Welcome to CatholicPreacher! I use this page as a type of archive of my thoughts for my Sunday homily.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Nativity of Our Lord

Expect the Unexpected

"Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

 I want to begin this Christmas season by focusing on the call of the shepherds rather than moving right to the Nativity.  In fact, if you follow the various gospel readings that the Church offers, you would find the vigil Mass (afternoon of the 24th) through the daytime Mass (Sunday mid-morning) the Christmas story and the theology of the Christ across three of the four gospels--quite a rich fare which few, unfortunately, experience.

Back to the shepherds, then.  Shepherds were a despised lot in Jesus' time. You can lump them in with tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans.  Of course, as we have seen throughout God's interaction with humanity, this makes them prime candidates for a special grace.  So, it was to them the invitation was extended.  The much-discussed "wise men" or magi, come later (probably didn't arrive until a year or so after the birth).  

So, as the story goes, as with all angelic visitations, it begins with fear.  It takes a lot to scare a shepherd who defends his flock from any number of hazards; they are a grizzly lot.

But, as the gospel records, "...they were struck with great fear".  The appeal of the angel not to fear is based upon the message of a savior that will "be for all the people."  This is followed by a "multitude of the heavenly host" singing "Glory to God in the highest."  Quite a night for the shepherds, and some essential truths about the nature of God and salvation for us tonight.

Like God's appointing David as king (the least likely candidate), God's favor rests on Mary, Joseph, outsiders like the Magi and shepherds.  Notice the absence of anyone really important like Temple priests, scribes, Pharisees, important legates or even the chief priest.  God's dealing once again with the complete outsiders, widely believed to be outside of salvation history.  How ironic, then, that these were the people most intimately associated with God's arrival as the Christ.

If Advent has sharpened our senses for seeking justice and finding a place with the poor to be in the right place; this visitation of the shepherds reminds us that we are now in the right place at the right time---with the poor, alone, late in the night. Dismal.

But it is with the outcast, far from the comfort of daylight, deep in the night, that God's greeting arrives proclaiming joy and salvation.  Like so much of what God has done in his relationship with humanity: "Who woulda thought?"

In your deepest moment of darkness and doubt,  when your prayers are bouncing back off of the ceiling, ridiculing your attempt to reconnect with God after seemingly failing every time, I want to remind you that those prayers that you think mock your devotion made it through.  They were in God's heart before they ever left your lips. Like the shepherds, the most unlikely folks in the most unlikely place, God finds us.  Search no further than your need, your loneliness, your feelings of being left out. For the still small voice of God speaks to you here, now, inviting you to come home and find the sign of God being with you in the most humble of circumstances.  Join with Christians worldwide to not give up following the light until it rests over the manger where Christ is to be found---in the most unlikely place, at the most unlikely time. 

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Advent

It's All in the Family

            Today’s Old Testament short reading needs a bit of background:
 So, the Jewish world is divided during the time referred to by Isaiah; the northern and southern kingdoms.  The northern kingdom is Israel and the southern one is Judah (of which Jerusalem is a part and where the Temple is located).  To make a long story (a few thousand years) shorter, Israel’s king was in cahoots with the king of Aram to lay siege to Jerusalem.  Judah’s king (Ahaz), against the advice of the prophet Isaiah, makes an alliance with Assyria saying “I am your servant and vassal. Come up and save me out of the hand of the king of Aram and of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.”  Ahaz gives the Assyrian king treasure from the Temple (and palace) as an incentive to help.  Ahaz knows this is wrong to rely on outside help, and Isaiah counsels unconditional faith and reliance on God; Ahaz piously refuses. Ahaz’s son Hezekiah became the “savior” of his people, likely the child referred to by Isaiah in his prophecy to Ahaz:” …the young woman [also translated virgin] shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”  Hezekiah restores the righteousness of Judah and defeats the king of Assyria.  He re-centralizes the Passover worship and invites all tribes to Jerusalem for Passover and restores righteous rule in Jerusalem.
            Both Matthew and Luke pick up on this narrative framework in their account of Jesus’ birth. God’s help for Judah was of great comfort to the early Christians who, like Judah, were under “siege”.  Jesus’ birth under the Davidic line assures Matthew’s audience of a savior that is the final fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, the ultimate Emmanuel.
            Although Jesus did not make much of his ancestry---probably to de-emphasize the nature of his reign as spiritual rather than temporal---the post-Easter Christian community re-emphasized this as a source of authority and claim on messiahship.  The Davidic emphasizes in the New Testament emphasizes Jesus’ lowly, earthly life when contrasted with the risen savior of the Resurrection (Reginald Fuller).
            The remarkable birth of Jesus as a convergence between the earthly lineage and divine is a great symbol as to the genesis of our restoration with God through Christ’s earthly ministry and the subsequent indwelling of the Holy Spirit; God with us, after the Resurrection, becomes God within us. Christmas is the promise realized to its fulfillment in the post-Easter community.  We have become part now of the Davidic line, through Christ, and by God’s adoption of us as co-heirs (not heirs!) with Christ of God’s promise of salvation. As the saying goes, God has no grandchildren; Jesus is our brother. We are family by God’s choice.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Third Sunday of Advent

