2nd Sunday of Advent A

Last week I said that we should contemplate hope on our Journey to Christmas Day.  My greatest hope is for peace.  I sometimes feel guilty about this thinking my greatest hope should be for love, but, as we all know, sometimes love is not peaceful, but peace is always loveful.

And there is not greater depiction of peace than what Isaiah prophesies in the first reading.  He speaks of a holy mountain where “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb.”  A place where the bear and the cow can be friends (although I had not known they were enemies) and “the lion shall eat hay like the ox,” no longer a threat to others.  Even a child can play by the cobra’s den without being endangered.  Yes, everything is in complete harmony, in right relationship.  Ancient hatred and rivalry is peeled away and violence is eliminated.  Primal instincts are supplanted by attraction and friendship.  Peace reigns for all.

And this happens not because of a lucky confluence of events.  It happens because of a person.  “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” another David who is endowed with the Spirit of the Lord.  One who carries “a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD” He is different than other leaders because he does not judge by appearances and judges the poor fairly.  The system is no longer rigged.  He puts down the bullies and does not allow the wicked to wield their power.  Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy.  In him, this peace becomes our inheritance.

How attractive is this?  How much would you love to live in a peaceable kingdom, a place of no ruin or harm?  John the Baptist is readying a people for something like that.  He prepares a way for the Lord telling those who come to him “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  He is urging the people to change their mindset, to expand their imagination, to widen their hearts to receive a new gift of the Spirit.  He is preparing a path for the peace and beauty that Christ will bring.

We cannot expect peace unless we invite it, pray for it and live it.  We must make peace our choice and our reality if we are to share it with others.  This is not a peace borne of circumstances – everything suddenly falling into place or your greatest anxiety resolved.  This is not a peace based on who is President of the United States.  This is a peace already planted within you at your baptism.  It is a peace you were built for.  It is a peace only God can give and only God can sustain.  It originates from the divine within us.  Then let us slow down, breathe and put ourselves in the presence of God and meditate on the gift of peace.

How can we expect peace?  Well, do you love anyone?  Are you loved by somebody else?  Have you been forgiven?  Has someone forgiven you?  Are you blessed by friends and family? Do you acknowledge them as God’s gifts to you?  Do you really trust in God?  Do you know that you are beautiful and strong and capable?  I know that you are for I know who made you.  Are you trying to win a victory that Christ has already won or scurrying to pay a price that has already been paid?  Do you believe that peace is possible?  Do you know that God’s love is complete and it is strong enough to overcome our every fear?  Allow the idea of peace to enter deeply into you, to be absorbed by you and radiate within you. Then we will be prepared, on Christmas Day, to welcome the Prince of Peace.

Christ the King C

How many of you have begun to put your Christmas decorations up?  So tere you are, getting in the Christmas spirit, and you come to mass and we get this Gospel and Jesus is on the cross.  (Perhaps a good idea is to wait for Advent.)

But that is always how it is with the cross.  It shocks our system and jerks us out of our current state.  It is stunning that we worship one who hung on a cross, one who appeared to fail so miserably yet we dare to call him the king of the Universe.

I often think what would a Roman citizen who had died 2000 years ago in the year 19 would think of if they came into  a church and saw it filled with crosses, some with a man being crucified.  They would know what an excruciating torture, what degradation this entailed.  They would wonder what kind of people would preserve such a horrible moment and celebrate it?  They would wonder what kind of king is this.

That is what is happening on the hill of Calvary.  Rulers and soldiers mock the powerless king who cannot save himself.  They jeer at what they perceive to be the ironic inscription above his head, the king of the Jews. Even one of the thieves crucified with him reviles Jesus. No friends have come to defend him.  This is not a complicated scene for most of them.  A poor preacher confronts the Roman Empire.  How else could it end?

Yet, one person sees something different – the good thief.  He recognizes Jesus’ innocence and he senses his holiness.  He does not protest his own innocence but champions Jesus’.  He asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And though his own pain, with life eking out of him, Jesus answers, “”Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What kind of king is this?  A king who suffers when he does not have to, who eschews the miracles he had for others when it comes to preserving his own life.  A king who endures humiliation, scarring, torture and death.  A king who does not seek vengeance on his enemies or retribution on those who abandoned him. A king who will only be led by his insistence on love to lead his life.   He can only be the king of love.

