All posts for the month May, 2014

Acts 1, 1-11 + Ephesians 1, 17-23 + Matthew 28, 16-20

To move from preparing the homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter to this Ascension Day reflection, I spent a ridiculous amount of time listening to the great hymn composed by Charles Wesley in 1742, “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise.” Before you go on I urge you to check either of these (or both) sites and listen as I have.

Sit with this text, and let yourself be caught up in the spirit of this music which with such beauty expresses what our faith holds and proclaims on this day.

As I listened, it occurred to me that there is a change in heaven being proclaimed by the Feast of the Ascension and by this salvation event. Now, because Christ has accomplished the will of the Father, heaven is different. It is changed just as much as earth was changed by the Incarnation. Now heaven is for us. It is no longer just the domain of the divine. Now in Christ we are there, and heaven is a place for us. In the same context, this earth is changed as well by what Christ has accomplished. It is no longer just the human dwelling place. It is now a place where the divine can be encountered. The Son of God comes here to change the earth, and returns to the Father to change what we call “heaven.”

This is much of what we celebrate and much of what gives us joy today. Heaven and Earth are renewed, restored, and Paradise is at hand. As the verses unfold in the hymn, our  heavenward gaze shifts from the memories of the past to our hopes for the future leading us to expect with joy the return of Christ that is promised in Matthew’s Gospel. This is as much about the Church as it is about Christ. His return to the Father having accomplished the Father’s will now leaves us to do the same: accomplish the Father’s will with the assurance that heaven is where we belong since Christ himself has gone before us still calling us with the same invitation as before: “Follow me.”

Introduced now is the expectation that Christ will come again setting the scene and the mood for what our lives are like in the present. Living with this expectation of Christ’s return changes the way we perceive our relationships and our day by day lives. Readiness now marks the way we greet each day. Readiness now is the way we steward the gifts we have in expectation that the owner of the vineyard will come for an accounting. Having used those gifts for the glory of the Father, it will be a day of delight to hand over the fruits of our labor. Only those who have fearfully buried their gifts have anything to worry about. For those how live in this readiness, the joy of what is to come breaks through to silence every fear. Unlike those who fear the day, live in anxiety and expect the second coming to be a day of doom and frightening judgment, we who have bound ourselves to Christ in His death and resurrection are bound to him in his return to the Father. With nothing to fear, we stand in hope. With faith that is born in the Resurrection, we expect only a day of mercy not a day of wrath. Like the verses of Wesley’s hymn, “Alleluia” becomes the theme of our song and the style of our lives.

The commandment given in Matthew’s Gospel today expects far more than an effort to bring everyone to the font of Baptism. The command expects that we will bring this world into a relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From that relationship springs Life and Peace, Forgiveness and Mercy. As Luke tells of this event in Acts of the Apostles, Angels are present again as they were at the beginning of his Gospel. Now their message is to us, not to the Virgin, to Joseph, or to Zechariah. Now we receive a message from on high telling us what to do and what to expect. As they gave their assent to the message of an angel, so must we, and so we GO as the angel instructs, to lead and teach in the name of Christ, to heal and forgive in the name of Christ, to reveal the Father’s mercy and love, and to live in the joyful expectation that Christ will come again.

As the final verses of Wesley’s him proclaim:

Ever upward let us move, Alleluia!
Wafted on the wings of love, Alleluia!
Looking when our Lord shall come, Alleluia!
Longing, gasping after home, Alleluia!

There we shall with Thee remain, Alleluia!
Partners of Thy endless reign, Alleluia!
There Thy face unclouded see, Alleluia!
Find our heaven of heavens in Thee, Alleluia!

Acts 8, 5-8, 14-17 + Psalm 66 + 1 Peter 3, 15-18 + John 14, 15-21

MS Massdam Passanger and Crew Mass

In many ways, our gathering here is always like the gathering of the faithful disciples of Jesus in that Jerusalem upper room. They picked up the pieces of their lives, their failures, sins, and denials and came together because they knew, once they were with one another, that they were acceptable and forgivable. These gifts of acceptance and forgiveness experienced in Christ could be shared with each other as Jesus had accepted and forgiven them time after time in his great mercy. This assembly is never more like that than when we approach the celebration of Pentecost, because every Assembly of God’s people on the first day of the week ought to be a time when the Spirit promised by Christ would renew us to continue the new life we have found in Christ. What we read and hear about in those communities must be a description of us, or we have strayed from the zeal, the love, the hope, and the joy that so marked those communities always recognized by their love. What clearly startled those who observed this love was not just their love for one another, but their love for everyone. It is no great accomplishment to love people who love you. It is something remarkable to encounter people who love those who have no love at all.