“Are you the one who is to come,or should we look for another?”John the Baptist asking about Jesus

  The most striking part of today’s gospel is John’s disillusionment with Jesus embodied in his question sent as by messenger to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Jesus’ reply, however, is even more striking.  Instead of simply saying, “Yes, I am he”, he asks the messenger to report back to John what he has seen:

“…the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”

            Notice Jesus isn’t saying “I give the blind their sight, I heal the lame”, but is directing the attention to the acts themselves as evidence of God’s presence surrounding his ministry.  Jesus isn’t trying to prove his divinity, he is announcing God being in their midst; practice before doctrine.
            The Kingdom of Heaven is, above all other things, built upon acts of healing and justice as signs of God’s presence.  To find the Messiah, you need to look where the Messiah hangs out: with those who are outcast, sick, with those who are poor.  God’s kingdom, as Jesus proclaimed to Pilate “is not of this world”, but what he didn’t explain was that it can be found in this world. He knew that the hardness of Pilate’s heart would prevent him from seeing God’s grace in action because like so many, Pilate would have looked for the Messiah as groups of devoted Jews looking to establish a new political order.
            Like many of us, John found it difficult to believe that God’s justice does not involve some new political order, a new way of organizing society, yet another manifesto that if we interpret it correctly and follow it faithfully, are guaranteed “heaven on earth”; that is not the kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom is built around a way of being in this world but not being of this world. 
            It is telling the reaction of the crowd who encountered Jesus in John’s place.  In the next section of the gospel, after Jesus declares “…blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” we see the crowd leaving and Jesus calling out to them:

“What did you expect to see?  A reed swayed by the wind?  Then what did you expect to see?  Someone dressed in fine clothing?  Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.  Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?”

            Jesus then affirms John’s role as the preparer of the way while proclaiming “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. It is time to begin our journey on the way rather than to stay preparing the way.  It is time to follow God’s trail that leads to the poor, the diseased, the discarded humanity who are beacon’s for God’s presence in our world today. When we are in the presence of these people, away from power and influence, we find the Christ child.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Second Sunday of Advent

Ready the Way of the Lord

"His winnowing fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor"(John the Baptist)

Today, we make a shift from focusing on the “end times” to the other end of our journey, preparing for the coming of Messiah!  It is a preparation that harkens back to the time when John the Baptist was preparing the way by preaching repentance in the wilderness, but it is also the preparation we live today that anticipates the revelation of God’s kingdom more perfectly.
            We begin our story as we Christians often do, with our Jewish brothers and sisters who first heard and responded to God’s revelation.  Isaiah’s text celebrates the arrival of the perfect king with three sets of distinguishing virtues: deep wisdom and understanding, might and counsel, and knowledge and fear of God—virtues of intelligence, practical ability, and piety.  What more could one ask of a leader?  Alas, this hope faded over time. 
            With the birth of Jesus, King of King and Lord of Lords, Emmanuel—God-With-Us, the kingdom was not fully realized, but Jesus’ coming set in motion the building of the kingdom.  Just as John pointed the way of Messiah, Jesus pointed the way to God’s Kingdom, and the Holy Spirit continues to guide us and provide us with hope.  John’s “reading of the way” now is transformed into our mandate to “walk the way” made by Jesus for a people who were originally known as “People of the Way”.
            John’s preparation of repentance for the coming of Jesus the first time is still valid today for us who set out on the way of Christ.  Before we plot a course, we have to know where we are in relationship to our destination; that is why repentance is part of Advent.  Repentance, as the word suggests, orients us a hundred and eighty degrees from our present course; it turns us around and gets us going in the right direction. John uses the image of the winnowing fan separating the valuable wheat from the waste of the chaff.  The chaff is the lighter and unusable part of the wheat and must be separated from the valuable kernel of the wheat itself.  Often this is preached as a metaphor for God punishing the unrighteous as “chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”.  While this may be valid, for us it is also an opportunity to see a more personal dimension to repentance. The chaff is all those things that accumulate in our lives that obscure the true wheat of Christ; the Good News.  Though the ministration of the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, we can let go of all that is not Good News both for ourselves and for others. Advent is a time for looking at what we cling to that keeps us from paying attention to our destination, for dulling our sense of direction as well as the destination.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Christ the King

There is that famous line from Mel Brooks's movie History of the World: Part I, "It's good to be king!"  Being king brings up beautiful imagery of elaborate court ritual, absolute authority, and feasting; sounds a lot like the institutional church!   But Jesus' words to Pilate betray this image of opulence.  When asked about his kingdom, Jesus replies "My kingdom does not belong to this world" (New American Bible).  Another translation has it as "My kingdom is not of this world"(New International Version).  The sense of Jesus' reply is that his kingdom is neither the kingdom of Rome nor the kingdom envisioned by the religious authorities; both groups lose.

