All posts for the month September, 2015

September 27, 2015   St Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL

Numbers 11, 25-29 + Psalm 19 + James 5, 1-6 + Mark 9, 38-43, 45, 47-48

John sounds like a second grader on the playground complaining to the teacher that the big kids will not let him play. Again the apostles do not look so good, and the unflattering image of them we have been given the last two weeks gets one more example here. First Peter had to be put in his place behind Jesus, and then Jesus embraced a little child and spoke to them about service and being last instead of being first. John has heard all of this, and I think he does not particularly like this idea, so he changes the subject.

There are two problems that surface here with John and his friends. He clearly does not understand the meaning of the word, “disciple” which means, one who learns discipline from another. He does not understand the meaning of the word “apostle” either, because an apostle is one who is sent by another. Up to this point, they have not been disciples. They have not learned any discipline from the Master. They keep thinking it’s all about them. Their whole motive thus far in staying with Jesus is their gain. They are there because they look good hanging around Jesus of Nazareth. He’s famous, and they are close to him. They belong to an exclusive group of insiders. They think they should control who gets to see Jesus and who does not. They are clearly not ready to be sent anywhere.

John’s second problem is even more serious. He does not understand that being called to discipleship is a vocation to collaborate in God’s plan for humanity. If they had understood and accepted God’s plan as they saw it unfolding in the work of Jesus Christ, they would have been excited that someone else was successful in the struggle with evil. Instead of whining to Jesus about another person driving out a demon, they would have run up to that person rejoicing that someone was joining in the work; but they cannot do that. They are too convinced of their privileged position and completely threatened by the success of another. Instead of looking ahead toward the reign of God and Christ’s victory over death and sin, they are looking around at each other wondering who is going get the best seat, and who belongs and who does not.

The grace of God is unruly, and the Holy Spirit blows where it will. Our experience ought to tell us that we have no control over either one. Instead of being jealous and competitive, we ought to be full of excitement, admiration, and gratitude when someone excels, finds success, and in their own way with their own gifts contributes to the work of Christ in this world. Jealousy is a dark and ugly emotion that drives us away from one another and ultimately from God. A true disciple and one called to be an apostle will have their gaze fixed upon the giver of all good gifts. They will not be looking from side to side at people who are different and have different gifts. They will know from their loving relationship to Christ that they already have all that they need, and there will be no need to feel or act important. John’s concern is that there are others who, in his words, “do not follow us.” He thinks his way is the only way, forgetting that it is really about God’s way which seems by all accounts to be bigger and more inclusive than we can imagine.

There is nothing here to suggest that it is meaningless to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. There is a close link between Jesus and the disciples reflected in the solidarity of the community. When someone offers a disciple a cup of water, they give it to Christ so tight is the bond with Christ. The community, the church formed by the Holy Spirit living the very life of Christ is as open and inclusive as Christ was to Tax Collectors, Samaritans, Pharisees, women and lepers. This says a great deal to this world today struggling with the challenge of countless refugees fleeing violence and hopeless poverty. Our privileged life cannot make us exclusive. It must make us troubled and anxious to show them the face of Christ and the mercy of God. These hands, these feet, these eyes Jesus speaks of today are tools with which we see the face of Christ, lift up and hold up the fallen, and walk with them into a life that is very reign of God. This is the discipline of a disciple, and for this we have been chosen in faith and sent out in ways we could never have imagined.

St Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20 + Psalm 54 + James 3, 16-4, 3 + Mark 9, 30-37

Again the location is important. It is Capernaum. We are in the home territory now, and the mood is quiet and intimate. I find it interesting that Jesus does not rebuke or even complain that the apostles are talking about their privileges while he speaks of being handed over to death. Ancient tradition has proposed that the influence of Peter upon Mark’s Gospel can be noted throughout this Gospel. I suspect this is one of those incidents that has Peter as its source. How else would Mark know this since it was away from the crowd and in the privacy of Capernaum that this scene takes place? The silence of the Apostles when Jesus inquires about their discussion is remarkable. It would be easy to dismiss this detail by suggesting that they were embarrassed when Jesus inquired about their lively discussion. On the other hand, I would like to suggest there might be another reason for their silence. Why not imagine that finally what he was saying to them was really beginning to sink in, and they were simply silenced in awe and wonder and perhaps feeling some fear.

