All posts for the month December, 2015

Mary, Mother of God

Number 6, 22-27 X Psalm 67 X Galatians 4, 4-7 X Luke 2, 16-21

January 1, 2016 at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.

Of all the feasts of Mary, this is the oldest celebrated by the church long before any of the others, and it is the source of everything we know and believe about this woman so favored and blessed by God. What Luke tells us about her provides a clear look at the response of anyone who becomes aware of God’s action in their lives and conscious of the great privilege it is to bear and give flesh to the Word of God. We come here today because we too are aware of God’s action in our lives; aware of the gifts we have, of the faith we share, and the hope that faith has nurtured in our hearts. Clearly we are favored by God and blessed. We live in this beautiful place, in an earthly garden safer than most from the danger and fears that chase too many of God’s children from their homes and loved ones. We are blessed with another year of life and the time to give thanks for the year that has passed.

As Mary continues now in a concrete way to live her calling as Mother of God’s Son, she does so in the context of her place in time and culture. She passes on to her son the tradition of her Jewish faith, and she fulfills what was asked of her by naming him “Jesus” which means, “One Who Saves”. Already in the circumstance of her birthing, there is a hint that all may not always be well, that homelessness, confusion, and anxiety will be part of life. The first visitors she seems to have are not loving, adoring, caring family members, but strangers from the fields, hired hands who come with no gifts and speak of things she may not understand. It is an odd sort of beginning for this mother who already knows that nothing will be ordinary or normal about her life any more.

Her response to all of this, says Luke, is to ponder. There is no complaint, no refusal, no whining, blaming, or attempts to run. She just ponders. It is the second time she does this in Luke’s Gospel, so it must be important, and it will not be the last because it is the best posture and the best response for anyone confronted with the unexpected Will of God. It will be a life-time of pondering for her, a life-time full of reflective silence during which she treasures the good news about Jesus in spite of messages that are often contrary to what she knows by faith.

For us it must be the same this year if not before; a year of pondering, a year that allows for more time of reflective silence in which we can treasure what we heard, what we have seen, and what we are called to become.

1 Samuel 1, 20-28 X Psalm 128 X 1 John 3, 1-24 X Luke 2, 41-52

December 27, 2015 at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.

 It was 1893. The industrial revolution a generation earlier had begun to affect family life as it was known then, and the consequent changes in morality were an increasing threat to family life. In response to this Pope Leo XIII established this feast to be celebrated shortly after Easter. While it has moved around in the Church’s calendar since then, it has become more and more widely celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas.

Today “family” has many cultural and moral connotations and challenges for us. We are now living in an age of blended families, single parent families, and even “same-sex” families. We live in an age when child abuse, pornography, and the internet reach into families disrupting and destroying family relations. As a result, the whole idea of The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph might seem to exist on another planet or be light years away from our 21st century experience. Yet, the Gospel truth we proclaim insists that the family, no matter how it is defined still is the primary school of deeper humanity penetrated by the spirit of Christ. It is a big challenge to live in mutual respect and love; for parents to honor the dignity of their children, and for children to respect the dignity of their parents, each one bound to the other in the love that God has lavished upon us, as John writes in the second reading today.

This familiar story from Luke’s Gospel provides a clue to understanding something that is essential to every human and every family relationship. The clue is found in the description of what Jesus is doing in the Temple. It is easy to miss because too many artists and story tellers have presented us with a precocious child Jesus haloed and white robed lecturing the religious teachers. What Luke actually says is that he was listening and asking questions which is what always leads to understanding. He was not talking, lecturing, correcting, or nagging. He was listening. With a little more good listening in our lives, things could be a lot more agreeable and peaceful. It is an art too rarely practiced in the noise of this age; but it is an essential skill for growing in Holiness.

While the feast and the age in which we live encourages us to look at family life in a personal and somewhat limited or narrow way, there is a larger family for us to consider as well: the Human Family which suffers just as great a challenge as our personal families. There is not enough listening to cries of the poor and refugees. There is not enough listening to those who seem different from us. If there was more, they might not seem so different.

Within the family, we find our identity. Adolescence is the search for and the gradual finding of one’s identity, which suggests that we might wonder what defines that identity. Is it family ties, culture, religious experience, a sense of vocation, a personal creed, or one’s dreams and ideals? Maybe all of them, but what we discover in the Gospel is that Jesus found his identity by affirming his relationship with God. Perhaps that might be a starting point for all of us.

