sort-of” tried to be faithful to God, to live as God’s people.  Elijah hopes for more—to be totally faithful to God.  After God feeds Elijah, he finds he can fulfill his mission as prophet—to call Israel back to its proper following of God.
 
We look at our own Catholic lives and ask, are we better than our parents or grandparents as believers?  Sociologists give us frightening statistics of young people dropping from the faith.  Shouldn’t it have gone better?  We had such optimism fifty years ago; we thought as a Church we could address and transform our modern world.  But the world has changed so quickly.  Society seems unable to stand still and people are more scattered than ever.  What is God asking of us?  We are like Elijah, looking for a place to rest and even pull back.  Like him, we are tempted to give us.
 
There are many ways we cannot be like our parents and grandparents.  Not only is their world gone, but our world is filled with many more options than most of them had.  Today we can continue in faith only if we see ourselves as disciples.  Personal disciples of Jesus, joined into the community of the Church.  Christ today is calling us not merely to be parishioners, or wear the Catholic/Christian label, or even faithfully practice our faith: Jesus is calling us to be disciples, to grow each day by walking with him, opening our heart to him, and doing his work.
 
In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues speaking to the crowd whom he fed in the desert.  Last week we saw Jesus question their motives—that they only wanted their stomachs filled, they only wanted a faith that suited them.  This week we find Jesus challenging their openness.  They want to stay where they are instead of growing in their relationship with God: “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.”  And when have we listened?  When have we heard?  When have we let God’s love penetrate us to the point of transformation?  And how have we let that love continue to transform us?  If Jesus is poking his listeners, Jesus is also poking us.
 
The truth is that we never are where we are supposed to be.  Rather, we are on a journey in which we either go forward or get lost, either grow or starve.  “I am the bread come down from heaven,” Jesus says.  I will let you grow in me.  I will feed you with the very life that I have from my Father.  I will have your love grow into eternal life. . . .  The point is not being better than any other generation; rather, the point is that every day I am better than the day before, better in my following Christ because I let him feed me, empower me, disciple me, and bring me to the Father.  Every Mass calls us to conversion.
 
Elijah eats the food and lives out his destiny as Israel’s central prophet.  We eat a very different food, the Body of Christ.  With this life-filled food we can fulfill our destiny as followers of Jesus, live and breathe the Holy Spirit together as brothers and sisters in faith, and continue Christ’s work of transforming the world in love.

18 B

I was with some other priests on vacation in a tropical location when, during the meal, one of them said, “What’s that?”  We look at the wall, at a black blob the size of a golf ball.  “Let’s go look,” I said, and pointed out that a swarm of ants had come from one of the electrical outlets.  They had found a grain of rice or something and, together, they were lifting it up the side of the wall, millimeter by millimeter, until they could squeeze it into the socket.  Food for a day, for a bit, for this particular excursion.

Living things must eat and will do whatever they need to eat.  Every society erects whole systems to provide for the growing, distribution, and eating of food.  No only Californians: all of us have to think about the drought and what it means because our eating is tied to their supplying.  Just like those ants, we will do incredible things to make sure that there is food.

God understands this, and understands the grumbling in the desert.  “I have heard the grumbling of my people,” God says, just as he once told Moses he heard the cries of oppression from his people.  God sends quail and manna, this strange food that puzzles but also sustains the Jewish people in the desert, so they can continue the journey into the Holy Land.

Sometimes people grumble out of hunger:  thousands of food kitchens supply the basic needs of those at the bottom who have no other option, so they can eat.  Recently news told of a volunteer who revolutionized feeding the poor: he stopped giving them canned food and started rotating the unused fresh leftovers into good, basic, tasty food.  “Why should I ask them to eat what I would never eat?“ he said.  We cannot, and should not, tolerate a state where poor people go starving. 

But sometimes it’s the very wealthy who grumble.  Paying $200.00 for a dinner, the salad cannot appear wilted, the meat cannot be overcooked, the wine has to be perfectly paired, or else there will be complaints.  “Please take this dish back to the chef.  It is not acceptable.”  “Oh, yes, sir.  How can we make it up?”  Jesus notes that people have eaten but he suspects their motives.  “You are not coming to me because you truly hunger, but because you want more of the food I gave you.  Understand what your true hunger is.  ‘Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.’”  Of course we need the food that perishes.  Jesus would not have multiplied the bread and fish if he didn’t know that.  But we are the work for, struggle for, strive for, live for those things that serve our deepest needs, the need that we have to be in unending relationship with God.

Part of what we hear in the second reading seems strikingly modern: “that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. . . .“  This phrase, futility of the mind, seems very close to Jesus’ phrase, “the food that perishes.”  Pope Francis has been talking about the lunacy of modern life: how we feel driven to use as much as we can, at whatever price, to run a rat race that leaves us empty, to be utterly frustrated by patterns dictated more by economic formulas than human needs.  Faith is supposed to help us escape from this lunacy.  And the food of faith does precisely this: lifting us from the hand-to-mouth, I-never-have-enough attitude that runs modern life into a different understanding both of human needs and the food God gives us in Jesus.

Jesus gives us the food that sustains us, that leads to eternal life, that allows us to do the work of God: this is God’s work, he says, to believe in the One he sent, to believe in God’s care for us even to the point of giving us his Son. We believe that God fills the needs of the heart along with the needs of the body.  But the paradox might be this: only in faith do we see beyond life’s futility, so only in faith do we receive the food we truly need.  Jesus wants to feed us with the faith that drove his life and mission, with the reality of God’s deepest feeding of our hearts.

What are our hungers?  Our real hungers?  Why is so much of society driven to drugs, booze, suicidal behavior, violence, meaninglessness?  We have a world of spiritually and physically hungry people.  But we have a God who is waiting to feed them.  You and I are, I think, the waiters and servants, whom God sends to provide his real food to a truly hungry world.   We can do that only if we have acknowledged our real hunger, and how we have let God feed us in Jesus. 

17 B

A little joke from The New Yorker a few weeks ago: A priest, a surgeon, and an engineer are playing golf.  In front of them is a group that is dreadful, slow, erratic, frustrating.  They call the starter to complain; he explains that these are firemen who, when fighting a fire at the clubhouse a few years ago, all lost their sight.  The club lets them play in gratitude.  The Priest says: I will pray for them.  The Surgeon say: I will talk to the ophthalmologists at the hospital to see what they can do.  The Engineer says: “Why don’t they play at night?”

 

Practical, sensible, easy: the way we are seduced by the mechanical solutions to life.  Let’s sit down and see what makes sense.  Let’s see what is the most efficient, the cleanest, the least amount of work.  So an engineer would be happy in one sense with today’s Gospel, Jesus’ solution to the hunger of the crowed, but he’s be totally baffled by most of it.  Jesus solves the problem with the least amount of work, but how he does it seems mysterious, irrational, out of our control.

 

But Jesus is working from a different angle, one that does not depend on our control, but rather on our acceptance.  He works from within the richness of his Jewish tradition: not only Elisha as we heard in the first reading, but the wonder of God’s feeding the Jews in the desert with manna.  When the manna came, people asked, “What is this?”  And that’s where the word comes from—manna, what is this?  What is happening?  We are seeing an astonishing, but not unusual, dimension of God’s presence in our lives. 

 

We live in practical, mechanical times.  We think our best and only answers come from this.  But Jesus is saying that there are other levels in our lives.  We often miss the abundance that is all around us because we read our lives at only one level.  Say a parent gets gravely ill.  We want, of course, the best medicine can do.  Specialists come in and out; tubes go in and out.  Why can’t the doctors do more?  But then we realize that what the doctors have done is give us time just to be with our father or mother, just to hold their hand, just to appreciate them for a few more hours, just to let them know they are loved.  And this might well be more than months of chemotherapy and antibiotics.

 

The spotlight in the parable falls on this young, unnamed boy, with the five loaves and two fishes.  The Gospel puts it deliberately that way for us: we think we have hardly anything, we think we have nothing to offer.  Yet with faith, and a totally open trust in God, all of us have so much to add to the abundance of God’s creation.  It’s just a different angle.  Pope Francis has asked us to look at our world less with the eyes of a mechanic, manipulating for gain, and more with the eyes of a poet, or a saint, relishing it for the beauty—abundant beauty that leaves us astonished.  We all have loaves and fishes; we all have far more to give than we think.

 

The second reading urges us to preserve the unity that we have—unity of faith, unity of vision, unity of receiving God’s generosity, unity of giving thanks.  That’s what happens when we come together for Eucharist—the simple elements we bring, augmented by our gratitude and joy in Jesus, become God’s abundant food that nourishes us through eternal life—offered now and lived unendingly.  This is what it means to come to Mass: to join all of creation giving thanks to the God who lavishes so many gifts upon us.

 

Come and eat my food, says Jesus.  The food of faith, trust, love, grace.  When you do, you will see that the jar is never empty, and the baskets are always overflowing. 

16 B

Much attention has been placed on the police these days.  But before them it was teachers.  And before them it was clergy.  And before them it was business people.  And before them it was politicians.  Police have been tarred with the broad brush of Ferguson and Freddie Gray; the chief of Police had to resign in Baltimore.  But hasn’t been very common for people to lose confidence in many public servants . . .  precisely because they have placed something before their responsibility to serve others?  Power.  Tenure.  Abuse.  Money.  More power.
 
This is God’s complaint in Ezekiel’s first reading.  God has placed shepherds over Israel but they have used the sheep for their own gain; they have used authority for their own sakes.  They have not cared for the people.  Therefore God will remove them and place in shepherds who will do what is right, what is right for the people.
 
We could look at this situation in one way: folks think of themselves too much.  They are weak, greedy, power-hungry.  But we can also look at it from the other side: these are all people who could not keep their eyes on the ones they were supposed to take care of.  They lost sight of the sheep, of the hurting, the vulnerable, the weak. 
 
Jesus keeps his eye exactly on the sheep.  The crowds would not let him be.  There was not even time for Jesus and his followers to get a bite to eat.  Although he wants to get himself and his apostles a little break,  time to recoup, to recover their strength, the people just keep coming. The last line of the Gospel is so powerful because it perfectly shows the priorities of Jesus: his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
 
Our lives so often get into routines.  We get used to our roles, and we learn how to hide behind those roles.  We know the system, we know the language, we have the title.  But then comes the danger—that we will not look beyond and through that role at the people right in front of our eyes.  We can so easily become like bureaucrats and others, in their suffering, become invisible to us.
 
This is so true about us as Christians: we have the motions, and the language, particularly we Catholics.  But it’s so hard for us to see the hunger of people without faith all around us. We ignore the need for clearer witness in a world that sees no limits, and so pays the price because God is not at the center.  “I got mine,” seems to be our attitude.  Or, worse, “It doesn’t matter what people believe or think.  Who cares? ” 
 
Yet God asks us precisely to attend to the deepest needs of those around us, because that’s where faith has to work in the depths of our hearts.  Pope Francis emphasizes this again and again: it’s by looking at the needy that we understand what faith is about.  People have told me this for years: when they started serving others, they found out how rich their own lives were—and how the people they were serving ended up enriching them even more.
 
There are, of course, many ways to address the spiritual needs of others, and the worst way is to be self-righteous and to nag.  The best way is simply to attend to others, to listen to them, to be willing to share ourselves, and to speak to them from the richness of the faith that is inside us—how our lives make more sense because God has touched us. 
 
I don’t think there is a greater hunger than spiritual hunger.  Unlike bodily hunger, people with spiritual hunger often don’t know they are starving.  With so many distractions, it’s easy not to notice the big hole in our hearts, and the emptiness of our souls.  So we can think our faith is just about us, and not about how we can be of loving support to others. But that makes us just like everyone else that’s getting criticized—the police, the teachers, the clergy, the business people, the politicians. 
 
We are not in it for ourselves; we are in it for what God allows us to bring to the lives of others. 

15 B

“Most Americans are unhappy with their employment.”  This was a headline last year in Forbes.  I was surprised that it was only 52% of Americans that were unhappy; from the way people talk about work, one would think dissatisfaction would be higher.  I know one of the popular comics today is “Dilbert,” which spoofs the modern workplace.  Dilbert and his irascible fellow engineer, Alice, seem to be the only competent employees.  Wally has become a genius at avoiding work.  Dogbert is the HR Director straight from Hell.  And the boss with the pointy hair spends most of his time messing up everyone else’s work. 
 
Nevertheless, it’s good to have a job at all.  Unemployment has fallen since 2008, to 5.3%, yet behind that number lurk a lot of uncomfortable realities: how many are working at minimum wage, how many with two jobs, how many without benefits, and how many who have just given up trying to seek a job. 
 
But what if God gives you a job?  I’m afraid it doesn’t necessarily mean that things are any easier.  We see the prophet Amos—one of the earliest—who was called by God to speak to the Jewish people living in the northern Kingdom.  “Just get lost,” is what the priest of Bethel, an ancient shrine, say to him.  “We don’t want to hear your message.”  Amos tells them that he had a calm life, a shepherd and a tree worker: but God took him from these everyday occurrences so make him a messenger for Israel.  Amos knows his job, and he’s going to do it.
 
Jesus gives his disciples a job as well.  It seems to go better than it did for Amos.  The Twelve have been following Jesus during his busy, mostly-successful ministry in Galilee.  We’ve heard about the healings, exorcisms, and outreaches of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel all these Sundays.  Now Jesus says to the Twelve: “You do it.”  Of course they are apprehensive, as most of us would be, wanting to take this and that along with them.  “You don’t need it,” Jesus says.  “You have experienced me and my message.  Don’t bring a big suitcase full of things; just go forth as you are, freeing people from evil and illness, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God.”  Later in the Gospel, when they return, Jesus compliments them: “I saw Satan fall from the sky,” he says, and we can imagine him smiling.
 
