Pentecost Sunday B

 

They were all huddled together in an upper room.  The apostles had endured a lot.  They had known the terror of the crucifixion, the exhilaration of the resurrection and now they had witnessed the ascension of Jesus to heaven and were left anxiously waiting what was next and what this experience was to mean to them.  Buoyed by the mother of Jesus, they stick together and they pray.

 

Then everything changes in a moment.  With tongues of fire hanging over their heads and a mighty rush of wind, the promised Holy Spirit settled upon them.  And they burst forth from that room literally unable to contain themselves as the preached boldly the word of God and the good news of Jesus Christ to all around them.

 

What happened?  The miracles of Pentecost tell the story.  Yes, there were tongues of fire, but the real miracle was the fire over their heads became the fire that burned within them.  And those timid men, fearful that the hate that destroyed Jesus would pursue them, suddenly and boldly proclaim Jesus Christ.  Yes, there was a great wind, but the real miracle is that it had switched direction.  The wind had stung their face in the loss of Christ at the cross and his absence since the Ascension, but now it was at their back, pushing out of their room, compelling them to be witnesses of Jesus to everyone.  So strongly it blew that they would never turn back.  And finally, those Jews gathered from different lands as they came to Jerusalem to celebrate their Feast of Pentecost, could hear the apostles speak in their own native language.  But the real miracle was that their hearts were as open to as their ears, and what they truly heard was the fulfillment of the promise that sustained their dreams.  It was as if they heard for the first time the lyrics of a song they had been waiting for their whole life.

 

We have known this experience without the accompanying miracles, for what happened to the apostles at Pentecost happened to us at in the waters of baptism.  The Spirit which descended upon them inundated us.  And now that Spirit is within us.  Pentecost is within us.  And that is a good thing because look around.  We need a new Pentecost.

 

Each of us could use a new Pentecost, a new awakening of the Spirit.  I need a new Pentecost.  I need to better trust where the Spirt is leading me and to let go of my anxiety, especially for the Church which is not mine but God’s anyway.  Where do you need Pentecost in your life?   Where do you want to employ the Spirit to build up or heal or forgive?  We all need a Pentecost.

 

Our families need a new Pentecost.  We need the Spirit of forgiveness so that we can summon the courage to say, “I’m sorry.”  And the courage to forgive.  We need to entrust ourselves more fully to those God has given us to be closest to us and to be honest for the Spirit can only work in an environment of true feeling and openness.  It can be accomplished in little ways.  If you came home from school this week and were able to answer the question “What happened at school today?” with anything other than “Nothing,” that would be a Pentecost. 

 

Our communities need a new Pentecost for this is a Spirt that knows no boundaries whether it is between countries where people cross for a better life or cities.  The Spirit sees no difference between Schenectady and Niskayuna, between rich and power, the powerful and the weak.  If that is not how the Holy Spirit looks at the world, then how can we look differently?  And we need to say no to violence and to lay down our arms for a Spirt if peace inhabits us. 

 

We need a new Pentecost for our country.  At the first Pentecost, people from all different lands could hear the proclamation of the Gospel in their native tongues.  Yet, here it seems that even those who share a common language cannot hear the other.  The Spirit is the one that us communicate heart to heart.  It is a Spirit of reconciliation and hope, not fear and anger.

 

We need a new Pentecost for our planet.  All things were created through the Spirit; therefore it has all been touched by God and contains within it a certain kind of perfection.  The Holy Spirit calls us to communion with nature not exploitation or devastation.

 

And we need a new Pentecost for our Church.  We need a new burst of energy and of hope.  We need to be more the seat of mercy than the seat of judgment.  We need to be known for inclusion and not  exclusion.  We need to have that great rush of wind blow us out of these doors to the periphery so that the poor and sick may know healing, the hungry and thirsting may know fulfillment and the left out will know belonging.  We need to carry the good news as if it truly was good.  Imagine a world filled with joyous, happy, singing and smiling Catholics.  Now that really would be a Pentecost.

 

And the best of the good news is that Pentecost is already here.  Every day is Pentecost because the Spirit is already alive.  Pentecost is here because the Spirit is within you.  If you want a new Pentecost, simply let that Spirit out.

