31st Sunday in Ordinary Time B
When Jesus is asked, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” he does not strain to find an answer. He responds with the scripture that was inside the doorpost of every house, worn in a pendant on heads and prayed every day. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” It literally surrounded Jesus and every day. But he then adds a second scripture from Leviticus and elevates it. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably linked. And it seems obvious as to why. If you love God you should love all that has been created.
That is why it is so painful when the law of love of neighbor is violated. It undercuts all we believe. It is not just a crime against humanity; it is a crime against God. It is unholy. It is a desecration.
Lately, we have witnessed a horrid series of events that are both personal and seismic. In Pittsburgh, eleven people perished for doing what we came here to do – to worship God. Pipe bombs delivered to political enemies remind us once again that we confuse politics with the ultimate when it is meant to serve the ultimate. Our political discourse is only becoming more course, more divisive. And locally, racial taunts were casually tossed at soccer game with heartbreaking affects felt by those assaulted.
The only way to combat this plague is neighborliness. The lovers of God must profoundly state their love of neighbors. And as Jesus reminded us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor is everyone and we are called to treat them with mercy. So we must show mercy by having conversations with our families about racism and telling our African-American friends that we don’t stand with these attitudes and we won’t stand for it. We must show mercy by insisting on civility in politics and not rewarding those who indulge in the ugly and demeaning. We must show mercy by reaching out to our Jewish friends and say we understand that was an attack on all of them and on all of us.
That is what happened on Monday night at Congregation Gates of Heaven where 1100 people overflowed the synagogue in support of the Jewish community and standing up against hate. I reached out to my friend Rabbi Matt Cutler and asked him to reflect on love of neighbor. This is what he shared.
I believe in God with a whole heart. Even when my heart is breaking and I sense there is a lack in justice in the world, I still believe in God. Like Elijah the prophet who searches for the Holy One; he finds God after destruction: “After the fire, there is a still small voice…” I believe that God speaks to me through the love that I find from my neighbors.
The shooting in Pittsburgh during Sabbath morning services has shaken me to my core. It so easily could have been our synagogue, but it wasn’t us. Yet still, I felt vulnerable and alone. Anti-Semitism has raised its ugly head once again. I grope for answers as many in my community did: Where was God? How can we stop such visceral hatred that has turned violent? Why did such rage burn uncheck and unhampered by a sense of sheer compassion for another of God’s creatures? The answers came on Monday evening as over 1100 people filled the synagogue to overflowing capacity. I was not alone in my grief. The Jewish community was not abandoned in their time of pain. Others shared the burden of the pain. Others shared my desire to cry out in anguish. Others shared my sorrow-filled search for justice.
I believe in God because I believe in humanity. I believe that God created us in the Divine image and as a result we are God’s partners in the on-going work of creation. As such, when my neighbors’ arms wrapped around me in a compassionate embrace, it was if God was doing so. I felt the Divine presence as people of various faiths stood and shared on Monday night. When 1100 voices said AMEN, I knew I was not alone. And no words of gratitude can thank those who were present for strengthening my resolve.
I believe in God with a whole heart. And thanks to my greater community, all created in God’s image, God comforted me when I needed my faith the most.
Rabbi Matt’s beautiful words remind us that love of God is the path to love of neighbor. There is a false narrative that religion drives a wedge between people; that it is a source of evil. The opposite is true as shown by Monday night at Gates of Heaven. We desperately need communities of people dedicated in their essence to love of one another grounded in the love of God. Religion does not divide us, it unites us. The worst people in history and the most hateful of individuals always strike at religions. Even when our church is bruised with all its imperfections on full display, our voice is needed and our strength is wanted. We must uphold our values. We must love God and love our neighbor.

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30th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
When Jesus asks without presumption what the blind man wants, Bartimaeus responds, “Master, I want to see.” As we conclude Respect Life month, let us ask the Lord to remove our blindness. “Lord I want to see.”