Jesus, of course, gives us jobs as well.  Our jobs are not all that different from the Twelve.  As baptized followers of Jesus, we have one task: to proclaim the Kingdom of God to the world—God’s Realm of endless love—and to show that Kingdom by helping others as we can, and diminishing evil in the world.  Most of us do these jobs as part of our daily lives.  Raising a family in the vision of God is a key way of accomplishing the job Jesus gives us.  But most of us unfortunately don’t see our daily lives as carrying out the work of Jesus.  And most of us don’t see our workplaces as key venues for building the Kingdom.
 
That’s why we need a periodic job review.  The Letter to the Ephesians gives us this review: wake up, it is saying.  Don’t you know you have been chosen by God, chosen in Christ, chosen in the Holy Spirit, to fill up the world with God’s glory?  Yes, by the way we live, the hope in our hearts, the joy that permeates our lives, by the force of our having come to know Jesus—all of us are sent by Christ every day to transform the world.
 
You know at work how someone can be crabbing all the time.  And someone else, with the same job, be helpful and positive.  We know, too, whom we’d prefer to work with: not the crabby one, that’s for sure!  If it’s like that in the workplace, it can be like that in God’s ministry.  Which worker do we want to be?  The disciple who obscures the Kingdom, or the one who, in daily life, makes the Kingdom shine?

14 B

"Them’s fighting words.” 
 
So begins a popular response to something people might find offensive and insulting . . . words that can cause a fight.  We remember a rather big fight this weekend, American Independence.  Taxing the colonies was “fighting words.”  Russia’s Puttin seems to be putting soldiers in the Urkrein and telling his jets to buzz Western interests.  Is he spoiling for  a fight?  The government and the courts tell churches to provide insurance protection they deem unacceptable, and to look upon relationships long held sinful as sanctioned by society.  Are those fighting words?
 
The Scriptures introduce today the theme of opposition.  In the first reading, God sends Ezekiel to his people as if sending them to the enemy.  They will resist your word.  In fact, in their resistance, they will show themselves to be who they are—a rebellious house, rebellious against their God.  Paul, in the second reading, shows a different kind of fight going on.  No one knows what the ‘thorn in Paul’s side” refers to; but it’s perfectly clear that Paul is supposed to resist it, not be overcome.  In that resistance, in that fight, Paul will learn about the power of God within.
 
Jesus, in the Gospel, has returned from a whirlwind tour of Galilee.  We’ve been hearing about the miracles and wonders that Jesus has performed right up to this passage from Mark’s Gospel.  Now he returns home and begins to teach—in such a way as to astonish and astound people.  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is opposed almost from the start by religious and political leaders.  But now it’s his own kinsmen, virtually his own relatives, who oppose him.  We can see them giving knowing looks to each other, cynical facial gestures, until their attitude becomes clear: “Who does this guy think he is?”  As his folks were astounded by his ability to teach and preach, Jesus is likewise astounded at their lack of faith. 
 
So what are we to make of this?  Is this some sanction for unending religious war?  For looking for reasons to feel rejected?  For taking up ever new crusades against people who reject us?  Reject our faith?  Reject, for that matter, seemingly any faith?  Are we now the prophets unheard, and unwelcome, even in our own country?
 
Clearly the teaching is that we should expect opposition.  I know many people who say to me, “Father, I don’t want to identify myself as a Catholic because I don’t want to get into arguments.”  But being opposed is not the same as starting a fight.  Jesus, misunderstood as he was, never starts a fight; and when he does argue back, he does so from a point of love.  Should that not be our viewpoint today?
 
Of course it should.  And, even more, we should know the real point of opposition.  Because we may think it’s one dogma or one moral point.  But the truth is this: our entire vision of faith is being questioned.  Our choice is clear: either to shrink away and think that we can blend into the crowd—and all too often we believers do look just like everyone else today—or we can live our faith more openly from the profound vision that lies beneath it.
 
If the world is saying it’s only forces and atoms, we are saying it’s Absolute generous love that lies behind everything.  If the world is saying that only money makes a difference, we can show that it’s eternal value that counts.  If the world insinuates that the fruits of pleasure make life worthwhile, we can show the power of loving sacrifice.  If culture acts like everything is there for the taking, we can talk about a fragile earth, being stripped and squeezed of its life, because we no longer recognize a Creator.  If our neighbors insist that it’s all about what people think of us, we can smile at our neighbors knowing that what they think changes every day, but who we are before God endures.  When people say it’s power that makes right, we can talk about the power of God shown in the loving face of Jesus.
 
Oh, there will be opposition.  There will always be reasons we think we have to fight.  But then the perspective of Jesus comes in very handy: our trust in God, and living in his love—and showing that love—means  that the battle is already over, that we have already won.  And we should live, and act,  knowing that is so. 

13 B

Wanted, Dead or Alive!  Growing up in the days of lots of Cowboy-and-Indian TV shows, I knew this was one of the ways shows came to their climax . . . we were going after the Bad Guys, and we were going to get them no matter what.  When posters said, “Wanted, Dead or Alive” we knew it meant business. 
 
I have these words in my head now because for almost three weeks we’ve been in suspense over the two convicted murderers who escaped maximum security prison in upper New York.  Is there a way this can end well?  Perhaps, but I doubt it.  These men seemed desperate enough to take the biggest risk they could take. They broke out of jail—they must have felt that it would be better to escape and risk even likely death than to stay where they were.
 
I think death is sometimes a big deal for us modern people, but often it is not.  We mourn nine people murdered in Church, but think the prevalence of guns has nothing to do with it.  We will never forget the 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001 in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, but cannot stop to count the cost in innocent lives as the Middle East destabilized—where hundreds of thousands have died, and many millions live in tents after being driven from their homes.  We will pay huge medical bills to stop a cancer in a person, but pass laws that give people the right to die.
 
So when the first reading tells us that death is not, in God’s design, part of the human design, we are puzzled as a society.  For generations now we’ve been schooled by our culture to see death “as a natural phase of life.”  We’ll fight death, but then accept it like putting on a blanket when we go to sleep.  We’ll rage about death, but close our eyes to it when we are overwhelmed by it.  We will run to Jesus like Jairus and the bleeding Woman in our Gospel when it’s our own skin, but not when it’s the skin of another, or the skin of humankind itself.
 
The Gospel is trying to get us in touch with the really desperate situation that is our human existence.  It is saying that so long as we accept death as part of human life we are not looking on life the way God looks upon it.  So long as we shrink life down to the six to nine decades that most of us here, we’ve not seen how God loves us, relates to us, and wants to relate unendingly to us.  And until we come to this level of desperation, we cannot really appreciate what God does for us in the dying and rising of Jesus.
 
Do we want to live?  Really live?  Live forever?  Live our human life in God’s life forever?  This is where the teaching and faith of Jesus want to drive us: not to the tiny bite of life we try to eat, but to the banquet of life that cannot be exhausted.  Can we find this desperation for life in us?  This level of faith?
 
We have two models in Mark’s Gospel.  One is the woman who, in a way, wants a short-cut connection with Jesus.  The other is Jairus, the synagogue official, who addresses Jesus face-to-face and does what Jesus asks.  Jairus has a full relationship with Jesus, the Woman wants the short-cut connection.  Maybe this is what we modern people lack: the desire for a full, face-to-face engagement with Jesus, one that springs from the deepest recognition of who and what we are, and the deepest recognition of the kind of life God offers us in Jesus Christ.  Paul tells us about how God’s economy works: God takes our poverty to make us rich with God’s own life. We want the magic touch whereas God gives us the full embrace.
 
Dead or alive?  We may be able to live with that.  But not God.  With God, it’s only alive—rich, full, deep, unending.  With God it’s either divine life or it’s, ultimately, nothing.

12 B

Derecho.  I had heard the word many times in Spanish, but never in English.  Three years ago a derecho hit the Washington, DC area.  I wasn’t here to see it hit, but I saw it coming—in Ohio, when a huge wind swept through, pummeling everything with vicious rain, strewing leaves and branches all over the road, like a rug.  When it arrived here in DC, it caused widespread damage and outages that lasted for days.  If you ever wanted to know the power of a storm—the Italian word is “tormenta”—here it was!
 
While, people like the ancient Jews, who lived in a desert depended on water, vast areas of waters frightened them.  This was where storms came from, whirlpools, and monsters.  They thought the dead lay at the bottom of oceans and seas.  So the first reading, showing God containing the water, revealed to the Jews the power of God—who could contain relentless and raging waters.
 
In certain Psalms in the Bible God seems to use the storm to speak—his voice is like thunder, his power like lightning.  But in our scriptures today, God is not the storm, but God is the voice from within the storm.  In the first reading, God tells Job that he cannot question God’s power.  But in the Gospel, Jesus shows us what God’s power is like.
 
We are surprised that men who grew up fishing on this Lake are terrified.  They must have been through storms a hundred times.  But here they are, terrified, thinking they are going to die.  “Do you not know we are perishing?” And, in the midst of their fear, in the midst of the waves and wind, Jesus tells them, as he did so many times, “Do not be afraid.  Do you not have any faith?” 
 
Is it not the case that fear can drive us even to a kind of blindness?  Jesus is sleeping right in front of them, but they cannot see him.  They can only see their fear.  “Do you not have faith?”  Faith in what?  Of course, faith in Jesus whom they have experienced personally, in miracles and parables, faith in the One who had showed them the undeniable presence of God.
 
But also faith in God’s abiding love.  The God who speaks from the cloud is the God who sleeps in storms, and who speaks through every danger in our lives.  The Jesus napping in the boat is the Jesus who is with us in our pain, in our confusion, in our fears, even in our deaths.  Jesus shows us a God who is with us through everything in our lives.  Often we only want a God who gives us a shortcut, a way out of trouble.  But the Jesus sleeping in the boat is the Christ who will face death itself, with us and for us, and speak faith and trust throughout the ordeal.  Do we not have faith—that God is always with us?
 
Paul tells us that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, all who believe in him have passed through death already.  The worst has already happened.  Though we may be tested, and tested severely, the voice of Christ is unwavering: do not be afraid.  I am here.  You are with me; you are mine.  I will never leave you.
 
Tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones: they will come, and they will go.  In our many fears we can think that Jesus is asleep, that God is not there.  But it’s not Jesus who needs to be woken up.  It is we who need to be awakened—to open our eyes and see how present God always is. 
 
11 B

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
 
Most of the time this saying comes with a cynical glee—as when the Yankees are losing, or some rich banker gets sent to jail, or when Richard Nixon boarded his plane soon after resigning office.  Of course, there’s cynical glee until the shoe goes to the other foot: we remember the pictures of people throughout the Middle East when the World Trade Towers came down in 2001.  For every Saddam Hussein there’s also a Blackhawk Down.
 
Behind this cynicism is our common resentment of arrogance.  It’s when a team thinks it cannot fail, or when a nation thinks it can always have its way, or corporations seem not to care about anything but their own profits—it’s these moments that make us want to cheer when someone falls. 
 
This sort of feeling lurks in our first reading.  Plants and trees were often used a symbols.  Israel, as we often hear, frequently was compared to a grape vine that God had carefully planted.  But foreign kings of nations that threatened Israel were often compared to trees—either ones that rotted or produced no fruit; eventually they were cut down.  In the first reading, God is taking a few branches from a mighty tree and planting these shoots in a different place: it will be the kind of tree that God wants, one that gives care to what is smaller and weaker.  From mighty Babylon God will renew the sprout of Israel.
 
This reading, along with the second reading from Paul, probes our own modes of arrogance.  How do we look to others, and God?  All of us will stand before the Lord in judgment, Paul says.  The New Yorker had a cartoon last month of a child coming out of church with his smiling parents and pastor; the child looks up at his parents and asks, “When do they tell us about Hell?”  Because if Hell is for anyone, it is for the arrogant, for those who think they have no need of anyone or anything, even of God.
 
The opening parable in the Gospel portrays what farmer know—you plant the seed and, who knows how, it grows.  While we know a lot more about biology and botany than ancient times, we still stand in awe at the mystery of growth: that it is a gift, that it comes from creation and, therefore, from God.  That’s how the Kingdom grows, and that’s how it is with every one of our lives.  If some get more applause than others, is this not only because they were gifted more greatly? 
 
So the issue becomes not what gifts do I have—we all have them, even the weakest—but what these gifts engender in us.  For we can become filled with ourselves . . .  or we can understand the opportunities our gifts give us.  So we have the tiny mustard seed, the smallness of our own gifts; but if it grows in accord with God’s, it rises to such a height and breadth that it gives shelter “so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”  When the talented, the mighty, the prettier, the smarter use their gifts for others, knowing these gifts come from God, then not only have we left arrogance behind.  Far more, we are scattering wide, with great effect, the grace of God.
 
So the same afternoon that American Pharoah won, our friend, Tiger Woods, shot an 85, the highest score of his professional career.  Commentators were smug, but also uncertain.  Much as we long for a winner, we feel perhaps a bit more comfortable with those who have to struggle.  If the Red Sox finally won, after decades, a World Series, Chicago is still waiting for the Cubs.  There’s always a chance for those at the bottom.  
 
But in God’s Kingdom, winners or losers, we are in God’s hands.  It’s when we forget this that the axe and sickle are waiting.
 

Corpus Christi

They say blood is thicker than water, meaning the family ties by blood trump every other consideration.  But I don’t think it always works that way.
 
I’ve known several families dreading a wedding or funeral because they’ll have to run into sisters or brothers they haven’t spoken to for years.  I’ve also known families that were close—until someone read daddy’s Will and children found out they weren’t getting what they thought they should get.  There was a story last week about a woman who claims her baby was stolen from her; now she was having a reunion after 40 years with her stolen daughter.  But news agencies also turned up papers showing the mother willingly gave the baby up five months after her birth.
 
So blood by itself won’t do it.  There has to be something more.  Loyalty, for sure; and hopefully love.  But what about covenant?  But that’s how God loves us: in the blood of the covenant, a new and eternal covenant, as the readings lay it out for us on this feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus.
 