 

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7th Sunday of Easter B
I have lived in this town for eleven years which means I have been inundated with engineers and those who analyze things for a living. It changes a guy. And I am a better person for it. I have come to appreciate precision in all things. I am far more rational and evidence based than before. And I have come to appreciate that the greatest enemy in the world is inefficiency. You know what I mean. So many of you are either there or married to someone who is.
Yet the great irony of all this is that we are gathered here by the least efficient agent possible. Love. Love is out-sized, sloppy and impossible to control. It distorts proportion and perspective. There is no such thing as a small achievement for a loved one or a small wound to a loved one. When you care more about the welfare of another more than your own, you cede control of your own happiness. No one can make you laugh more than the ones you love and no one can drive you crazier. You are even willing to lay down your life for your friend and how inefficient is that.
Think about how we love each other and the unreasonable demands love makes. There can be no better example on this Mother’s Day than the love of a Mom. It is exhaustive and I imagine exhausting. When I think of my Mom I now miss how much she worried about me. That every night her first concern was for my brother and me. No matter what I was doing, if she did not know I was safe, her presumption was that I was in a ditch by the side of the road. That kind of caring matters. And you might think she is smiling down upon me now but in truth I think she is really thinking, “Now he likes my worrying.”
To love is to choose vulnerability and to surrender power. It is “to live with your heart outside of your body.”
Why then do we love? We do it because that is what we are meant for. We do it because God is love. We do it because we were built for it and sometimes it seems that every cell in our body is pining for it, seeking connection to another. God so intricately created this world and the crowning achievement is that we love; just as God does; we love in the image of God. My favorite argument for the existence of God is that we love, for surely we would not have imagined or chosen it on our own,
When God created us, God made us for the mission of love. This love is shot through the very nature of God and is defined eloquently in our second reading. “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” It is not that God abandons us when we do not love, but that we remove the divine in ourselves when we do not do what we were designed to do. Jesus’ words in the Gospel are a full on cavalcade of love: I guard them, protect them and consecrate myself to them. And finally there is the promise of the Holy Spirit. For within us is the same Spirt that made Jesus love those he encountered. How could we not be meant for love when the Spirit of Jesus Christ resides in us?
It seems to me that much of life is lived on this knife’s edge. Shall we seek safety, protection and rationality or should we choose the vulnerability, the fear and ultimately the joy and peace of love? Should our goal be mere survival and forego the surge of romantic love, the deep satisfaction of friendship and the joy of knowing you belong to a family or a community grounded in love? All the happiest and best people I know have chosen love for it is both our journey and our destination. It is all that we will know at the end. It is what we are intended for and no other meaning defines us. We love because God is love.

6th Sunday of Easter B

“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”  What a remarkable and amazing statement.  Our relationship with Christ begins not by our initiative, but by God’s.  It even seems a little backward.  I mean why would you not choose Jesus?  He was all-loving, just and peaceful.  He spoke the most beautiful words ever uttered, he was the Son of God, he died for our sins and he had great hair!  But we are friends of Jesus not for those reasons but because God first chose us.

Sometimes I wonder if God should have known better.  I imagine that Jesus would never have chosen me if he knew my faults, limitations and sins.  He would never have wanted me if he knew how little trust I have, how selfish I can be or my thoughts as the Mets lost every game of a homestand.  Then I remember, he does know all that.  And he chose me nonetheless.  And he chooses each of us despite our failures and shortcomings.

Once we understand that God truly wants us, then we can let all the beautiful words we heard today come down upon us and cover us like a light drizzle.   “God is love.”  “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.”  “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love.”  “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”  “”I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.”  Imagine that; loving God, understandably, completes our love, but our love of Christ brings joy to God.  Each line is a statement of Christ’s desirous love for us.

No we can see what the Church is and why we gather.  It is the place of celebrating God’s full and unconditional love for us.  The Church is where we learn we are the imperfect, stumbling, yet holy, blessed and loving people of God.

I met with a group of some young adults the other night and asked what is the perception of the Church among their friends.  Some said it was an institution and no one trusts institutions anymore.  And it is true, we are an institution.  Maybe the mother of all institutions.  Some said that we carry with us the barrier of history and scandal and that too is true.  Some said it is the where old people go.  That is not not true.   But if we really want to define the church, we must look at how Jesus defined it:  the loving and joyous community of the friends of Jesus.  It is a font of forgiveness, mercy, kindness and friendship.

So we gather here so that we might hear words that are two thousand years old and yet still penetrate us with insight and relevancy.  We come to know we are loved and share it in the midst of a community.  We come because Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us, cannot stop giving himself away.  He desires us so much that he gives himself again in his body and his blood.  He want to be a part of us in a daringly literal way.  And today, we are better because you color in for us the picture of the body of Christ.  We are smarter for your ideas, more capable because of your talents and more compassionate by your mercy.  Besides where else in your life are you offered an hour of peace?

