All posts for the month April, 2017

Easter 3 April 30, 2017

Acts 2, 14, 22-33 + Psalm 16 + 1 Peter 1, 17-21 + Luke 24, 13-35

St Peter and St William Church, Naples, FL

We believe that the Word of God is a living Word that speaks to every age and time, to every person and to every church. This is not history in this book.  This is not some well-known old story that we tell every year after Easter. It is not just a scene that has fascinated and inspired artists of every style throughout history. (I say that because last week I spent a little time exploring paintings and artistic representations of this scene on the internet). There are a lot of them, and they all express a different piece of this story that I suspect spoke to them and provided some inspiration just as it speaks to us and can provide inspiration again.

So, as we pick up the Word of God today, and God speaks to us this year and in this place, there is a challenge to our faith just as there was a challenge to the community for which Luke wrote this story passed on to him by others. There are two details that I believe God would have us ponder: there was a conversation going on; and they were willing to welcome a stranger.

The other day I was having lunch in a local restaurant, and at the table next to me there was a couple that I presumed were husband and wife. At least I hoped so. She was looking at and poking the screen of her phone the entire time, and he had an iPad and was doing the same thing. For a while I wondered if they were texting each other, but given the fact that now and then one would smile and tap all the faster with no response from the other, I decided that this was not the case. They never said a word to each other the whole time. In fact, they spoke to the server more than to each other. The sad fact is that this example is not too unusual or surprising. It is not just a matter of technology and our addiction to it. It is the fact that we are losing the ability to have conversations, and our children are even more unable to converse with anyone. Too often what we assume to be conversations are really simply a series of announcements, and often when not speaking, we are not listening. We are just waiting our turn to talk. Discourse and the art of a real conversation that involves listening, seeking understanding and responding is a lost art in this day and age. What might start as a conversation avoiding some unpleasant topics easily turns into a shouting match or cold silence.

Conversations require reflective empathetic listening and responding with charity and some degree of honesty and intimacy. Conversations that are real often result in conversions, which is the whole point: a change of mind and turning toward another not just with the head, but with the heart as well. Those two walking to Emmaus were having a conversation, and because of it, something happened that brought them great joy. They changed their minds about what had happened. Someone joined them, there was another presence that entered that relationship because they were speaking, listening, sharing their feelings, disappointments and hopes.

Then comes the second detail. They welcomed a stranger. In a world that is becoming more and more hostile toward strangers, a world that is less and less hospitable, God speaks today raising a question about how we shall ever really experience the presence of Christ when we hardly ever converse with each other, and refuse to welcome strangers.

We should not be romantic or defensive about this second detail. The world in those days was dangerous. Perhaps more dangerous than  our own times. Travel at night was even more dangerous as there was lawlessness, banditry, and danger everywhere especially for those alone outside a city in the dark. Yet, they joined in a conversation with someone they did not know, and they welcomed that stranger into their midst and to their table.

Luke passed this Emmaus story to us inviting us to share in this astonishment and recognition. He points out that as long as they converse and debate among themselves they make no sense of things. Only when they encountered a stranger with different ideas do their hearts begin to burn with understanding. As long as we talk only with people like ourselves who say what we want to hear and share our own view points and limitations, we too will suffer from “slowness of heart.”

Moreover, it was only after an act of hospitality, their invitation to Jesus to lodge and eat with them, that they came to recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread. In this story we see the effects of Luke’s Greek education, which held that truth can best be found through extended dialogue. As long as we talk only to ourselves, there will be a barrier that well may keep God from speaking to us. As long as we resist welcoming strangers we shall probably continue to long for and not find the presence of Christ and the Peace his presence always brings.

God says to us this year and this place: “Start talking to each other again and listen, and when a stranger comes along with new ideas, welcome them and know that I am with you bringing the gift of Peace once again.”