The Solemnity of Christ the King that embraces Jesus as king is relatively new.  It was established in 1925 to counter what the Church saw as an increasing tendency to worship human wisdom and power, which was loosely defined as modernism.  By later positioning the solemnity at the end of the Church's liturgical year in 1969, it further enhanced its standing as the summit of Christ's rule, andimplicitly, the Church as Christ's kingdom.

The songs and imagery associated with this celebration, however, often blunt the irony of Christ as king.  The common representation is a resurrected, non-bloody, Jesus hovering (rather than being nailed) on the cross.  The image of Christ as king is ironic because he is the king with a crown of thorns with a procession of humiliation and a knightly court of cowards.  It seems, as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians  "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God."

The ironic image of Jesus as king nailed to the cross speaks of a different kind of power than the power of earthly kingdoms.  In a general audience at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI suggests power of God’ which is different from human power; it reveals, in fact, His love.” 

"The power of God's kingdom as embodied by Jesus' death isn't exclusively revealed by the resurrection, although the saving power of God is most apparent here. It is the magnitude of God's love for His creation in self-sacrifice that shows Christ's real power as king. " 

The ultimate love is the love that sacrifices self for another. This is the real power that defines Christ's kingdom.  This is why evil can never ultimately triumph over good; evil avoids self-sacrifice.  Evil always seeks what is best for the self over and against the other.  It destroys community and ultimately destroys itself.

Self-sacrificing love, on the other hand,  is the ultimate Christian act where one falls into the opened arms of Christ on the cross, trusting in the power of God's ability to bring life from death.  Christ's kingdom, indeed, is not of this world, but it is for this world.  Nothing is of more importance than conforming ourselves to this likeness of Christ as King.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

“Never put a period where God has put a comma”—Gracie Allen

Zacchaeus was just about the most despised Jew among the Jewish people living in Jericho. He was the Chief Tax Collector; he ran the crew of collectors that exploited the poor and grew rich off of the weakest of society. Is it any wonder, then, when Jesus decided to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that his disciples grumbled; they had good reason to grumble. Once again, we have a story that puts conventional wisdom to the test and puts on display “God’s foolishness”(2 Corinthians).
The structure of the story can help us enter the story and sort out this “foolishness”. First, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. No matter where we are in life, no matter how distant from what others recognize as God’s favor, we are being sought-out like a shepherd for a single lost lamb.
Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Christ.  Earlier in Luke, just after Jesus responded to the disciples’ request “to teach us to pray” with the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says “So I say to you: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (11:9-10).
Having been found, Zacchaeus’ response was to make reparation for his sins. Rather than simply confessing, he changed his life. Our response to our calling is a changed life; repentance means turning around.  Salvation is preceded by repentance, but it is the saving Grace of God that brings us to our knees; it is God’s loving us that allows such a repentant attitude. We can only repent if we can experience the depth of God’s love.

As Christians, our mission is the mission of Christ: Seek the lost and let them see God’s love for them, and the place to begin is with your own “lostness”. In our adoration of the Body of Christ, it is we who are in the tree trying to get a glimpse of Jesus, and it is Christ who speaks to our hearts: “Today I will come and stay with you”.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Gustave Dore - The Pharisee and the Publican

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."  Oscar Wilde

Last week's posting has an epigraph from Meister Eckhart, one of the church's great mystics, who famously wrote that if you only had a single prayer to pray, "Thank you" would suffice.
This week, we continue with the general theme of prayer with the righteous Pharisee as an exemplar of how not to pray and the sinful "publican," or tax collector, the one whose prayer for mercy was answered.  As usual, the unexpected is central to this parable, but this is not one of Jesus' many Kingdom parables; it is, rather, a parable about relating directly to God.
      Jesus famously had told his disciples how to pray with the gift of the Our Father; however, he doesn't answer the question when asked by his disciples how to pray directly.  Instead, he tells them what to pray for.  Today's gospel moves into one's disposition in prayer, the how, that is directed at all of us because gift easily becomes possession (Daniel Harrington, S.J.).  
     The Pharisee's prayer was more horizontal than vertical; that is, his prayer was gratitude for not being connected with sinners, of being an island of righteousness.

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.