That is how so many people identify our parish.  A few weeks ago a friend of mine died, leaving his wife behind.  Her children all live out of town and her daughter said to me, “We all have to leave here but my great comfort is that after we go, every time my mother walks through the doors of this church, she will be with family.  It is a great parish.”  And a few weeks before that, someone roughly 70 years younger said to me, “This is my happy place.”  This is what our community must be.  The place where you come after you get a bad grade to know it is not the end of the world; the place where you receive consolation for your hurts and your loss; the place where you come to celebrate good news with people who delight in you.  For eleven years, it has been that place for me.  It has been the nexus of my joys and consolations.  The greatest privilege of my life has been to share my life with you and to have you share your life with me.

What is the Church? It is mission and the mission is to respond to one command.  “Love one another as I love you.”

2nd Sunday of Easter B

It seems that Jesus wanted the theme of Eater to be peace. As love was the theme of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel (“No one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for their friends”) and as John emphasized victory in his depiction of the cross, the Easter story is about peace. Three times in the Gospel appearances to the disciples Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” I don’t think he is simply reassuring the apostles because they are freaking out as he just appeared on the other side of locked doors. Well maybe a little. But he also says it after they are already rejoicing. I think it is more than a greeting. I think it is a statement of fact and theology: peace is with them because he has risen from the dead.
Peace is with them because Jesus is with them. Having risen from the dead he is literally the embodiment of peace. For we can never underestimate what the resurrection means. It means Jesus has overcome death and has promised the same for us. For at the end of the day, it is death we fear the most. And all our fears, great and small our somehow connected to death. But on Easter Sunday morning, everything changed. The looming night has been replaced by a dawn that will not be extinguished. Light has overcome darkness and hope has triumphed over despair for life has conquered death. This is the meaning of peace: that we are free from fear. This is a peace that is not contingent or dependent upon anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It can never be taken away for He is truly risen.
This is a different definition of peace than most of us possess. We usually think of peace as a state of mind when everything is going well, when the tumult and the madness of life have quieted down. But there is a whole other word to describe that state: luck. Instead this is a peace that abides; a peace that sustains; a peace that does not fade when the rigors of life catch up to us. For no matter what challenge you face, one fact in your life will not change – Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and he has offered us paradise.
Jesus himself points to this in his greeting to the apostles. As soon as he offers his peace he shows them his hands, bearing the marks of the nails, and his side, torn by the sword. And this is Jesus in his resurrected, glorified body. It is not perfect as we would imagine it. It is wounded. He offers peace not in spite of his wounds but because of them. His peace grows around his wounds and the wounds are the pathway through which he was able to offer that peace. It may also be true for us. Our peace does not mean we are unblemished. It means that we love, we trust and we believe around our wounds. Indeed, they are often the space we allow our loved ones and God to enter into our lives through our vulnerabilities. It is the gift Jesus offers to quell Thomas’ doubts. “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side.” Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God.” He gets what peace looks like.
And isn’t it wonderful that the language of Jesus to his apostles is the language of the mass. We say nothing more often than the “Lord be with you” and “Peace be with you.” When we share the sign of peace, we are boldly proclaiming that Jesus is the Risen Lord. Of course we say it in a low mumbled voice. “Peace be with you.” How great would it be if we share the definitive good news in our lives with the joy the apostles must have known in that locked room? How invigorating to hear from loved ones, acquaintances and strangers alike they are a witness to the peace of Christ and they see it in you as well. Let this be our song of the Easter season. Peace be with you.

 

Holy Thursday 2018

 

Some parishes have very precise rules for who can receive communion and who cannot.  We never have. But that is about to change right now.

 

Our first reading is about the Passover as the Last Supper was a Passover meal.  It concerns the great liberation of the Jewish slaves from the clutches of Pharaoh in Egypt.   God had heard their cries and noted their suffering and God was ready to act in a definitive and awful way to let his people go.  For it seems the Lord is intent in our being free.  Of course, God who created us in freedom and for freedom knows that without it, there can be no love.  No one can be forced to love someone else.  It was precisely that gift that was central to Jewish self-understanding that all Jews celebrated and still celebrate at Passover.  It was the night of celebrating God’s special care for His people and the extraordinary lengths God would go to deliver them.