Easter 2 April 23, 2017

Acts 2, 42-47 + Psalm 118 + 1 Peter 1, 3-9 + Luke 20, 19-31

St William Church, Naples, FL

As many of you in this church here in Naples, Florida know, taking up a new way of life can be a challenge greater than ever imagined. I discovered this when I first stepped into the seminary. I left behind my own private room at home and that night was sleeping in a dormitory with 30 other 20 year olds. It was noisy and it didn’t smell like home. Instead of a big closet for all my things, I squeezed into a locker. Then suddenly, eight years later I’m a priest. While there were eight years of formation preparing me for that day, it was not enough. Then came retirement, right? The biggest change of all. Old ways of thinking, old ways of acting all had to go. It does not matter if a person is a recovering alcoholic or a newly wed. Beginners everywhere learn quickly how many of their behaviors spring out of old habits. After a lifetime, these habits and patterns are difficult to change, let alone eradicate.

So there they are, that group of disciples facing the biggest challenge and change of their lives. It was bigger than walking away from fishing boats or tax collection tables. After all the preparation and conversations with their master, they were not quite ready, and the change was slow and erratic. It would seem from the scriptures that they even tried to go backward and return to the fishing boats for a time. Among them Thomas is singled out as an example. He is so much like the rest of us who live in a world of “seeing is believing.” He so much like the world that relies on the predictable and is always skeptical in the face of good news. There are habits of thought revealed here that have to go for people who believe in the resurrection.

Those disciples in that room and Thomas as well had been living in a measured world that was predicable and secure. There were few surprises, and little reason to expect one. Their leaders enforced the status quo and found their security in doing so. Then Jesus of Nazareth walked into this scene, and suddenly he is touching those sick and considered unclean. He treats women with respect, even to the point of sharing a drink with a Samaritan woman. He surprises them by feeding multitudes with what seemed to be insufficient resources, and calms the wind and the sea with a word. Then his death, which they wanted to avoid and deny, left them helpless and hopeless. They saw him dead, and they believed he was. What they believed rested only on what they saw. That cannot be so for those who live in the resurrection times.

Living in resurrection requires a complete transformation. John the Baptist and Jesus called for metanoia, which is poorly translated as “repentance.” It means far more than that.  “Change of mind” is more like it. Thomas had to change his mind, and that is what we hear about today. A new way of thinking that gives no room for old habits and expectations is what it takes to live in resurrection times. The first reading this week gives a superb example of this. The early Christians in Jerusalem shared a life that was starkly different from communities outside the church. In their prayer and care for each other, they gave the world an example of radically changed thinking. The victory of Jesus was not just over death, but a victory over death’s grip on the human mind. There is now, in the resurrection times a new age of mercy. That Jesus returned a second time for the sake of one disciple is that shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the lost. That Jesus returned to gather up Thomas and extend the mercy of the father to one who was slow to believe and stubborn in his old way reveals the mercy of the Father who sent his Son find what was lost and bring them home.

For all of them it was a surprise, and it broke their old way of thinking that dead meant dead and gone forever. Those who live in resurrection times are people who live for the surprise, the constant surprise that all things are made new. New life requires committed belief that Christ’s resurrection is a foreshadowing of our own. As this belief in our own resurrection grows in us, old habits rooted in fear of death and loss start to lose their power. We can forgive and teach others to do so; we can experience peace even in the midst of conflict; we can find reasons for faith when all around us despair; we can become servants of Christ’s mission, sharing his risen life with all we meet.

Easter Sunday April 16, 2017

Acts 10, 34-43 + Psalm 118 + 1 Corinthians 5, 6-8 + John 20, 1-9

St Joseph Church, Union City, OK

This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad.

This day, our faith, and this church are all about an empty tomb and an empty cross; and the world in which we proclaim this Gospel of emptiness is an empty world full of empty lives. The fact that there is even entertainment on television that peers into the empty lives of people who hoard everything from food to stuffed animals and trash gives all the evidence we need that there is a great empty void longing to be filled. Some of those lives are filled with resentment, anger, and memories of past wrongs and hurts leaving those who hoard these ills longing to be filled all the more.

This is all backward. It is a tomb that should be empty, not human lives. The one who filled that tomb came out to fill an empty world and empty lives. We have to get that right. Until we do, the cross will not be empty either. Until we get it right, God’s children will still be suffering. Until we put an end to greed, innocent people will still cry out in thirst feeling abandoned by God because the mission we have been sent to accomplish is still not fulfilled. It is a cross that should be empty not human lives.

