Baptism of the Lord C
All of us some of the time and many of us most of the time use negative motivation in our lives. We put tremendous pressure on ourselves. We value our worth based on our success. In other words, we are utilizing the fear of failure to move us. We say things like. “I will be ruined if this does not work out.” Or “If I let everyone down, no one will like or respect me.” Success then is the border not between doing something well or poorly; it is the border between whether I am good or bad. We weaponize our insecurity.
This works well enough to deceive us. We use our fear of failure and we get the good grade, we finish the project, we have our fastest time. Then we give credit to our fear. However, now we have invited fear to always be at our door, in our thoughts. And we are only one mistake, one bad day from feeling like a failure.
This attitude can even creep into our prayer. Religion is not above negative motivation. Hell is the most successful negative motivator ever. But even if you are not afraid of Hell, guilt we do the trick. We turn to God and say not just that I am sorry, but I am bad, unworthy of your love. This happens to me when I bring my frustrations to God in prayer. I pray, “I am not a good servant. You must be disappointed. I am a bad priest.” Then having finished my rant, I pause and hear a slight chuckle and a voice that says, “Yeah Bob that is exactly what I was thinking.” We have that kind of relationship. It is a little funny and a little sarcastic. It serves as a reminder that God is never non-supportive or demeaning. God is light and encouragement. I was simply letting my words and fears block God from saying the words I need to hear.
I bring this up because there is a subtle difference in Luke’s account of the baptism of the Lord than the other Gospels. Yes, the dove appears in bodily form and yes, the voice from heaven is heard. But it is not the result of the baptism. It comes as Jesus is praying after this stirring event at a critical moment as he is about to embark on his public ministry. Do you think God used negative motivation? Can you imagine a voice thundering from the heavens and saying, “You are my beloved son. Don’t mess it up?” Or “Not to put any pressure on you but the salvation of humanity is riding on your shoulders.” Did God say, “Son, you better keep up the family name?” No, he said the most positive words possible. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
God knew the best way to guide his son and how to guide us. God chooses love over fear. Think about those words. “You are my beloved Son.” Go through this confident you belong to me; I have your back. “With you I am well pleased.” Know that you are loved. This gives Jesus all the faith and confidence to accomplish his mission. God wants to do the same for us. Let us run to the light of grace and away from fear. We do not live one step from the abyss, but we are being transformed from glory into glory. We are raised up by God to do good things. Our God believes in us.
So if your prayer (and your life) is filled with anxiety and negativity. If your prayer depresses, represses or oppresses, run to the sunlight and away from fear. Hear what God truly wants to say to you:

You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased. I am lost in the beauty of what I have created in you. You too are filled with grace like my beloved son and his Virgin mother. Unlike them, you will make some mistakes, but that is o.k. I want you to experience forgiveness so that you might offer it to others. I have made you stronger, wiser and more lovable than you will ever know. Come journey with me and come closer to this truth. I smile when you understand your power and goodness and I love the things you cannot stand in yourself. I did not make you to be perfect or above suffering. I made you like a jigsaw piece so that you might not exist by yourself but be clamped one to another. So that nose, that weight, that intellect, that phobia, that grade, that shyness, that hesitancy, that blunder – I love it all and wait patiently for you to love it as well. I am not going anywhere; you can never put me off. Even if a mother could unfathomably forget her child, I will never abandon you. I am here to forgive your sins, to heal your brokenness and to cheer your triumphs. Heaven was too far away so I placed my Spirit within you. It is my Spirit that pulses your blood, that colors that wonderful imagination, that falls in love. I have planted forever within you and mean for you to come home to me. You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.