So in the readings for today, which tease us into readiness for Pentecost, we begin to see some very real and obvious characteristics of those who followed the “Way”, who had in faith begun already to lead the life promised by Christ at Easter. That life is manifest within a network of relationships where cooperation, reconciliation, unselfish sharing and real concern for one another reveal who we are.

Aristotle once said that “As a thing appears and acts, so it is.” Such profound wisdom so simply stated reminds us that who and what we are is revealed in what we say and do, in the way we carry our bodies, and express our feelings. If we are angry or depressed, in doubt or confusion, this will be evident in our appearance and body language. Conversely, when a person is in love, they cannot long hide it from others. When someone lives their lives with hope and with joy in the face of everything this world can throw at us, people will notice. They will wonder, and sometimes they will ask, and we owe it to them to explain it and profess our faith.

Hope and Joy are clearly evident in the faithful communities we read about in today’s scriptures. Of all the signs of the Spirit, these two are the first that receive attention. Joy is an undeniable and unmistakable sign of the Spirit’s presence. You can hear it! It is the sound of laughter and the result of good humor – of not taking one’s self too seriously, which is a mark of humility. These people, filled with the spirit make good companions. Their hope raises all kinds of questions when in the face of bad news or a tragedy, they do not give in to blame or denial, anger or despair, but move forward confident that with the help of their fellow companions, Christ will lift them up and dry their tears.

Other marks of life in the Spirit we can identify are the great signs worked by these faithful ones. A sincere and deep examination of our life in the Spirit calls for a careful look at this mark of the Spirit. It is still present, but for some reason, our privatized and “personal” style of living our faith obscures the truth and the fact that such great signs continue. There is healing, and we can do it. The pragmatism of this age and our exaltation of science leads some to scoff, but the power to heal through love and forgiveness is still at work in us. It may be untested and untried, but it’s there. We are often too narrow in our thinking about healing. It does not always have to be physical. We block the power of God by our easy assumptions that: “God doesn’t work that way.” When we are alive in the Spirit, we are a conduit for the power of that Spirit given to us by Christ without reservation or condition. We can work great signs and wonders by the power of love and forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and generosity.

Finally, as we hear these rich stories that describe not communities in the past, but the signs of Life in the Spirit in every age, there is one more that is probably the greatest challenge and test. It is that “bold speech” we read about so often. That confidence, and that zeal to share what we have with those who are alone, without hope, without joy, without the very relationship with Christ that gives us the Spirit he shares with the Father.

We are too shy. We are too reserved and too private about our faith. There is nothing private about faith, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not a private agent. The Holy Spirit is a Public Agent, a Public Event, a Public Person that stirs and motivates, encourages, prompts, and blows through us like the wind.

The Holy Spirit is a “person”, not an “it”. One great writer describes the Holy Spirit as the consequence of the Love between the Father and the Son. Their mutual love is the Holy Spirit. They look at each other, and in their love they “sigh” as lovers often do. That “sigh” is “SPIRITUS”, the holy sign of love between the Father and the Son. In Genesis God speaks in the plural. “Let US make”, God says. The love between the Father and the Son is the power that makes the world. We are invited, called, and created to enter into that great mystery of love. A real “spiritual life” is living in that Holy Spirit; living in that love, in that hope, in that joy, and it’s not a secret! If we believe it, we must proclaim it.