His gratitude springs from "not being like the rest of humanity," it begins in separation, focusing on his side-view of a sinner.  And the tax collector was a sinner.  Let's not make him into some noble hero.  Tax collectors were famous sellouts in Jesus' time.  They were Jews who profited from their association with the Romans and were allowed to keep whatever more they could collect from their fellow Jews and had the power to have non-compliant Jews arrested.  As with most people invested with such power, the power was abused, and these folks were famously despised.  The Pharisees were a group of religious scholars who were trying to bring the average Jew hope by helping the average person live a righteous life through the commentary on the Torah that translated the Law into practice. St.Paul is, perhaps, the most famous Pharisee to become a Christian.  The Pharisee's pride grew from being socially, educationally, and religiously set apart from the people he was called to lead.  I think there is a lesson somewhere in it for me as a priest, and for anyone in a position of authority within the church.  I can imagine such pride was incremental and crept in as he appropriated each compliment and praise received from the people he helped, growing like a wildfire until it consumed him in the deception that what they adored was him rather than God's gift to him.  The tax collector had no such delusions.
     The tax collector's prayer was vertical; off at a distance, and prostrated, he couldn't even see or hear the Pharisee.  The tax collector's sins were too painful for him to list.  He simply prays "Have mercy on me, a sinner!" Scripture says he went away justified; God forgave his sins not because he was a righteous person, but because he prayed from his poverty rather than his wealth.  The Pharisee prayed from what he considered his great possessions: his righteousness. Like the widow only putting a penny for the Temple collection, she gives all she has.  She isn't donating a small portion of her wealth; Jesus observes in that parable that "she gave from her poverty."  In prayer, we must pray from our poverty because this is our state in relation to God.  We have nothing to stand on but clay feet, but it is the same clay God formed, it is human clay, and it is the source of true humility and genuine gratitude because God has redeemed it in Christ.  
     It is when we pray from our poverty that we tap the riches that God has given to us.  Time and time again, God's grace seeks out the humble, the lowly and the dispossessed.  Throughout salvation history, God visits the least regarded and comes to visit and give great comfort.  There is something in the nature of God that desires such intimacy like that of a mother caring for her sick child. We don't need to be great and notorious sinners to attract God's notice, but merely to be people who understand they share the lot of humanity in the struggle to image the Divine. The Oscar Wilde quotation "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" comes to mind. Our prayer is always a cry for mercy when we begin with being grateful for having the vision of the stars from the gutter.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances"  1Thessalonians 5:16-17

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
Meister Eckhart

One of the greatest acts of faith is prayer. Prayer acknowledges God explicitly and is done with the hope that God is listening.  To surround one's daily life in prayer, to strive to "pray without ceasing" is to hold on to the tail of a tiger and not let go.

      Today's gospel has a widow holding on to the tail of a tiger in the form of a judge who refuses to hear her case, but she prevails in the end because she refuses to let the matter drop.  Out of sheer fatigue, boredom, or a desire to simply get on with it, the judge finally relents, and she is afforded justice because of her perseverance.  Jesus uses this story to suggest that his disciples will soon find themselves like the widow, alone and in need of help and that the only way to proceed is to pray and not lose faith.  Jesus links faith with the endurance of prayer by asking "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

     How much more, Jesus reasons, will God who loves you hear your prayer and act decisively to render judgment? The word "quickly" in the scripture does not indicate a short time from asking, but rather the speed of God's action once God acts, His decisiveness.  As we read a couple of weeks ago, faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is required because faith is not measured in degrees; it is experienced by its presence or absence. 

     Faith is not something that is mainly feeling but is an action guided by the will and sustained by the strength of hope.  Though we tire, and at times fail to pray formally, our fatigue and desire for prayer itself is a prayer.   Reciting to oneself "Oh God, I wish I could pray" is a prayer.  Constant prayer is living with this awareness.

    The strong tradition of the "Jesus Prayer" in the Orthodox Church ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner") is the mantra-like prayer that infuses one's being so that prayer is made constant in the awareness of one's beating heart or breathing.   The practice of stillness, or waiting upon God as prayer has a long and honored tradition within Christianity. Lighting a candle, paying attention to one's breath and only finding oneself in God's presence is also prayer.  Today, we might say that books on all manner of praying abound, and sell very well; whether or not anyone is praying is another matter.