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Epiphany 2018
God used to be in our way all the time. You could not avoid God in your daily life. It was certainly true in Jesus’ time. Every moment was shaped by the law of God: what utensils you used, what food you ate and with whom you ate it, even how and when you bathed were signs of your relationship with God. And so it was throughout the centuries. I can imagine my grandmother’s hometown in Italy where the church bells were a summons and the church stood in the middle of town for it was the middle of life. When these churches and our school was built in the fifties, it was more than just a place to worship; it was where dances were held, where you met your friends – a second home. Even in my childhood, there was no competition on Sunday mornings. Everything was closed. You could not buy gasoline. And we were glad for it because Dad got to go to church with us because by New York State law, the bar he owned could not open up until noon.
It was a sign that life pivoted around God. God at the center of our lives and our culture. But we obviously do not live in those times now. Everything is open. Even sports teams hold practices on Sunday mornings. God now is caught only by our peripheral vision on on the side of the highway; a blurred object easy to ignore. God is not in the way. We live in the age of the Magi. We have to seek out God.
The story of the Magi might even suggest why faith is not so central now. No one who seeks Christ merely finds him. We experience him and we are changed by the encounter. The Magi met Jesus and offered their best stuff: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We too are called to leave our best with Jesus for our gifts, talents and blessings are not ours, but God’s. It really is a question of ownership. God is the origin of our gifts and they must have been given to us to share with all. There is a problem however. We like our stuff and want to keep it. We are called to surrender what we treasure the most; to lay at the feet of Christ so he can employ these gifts for all. And that bring us to the second problem of the Magi. They are told in a dream to depart by another way to avoid Herod. We are encouraged by our encounter with Jesus to take a path not of our own choosing. Our calendars, agendas and goals change. Even our purpose is redirected to follow the way of the Lord. Living life for others changes our definitions. Justice is not a reflection of how fairly I have been treated, but what is fair to all. Peace is not what makes me feel good, but the necessary condition for all to thrive. Love is not about how well I am loved, but how well I have loved.
Then why bother? Why not go with the flow of traffic and leave this inconvenient God by the side of the road? Why surrender and sacrifice our precious gifts? Why give others an advantage by putting them first? Because it is what the designer of the road has asked from us. It was meant to be shared by all and not walked in isolation for that is a guarantee of desolate loneliness. To live for one’s self is the opposite of love for that always begins with the other. Instead we are called push the boundaries of love and grace. To connect, to share and to bless. To make love the only measure of our success.
Let us choose the way of the Magi. Let us seek out God for there we find our humanity and are blessed with Christ’s divinity. Let us surrender our best for investing it in others leads to a hundred fold return. Let us take the path the Lord provides and walk in the soothing sunlight of mercy. Let us follow the star that leads to our salvation.

Holy Family C
Jesus is twelve in this story. The finding of Jesus in the Temple is the only tale we have of Jesus between the infancy narratives and the beginning of his public career. And he is such a twelve year old, isn’t he? When his distraught parents finally find him among the rabbis in the Temple precincts, he tells them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I think someday an ancient text will be found that actually discovers he said, “Mom and Dad you are embarrassing me. Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” This is not sin as frustrating as it must have been. He is trying to grow into his faith, into that particular relationship he had with his Father.
But he not only sounds like one, Jesus is acting like a twelve year old in the best sense as well. He has questions and he is asking them. I had never thought of that because of how artists have depicted this scene. They usually portray him lecturing, teaching the teachers. But that is not what the text says. It says, Jesus was in the midst of the teachers and he was, “listening to them and asking them questions.” Sure they are astounded by his understanding, but Jesus is clearly there to be filled, not to fill others. He is growing in faith and understanding. If that is Jesus’ goal, it should be ours as well.
Questioning is a good thing. It is how we learn. But we are fearful of questioning faith. It need not mean losing faith. Questioning does not need to lead to doubting and doubting does not equate with denial. Instead, they are the way to knowledge. The trouble is not questioning faith; it is that we are not good at facilitating those questions – in our church, in our culture and in our homes. The goal of our faith formation program is not just to instill knowledge, but to spur discussion for parents are called to be the first teachers in the ways of faith. Our goal is to make holy families. It might not surprise you in my twelve years here that some young people have lost their faith. What really saddens me though is that only one person came to me to talk to me about it. We go to doctors when we are sick, but when we struggle spiritually, we seem to do it all alone.
Yet, when we do insist on sharing our questions and even expressing our doubt beautiful things happen. Speak of God and relationships change. The teachers at St. Kateri’s have told me that something special occurs when it is time for religion. They are all on the same side. They care for each other. The air in the room seems to change. I remember one night last summer when our youth ministry kids were with Lisa and I and spent an hour asking theological questions, usually answering each other. I was in heaven. But what I truly loved was that in growing closer to God, they were growing closer to each other. That is how it goes with God talk.
There is an intimacy in talking and asking about God that is intense. Perhaps it is why we shy away from it. Understanding God will bring us great comfort, but it will also challenge our assumptions and our fears. You might think those fears are what you wish to be rid of, but they act like familiar furniture in our mind. We are used to it. It might cause some back pain but we have grown so familiar with it, that we don’t remember it need not feel like that. But to be reminded that we are loved and strong and beautiful is exactly the cure and the truth we need to share with each other. We need the theological insight to see ourselves as God sees us.
New Year’s begins this week, so why not make a resolution? Let us question and listen and share our faith as Jesus did for that is how we grow. Go deep. If you are stumped we have a great adult faith formation program. (Kris Rooney says she does not have all the answers but some even better questions.) You can email me. Do you know how much I would appreciate an email about God in the midst of all my other emails? Keep asking and listening for that is how we grow closer to God and one another. After all, isn’t that how we fall in love?
Dare to talk of the things of God. Dare to understand yourself from the standpoint of grace. Dare to be a witness to love. Then we can be like the Lord as we grow in wisdom, age and the favor of God.

