All posts for the month September, 2021

September 26, 2021 at St. Peter the Apostle and Saint Agnes Parishes in Naples, FL

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

We get a mixed collection of sayings today that are difficult to hear with just a single focus. When we read about the behavior of the Apostles last week and this week, we have to wonder if they ever catch on to anything Jesus is teaching them. Last week it was their ambitious talk among themselves about who was going to sit where in the Kingdom. This week, John shows us how jealously exclusive they have become over their role and relationship with Jesus. John does not like it that someone from “outside” is doing things, even good things, by the name of Jesus. He thinks that he and his friends have exclusive rights. Never mind, that in verses just a little earlier he was unable to do cast out a demon which this outsider has just done.

Early Christian communities were in many ways independent of each other. That early church was not as organized and hierarchical as today. John’s community seems to have been more exclusive than some. This scene rejects his exclusive thinking and affirms the teaching that anyone who does the will of God belongs in the “family.” Jesus said that when his “family” came to take him away. “Who are my brothers and sisters, he asks? “Anyone who does the will of my father”, is the answer.  Mark recalls this incident to put a stop to the early Church’s problem with exclusivity. 

It is tolerance that Jesus insists upon, and he still does. Reflection on this passage might well open our minds and hearts to more tolerant attitudes toward Islam, Judaism, and other Christian Communities especially when we see them doing good, respectful, prayerful, and generous. Intolerance is always a sign of arrogance and ignorance. We may certainly disagree with another’s beliefs, but we should never despise a person who sincerely holds those beliefs. Disciples of Jesus Christ are recognized for how they serve others. That trumps everything else. We have to get over our labeling of others as progressive or conservative. How they treat others is what matters.

Once this point is made, Mark adds a collection of sayings that he remembered which were important to his time and to ours. Fundamentally, this part of the Gospel insists that we accept our responsibility toward others. Before we start looking around at what others are doing, Jesus insists that we pay attention to our own behavior first. When it comes to cutting off, the suggestion makes sense, not in a literal way, but if you’re drinking or eating too much, cut it out. Stop it. If you are in a relationship that is toxic, you need to cut it off. If the TV or the internet threatens family communication, it needs to be cut off. If a job or some employment becomes unethical it’s time to quit. In other words, we must be decisive, maybe even radical in our choices when it comes to moving into the reign of God.

If this Gospel today seems disconnected, we might bring these sayings together like this: We are challenged to be inclusive with regard to people we consider “outsiders” when in fact, they are doing good things. At the same time, we are being encouraged by Jesus to take some of our instinct for divisive exclusion and address our own lives that may need some radical surgery if our life with God is to be preserved and enhanced.

September 19, 2021 at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL

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

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is slowing making his way to Jerusalem where he will be “handed over” which is our translation of a Greek word that can also mean “betrayed.” Mark uses that word eight times, and in that fact, there might be a message. It seems to me that the betrayal has already started with these apostles who are more concerned about their self-interest than they are about his future. To look at the cross and ask what we’re going to get out of it is, in some ways a betrayal.

The apostles had a choice. It is the same choice we have to make. On that occasion, they made the wrong choice. They thought about themselves first. So, Jesus puts that child in front of them. Children at that time were hardly thought of as persons. They could produce nothing. They had to be fed in a place where food was scarce. They had no power, were unprotected, and vulnerable. Contrary to the ambitions of “the twelve” for powerful places in the Kingdom, Jesus suggests that they might be more concerned with welcoming the powerless and the vulnerable. For who is more powerless and vulnerable than Jesus himself as he moves on toward the inevitable? So, what’s the difference between Jesus and that child?

We are all reminded today of the danger ambition and a thirst for power poses for us all at every level of society. Wondering or even arguing about who is the greatest is a serious betrayal of Jesus Christ. It will break a fundamental solidarity with our neighbor, and that can’t happen in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is nothing but raw competition, and it is destructive. It makes “losers” and there are no losers in God’s Kingdom. All around those twelve and still all around us are images of power and pseudo authority that often looks more like bullying than anything else. Except for Jesus at the time of this Gospel, there were no examples of authority that expressed itself in love that empowered others and created unity. Competition and power struggles were much easier to understand, and they still are, but this is a method rejected by Jesus.

