Monday, January 29, 2018

Faith–religion–is all about mystery.  I am not talking about that which is unknowable, but that which is entirely knowable. God will always be mystery and God will still be knowable. So how do we engage the mystery that is God? 
It’s in becoming aware of our powerlessness that we gain faith in something greater than ourselves.  If we believe we are powerful and have all the knowledge we need about life and its meaning, then we have no need of a higher power.

The spiritual journey, the journey to knowing God, is a journey into the mystery of our own powerlessness. Life is the best teacher.  Life is full of disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, failure, and rejection, and that is the stuff of religious education. It’s the losses, disappointments, and failures that are our best teachers. When we embrace our brokenness, we can begin to embrace the one who loves us just as we are.  We need to let go of the lies the world offers and open our hearts to what’s real, then we can begin to discover the knowable God. 

We often muse about why so many people in church have white hair.  It’s because they have traveled this journey of life’s disappointments and have come to know the knowable God who loves them unconditionally. They have come to realize the emptiness of selfishness and greed. Real spiritual growth comes when we let go of our addiction to self.

How do we know when we have found God? When we begin to focus on the other. When there is an increased capacity for compassion, forgiveness, and love.  When we begin to turn away from the all-demanding self and turn our eyes and hearts out to the other, then we are starting to discover the knowable God. 

Jesus said that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He also said if we spend our life trying to find our life, we’ll lose it; on the other hand, if we spend our life letting go of our life, we’ll find it. 

Our culture is made to order for this spiritual journey. We love to define our self almost entirely by external achievements, by external appearance, by skin color, by the car we drive, where we live, and so forth. Which of course is all illusion; or as Jesus said about the rich man who built more barns - foolishness. There’s something more in life than accumulating money and possessions. There's something more in life than worrying about what others think of us. Eventually, we all figure that out whether we find God or not. 

So how do we know God? We find Him when we’ve let go of all of the obscurities that blind us to Him. When we transcend the illusions of the world, we begin to know the very knowable God.  As Christians, we are so fortunate because we follow a God in Jesus who modeled it for us.  We follow a God who loves us so dearly, he became one of us to show The Way. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

REPENT - We don't like that word very much. Homily 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel of Mark 1:14-20

In the Gospel reading, Mark gives us the first record we have of Jesus preaching. His first sermon was short and powerful: 

“The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."

One word – leaps out of that message. A word we Christians aren’t too fond of - REPENT.  
It sounds so negative when we hear the word – repent. It often causes us to call to mind those things that make us feel guilty. So, if you are like me, you pretty much avoid the word. But the truth is to “repent” in the language of the gospels - Greek - it means something a bit different.  The Greek word is metanoia. Repentance – or metanoia – is not merely a moral call to stop sinning. Rather, it refers to what we might call “conversion,” changing one’s mind, heart and life toward God. Shifting the focus of our lives. The kingdom that Jesus preached is about transformation. To repent is to transform yourself. Jesus is asking us to make a turn in our life. Not so much to turn from something, but to turn to something.

To repent is to turn inside, to look within ourselves and ask – What am I doing here? Is this the way God wants me to live? The answer may be … “YES” … but you won’t know unless you look within. To repent is to turn to Christ and accept the Gospel – the Good News – he brought to the world. And let it change our lives for the better.

One of the most significant saints in our church's history is an excellent example of this.Saint Augustine’s life as a young man was characterized by loose living and a search for the answers to life's fundamental questions. He would follow various philosophers, only to become disillusioned with their teachings.  He had success and lovers. He should have been happy, but he wasn’t.  He went one day to hear the preaching of the local bishop Ambrose.  He went only to hear Ambrose's eloquent style of speaking for he was a famous orator. But what he heard that day led him to a new understanding of the Christian Faith. He had this metanoia, this change of heart, Jesus called for in his first sermon. Augustine said it felt as if his heart was flooded with light. He turned entirely from his life of sin to a life that embraced the Gospel – the Good News. He was Baptized by Ambrose the following Easter. Later, reflecting on this experience, Augustine wrote about this turn to Christ. He said in a prayer to Christ. “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Augustine went on to become a powerful influence on the spirituality and the theology of the Christian Church. He became one of the Church’s greatest theologians – a Doctor of the Church.

