All posts for the month December, 2013

Sir 3:2-6, 12-14 + Ps 128 + Col 3:12-21 + Matt 2:13-15, 19-23

Saint Francis of Assisi Parish,   Castle Rock, CO

There is a couple in the last parish I served as pastor who have been married nearly 70 years. They sit together in the front pew on the right side, and there is always some traffic in front of them before Mass as musicians, sacristans, and servers pass back and forth from one end of the church to another. On occasion I do the same. This couple speaks no english, so whenever I pass, I always pause and nod or bow slightly to acknowledge them with a smile. This custom continued for more than ten years on my part, but about five years into it, the servers were assembled at the entrance. We were about to begin the  entrance procession when one of them said to me: “Why are you always bowing to those people?” I said: “See that golden box over there with that red candle always burning?”  They said, “Yes, the Tabernacle.” I said: “Why do you always genuflect or bow when you pass in front of it?” “Because the Body of Christ is present there. It’s where God is.” I looked at them and said, “Let me tell you something, after 68 years of Holy Marriage, sacrifice, and suffering, those two old people are just as holy as that Tabernacle, and they are the presence of Christ too. There is no red candle burning, but every time I see them, I am reminded that God is always present where there is love, and that God never leaves us. That’s why I bow. They are a Holy Sacrament too. Now, let’s get started.” So the procession began, and from then on every time one of the servers passed in front of that couple, they bowed, and the couple grinned and bowed back. The whole scene began to look like a coco clocks striking the hour!

When Syrach wrote his wise instructions two hundred years before Christ, “family” meant what we would today call a tribe or clan, and it was a large one. Children were all mixed together. Their relationship to the leader of the tribe was stronger than to their biological parent. Their identity came not from the biological parent but from the leader of the clan. By the time Paul wrote the Epistle from which we read today, things had changed in terms of family unit, and the “family” Paul thinks of is the family of the Church. He is addressing internal problems that arise when a one married person moved by faith presents themselves for Baptism. What happens to the spouse or the children? This is the context from which Paul writes the words we have heard today.

Our concept of “family” continues to change. It is certainly different from when Syrach shared his wisdom. It is certainly different from the time of Christ when probably 50% of women died in childbirth and only 50% of children survived to the age of five. Families then were not easily identified through biological relationships. They were created by a need to survive not often by love. Today statistics tell us that 50% of American households are “single parent families”. If that statistic is not enough, then the challenge raised for us by gay and lesbian people is reason enough to listen, think, and gather the wisdom of God’s word and prayerfully look again at what matters and what makes a family in our Christian tradition.

As a pastor, I can not begin to count how often I have sat to listen and comfort children after they have been told that Mom and Dad are no longer going to live together. Their fear is always that they are going to be left alone, or that they somehow caused the problem. To me this experience in itself confirms the church’s teaching that a family is a sign of God’s presence and commitment to us just as Eucharist is such a sign. Much more than the elements of Bread and Wine, Eucharist is Com-union which establishes and sustains the family of God, the Church. By its very nature the Church must be a sign of God’s presence, love, and commitment to this world. The wisdom we can collect from all  of this is that there is a constant thread of commitment and fidelity made possible by compassion, kindness, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. With these tools every human relationship begins to reveal something of God and of God’s presence and action in this world.

The story in Matthew’s Gospel has nothing at all to do with a young family except to tell the story of how openness to God’s plan safeguarded a baby and liberated those three people from violent tyranny. It is however a story of liberation deliberately told in such a way that Moses and Jesus would share the common mission of liberation leading a people from slavery to the promised land. That experience of escaping violent tyranny and slavery continues today in the story of every refugee whose protection and liberation is still the mission of Christ in his Church. Opening our minds to a vision and experience of the Church as Family as Paul saw it may well be the best way to celebrate Holy Family Sunday. It will restore to us our sense of mission as Pope Francis continues to teach. It may also strengthen and nourish the relationships shared within the Church nurturing and strengthening them with the gifts of the Spirit, by compassion, kindness, patience, and forgiveness. Making this vision a reality was the mission of Jesus Christ who included everyone and turned no one away. Family is an idea that must be inclusive and never exclusive. Drawing people into the family is the work of Evangelization. This is the mission and the best image of our Church. Making our Church a family that welcomes the single person, those who have suffered the pain of a divorce, gay people, immigrants, lonely, hurt, and broken people is the what we are called to become in the spirit of renewal sweeping from Rome to the ends of the earth these days.