The Jewish people since the time of Moses had thought of their lives as being in a covenantal relationship with God.  But they understood that covenant as something conditional: God will take care of us so long as we follow the law of God.  That was as far as they got, even though some of the prophets elaborated on this theme in powerful images of love and fidelity.  God would be faithful to even an unfaithful Israel.
 
Jesus transforms the idea of covenant because he shows us a love that is unconditional.  St. Paul underlines in his letter to the Romans that Jesus loved us while we were still sinners.  And the letter to the Hebrews shows the way Jesus understood that love: as a loving sacrifice, a gift in blood, to show the extent of God’s love for humankind.  Jesus dies so that the Kingdom’s power over death would be revealed.  He dies to show his endless love, which reveals God’s endless love as well.
 
This is blood that brings innocence.  How?  By bringing into our human dynamic the renewing power of divine love and sacrifice.  Sins are forgiven not by forgetting.  Rather, the sin, and brokenness that arise from sin, have to give way to something new, something restored, something transforming.  This is what we see when Jesus, dying in sacrifice, rises in new, eternal Life—and then gives that life to us in the Holy Spirit, in the Church, in all the sacraments, and especially in the sacrament we celebrate today, the Body and Blood of Jesus.
 
That’s his covenant: to give ourselves in sacrifice for the Kingdom so that we transform the broken world in which we live into the seeds of the Kingdom of God.  The Body is broken, the Blood is shed, so that a new world can be born: this is Christ’s gift, unconditional and unbreakable.  When he gives the bread and wine to his disciples, isn’t he asking them whether they will be part of his new covenant?  Isn’t he asking them whether they will not only receive his Sacred Food, but also take up those actions that bring healing, forgiveness, hope, and new life to the world? 
 
In fact, isn’t he asking that of us?  To eat his food is to be part of the redemption of the world, to be part of God’s ongoing transformation because Jesus gives us the power, after eating his Body and Blood, to live his life. 
 
Blood is sometimes stronger than water.  But Christ’s Body and Blood is stronger than any brokenness we feel, any bond we can forge, and any relationship we can have.  Do you want to drink from my cup, asks Jesus.  See, he holds it out, offering it freely to us.


Trinity Sunday

Thanks to our being connected to everyone all around the world, we are also vulnerable to those who can exploit those same connections.  So we live in fear of being hacked.  Target, Home Depot, MGM . . . various banks . . . our pin numbers and accounts.  We feel helpless, just waiting for the inevitable to happen to us someday. 
 
But a really compromising hack happened last week: Adult FriendFinder, a people-matching website, with 64 million claimed users, was hacked . . . and along with the hack, the kind of secrets of preference and love life that no one would want publicized—and shouldn’t have been put online in the first place.  I can imagine 64 million users wondering when their information will be revealed—or how much it will cost them in extortion money to keep it secret. 
 
Hacking shows that there are parts of us that we don’t want known. And, in fact, we feel funny about knowing people in general.  What do I want you to know about me?  What do I not want to know about you?  Can people even be known, even to themselves?  We can come up with descriptors, but they never capture the person.  What did we know about John F. Kennedy?  Or Michael Jackson?  Or the pilot who flew a plane-full of people into a mountain?  What do we know about ourselves?
 
And if we are mysteries to ourselves at some level, then we begin to see the mystery that God is and has to be.  Today we bring together the sweep of our celebration from Lent to Pentecost, the Paschal Mystery through which we have come to know God, in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.  We can never know God in the sense of comprehending God as if God were a theory or philosophy.  As we ourselves exceed understanding, all the more God.  But we can see how God is, how God acts, and how interrelates with us.  The teaching about the Trinity is a way to point to all that has been revealed of God to us.
 
We would not have the Trinity without the experience of Jesus.  Coming in the flesh, he could not just be flesh.  Coming as a human, he could not just be human.  Bringing us God, he must himself be God.  Sending us the Spirit, he must be God with the Father and the Spirit.  Those religions that cannot accept Jesus as divine see no need for the Trinity.  We, who have come to experience God through Jesus in such a powerful way, cannot do without the Trinity.
 
Because the Trinity shows us that God is not some amorphous force, or some infinite and arbitrary lawgiver, or some “man up there” as people sometimes say.  The Trinity shows God as pure, self-giving love.  “The Good has to share itself”—so went a saying that goes back 1700 years.  God, in God’s very being, shares: Father with Son, Son with Father, Father and Son in Spirit.  And, as we see in Jesus, Father-Son-Spirit sharing divine life and love even with us.  Bringing us into God’s inner life.  Uniting us to Father through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. 
 
We don’t want to be hacked, but God doesn’t mind being hacked.  “I’ll show you my inner life,” God says in showing us Jesus and giving us the Spirit.  “I unveil myself to you as much as possible,” God says, “so that you can know the depth and glory of your own lives.”  By definition, God gives God’s self in love; as a result, our greatest glory is to replicate this divine dynamic in our own lives.
 
How privileged we are to make the “Sign of the Cross,” combining those two central truths that define us as believers and as God’s beloved: the gift of Jesus on the Cross which shows us the self-gift of God—Father, Son, Spirit—for our eternal life.
 

Pentecost

It’s a time of playoffs, when both Hockey and Basketball comes to the days of the end of their season.  I was in New York ten days ago before the Rangers won in overtime over the Capitals.  Walking about 5 in the afternoon, I saw blue jersey after blue jersey, all with the red-and-white Ranger lettering.  What struck me was the determination of their faces, how it was as if they were going to play, they were going into the rink to struggle, and they were going to win. 
 
I think we’ve become a nation of fans.  In spite of the outrageous expense of tickets, more and more of us are identifying with favorite teams.  It’s as if we think there’s a transfer of energy: our energy gives strength to our favorite team.  And we can channel the energy of the team into our own lives; we can win if they are winners.
 
Of course, most of this is illusion.  We may jump around if our team wins but our lives go on the same as ever.  On some universities, students cause riots when their team loses or wins.  Some cities throw confetti parades for their teams.  But our lives go on the same as ever, with our responsibilities, with our burdens.  The truth is that I may root for Rory McIlroy, as I rooted and still root for Tiger Woods; but my golf game is still as poor as ever.
 
“As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  Jesus tells his disciples this just after he breathes upon them, as if he could impart his inner energy to them.  The word for “breath” and “wind” is the same word for ‘Spirit.”  And we see a more powerful version of this in the first reading when wind, thunder, and fire encircle the Apostles.  Jesus is going to heaven.  But he leaves his apostles and followers his Holy Spirit.  Jesus is saying that the last thing he wants is for us to be only fans.
 
Because it’s easy to be on the sidelines, to sit in the stands, to order another hot dog or beer.  But that’s not the same as playing, as putting in the sweat and energy that brings about victory.  Sure, our yelling might encourage our team, but teams need to play, and know how to play, or else they won’t win even with the loudest yelling.
 
Jesus breathes his Spirit upon us to make us players, to give us his own power, so we can continue his mission.  He doesn’t expect us to sit on the side.  Many of us churchgoers do a form of that; and millions of non-churchgoers don’t even bother to root.  But Jesus wants all of us to be filled with his Spirit, which doesn’t mean to jump around, to yell Alleluia, to relax because we think we’re saved and that’s the end.  Rather, his Spirit leads us to act like him, with his power.
 
For the power of Jesus was to show love, compassion, and forgiveness.  The power of Jesus was to reach out to the unreached, to lift up the burdened, to work for justice, to give himself particularly when it cost, to bring words of encouragement when people are distressed.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  We can’t sit on the sidelines; every one of us is sent, in the parameters of our own world, to bring Christ’s love and hope.
 
I can never remember from year to year who won the World Series, or the Stanley cup, or even the Masters.  But I can remember so many acts of selfless kindness, and so many people lifted by the strength of others.  Jesus breathes upon us; today is Pentecost.  Pentecost is not only celebrated; it is lived.

Easter 7 B
Who comes next?
 
This is one of our biggest human problems.  Continuity.  Next in line.  We could think of evolution as one huge biological answer to this.  We can also conceive of politics as the same struggle for continuity.  Two billion dollars will be spent on the 2016 presidential race, and how much of that will be utterly annoying commercials that make us want to throw something at the TV.  “I approved this message.”  And we think, “Yuck, that’s exactly the problem.  You did.”
 
The Scriptures give us different kinds of continuity this weekend.  One is ministerial continuity, as we see the first followers of Jesus come together and elect someone to take the place of the one who betrayed Jesus, Judas.  They wanted someone as close as they could get, someone who had been with Jesus during his earthly ministry.  This would work for a generation or two, but after a while others would have to come along, folks who stood on the shoulders, and the testimony, of those who walked with Jesus.
 
The other kind of continuity Scripture gives us is the continuity of experience.  Jesus came to impart to us the experience of God’s love.  He lived that love, and lived in that love, so completely that he imparted it to his followers—to everyone who was able to gaze upon Jesus in love.  For to know Jesus’ love is to know the Father’s love.  To know their love is to know the Holy Spirit.  As Jesus knew his Father’s love, as Jesus knew the Spirit, so Jesus wants us in that same experience, in that same relationship.
 
Jesus prays for his disciples, not that they leave the world, but that they remain in the world as his followers.  He consecrates them, and asks them to consecrate themselves to his truth—the truth of God’s Absolute love for us.  As he came into the world to bring God’s love to it, so his followers remain in the world to bring God’s love to it.  This is our mission, to continue loving the world in the Holy Spirit until it is swept into God’s complete love.
 
I know it was this message of love that moved me to live the vocation I have: after I discovered that love, how could I live for anything else?  But as I bless God for my vocation, I trust that each of us can bless God for the vocations we have received—and we will, if we see all of our callings as living out Christ’s commandment of love.  It’s not an easy commandment because Christ’s love is not chocolate or wine.  It’s the joy that comes from giving oneself, for that is how God is, and that is how God loves.  The Trinity is this: the three persons that are God living completely for each other and—as we learn from Jesus—living completely for us as well.
 
In Medieval thinking they had this thing called the Great Chain of Being, where lower beings were related to higher ones, until the top one related to God.  Everything fit.  I think a greater claim can be made for something expressed differently: The Great Chain of Loving.  We can see its links go back to creation, get unbreakably strong in Jesus life and death, and multiply like crazy with the coming of the Spirit.  In fact, I see those links coming right here, right into our community of worship, right into the community of love.  Don’t break the chain, says Jesus.  It’s this chain which allows the next one to come to know God’s love.  

Easter 6 B

These weeks will have me back in New York, first Manhattan, then Long Island, and finally Buffalo.  It’s wonderful to return to places you’ve been before.  You want to see if you can reproduce the feelings you remember—subtle feelings, almost moods.  But you also notice changes: buildings demolished, buildings put up, neighborhoods changed, children grown, different types of people on the streets. 
 
For all that we love and need newness in our lives, underneath we are always looking for what endures.  It’s as if keyholes were bored into us and we keep searching for the key that will open up what is deepest in our hearts.  Most of all we remember the people, the ones who became closest to us, the ones who loved us the longest.  In the end, these make up the continuity of our emotional and historical lives.
 
We cling to love that endures, even as we live in a world where love seems to vanish.  It’s not only the loves that come to an end—the breakups, the divorces, the deaths.  It’s the loves that become dull, buried behind our cluttered agendas, presumed but never shown, deafened by a silence that makes us distant to each other.
 
When God reveals love, it is saturated with endurance.  As well it should be.  We’ve been hearing these words: abide, dwell, remain.  Because the only kind of love that has any meaning is the love that remains, the lasting commitment we make to another because the other has become the center of our lives.  This is how God has loved us.  “God gave his Son,” the scripture says.  Because a love that does not want to give everything is not really a love.
 
So we have the pattern set up and reinforced throughout the scriptures today: God is love, love one another, we are God’s friends because we know what God is all about—we love as God loves.  This is to be a permanent state of life, a sphere of existence, a world from which we act, an environment that shape us and reshapes our world.  We would not know this love had God not shown it; we would settle for less, for something more casual, for something less demanding. 
 
And this love has no limits.  How slowly it dawned on the early believers that in Jesus God’s love had become universal.  It took the coming of the Holy Spirit, as we see in the first reading, to show that this love extended to everyone.  It’s not my God and then your God; it’s the one God of all humankind.  It’s not my love, and your love; it’s all our love springing from, and returning to, that love which is God.
 
We hear the word “love” so often we want to yawn.  It’s become sentimental schmaltz.  I think that’s why Jesus insists his commandment is new and different: he asks us to love not according to our provisional patterns, but in accord with his unending one.  “Love one another—as I have loved you.”  He has made us all friends, shown us what he is about, what God is about, and loved us completely.  So Jesus becomes the standard of love, and the reality that truly abides.
 
Life seems to be one change after another, even for those who don’t get to travel as part of their work.  What holds those changes together?  For many people it is precious little, their lives are so scattered. For us lucky believers, it’s the truth that everything is ultimately grace; and the best name for grace is unlimited love which only God can give us.
 

Easter 5 B

“You know you should take lessons.”  People said this to me all the time I was trying to golf.  “But I have taken lessons,” I reply back.  “You probably need some more,” they say.  I’m sure I know more of the fundamentals of the game of golf than most people, even than many golfers.  It’s just that those fundamentals never quite make it down to my actual shot.  If I were to guess anything, I’d say that I started to take golf seriously too late in life, so I missed the discipline I needed right at the beginning.  I needed more pruning.
 
I suppose it’s obvious that if we miss out in the beginning, we struggle with the rest of whatever we want to learn or do.  The battles we have over schools—all wrapped up in the battles over Common Core and testing—have been in response to the truth that if children are not receiving the proper basis in education from the beginning, they are forever going to be deprived. 
 