“Lord I want to see” the dignity of every person you created in beauty.
“Lord I want to see” as you do with compassion and mercy for every person.
“Lord I want to see” and not turn away from the pain of others.
“Lord I want to see” without the blindness of racism, homophobia and xenophobia.
“Lord I want to see” each person as made in your image.
“Lord I want to see” peace blossom where war terrifies and kills.
“Lord I want to see” every young girl around the world receive an education.
“Lord I want to see” every impoverished child have food to eat to nourish dreams as bold as anyone else’s.
“Lord I want to see” the courage of the immigrant seeking to save their family from hunger and violence.
“Lord I want to see” an unborn child not as a political issue but as a beautiful blessing filled with grace and unending potential.
“Lord I want to see” a worker receive a just wage and safe conditions as a human right.
“Lord I want to see” houses of worship free from terror so that at least some places remains sacred.
“Lord I want to see” the refugee with sympathy and not fear.
“Lord I want to see” those who speak truth to power protected.
“Lord I want to see” leaders who serve the people, not themselves.
“Lord I want to see” those at war in far away places and in very near families and serve as a peacemaker so that we all may be God’s children.
“Lord I want to see” our brothers and sisters in faith free to worship without terroristic threats.
“Lord I want to see” every student be safe in their school.
“Lord I want to see” the violence of guns muzzled.
“Lord I want to see” those with mental illness live without stigma and honored for their struggle.
“Lord I want to see” dignity in every death in God’s time, the most noble time.
“Lord I want to see” the meek and all those unjustly deprived inherit the land.
“Lord I want to see” every person welcomed in every church.
“Lord I want to see” people in every land determine their government and not suffer under the scourge of tyranny.
“Lord I want to see” each person receive healthcare regardless of wealth for what is the value of life without being able to live it.
“Lord I want to see” God’s creation cherished for what it is: the first sign of divine grace.
“Lord I want to see” every child of every race have the same chance.
“Lord I want to see” no one hurt again by ignorant words and hateful attitudes.
“Lord I want to see” the disabled be known for their abilities.
“Lord I want to see” every family valued as the heart of society.
“Lord I want to see” those persecuted for the sake of righteousness have their reward a little earlier.
“Lord I want to see” you in the hungry, the thirsting, the homeless, the imprisoned, the stranger and the ill.
“Lord I want to see” the hidden brokenness in my neighbor so that I may be a healer.
“Lord I want to see” every life respected from conception to natural death.
“Lord I want to see” the walls of oppression come tumbling down.
“Lord I want to see” your peace BE with all people.

And of course the Lord granted the request of blind Bartimaeus so that he could see and then told him to go on his way. Now with sight, Bartimaeus could follow his own path. And the path he chose was to follow Jesus to see even more. Let us follow as well. “Lord I want to see.”

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
How kind of the church to give us a lesson on leadership just a couple of weeks out from election day. It is perfectly fair to want our leaders to lead with the character and goals of Jesus Christ. But that is not the only leadership we need to concern ourselves with. We are all leaders. When we were baptized we were anointed with Chrism to conform to Christ as priest, prophet and king, so awesome is the dignity of that moment. Every Christian is called to be a leader in the classroom, on the job, among our friends and in our families. Can we lead like Jesus?
First off we must define what Christian leadership looks like. I think when people think of Jesus as a leader, they go to two extremes. One is fire and brimstone Jesus who has clearly set out rules that must be obeyed or we will perish in agony. Jesus’ leads by withholding love, mercy and salvation. The second extreme is hippie Jesus. Sure he has a point of view but he is mellow about it. “Hey man, here is what I think, but if you are not down with it, that’s cool; we can still be bros.” I hope it is apparent that both ideas are off base. Jesus cared passionately about our response to his offer of salvation and peace, but always did it with love and generosity.
So let us dismiss the myths (a lot easier to write by the way than to say.) I can understand how some perceive Jesus as filled with anger, a harsh judge. He is strong and forceful in his words and bold in his actions. Yet, he decries the leadership of the gentiles who “lord” their power over those they rule. He castigates them for how “their great ones make their authority over them felt.” In other words, they enforce with punishment and threats. Their authority is not based on love and justice. It is simply “Might makes right.” But when did Jesus did not care for love and justice? Jesus, the mightiest one insists on another way. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” The only way Christian leaders make their authority felt is complete responsiveness to the needs of those they serve. It is the story of Christ, who “came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
At the other pole is hippie Jesus. It seems to me that this misperception comes from a failure to distinguish that there is more than one kind of power. Just because someone does not use coercion, does not mean the subject is not critical. Jesus demanded a response of his call to repentance and belief and he thought a matter of life and death; actually something more important than that – eternal death or eternal life. The fact that he will not force people to choose him does not mean making the right choice is less imperative.
So what does this Christ-like leadership look like? I can think of at least four distinguishing characteristics. First, it is always non-violent. Yes, that means physical non-violence but it also excludes threats and manipulation. Jesus insists that we are free to love for there is no other way to love. He is seeking conversion, a new person with a new heart, not a prisoner following against their will. He recognizes that how you attain your followers as a leader will dictate what kind of followers you will have. Only loving leaders have loving followers.
Secondly, the leader must be a servant leader. In other words, no one is beneath putting away the chairs. If there is a job under the purview of the leader, the leader should be willing and able to do it. Concern with status is the mistake of James and John when they asked to sit at the right and left of Jesus in his glory. There should be no separation between the leader and the people of the shepherd and the flock as we have learned painfully in the church. Otherwise, you are left with unconnected ivory tower leadership that looks down and does not understand the people they lead. That is the worst kind of leadership.
Thirdly, the leader must be willing to suffer. When Jesus asks James and John, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” the brothers do not understand the cup is suffering and the baptism is the cross. The leader who does not accompany the slowest and the weakest, who fails to protect the most vulnerable is not worthy of the position.
Finally, the only measure of the Christian leader is how they loved and served and it will be reflected in how those who follow love and serve as well. This is a very different metric of leadership, but it is the one most needed now.
We will not always succeed. Sometimes I want to coerce and manipulate. Sometimes every cell in my body wants to give a massive guilt trip to anyone who has stopped coming to mass. Sometimes I fail at the other extreme and fail to share a hard truth with people I love. But when I have led well, and more often when I have been led well, it truly is Christ leading us to peace and light. Lead like Christ, and your life will be a parable as to what it means to be the servant of all.