For Mary and Joseph, as for all of you who have accepted the vocation of parenting, there comes a lot of pain in allowing your children independence, allowing them their identity, loving them and not possessing or punishing them when not fully understanding them. What better gift can any of us give for the building up of all family life and the whole human family than the gift of simply listening which in every age and culture is grace that will bear fruit in understanding and peace.

Isaiah 9, 1-6 X Psalm 96 X Titus 2, 11-14 X Luke 2, 1-14

December 24, 2015 at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.

Sooner better than later each of us ought to stand in front of a Nativity scene like this one and ask a couple of questions. They are important questions that might seem rude, ungrateful or disrespectful. None the less they are questions that will lead us past what we see and deeper into the profound wonder of what we are celebrating here. If we do not ask these questions and begin to consider the answers we are no different from non-believers or like beginners in the ways of faith who just look and wonder: “Is that all there is?” The world in which we live answers “Yes” to that question, and by Monday morning the shelves in every store in this country will be cleared off cleaned up and set up for Valentine’s Day; because for them that’s all there is. For real believers however, the answer is “No” at which point the second question forms: “Then what does this mean?”

Theologians would respond like scientists telling us that this is about the “Incarnation” and then tell us more than we might need or want to know about two natures undivided in one person which sounded more like an algebra problem when I was really young. In the end, all of that, true as it is, does not answer the question: “What does this mean?” The richest tradition of our faith and our church says that what this means is that God has started creation over again, and using the Biblical figures of Genesis, there is a new Adam and a new Eve, and a new creation free of the past, free of sin and its consequence, the loss of God’s immediate presence. Adam, you know, was God’s favorite, the favorite of all that was created. There was Eve, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. They were as united as anything in creation could ever be. They enjoyed an intimacy with God that we can only imagine and desire. Adam and Eve had a freedom we can only envy.  Without a worry in the world or any need, they were free. After all, God had made Adam in God’s own image. Yet they traded all of that for their own will rather than for the will of God, and they said, “No” to God.

In the restart of creation we are celebrating, the new Eve says, “Yes” and the new Adam chooses to be obedient to the will of God. With that, everything changes. A God who was distant and frightening is called, “Father”. A God hidden in a cloud and a pillar of fire has reappeared in the flesh and blood of human life. An angry, punishing God that really looks more like angry violent people is replaced by a Merciful, Loving God who’s Mercy and Love endures forever. After their fall from grace, God asks Adam and Eve what they are afraid of. Now in the new creation fear is gone. Lions and lambs can lie together as one of the prophets envisions. There is no fear, no fear of God, no fear of being alone which is at the bottom of all the fears that haunt the lives of those who never ask the question, “What does this mean?”

So while we might gaze upon this scene and think about our God coming to be one of us, we must go further because the birth of God’s Son is not all there is. The Incarnation involves our humanity. The human nature we have inherited is not human nature as it was before the incarnation. In answer to the second question about what this means, we find that redeemed humanity shares the very life of God. All human life now has been raised to new heights, lifted up to the divine. We call that “grace.” After all, what is “grace” except the nearness of God?  This feast then is not just about God choosing to be with us, or about Mary and Joseph, shepherds, sheep and angles. This feast is also about us. It proclaims that we are with God. This is the starting point of our return home to Paradise.

We cannot forget that Christ’s birth, and every biblical event, is linked to the past, the present, and the future. The past is about Bethlehem. The present is about tonight in Naples, Florida; and about how we work with Christ to rebuild the world for the glory of the Father. We are not passive bystanders staring at a Nativity scene. What happened in the past radically transforms the history of the world and the personal history of each one of us. Because of it, each of us must measure up to God’s plan and play our proper role in it, and that is the future. No longer can we excuse our failures and our sins with a shrug and the comment: “I’m only human after all.” There is no “only human” anymore. Being human is no longer an excuse for being less than we have been called to be. Being human now is being the best of God’s work, the highest and most perfect of all creation. Being human now means more than ever before that we are reborn into the image and likeness of God.

This afternoon, I am standing here looking at grace, at beauty, at the face of God. I see people redeemed, made holy, living in Holy Communion with God through a sacrament we shall share at this altar a few moments. Blessed are you, people of God. Holy are you, faithful ones who live in the covenant that began in Bethlehem. Joyful are you when you do not forget how God has loved you enough to share your life, even to the point of death. Because of this truth, we can never say it often enough and believe it firmly enough. God is good!

Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.

Micah 5, 1-4 + Psalm 80 + Hebrews 10, 5-10 + Luke 1, 39-45

Everything about Jesus Christ from who he was as the son of a carpenter born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, to what he did and what he said turned the ideas, the customs, and the beliefs of this world upside down. To enter into a relationship with him even today means that the same thing will happen. God has shown no interest in power, influence or great wealth. God has not as yet shown much interest in what is big or important by our judgments either. Great and powerful Rome, beautiful and wealthy Jerusalem, Kings, High Priests, Caesars and Tetrarchs were of no interest and no use to God. For all their glory, they are nothing today but ruins, piles of stone stared at and photographed from the windows of tour buses driving by. God is not there and never as.

Those who seek God are likely have more success finding him at the foot of a cross, in a homeless shelter or in a nursing home where a widow sits and waits for someone who does not come. Those who seek God might try looking among hungry frightened children homeless because of some senseless war, or among single mothers or fathers in line for food stamps after cleaning rooms at some fine resort hotel. We will soon tell the story of wise men who made the mistake of looking for God in fine Jerusalem at the powerful elegant court of King Herod. It is the first hint that something is changing, and God has a different plan.

God’s plan begins with a single mother and continues in a little town that amounts to nothing. God’s message is announced first to laborers in fields we call shepherds. They just as well be farm workers picking tomatoes or chopping cotton. God’s plan makes the first family homeless refugees fleeing the violence that kills children. God’s plan is finally put into action by a bunch of not very smart and not very dependable fishermen with a tax collector thrown in besides. God’s plan is announced in Galilee, and of all places, Samaria long before it gets to Jerusalem or Rome. God’s plan gathers in the sick, prostitutes, the blind, the lame, the mentally ill or “possessed” (as they called them in those days), the lepers, women, and even the dead. There is no exclusion, no privilege, or special people in God’s plan.

In the story of salvation, the beginning of which we celebrate on Friday, it starts small with a child entrusted to a young girl and courageous young man in a tiny little place that meant nothing to the big and powerful of this world. When that young girl began to realize what was happening, she ran to an old lady who had been barren to share that news, and together they rejoiced in their discovery of God’s odd and strange plan. The Messiah was entrusted to the most vulnerable of people in the most vulnerable of ways so that God’s glory, God’s love, and God’s salvation would not overwhelm us, but accompany us in our weakness, our smallness, and powerlessness in order to teach us the value of every human life.

For some it might seem like a crazy plan doomed to failure, but it is how God chose to come. Please note that God chose this plan. It was not forced upon God. Coming to grips with this plan suggests that going for the biggest package under the tree is a signal that the plan is either not understood nor not welcome. Born as a little one, Christ embraces all the little people of this world, and the littleness in us that sometimes haunts our days and nights. Vulnerable and helpless, God embraces and shares our helplessness and vulnerability. No one is too small, too poor, too helpless, or too insignificant to escape the presence and the company of God in Jesus Christ. No one who is misunderstood, betrayed by friends, or who suffers too much pain is outside the embrace of God.

This, my dear friends, is the message we share through the story we shall tell once again this week. Anticipating that great and holy day, we ought to say again and again the final words of the New Testament: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Zephaniah 3, 14-18 X Psalm 122 X Philemon 4, 4-7 X Luke 3, 10-18  at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.

“What must we do?” ask the people who hear the prophet. All too often the question as we might ask it ourselves refers too exclusively to practices that we hope will be sure ways of reaching eternal life. No matter who asks the question of John his answer is simple: “Be just in the work you do. Live as you should, being righteous and conscious of the needs of others.” The problem if you stop there is that religion gets reduced to a moral code, a kind of system whereby we bargain our way into this Kingdom that is at hand. With that we start measuring whether or not we have done enough, and it’s not long before what we do is the focus of everything without a thought about what God has done or what God is doing. There is not much joy in that kind of religion. There is not much joy in a religion of rules and obligations centered on what we must do. No wonder so many young people want nothing to do with it.

Religion does not make us more popular, better paid, or better looking. It never stops loved ones from dying or friends from giving you up like a bad job. In itself, religion solves nothing and leaves the world exactly as it was before. Some think that it even makes the world more violent given the history of religious wars over the centuries of human life. At its best religion provides a context in which to locate and understand things that happen, but even this might induce a kind of resignation that leads to passivity and tempts us to give up rather than find and feel the joy that is spoken of and sung of all through this day. The tradition in which we live suggests over and over that there is happiness and joy to be found in following Christ Jesus. It proposes that this is found in two ways.