How do you turn toward Christ as he did? Not just a “book learning” of Jesus but let him get inside of you; to have an experience like Augustine and feel as if your heart is flooded with light. To repent means to turn toward Jesus and open your heart and mind to his message. The first thing is you must get to know him. Augustine met Jesus in a sermon at church and then learned more as he prepared for his baptism. You can hear Christ speak to you at church, in the words of the Bible, and he can speak to you in your life. Listen for his invitation to metanoia – a change of heart. But be prepared to let him shake you up and to love you and stir something up you never felt before. This transformation – this metanoia – comes with an invitation

We hear today the story of the first four people who turned their lives to Christ and left their old lives behind to follow him. Jesus' first disciples, Andrew, Peter, James, and John respond to God's call by abandoning their old life. They got out of their fishing boats and let Jesus lead them. God seems to choose the most unlikely people to believe in the Gospel and to proclaim the good news. Those four simple fishermen knew a lot about bait and nets but little about preaching and building a church.                             
Today he still does the same thing. He calls an elementary school teacher, a stockbroker, a waiter, a lawyer, a nurse, a firefighter, and even retirees. And he wants us all to be fishers of men. He wants us to be changed by the Gospel – the Good News – to repent and to experience metanoia, to turn toward him.  No matter who we are.

And then he sends us out into the sea of humanity to go deep-soul fishing, because the Church's primary business, and so each Christian's primary business, is the fishing business. 

Your neighborhood is a lake full of fish. 
Your office is a lake full of fish.                  
Your school is a lake full of fish.
Your family is a lake full of fish.                                                                             

When Jesus said, "I will make you fishers of men,” He was saying,                                
“I will take you … 
with your personality
your background
your testimony
your influence
and I will use you to catch men and women, and boys and girls, and bring them into my family.” When we offer Christ our skills, he will use us. When we accept his invitation, we find the fulfillment of our life’s work. St. Augustine said it well in his prayer at his moment of metanoia, at the moment of his invitation:

“You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”   

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sunday Homily - The Annunciation

Today’s Gospel reading describes the moment when the Angel Gabriel announces to the young virgin Mary that she has been chosen to be the mother of God.

Artists have painted this scene from Luke’s Gospel hundreds of times. We’ve all seen these images of what we call the Annunciation on the covers of Christmas cards. These images usually depict Mary and the Angel dressed in beautiful clothes.  Gabriel’s wings are flared and magnificent – Mary is dressed in a beautiful blue robe and looks lovely. Images like this have always felt a bit unreal, too pretty, too perfect.

My favorite image of this moment hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It is a painting by an American artist named Henry Tanner. In Tanner’s painting, Gabriel does not appear as an angel with wings but as a beam of light that filled Mary’s bedroom with its glow.  Mary in his painting is sitting on a bed a bit disheveled like she just woke up. The bright light of the angel is right in front of her. Tanner’s painting is like a candid snap-shot of this moment. He captures Mary’s humanity her normalness. He allows the viewer to relate to her as an average person, like us in every way. The scene appears to be right after the angel has said these words and Mary looks thoughtful and reflective, even a bit scared and bewildered. She has a look on her face that says, "How can this be?" What is so engaging about Tanner’s painting is that he allows us to think for a moment about what that real-life situation was for this humble young woman.

This story is about God suddenly breaking into the life of a peasant girl and God making an incredible request of her. It’s easy to imagine that Mary’s heart was pounding as this unexpected heavenly visitor suddenly appears in her room and tells her that God wants her to be a pregnant unwed mother.

Have you ever thought of what might have gone through Mary’s mind at that moment?  We just assume she eagerly said, “may it be done to me.” But perhaps at that moment, Mary thought of all the consequences of her decision, before she responded.

  • Did she think about what it was going to be like to tell her family that she was pregnant before being married? 
  • Did she wonder if they would believe her when she told them that she hadn't been intimate with a man? That would be pretty hard for any parent to believe.         
  • Did Mary wonder how her fiancĂ© Joseph would react? We know from Matthew’s Gospel, that at first, Joseph didn’t believe her; that he was going to divorce her quietly.
  • Did she think about the wagging tongues spreading rumors about her and Jesus in the future? Would they talk about the impropriety of Mary’s pregnancy? 
  • And did it pop into her mind, even for a second, that the penalty according to the Mosaic Law for being unmarried and pregnant was death by stoning?