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

I was blessed to have Fr. Frank Matera a renowned scripture scholar as a teacher and a couple of times I got to interact with him in a smaller setting.  We were talking about this Gospel passage and I suggested that the rich man’s face fell because he had so many possessions, but he still gave it all up and followed Jesus.  Fr. Matera looked at me with something less than the compassion that Jesus showed the rich man and said, “Bob, that’s not what happened.”  But that makes such a good ending!

We all want the bible to say what we think it should say.  It is especially true with the “hard sayings” of the bible, such as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  People having been trying to get around this since the apostles first heard it.  Some have suggested there was a narrow gate in the Jerusalem wall called the eye of the needle through which a camel could just barely maybe squeeze through.  In the great comic novel The Book of Bebb by Frederick Buechner, his character Brownie, who had a talent for making “the rough ways of scripture smooth” claimed the true translation is, “It is as easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a needle to pass through the eye of a camel.”  We always want scripture to bend to our will rather than our bending to the will of scripture.

And that makes sense for there is a lot on the line.  Our ego is tied to our possessions; we define ourselves by what we do and have.   Ultimately, Jesus is asking us to surrender.  To surrender the stuff that we use to identify ourselves so that we may take our identity from him.  The problem is no one wants to surrender, give up or give over.  We argue against it.  “Never give up.”  “Never surrender.”  After all, only victors build monuments at places of surrender, not those who surrendered.

Yet, Jesus dares to ask for all of us.  To shed whatever prevents us from joining him on the journey of mercy, redemption and love.  What is it that you hold onto?  It need not be material things.  We refuse to surrender our grudges, our anger, our lack of forgiveness and our pride.  We claim, almost always rightfully so, that we have a right to these things.  But they do not travel well on the journey of love.  We have a right to be angry, but living in our anger is self-defeating.  We have a right not to forgive and should not forgive too soon, but a world without mercy grows only in coldness.  We have a right to be proud, but it limits our relationships.  All these attitudes are nothing more than a choice.  If we hold onto them, we cannot explore the path to peace and salvation.  If we give them up, we walk with Christ.

I read this from an Instagram poet so let’s first deal with the fact that there is such a thing as an Instagram poet.  “Your life should consist of making yourself happy before giving your laughter away to someone else.”  Well the thing that makes me happy is giving away my laughter to someone else.  My sense of self comes not from my possessions, but what I have surrendered; what I have given away to love, to care, to be vulnerable with and for another for there is no moving forward without leaving something behind.  I say this to couples all the time.  “When you married your spouse you rejected literally billions of people, many of them smart and attractive.”   There is a reason we say we “fall” in love, a definitive surrender to a power bigger than ourselves.