What kind of king is this?  What kind of king are you?  That might not be how you describe yourself but we are all kings, shepherds or leaders in some way whether at work, as a parent, on a team or among your friends.  If anyone looks to you for help, you are a leader.  What will be the kind of leader you choose to be?  Will you be the leader most expect, strong, willful and bending others to your will?  Or will you be a leader like Jesus?

If you are the leader most expect, you will have many serving you; if you are a Christian leader, you will serve many.  If you are the leader most expect, you will save yourself first; if you are a Christian leader, you will save others first.  If you are the leader most expect, you will get even with enemies and those who have betrayed you; if you are a Christian leader you will make those people better. If you are the leader most expect, you will be known by the power you have wielded; if you are a Cristian leader, you will be known by the grace that others have received.  If you are the leader most expect, you will be, strong and willful; if you are a Christian leader, you will to be weak, vulnerable and small enough to bend down to hear the tiniest voice.  You can be the leader most expect or you can be the leader we need, a leader like Christ.

What kind f king is this? What kind of king is this whose only crown was made of thorns and whose only throne was the cross? A king of love and a king of salvation.  What kind of king are we?  Shall we lead with love, mercy and hope?  Shall we lift up or put down?  We can be a king like Jesus Christ, the king of the Universe.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C
This Gospel comes around every three years after election time and I always like to compare the promises of Jesus to those of the lofty ones of the candidates. Jesus promises if you follow him you will be seized, persecuted, put on trial, betrayed by family and killed. Yeah! Vote for Jesus.
You see Jesus’ problem is that he just can’t lie. He knows that if we really follow him we will have to endure what he endured. And what he had to go through was remarkable. He knew the sting of rejection of his hometown. He would share the full revelation of his religion only to be hunted by the leaders of his faith. He preached a message of perfect love and found himself hated for it. Besides, Jesus is now in Jerusalem and upon the horizon there are trials darker still. He is about to face unjust arrest, torture and even crucifixion.
Incredibly, he chose all this. He could have made one definitive, selfish miracle to convince all he was the Son of God, but that would rob of us our freedom. At every step of the way of the cross, he could have summoned a host of angels to attack those bringing him to his death, and they would have succumbed, but that would not prove his love, only his power.
When I think of it, Jesus was tough. That is not a character trait of Jesus I speak of enough. Toughness does not negate the other qualities of mercy, healing and love, but underlies all those traits. They would be impossible without Jesus’ internal fortitude. When you realize all that he endured out of love for us you realize our Lord was one tough dude.
With him at our side, we can be tough too. We have known disappointment, hurt and loss. We too have had to endure divisions in our family and rejection. We are all too aware that forgiveness and peacemaking is not easy. And what Jesus predicted of those who follow him did come true and continues today for people are still being persecuted because of his name. Today, people decided to come to mass as we did, but they risked their lives to do so. And this week, at least a dozen people were killed for believing in Christ.
There is a very telling instruction that Jesus gives his listeners. He says, “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.” (Yes, I can hear the groans of lawyers throughout the congregation.) He insists that if we are totally reliant on him that will be enough for us.
Last week we had our priest convocation led by Fr. John O’Grady, as scripture scholar and priest of the diocese. He was discussing the word “Gospel,” usually thought of as “good news” but he gave a different tint to it. The word derives from when a king was seeking good news following a battle. So gospel also means victory. We tossed the thought around and decided the ultimate promise is that each of us will have enough victory in our lives. Let’s be clear about the promise of Jesus Christ. It is not that everything will go perfectly once you are baptized. It is not that the more you give to the collection, the more blessings you will receive despite what you might hear in other quarters. It is that we will have enough of the sinewy toughness of Christ to prevail over whatever challenges us.
Jesus speaks of perseverance. The word more commonly used these days is resiliency – the ability to rise up after you have been knocked down, the gift of never giving up. There is nothing I wish I could pray more into our young people or anyone more than resiliency. And Jesus says it is ours for the asking for he will not leave us orphaned, we will always have enough victory to love, bless and forgive. The more we open ourselves to his love, the more we will withstand and overcome that which threatens us, that which haunts us. After all, we follow one tough dude.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Zacchaeus awoke to the large ramble of his house.  He said his morning prayers and began his rituals.  He came to his empty dining room table, gruff with irony.  No one in town had a more lavish or larger table, but everyone had more people around theirs than he did.  Lately, Zacchaeus had ruminated on many ironies or better yet contradictions in his life.  He was a devout Jew but rejected by the Jews as a tax collector for the Roman Empire.  Everyone knew him yet he was almost always alone.  He was a man with money, but without a place in the world.