In truth, we don’t know what that moment was like for Mary. But in many ways thinking that she did consider the consequences of her decision gives her “YES” even more impact. Here this teenage girl listened to this incomprehensible request and bravely said “YES” even if it cost her her life. And this simple girl’s “Yes” changed the world forever. In that moment Mary is a model for us. All of us like Mary face moments when life takes a turn; we never expected when God’s plan for us seems a total surprise. In her amazing bravery, Mary inspires us to have faith in God’s plan.

It’s important for us to appreciate the courage of Mary in that moment. Denise Levertov wrote a poem about this moment called “Annunciation.” And the words of the poet are words that can inspire us to say “Yes” when we are called to handle something challenging when we are called to be brave in our faith. Her poem goes like this:

She did not cry, “I cannot, I am unworthy,” 
Nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit
with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Mary consented to God’s request to a wholly unexpected and radical change in her life. She agreed because she knew God. She said “YES” because she was a good Jew and a prayerful person she knew her God was a merciful God a God who would look after her.

Mary is a great role model for each of us. Mary said yes to God and welcomed Jesus in a special way into her life and allowed God – allowed Jesus – to come into the world. And like her God asks us to welcome Him into our life.

God is asking each of us, in our own way, to accept Jesus into our lives and to bring Jesus into - our – world; to bring the saving power of Jesus to those in our world.

And God waits for our answer. Will we say – “YES” – this Year?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Finding out Santa isn't real can be tough.

Santa Claus is a wonderful myth we all grew up loving.  The Dutch who founded New York City brought with them their love of Holand’s patron Saint - St. Nicholas. The Dutch were the first to depict him with a full white beard, who wore a magic cloak and dispensed gifts to children. Children placed their shoes and hay (to feed the horse) near the fireplace. Santa Claus would replace the hay with nuts and candy in the children’s shoes. Santa, as we know him, is very much a product of American creativity.

The image and stories we grew up loving have only been around since the 19th century. Any number of people are responsible for “inventing” the Santa Claus we know today. Clement C. Moore wrote the poem – A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1822. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew the first depiction of Santa Claus as we envision him in Harper’s Weekly in 1866 (shown on the left). You could even credit the marketers of Coca-Cola who popularized the image we hold so dear. But it seems most of the credit for the Santa myth we grew up with goes to author Washington Irving who wrote such classics as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Washington Irving published "Knickerbocker's History of New York" in 1823. In this parody of colonial America, Irving took much glee in satirizing the early Dutch settlers of New York and their traditions, including their patron saint, Nicholas, whom they referred to as Sancte Claus. But in doing so, he also created our wonderful Christmas tradition.

Another Christmas event many of us have experienced is the sadness of a child when they discover that Santa is just a story – a myth. Many of us remember the discomfort when our children found out it was all a bit of a lie. The reason for this post is to suggest what to do when this occurs.  Rather than tiptoe through that awkward moment, I suggest we immediately tell each child the story of the real Saint Nick.

The real story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in a village on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Nicholas was such a good boy that he desired to obey Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

The gift giving associated with St. Nick stemmed mostly from a story when he was very young.  In his town, there was a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window by Nicholas, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. So our wonderful tradition of gift giving at Christmas comes from remembering the kindness of St. Nicholas the generous gift-giver.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Advent ... why it matters.

Thanksgiving is behind us, and now we prepare for another great holiday – Christmas.  Decorations go up; presents are bought; it’s a hectic time.  Advent is a time set aside by the Church, to help us prepare for Christmas. Advent reminds us to add the dimension of faith, a spiritual dimension, to our Christmas preparations. So how do we do that?

Some friends of mine, long time victims of the stress of everyday activities, recommend sneaking spiritual moments into the world of work. A nurse friend says a prayer every time she washes her hands between patients to remind her that the person she is about to treat is more than their disease. That’s how she tries to stay awake to the spiritual dimension of the people she helps each day. One friend pauses in front of the Christmas tree in the lobby of his work and stops for a moment to say a little prayer. He notices he is more patient and respectful when he remembers to do this.

Why does it matter that we keep Christ in Christmas?  Because we have a hope in our hearts brought by the true meaning of Christmas that people desperately need us to share. So many people in the world have lost hope and we can bring a beacon of light into the darkness. 