Christmas 2018
Eleven months ago I was in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity. The main entrance to the church is famously the “Door of Humility.” Originally built to keep camels and other large animals from wandering into the sacred space, it has been rebranded to remind us that in this place the very word of God took flesh and became small and vulnerable. The door is about four feet high and about two feet wide and I am both taller and wider. I was fearful the door of humility might be for me the door of humiliation. However, I contorted my way and entered the church that honors the birth of Jesus.
There were many small doors throughout the church I had to duck under. It is as if those seventh century Byzantines were not building a church for a large 21st century American. Eventually, we wended our way through beautiful chapels and came to the sacred site. We descended a set of stairs for the holiest places in the Holy Land are always below ground as cities have been literally built up in the last two thousand years. There beneath an altar, just a few feet away from the chapel of the manger is a fourteen pointed star that marks the very spot where Jesus was born. As awesome as that was, its significance deepened when my friend Fr. Tim reminded me this is not just where Jesus was born; this is where God entered the world.
Here was the moment that changed the world forever, a cosmic moment. For here the creator of humanity became human; here the division between God and humanity collapsed into one; here, the membrane that separates heaven from earth disappeared. Here everything changed. Peace and divine grace invade the world. It is the miracle that makes all other miracles possible. All because a baby was born right here.
But there is something remarkably ordinary about this extraordinary event. For all the miracles that surround the birth – the annunciation that proclaims the virgin Mary is to have a child, a host of angels singing of glory to shepherds in the fields a mile away, a star above the stable that will draw wise men bearing gifts, nothing that miraculous occurs at the birth. Luke only tells us, “She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” Even the sign given the shepherds by the angel is underwhelming. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” In other words, go into town and you will find a baby dressed like a baby.
But I would stop short of saying the birth is not miraculous. I’d rather say that Jesus shared with us the same miracle that began our lives. He entered the world just as each one of us did. For it is life he shared with us and life he treasured. We are to do the same with the miracle of our birth.
There is a prayer said silently at the altar as the water mixes with the wine. “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” We are lifted up to the space of divinity as Christ takes on the flesh of humanity. And all we are, despite our faults, sins and shortcomings are capable of containing and even exuding God. God entered the world in one place so God could be every place. And now the very air we breathe is shot full of peace and grace and love. The miracle of Christmas is the transformation of the ordinary.
So let us be clear as to what we are celebrating here. Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation and as Jesus took on our flesh we now share in his Spirit. His incarnation is now lived out among us, by us, so that we might be Christ for others. The flesh that Mary held in her arms that first Christmas is the flesh we extend our hands to others in service. The cry he let out attunes our ears to the tears and the heartbreak of the world. The joy of the Mary and Joseph is the joy we share with the world for our God is not foreign and we are not forgotten. Our God is among us! Christmas is a part of us for Jesus is a part of us. Let his incarnation remind us the irreplaceable beauty and love of each of us possesses. Let us be the incarnation and Christmas the world awaits for his flesh is our flesh, his peace is our peace and his love is our love.

3rd Sunday of Advent C

When a prophet is around, you should ask them questions. They have a way of looking into the future.  Not in a “are the Giants going to cover the spread?” kind of future, but they have such an intimate knowledge of God, they can see where things are going.  They have the ability to note God’s presence, and perhaps more importantly, where God is lacking.  So if you are blessed enough to be around a prophet, ask the most important question, “What should we do?”