We pray today that God’s will for the human family may continue to be our mission, may become a reason for peace, and hope for a future when compassion, kindness, mercy, patience, and forgiveness are the way we respond to anyone who is alone, afraid to be alone, or without an experience of God’s Love.

Saint Francis of Assisi Parish, Castle Rock, Colorado

Isaiah 62, 11-12 + Psalm 24 + Titus 2, 11-14 + Luke 2, 15-20

Through all the details we are given regarding the birth of Christ there are people whose lives are changed in remarkable ways. The cast of this great drama is large. It begins  with an angel named: Gabriel who is very busy going from the Temple in Jerusalem then on to Nazareth. Then look at how the cast of characters is arranged. First there is Zachariah and Elizabeth, a faithful couple advanced in years. Then there is the youthful Mary, a single woman, and Joseph a single man. There are Shepherds, and soon the Wise Men,  or Astrologers or “Kings” as some translations call them. Like every really good story, there are good guys and bad guys, and so we get Herod, the villain. There is a constant interplay of light and darkness, day and night. The night, when things are usually fearful and dangerous becomes the time of salvation. The darkness is overcome by the light of a new day and the song of glory.

Something happens to everyone of these people, and a story develops around each one of them that reveals something to us about the meaning of the Incarnation, the meaning of the Word Made Flesh. Zachariah and Elizabeth thought to be too old are suddenly young again, at least young enough to bear a child. The reproach of barren Elizabeth is lifted. Her respect and dignity among those people who looked down on her is not only restored, it is elevated and honored as those who judged her see what God can do. By her willingness to step into the mystery of God’s will Mary makes real, gives flesh, and reveals beyond doubt that anything is possible with God. Joseph, a carpenter whose plans get shaken by dream takes this whole mystery into his home forever marking a family and a home sacred and sacramental. Shepherds leave their flocks and take on a new role. They are the first to evangelize as they run to sharing the news. The wise men come with their gifts only to be gifted by the presence of the giver of all gifts. Or call them “Kings” and what we see is that they bow down in respect to this new King rather than having others bow to them. The infant who has nothing gives them light and guidance in a pilgrimage into the mystery of God’s presence. Yet there is also Herod, already a ruthless traitor who has sold out his own to secure the favor of Rome lives in darkness and denial becoming all the more ruthless, cruel, and violent. He alone is not changed by this birth. Set in his ways, centered on himself, threatened by what he cannot control, he stays as he is and never knows what might have been possible. Stuck in his comforts, power, and political games, he never sees the light, and never knows the joy freedom brings.

As you begin to reflect on all of this and these people, the focus of this day can begin to shift slightly, for this story and the mystery it unfolds is not only about the birth of Jesus Christ. It is also about the people who, in fath, acknowledge this gift and are then drawn into the story and the mystery of the Incarnation. Christmas, the Birth of Christ is about us, and it is about what happens to us.

If someone were to ask Zachariah, Elizabeth, or those shepherds what difference the birth of that child meant to them, they would be quick to tell you. Perhaps we should raise that question for ourselves: What difference does all of this make in our lives? How are we different because we know and believe what has happened to us?

In his book: Jesus of Nazareth Pope Emeritus Benedict asks that question. Since the birth of Christ there is still suffering and sin. He was not able yet to put an end to wars or to violence. Benedict gives us a profound yet simple answer: “Jesus came to bring us God.” Suddenly, the kindness and generous love of God is visible and unmistakable to those who would come to him and see.