 

So as it is a Passover meal, the Eucharist must say something about freedom and care.  Jesus was speaking of a God of liberation.   So here is rule #1.  If you come to this table, prepare to be set free.  Whatever imprisons you, be it an addiction, a broken relationship, shame and guilt or low self-esteem, Christ will use his body and blood to free you.  Once we know the endless care and boundless love that is held in the Eucharist, we will find that which imprisons and indeed enslaves us is no match for the infinite embrace of God.  Our problems do not disappear at this table, but they can no longer direct our destiny for true freedom is the ability to love despite our obstacles, with all our flaws.  Having been loved perfectly, we have opportunity to unshackle ourselves from that which holds us to the walls of injustice and failure.  Rule #1:  be ready to be free.

 

Now let us look at the circumstances around that Passover meal in an upper room.  It is not pretty.  Jesus can sense his hour of challenge is coming, and despite their protests to the contrary, his disciples are about to fail in theirs.  He knows one friend will betray him and a best friend will deny him.   The situation on the outside is even worse as the forces of power are gathering to defeat him.  The people for whom he came to love are turning against him.  Darkness has intruded his ministry of light and the world is moving to crush him as it must when it is confronted by pure love.  And how does he respond to these betrayals, denials and the promise of violence?  He does not scheme to get away.  He does not try to diminish himself to go unnoticed nor repent of what his ministry has been all about.   No, he goes big.  At the moment when he feels the depth of our sin and weakness, he finds a way to love us.  The only response he has to the flailing, failing and foolish disciples is to love them more dearly and love them completely.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  What else can one give but one’s body and blood?  It is a sign of the surrender of self that anyone can recognize as love.  It is his marriage vow to us. 

 

So here is rule #2:  do not come to this altar unless you are ready to be loved and to love.  For the power of that moment was meant for generations of us who similarly fail in sharing God’s spirit and ignoring God’s wisdom.  It is meant for those who doubt their worth for they have been granted freely the grace that is the body of Christ within them.  It is meant for each of us who though unworthy are called to the great feast of dignity and awe, the supper of the Lamb.  Eucharist means that we have this love within us, but if it is to be received, it must be shared.  It multiples itself when the new body of Christ gives all of ourselves to others; when we mirror Jesus by giving all that we have.  It reaches its glory in Christ fully alive in us.  Rule #2:  let us love as we are loved.

 

The Gospel comes from John and there is a twist.  It is again the Last Supper and just when you expect the blessing of the bread and wine, Jesus instead surprises his disciples with the offer, demand actually, to wash their feet, a task so lowly that it was considered the lowest thing a slave could do.  Understandably, the disciples are horrified at the action, but Jesus does not consider it demeaning to his status.  “You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.  If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.”  He is not saying he is not all that.  He is.  He is instructing them that the translation of love into life is service.  We are not to be empty vessels stuffing ourselves with divine favor.  We are to be conduits of God’s love for us so that others might taste the grace of Jesus Christ.  Rule #3:  if you come to this altar you do so to become a servant.  Or in other words, don’t just receive Eucharist.  Be Eucharist. 

 

Be a servant who makes it clear that love has transformed their lives.  Act as one whom Christ has chosen and share his face of mercy.  Stand up for justice for we are all the body of Christ.  Forgive those who have hurt you for his blood was given for the forgiveness of sins.  This world is crying out for something; it needs a savior and the Eucharist has made us the bearers of Christ.

 

So three rules to come to the Eucharist:  freedom, love and service.  It is enough to change the world.

 

5th Sunday of Lent B

I cannot remember if I ever mentioned it to you, but I was in the Holy Land in January.  One place I have not talked about though is a lovely church about half way down the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem called Dominus Flevit, or “The Lord Wept.”  It commemorates the spot of Jesus’ famous lament for the city. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings.”  And the remarkable thing about that spot is that if you extend your arms like a hen would spread her wings to gather her young, from that perspective, your arms would encompass the entire walled city of Jerusalem.

And that is exactly what Jesus came to do. To gather us.  To make us one.  To save us.  The compassion he shows to the city of Jerusalem, the very home of God for the Jews, is extended to the whole world.  His burning desire to save resounds in these charged words; the cry of a protective mother hen for her children.

And there is but one way to do it.  It is to give everything because there is no love without sacrifice.  Or as Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”  That grain, fully alive when attached to the stalk cannot produce new life unless it first falls, is buried and becomes the seed that opens and gives itself up to produce something new.  For this revolution of love to occur, Jesus must surrender life to bring us new life.  He must die.