It is asked by those who stream to the Judean desert to ask John for baptism.  He tells them, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none.  And whoever has food should do likewise.”  To tax collectors, Jews collecting for the Roman Empire and notorious for their greed, he demands, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”  They must be fair – not exploitive.  And to the soldiers, another group mysteriously drawn to John, he warns them they must not abuse their power through extortion and false accusations.

Those answers still hold up as we try to build the kingdom of God now.  John’s advice still adheres as we prepare the way of the Lord.  We should be more charitable not only for the obvious difference it makes in the lives of others, but to increase our awareness of our brothers and sisters and our connectedness to each other.  We should be aware of the pitfall of greed that separates us and instead let the Spirit allow us to grow in mindfulness of the moment and not be consumed with the next conquest.  And we should carefully guard how we use our power as he urged the soldiers.  For we all hold power either in our schools, at our work or among our families.  We should exercise that power as Jesus did with compassion and mercy.  You would be amazed what happens when the more powerful figure asks for forgiveness to the less powerful one.  For example, power becomes authentic when a parent asks forgiveness from their child.

Of course, our church must cry out, “What should we do?” in the midst of scandal and loss.  We must focus on our constant mission to the poor, to care for those who have been hurt the most so that we might regain our moral center.  As John insisted for the tax collectors, the Church must do what is fair by giving the survivors of abuse the opportunity to be heard in our communities so they might be empowered and we might begin to heal together.  And the Church’s power must only be power for and never power over and the only model of leadership worthy of Christ is that of service.

These specific instances of “What we should do?” will never fail.  But I also think John the Baptist is pointing to a wider vision toward how we see the world.  What should we do?   We must dare to fall a little more in love with each other.  Imagine how perspectives change when that is our framework.  Instead of waiting in judgment on someone, we would anxiously anticipate what there is to love.  We will not be disappointed.  You know when we ask others, “What do you see in that person?”  What if we really wanted to hear the answer?  Do you realize that every person laughs differently?  Isn’t that amazing?  And because it is different, it resonates in our hearts the way no other laugh could.  We all look and feel and pray differently – an endless array of angles from which we can transform each other’s lives.  If we simply searched for what is lovable, where Christ is, we would be inundated by beauty.  It would overwhelm us.

Through his wisdom, his forthrightness and his courage, John naturally aroused suspicion that he might be the messiah himself.  Humbly he rejects the suggestion and promises “one mightier than I.”  He is just the guy getting us ready.  Let us get ready so that when Jesus does come again, we will recognize him for we would have sought him in every person.  We will be prepared for his beauty, for it is what we have seen in every person.  We will accept his love, for we had done our best to love one another at least a little bit the way Jesus has loved us.  That is preparing the way of the Lord.

2nd Sunday of Advent C
Prepare the way of the Lord. Nothing sums up Advent more than those words. As John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Christ, we too are called to prepare the way for Christ coming into our lives. But for John and for us, it is not as easy as we would think. Evidently, there are obstacles in the way – the high mountains and deep valleys, the winding roads and the rough ways.

Why is it hard for the Lord to come to us?  I have a theory. It is not God’s fault. Actually, not being God’s fault is a theological foundation for me. The whole history of God proves it. God created the world that we might be in relationship with the divine. God gave us beautiful things so that God might be known. And in an ultimate way, perfectly, God lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. He was flesh among our flesh, sharing in the humanity he created. God is relentless in coming to us, in being with us.
So it must be we who create these barriers to God’s love and peace. It must be that we have built these mountains, dug these valleys, chosen these circuitous routes and made God’s way to us rough. Never consciously would we do this. We want God’s love and mercy on our lives. Yet we can’t help our circumstances dictate how we receive and perceive the love of God.
Sometimes the obstacles we construct are global and sometimes they are personal and intimate. Does your politics block your faith? The scandals in the church are deeply troubling; do they hinder your relationship with Christ? Or do personal circumstances siphon off God’s love in your life? A wound that does not heal, a broken relationship, always fear. All these have the capacity to cripple or at least disable our friendship with God.
I know what my obstacle is. Being a pastor. Not the stuff that I love like preaching the word, trying to be of service, sharing the life of this great parish family. No, it is the budget and the bills and the boilers, all those things I did not become a priest for. It is the business of the business. And I notice that my prayer focuses not on the peace God can give me but on my “problems.” I fail to account for and trust in the Providence of God for God is the great provider. I should seek God’s peace first then deal with everything else and I am sure all would be well.
But there is good news. Since these are mountains of our own making, we can be the agent of their unmaking. It does not mean that our problems or our situations will disappear, but we can place them in context. And I promise you there is nothing compares with the mercy and love of God. And there is no thing in your life that God’s mercy cannot help transform.
I invite you then before Christmas to choose one barrier in your life and promise that it will not hinder your relationship with God. Choose one element of your life that has blocked the way of the Lord and remove the obstacle. Fill in that valley, lower that hill, choose a straight path and smooth out the road and let nothing stop you from saying yes to the mercy and peace of God.
We are talking about real freedom. The freedom that allows God to come to you, stand by and let you know you are loved. It is what we yearn for and what we were built for. Our Lord wants to come to us as our healer and our hope. We merely have to let him. Prepare the way of the Lord.