Acts 6, 1-17 + Psalm 33 + 1 Peter 2, 4-9 + John 14, 1-12

If I were to ask each of you which of the commandments gives you the most trouble and is the greatest challenge, I suspect it would be an interesting list that would include do not lie which is a great test for us all tempted as we are day by day to twist the truth and hide behind a lie. I am sure that do not covet would be on that list because of the materialistic consumer society in which we find ourselves. There is no way to escape that temptation for anyone watches even thirty minutes of television. There is another commandment however that ought to be there if you have not already thought of it, and it comes out of today’s Gospel. It is certainly a commandment that gives me a lot of challenge: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” In a world where terrorism and economic instability is in the news every day, and where job security means nothing because profitability is the driving force behind every management decision, there is plenty to worry about. Yet, the commandment is clear and forceful: Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

Jesus says this to a people who have every reason to be troubled. They are anxious and they are worried. He is saying other things to them that are deeply troubling. They have left all to follow him, and he has just told them that he is leaving. “I am going away” he says. Then he adds: “But I will not leave you.” What in the world does that mean? How can anyone go away and not leave? They are struggling not only to understand this, but to believe in someone who keeps getting into trouble and then talks of go away. Their questions betray their concern and anxiety. “Where are you going?” “How can we know the way?” “Show us the Father!” they cry out.

Being lost is one of the great occasions that stirs up anxiety, especially if you are in a hurry. Several years ago I was leading a group of pilgrims from Oklahoma to the birthplace of our first Bishop in Belgium. For months, the pastor of the tiny parish far out in the rural area of western Belgium had been working with me to create a wonderful experience commemorating the Bishop’s return to his home after being named the first Bishop of the Indian Territory. The local mayor was to welcome us. There was going to be a band that would lead us from the City Hall to the Church where we would celebrate Mass with the Bishop’s ancestors and the people of the tiny village. Far off the beaten path, the village is simply a cross road in web of tiny narrow roads that come from nowhere in particular and go nowhere in particular. We were in a very large tour bus, and we were getting late because there is no such thing as a map of those roads, and there are certainly no signs. The only people on those roads live there, and they know where they are going and where they have come from. It is a matter of knowing the landmarks; but to people from Oklahoma and even the bus driver, every farm house looks alike. As the time of our arrival grew near, my anxiety was over the top, and the bus driver was uncomfortable for me, and because the bus was wider than the road he was even more anxious. It was a Sunday morning. No one was out – they were probably all at the church waiting for us. With minutes to spare, we came upon a man who was walking a small dog along the road. Quite surprised to see such a large bus on such a small road, he stopped in amazement. I got out and with many hand signals and broken French and Flemish words he began to give directions that went something like this: go to the left a little way and then turn left. After a while turn right and go past a couple of farms until you can turn right again and should see the church tower to the right or to the left. The look on my face said it all. He looked at the bus, then at me, shrugged, picked up the dog, and said: “Follow me.” He got on a tractor and led us to the church. We were late; but we got there.

This experience comes to mind often when I hear Jesus say: “Follow me.” It comes to mind again when I read Thomas’ anxious interruption: “We don’t know the way.” The only way to the Father’s House is to follow the one who leads and is himself,  “the way.”  There was a moment in my meeting with that farmer in Belgium when he looked at the bus and realized we were Americans. I could see it on his face. While I wondered for a brief moment why he wasn’t at the church with everyone else, there was not a moment’s hesitation when it came to following him. He knew the truth, and we followed.

As Jesus speaks to Peter, Thomas, and Phillip they suddenly came to see the Truth of who He was and where he would take them. For those who have not seen the Truth and followed the Way, there is no understanding much less interest in going to the Father’s House. To them it would seem that Jesus was leading them to Jerusalem and Calvary, but in fact, it is not death that he leads to, but to Life. So, as a church full of disciples, in spite of the temptation to be anxious and afraid, worried and concerned about many things, we hear John’s Gospel speak to us in this Easter season about the Way, the Truth, and the Life. To those who have not seen the Way, we must be the Way. For if having seen Jesus is to have seen the Father, then seeing us must be to see the risen Christ. In the very next verse not included into today’s proclamation, Jesus begins to speak with those words that mean, “Pay attention!” He says: “Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do and will do greater ones than these because I go to the Father.” It occurs to me then that even though Jesus does go away, this world is not left without him because his disciples remain to do his work until he returns. That understanding of our vocation and Christ’s expectation of us is enough to give us anxiety and plenty to worry about except for the power and the gifts of the Holy Spirit which we are soon to celebrate at Pentecost. For those gifts; for the courage, wisdom, and joy to set aside our anxiety, worries, and fears, we must pray.