It’s all about least when it comes to God. Paralyzed by our need to be number one, to protect our privilege and power, and our need to be right all the time, we do not see the vulnerable, powerless, and helpless that Jesus embraces. Jesus may well still wonder what it is we are arguing about these days, and the day may come when he asks us face to face.

September 12, 2021 I am in St Louis this weekend. This homily will not be delivered.

Isaiah 50, 5-9 + Psalm 116 + James 2, 14-18 + Mark 8, 27-35

We are at the exact center point of Mark’s Gospel. Until now, Jesus and his disciples have been traveling to the villages of the countryside and up into Galilee. They have stopped for a moment at the ultimate seat of Roman power. The place where this episode takes place is important. We are at Caesarea Philippi. It is a place with great imperial history. The Caesars who built and lavished riches upon this place see themselves as gods who rule and bless their subjects through their imperial structured world. There was a gleaming Temple there built by a people who created their god in their own image. At this place, at this point in Mark’s Gospel, Peter’s confession competes with Imperial claims as he identifies Jesus as the Messiah. With that, a conflict begins. At first, it is a conflict of ideas and expectations. Later it becomes a conflict that is violent and deadly. The traveling around the countryside is over. They now turn toward Jerusalem where the conflict will erupt into the open and finally be resolved……… but not quite.

This resolution can never be complete until everyone of us answers the question the Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?” As long as our answer is tainted by Caesarea Philippi images and ideas of that god, there will be no resolution. In spite of his declaration, Peter and his companions were still caught up in the conflict. His refusal to hear and accept what Jesus says next reveals what’s going on inside of them.

What Jesus wanted from his disciples he still wants from us; an openness to what he is about to tell them. Peter had the right answer, but the wrong idea or expectation of what a Messiah, God’s anointed one, was to be. Not until the Resurrection would they understand the central mystery of salvation through self-sacrificing love.

Even today, like Peter did then, we all resist what Jesus says and does. It simply does not match our expectation of power and our created idea of how God should work among us. Too often we want a “Caesar-God”. What is consistently revealed to us is a loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing God who instead of destroying enemies waits, watches, and forgives with an amnesty that is hard for us to understand, and Jesus asks for openness to what he has to say and do.

We resist suffering. For some it’s the end of their relationship with God. Yet, when something happens that’s good, we are quick to say: “Thank you, God.” The Messiah that Peter had yet to understand was a Messiah connected not just with power and joy, but with suffering and death. It was not that Jesus was to suffer because of some mistakes he made: That’s retribution. Nor did he seek suffering as if it was a virtue: That’s sadism. Like many who suffer, he had led a morally good life, and on that score, he did not deserve to suffer.

It seems to me that Peter’s shortcoming was his failure to listen to the Prophet we just heard referring to the Messiah as a suffering servant. This “servant” is all of us, the People of God, who can overcome evil by good, violence by love, war by peace-making.  We see today a Jesus who is still be tempted to take the crown without the cross. We see him speak to Peter and call him “Satan” reminding us as he was reminded that Satan and temptations are never gone for good, and sometimes they speak to us in the voice of a friend.

Being tempted to look for someone with power and shaping our concept of God. We find it easier to believe in a distant God of power than in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who cries out in pain on the crosses of the world and suffers in humanity. Opening ourselves to the mystery of the God Jesus reveals reminds and comforts us with the simple truth that a well-lived life has both joy and sorrow. 

None of this makes any sense at all until the Resurrection when it is made known to us how God thinks and how God acts. By human reasoning, the cross makes no sense – what good could come out of defeat, humiliation, and death we ask? But God’s thinking is different, and so, like Peter and his companions, we are called to conversion of mind and to take up a completely divine way of thinking with the conviction that love always will triumph and God can and will make all things new.

St. Raymond/St Elizabeth Maronite Churches in Saint Louis

September 11, 2008

1 Corinthians 1, 18-25 + John 12, 20-32

An ancient feast of the church takes us deep our faith’s deepest mystery and symbol. For the earliest Christians, the cross was a source of shame and scandal. The leader, the one in whom they had placed all their trust had been executed as a common criminal. They were discouraged and they were ashamed. 

Yet, in time, they found the courage to take the very symbol of that disgrace 

and raise it high as a sign of God’s glorious intervention on their behalf. Remembering the serpents in the desert that afflicted the People of Israel with death and suffering, 

the cross was a source of death and suffering to the earliest church. 