A few year back a devastating earthquake killed 30,000 people in Armenia.  Minutes after the tragedy, a father ran to his son’s school building and found it completely collapsed. Remembering that his son’s classroom was in the rear corner of the building, he ran over to it and began digging, pulling away the rubble with his hands.

Other parents, weeping nearby, tried to stop him, saying, “It’s too late! They’re all dead! It’s too late!” Even the police tried to dissuade him. But he kept on digging. He dug for 36 hours without stopping. In the 38th hour he heard a voice, the father screamed, “Armand!” The boy shouted back, “Dad!” Then began an incredible conversation; the boy shouted up from the rubble: “Dad! There are 14 of us down here. I told them not to worry. I told them that you’d come.”

That story describes perfectly what Advent is all about. It’s a call to all of us who believe in Christ to be like Armand, to have a hopeful faith and help those around us not to worry. It’s about letting everyone around know it’s going to be alright. Jesus is coming to save us.

The world is full of people like the ones in this story.  Like the people and the police. When they saw the flattened building, they lost all hope immediately. We live in a time where so many people are hopeless. They have lost their faith if they ever had faith.  There are people like the grief-stricken parents standing around the collapsed school after the earthquake. They see our world in a state of moral and spiritual collapse. They see nothing but a mountain of crime, war, drugs, immorality, corruption, and disrespect for all forms of life.  So many people have given up and only stand around, lamenting the situation.

There are also people like the children trapped inside a world that feels like moral and spiritual rubble.  They feel like theirs is a helpless situation.  They see no light. The only thing that can give them hope is people like little Armand and his father – people of faith.  Hopefully, people like us. We are called to be people who like Armand’s father who see the same mountain of moral and spiritual collapse but refuse to give up. We are called to be like little Armand and have faith that Jesus is coming to save us. We are called to people who keep working at their faith until we bring light into the darkness.

Hopefully, this story is an invitation to us to do this, to become like Armand and his father, to be voices of hope in our world. It starts by keeping hope alive in our hearts by being like my nurse friend who says a prayer every time she washes her hands between patients keeping Christ in her heart; to put on Christ as she does her job.  Or like my friend who takes a moment to say a prayer before the workplace Christmas tree as he enters the building where he works, so he can keep the light of the Lord – the spirit of Christmas – in his heart all day long.  Advent is all about keeping hope alive and sharing our Christmas hope with others.  It’s about trusting that no matter how dark and hopeless things seem, we know Jesus comes to rescue us.

That is really what Advent and Christmas are all about!   


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Homily on Forgiveness - Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel reading from Matthew 18:21-35
Peter approached Jesus and asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. ...

Today’s reading is one where I think just about anyone can identify with the story. Peter comes up to Jesus and says: How many times must I forgive that brother of mine?

Ever thought that yourself?

Ever thought how many times must I overlook – and forgive – my sister ... my brother ... my husband ... my father ... my kids ...?  How many times must I forgive my boss for being a total jerk; or my parent for not saying they love me?

That is a question we all can identify with ... right?

It just seems like some people know how to get under our skin. They just know how to really inflict pain on us. Maybe someone has done something we feel is just simply unforgivable; or someone is so neglectful and selfish our feelings are hurt all the time.

The answer Jesus gave Peter that day is most unsatisfactory. He basically says, you must forgive them every time. We have to forgive them – every time!

Then He tells Peter a story about forgiveness.  A servant who owes his Master a fortune – begs for forgiveness and gets it. Then turns around and is totally heartless to someone who owes him a lot less.

This story is important. Because it tells us what Jesus becoming a man is all about. You see Jesus came to give his life for us to gain God’s forgiveness for ... all our mistakes ... all our sins ... all our offenses.  Jesus’ life is one gigantic – “I forgive you for everything” – to each of us from God. So if we go out like the servant in the parable whose debt was forgiven, and not forgive those who offend us, we are just like that wicked servant. Jesus is saying to each one of us today – unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart, you aren’t worthy of my Father’s forgiveness.

Over and over, Jesus says the same thing in the bible. He once said, “The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.”  He said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” Which has been called the Golden Rule. In the only prayer Jesus ever gave us, The Our Father, he said, “Forgive us our trespasses – as – we forgive others.”  Forgiveness is the fundamental principle of being a Christian.  