Of course, isn’t this the story of Jesus, the one who was hailed by a choir of angels at his birth, who had kings leave gifts at his manger, who healed with such formidable power and then gives himself up on the cross?  He has nothing because he has given it all away.  Jesus promises his anxious apostles that they will receive a hundredfold for all they have given up.  Surrender the possessions that stop you from journeying toward love and you will find mercy, justice, and peace in heavenly measure.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
I think most of us are aware that there are two stories of creation in the book of Genesis. They do not contradict each other as much as they complement one another. That makes sense. After all, God is too big and the story of creation is too important to be portrayed from one perspective. In the first story of creation, God is powerful and majestic and indeed God is. God says, “Let there be light,” there is light and it is good and that is that. In the second story of we have a portrait of God as intimate and caring, literally getting his hands dirty making Adam out of mud and developing a relationship with him. Both stories are revelatory of a God who is both powerful and intimate. As to which story you prefer, it is a kind of a personality test. If you like order and efficiency, you might be drawn to the first story. If you like chaos and dialogue, the second story fits. You might not be surprised that I am a second story kind of guy.
Look how concerned God is for the man God has made. Man was created out of love and God recognizes that to be complete, the man must have something to love. So God creates everything else to find “a suitable partner” like Edison searching for the right filament. (GE reference!) It is a glorious failure for although the man rejects each living creature as a partner, the world is now populated by all beautiful things. Then with artistic insight, God realizes the man does not need something wholly other, just a little different. So God begins with the man’s rib, for how much similar can you get. And it solves everything. The man exclaims, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” This is not just the story of man and woman, it is the story of all of us. We need each other. As Johnny Camarari says in Moonstruck, “God took the rib of a woman and now there is a space that needs to be filled.”
Catholic social teaching has a great word for this – solidarity. We are connected, meant for each other. We are made of the same stuff, the same Spirit, from the same creator. It is why we believe that we can find Christ in anyone because we know we share God as our origin. We sense this in the way we are drawn to our families and then we see it extend to our relatives, friends and communities. Hopefully, we see the bond as so strong that it encompasses everyone, especially the poor, the broken, the struggling in such a way that when anyone is hungry, we feel the pangs; when anyone is a victim, we know their pain; when anyone suffers violence, we carry the scars; when anyone experiences war, we share the horror. I have been around people who are hurting and even dying this week and have thought that the great promise of creation is not that everything works our perfectly. It is that we are there for one another.
So it is troubling when the first promise of creation, this original bond seems so threatened. Yet it is hard to deny that we seem to be dissembling into further and further factionalism. People seem to be seeking out those who belong to their own tribe and limiting their dialogue and understanding to those they agree with. We are having a harder time bridging gaps of understanding and civility. We need a return to a sense of solidarity – to a sense of needing every one.
I know I need you. You are my missing rib. I do not feel complete without you. Let us build on this sense of family because if we cannot have it here, where else will it appear? Let it matter that we share the same parish and profess the same beliefs. Make sure we say hi in the grocery store and wave to each other in the hallway just because we belong here. Let us build a sense of inclusion so strong to ensure this a place where people know they will be trusted, cared for and believed. And pray that the feeling radiates outward until we all grow in recognition of our need for each other again, until we mirror the God who formed each of us by divine hands and made us for each other, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
There are two birds associated with the Holy Spirit. We are all familiar with the dove, ancient Christian art often uses another representation, a wild goose. Those are two very different images. The hovering of the dove is a peaceful and abiding presence, but the wild goose is something else. It speaks of the unpredictability of the Spirit that may be chased, but is rarely caught.
The first reading speaks of the goosiness of the Spirit. A portion of the spirit that enlivened Moses is to be shared with seventy-two people as a cloud descends upon them. Two people do not show up. What they could have been doing that was more important than receiving the spirit from a holy cloud, I have no idea. But it turns out they are prophesying just as the others who were present. Joshua asks if they should be stopped. Moses refuses to silence them. “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!”
That is a daring thing to say. Prophets are needed, immeasurably important to our church and the world. But they are also problematic. They are obsessed with the truth. They are persistent and frankly inconvenient. If you want prophets, you will not escape the truth.
So it is understandable that prophets are sometimes resisted. The Church is to express the Holy Spirit, not contain it. However, it is not surprising that sometimes those in power do not want to have such a nuisance as this wild goose of a spirit. You might think that is because we are big and an institution. And we are. But even when the church was as primitive as it could be, when it was just Jesus and his disciples roaming the Galilean countryside, there was tension. A man using Jesus’ name has successfully expelled demons but he is not one of their company and John suggests they stop him. Jesus, who was famously anti-demon, does not intervene, arguing, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He knows his name when evoked with the Gospel has power and he will not squelch the fire.
That same Holy Spirit lives within you and it produces prophets everywhere. Oh my God do we need prophets. Our Church needs prophets who will speak truth to power, who will set a new vision that heeds the voice of the faithful. And if it appears the ears of the Church are stopped, then shout louder, sing more bravely a new harmony. Our politics need prophets of conciliation and understanding who oppose the screeds of those who care only for leverage and power. We need prophecy in our relationships for without the Spirit, how would we dare to say “I love you” and how would we dare to say a challenging truth to prove that love. We have been dipped in holiness. We were made to be prophets.
But maybe you are thinking that is not me. I get it. When I first thought God might be calling me to priesthood, I was fully aware of all the reasons I should not be a priest. I mean fully aware. But ultimately I trusted in the Spirit. I remember my first time I baptized a child. It was Mark and Marianne’s daughter Emma, and my friends Diana and Fred were there with their first child and I was nervous. Who wants to mess up their first baptism? At the end I asked Fred how I did and he said it was surreal. “It was like Marianne and Mark were pretending to be parents, and we were too and you were pretending to be a priest… and they were all letting us get away with it.”
That feeling never leaves you. How many times have you looked at the board in your classroom and think, “I will never learn this,” yet somehow you master it? How many times have you felt overwhelmed by your job and think you could not handle it, but you do? Did you really feel qualified when you brought you child home the first time? Life seems to call us to grab on to the tail of this wild goose and let it lead us. There is a gap between what we expect of ourselves and what we can really achieve. That gap is filled by grace; it is filed by the Holy Spirit.
We are the confident and blessed people of God. The cloud of holiness did not miss us. Only you have your particular experience, only you know how God’s love has shaped you. You are an unrepeatable miracle and no voice can replace your voice. Only you can tell the story of the Gospel in your life. Only you can be the Gospel in the life of others. “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!”