He has been challenging their ideas about God and about a Messiah continually. His whole life has been one constant revelation of his Father, and this “Father” is not living up their expectations, and they are beginning to catch on. They may not know what lies ahead, but this God Jesus calls, “Father” is not much like they had imagined. Then comes the final blow to their old ideas of power and privilege as he calls for a child and in a rare and tender gesture, he puts his arms around the child and proposes that God is like a child! “Whoever welcomes a child welcomes me, not me, but the one who sent me.” God is like a child! That proposal is enough to leave you silent.

No more talk of power. No more images of a distant ruler with a big stick and a book of rules.  No more talk of wrath and punishment. No more hiding out of fear or running away because a gentle shepherd is always searching, and this “father” is always waiting with a ring and robe. The contrast between their old ideas and what Jesus reveals is almost too much for them and perhaps for us as well. We like to hang on to those old images and expectations of God because that is a God we made or made-up. It is a God far too much like us instead of a God who is with us. We like that old idea of God because it justifies our hiding and our denial and fear and it excuses too much of our behavior when we are judgmental and comfortable with alienation. This God Jesus reveals is a God who serves and provides, a God who wants to forgive offences not punish and take revenge.

On the way to Capernaum, Jesus said to those who were with him: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men who will put him to death.” When we fail to seriously explore the mystery of Jesus Christ and what it reveals about God, death, and resurrection, we are left to think that Judas is the one who delivered Jesus Christ in the hands of men. But that is not so. Neither Judas nor the Chief Priests delivered Jesus Christ into the hands of men. God did. God sent his son, his only son, into this world to be delivered up. When that truth sinks in something within us must shift and change when we begin to think and imagine God. At first it may seem cruel, but that is a remnant of the old idea that the apostles were clinging to. In truth, it is act of love and compassion that reveals to us how desperately and totally God enters into the human condition.

Making this shift or embracing this revelation moves us from thinking that God is some powerful fixer or frightening judge to discovering that God is with us in all things good and bad; living with, suffering with, and rejoicing with us always. Failing to grasp what is being revealed by this little child image Jesus proposes is what leads people to give up on God or get angry with God when a tragedy strikes. When I hear people say things like: “How could God let this happen?” or “Where is God when we need him?” I know they are like the apostles who have not yet understood the image of the little child Jesus embraces. The cry of someone holding on to that old image of God looks at the faces of those thousands of refugees fleeing the violence of Syria today and wonders how is it possible for a good God let this happen again and again. “Why doesn’t God do something?” they wonder. While the revelation we get from a little child in the arms of Jesus is that God is among those refugees waiting for us to do something. What we do for them, we do for God. The mother of a three year old refugee child washed up dead on a beach cries out in anguish, and that cry is the voice of God crying out over the conditions that caused them to flee in fear to begin with. We must get deep into this wonder of the Father Jesus reveals.

One way to do that is to listen and learn from the prayer of Jesus himself in the most dramatic and tragic moment of his life. In the garden on the night before he died, his prayer tells us everything about his relationship with his father: “Let this cup pass from me, BUT ( and there is the important part of the prayer ) Thy will be done.” It is a prayer of surrender, but not surrender to violence, but a surrender of the old and inadequate image of a God who is going to come riding in a put things right. It is, at the same time, a witness to the God Jesus reveals, a God who has taken on the entire reality of human life, a God who is never closer than when we are in trouble or afraid. In this truth we find the hope that can lead us though the darkest of hours.