It was with these heavy thoughts that he plowed into another day of work in the surging, bustling city of Jericho.  Another day sure to be filled with taking from others, financial success and deeper scarring.  He was neither a fair nor a generous man.  The system was set up for him to take advantage and take advantage he did.  The rejection of the citizens made his plunder easier.  His actions sprung from bitterness and bitterness sprung from his actions, driving him further from his own people like repelling magnets.  Yet, he could not quite give up his religion.   He was a Jew.  The story of his people was his story and it created in him an inconvenient longing to be one with the people who uttered the same rich and ancient prayers, celebrated the same holidays and worshipped the one God.  To be a Jew was to be with other Jews.  He knew that, but that river of contradictions kept him from truly belonging.

However, the tough drudgery of the day was disrupted by an almost audible buzz in the air.  A rabbi of great power in word and deed was making his way through town.  He had heard of Jesus in the wide circles he traveled and he was intrigued.  Jesus seemed never to do or say quite what was expected and often was unaccepted.  Perhaps he was on an island too, but whereas Zacchaeus’ island left him alone, judging by the thickening crowd gathering to glimpse Jesus, people were clamoring to be on his island.  Zacchaeus decided to see him; he decided he must see him.

And therein lied the problem.  As the crowd along the road grew to three or four deep, Zacchaeus could not see for he was, to put it mildly, “short in stature.”  He was left with only one foolish option, a sycamore tree up ahead would give him a vantage point to spot Jesus.  He hesitated.  A man of his status and wealth climbing a tree would surely be ridiculed.  But there is a freedom in being despised – no one would think less of him because no one thought anything good about him anyway.  Besides the tree was a kind of refuge from a crowd that did not want him around and who wondered why such a loathed man wanted anything to do with this holy man.

From his perch he observed Jesus, walking with the crowd and they seemed to flow to his rhythm until it suddenly stopped as Jesus quickly conferred and pointed at him!  Zacchaeus realized there could be no better way to make a positive impression on the crowd, to gain more followers, than for Jesus to make fun of the most hated man in town now caught in an embarrassing position.  He braced himself for what was next, the tenuous thread that held his faith together seemed poised to snap.  In no world could he have imagined what Jesus would say next.  “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

If climbing up the tree had been childish, he climbed down like a child, swiftly and with abandon.  Yet, everything changed during his descent.  The chasm between his faith and his life was bridged by one simple gesture.  He knew what it was like to be singled out, but now he was singled in.   And for all his heavy pondering he had failed to realize one thing that Jesus’ words made crystal clear.  If you are believed in, you can change.  Bitterness could turn into charity, fraud to generosity, despair to hope.  And it all happened in a second and it happened because of Jesus. His heart pounded, his vison grew lighter.  This is conversion.  Not even the low roar of the grumble, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner,” would deter him.  H responded, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”  Twelve words from Jesus and his world had changed.  He belonged.