Because of the birth of Jesus, God is never far from us. God is as close as the person sitting beside you. God is at our side in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. We discover and we believe that God suffers with us and has suffered with us through all the tragic and violent events that mark these times. God rejoices with us and forgives us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us! The wonder of this day is what has happened to us. The wonder of this day is that the divine life, grace, the divine gift of presence has been born again. Our belief that we are made in the image and likeness of God is confirmed by the birth of Christ. What we do, who we are, how we act, how we think, must reveal something of God. Those we meet, those with whom we work, live, and play must know something of God because of us. This is the miracle of Christmas.

There is a reason that we were all called here this morning while the day is new; just as there was a reason that the shepherds were called to the manger and the Wise Men were drawn to Bethlehem by the star. God wants to speak to our hearts. God aks us to stop striving after what cannot fully satisfy us. God says: “Stop trying to make it on your own.”  The power and wonder of this day puts our focus on Christ. God would have us keep our focus on Christ every day, and find in him true and lasting joy. As evangelists  we share that joy with others as the shepherds did. This draws us into the mystery of this day and reveals the meaning of Christ’s birth. It makes every day blessed, holy, and joyful. The Glory of God is the glory of God’s people, you and me whose lives make a difference for others because the birth of Christ makes a difference for us.

Isaiah 7, 10-14 + Psalm 24 + Roman 1, 1-7 + Matthew 1, 18-24

Today’s text from Isaiah is so familiar and comfortable that we no longer question what he was really speaking about. Christians easily read the scriptures backwards and like to think that Isaiah was predicting the future, writing about Jesus of Nazareth, sustaining the hopes of countless people through endless ages until suddenly Matthew applies the text to the birth of Jesus, and it’s all settled. No it is not. At the risk of spoiling the way you may have heard this text for much of your life, it is not fair to Isaiah, Matthew, or yourself for that matter, to treat the text in such a simple and shallow way. That this text is only proclaimed days before Christmas makes it all the more difficult to dig deeper into the challenge of Isaiah. This is not about Jesus. Isaiah had no clue about what would happen 700 years after he spoke those words. He speaks to a problem of his time, and for that matter, he still speaks to the same problem in this time.

Isaiah is warning the foolish King Ahaz that relying on the military might of a neighbor who was unbelieving was courting disaster, because by doing so Ahaz was not remaining faithful to the God of his ancestors. Ahaz is like Herod who has put his trust in the Romans betraying the faith of his own people in the God of their ancestors. Consequently Matthew sees the similarity, and the prophetic warning continues into our own age every time we pick up this text. We cannot abandon the faith of our ancestors and trust easy alliances and compromises with anything less than the God who is Immanuel, the God who is present and active among us.

Yet it goes on. We trust ideologies, political alliances, military might, and naïve economic policies to bring us justice and peace when only God’s way do. Rather than rely upon service and sacrifice, commitment and love our young people look to careers and wealth, influence and power to make their lives meaningful and happy. We bend to the opinions of others and compromise our most basic principles to look good and be liked. In the light of all this stands the man at the center of today’s Gospel, Joseph who in all the gospels speaks no a word. He just does what is right again and again. I sometimes think it is because he does not talk. He just listens and then decides what is right. He never argues or becomes defensive.

In spite of what others might think, and there was plenty for them to think and say about him, he does what is right; and as Matthew puts it so simply, “He takes her into his home.” What he does in fact, is set himself up to be mocked and ridiculed and as fool for taking a woman who is with child by someone else into his home as his wife. That would take some courage even today. But over and above the details, what he does is ignore what other people think refusing to let that control him and make his decisions. What a man! He put her reputation above his own. King Ahaz thought his salvation would be secure through his army. Joseph discovered an alternative in Immanuel and accepted a risk we call faith. “Do not be afraid.” said the angel.

It is a painful reality of this age that so few of us take the challenge of old Isaiah to heart failing to trust in God rather than in “princes” as one of the psalmists says. There is still too much fear that keeps too many of us from doing what is right and trusting in Immanuel. The angel’s message is till proclaimed. Like Paul writing to the Romans, becoming a “slave to Christ” is what ultimate set him free; free to live with courage, free to do what was right, free from worry about what others would think or say, free to have one goal, the Will of God.