     Prayer may not satisfy us that we are praying, but this need not distract us.  Lifting our hearts to God, desiring to be seen by God in our hesitation, our fear, our inability to form words allows the Spirit to pray in us and through us.  Being involved in praying can be as simple as sitting quietly and listening for God's "quiet, whispering voice."  We don't have faith because we pray.  We pray because we already have faith. It is God, through the Holy Spirit, which ultimately makes prayer possible.  We have this great stream of prayer running directly through our hearts like a great torrent.  We have only to jump in and let it carry us for God's "quickness" to be realized.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ten had Faith; One had Gratitude

            Today's reading from The Book of Kings and the Gospel of Luke highlights healing and the outsider.  In Kings, Naaman, a Syrian, is healed by Elisha as a sign of God's blessing to those outside Israel.  In Luke, of the ten healed of leprosy, it is only the Samaritan that returns to give thanks.  Both the Samaritan and Syrian have the dubious distinction of being least-favored, not part of the "Chosen Ones", yet God's blessing rests on them.
            In the gospel story, the ten lepers are outside the city and cry to Jesus not directly for healing, but for mercy.  Such a cry reveals the connection between illness and a loss of favor with God; if you were sick, you had lost favor with God.  Jesus doesn't pray for them, but simply commands them to journey to a priest to be certified as being healed.  They had to begin the journey still uncured.  It was on their way that they were healed; it was their faith that got them moving.
            Faith requires us to act as if what we proclaim has already been brought about.  This is why there is always an element of the absurd in living a life of faith.  St. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1:

 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

What, then, is the point of returning to give thanks if everyone was healed?  The other nine didn’t return to a leprous state because gratitude can only be a gift, not a requirement.  The gratitude of the Samaritan was rewarded by a relationship with Christ, a personal encounter one-on-one the other nine did not establish.  The Samaritan’s gift was relationship---the ongoing and direct connection to God.
            This story also serves to highlight another reality of the Christian life.  While a Christian may have faith, faith enough even to heal, that doesn’t mean she or he has that intimacy and closeness that those whose faith is sustained by gratitude enjoy.  Gratitude is what sustains us when we are not healed, for whatever reason; when our prayers seem to go unanswered.  Gratitude is what allows us to pass the blessings of our faith to others.  The other nine were healed, but how many lived that restoration and “returned Glorifying God in a loud voice”? One.
            We are called to “Glorify God in a loud voice” by displaying our gratitude, living our life as a gift from God that we can share with the world, with the “foreigners”, the outsiders who cannot lay claim to any blessing other than the one we can give that comes from God.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

"If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts"--Psalm 95

Having heard the voice of God, how could one’s heart be hardened?  Last week, we began a subtle transition from focusing on justice for the poor to faith.  Jesus’ story quoted Abraham speaking to “the rich man” who was seeking a spectacle to save the faith of his ancestors: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” Faith does not grow from spectacle; however, the apostles, this week, seem to be asking Jesus to somehow “increase their faith.”  His reply isn’t a recipe for “increasing,” but suggests they lack faith.
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
     The mustard seed is famously small---roughly the size of a grain of sand.  Essentially, Jesus is saying “If you had any faith, you would not have to ask for more.”  Faith isn’t something that comes in all sizes; it comes in one size. Also, the gift of faith is often misunderstood as a type of passivity, of letting life wash over oneself and hoping for the best.  This passivity, however, is heresy.  It is called “quietism.”  Because faith has an element of endurance and patience, it doesn’t mean that faith is only waiting for something to happen. Faith is either present or absent, active or dormant. Let’s consider the cardinal virtues to dig deeper.
     The three cardinal virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love are joined for a reason.  They are joined because they complement one another and work together.  One aspect of this trinity can be understood as true faith engendering hope and the courage to love in the face of evil and doubt.  Despair is the relinquishing of hope, which is not the same thing as feeling depressed or defeated or searching for hope in the chaos and disappointment that marks many lives of people with faith.  True despair is acting in the world as if there was no hope; hating rather than loving because “What’s the point? Life is meaningless anyway; why not hate?”  Just as faith engenders love through hope, despair allows for hatred by renouncing hope.  One a virtue, the other a mortal sin. It is this scar of sin that can harden one’s heart as the Psalmist sings.
     The “hardened heart” is the heart that lives from despair.  Even the heart that has heard the Lord’s voice can despair because very often where faith leads us, the heart fears to go.  Following a timid heart rather than Christ stiffens the heart with an unnatural reluctance to love; the heart refuses to be vulnerable. What unlocks the potential of faith (rather than simply “strengthening” it) is action expressed in loving despite feelings of fear, doubt, and despair.  Love is not a feeling; it is a commitment to action in response to Christ’s command to love God and love one’s neighbor.  If you wait to feel like loving someone, your love will only serve an emotional need.