Yet the faithful God of Israel 

intervened to protect the faithful people in the desert, 

and as a reminder of that God’s action, 

they raised up an image of their former suffering high on a staff 

as sign of hope and of victory. 

Conscious of that history, 

the early followers of Christ had the same experience with the cross.

This feast proclaims the intervention of God in the midst of suffering, and the victory of those who suffer in hope and fidelity. It gives to those who suffer a new look at the cause of their suffering. It invites any of us who face discouragement and disgrace of any kind to look again at the source of that discouragement and disgrace. 

This feast speaks to all who have known sin, who have known failure, who have known disgrace, disappointment, and guilt; and it speaks of God’s power and God’s love. It addresses our desire to deny and pretend that there is no shame, there is no sin, there is nothing wrong in us; and it calls us to confess and embrace our very weakness as it is turned into God’s strength. 

To exalt the Cross is to admit shame.

To exalt the Cross is to embrace our weakness.

To exalt the Cross is to admit our failures.

And in so doing, we embrace the power of God to turn the cross into a sign of victory. 

This is a feast of strange contradictions.

It is a feast that calls us to rejoice in our weakness

while proclaiming the power of God.

The cross which we lift high 

is the both the cross of our shame and the cross of God’s Mercy. 

It is both the instrument of death and the source of life. 

It is the end and the beginning, shame and glory, defeat and victory.

Only those who know forgiveness and healing 

can understand the riddle of the cross.

For those who seek to understand that riddle, 

it must first be embraced in all it’s ugliness and shame, 

just as those who were bitten by the serpents in the desert 

had to know that sting

 before they could ever begin to rejoice in the serpent on the pole.

September 5, 2021 at St. Peter the Apostle in Naples, FL

Isaiah 35, 4-7 + Psalm 146 + James 2, 1-5 + Mark 7, 31-37

Every time I hear or read this Gospel, I am reminded of a section on the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. You’ve at least seen pictures of that scene. On the left is Adam lounging around in all his corporal glory, and God is on the right surrounded by angels. God is reaching out toward Adam and Adam is reaching out toward God. In the mind of the artist, it is the moment of creation. Their fingers are just inches apart. God is going to touch Adam and bring him to life.

Now consider this Gospel story as Mark tells it. Jesus reaches out and touches that man with his finger. That detail by Mark is sheer genius. With that detail, we get the whole story, it’s purpose, and its consequence. That man, unable to speak because he cannot hear, cannot communicate. He is an outsider, alone, cutoff from communion with others because he can’t hear and he speak. Jesus recreates him at that moment exactly the way God intended in the beginning.

Sin has left us all deaf to God’s Word of Love. Sin has left us unable to be in communion not just with one another, but with God as well. There are other details here worth some reflection. Jesus takes the man aside for an intimate and personal encounter away from the sensation seeking crowd. This is not a side-show. Jesus respects that man’s feelings and vulnerability. At the same time, Jesus knows that the man’s inability to speak comes from his inability to hear. So, Jesus enables him to hear which allows him to speak restoring him to the community. He can now “communicate.” With a word of command, Jesus speaks with the authority of God who said: “Let there be light.” Immediately that man can speak and hear.

A few minutes ago, we heard from the Prophet Isaiah. That book bearing his name is a book of clues for detecting the Messiah. The early church understood those clues and preserved for us the stories that unfold the clues. The clues point to a Messiah who will come with “divine recompense” which simply means he will come to set right what is off kilter. In a sense, the Messiah comes to put creation back on track.

Jesus insists that no one is to talk about what has happened for the simple reason that he does not want what he does to be misinterpreted. He is not there to entertain and wow them with power. There is a deeper meaning, one that can only be revealed to those who have come to meet Jesus and be transformed by a sincere, real, and personal relationship. They were not to speak about what they saw until they could fully understand it from within that relationship. 

The beauty of this story is that concerned friends brought the needy person to Jesus, seeking what Isaiah called divine recompense. They turned to Jesus, believing and hoping that he could help the man live to his fullest capacity. It is an example of discipleship, a reminder of our vocation which is not so much to teach and preach as it is to allow ourselves to be so transformed that others will seek what we have been given. Then, as St. Francis of Assisi insisted, our lives will explain Christ’s saving love better than any words we can say.