The first way this joy is found comes from a relationship, from the personal presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. At this point, religion is no longer a matter of what we do, but of why we do it: because we love someone. This kind of religion is a relationship with Jesus Christ lived and celebrated bringing joy because the life of God is the most complete joy imaginable. Someone you love and someone who loves you is with you forever. It brings a smile to your face, lightens your heart, lifts up your whole day, and it changes how you see things and what you do. This presence is secret and mystical. It is discovered only in prayer, in the intimacy of communion and the deepest part of your heart. There is not likely to be much joy in the practice of religion unless we cultivate this side of things which means reading and re-reading the Gospels, studying how Jesus is portrayed in sacred art, and above all by starting to pray. No amount of information about someone can substitute for getting involved in a conversation with them.

The second way this joy is found comes from looking to the future. Christ may be in our midst, but the world still knows just as much pain and fear as in the days when John was preaching. But in our faith we look forward to a time when human life and the whole of creation will be perfected, to a time of universal healing, reconciliation, and peace. This expectation leads us to a shared joy, an extension of Christ’s on joy to all. If joy is real, it is something that must be shared, because it is as much hope for my neighbor as it is for myself.

So then, without this kind of personal mysticism, this personal relationship with Christ Jesus, our religion becomes a kind of moralism that is humorless and exhausting. It is then without hope for a redeemed world and becomes very self-indulgent. Now it cannot be so for us living in this age of fear and threat. The opposite of joy is not sadness. Sadness is the opposite of happiness. Sadness and Happiness are responses to conditions. They come and go. The opposite of joy is fear, and the two cannot be found in a person of faith and in a person who has a real living relationship with Jesus Christ. There is no fear in a person of faith who knows what God has in store for those who love him.

In these days when world events and would-be world leaders would like to scare us with their passionate rhetoric set to frighten us into their ideologies, there must be in us the sure and certain hope that nothing can take our joy and our hope because nothing can shake our relationship with Christ or change the future that he has promised us. So if this is time for Joy, then it is time for prayer in a season of hope.

Genesis 3, 9-15, 20 – Psalm 98 – Ephesians 1, 3-6, 11-12 – Luke 1, 26-38 at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.

While this feast is certainly and obviously about the Blessed Mother and God’s favor toward her, the older I get and the more often I join the church in celebrating this feast, the more I am beginning to see that it is much more than our response to a dogmatic expression of a fundamental tenant of our faith: that Mary was Immaculate and conceived without sin in order to give flesh to the Word of God.

What is gradually dawning on me, and what I would encourage you to reflect upon as we make this day “holy” by interrupting our usual weekday routine to gather as Church is that this Feast is really about vocation, about God’s call not just to Mary, but to us all. It is, in the end, about our response to God’s call to give flesh to and make visible the Word of God. In other words, today is not just about Mary, it is about vocations and it proposes that we pay attention to our own vocation and how we respond. To do that, the church puts Mary before us as a model and example of how one ought to respond to what God asks of us.

Mary is not the only member of the human family with a vocation. She is not the only member of the human family to which God has come asking us to give life to his Son, to give flesh and blood for the sake of his presence. This is ultimately the vocation that every one of us has received in this life. Somehow in each unique way we are all asked by God to give life to his son and bring the Word to life again. Husbands and Wives in their vocation to marriage give a flesh and blood, heart and soul presence of God to each other and to all of us as their commitment makes real God’s promise to remain with us always in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Then if called to the vocation of parenting, these same models of love and openness to God are entrusted with life and the vocation of bringing that life into the presence of God as they teach and form their children in Gospel living. Young people in their vocation as disciples of Jesus give flesh and blood to the Word of God by their youthful energy and joy. Their openness to the Holy Spirit guides them in the use of their gifts exploring and growing in love and passion, zeal and openness to God’s call to service and commitment. Single people either those not called to marriage or those who have fulfilled until death their vocation as a husband or wife are also still called to give flesh and make real the presence of Christ. Their “yes” to whatever God asks or to where ever God leads is learned from the model of Mary who said “yes” to the unexpected and perhaps the not-too-welcome news brought by an angel. In their lives there is still a call to discipleship and stewardship, to service, sacrifice and prayer.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians understood this and we heard his words to that community as he confirms that we have every spiritual blessing in the heavens. It is not just Mary Immaculate who have every spiritual blessing. He continues to insist that we are chosen from the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in God’s sight.