Saint Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL

Wisdom 2, 12, 17-20 + Psalm 54 + James 3, 16-4, 3 + Mark 9, 30-37

To get very deep into these verses catching on the little details is very helpful. The placement of this conversation is an important clue to its understanding. Caesarea Philippi was built by Caesar on top of 100 foot cliff from which a very powerful spring of water emerges the source and headwaters of the Jordan River. Now think of this source, the cool, fresh, spring of water that forms the Jordan as an image of Christ. Around those springs, people before the Israelites had built temples to various gods. Caesar, being a “god” for the Romans builds an enormous and beautiful city on top of it all right there on the side of the tallest Mountain in present day Syria, Mount Hermon. It is snow covered most of the year. Waterfalls, springs, trees, birds, wild animals of all varieties find a home on Mt Hermon towering over the desert. To this place, Jesus comes. In this setting Jesus speaks about building upon a rock, the rock of Peter’s faith. In that place there was evidence and memory of other gods and religious now in ruins, and now above it all, built on a rock, is this city of Caesar. If Jesus were to stage this conversation our time, I like imaging that he would take us to the strip in Las Vegas! He has something to propose in contrast to all of that glitz, glitter, wealth, and power.

With all that in mind, we can explore and be fed by this Word, and let Jesus speak to us as he did those disciples. Peter and his friends just do not grasp what Jesus says. Peter gives the right answer to the question, but he is like someone who cheats on a test. They get the answer right, but they don’t know why or what it means. Those disciples hold on to their ideas of a Messiah. They expect the Messiah to come more powerful than the Romans and restore their memories of the Israel’s glory days. They want no talk of suffering and death from this Messiah they have recognized but not understood.

They dream of power and privilege. He speaks of suffering and death. They think that suffering is something imposed upon victims like themselves. He speaks of suffering accepted and embraced out of love. They want to tell him how to be Messiah. They want to lead him into their plan, but just as they want nothing to do with his talk, he will have nothing to do with theirs. To Peter who is now in the way, so to speak, he says; “You belong behind me, not in front. Get back to where you belong. I lead, you follow.”

A great spiritual writer from the last century proposed there are two kinds of suffering: one that is imposed or caused, and another suffering that is chosen or embraced. Here is the difference between Peter’s idea of suffering and that of Jesus. Peter reacts to suffering imposed or caused, and he wants none of it. Jesus chooses a suffering which is transformed because of his willingness into an expression of love, and so his suffering sets in motion the work of grace and redemption.

Often our failure to make a distinction between suffering imposed and suffering chosen causes us to miss the powerful sign and message that comes to us in the passion of Christ. Peter and his friends failed to figure that out. Unable to accept or comprehend this message of love and follow through to the work of redemption it accomplished, they slipped into denial and went on with their silly and superficial competition over who was the greatest. Jesus did not fail to make that distinction, and he chose and accepted his suffering first of all because of his love for his father, and then because of his love for us as his way of completing the incarnation, completing his complete identification and unity with us by embracing even the reality of human suffering transforming it into an act of love resulting in our redemption. After all, restoring our unity with God is exactly what “redemption” is all about.

In my own wonder and reflection about this unique revelation of our faith, I have begun to understand and appreciate compassion and the powerful role this experience or this response to suffering can have on us all. Way more than pity, more even than sadness over another’s suffering, compassion begins with God who sees us alienated, suffering, helpless, and hurting and sends his Son to become one with us in that very condition. It is important to remember and realize that God’s Son did not come to take away suffering and pain. He came to share it with us so that we would not be alone and think God had abandoned us. Touched by this divine compassion, we can authentically enter into the suffering and pain of another as an action that can heal and restore us all to oneness with God.

Here is the three part lesson Jesus gives teaching us what the attitude of a true disciple must be: Deny, Take up the Cross, and Follow. Denying self means more than not being shellfish. It means a fundamental shift in one’s values. It means we begin to see Jesus and God as they really are, not the way we would like them to be. Taking up the cross is not about poor health or out petty inconveniences. It means sharing with Christ the work of salvation and doing so all the way to the end. Losing one’s life does not mean becoming a martyr. It means that God’s plan and God’s will becomes ours. That is what it means to lose one’s life.

All of this leads to glory, and Jesus bids us to focus our attention on the glory that the Father will give to the Son in which we too will share, according to our deeds.