Yet it should come as no surprise that dying to one’s self is how life and love begins.  Most of us will not be called to actual martyrdom, but we should never forget that today some will pay the ultimate price for putting others first.  It may be a woman struggling to reach a refugee camp with her family or someone professing their faith in Christ Jesus.  That most likely will not be our story.  But we are not unfamiliar with dying to self.  We do it all the time.  When you marry, you die to yourself, giving up independence and seeing your life as a partnership, not even deciding what to watch on television by yourself #I don’t know how you people do it!  When you bring forth new life in a child, you die to yourself, inevitably placing the welfare of your child above your own.  You have died to self if you have a best friend and you spend time you don’t have listening to them.  How many die to themselves by taking care of an elderly parent, a sick child, someone with Alzheimer’s?  We die to ourselves when the rights of a stranger matter to us although we live in different worlds. This is the definition of love and its force.

All that you treasure, all that makes life worth living is borne of the sacrifices others have made for us and we make for others.  It is not money or naked power that makes the world go round.  It is life giving, sacrificial love that has transformed and changed our lives.

If that is what our love can do, if that is what our flailing imperfect love has done for us, then imagine what perfect love is capable of.  To picture this, let me take you to another hill across the Kidron Valley, one called Golgotha, the place of Skulls.  One more time Jesus extends his arms, no longer meant for Jerusalem, but for the whole world.  The seed has fallen and is about to die.  Forgiveness, redemption, salvation is about to be born.  “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”  We are enfolded within the extension of those arms.  How can we doubt that we are loved, cherished and precious?

If we are to imitate our Lord, let us die to self to live for others.  After all, whoever seeks to save their life, refusing to take risks, to sacrifice, will lose it and whoever surrenders their life, placing others before them, knowing what it means to love, will save it.

3rd Sunday of Lent B
The Gospel ends in a strange way. Jesus “did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.” He gets us. He knows that we love the show, the easy way. You see Jesus has an interesting frustration. It is not that he is failing. People are flocking to him. But they are coming for the wrong reason. They are coming because of the great and powerful deeds known as signs in John’s gospel. And what is wrong with that? Isn’t that what athletes want? Isn’t that what performers want? Homilists? But it isn’t what Jesus wants.
That is what scholars have identified as sign faith. The people Jesus is attracting are caught up in the signs. We like to be around cool people doing cool things. Besides, if you are ailing, he will heal you, if you are hungry, he will feed you. He can even make water into wine and who would not want to be around a guy like that. But like any sign, these miracles are meant to direct you somewhere. Jesus is constantly pointing to the Father, the kingdom and indeed even himself. But they do not look where he is pointing, they only look at the finger that is pointing. And that is not enough. Jesus wants people to have faith not in what he does, but in who he is.
What do you out your faith into? Jesus is acknowledged universally as a moral guide and his teachings have been adopted, at least in theory, throughout the world. And many see this as central to knowing Christ. What he did was remarkable. He took the Ten Commandments, the heart of the law of Israel which he treasured and expanded those beyond the “thou shall nots” and married them to a positive vision of mercy and love. We have found in Jesus the right way to live. But that is not enough.
Do you put your faith in politics? It is usually said that you should never talk about religion or politics. But it seems to me that everyone is talking about politics and no one is talking about religion. It speaks to our priorities. People align themselves with a D or an R and expect to find solutions to what troubles us. Jesus was aware of politics. The cleansing of the Temple is a political act. He did not expect to become the high priest. He found a dramatic way to make a point. And certainly the Gospel has a political outgrowth and consequences, but it not meant to be a football tossed between factions with all claiming ownership of it. A good politics is essential to a better society and we must strive for it. But that is not enough.
Even believing in our beliefs is not enough. In a few minutes we will recite the creed, an important moment that details the critical parts of our faith that we profess to be true. But even saying we believe in the doctrines that bring shape to our faith is not enough to make us a Christian.
What makes us a Christian is what Pope Benedict XVI stressed so much that it was as central to his papacy as mercy is to Pope Francis. What makes us Christian is faith in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. Nothing else will suffice. Love Jesus and the rest are details. Why else would God have made his perfect revelation in Jesus Christ? Why else would the Word of God taken flesh unless it was for us to know him, to have a relationship with him? Fr. Leo likes to say that you cannot love something that cannot love you back. A moral code cannot save, politics will not redeem you and doctrine cannot love you. But Jesus can and he loves you perfectly.
We are almost halfway through Lent. I know because I am on a diet. Let’s make a plan for the rest of Lent. Let us focus on one thing – falling in love with Jesus Christ. Let us deepen our trust in him and feel his love. Don’t make Lent about what you have given up or your discipline or your abstaining from meat. That would be confusing the sign for the destination. Wouldn’t it be a great Lent that when Easter came you could say that I am closer to Jesus than ever before? After all, Christianity is but one thing – faith in a person, our Lord, Jesus Christ.