What more does it take for us to realize that on this feast, the Blessed Mother is the model and example of how to respond to the call God has made to us all?  To push her off on a pedestal as a way of excusing ourselves from responding with a firm “yes” to whatever God asks of us or puts before us a shameful betrayal of the faith into which we have been born. This feast then turns the story back on us. You don’t need angel to know that God is calling you. You simply need to look around and see where God is absent and step into the void. Where there is hatred, hunger, loneliness, sadness, and emptiness, where there is need for forgiveness and for peace, where God’s mercy is unknown and never experienced, we must go. This is not some complicated theology. It is the simple reality of our faith and the vocation we have because of it. Will you go? Will you be there? Will you stay there? Today’s feast encourages us to respond.

Baruch 5, 1-9 – Psalm 126 – Philemon 1, 4-5, 8-11 – Luke 3, 1-6  at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL.

The context in which we live our lives these days is one I like to call, “Hyper-Individualism. This individualism and the privatization that results from this kind of living and thinking boarders on idolatry. A concern for the common good, is always secondary to my needs and my wants, never mind what this might mean to anyone else. This has led to the collapse of neighborhood life, and it is the source of constant conflict in every kind of community from work to home. Even in churches and in the exercise of faith, the individualistic behavior wears away at community life, communal celebrations, and the unity and communion of the church Gospel life expects. It is a challenge courageously accepted here at St Peter with the bold efforts of our “Tri-Lingual” celebrations. Even though it may be sometimes inconvenient and difficult, there is a bold effort to stop thinking that it’s “my Mass” or “my language”, or “my customs.” The problem is the possessive pronoun that reveals individualistic possession. Not only is it possessive, it is “singular”, and therein lies the issue. I think a failure to understand this is why people leave early or come late. “What difference does it make to them?” is the thinking. If I want to leave, it’s my business. Again, the idolatry of the ego flares up.

In today’s Gospel, it is important to realize that John the Baptist is presenting a task for the People of God. It is a corporate demand that he makes, not an individual command. In the original language, he uses a verb in the second person plural. Southerners would get it right away if the translator was from the south because John would be saying: “Yuall!” So what he demands is not the work of someone chosen for a specific task, but a task for us all together, and by our response we, together as a church, can witness to the glory of God’s presence among us.

This is good news for those of us who do not feel particularly holy, perfect, or prophetic. It takes some of the pressure off of us individually, but also reminds us that only together, only in communion in a holy and prophetic church seeking to purify itself by repentance can we fulfill what is asked of us in preparation for a new world, a new order, a new and glorious way of living in God’s creation. We don’t have to do this alone, but we have to do it, and John suggests that we do it together. We are not saved so much from something as we are saved for something. With this understanding a different way of living and experiencing “church” comes into focus that shapes our identity and draws us into covenant as God’s People. This is why the Eucharist is the center of our lives: a Eucharist that is not my private communion experience, but my bonding and my fellowship with everyone around me. The communion we experience here is not just between me and Jesus, but a communion of saints as we profess in the creed with most of those saints all around us in here.

The truth and the reality of this covenant lived by us as church is what levels hills and fill in valleys. The biggest hill and deepest valley right now is the idolatry of the individual, and the ugly fact of racism. The truth of our communion through and with and in Christ is what we celebrate and become as a church, for in the unity of our lives together there is no longer a “them” and an “us”. There can no longer be “those people”. There are no “foreigners” in Christ or in his Church. We are, all of us, pilgrims, and without one another we will be lost.

The truth of this reality lived in unity as a church will have profound impact upon this world which seems more and more to separate and divide us to isolate and demonize people who only seem different. Those sorcerers of fear whose strident voices are amplified everywhere these days would have us divided and suspicious, walled up and distrustful of the goodness of human nature as God made us. The place where we first taste the Kingdom of God is here as church. The model of how we must live in the Kingdom of God is here in the unity we find in faith. The hope by which we live together is sustained by increasing our love for one another so that the good work God has begun in us will be completed on the day of Jesus Christ. Perhaps then Advent is not so much about the coming of Christ as it is about what we are becoming because of Christ.