Jesus uses the metaphor of “pruning” in his famous parable about the vine and the grapes.  He is referring to the time the disciples have spent with him, and have learned from him.  There is a fundamental reception that we have to make of Jesus and his teaching or else we will never mature into the disciples he wants us to be.  St. Paul had to go through quite a pruning himself: first, to receive the powerful, life-shattering experience of Jesus; and then to be accepted among the very people he tried to destroy.
 
We Christians, then, are called to a fundamental form of discipline in our lives.  This discipline has to revolve around learning God’s Word, learning to pray and worship, and learning to live out Christ’s way of life as Catholics in service to others.  I suppose this is a bit like my golf game.  It is something always under construction.  We are always going back to the basics.  We never have it down completely.  Perhaps this is why the experience of going on retreat has been so much a part of Catholic life.
 
It’s obvious from the second reading that overcoming sin is an ongoing part of Christian life.  Our consciences need to be continually reassured—and this happens by our increasing love of Jesus Christ, and by showing this not only in word but also in our actions.  How embarrassing it can be for us to be caught doing something that so fully contradicts what we are called to live as followers of Jesus.  Yet how ready Christ is to bring us beyond our sense of failure into a renewed, and often deeper, relationship with him.
 
We also learn from the Gospel that not everyone who began following Jesus stayed faithfully to the end.  Jesus gives us the sobering image of those vines that have been cut off because they refused to maintain union with him.  This is something far more than pruning and discipline.  This is the condemnation that happens when, having experienced God’s love, we then turn our hearts away from it in a decisive way.  In fact, the learning we continue to receive as followers of Jesus is to prevent precisely this kind of rupture in the future.
 
But what an image Jesus gives us, vine and branches—his life, coming from the Father, now through the Holy Spirit, flowing through us in such a way that we are in communion with him. That we are one with him.  That our very lives come to depend on him, and to receive him with greater and growing abundance. This has to be one of the greatest graces we can have in life; and every one of us can have it, and does have, because we have undertaken his way of life.  We can have union with no one as intimately as we can with Christ.
 
My back is such a mess I may never try to seriously play golf again.  There’s no mulligan for an imperfect body.  But Jesus gives us ongoing lessons in discipleship, and we certainly get our mulligans or two from him.  But most of all we get to play, not alongside him, but united to him, as we continue to learn his perfect form and make it our own.
 
Easter 4 B

With all the discussion about police around the country, let me give you two contrasting images.  One, from the summer, in Ferguson, MO, where the death of an 18 year old sparked riots which went on for weeks, and could erupt at any time.  The other from 2001 when dozens of policemen, and hundreds of firemen, walked up dozens of floors of stairs looking to save people in a building that would collapse a short time later.
 
The difference between these images is, of course, the way these situations make us feel.  One makes us feel uncertain, particularly in terms of the Justice Department’s study of attitudes in Missouri.  Were the police really there to care for the people, and care for them entirely, or had some other motives somehow snuck in?  In the case of the World Trade Center, we see the willingness of people to give their lives, to walk into danger, and to do so to the point of death.
 
Of course, people can throw cold water on any of us.  We all have from now and then less than selfless attitudes.  We all want to look out for ourselves, make sure we are getting what we think we deserve, and perhaps a little extra now and then.  But we cannot throw cold water on the Lord Jesus, because who he was, and what he did, and why he did it, leaves no room for ambiguity.
 
We have the image of the Good Shepherd today; every Easter season gives us an opportunity to think of Jesus as the Shepherd.  Jesus contrasts himself with mercenaries, with hired people who are only in it for the pay.  That motive, Jesus implies, is not enough, not when it comes to saving people and bringing them to the fullness of life.  Others may seem to lead and protect us, but Jesus is the real deal . . . Jesus gives himself completely out of sheer love.  He never runs away.
 
Jesus can do this because, now risen from the dead, he has faced every danger and ever evil we can face: he has penetrated the wall that has kept humans in fear, the wall of death.  Now, overcoming death, he can be with us and for us forever.  And he can lead us where he went, through all our fears, even our deepest fears, because he is always there for us. 
 
We see Jesus’ followers acting as shepherds too, Peter and John giving away without any gain on their part healing to the crippled man.  Jesus is the shepherd who asks his follows to be shepherds too—to look to the weaker, the poorer, the less certain, the more limited, and bring what help and healing we can.  We call the leaders of our parishes pastors—shepherds—because their role is to live selflessly for others.  But their pastoring should flow onto all of us.  Easter means that the Holy Spirit takes the qualities of Jesus and pours them into our hearts, making us like the Risen Christ.
 
Perhaps we don’t like the idea of being sheep, so John gives us another image in the second reading.  We are God’s children, slowly being transformed into the image of Jesus.  As we see God more in Jesus, and as we receive Jesus’ love more as disciples, his image grows more and more in us.  We are children, becoming more and more like the Son, being transformed the more we behold our God.
 
At our house last week we were talking about goats and I asked how did goat sounds differ from sheep sounds.  Some of our rural students did an imitation, long low baahs. . . shorter, higher baahs. . . But they said the real difference was that goats were smarter, more social, cleaner,  Sheep they said were dumb, stubborn and smelly.  Maybe we are like sheep, pretty stubborn and often dumb.  But that only makes it more remarkable that the Shepherd loves us as he does. 

Easter 3 B

When we think of eating in our culture it’s usually with the notion of how much we are consuming.  We keep looking for the perfect diet: eat anything you want and still lose weight.  I heard about a hamburger, 2,200 calories, composed of seven patties of meat.  I couldn’t even imagine 
eating
 it, let alone 
digesting 
 it.  Michael Bloomberg wanted to limit sodas; society said “no.”  Companies will have to publish the calories in their food; they want to say “no.”
 
We are what we eat.  But there’s another way to think about eating, not in terms of what we eat, but in terms of the very act of eating.  Every living being eats, which means its very life depends on taking into its body what is outside, using it, and getting rid of the waste.  We take in elements from the universe, making them into ourselves, absolutely dependent on this, and totally frail if we don’t.
 
“Have you anything to eat?” Jesus asks his disciples.  They are astonished at Jesus’ presence, so much so they think he’s a ghost.  Jesus is going to use with them the same gesture, the same reality, he used during his ministry.  As he sat so often at table, mostly with sinners, before his crucifixion, so now, in virtually all his Easter appearances, he sits down at table—and reveals himself in the process.
 
We naturally think of this in terms of the Eucharist because those of us who exercise the privilege of eating with the Lord certain experience Christ in new ways every week.  Just as we depend on food for our very being, Jesus is saying there’s where I am: you depend on me and my love, and I will nourish you without fail.  Those who were involved in Living the Eucharist over these years have grown in your awareness of this. 
 
But Jesus, who shows himself eating to prove that he is real, talks about other realities of his presence that we depend on as well.  We hear the phrase, “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”  For as we need the Eucharist, so also we need God’s word, and without that Word, we are anorexic and starving.  Likewise we have been reading about the gathering of the first believers into Church in the book of Acts.  This too is a form of being fed by Christ, because without community we ultimately dry up and die.  And we will continue to read about faith and love in the letter of John.  As with Eucharist, and with Scripture, and with Community, we also need to experience and know love, or else we are dying.
 
I think a lot of us are starving today.  So many are not being fed with the Eucharist; it's a tragedy when people don't eat Christ's meal. And even many of us who come to worship let things stop there.  We don’t go further, to become the fuller disciples we are called to become.  As a result, we are 95 pound weakling Christians, not the muscular believers we are called to be.
 
Easter time gives us the opportunity to continue the same conversion process we pursued in Lent.  Because conversion is life-long.  It has to grow just as children have to grow; it has to be sustained just as our health needs to be sustained.  “Have you anything to eat?” Jesus asks.  He’s given us so much in and beyond the Eucharist, and he wonders why we leave the table with our plates barely touched.
 
We were stunned by the Philadelphia woman who left her 21 year old son, afflicted with cerebral palsy, in the woods with only a blanket and a bible.  He was found 5 days later barely alive.  She was with her boyfriend.  Didn’t she know her son was starving?  How could she do that? 
 
But look at how often we starve ourselves when it comes to our faith, and we are hardly shocked at all. 
 

Easter 2 B

There was a ruckus a month ago about Brian Williams of NBC news who seems to have exaggerated involvement in the Iraq war over ten years ago.  Some more liberal pundits started asking questions about Bill O’Riley’s claims in some of his stories; they called him Bill O’Really.  Rolling Stone has apologized for a widely-influential article about a fraternity at the University of Virginia even as the Columbia School of Journalism issued a report about Rolling Stone’s systematic reporting failures.

So who knows what to believe?  We hear things but who knows if they are true or not?  The more information we have the more we can stir the pot of doubt.  How many eyes have poured over the video showing President Kennedy’s assassination, but still people raise doubts.

So it turns out the doubt is a pretty powerful tool.  Look at how many people live crippled emotional lives because, at the bottom, they doubt themselves.  Look at how political parties spin everything the other party says with innuendo and doubt.  Look at how former lovers approach each other only with suspicion and doubt once the relationship has broken apart.  Doubt is a huge tool, but the Gospel is asking us where it really gets us in the end.

Who was Thomas doubting? He had to doubt his sisters and brothers in faith, the people with whom he had traveled and lived for over three years.  He seems to us such an example of a noble skeptic; none of us want to be accused of being gullible, and Thomas seems to be our hero.  But once you start to doubt, where does it stop?  To be able to question puts us in the high seat, seemingly above everyone and everything else.  They aren’t as smart as I am.  Look at the brilliant questions I am raising!

Yet isn't Thomas ultimately doubting himself?  Sure he’s doubting Jesus, and he’s doubting God—and he’s doubting the very hope that had driven him all the time he was with Jesus.  He’s really doubting himself, shrinking down the scope of his soul, closing off the one possibility that could change everything for him and for the world.  So when he finally does see Jesus, he doesn’t have to do any fact checking.  He knows the truth of his heart, the truth he’s been running away from.  He knows Jesus is now the Lord and God of all creation because he has broken the very bonds of death.

What makes Jesus resurrection credible?  Scriptures show us two things.  One is the range of hope we permit or deny ourselves when he hear the Easter message—he is raised!  The other is the effect of Jesus’ Risen life on the lives of those who believe in him.  In the first reading from Acts we see Christians living radically different lives, even sharing their possessions, because they know Christ has been raised.  And John tells us in the second reading that one decisive sign of Christ’s resurrection is the selfless love we have for each other.

So here we are today, hearing the Easter message at Mass; and here we are today, claiming we are Christ’s disciples.  If we believe it, we have to live it.  If we know it, we need to show it.  Otherwise we give others more reasons to think they can go on doubting the one thing that, through belief, can transform their lives and their world. 


EASTER B

Hurry, hurry. It’s amazing.  It’s here for sale.  The greatest oil ever invented.  Just one little drop in your coffee or tea, and it will cure everything.  Digestive ills, cholesterol, clogged arteries, even your problems with compulsive eating.  Just one little drop.  Come here, buy your bottles of the great oil ever invented.  Only $5.95. . . . But wait, if you act right now. . . .
 
We hear it all the time: never fall for the offer that’s too good to be true.  A 60 inch LED TV for $99, car insurance for as little as $25 a month, the Brooklyn Bridge for $1,000.00.  No siree, we are not going to fall for that!  We’ve been around the track.  You get what you pay for.  Nobody gets something for nothing.  Or almost nothing.
 
So what do we make of this glorious morning, Easter, when the Lord rises, his burial cloths thrown around the tomb and the rock pushed back by some unearthly power?  Do we roll our eyes?  Do we just say it’s too good to be true?  Or do we accept the heavenly message we are given this day: this is the exact Good News we’ve been waiting for.  It’s so Good it must be true. 
 
Because we’ve adjusted our horizons, haven’t we?  If we have a comfortable life, not too much pain, enough money to get what we need and have a great vacation every year, isn’t that plenty?  All the good we expect for ourselves is a minimum of pain and the most pleasure we can sustain without getting hurt.  If we should win the Lotto, or are selected for some outstanding position, or somehow live beyond 100 with excellent health—why that itself would floor us.  Who needs this rising from the dead?  Why even bring that up?
 
Yet that’s what God brings up, every year, after the tomb is sealed and we’ve dried our Good Friday tears.  God brings us to this empty tomb, to the message of angelic creatures, and to men and women startled, excited, confused, but now profoundly changed.  Because God thinks more of us than we think of ourselves.  God has not adjusted the horizons.  God has not settled for us getting through our 80 or 90 years with a minimum of pain. 
 
That’s what our shrunken souls lead us to, the thought that death takes away any pain we have, so why not stop at that?  Thank God Jesus died after only 3 or 6 hours on that terrible cross.  Amen.  It’s over.  Let’s take him down from the cross and breathe sighs of relief. 
 
But this God who has called us out of nothingness, given us the ability to looked outward to all creation and inward into the bottom of our souls; who has packed us with dreams, hopes, and loves that are always pushing back time, and resisting death’s doom . . . this God who has built “forever” into our very fabric . . . this God shows us something so good it must be true.  He shows us not only a Risen Christ, brimming with Spirit to pour upon us; he shows us the resurrection of all our hopes, all our loves, all our visions for the best.
 
So let’s embrace each other this morning.  Let’s look into the eyes of those we love.  Let’s hold the hands of aged and the young.  Let’s accept the hints of glory in the ordinariness of our lives.  Let’s admit the truth that, in the end, we mean everything—to God, to creation, and to each other.  Let’s sing the song angels and earth sing this day, the Alleluia that begins as a little hum from an empty tomb, but proceeds, more glorious than any symphony, to change human history.  Let’s sing the Alleluia that has no end.
 
Easter—it’s so good it must be true, and so true it is the foundation of all good.
 