Immanuel is not only a messiah and a person, Immanuel is an experience of freedom that allows us to discover our true identity and the spark of divine life that is within us all as children of the light called from darkness and the slavery of sin to the freedom of God’s children.

We close this Advent Season with the image of Joseph before us.

Joseph, free, fearless, and faithful.

Joseph, prudent and wise.

Joseph who listens to angels and asks for no signs.

Joseph who risks everything by taking Mary into his home accepts the divine guest she bears.

How better to celebrate again the presence of God among us than by learning from Joseph how to be free, fearless, and faithful, prudent, and wise? Faith for Joseph was an adventure that allowed him to walk with confidence into the unknown. He did not just open his home, he first opened his life. Three days before Christmas, the Church invites us to do the same.

Isaiah 35, 1-6,10 + Psalm 146 + James 5, 7-10 + Matthew 11, 2-11

Matthew, the “Gospel of Beatitudes” adds another to the list begun in Chapter Five: “Blessed are those who take no offense at me.

It may seem a little difficult at first to imagine taking offence at Jesus. How could anyone take offence at someone who gives sight to the blind, cleanses lepers, and raises up the dead? Yet, Matthew would not have repeated that response to John’s question had it not been so. People did take offense, and people still do. Our challenge is to make sure we do not, and open our hearts wide enough to the presence of Jesus and his message to reach out to those who have. I believe that in this episode, John the Baptist was at the threshold of taking offense.

In my imagination, I have always pictured John trapped in Herod’s prison being sustained and comforted by some of his followers brave enough to maintain their relationship with him. Think of it. There he is in prison: John, the one who Baptized Jesus, who called Jesus to his mission, recognized him as the Lamb of God, who insisted he was not worthy to loosen the straps of his sandals obviously being ignored and abandoned by the very one he first acclaimed. Where is Jesus when you need him? Why does he do all these great things for others, even those outside the family of Judaism, and leave John suffering in that miserable place? John has been preparing the way for the Messiah who would set everything right!! Now look at what he gets: a longer wait. Maybe time to rethink his ideas about this Messiah and how it is all going to work out.

We have all been there, dangerously close to taking offence at Jesus, and we all know some who have. The consequence of their offence is discouragement, disbelief, anger, hurt, and even disinterest. Yet the words of Jesus call all of this into question, and reflecting upon them once again in this Advent Season might move us more safely among the Blessed.

It is not just a matter of “taking offence” at the historical Jesus whose nice story of healing and forgiving is easy to take. It is also a matter of listening to what he says and what he demands of his followers in terms of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. It is a matter of caring for the poor at the cost of one’s own convenience, comfort, and security. It is a matter of welcoming strangers and organizing one’s priorities in such a way that God’s will comes before self-will. It is a matter of making repentance and conversion a way of life, not just a single event. Suddenly, it is possible to take offence at Jesus because his teaching and his demands are offensive to our way of thinking and acting.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a video clip of Rush Limbaugh announcing with more pomposity and certitude than any Roman Pontiff in history could ever have managed that Pope Francis was a Maxsist! To prove his point, he then proceed to quote from the most recent Encyclical. Now that is taking offence in your face! The Pope is not offended; but there seem to be some who take offence at his teaching rooted in and proclaiming the teachings of Jesus Christ. Any threat or question raised about the justice of some economic systems seems to cause offense. Taking the teaching of the church, again rooted in Jesus Christ’s, to insist that not killing means more than being opposed to abortion causes some to take offence when their support of capital punishment is challenged. The examples could go on and on, but it is sometimes a much more personal matter that causes offense.

When prayers are not answered with the expected outcome, offense if taken. When God asserts the control over this earth and life leaving us “out of control” offense is taken. If  sickness comes and death before we think it should, sometimes offense is taken. When relationships collapse that we thought might last a life-time, when someone betrays or even when someone trusted sins and fails to live up to expectations we set for them, offense is taken.

“Blessed are those who take no offense at me.” Is a challenge and a comfort just as much as “Blessed are the Poor. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers in Chapter Five.

Hope is what they are blessed with.