     If you respond to God with “I can’t possibly do this”, listen for the reply: “You are right. You can do nothing without me."  Open your heart and let the Spirit live and guide you”.   We are, indeed, as the gospel says “unprofitable servants” We bring God no profit through loving others.  Loving others, especially those for whom the feeling of love is absent, is God’s gift to us.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lost and Found
"God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”
 ---Henry Nouwen The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming

The longer of today’s gospel reading includes the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Because we will hear that parable again in the season of Lent, I have decided to save it for later; however, I will mention it, since it is known by every Christian. It has a unique place with the other two parables: the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  Atonement is the common thread that unites these three parables.  For those who need brushing up in theological-speak, atonement is God’s action to save humanity through Christ’s sacrifice. An easier way to think of atonement is at-one-ment; that we are united to God through the suffering and death of Christ who sacrificed himself for humanity.

Both parables today end with the idea that the salvation of a single sinner is vital.  Put another way: God is saying, “I’m saving humanity one soul at a time.”

            Often when we consider salvation, we think of a blanket of mercy encompassing the entire globe, kind of like a divine dome of safety.  But what today’s gospel parables suggest is a very personal salvation, of God seeking the one who needs to be found.  It is the personal image of the shepherd placing the lost sheep on his shoulders and carrying it home; it is the picture of a woman who has lost one of ten coins lighting a lamp and sweeping the house for the single lost coin.  God’s salvation is universally offered not through a vast network of spiritual energy, but as an individual initiative.

            The personal aspect is further enhanced, though, with the very clear notion that God is in pursuit of us.  He is looking for us like some beleaguered shepherd or a miserly woman who refuses to give up a single coin; there is no “acceptable loss” count with God.  That God seeks the individual is tough for us to imagine.  The eternal creative and redemptive force of the universe worries that a single human might slip through the cracks unnoticed is extraordinary.  Very often I encounter people who say with great exasperation, “I looked, and I haven’t found God.”  The good news, I tell them, is that is okay, He is looking for you, too, and I doubt he will fail.  They look at me incredulously and usually say something like “If that is true, what is taking so long.”  I put my hand on their shoulder, and say “Welcome home; you are found.”

            Being found by God isn’t what most people think.  It isn’t accompanied by the trumpet sounds of angels or a large hand descending through the clouds to tap one on the shoulder.  Rather, it is that we are found, slip away, and are found again in a cosmic game of hide-and-go-seek with God. We are found, experience the joy of a new love and then are drawn away when times get tough, or things go wrong, and wonder why God isn’t with us.  God is always with us and has never left since the day we opened our heart to Him. Rumi, that great Sufi mystic tells of God’s closeness:

God is "what is nearer to you than your neck-vein,"
You have cast the arrow of speculation afar off.
O you, who have made ready your bow and arrows,
The game is close to you, and you shoot too far off.
The further a man shoots, the further off he is,
And the more removed from the treasure he seeks.
The philosopher kills himself with thinking,
Tell him that his back is turned to that treasure;
Tell him that the more he runs to and fro,
The further he is removed from his heart's desire.
The Almighty says, "Make efforts in our ways,"
Not "Make efforts away from us," O restless one.

Finally, God is in the image of the Prodigal Son’s father who has sighted his son from afar, and lifts up his garment and runs out to greet him.  How can God find us again? Sit still.  Open your heart and call to mind who last showed you love, and to whom you loved last; God is in your midst.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

How much is this going to cost me?
“…grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” ---Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship

                I think it is important to notice in today’s gospel that “great crowds” were following Jesus.  Let’s face it, after curing the sick, raising the dead and “sticking it to the man” publically, Jesus’ popularity grew, and the setting of today’s teaching parables is the home of a local prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath.  Jesus wasn’t there for a salon of philosophers, but to cure the Pharisee of “an abnormal swelling of his body”.  This time, it is Jesus asking the difficult question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?”  The gospel records that everyone remained silent and Jesus healed the man. This healing was preceded by last week’s gospel of the Parable of the Great Banquet that was chiefly about humility.  Today’s gospel follows and is about the cost of discipleship.  Imagine the great interest in what Jesus had to say on the heels of healing on the Sabbath, and healing a Pharisee to boot! But instead of handing out applications for discipleship and encouraging his audience to enlist, Luke’s gospel shows Jesus admonishing his followers to consider the cost of discipleship; that following Him involves renunciation, the “hating” of one’s family, and one's security, and “yes—even life itself.” What follows is a couple of illustrations of the prudence of calculating the cost; ironic, since the demand from Jesus is that unless you give up everything, you cannot be a disciple of his. Notice the two actions that are essential: carrying one's cross and renouncing all that you have.  If your hands are busy holding on tightly to things, or even to relationships such that you can't pick up your cross, you need to let something go; multitasking is as dangerous behind the wheel as it is in the spiritual life.  It is called a divided heart.
            Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting that one hates his family as a precondition, but rather be willing to find one’s security and honor apart from one’s family—a tall order in first-century civilization.  Those without families were those without standing in society, without security.  This is what Jesus means by “hating” one's family.  But what about “life itself”?   Jesus knew the ultimate cost is martyrdom.  Jesus knew he was headed for the cross that awaited him in Jerusalem, and he knew those who followed him could suffer a similar fate.  Even today, Christians around the world are being martyred for their faith.
            A genuine sacrifice of Christians today, though, is not primarily the sacrifice of one’s life in a decisive moment but comes less apparently in the sacrifice of oneself lived for others over a lifetime.  The gradual giving away of one’s youth and figure to mother a family; the life of those dedicated to living among the poor to ease their suffering, or to love the stranger whom no one has time to love.  We can sacrifice our time to listen to a friend whose life is a train wreck, or go without something we like to share what little we have with a stranger who has even less.  Let our fasting also arise from refraining from eating that we may be free to stay longer with one who needs us rather than default to the need for bodily sustenance.  These “crosses” may not make headlines, but they transform the hearts of those for whom we sacrifice, and they change us; that is the point of Jesus’ message: to sacrifice “even life itself” for others outside our family, friends and those for whom we are naturally inclined to sacrifice. So many of us, myself included, are not condemned by our great lives of scandal and sinfulness, but our regular lives of prudent engagement where sacrifices are far to carefully planned and controlled.  Christianity, when lived as good news for the world, is less about acquiring interior peace and tranquility in mystical rapture, and more about realizing that mystical rapture is always preceded by sacrificial love. What transforms us into a disciple is ultimately our commitment to following Christ on the way to the cross and praying every step of the way for a resurrection.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Creating a Home for the Poor