Passion Sunday B

Every once in a while I end up in a hotel room with one of those mirrors used for make-up, the ones that magnify the face, exposing every contour of the facial skin.  I am aghast at all the imperfections of the face, the unshaved stubble, the little crevices from left-over teenage acne, the growing wrinkles, those nasty blackheads.  It’s hard to look at yourself closely; the blemishes show up all too well.
 
In the Passion reading we have from St. Mark, we get not only a close-up of Jesus, but a close-up of all those involved in these final days of Jesus’ life.  It’s not pretty.  Mark has emphasized Jesus as the servant of God, rejecting glory to give his life.  But Mark also gets to emphasize what is going on in the lives of those around Jesus, both of his companions and of his enemies. 
 
It’s all too easy to see ourselves in the self-serving actions of the friends of Jesus.  I suppose they were in it for what they thought was the glory of the Kingdom.  Deny, betray, evade, hide, run: haven’t I seen this in my own life as well?
 
It’s harder to see ourselves in the cruel actions of those who opposed Jesus; but we need to look closer.  Surely we would never use anger, envy, resentment, humiliation and violence against Jesus as Mark portrays in his sparse and soul-chilling language.  But haven’t we used anger, envy, resentment, humiliation and even violence against each other?  Do we not on a regular basis diminish and dismiss each other?  Do we not assert ourselves, even at the expense of others?
 
Jesus’ death on the Cross exposes so much: his suffering, the extent of God’s unbounded love for us, but also what is inside the human heart: the pimples and blackheads of our souls.  Jesus’ final cry of abandonment—the beginning of Psalm 22 which is a psalm of hope and trust—echoes the abandonment that comes from our own distance from God and from each other, the fruit of the self-centeredness that leads us nowhere and turns us against each other. 
 
Just as the passion teaches us that death is not the end of the story, so it teaches us that the smallness of our hearts and the blemishes of our souls are also not the final story.  As we spend this week beholding the Lord, we notice him looking into our faces as well, giving us the strength to both acknowledge of the truth of our lives and the grace to grow into the kind of love that God shows us in Jesus.


5 Lent B

If you give someone a fish, you have helped that one time.  If you teach people to fish, then you have empowered them to help themselves.

We acknowledge the truth of this all the time, and we honor those programs that bring training into the process—training homeless people in a skill, training very young mothers in parenting, training seniors through physical therapy to keep them independent and in their own homes.

What kind of training does Jesus offer us? 

Because it is clear that we need help.  We can hear it in the first reading, when Jeremiah tells us that God will now help us keep the covenant.  We’ve been hearing about covenants all these Sundays of Lent, ways in which God and we make promises.  But the promise that the ancient Jews made they did not keep; and, just as true, the promises that we have made to God we barely keep.  So Jeremiah tells us: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.  I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  God himself will come to our rescue, writing his law in our hearts, transforming us so we can be true partners with God, so we can keep our commitments to God.

Jesus, clearly, is the covenant that God sends, the law written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, his heart becoming our heart.  The Gospel today starts off saying that some Greeks—that is, non-Jews—were looking for Jesus.  And Jesus responds by seeming not to answer their question.  But the logic is clear: if people think that I am famous, that they come seeking me, I will tell you what my fame is all about.  My glory is to give my life in service, to shows God’s unlimited love for all humankind, and to show the promise of salvation God makes in the New Covenant.  Jesus says that his hour has come: this is the moment of climax in his life.  And his “hour” consists in giving his life, the seed dying in the ground that growth may come.  The thunder in the sky is the divine confirmation of Jesus’ glory: heaven itself knows that Jesus’ glory is to live for others.

Jesus says that this is also the point of judgment on the world: if he gives his life, must not the world live in the same kind of love that Jesus shows?  In other words, Jesus gives his life to empower his followers so they may generously give their lives in love and service as well.  Jesus does not give us a fish; he gives us his Holy Spirit that we may all do as he did, live in generous love for others.  He brings us into his New Covenant.  His “cries and groans” showed his obedience, his following the path of God: love is for others.  Life is not about ourselves but our capacity to give ourselves as Jesus did.

It’s not likely that many of us will be crucified, though certainly in some parts of the world Catholics and Christians are suffering martyrdom.  But it is likely that every one of us will be called out of ourselves every day, called to let our ego and preference die, called to let the grain of our service flower into the abundance of a new world, of God’s Kingdom. 

Jesus heard and shows us the Father’s generous love.  He not only showed us but taught us.  And he not only teaches us but reaches into our hearts with his Holy Spirit, filling them with his power and love.  The Greeks wanted to see Jesus.  So he showed them who he was by what how he lived.  Is this the Jesus that we come to meet, to know, to accept?

Jesus listened and showed us the heart of God; he asks if we have come to listen, and learn, in our own lives.


4 Lent B

We live in a world of radical ideas and impulses.  Daily we hear about ISIS whose vicious killings they proudly publish to frighten and shame the world.  Islam’s conquest of everyone and everything is their one radical thought.  Our own American world is often torn between one extremism or another: Tea Party types refuse to compromise when, for decades, compromise was called the name of the game.  Likewise, radical left-wing types appear, looking to overthrow society’s conventions.  Who needs money?  Who needs property?  Who needs laws? Everyone should own everything equally.
 
In the Gospel today we have the most radical Christian teaching, one so radical that even Christians themselves have barely grasped it.  The kernel of this idea is simple and overwhelming: God gave his Son as a gift to humankind in order to bring us the fullest of lives.  This teaching tells us about God—that God has shown us, in Jesus, the immeasurable riches of his grace.  We cannot calculate these riches.  We cannot measure the extent to which God has taken the initiative to love us, and show us love, in Jesus.  God is total, pure, unlimited love.
 
The Gospel says that if we see this truth about God, then we will not be condemned.  But if we refuse to see this truth about God, then condemnation has already happened.  This raises many alarm bells for us, of course, because this immeasurable love of God soon starts sounding like a threat, and this opens for us the other ideas of God that fill our heads.  God as the power broker.  God as the punisher and avenger.  God as the one pulling the strings in history and in our lives.  This is why even people who know God’s love very well still ask themselves “What did I do?” when cancer or mishap comes to them. 
 
In other words, we do not easily believe in God’s unlimited love.  We believe in God as the policeman whose love is quite conditional on our obeying the law.  But this is exactly the kind of God Jesus came to erase from our hearts.  We can see how, in the first reading, the Ancient Jews interpreted their history as God’s punishment.  This reading from the Second Book of Chronicles is one of the most compressed and dour descriptions of the destruction of Jerusalem, the subsequent Exile in Babylon, and the return of the Jewish people to Israel after more than fifty years of captivity.  See what God does when we don’t obey him, we want to say.  God takes revenge.  And so, in the name of God, people in our own day take revenge as well. 
 
But what is this condemnation in the Gospel?  It is only and really this: that we live with the consequences of having blocked God’s love and life from our hearts.  This is not what God does to us; it’s what we do to ourselves.  We distort God’s image because it takes too much for us to affirm God’s goodness and love as we should.  After all, if we see God as pure and generous love, then how should we live?  How can we be as petty and craven as we are? So we project our pettiness onto God.
 
The death of Jesus rather teaches us this: God’s love abides in and through our whole lives, when those lives are rich, and when they are in stress; when we feel wonderful and when we feel depressed; when we are vibrant, and when we are broken.  Was not the Father with Jesus through the cross?  And was not God, paradoxically, with Ancient Israel in its exile?  That God loves us does not mean that pain and death disappear; that God loves us means that pain and death become transformed in the infinite love of God.  Jesus converts his death into the definitive sign of God’s generous, forgiving, and renewing love.
 
How many sports events have folks with signs holding up John 3:16, the verse we read today?  It often seems corny to us.  Who knows how they even understand the verse they are pushing into the camera lens?  But Lent challenges us to probe this verse in our lives.  Do I believe in Love, Love as the origin and destiny of all creation, Love as the meaning of all history, and Love as the explanation of my own life and destiny?  To believe that is to believe in the mission of Jesus.  And this, of course, is the most radical teaching we can ever learn.


3 Lent B

Weed is coming to Washington.  Not that it hasn’t been there for decades already.  But the City Council legalized it, in response to the results of a recently held popular vote.  It’s hard to know what this means.  There are many restrictions.  Much of the vote surely had to do with the disproportionate arrest of young minorities on drug charges.  Yet I certainly saw pot as an entry drug for a generation of children in the 80s.  But now it’s legal.  Perhaps this is saying that, in some cases, there’s only so much law can do. 

We have very paradoxical readings today.  In the first reading, Moses proclaims the Ten Commandments as God’s law, the foundation of Jewish behavior and of much moral and legal thinking in our Western culture.  On the other hand, we see Jesus purging the Temple, acting in a bold and undermining way when he drives merchants from the Temple area.  He certainly looks like an outlaw to the leaders of his day.  Yet what he does points to what law and commandment was always about.

We traditionally divide the commandments into two parts, the first ones being about our relationship with God, and the remaining commandments being about our relationship with others.  But all the commandments are about integrity—the way we can stand simply and openly before God, acknowledging God as the center and source of our lives, and the way, as a result, we behave differently toward each other.  Integrity with God involves integrity with others; lack of integrity with others means something is missing in my relationship with God.

We know the first reaction to a law is to want to break it.  Stay away from those cookies!  Sure. . . . When someone sends a gift and tells us not to open it until our birthdays, it drives us crazy.  When the speed limit is 55, we need to add ten miles to it.  And no matter how much we legislate against some things, a percentage of the population tends not to follow.  So law is either in our hearts or it is not.  Our integrity has to come from within, no matter what the outside says.  Our relationships with God and others have to be part of our very consciousness.

The Gospel shows us how even religion can be a way to obscure our relationship with God.  And we certainly know we can go through the exterior motions of our faith while our hearts are far away.  We have our rosaries or medals, but it doesn’t stop us from contradicting our faith by the way we behave.  I have to wonder what St. Christopher is thinking as he listens to me comment on other drivers on the highway!  Jesus is telling people that they have get beyond the externals of their temple and its practices to the inner reality that he is—God’s living temple in our midst and in our hearts.  Paul remarks on how the desire for signs or for proofs kept people in his day from seeing Jesus as he is: God’s revelation come to us, God’s wisdom and power, made real.

The invitation of Lent, that we be converted, suggests not that we throw away all the forms of our faith, but that we get behind them, unpack them, and experience our relationship with God anew.  How do we have integrity before God?  Not on our own, but only in Christ Jesus.  Only by being one with him, making his life our life, and his heart the motive from which we live.  Jesus knows what’s in our hearts; he needs no one to give him insight into human nature.  But knowing what’s in our hearts, he gives himself nonetheless, to transform those hearts to be like his through his Holy Spirit.

Each Sunday in Lent we’ve seen deeper dimensions of God’s covenant with us—Noah, then Abraham, and today Moses.  But all of this is to point to the ultimate covenant God makes with us—the gift of his Son who, in turn, can make us a gift to God as we pray so often at Mass.  If we want to be converted, we know what it involves: saying “yes” to Jesus as the center of our souls, the power from whom all our other actions radiate.

When we hear of commandments, and of laws, it can lead us to think everything depends on us and our moral rigor.  But when we have finally met Christ we know that everything depends on us letting him place his Spirit in our hearts.  Let’s make sure we meet him in our worship today.

 

2 Lent B

How do we find the value of a life?  Ultimately, we do not find that value looking at our own lives—strong as self-preservation might be, but looking at the lives of those we love.  It is in others that the value of all life, even our own lives, can be found.

 Kayla Mueller was killed by ISIS.  Her parents are both grieving and aggrieved . . . could more have been done to secure her release?  How much should be done to secure the release of one person, particularly if it puts the lives of many other persons at risk?  Should we never negotiate with terrorists, or should we be willing to pay millions of dollars in ransom?  What are millions if another can live, a beloved?

 We feel the tension in the first reading.  We can tell how much Abraham must love his son.  He spent a lifetime hoping for a child through Sarah, and finally he came along, when both Abraham and Sarah were seemingly too old for children.  All of this only underlines how precious Isaac, the child, was.  Can it be that God is asking Abraham for this, the most precious and central reality of his life?  How can God do this?

 The more we reflect on this passage, the more it shows how hard it is to really hear God.  Abraham lived in the world of widely-practiced child sacrifice, a world where human life was often discounted in everyday events and sometimes in the name of religion too.  How striking it is that God’s complete message is not about sacrificing Isaac, but being totally open, totally receptive, to God.  Rather than making all life relative, this passage is saying that all life has its final meaning in God.  No matter how much we cherish the lives of those we love with all our hearts, God cherishes their lives even more. In God, all our loves and lives come to fullness.

 So Abraham’s test is how much he loves God.  But God undergoes the same test, for God is willing to show us how much we are loved.  St. Paul reflects in his letter to the Romans: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”  God’s love is so foundational, so strong, that God gives what is absolutely precious in God’s eyes to us.  He gives his Son to us through Jesus’ life, through Jesus’ ministry, through Jesus’ preaching, through Jesus’ death, and through his resurrection.  It is not only that Jesus died for us: far more, Jesus is the gift of God’s own being given to us, so we may know who God is, and who we are before God.

 The Gospel shows us this in Jesus’ glorious transfiguration.  Jesus’ glory radiates upon his baffled and even unresponsive apostles so we can see not only the grandeur of Jesus, but the grandeur that Jesus is offering all of us.  His death is the path to his glory because in this total gift of himself, Jesus strips death of its power and shows us that union with God is stronger even than death.  As Jesus does this in his own body, attaining glory, so Jesus does this to all who open their hearts in trust, who follow his path of living for his Father, who see that all of life’s meaning comes from its relationship to a God who never abandons us.

 The scriptures this Sunday are not easy; they challenge some of the deepest impulses in our human experience—self-preservation, and what we would do for those we love.  God touches us even in these deepest impulses, showing divine love is greater than even these fundamental drives, showing us that divine life encircles all human life. 