How are you doing with that?                                                                                                    
Does anyone come to mind that you need to forgive?

I recently heard the story of a young man that relates to our Gospel today. He was speaking about a life altering moment in his life. He said: One day a seven-year-old boy was riding in the back seat of the family car. He was sitting between his two brothers. Their mother was driving. On this day their mother was feeling especially distraught over having been recently abandoned by their father. Suddenly, in a fit of anger, she spun around and struck the seven-year-old a blow across the face. Then she yelled at him:

And you! I never wanted you. 
The only reason I had you
was to keep your father.
But then he left anyway.

I hate you.

That scene branded itself on the boy’s memory. Over the years his mother reinforced her feelings toward him by constantly finding fault with him. Years later the young man said: I can’t tell you how many times in the last twenty-three years I relived that experience. Probably thousands.

Then he added: But recently I put myself in my mother’s shoes. Here she was, a high school graduate with no money, no job, and a family to support. I realized how lonely and depressed she must have felt. I thought of the anger and the pain that must have been there. And I thought of how much I reminded her of the failure of her young hopes. And so one day I decided to visit her and talk to her. I told her that I understood her feelings and that I loved her just the same. She broke down and we wept in each other’s arms for what seemed to be hours. It was the beginning of a new life for me, for her—for us. This story is a beautiful illustration of the healing power of forgiveness.

To use the words of Shakespeare, forgiveness is “twice blest.” 
It blesses the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.

Let’s see how it does this. First, forgiveness blesses the one who forgives. Take the young man in the story. He says that when he forgave his mother, it was the beginning of a new life for him. Time after time, we hear other people say the same thing after they have forgiven someone. For example, a young woman who forgave her father, after they had not spoken for seven years, said of the experience: It was like being released from prison. I was free and happy for the first time in seven years. 

The young man said his forgiveness of his mother blessed her in an amazing way: It literally healed her. She was transformed from someone who was so bitter that she told her son, “I hate you and never wanted you” to someone who told him “I love you and want you with all my heart.”
Time after time we hear of people who have been transformed when someone has forgiven them.
So what do we do when we find that we can’t forgive someone?  What do we do to get rid of the emotional block that keeps us from forgiving?

The answer lies again in the story of the young man. His perception of her changed.  He no longer saw her as a terrible person who said a terrible thing to a little boy. He saw her as a women in pain.
Today’s gospel invites us to take inventory of our relationships with others, especially members of our own family. It invites us to ask ourselves if any of these relationships need to be improved upon. 

We all have someone we need to forgive ... let’s all do that this week.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Would Jesus be a Catholic?

Jesus was a radical who challenged the religious establishment of his culture. Would he be different now?  Would he acquiesce to the pressure to comply with the traditional teachings of the Church? Or, would Jesus call her to task for not acting like Him?

Christianity has been so successful that now it’s passĂ©. People reject it because it is now the establishment rather than the radical.  Is it any wonder why so many of us are asking, ‘What happened to Christianity?”  We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped.

Western culture is rapidly become more secular, with the “nones” — the religiously non-affiliated, including atheists as well as those who feel spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religion — accounting for almost one-fourth of Americans today. And, they are rapidly rising: among millennials, more than one-third are nones.

Maybe it’s time to let go of the over regulated practice of our beliefs and rediscover Jesus’ radically generous way of life.  A life rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion!  Maybe it’s time to re-establish Christianity as a compassionate, loving way of life rather than a legalistic religion. Is it time to focus on the moral vision of Jesus for the world rather than rules and rubrics?

Many who are falling away from Christianity do so because they struggle with science verse the miraculous.  To attract them to the message of Jesus maybe we need to worry less about whether biblical miracles are literal and begin to teach more about their meaning.  When it is said that Jesus healed a leper, let’s put aside the question of whether this happened for now and focus on his outreach to the most stigmatized of outcasts. How would Jesus treat the LGBTQ community were he here today?

It's time to begin tackling the human needs around us and make this a better world; surely Jesus would applaud us if we did. Those who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters should be our leaders, not the ones in fancy clothes in big diocesan offices. We should be looking to the Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims for leadership. Then we would have leaders like Christ.