Memorial Mass + September 11, 2015 + St Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL

Isaiah 43, 1-4 + Psalm XXX + 1 Peter 2, 20-25 + Luke 24, 13-35

This is Memorial Mass has become an annual tradition at St Peter the Apostle Church where a piece of steal from the World Trade Center is kept as a relic out of respect for the lives lost on that day. Many members of this parish come from New York and New Jersey, and many of them have families there affected by the attack on the World Trade Center. Rescue workers from southwest Florida were among the first to arrive and assist in the rescue and search for the dead. At this Mass members of the East Naples/Golden Gate Fire Department and the Collier County Police and Sheriff’s deptuties are in attendance for the prayers and support of the local community in thanksgiving for the many ways they risk their lives everyday for the safety of the local citizens. So this Mass is more than a Memorial because of a tragedy in our past. It is also an occasion to bring the men and women who work for public safety before God’s altar to be blessed by the grateful prayers of those in attendance.

September 11, 2001 I was in Louisville, Kentucky. That evening I was to deliver the annual Dolle Lecture at St Meinrad Seminary across the river in Indiana. It is a lecture series focused on the expression of Christianity in Religious Art and Church Architecture. I had spent the night with a priest friend who was going to drive me over to the Seminary later in the day. He shouted up the steps of the house for me to come down immediately, and I came down to find him staring in disbelief at the first images of the terrorist attack in New York City followed by reports and images of the attack on the Pentagon. About noon as we sat there losing all track of time a call came from the seminary asking if I felt like continuing with the lecture. I have no idea how I responded, but the people responsible for the lecture felt that by evening the students would need something different to think about and a reason to get away from the television. I gave the lecture about how art and architecture reveal something of our faith with images of those buildings coming down wondering what that image would reveal about our faith. We all know where we were when things like this happen.

In 1995 I had just come into the back door of the Rectory at the Cathedral of Oklahoma City after checking to make sure that my associate had remembered to celebrate the 9:00 am Mass. I took two steps into the hall when the house shook from a very loud explosion. Staff members in the front of the house began to shout and we ran into the parking lot to see what had happened. With a rising cloud of smoke coming from the skyline of downtown three miles away, we ran to a television in the kitchen already showing the scene because the morning traffic helicopters were still in the area. Immediately I got in my car and headed to the University Medical Center sure that help would be needed. It was. Only in the late afternoon did we have any idea what had happened. Shortly after noon, the Police moved the emergency room personnel downtown to a triage center and me with them. I stood on a street corner for the rest of the day praying and blessing rescue workers and anointing the injured and the bodies of the dead as they were carried past. Police and Fire personnel would stop and ask for a blessing.

Like the disciples who witnessed the tragic death of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, we all stumbled through those days in numbed silence, but always inside there was a question. For a long time on that street corner in 1995 I stood and wondered, “Why?” “Why here?  Why today? Why would anyone do this? Why did this happen?” Questions always reveal something about the one who asks. Every question reveals our biases, our notions of truth, our convictions about what is important, and the first thing revealed is that we do not know everything in spite of the fact that we often wish we did and sometimes act as though we do.  One of the remarkable things that happened to us all that day was that we reached out for others and did not want to be alone like those disciples who together reached out to a stranger walking along with them.  We tell their story today because it is our story as well. Stunned and heartbroken disciples sit down in sad fellowship to find in their midst this companion who touches their pain, opens their eyes, and restores their hope. The victim of violence is victorious, and death does not have the last word. Hatred does not prevail nor overcome goodness.

No time is acceptable for tragedy. No place should be a home for violence. No living heart has room for hatred. No life can survive anger. Like those disciples we sit down today and beg the Lord, our companion, to stay with us, to heal us by the comfort of his presence, and to keep us from the sin of hatred. There was a miracle on April 19, 1995 repeated again on September 11, 2001. The miracle was that cowardice and hatred were overcome by courage and love. What inhuman evil a handful of wild angry men wrought by their violent acts was completely overwhelmed by the bravery, selflessness, and love shown by thousands of rescue workers and bystanders who did not stand and watch, but dug in and lifted up.