That night, the large table was filled with disciples and sinners and outsiders.  The air was cheered by laughter and wisdom and hope.  The words Jesus said at the base of the tree rang true to his ear.  “”Today salvation has come to this house.”  It certainly had for salvation has a moment and a definition:  salvation is meeting Jesus.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
That is some prayer the Pharisee says. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.” Can you imagine if the opening prayer was like that? “O God, we thank you that we are not like the rest of humanity – mean, rotten and smelly. Or even like the fourth person in the third pew.” Nobody prays like that, at least I hope no one prays like that. The Pharisee even goes on to brag that he fasts twice a week and pays a tithe on all his income; doing more than the law requires of him. As if God would not already know that! The key to understanding the Pharisee’s prayer is that he, “spoke this prayer to himself.” The Greek, like the English, might mean that he prayed quietly to himself. Or perhaps he was the object of his own prayer, the one who receives the praise and glory because God seems rather ancillary. This prayer is about himself.
So what can we learn from this prayer? I do not think for a moment he lied in the prayer. I am sure he fasted and tithed as he claimed. I am confident he did not commit the sins he named. Certainly, he was glad not to be the tax collector. What is wrong is that it lacked humility. What is wrong is that is lacked need, and that is place for us to reflect for we are not comfortable being needy, to dwell on what we lack. We can name our sinful actions easily enough, but how often do we go to those deeper, darker places as to the motivations of our sins – the anger, hurt and fear that drives us. We are called to put our brokenness before God for our need is the space God uses to enter and change our lives. Once we place our brokenness and pain before the Lord, healing can begin and the light can dispel the darkness, hope emerges from the fear and peace overshadows our turmoil.
Of course we can do the opposite of the Pharisee and list all our ailings and shortcomings to God without any real hope our God can transform them. A litany of woes does little to alleviate the pain unless we trust that our God is a healer of our ills, the bringer of joy into our lives. Allow God to be merciful at mass. As the gifts of bread and wine are transformed into something so perfect as the body and blood of Christ, we can place our brokenness and pain, our failures and shortcomings, what we are not now and what we have never been on the same table and ask God to make these wounds beautiful as well.
That is why the prayer of the Pharisee is perfect. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It admits the need – “I am a sinner,” but is still reliant and trusting in God’s mercy. As a matter of fact it is the basis of an option for the Act of Contrition. Did you even know there were options? Well it goes “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Just ten short words that is easily memorizable. I would not mind hearing that more often in the sacrament of reconciliation rather than stumbling through and trying to remember such a long prayer. After twenty years, I would like it if did not have to hear people say they are HARDLY sorry for having offended thee.
Instead, let us be as humble as the tax collector and place before the Lord all that is broken with faith in his mercy. For when our great need meets God’s power, we open the door for grace to flood in. So let us close with an Act of Contrition. “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  After a funny parable and an encouraging promise of God’s ability to respond to our needs, that line seems to come out of the blue.  I think it is the most haunting question in the New Testament.  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Why does Jesus ask the question in the context of this story?  It is a great story by the way.  The persistent widow, a woman with no status and power demands a just settlement in a case from a judge, “who neither feared God nor respected any human being.” All she has on her side is the demand of God that widows and the poor be treated fairly.  But that will not budge this wicked judge.  So she simply wears him down, nags him until he gives in.   He explains his relenting, “because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” (Actually, the Greek says she might give him a black eye.  Isn’t that great!)  Of course in comparison, God is anxious to hear our prayers and swiftly answer them.

Perhaps Jesus asks that haunting question because he knows what usually happens.  He knows the widow does not usually get her way. That when power is arrayed against the weak, they lose.  The system really is rigged and often we must surrender. When the wave comes in, we know it is easier to ride it.  And when the breeze stiffens, we can turn our back and walk with it.  We choose the easier, the more convenient.  But that is not the way of faith.

I would say the wind is blowing against us right now, wouldn’t you?  It is true of people of faith, those who love peace and certainly for Catholics.  Our faith is asking us to walk into the wind.  So many, with perfectly understandable reasons, have left.  They still have faith, but they try to go it alone.  The problem is, it does not appear it is meant to work that way.  Look at the first reading.  Moses needed help.   Jesus chose to have help – dim-witted, timid, and slow to comprehend help even.  Yet, he knew he had to show them every loving act for he placed his bet that these disciples would share his story and win the world for him.  He is counting on us to do the same.