As the Gospel story goes, there are three people early in the morning on that first day. They were feeling empty with broken hearts, broken dreams, sad, disappointed, fearful and helpless. They see an empty tomb. Suddenly, slowly, but surely their lives are no longer empty. Together their lives are filled with hope and a sense of mission. What they were promised would come true. He had not left them.

As the story goes, the burial cloth was left behind, and part of it was neatly rolled up in a place by itself. The disciples observed this detail, and they did not forget it. Then, John remembered it too, and he put that detail in his Gospel. The description of what those two apostles found in the tomb was important at the time because it put to rest the argument that the body of Jesus had been stolen. No one would have taken the body without the wrappings. It would have been disgusting. Had the body been stolen, it would have been taken as it was, wrapped up. No Jewish enemy of Jesus would have touched a corpse. So, that detail was important then, and it is still important today when we proclaim this Gospel. Lazarus comes out of a tomb needing to be set free, and people are told to unbind him and let him go. Now, having been obedient to the Father, having faithfully put the will of the Father before his own, Jesus rises up unbound, a free man, and he leaves behind an empty cross and an empty tomb.

The story of those three people is the story of this church and its people. We all have our past hurts, disappointments, and brokenness. We have all had times of emptiness too, but today we are reminded by an empty tomb that our lives need not be empty, and nothing can hold us back from sharing in the mission those three assumed on that first day of the week: a detail that suggests a new creation!

Like them, we have to get it right slowly but surely. No more crucifixions. No more innocent suffering, no more people feeling alone and abandoned. The crosses of this world must be emptied, and empty lives must be filled by the one who left that tomb empty for one reason to fill us with his love for the Father. Our empty lives are now filled with a mission and purpose. An empty world must be filled with life, with light, and with hope for peace. There is nothing to hold us back from that future, nothing at all that matters. Those still filled up with the stuff of this world or clinging to past hurts and resentments, are more like Lazarus than Christ, and we must unbind them and let them go free for we are all living at the dawn of the new creation, the first day. The tomb empty and everything that could hold us back is left behind. There is but one message we have on this day for this world: This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad!

The Great Vigil of Easter April 15, 2017

Genesis 1, 1, 26-31 + Genesis 22, 1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18 + Exodus 14, 15-15, 1 + Isaiah 55, 1-11 + Ezekiel 36, 16-28 + Romans 6, 3-11 + Matthew 28, 1-10

St Joseph Church, Union City, OK

There was a first-time ages and ages ago when someone struck two stones together and a spark flew out. I can’t image the wonder of that moment, and what went on in that person’s mind. Then somewhere on this earth at some point in history, someone discovered that if you patiently rub two dry sticks together long enough and add a little human breath a spark would grow into a fire and with that an extraordinary potential was born.

This is the night of the Great Fire-maker, and we have gathered around a fire and a great column of wax to remind one another that Christ is the living spark that springs from dead wood and a stone tomb. Here we are becoming Fire-takers because we want Christ’s life to warm us, and with this light we shall pass this fire to those living in a dark world trapped in tombs of despair, loneliness, fear, and doubt. Above us tonight is the full moon that is faithfully reflecting the light of the sun which we cannot see now, but we know it is there because the moon is bright with the sun’s light. All around us is Christ the Light whom we do not see but know is with us from the light on our faces smiling in hopeful joy.

While this night is complex and rich with more symbols that we can grasp in one evening, there is no missing the simplicity of new fire, new light, a full moon, and new people. This column of wax and light leads us forward into this year of two thousand seventeen which we have carved into the face of this candle. This must be the year when we are made new, re-created, refreshed, and restored to the Garden, the Paradise, the Kingdom for which we were first created. We have reminded ourselves of that place tonight with readings from Genesis. We have remembered how it was that we lost what had been so freely given. We told the story of our escape from slavery and the promises spoken of by the prophets. Great Father Abraham spoke for us all when he said: “Here I am” ready to trust in the Promise Maker himself, because God has a way of keeping God’s promises.