What I learned on the corner of 5th and Harvey Streets on April 19, 1995 was that the question “Why” was the wrong question. The next day when assigned a spot in the lower level of that collapsed building watching men and women crawl through twisted rebar and slabs of broken concrete searching for people they did not even know was that there was a better question: one that did have an answer. The question to ask in the face of these tragedies we have endured and survived is not, “Why?” The real question has two parts: “What does it mean?” and “What are we going to become because of this?” These are the questions that eventually those men at Emmaus and their friends back in Jerusalem began to ask, and because of this, their shaky and doubtful faith brought them healing and understanding, courage and wisdom: the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

What we remember today must be understood in the context of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our prayer today and every day must be the prayer of Jesus Christ: “Father, Forgive them.” At the same time we must remember also that he taught us to pray: “Deliver us from evil” for the greatest evil of all will be for us to become like the terrorists and bombers who still challenge our faith and seek to dim the Light of Christ that must shine in our hearts. They cannot take this from us or the violence of Calvary will have been for nothing. To that same Holy Spirit who taught and guided the disciples through that first tragedy and challenge to faith we must also pray. “Guide with your wisdom those who care for the injured everywhere, and by your tender love, harden not our hearts.” Amen.

September 6, 2015

Isaiah 35, 4-7 + Psalm 146 + James 2, 1-5 + Mark 7, 31-25

The place is important or Mark would not have given us the detail. Chapter 7 takes place in Tyre which is Gentile territory. Jesus goes there and his presence is a sign that the Reign of God has arrived there as well. Gentiles will not be left out. To make sure that we get the point, Mark repeats the same detail in the healing story we will hear next week.  Someone brings these outsiders, these afflicted gentile people to Jesus in the person of this afflicted man today. By the time Mark’s Gospel is coming together, there are Gentiles members in the community following the way of Jesus Christ.

The details of this story are tender, personal, and intimate. Just as we saw last week emerging from the controversy over clean hands and clean hearts, it is the touch of Jesus that cleanses and purifies, heals, and saves. With great tenderness, Jesus takes this man aside. He removes him from the gaze of cold curious spectators and those who would just watch and stare. He respects this afflicted gentile, and with this action of going to a private place, the two of them have a moment of intimacy. That man comes to know Jesus in a personal way, and Jesus looks upon that man with compassion and tenderness to the point that the Gospel says he “sighed.” I believe  that this “sigh” is something that wells up in Jesus with great sadness and pain because this man has been so excluded from those who could celebrate and share the Good News of God’s Reign which has begun with the presence of Jesus. In the privacy of that moment and the depth of that relationship, Jesus touches him.

Those who would be followers of Jesus know well that the behavior of Jesus guides our behavior as much as his words. We find a powerful and unmistakable lesson here. The sick, the old, the helpless, the poor, the immigrant, anyone whose condition or affliction in life keeps them from being able to live in and celebrate the Reign of God is received with tenderness and respect. They are not nameless numbers, statistics who have no identity and deserve no respect. Their presence among us should move us deeply to sigh in sadness at their affliction and move us to action as it did Jesus Christ. For they too, says this Gospel, deserve the touch of Jesus Christ and the healing comfort of recognition, respect, and tenderness.

This Gospel speaks to us about Charity, about how it is to be lived and experienced both by the giver and the receiver.“Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you with its power to save you. Act on this word.” says St James in today’s Epistle. As believers of the word, we must live and act with magnanimity of heart to see and value other people as God sees and values them. Nothing else will do. There is no partiality with God. If there is, we should be afraid. Anyone who claims to be a believer must reject all partiality. In a society where designer labels on a person’s apparel seem to speak more loudly than the character of the ones who wear them, this Gospel speaks clearly, and James insists that this is to “judge with evil designs.

This story told after hearing the Prophet Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that we are now living in the final days, in the Reign of God. The vision of the Prophet has been realized, and we are not only the recipients of that Good News experiencing the tender mercy of God through our relationship with Jesus Christ, we are also the ministers of that same mercy, and the ones who must reveal this good news both by what we say and by what we do.