Let’s go back the first reading.  Israel sends picked men to battle Amalek, but as always, it is God’s fight so as long as Moses raises his hands, Israel wins the battle.  But when his arms sag, Amalek has the better of the fight.  As a guy who has to raise his arms a lot each hour, I feel for Moses.  But eventually his friends find him a chair and support his arms until Israel routs their ememies .  When the Lord asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I don’t think he is asking if this person or that person will have faith.  I think he wants to know that we will be there for one another to lift wearied arms.  I think he is asking will we go after lost sheep and comfort the hurting and do other holy and inconvenient things.

That is why when I see someone’s faith slipping or fading away, I will never, never, never, never give up.  Just like you never, never, never, never give up on anyone you love.  I think we were made for this moment.  To lock arms and march into the wind.  To be strength for wearied arms and be breath for tired souls.  Then our care for each other will be the faith Jesus finds.

 

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Let me begin with something controversial.  The Yankees have no hope!  Now that might sound a little ridiculous given that they won 105 games in the regular season, clinched like in July and swept the Twins (a team that shrinks to the size of a mustard seed every time they see an interlocking NY.  Gospel allusion!)

But the Yankees have no hope.  They have something most would prefer.  They have got great baseball players.  The reason people like the Yankees’ chances is not something inherent in our souls; they believe because of Judge, Tanaka and Torres.  There is a reasonable expectation that they will succeed.  They have talent and tradition.  I, on the other hand, root for the New York Mets.  We have to have hope for we have so little else.

And that tells a tale.  Yankee fans are optimistic.  Optimism is the reasonable expectation of success.  Sometimes the reasons are clear and convincing.  Even if you like a longshot, you lay out the path of success.  If it takes a hundred strings tied together, you can plot your way to a win.  Now most people prefer optimism to hope for good reason.  Let me put it this way:  when you lead a football game by 35 with two minutes remaining, you are optimistic about winning.  If you are down 35, you only have hope.  Now which team would you rather root for?

But, there is a danger in aligning optimism with hope, for cut just one string, and optimism can no longer be sustained.  Optimism is a tender calculus; everything has to go right.  Hope strikes us a different angle.  As a Mets fan, I know there are saner ways to live.  And I have been told countless times to root for another team.  But I could never imagine doing that.  Something beyond reason, something inherent tells me this is who I am.  Hope is like that.

This is the story the prophet Habakkuk tells in the first reading.  Israel is enduring one of its darkest times.  Most have been exiled away from the Promised Land and the remnant that remains are suffering terrible deprivations.  All Habakkuk can see are violence, ruin, misery and discord.  He is crying out to God like an abandoned child. Yet, the Lord promises, “the vision still has its time,  presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;  if it delays, wait for it,  it will surely come, it will not be late.”  There is no justification for optimism at this time.  No reasonable expectation of things improving.  There is only God’s word.  This is hope.

Hope ultimately is a trust that God is good.  That the one who created in goodness will find a way to sustain it.  We who have been chosen and blessed by God are never abandoned; never forgotten.  God whose eye is on the sparrow will always have his gaze upon us.  This was instilled in us at our baptism and renewed in us when we receive the body and blood of the Lord.  We were made for hope, one of the three things that last.  Hope is the doorway to faith and love.  It is who we are.  It cannot be taken away from us by a bad break or an unforeseen circumstance for what belongs to God is forever.

Hope is not something out there to grab. It is already ours for it has already been won.  At Jesus’ darkest time, inundated by violence and ruin and misery he climbed Calvary to his crucifixion, he held onto something outrageous.  He believed that God could even overcome death.  No cheerful optimist could predict that.  Only one who deeply breathed in the faithfulness and goodness of God would risk his life when he did not have to.  And God kept the promise for that is what God does.

Perhaps these are dark times in your life.  Certainly, it is a dark time in the life of the Church and maybe for our world.  We cannot rely on optimism.  We need a light of hope to dispel the shadows.  And it will not disappoint.  It will not fail.  For our hope has a birthday- Easter Sunday; our hope has a name – Jesus Christ and our hope has a destiny –eternal life.  This is what we are made for. This is who we are.  We are Christians- we hope.

 

P.S. I know that the Yankees have had an injury plagued season, and it was remarkable and hopeful.  Please don’t feel the need to write back.