We have just told the story of an earthquake that shook open a tomb which silly unbelievers thought could contain the Son of God. Nothing can keep the Light of Christ in darkness. Nothing can keep the Word of God silent. Nothing can keep the life and the love of God away from the people God has called his own. Like Abraham and Moses, like the prophets of old Israel, and like those women at the tomb, we must stand before the God who is calling. God called Adam and Eve and they hid. Then God called Abraham who said with firm confidence: “Here I am.” Now we stand with the light and the word, and can say with equal confidence, “Here I am”. When we do, an extraordinary potential is upon us again, just like that moment when a spark first jumped from dry sticks and a breath fanned it into fire.

Good Friday April 14, 2017

Isaiah 52, 13-53, 12 + Psalm 31 + Hebrews 4, 14-16, 5, 7-9 + John 18, 1- 19,42

St Joseph Church, Union City, OK

Three of the seven Last Words of Christ come from the Passion we have just proclaimed, and they give us more than enough to think about and pray about as we turn toward the Great Vigil of Easter. The Jesus of John’s Gospel is a man in charge. He is no innocent victim helpless, abused, and silent. He stands before Pilate his interrogator, and he asks the ultimate questions. He carries the cross “by himself” John says. And then, even from the cross he teaches, forms, and shapes us into the faithful people who become his church.

The community he has formed along the way has disintegrated, and here at the cross a new one is born. The mother of Jesus is given a son, and the loved disciple is given a mother. Remember that throughout the Gospels, Jesus always refers to her as “woman” which seems cold and distant. Yet there is behind this a message powerful and important. In the story of creation that we will tell again tomorrow, “woman” is called “Eve”, the mother of all the living. From the earliest Christian times, Mary is understood to be the new Eve. As she was the mother of the human family, the new Eve is the mother of the Christian family, the church. That disciple has no name because that disciple is us, a people given a new mother. Shortly after this takes place, John tells us that Jesus “handed over his spirit.” While we might like to think this simply means he died, it is really John’s version of Pentecost. It is Jesus inspiring, breathing his spirit into this church born at the cross.

This finishes the work of the Incarnation, not the life of Jesus Christ. It finishes the restoration of our goodness, and it restores our intended place in Paradise, the Kingdom of God. Literally “It is finished” means it is perfected. The love of God for us is now perfected in the complete self-emptying and brokenness of the one who completely embraced the whole human condition in helplessness and suffering. The bond between us and God is now perfected. It is finished.

Finally, in John’s Passion there is wine that must lead us back into the mystery of the Eucharist and more deeply into the truth and the mystery of a God who will break his own heart to comfort ours offering us the chance to do the same for each other. Twice before in John’s Gospel Jesus has spoken of thirsting. In the 4th chapter he is thirsty at a well in Samara. In the 7th chapter he is at Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths, and on the last day of the festival he cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” It is God who speaks on the cross. It is God who thirsts for us just as much as we thirst for God. The idea of God needing or lacking something seems strange to us schooled in an image of God all-powerful; but at the same time, it is impossible to imagine a Creator without the created, a merciful God without someone to show mercy. Our thirst for God finds its completion in God’s thirst for us, a thirst satisfied at the Altar where we become one in the bread and wine, the body and blood.

Holy Thursday April 13, 2017

Exodus 12, 1-8, 11-14 + Psalm 116 + 1 Corinthians 11, 23-26 + John 13, 1-15

St Joseph Church, Union City, OK

We are so familiar with this story; and Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century painting has become such a familiar icon of that night that we hardly ever give it a second thought much less wonder what’s really going on around that table. There had to have been some momentary relief as they escaped the crowds who were always pushing and shoving to get near the master. There must have even been more relief to think that, for at least that night, they would be out from under the critical and watchful eye of those Scribes and Pharisees whose questions, threats, and accusations were getting more and more menacing. So around that table are the ones Jesus has chosen, fragile disciples who were forever getting things wrong, full of themselves and their ambitions, way over confident of their courage, a group with a shady background, and two who would betray him. They look just like us gathered in this church, and we look like them. We get things wrong. We are full of ourselves and our ambitions. We are fragile and not terribly consistent or dependable. We are quick to jump up and recite the Creed, but then something goes wrong when it comes living it. Nonetheless, like them, we are the ones he has chosen, and he knows us just as well as he knew them, and even so, it says here that “he loves us to the end.”