1st Sunday of Advent C

Ominous signs will appear.  The sun and the moon and the stars will change.  Waves will rise and the seas will roar.  Nations will be in upheaval.  It will be so bad that the fright of all this actually kills people.  Then the Son of Man will come riding in a cloud into this turmoil.  But it is different for the Christian.  While everyone else is falling apart, the believer, unafraid, will stand erect and lift their heads.  Their redemption is now at hand.

Why is it different for the believer?  It is different because we have a relationship with the one who is to come.  He is our savior, our hope and our friend.  It is different because this is not what we fear, but what we pray for – “Thy kingdom come.”  We are not afraid because we possess something utterly unassailable – the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is pretty important data.  We say it five times each mass.  It frames our vision of how we see everything.  If we trust in the peace of the Lord we know we are blessed, chosen, loved and saved.  We know what everyone wants to know at any time but especially at the most daunting or trying of times, when the winds buffet and the darkness seems to envelop everything.

For many of us, this is an ominous time in our lives or for our nation.  It certainly is a dark time in our church.  We can flee or we can stand erect, lift our heads and demand justice, seek peace and be reconcilers of those who have been hurt.  We must begin to heal and repair from the only strength that endures – the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It was a peace bought at a cost.  The cost of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas, Christ’s life among us, his suffering, the cross and the resurrection. It is the unblinking proof that we are truly loved, truly transformed in his peace.

We all possess this peace.  It was conferred upon us at baptism when we were claimed by the love of Christ.  But we must believe in it and live by it as well.  We must see ourselves as the desired of God.  We must believe in the Gospel and live by its commands.  We must love one another as Christ has loved us.  It is the most pure gift of Christ.  It is the gift the world waits for us to share.

I lied before.  We do not share peace five times each mass.  We share it five time plus all those within a four foot circumference (providing we do not cross aisles.  Catholics don’t do that.  That would be chaos!) with whom we share a sign of the Lord’s peace. Think about when this occurs – right before we receive the Eucharist.  We share Jesus before we receive him, we act as the body of Christ before we consume it.  This is communion among ourselves before communion with God.

Think of what we are doing.  As we prepare for the incarnation of the Lord, when the Word of God took flesh to live among us, we press our flesh into another’s.  Think about what we are sharing.  The peace of Christ within us is the result of the complete self-giving of Jesus.  If we are to share it with others, we must give something of ourselves.  It must be more than a wan wave or is a disinterested nod.  We are forming a community of true concern.  At least for that moment, let them into your life. Pray for them.  Care for them.  When the practice first started in the church, it was known as the kiss of peace.  A kiss was reserved for just family members.  This is a sign that we are a family of believers and lovers of Christ.  And with family, we give our best.

I have a strategy at the sign of peace.  I look around for who might need that peace.  People who are hurting, those who may not have been around lately, certainly anyone sitting alone.  Sometimes I will see a new young couple and get all excited and head over to share peace with them, thinking keep calm, don’t get too excited, act like this happens all the time, and calmly say, “Peace be with you” but deep down I am giddy.

This year it is our intention to welcome all.  But our welcome does not consist of a casual hello.  We are welcoming everyone into something deeper, more profound.   We are welcoming to be a part of true family of believers forming a community of disciples.  We welcome them into the peace of Jesus Christ.

May the Peace of the Lord be with you all.