            From Psalm 68 we get the refrain “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor”.  In this simple verse, we have the profound truth of a connection between divine goodness, home and poverty converging; what is the relationship?
            In the reading from Sirach, a wisdom book, we get the admonition to conduct our affairs with humility “and you will find favor with God”.  Humility is the essential disposition of the seeker in the spiritual life, yet it can become more elusive as we regard our progress in this journey with greater satisfaction.  It is ironic that the consciousness of development is inimical to advances in the life of the spirit.  The great verse from Philippians (2:6-11)

 though he was in the form of God,
He [Jesus]did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

            Humility is realized through emptying, the kenosis of Philippians (κένωσις), that implies leaving room for God to act, of being in a relationship of profound trust with God.  We empty ourselves of our delusions on claims to grandeur, on entitlement to be other than who we are: creations in the likeness of God.  We become more “God-like” the more we accept ourselves as imaging God rather than imagining ourselves to be God.  Jesus’ enjoining would-be banquet guests to prefer the lowest and least seat at the table leaves open the possibility of being invited, “so that when the host comes up to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’” Only the lowly may be exalted; the exalted have no place to go. Our right relationship with God is with those for whom being at the table is pure gift, and who eat and drink in a profound state of gratitude rather than a state of entitlement. But what has this to do with the poor?
            Poverty in Jesus’ time was equivalent to divine condemnation, a sign that one had fallen out of favor with God.  You could be poor in many ways. Women were poor simply for not being born male. The sick and infirm were poor because they were perpetually unclean and cast aside in many instances.  Widows who could no longer be affirmed by being associated with a male were often discarded if a male relative could not, or would not, take them in. Poverty expressed itself in so many ways in addition to the simple poverty of not having enough.  For Jesus, the poor embodied those longing for what the Kingdom represents: acceptance, love, and dignity. 
            The reason it was so difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom had nothing to do with riches directly; it was, and is true today, that the rich life outside the milieu of vulnerability. The rich and this designation would better be rendered “well-insulated”, find hope in maintaining independence and privilege. Jesus didn’t bash someone because they were wealthy but challenged them to become poor and relinquish living “well-insulated” lives to become more fully interdependent among the human community and God.
             Today’s gospel is a mandate for kenosis among God’s people.  Instead of being known by what we have, we can become known by what we trust God to provide and live this hope joyfully in sharing the poverty of our failures, of our humanity.
             Though we may not live in gated communities physically, how often do we refuse entrance to our hearts by someone whom we deem unworthy of our love and trust?  We may not live in great castles with deep moats, but how often do others who come to us, or seem threatening to our stability and peace, encounter the moats we have spent years digging around the place in our hearts when they should be encountering a “Welcome” sign? Very few attain this level of freedom without moats or guardhouses, but by God’s grace, we can make our moats a bit easier to cross or leave a sleepy guard on duty to our gated communities.   
            The poor for whom we make a home first is for ourselves, for our humanity that God created, affirmed as being "very good" and redeemed by becoming poor---God entering our humanity.  Before we can truly welcome the poor, we have to see our poverty as human and learn to live in profound gratitude and trust, so the welcome sign truly announces the Good News.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

"Strive to enter through the narrow door"