 What would we pay for a ransom?  God answers this terrible question, this unanswerable question, by saying this: for your ransom, I give my Son, I give myself, as a gift of love for you.

 

 

 

1 Lent B

“Mamma said there’d be days like this; there’s be days lit this, Mamma said.” 

 So begins the unforgettable tune that the Shirelles in the 60s.  And it’s true, certainly in our own lives as we’ve worried whether we’d make it through to graduation, or whether a relationship was going to fall apart, of how we’d make it through the month with the few dollars in our wallets.  And in our world, as we’ve witnessed markets crash sending millions out of work, buildings fall as planes smash into them, and as we watch beheadings and burnings—we know there are always tough days.  How do we get through them?

 At first glance, Noah, with all the water he has, and Jesus, with the absence of water and food, seem like complete opposites.  But actually they are showing us tough days, and how faithfulness to God gets us through them.  The Noah story is not about precipitation, but about the importance of being open to God.  Noah represents a fundamental stance toward God; and how, in faithfulness, God takes a fundamental stance toward humankind.  The Scripture story uses the rainbow as an everlasting sign of divine commitment.

 Jesus goes into the desert, representing every one of us as we face the decisions of our lives.  For Satan is basically the one who tests our metal, presenting illusions and fantasies, to see if we will be distracted from following God’s way.  The wild beasts represent the dangers to our lives; the angels represent the abundant instances of divine care that surround us.  But in the Gospel we don’t have a rainbow as a sign; instead, we have a person, Jesus Christ, led by the Spirit and made God’s New Covenant for us, as the definitive sign of God’s infinite love. 

 What does the covenant look like?  Mark’s short Gospel repeats the passage we read just a few Sundays ago: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  The covenant that Jesus offers us is a place in his Kingdom.  But we have to flesh these ideas out a bit.  “Kingdom” doesn’t mean Camelot or Valhalla; “kingdom” is an enduring relationship that God has with us, and we have with God and each other.  It’s the transformation of our lives.  “Repent” doesn’t meant to give up chocolate or beer, as probably many of us are doing for Lent.  It means to change our minds upside down, to see the world anew, to see Good News.

 And what is the Good News?  Seeing, once we are converted, God’s infinite love for us and the world—seeing that love in Jesus, and discovering that love in our daily lives.  We are Good News people.  We have the crucial News of God’s life given to us, God’s love unwaveringly given when our hearts are open in trust.  Lent is not an opportunity to lose a few unwanted pounds; it is an opportunity to discover again what we fundamentally want and need—the relationship God has with us in Jesus, confirmed in the Spirit of Love poured into our hearts. 

 It’s so easy to make our faith lives a list of things we do, or obligations we have to undertake, or sins that make us feel guilty.  We can make our faith into rosaries, medals, pamphlets, crosses.  But faith, fundamentally, goes beyond any of those things.  It is God upholding us when things are good and when difficult, when “days like this” come along and yet, despite floods or desert heat, we know God is with us.  The New Covenant is God’s unconditional, prior love given to us in the gift of his Son.  As Peter tells us in the second reading, when we are baptized, we are joined to that covenant.

 So let’s use lent to re-activate our faith, to get to a deeper level, to open our hearts and expand our trust, so we can resist the distractions of a million pressing things to engage in that one essential thing we must do: discover God’s love, accept that love, live that love, and make it the purpose of our lives.

 Mamma said there’d be days like this, but God, our Father, says that, whatever our days, God’s covenant with us will abide. 

 

6 B

Questions frame our lives.  As soon as children begin to talk, questions come out: Why is that man crying?  Why can’t I go out?  With age, the questions get more pressing.  Who are my friends?  What do I want to be?  Where should I go to college?  Settle down?  I imagine the questions that circulated prior to Valentine’s Day yesterday: Not “Will you be my Valentine?” which is so cheesy; but something, often unspoken, like: “Do you really love me?  Will you always be here for me?”

 Jesus gets an indirect question, in a rather passive-aggressive form, in the Gospel, and it’s hard to know how he takes it.  “If you wish,” the leper says, “you can make me clean.”  Talk about putting a hook into someone.  Is Jesus supposed to say: “I can but I won’t”?  Is the leper testing not just Jesus willingness but also his power?  “I do will it,” Jesus says back.  It’s almost as if Jesus is saying that pressing God, pressing God’s love, is the way to discover just how endless that love is. 

 What are the questions we ask of God?  Or, perhaps, the ones we don’t ask because we’ve become timid, matter-of-fact, automatic-pilot in our faith.  What do I ask God for?  Perhaps we think God will say, “Well, I don’t will it, too bad.”  The point of prayer is not whether God gives us this or that; rather, it’s how our need always opens up the inexhaustible love God has for us, which God always shows us, even if it’s not in the exact form we wanted.  What does God will for us?  Can we see it?  Only if we ask with open and receptive hearts . . . then we see every moment, every thing, is sheer gift of love.

 Of course, the drama of the Gospel is in the next section.  Jesus tells the cured man not to say anything to anyone.  He doesn’t want people creating a stir; rather, he wants to announce himself as the Messiah who comes, not in glory, but in service, in sacrifice.  Making a stir, making Jesus a star, gets in the way of that.  But what’s the man supposed to do?  We know from the first reading how isolated diseased people were in ancient society—driven from family and friends.  Now he can go back to them, show them his clean skin, adopt a new relationship with all of society.  What’s he supposed to do?

 Of course, Jesus has already revealed himself to us as the Servant Messiah.  He doesn’t tell us to keep our mouths shut.  The healing, peace, love, joy, and mystical union we have from God through Jesus is the greatest, most important news in our lives.  I buy a PowerBall twice a week: do you think I’d be quiet if I won a hundred million dollars?  My godchildren get into their favorite colleges: do you think they keep that to themselves?  No, Good News is meant to be spread, and St. Paul, patron of the Paulist Fathers, tells us how—by the simple love we extend through giving ourselves to others in service.  Not by browbeating, being smug, looking down, acting righteous.  “Give no one offense,” he says.  Imitate me as I imitate Christ.

 So maybe that’s the question Jesus asks us: if I have touched and transformed your life, will you show that?  When the opportunity comes, will you share that?  If you’ve been made whole, will you help others become whole?  If I have answered your prayers, will you help me answer the prayers of others?  If I have shown you endless love, what love will you show me back?

 Indeed, questions do frame our lives.

 

5 B

“I’m bored.”  “There’s nothing to do.”  Another snow day . . . another day to suffer cabin fever! 

 Sometimes time seems to drag, we can’t believe how long the afternoon seems; we can’t wait for class to end, or 5:00 to come, or vacation to start.  But we also have those moments when time flies by, when we can’t believe how much time we spent with a friend, or how quickly the day ended because we were absorbed with something exciting.

 Time drags.  Time flies by.  What makes the difference?

 Things certainly seem to be dragging for Job, the ultimate image of someone hit with bad luck.  In our reading, Job seems caught in an endless night, echoing those moments of extreme stress or even depression that come into our lives.  On the other hand, the Gospel seems filled with energy and movement, with Jesus moving here and there, even finding a few moments to catch his breath.  Time drags.  Time flies.  What makes the difference?

 For Job it seems that the tragedies of his life have robbed him of a sense of purpose.  He once had life arranged just the way he wanted, but misfortune took it all away.  Now all he can do is wallow, complain, and wait.  Jesus, having announced the Kingdom of God, seems totally absorbed in bringing it about.  When the apostles find him praying and resting, they say, “All the world is looking for you?”  And Jesus articulates so clearly his purpose: “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.”

 We see this in the miniature portrait of Peter’s mother-in-law.  She’s probably been all excited to prepare dinner for her sons and their new friend, the new prophet, Jesus.  We can imagine her preparing the bread, getting wine ready, finding some meat to put into a stew, all excited because of the guest that is coming into her house.  But then she gets a fever—something that, in ancient times, could be quite serious and mysterious, not something an aspirin could tackle.  Jesus heals her so that she can get on with this dinner, so she could fulfill the purpose she set for herself.

 We all have a purpose, given to us by our creation and confirmed by our baptism in Jesus Christ.  We all have the purpose of serving others, of helping to lift their burdens, of bringing them hope and joy.  Life gets very boring when we forget this purpose, when we think it’s all about serving ourselves, trying to fill the holes in our hearts with one toy after another.  But to live for others, as Jesus did and does, directly challenges this ego-centered temptation.  Look at how St. Paul puts it: I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.”  Paul is willing to do anything for the Good News of God’s love; he has found purpose in his life.

 What is our purpose?  Have we found it?  Can we say it?  Does it give direction to our lives?  Do we see it in our families, our work lives, our various ministries and volunteering?  Or has a bit of self-pity, and self-absorption, made our purpose seem obscure? 

 Sometimes time drags, usually when we think it’s all about us.  Sometimes time flies, usually when we are thinking of others, of God, and how we can serve them.  Which direction do you think Jesus is inviting us to undertake?

4 B

Edward R. Murrow.  John Cameron Swaze, Eric Severeid, and Walter Cronkite.  How much nostalgia these names evoke.  In the 50s and 60s TVs were glued to the reporting of people like Huntley and Brinkley on NBC and Walter Cronkite on CBS.  From Khrushchev through Vietnam, these men spoke at first for 15 minutes, then a half hour, and everyone believed what they said.  Now we raise our eyebrows about “fair and balanced” news, look quizzically at Al Jazeer, and think CNN exists only to stir up the next bit of hysteria.  Breaking News.  Extreme Weather.  Information You Need to Know.  And the more news we get the less we tend to accept it.

 Some of this is because there are so many places to get news today, and each place tailors the news to its core audience.  Other reasons for our suspicions revolve around the implicit commercialism of all news, now more than ever: the news exists to get us to watch those commercials, buy things from luxury cars to Chia pets, as networks fill in time till the next commercial.  Global correspondents bringing us trans-national corporations.  We long for authoritative voices that we can trust.

 Mark’s Gospel brings us the first preaching of Jesus and, from the reaction of the crowd, Jesus was a big hit.  Jesus is still in Galilee, his home province, but he is speaking in ways that astonish the crowd.  He backs up his preaching, to be sure, with amazing signs: curing the sick and casting out demons which shows a channel to the very power of God.  Even the demons are astonished, and Jesus has to quiet them down because no one gets to say who Jesus is in the Gospel of Mark until Jesus defines himself as a servant who serves by suffering.  No Jesus Superstar here.  Rather, a Jesus who speaks with authority, with power.

 But what does that mean?  We can pick up from the first reading, from Deuteronomy, that people asked God for a prophet precisely to be protected from the power of God.  When they ask for a prophet, God says, “They have spoken well.”  The God we think of in this passage is the God of thunder and lightning, the God who strikes and smites, the God whose basic tactic is fear.  “In place of me,” God says, “I will send a prophet.  And people better listen to that one!”

 But Jesus does no smiting and striking.  He causes no dread in people.  In fact, they come flocking to Jesus in droves.  What does it mean to speak with power, with authority?  If we learn anything in the readings, we learn that the best prophets were the ones who revealed God the most.  Jesus speaks with authority because he unveils the God of creation and redemption, not as a God who threatens and kills, but as a God of unlimited love and life.  Jesus, last week, said that the Kingdom of God is coming—that state where we see God fully—and now Jesus shows us the Kingdom in the deeds that liberate us.

 Power has had such a funny role in the life of the Church.  Half the time it looks like power was against us; the other half, it looks like the Church wielded the power, and sometimes with a heavy hand.  But power, as force, is meaningless in the Kingdom.  The only power God wields is that of love, and the healing and wholeness that love brings.  And if you think love isn’t powerful, just think of the people who influenced you most in your life.  Nine out of ten times, they were figures of love and help.

 Our choice is to be wowed by the crowd and stare, or to realize that Jesus’ power has been given to us in the Holy Spirit.  Oh, we may not drive out many demons, but every day we have an opportunity to advance life, foster reconciliation, perform deeds of love, and overcome the forces of darkness and death.  Every day we have the capacity to unveil, in our own lives, God’s bringing of the Kingdom into our world.

 Ancient people looked to a prophet to come; modern people look for trusted people of the past.  But Jesus gives us a Kingdom of the present, swelling with God’s power because our lives are flooded by the love of the Holy Spirit. 


3 B

Already we have candidates putting forth their names for 2016, mostly on the Republican side, but also on the Democratic side.  We might even get an Independent to throw his name in.  As the pundits and analysts review these figures, we will hear one phrase again and again, “Stay on message.”  The public gets confused if you change your message; and only your unswerving message can garner the core of candidates you need to vote for you and put you over the nomination line.

 Remember when Coke gave up its formula to develop a newer formula?  Everyone shrieked.  You can’t change your brand, your message.  The Michael Jacksons can get away with change because that was his brand, playing the edges of identity.  Otherwise, Donald Trump keeps his hair, if that’s what it is; Sarah Palin and Nancy Peolsi each strive hard to preserve the look they have, with varying success.

 Stay on message.  Jonah in no way wanted to present God’s message in Nineveh.  It was a city full of people who were traditional enemies of the Jewish people.  But in this parable, Jonah stays on message, and it’s so effective that within three days the whole city is converted—even the cows and sheep in the fuller version of the parable.  I think just about every modern preacher is jealous of Jonah’s effectiveness. 

 Mark presents Jesus in the Gospel as inaugurating a message that would, from that moment, sweep through history.  He proclaims, and inaugurates, the Kingdom of God.  Everything he does from this proclamation will be to show the Kingdom, explain its urgency and accessibility, and bring about the effects of the Kingdom—healing, forgiveness, escape from social stigma, community, love, and ultimately even escape from death.

 There’s only one way into the Kingdom; Jesus tells us with when he uses the word “Repent.”  This word means far more than feeling sorry for our past, or undertaking acts of penance—even though that’s often how we interpret it.  Its root meaning is this: turn your mind upside down, flip over your brain, see things entirely differently, and then you will see the Kingdom which is at hand, waiting to come, entering into our lives.