Hope is what is promised.

Hope is the heart of this Season.

Hope that all will be well.

Hope that because of God’s love for us

those who have chosen a life of repentance and conversion

will reach out to those have taken offense with love and understanding.

There is Hope that God will make all things right for those who seek to know and do the Will of God.

There is Hope when things go wrong, and Hope when we are called to let go of ideas, systems, and old ways of doing things and thinking.

Most of all there is Hope when we open ourselves up to the power of God to accomplish what we cannot,

to fulfill what was begun long ago,

and to dry our tears,

lift up the fallen,

and welcome those who have strayed, embracing again those who have taken offense.

Isaiah 11, 1-10 + Psalm 72 + Romans 15, 4-9 + Matthew 3, 1-12

On Board the MS Eurodam

There is a cartoon you may have seen that gives me a smile every time I think of it. There is a tall man bearded and wearing a long robe that is dragging behind him. He carries a sign that says, “The end is near.” The next frame shows a short man also bearded and robed. He has a sign that says: “The End.” And so it is The End for us, on the night before we disembark in Fort Lauderdale and head back to homes all over this country. The end is near for us in lots of ways, and that is the message John the Baptist is proclaiming. His preaching ends, and then the preaching of Jesus begins.

Human experience tells us that there are lots of endings. This cruise ends, and our stories and memories begin. Childhood ends and Adolescence begins. Sadly, marriages end, but just as joyfully engagements often end with holy marriages. Schooling ends, and we go to work if we are clever enough.  Employment ends, and for some of us retirement begins in some way or another. Endings are always followed by beginnings. Something stops, but something else begins. Someone said to me a few weeks ago: “When God takes something from us, it is never to punish us; but rather to give us something new.” There are no endings without beginnings.

Now when the Israelites were in exile, prophets rose up to console and encourage them with the hope that their captivity would end, and they would make their way home for a new beginning. In that same way, John speaks in the desert to all of us who are in exile, living outside of paradise, far from the place we must know as home. He calls for an end to the way things are in this exile, and for a new beginning proposing that “repentance” is what will make that change and give us that new beginning.

Authentic repentance for which John cries out is not a matter of piety, or prayers, or penance. Repentance is not simply saying: “I’m sorry.” Repentance means that we turn around; turn toward heaven, toward God and away from anything that keeps our focus off God. Authentic repentance will be obvious by its fruits: the first of which will be Justice and Peace. As long as there is no justice and no peace, we have not managed any real repentance because once we have turned toward God and have the Kingdom of Heaven in our sights, we will know what it must like to live in God’s presence and how citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are to live. We will begin to do what is right and what is good. This is what Jesus Christ will come to preach and how he will form his disciples.

When we have turned toward God and away from success and power, influence, and privilege, we will begin to straighten our crooked ways that leave most of this world’s people poor, ignorant, and sick. We will have begun to level the playing field which John calls smoothing out the rough ways. Turning toward God will mean turning toward the poor where we shall see the face of God. Turning toward God will mean looking squarely into the face of immigrants and refugees not seeing them as a strain on our economy but as an opportunity to level every valley and hill. Turning toward God will, in the end, mean a complete change of heart, of values, and of behavior. It will also mean a change in our expectations. It will mean that instead of sitting around and hoping that God will do something or send someone to bring us into justice and show us the way to peace, we will come to understand that it is by our repentance that these things will come to pass, and they will.

This kind of conversion is much more than a human decision. It is a response to what God has already done by becoming flesh and dwelling among us. As believers, as people ready to once again celebrate Christmas, we can be nothing less than heralds of the Good News, bringers of peace, and examples of true justice. This kind of repentance heals what is broken and mends all that divides. It will allow for no distinctions even between the human and the divine. After all, isn’t that what the Incarnation is all about? As Paul proclaims today to the Romans, all are one in Christ Jesus, whether strong or weak, Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, rich or poor.

Another man is in Rome today named Francis who comes with the same message. It is time for a change, a change in this church and a change in where we look and how we look. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and we need to begin to look like it. When we do, we shall have come home to a new beginning.