            The image of the narrow way, or gate, is treated in both Matthew and Luke; however, Luke’s account, the one we are reading today, provides a fuller context than Matthew’s gospel, but Matthew’s gospel is important to consider as well when trying to understand what Jesus is saying.
            In Matthew, Jesus adds: “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  In this gospel, it seems the restriction isn’t so much the size of the opening, but that it's difficult to find.  They both have an image of struggle associated with salvation. The context in Luke is Jesus answering the question “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Such a question was part of a current theological concern of Jesus’ time among the Jews as to who among the Jewish people were the “chosen ones”, the remnant to be saved.
            Typical of Jesus’ style of turning questions in an unexpected direction, he responds with an answer directed towards the questioner as a person rather than to the question with an abstract answer.  Jesus uses the image of one knocking on a door, and the master of the house not opening the door because he does not recognize the petitioner’s voice. What began with a question of abstraction has become personal.   Despite the protests of the petitioner who identifies himself as part of a crowd who “ate and drank” with Jesus, and who witnessed Jesus in the streets, this casual association was not enough.  It is rather difficult to make it through a narrow door when you are part of a crowd.  Again, Jesus reinforces the personal dimension of salvation; crowds aren’t saved, individuals are saved.
            The protection of membership in a particular group, the Essenes, the Pharisees or Sadducees or whatever isn’t enough.  Salvation is recognition, personal recognition by Christ. If the master of the house did not open the door because he didn’t recognize the voice of the petitioner, so too we keep our hearts closed to the voice of God who is trying to enter our hearts.  How many times has Christ stood patiently at the door of our hearts knocking and we have kept him out?  Is it any wonder then he cannot recognize our voice as part of a crowd? The narrow door isn’t narrow because God wants to keep people out; it is narrow because salvation is realized one person at a time; it is a relationship, not a theological abstraction that is the way to salvation.

            Finally, Jesus adds the paradox that many who consider themselves first will be last, and the ones who are least will be first.  The pride that results from considering one's salvation guaranteed through association seems to Christ, at best, suspect. All of us who enter the narrow door do it one at a time, clinging on the hem of Christ’s robe who recognizes us because we recognized him when he knocked and we opened the door of our hearts.  Ultimately, though the door may be narrow, as the hymn reassures us, "There's a wideness in God's mercy". We approach the narrow door alone but walk through it with Christ.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Divine Arsonist
"I have come to set the world on fire"--Jesus

         Today’s readings strike us as particularly harsh, especially the passage from Luke’s gospel (paralleled in Matthew) of family division and strife as a consequence of following Christ; how can this be good news? The old phrase, “No cross, no crown” comes to mind.
        Paul’s famous teaching about the kerygma, or preaching, of the cross, proclaims “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. . . . God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 21-25, 27).
      Paul’s observes that “those who are perishing” see the cross as foolishness.  What a powerful observation!  A sign of “perishing” is dismissing the cross of Christ as foolish.  This superficial understanding can only be penetrated by faith because “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”  Men see the destructiveness of fire, God sees what survives the fire, and redeems the ashes.
      The “cloud of witness” of which Paul writes in Hebrews, includes the great Fathers of our church who witness to this “baptism of fire”.  St. Cyril of Alexandria refers to the “fire of baptism” as the Holy Spirit.  St. Ambrose relates the image of Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit appearing like flames above the apostles.  Fire and water, two of the most basic elements, combined in our baptism to signify both the physical purity and spiritual purity of our initiation. Fire is also the sacrifice of martyrdom which is the ultimate test of our love; are we willing to die for the gospel of Christ?  Are we willing to lay down our lives in our service to Christ?

      The wildfires that seem so destructive, and indeed destroy many homes, also have a natural function of renewal.  When fires clear the dead underbrush, they can cleanse a forest and actually help it to thrive.  When the fires are artificially delayed by well-intentioned firefighting, the undergrowth accumulates such that when there is a fire, say every fifty years, it burns so hotly that it has lost its benefit and destroys the forest rather than help it to thrive.  So it is in the spiritual life.  When one’s focus is to avoid suffering, to insulate one’s life from the “fire”,  when great suffering comes, we are ill-equipped to face it because we have not endured the suffering of lesser trials and temptations.  Our faith must be nurtured in our daily lives of more endurable sufferings and difficulties for the sake of our journey as ambassadors of God’s love to the world. We must learn early to find our refuge in God’s love among the community of the faithful so that we can grow to find our refuge in God alone. Among all of this suffering, we are being directed into the embrace of God’s love in the crucified Christ, which delivers us to the resurrected life, the life of a forest renewed after the fire, of hope rather than despair, of a fire-born faith that can sustain the heat of loving our enemies and keeping the flame of faith alive in our hearts.