Acts 2, 14, 36-41 + Psalm 23 + 1 Peter 2, 20-25 + John 10, 1-10

It seems very helpful to know that this Gospel passage follows immediately after a big confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. They have expelled a man from synagogue calling him a sinner because he was born blind. Jesus gave the man sight, and there was big trouble. In his skillful way, John now compares these religious leaders and their way of doing things to Jesus and what is ultimately God’s way of doing things leaving those first readers of John to make a choice between leadership: Pharisees or Jesus. What’s it going to be: good shepherds or bad shepherds? On top of that, he calls them, “thieves”. No wonder they were hostile toward him!

This image of Jesus as the gate through which the sheep must pass coming and going is an image of comfort for us. It is an image than can give us confidence that listening and being attentive to his voice will result in the security of salvation. But there is much more to this instruction in John’s Gospel than a few verses to reassure us. Sadly this text has too often been used to frighten and threaten those who do not believe, who have not received the gift of faith and those who have not known Jesus as savior and Son of God.

There is something more here than one of the seven “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel. John was not providing us with a text by which we might threaten or shame those who do not know Jesus. Neither is he trying to pump up the confidence of those who consider themselves to be part of the flock. The choice of following Pharisees or Jesus is long past by the time John writes to tell this story. What unfolds here today just as it did for the faithful John is first writing to is an invitation to discover what it means to have and to live an ABUNDANT LIFE.

In John’s time as in our own an abundant life might easily be imagined as one that is long, happy, free of fear, healthy, and wealthy; a life full of opportunities and comforts, bigger and better than anyone could have imagined. If that is what Jesus is promising in verse ten when he explains why he has come, “that we may have life and have it more abundantly”, the death and resurrection of Jesus in fact, his whole life among us makes no sense at all. You don’t get wealthy, stay healthy, live without fear, and remain happy very long by calling the existing authorities “thieves”. You don’t have that kind of life by eating with tax collectors and sinner. That would be like thinking you are going to make millions by spending your time with the homeless sleeping under a bridge. It isn’t going to happen. I am sure you get the point here without a more examples.

The kind of life that Jesus has come to provide is different, and the only way to know what it is and recognize it, the only way to assimilate that gifted life is to pass through the gate and begin to recognize the qualities of this Good Shepherd. Knowing the Shepherd then establishes the relationship that I think he is calling “Abundant Life.”

The full and abundant life he has come to give us is a life of obedience to the Father’s will, of listening to the Father in prayer and seeking to know and follow the Father’s will at every turn and every decision. “Is this what God wants me to do?” is the door way to an abundant life.

It is also a life of service not just to those who need and ask for help, but to those who have no voice and have no way of even seeking what they need. That blind man in the story before this one did not even know who Jesus was. He never asked for a thing, but Jesus saw his need, responded and then was gone before the man ever realized what had happened. That looks like an abundant life to me.

It must also be a life of sacrifice and suffering accepted without complaint; a life of confidence that with God all things are possible, and God’s ways are not our ways. So an abundant life in Christ is not a life without pain or sacrifice. It is a life of love and patience.  It is also a generous life that expects nothing in return except another opportunity to be generous again. An abundant life as we see it in Christ is a life of forgiveness – seventy time seven times of forgiveness.

The abundant life offered by Christ is then a life of peace free of fear and violence, revenge and anger. With those things gone, there is room for joy, and laughter, humility, and love centered outside of one’s self and nourishing the human spirit with a goodness that reflects the “Godness” of all things.

This is what the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel is about – abundant life. The image of an abundant life is found in the one who offers it to those who will follow his call. This is a good week to reflect upon the abundant life in the face of a great deal of material abundance for which we are all called to be stewards.