 Paul shows us the meaning of this radical change: we have to live as if everything else in our lives were relative to the Kingdom.  As if we had and as if we didn’t.  When we are joyful and when we are sorrowful.  Whether we are rich or whether we are poor.  We can account nothing in our present experience as nearly as important as the relationship we have with God, and the consequent renewal of our relationship with each other because we have experienced the love of God.  “For the world, in its present form, is passing away.”  The experience you and I have is relative to the experience of God that begins in our present experience and rushes toward the fullness of eternal life.

 Jesus’ message is different than Jonah’s.  Jonah threatens and people listen.  Jesus gets people to listen, not by threat, but by invitation.  That invitation was so enticing it led to the first followers of Jesus putting everything aside in order to walk on Jesus’ path.  Of course there is risk: by turning down the invitation we miss out on everything that Jesus promises and brings about.  But more than the risk, there’s the invitation, the urgency, the cogency, the unchanging message that the Kingdom is coming about.

 Perhaps our meditation might be to think of, and recognize, the signs of the Kingdom in our own experience—the sense of union with God that we received, the healing and peace we have found, the joy when we serve others, the consolation we have when we see our families united in love and joy, the power we see when people experience forgiveness, and show it to each other.  Yes, the Kingdom is all around us.  Do we want to see it, accept it, live it?  Instead of the dead end we usually find in our lives, we might find something different—a path to fuller life now, and fullness of life forever.  Stay on message: it’s the only one that counts.

 

2 B

What does it take to hear?
 
Three million people march in Paris.  Thousands across cities in the US wear “I Can’t Breath” t-shirts. Decades after Martin Luther King was murdered, we still are debating racial issues.  Hundreds of cops in New York turn their backs on their mayor.  Saudi Arabia sentences a man to receive, over a period of months, 1,000 lashes.
 
We expend so much energy trying to get messages across.  But the scriptures today raise the question, What does it take to hear?
 
There are few passages as important as the one from the book of Samuel—Samuel’s call in the middle of the night.  He hears God three times, but each time he thinks it’s only a dream, nothing real, nothing important.  Eli, the old priest, has been around God enough to have the pattern down if there’s a call you can’t put aside, and ultimate call, you have to pay attention to it: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
 
To what level do we need to go to hear the voice of God?  John’s Gospel gives us some important clues.  At first sight the invitation seems almost incidental.  “Come and see,” Jesus says to the future disciples when they ask him where he is staying.  Before too long it becomes clear that you cannot hear God on a superficial level.  You can’t chit chat with God.  When God speaks to us, he wants our hearts, our depths.  By the end of the passage the future-disciples are excited: “We have found the Messiah!” they say.  But really, they’ve only begun to find the Messiah.  They’ve only begun to hear.
 
The scriptures are saying that we can only hear god’s voice and respond when we have placed ourselves at risk.  Ultimately God wants to engage our whole lives.  Paul says, in effect, that God comes before one of the basic human impulses—the eroticism that drives so much personal life, and even dominates in an almost insane way the culture in which we live.  Can we, in our culture, hear that message: that even our basic sexual impulses have to respond to God?  When God speaks to us, we cannot hold anything back.
 
But of course we spend lots of time holding things back—from each other, from ourselves, and especially from God.  We have our pretenses and our postures.  We have the stories we invent in our heads about what our lives mean, and where they are heading.  We only partially gives ourselves to things because we know what it might cost us.  What if I say, “I do?”  What if I say, “Call me anytime”?  What If I say, “Sure, I will”?
 
Yet until life gets to this level, we don’t really have a life.  We have only part of a life.  We know where people live, where they are, but we don’t know who they are.  No believer has ever found out who God is without giving her- or himself to God.  Entered the mystery.  Opened their hearts.  Heard not with their ears, but with their lives. 
 
This has to happen whatever our specific vocations.  Popes and janitors each have to open their hearts to God.  Wall Street and Main Street types each have to hear God’s Word.  Parents and children all have to hear God’s word at a depth that changes and transforms who we are.
 
Do we think God stopped talking 3,000 years ago with Samuel, or 2,500 years ago with Isaiah, or 2,000 years ago with Jesus?  Jesus speaks to us, right now, with the Spirit that penetrates all our evasions and pleasantries.  It takes God’s infinite love to speak.  He gives us his Holy Spirit.  So we know what it takes to hear—our whole spirit.  “Come and see,” says Jesus to each of us.  What are we hearing, and what will we say in response?

BAPTISM OF THE LORD B

A story that floats around the internet: A wealthy business man invites eligible men who work for him to his mansion on Long Island.  The brokers and traders are gathered around a large pool, drinking and enjoying exquisite snacks.  The only strange thing is this: the pool is filled with alligators.  Eventually the business man appears, with a briefcase on his left and a beautiful woman on his right.  He tells the gathered men: whoever is the first one to swim through that pool of alligators can have either this briefcase with the million dollars, or my beautiful daughter for marriage.  He no sooner stopped speaking when he sees one of those young men swimming frantically through the pool as alligators snap at him.  He finally makes it across the pool.  The business man says: That was amazing!  I can’t believe it!  What do you want, the million dollars or my beautiful daughter?  The swimmer says: I don’t want your million dollars, and I don’t want your daughter.  I want the guy who threw me into the pool!

 I love this story because I think many Catholics behave as if they were thrown into the pool—you know, their parents had them baptized and now they are stuck with being Catholics.  They feel they had not choice, that things were chosen for them.  Even more, it’s no secret that millions of Catholics no longer think of themselves as Catholic, and the majority do not attend Mass on Sunday.  I remember one priest telling me about a young man who went on a retreat at an Evangelical Church; the next weekend he told his priest that for the first time, at the retreat, he gave himself to Jesus.  The priest asked the young man: “What did you think you were doing when you made confirmation?”

 Would we choose to be baptized again?  Would we choose to be disciples of Jesus Christ?  Would we choose to place him at the center of our lives?  Or do we think our faith was something foisted on us?  That we mostly go through the motions but have never been converted?

 Baptism is accepting the life of Jesus as one’s own.  How that happens, and how that continues in life, varies in a million details.  Some people jump into the baptism font at twenty years old and two years later you wouldn’t know it.  Catholics and many other Christian communities baptize our children so that they will grow up in an environment of conversion, so that they will always know God’s love and grace, so that the foundation of discipleship can be built from the earliest years.  The big risk is this: perhaps we won’t appreciate it, and perhaps our baptism never comes to maturity.

 Don’t tell me you haven’t accepted your baptism if you come to Mass.  Don’t tell me you haven’t put Jesus at the center of your life if you come to Holy Communion, if you receive his body and blood inside you.  Every time we bless ourselves with holy water, we are affirming our baptism.  Every time we hear the scripture, we are exercising our discipleship. Every time we let God speak in the depths of our heart, we are hearing the Father as Jesus taught us to.  Our Catholic problem isn’t that there is no conversion; our Catholic problem is that we have barely begun to live the conversion that fills our lives.

 The Christmas season ends with today’s feast.  Jesus is born, but not to stay in a stable; Jesus is revealed, but not to be stared at by Magi.  Jesus is baptized, but not because he was sinful or needed a bath.  Jesus is baptized for mission, to be the chosen Son, the beloved, who hears his Father perfectly, who acts in the Holy Spirit, and tears open the heavens to bring them down to earth.  You and I are baptized into that same mission: to bring the Kingdom to our homes, living and learning as disciples; to bring the Kingdom to our workplaces, witnessing to the values of the Kingdom in the world; to bring that Kingdom to hearts which are all too empty because they have not yet encountered Jesus Christ and been overwhelmed by his love.

 Often we think of faith as choosing—did we choose Jesus, or his way of life?  But before that it is something else: it is being chosen by God, being loved from eternity, and being invited to live in that love as daughters and sons, along with Jesus.  Before anything, it is God’s sheer grace.  Yes, God chose us, you and me.  But God chooses us so that we can show how God would choose, and transform, the world. 


EPIPHANY

In recent weeks Friends on Facebook have posted summaries of their lives this year.  How do they do that? I kept asking myself.  Who has the time to put a year together?  Then Facebook sent me an offer: my own life, in review, for one year, already done.  All I had to do was click.  I thought to myself: who are these people to summarize my life?  How would they know what’s important to me?  Or what I’d rather not share?  No thanks, Facebook.  I’ll put my own life together on my terms.
 
But isn’t it true we keep looking for broader patterns?  What do our headlines say about ourselves as a nation?  What do the top 10 movies mean?  Where do I think my life is going?  Can I draw a bigger picture of my world that what’s going on right now?
 
The feast of Epiphany is God’s way to draw a bigger picture for us.  This feast uses the imagery of light.  People who live in darkness have now seen a great light, says Isaiah.  That light is God’s own Word now come into our midst.  The light of that Word shines upon us; as it does, it can transform us, moving us from darkness into light.  Do we want those rays to shine upon us? 
 
Of course, in many ways we prefer some darkness in our lives, all the better to hide those things that we think we need but actually diminish our lives.  Our self-satisfaction.  Our unverified certainties.  The way we look down on people and situations.  The way we weasel ourselves into the center of every conversation.  The way we disguise our vices in virtue-sounding language. “Oh, I’m not angry; I just need to teach so and so a lesson, for her own good, for his own edification.”  When the light of God’s infinite love shines in these dark areas, it can make us squint in pain.  Do we want those rays to shine upon us?
 
The big picture is not just God’s light coming to us; it is God’s light radiating through us out into the world.  We want to domesticate Christmas, making it about our homes, our hymns, our feeling a little cheerier at least for a few days.  We love the decorations in our churches, the trees in our homes.  But Christmas is not just for us, and certainly not just for our Churches.  The stewardship of God’s grace, St. Paul tells us, is about the mystery of God’s expansive love.  The light comes for all the nations, for the Gentiles, for the chosen and the unchosen.  God’s light wants to brighten every dimension of human existence.  Do we want those rays of light to shine upon us?  And through us, on the world?
 
The other big picture we have, apart from light, is the one of journey.  Wise men journey to seek wisdom.  Wise people follow the light.  Wise people do not give up.  Wise people do not betray what they have found at such great sacrifice.  If God, then comes to us, are we willing to go to God?  Really go to God—not just in the formalities of our faith, important as they are; but in the passion of faith which will not rest until God’s love is discovered, known, and revealed?  Do we want God’s light?  How far will we go to receive it?
 
Last Sunday I was making my way down from New York, obviously with tens of thousands of others who were also clogging 1-95 from Jersey down to DC.  I listened to traffic; I peeked at the Waze app I had downloaded to my phone.  In almost every instance, the information I got told me traffic was terrible where I was.  It told me what I already knew, not what I wanted to know, the better route.  Why don’t they invent a little map, with a bouncing light on it, and I just steer my car to that bouncing light and I can avoid all the traffic?  A few back roads, a short cut, something to get me home?
 
God sends Jesus as exactly that light.  He shines before us, helping us know the way of our journey.  He illuminates the big map for us, showing us where we came from and where we are going.  Epiphany celebrates this light.  But it only works if we actually follow the route. 


HOLY FAMILY

During Advent, as well as Lent, pastors invite priests to hear confessions, often the confessions of children, those under twelve years of age.  These confessions are very predictable.  “Bless me Father I have sinned . . .” and then we have to help the child along.  When the child finally gets to telling the sins, almost always they say, “And I disobeyed my mother and my father.”

 It’s almost impossible not to disobey them, given how easily children do what they want, and given how often parents have ideas for their children.  Of course, what children confess is nothing like the intention of the first reading, where honoring and obeying one’s parents meant, in ancient Israel, caring for them, not abandoning them, not putting them out on the street.  It had nothing to do with cleaning the kitchen or washing dishes.

 The word “obey” is an important one.  We see it in all the readings, on way or another.  And we can have a very superficial notion of this—if the authority gives a command, you have to do it.  But the word means so much more.  The root of the word is to “hear”—to listen as deeply as we can.  It’s to hear the heart of another person, to know the deepest wishes, the best wishes of someone, to be attentive to their spirit.

 In this way, Jesus was obedient to his parents, attending to them and their needs.  But, even more, Jesus was attentive to his heavenly Father, with his heart constantly open to the grace of God, the good God wanted to come to humankind.  In the Gospel we have today, the parents of Jesus present him in the temple.  This simple act, an act of custom, comes to mean so much more in the life of Jesus: it’s the beginning of his hearing his Father’s will, the beginning of his self-sacrifice, the start of his showing the world that salvation happens through self-less, generous love.

 Abraham obeys, we hear in the second reading; Sara obeys: they are people of faith, because faith is the trust which we have that lets us listen deeply to God.  Abraham sees more deeply into God because he takes the time to listen, to trust, and to see God as a God of life, of generosity. 

 Perhaps we would listen better to each other if we listened more deeply to God.  Perhaps we would have more peace in our families if we all opened our hearts more fully to God.  Perhaps families would have so much isolation and distance if their life was one of obedience—listening to God and listening better to each other.

 One of the next stories Luke tells is when Joseph and Mary forget that Jesus is in Jerusalem.  When they find him, after three days, talking and teaching in the Temple, he tells them he must do the work of his Father.  Would that our lives were that: doing God’s work because we have listened to God, learned his love, and put God’s love into action in our lives.  God isn’t asking us to wash the floor.  God asks us to change the world.

 

Christmas

It came upon the Midnight clear.
 
Whatever time of day we celebrate Christmas Mass, it always seems to have a midnight kind of character about it.  The excitement of children who cannot sleep through the night (now pretty much ruined because children receive their gifts on Christmas Eve) evokes the expectation of Joseph and Mary, the chilly silence of fields filled with shepherds, and the night sky finally ablaze with Angels.
 