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Jesus has just spoken of being handed over to those who would torture and kill him before he rose from the dead three days later. The incredibly uncurious apostles do not understand and as no questions for their minds seem to be on other things. Jesus hears them talking and when they return home, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” The Gospel says they remained silent for they had been caught, like teenager caught. I actually imagine it was not quite silence but in a conversation that might seem familiar they mumbled and finally blurted out, “Nothing.”
You see, they were speaking about the worst possible thing at the worst possible time. As Jesus was talking about sacrifice and complete surrender to the will of God, they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. And you know they were not arguing who was the most selfless because it is self-incriminating to brag about how humble you are. They were preening with pride while Jesus was predicting his humiliation and loss. It would be like if your friend had been laid off and wanted to unburden their fears about supporting the family and you were whispering to one another about how excited you were about an expensive vacation. Not cool.
Jesus of course knows what they are talking about just as parents always seem to know. It is not that he does not need his disciples to be great for he is about to entrust the Gospel to them, But they need to be great according to his understanding of greatness. It must be a greatness directed by selflessness and humility. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
To prove his point, the Gospel relates, “Taking a child, he placed it in their midst.” (By the way, if you want proof the Gospels were written by men, notice how Mark refers to the child as an “it.” Can you imagine a woman doing that?) Why did he illustrate his point with a child? Is it that children are cuter, more innocent or simply better? They might be all those things but I believe the reason he chose a child is because, as we are painfully aware, children are more vulnerable and more needful.
The glory and the heartbreak of parenthood is that children need parents less and less. The arc runs from depending on parents for everything to hoping they may consider your advice. A child is a perfect image for what Jesus wants to project on his disciples for he would have them depend on God the way a child depends on others. “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.” The power Jesus calls us to possess is not a monument to our success or to power to manipulate others. It is what he exhibited in his life – to rely only on God.
The other morning while flipping through stations looking for inspiration in the least likely place, cable television, I came upon Joyce Myers, the only evangelical preacher I enjoy. She was saying that when we first become convicted in Christ we feel a stirring of holiness within us and we want to change our lives. She said resist that desire to change. Instead, think of how you will yield to the Holy Spirit. Changing ourselves is simply another moment to make it about us just like the disciples on the road. However, to yield to the Holy Spirit, to depend completely on God, is to rid ourselves of ego and follow the true way of discipleship.
This is the mark of true humility. Humility does not consist of doing something well, having someone compliment you and then saying it was not that good. That is lying. True humility sees everything as a gift from God and refers back to the source in thanksgiving.
Jesus Christ still needs great disciples, now as much as ever. But it must be on Jesus’ terms, not our own. We must be humble, vulnerable and needful of our God. It is the only measure of greatness for Christ.