Acts 2, 14, 22-28 + Psalm 16 + 1 Peter 1, 17-21 + Luke 24, 13-35

It has always fascinated and amused me to notice the names of Churches. When it comes to Catholic Churches, there are often hints about the ethnic origins of the founding families. Sometimes the names are a little more obscure. We have two parishes in my home diocese named for Saint Eugene. For those of us there who are old enough to remember, those parishes were founded by a Bishop named: Eugene. Whether or not is says something about his hopes and ambitions remains a matter of conversation among the older priests who can remember him. Perhaps he was hoping to invoke the protection or assistance of that rather obscure Pope from the 7th century known for his generosity to the poor. All I know is that we have two parishes in the diocese named St. Eugene which is probably something of a record. You have to go to Wendell, North Carolina or to Chicago to find another one. Protestant Churches, probably in reaction to the cult of Saints have tended to come up with even more imagination. There is always the “First” whether it is Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist. I’ve never run across and “Second”, “Third”, or “Fourth” among them. Perhaps it is some kind of race or ambition rather than a numerical counting. Coming in “first” is always preferable. Then there is that custom of naming a church by the street which could get confusing if the church is on a number-named street or if they decide to abandon some neighborhood, pack and move to the suburbs which happens where I live. There is a “Capitol Hill Baptist Church a very long distance from Capitol Hill where the street language is now Spanish. Be that as it may, here we are on the Veendam this week and I’m going to be on the Veendam for the next three! So, perhaps we should call ourselves, “Veendam Catholic.” “Veen” by the way is a city in the Dutch Province of North Brabant. You should probably know that just in case anyone asks you what you did or learned at Church today!

It is significant, at least to me, that our first celebration of the Eucharist together is done so much in the setting of a Gospel text the whole western church proclaims this weekend. This is as much a story about the church as it is about disciples or the risen Lord. We already know that the disciples were down, disappointed, discouraged, and depressed over the way things had gone in Jerusalem. We already know from last week’s Gospel that Jesus is up and out of the grave. He has been showing up here and there, and proposing some rather challenging things to those who experience his presence: about going to Galilee and about baptizing, healing, and about going to the Father but not leaving them like orphans!  Galilee in those days was not exactly a resort destination! Their first thought at that command would have been: “For how long?” Perhaps they thought it was a “penance” for having abandoning him!

At any rate, in the middle of this story there is a detail that shows up in Mark’s Gospel as well. It is a simple little comment that could easily be missed in the great drama of this scene. Luke writes: “And their eyes were opened.” Notice that in grammar this is in the passive voice. It does not say, “They opened their eyes.” So we can understand two important things: 1) their experience is not about something that involves the physical ability to see. 2) God did something to them or for them. What happened did not depend upon something they did.

This is not about seeing. This is about believing, and that believing and that experience of Christ and of God’s work cannot happen when someone, anyone, you and I included are closed. A closed mind can never and will never perceive, understand, experience or enjoy the work of God here and now. Until those disciples or perhaps they are the Church of Emmaus have been opened they cannot see nor believe that God is present and active in and around them. Openness is essential. Openness is a quality of a disciple without which they can never truly believe and then do what disciples must do.

The disciples were shaken and were not able to make sense of the resurrection because they were not open to God acting in human history in ways they did not expect or in ways they could not control. Not until they were opened could they come to realize what had happened not only to Jesus Christ, but to them as well. Closed minds and closed hearts can never and will never experience the joy, the hope, and the peace that faith in the risen Christ can offer us. A closed mind that encounters a personal tragedy will never wonder what God can do in that circumstance. A closed heart will never recognize the face of Christ in the presence of an enemy or a foreigner.

Openness is the gift for which we must pray in this season. Openness is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit blowing and moving, refreshing and clearing away the debris of the past. Our hearts and our vision these days after Easter are already looking toward Pentecost. Perhaps more than at any other time, we should be anxious and ready for that Spirit to open us again wider and wider to the endless possibilities of what God can do with us and what God has in store for us. Clinging to the past, insisting on old way and old thinking, closes our eyes, hearts, and minds to what is yet to come. Our expectations of how God should be God can get in the way of God being God.

As we near the great Feast of Pentecost, our prayer and our hope must be for a greater share in a Spirit of Openness that will make all things new, even this church, even our lives, marriages, our children, and our world. When we have been opened, painful and disappointing as it might be, we shall then truly see, believe, and rejoice in the reality of Jesus among us. Again and again in the weeks between now and Pentecost we should be saying over and over again: “Come Holy Spirit” and when we do we ought to mean: “Open my Eyes, My Heart, and my Soul.”