Although more and more people seem to have jobs at night, most of us get to sleep.  We pull down the sheets hoping to get six to eight straight hours of sleep.  But it doesn’t always happen.  A sudden noise. A child’s scream.  An emergency call.  A cold that will not let up. 
 
And then we find ourselves in the wee hours, waiting for sleep to come, or to come back again.  These are the moments that explain, I think, the night of Christmas.  Even though we are tossing and turning, even though we desperately want to sleep, even though we worry how we’ll be able to do our work the next day, for once, during these sleepless hours, we have heads empty of the noise of the day, and minds able to look behind life’s details at something deeper.
 
Night clears away so many distractions.  It lets us get at some deeper things, some initial hunches, some hidden longings.  Only in these moments of suspended activity do we seem to peer behind the veil of life, do we peel away the gauze that covers our minds most of the time.  Only then do we see patterns that penetrate more deeply, subtleties that usually escape us, dreams of the heart, desires of our souls. 
 
It is then, in night’s quiet, that we can begin to see what God has been doing, and now does with astonishing clarity, in the history of humankind.  Revealing, leading, teaching, guiding, protecting . . . and now embracing us, in our humanity, in the incompleteness of our existence, in the seeming frustration of our lives.  God comes as a child, the cries breaking the stillness of night’s numbness, encircling our own fragility with divine power.  God comes as a growing boy, as a young adolescent, as a maturing man, as a prophet burning to bring a message, as a martyr giving everything so we may know God’s love and life, as a Risen Savior pouring the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
 
It came upon the Midnight clear.
 
And midnight still stretches before us, a darkness we might fear, but a darkness ready for God to fill with life and light.
 

4 ADVENT B

All around our school building in North East Washington I suspect very similar conversations are going on.  These are people who have purchased a new townhouse, never been lived in before, and therefore never had Christmas before.  What kind of tree should we get?  Multi-colored lights or just one color?  How about the Christmas balls?  Place it in the window where others can see, or inside where we can gather more easily about it?  Christmas dinner at our place?  How many can we fit around our table?

 After people have had one Christmas in their new house, of course, then the house is broken in.  The patterns they set this year will probably endure.  The beige of the new house smell will be colored by the aromas of cooking and baking, the smells of human life.  The house will go from a generic building to something that feels like “home.”  “A man’s home is his castle,” so goes the saying.  We think of home as ours, where we feel safe and comfortable, where we have arranged things around our needs and desires.

 It should be no surprise then when, as we see in the first reading, David wants to build God a house, God has other ideas.  If David builds God a house, doesn’t David domesticate God?  Arrange God to suit David’s needs?  Confine God to a building?  Make God do David’s bidding?  God rejoins David’s ideas with one of his own: you don’t build me a home, I build you one.  You don’t shrink me into your house.  I elevate you into my house.

 Mary is engaged but not yet married.  One married back then by going into the house of one’s spouse.  Mary is in-between, not yet in a house.  When the Angel greets Mary, she is shocked.  When the Angel tells Mary of God’s plans, she quite knowingly says, “How can this be since I am not living in a man’s house.  I do not have my own home yet?”  God addresses a woman in the outskirts of a lowly province of Judea, not inside the city, not inside the Temple.  In Mary God is bringing us to a new space, doing something totally new.  “I will give him the throne of David; he will rule over the house of David forever.”  In Mary, God is building us a new house.

 The house that God invites us to exists in both the heart and the world.  “Let it be done to me as you say,” says Mary.  By opening her own heart to God’s plans, to God’s vast and loving vision, she gives herself to forces of love and grace that she could never generate on her own.  “Mary, full of grace,” we say, “full of the unlimited love God gives her.”  And by accepting that grace in her heart, Mary shows the new house God wants to build, not revolving around a temple, or a palace, or a single city, or one particular nation.  Rather, God’s house is available for everyone, a house for the nations, a house where everyone in the world can find peace with God, and with each other.  This is the mystery that knocks Paul off his feet.

 The Holy Spirit who overshadows Mary overshadows all those who enter God’s house.  The Christ begotten in this simple woman becomes the Christ begotten again and again in history, in God’s people, in the new community of faith God brings about, in the Church.  The Spirit, who from this point begins to transform the world, continues to change the world through us.  And that Spirit will not stop until all the nations comes to “the obedience of faith,” that is, until all the world accepts this astonishing Good News of God’s love, God’s new way of dwelling with humankind. 

 As we make our final preparations for Christmas, life will be busy and distracted.  We will be tempted to think Christmas is all about the efforts we have put in, the decorations we have put up, the arrangements we have made.  But it is not we who make Christmas.  God makes Christmas, for us and within us.  It’s not about our holiday party; it’s about God’s feast for the salvation of humankind. 

3 ADVENT B

Josh Brolin, the actor who plays Thanos in the Marvel Comics series and who also played George W. Bush in the film, “W,” was talking about his life last week.  He mentioned in particular his wild high school days, when he was part of a group of boys who hung out on the beach at Santa Barbara, did drugs, and thought of themselves as neglected children of the wealthy or neglected children of the poor.  Made no difference, they had their beach group.  He estimates that 24 of the group has already died.

 Somewhere in high school, though, he became part of an improv group doing drama.  Although he never wanted an acting career like his father, James Brolin, he found himself attracted to it.  From his first movie, the Goonies, till his parts today, acting has become his way of life. 

 How do we become who we are?  How do we go from dreaming about what we could be to living a life and career?  We can feel the drama of the Gospel.  As we did last week, this week we are with John the Baptist in the desert.  Only, in the Gospel passage we have from John, he is being interrogated, first by the chief priests and then by the Pharisees.  Who are you?  Why are you doing what you are doing?  With each question, John’s role becomes clearer: his job is to announce what God is going to do. That is his calling.

 I am not sure we can find our calling without something like the first reading ringing in our heads.  This famous passage from Isaiah talks about the mission of one called by God: the Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom and pardon, to be an instrument of God’s salvation.  It is one thing to have a job; it’s another thing to have a calling.  These words, which become the description of the ministry of Jesus, show us the ideals of giving our lives for the sake of God.

 While John the Baptist does not directly attribute those words to himself, he knows his role in bringing about God’s purpose.  “No I am not the Christ; I am the voice crying out.”  Similarly, all of us are invited to find our particular role in this broad purpose of God.  Jesus, who lives out this role of savior and liberator to the fullest, has baptized and delegated us to continue his work.  “Test the spirits,” we are told in the second reading.  The greatest spirit we can discern is how Jesus sends his hold spirit upon us to make us his disciples, and to empower us to share in accomplishing his mission.

 This Sunday is an invitation to talk about vocation.  It is standard Catholic teaching that everyone has a vocation, even though we have unfortunately come to restrict that role to religious and clergy.  But all our Christian ministry comes from the one baptism that we all receive.  This is the baptism that fills us with joy—Rejoice always!  Do not quench the Spirit.  It is the Spirit that transforms our daily lives, however we think of them, into their proper roles as instruments for bringing about God’s vision of a new world.  The humblest jobs in the world find power in God’s purpose and love.

 We have begun celebrating the “Year of Consecrated Life” in the Church, when we think about all those who have become religious, certainly many more in the past than in our present days.  I am forever grateful for the opportunity to give my life in an explicit way to the Kingdom of God.  Every sacrifice involved in that has been rewarded without limit.  I could wish the joy of my life on anyone.  But I know that my role as a religious is not to congratulate myself and others who live this way.  It’s to help every Catholic, every believer, see himself as called, chosen, designated to be a servant of the gracious love of God.

 So if people sent representatives out to question us—who are we, and why are we doing what we are doing?—would we be able to answer like John?  We are the privileged ones who know Christ has come, and it’s our joy to point him out, and our glory to continue his Spirit-driven work.

 

2 ADVENT B

There are many disturbing aspects to the shooting and riots in Ferguson, MO. One of the most disheartening is the feeling that nothing has changed.  I’m old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights Movement—with all the optimism that something really was changing in our society.  Yet not only the riots; also many of the commentaries keep circling back to the theme that America’s racial sickness is so deep we have barely touched the surface.  President Obama keeps pointing to progress, his unexpected election being a key sign of it.  But we continue to play out the same old, endless dramas of conflict and division.

 Nothing can change.  I suspect something of the same feeling was present in the Holy Land two thousand years ago.  Israel had experienced unending occupations—the Persians, the Greeks, the Seleucids, and now the Romans.  Would they ever be free?  Would they ever return to the time of David, when they had their own king.  Only a feeling like this—nothing can change— explains why so many people came flocking to John the Baptist.

 Now John had to be a very strange man, living in the desert, dressed in clothes not worn in respectable society.  People from all around were coming to him, listening to his message and receiving his baptism as a sign of change.  They were ready for whatever new thing God was going to do in Israel.  They wanted to be part of that.  “A voice crying out in the desert: make a new pathway for our God.”  We have to go to the first reading to get the sense of this: Isaiah’s vision of a road being built, a road of freedom, a road of liberation from exile.  God will smooth out the way, leveling the mountains, raising the valleys, so that nothing will impede what God is doing.

 Yet John is saying that one mightier than him is coming.  John baptizes in water—the sign of something coming, a sign of readiness and purity.  Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit—with God’s own breath, with God’s life now being poured into us in a new way.  People came to John for change, for something to be different.  John is saying that he can show the way, but Jesus will make things radically different. 

 John’s baptism is for repentance—conversion, personal change—for the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus’ comes for transformation.  Being baptized by John was saying, “I want to change.”  Being baptized in Jesus is saying: “I am being transformed.”  This is what separates us believers in Jesus, what makes us signs of the new world God is bring about: our lives are transformed by the Word of God, by the sacred meal we receive, and by the power that comes to us through the Holy Spirit.

 As we hear this, we have of course to ask ourselves: have we changed?  Has something happened to us?  Are our lives the “same old, same old,” an old routine we’ve developed?  Or are we, as disciples of Jesus, constantly undergoing change in our lives?  A priest said to me, “Fr. Frank, people don’t like to hear about conversion, because it sounds like change to them.  They like things the way they are.”  But liking things the way they are is something very different from what Christ has called us to.  In our human lives, if things don’t change we die; in our spiritual lives, as well, if we are not growing as disciples of Jesus, then we are slowly spiritually dying.

 Advent gives us an opportunity to look again at what it means to follow Christ.  Peter talks about the judgment to come, but really every moment of our lives stands in judgment.  Every moment in our lives is either a response to Christ, or a putting Christ aside.  Whatever happens then to the earth, we stand before God at every moment, with hearts either opened or closed up.  What judgment pronounces later will be about the moments you and I live every day.

 Last week on NPR they had someone talking about eating grasshoppers with guacamole.  It was something in Mexico.  Probably more appetizing than John’s diet, undoubtedly something not appetizing to most of us, but maybe something that responds to food shortages and global warming.  We keep wondering what changes are in store for us, what’s going to happen to us politically or socially.  But God keeps wondering about the change God has begun in us, whether it will lead to transformation, or whether it will be an opportunity missed. 


1 ADVENT B

“I’ll be wearing a tan hat, black raincoat, and have a blue suitcase.”  That’s how I described myself to the stranger who was going to pick me up at the airport.  “I’ll be there, wearing my Roman collar,” he wrote back.  So there I am, looking around, wondering if there’s a Roman collar anywhere to be seen.  Finally we meet up.  “How did we miss each other?”  “I don’t know,” he said, “I was standing there the whole time.”

 So if we are waiting for someone we have never met, it’s not the easiest thing.  We have no image in our head to guide our search and our discovery.  And if we are waiting for something we’ve not yet seen, it can be even harder.  Remember Tony singing in West Side Story: “I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come through, for me.”  That’s the sense I get from the short parable in the Gospel, like a stone thrown into the water, unsettling everything.  “You don’t know when the master is returning . . . .so watch.”

 The first reading from Isaiah also develops the theme of watching, of waiting.  Isaiah is crying out to God: Return to us, Lord.  He’s aware that he and his people are in exile, in Babylon, and they desperately need God.  The other side, though, is that Isaiah knows that his people need to return to God.  “Our actions have become like rags,” he says, referring to the empty prayers and formalities that hide their hearts rather than bring them to God.  If God returns, if the people return, maybe they can meet each other, encounter each other once again, and renew the special relationship between God and God’s people.  Isaiah was waiting for a return to the way things once were. He had an image.

 And what’s the image in our hearts as we begin this Advent.  What are we waiting for?  If we are honest, we probably are going to admit that the image has to get clearer for us.  Not that we don’t have signs of God everywhere in our lives—we are here at Mass, at the definitive sign of Jesus’ presence in our lives.  It’s just that the signs can grow dim, or casual, or too familiar.  “Where are the car keys?” we ask.  When we find them, they are right where we usually put them, only we didn’t pay attention.  What we seek is often right in front of our faces.

 So these darkest days of the year are an invitation to clarify what Jesus means when he tells us to watch, to wait.  And we can only do that by going to a deeper level of prayer.  Only prayer can help us see the longings in our hearts with greater clarity; and find our longing for God hidden in the midst of all the other anxieties of our lives.  Paul tells the Corinthians that they have many spiritual gifts; in fact, so do we—probably even more than the early church.  “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation—the unveiling—of the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

 Perhaps, then, this Advent we need to exercise the gift of contemplation, of quiet waiting, of letting the Lord speak words of change and hope into our hearts, deep in our hearts where we listen beyond words, even beyond feelings.  There, in contemplation, we can see better who and what we are waiting for—giving us a greater chance of recognizing Christ as he meets us in our daily lives.

 I get to see people waiting for each other—at airports or train stations.  The kids do it best.  Yanking mom’s arm, “When is grandpa coming?” and then jumping up and down as grandpa comes into sight, and then breaking out to give an old man the tightest hug.  Kids know how Jesus’ wants us to wait. 

 Paradoxically it’s the quiet of prayer that puts the biggest spring into our steps as we see the Lord embracing us in our daily lives.  

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