There is a double meaning to those words: to the end in terms of chronology, and to the end meaning until there is nothing left.  This is a quality of love beyond human imagination. The love and the knowledge of Jesus flows from words into action as he washes their feet with directions that they are to do likewise. Make no mistake about this, what I am about to do for you and with you is not re-enacting the Last Supper. I am not pretending that I’m Jesus and some of you are apostles. I am doing what he asked for today in this community because this is what the church does and what the church is, a servant who is not greater than the master. In his talk to them, he says that he is doing this so that they may believe that “I AM.” It means quite simply that he is revealing the Love of the Father for them all, for them all – all twelve before Judas left.

A striking detail that we easily miss because we are too familiar with the story is that sharing of the morsel with Judas. It is a final exquisite gesture of love. He gives that dipped morsel to the most despised character in the gospel’s whole narrative. This never-failing love is not exclusive or selective. This is a love that reaches out to the archetype of an evil disciple revealing the unique God and Father of Jesus Christ who loves this world unconditionally. By washing their feet and sharing the morsel of bread he accepts these failed yet loved disciples.

The departure of Judas sets in motion the events promised by Jesus by which he would show them love to the end – till his death. This is the message the Jesus of John’s Gospel leaves his disciples as they gather at his table on the night before he died. It is the same message he leaves for us who gather at this table tonight. We must see that we have been loved to the end by one we have ignored, betrayed and denied as we come face to face with the remarkable understanding of God, of Jesus, and his self-giving love for us. We are the ones he sends no matter how inadequate we feel or incompetently we behave. We are the ones he loves, has chosen, and the ones he has sent for one reason only. To bear witness to a love that is beyond human imagination, but not beyond human experience.

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord April 9, 2017

Isaiah 50, 4-7 + Psalm 22 + Philippians 2, 6-11 + Matthew 26, 14- 27, 66

St Joseph Church, Union City, OK

 I had a dream that it was the end of time. Billions of people were assembled on a great plain before the throne of God, waiting to be judged. Some were fearful but others were angry. A woman said, “How can God judge us? What does God know about suffering? We endured terror, beatings, torture, death.” Then she pulled up her sleeve to show tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp on her arm. Then a black man lowered his collar to show an ugly rope burn around his neck. “What about this?” he asked. “Lynched for no crime except for being black. We have suffocated in slave ships, been wrenched from loved ones, toiled till only death gave us release.”

Next a girl with the word “illegitimate” stamped on her forehead said, “To endure my stigma was beyond, beyond…” and her voice trailed off to be taken up by others. All had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering God had permitted during their lives on earth. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping, no fear, no hunger, no hatred. What did God know about human suffering?

They decided that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man. But because he was God, they would set certain safeguards to be sure he could not use his divine powers to help himself. Let him be born as Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted so that none will know who is really his father. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think he is out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his dearest friends. Let him be indicted on false charges, tried before a prejudiced jury, convicted by a cowardly judge. At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone, completely abandoned by every living thing. Let him be tortured and mocked. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to very it.

As each portion of the sentence was announced, loud murmurs of approval went up from the great throng of people assembled. When they had finished pronouncing sentence, a long silence ensued. No one uttered a word. No one moved. For suddenly all  knew . God had already served his sentence.

Our God came to live among us. Put God on trial is you will. Shake your fist at him, spit in his face, scourge him and finally crucify him. What does it matter? It’s already been done to him.  It is a great comfort for us to know that Christ, the innocent and sinless one, has gone down the road of suffering before us, and gone down it to the end. On the cross, he gathered up all human pain and made it his own. Though the road of suffering is narrow and difficult, it is not the same since Christ travelled it. A bright light illuminates it. And even though it leads to Calvary, it does not end there. It ends at Easter. Let’s get ready to go there this week.