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.

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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.

Christ the King B
The Gospel stops short of the best line. After Jesus speaks of truth, Pilate responds, “What is truth?” It is an important and current question. Back in seminary, I took some young people to our Good Friday service, and as John’s passion was read and Pilate dramatically intoned “What is truth?” one of the young people looked at me and smiled and shrugged. He had a point and it has only become harder since then to answer the question.
So let us wade into what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness.” There are a few aspects to consider. First there is objective truth – that in reality something is what it is. If I say this is a chair, I expect everyone to know it is a chair. It is the basis for communication. Some questions are harder such as “Is Jesus God?” We have an answer for that of course, and others may disagree, but the one thing we know is that Jesus cannot be God and not God. Something cannot be something and not something.
Of course, there is a tendency to over-objectify, to make everything black and white. For example I can say that it is better to be a Met fan or a Yankee fan; I would rather be cold or hot; all Catholics should root for Notre Dame and you would know that only one of those is objectively true. (I won’t share which.)
On the other hand, some would say that there is no such thing as objective truth. There are only versions of the truth. This would be called relativism. Everyone has a right to their own truth and it would be wrong to impose my truth on yours or expect you to live by my truth. It is wonderful for freedom and independence. However, its drawback is that with the ground of truth constantly shifting for one person or another, how do you find a place to stand? I believe we need common ground. When we come to a traffic light, we want everyone to believe that red means stop.
Objective and relative theories of truth have been around for a long time. But I want to add a third category- internet truth. These are truths that are held so strongly, one cannot admit the possibility of being wrong. The great show “The Good Place” described something very rare on earth by saying it was as rare as someone writing on the internet, “You make a good point. I guess I was wrong.” It never happens. Twice I saw something so dumb I had to point it out hoping for a moment of enlightenment, but all I received was a cascade of comments saying how dumb I was. I should have known better. But it is good to think you might be wrong. It is humble and freeing to not always need to be right. It is also the beginning of dialogue and civility.
So we too might want to offer a big shrug to the question of “What is truth?” But we cannot for we are followers of Jesus Christ and he makes clear that truth is the heart of his mission. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” We must belong to the truth to belong to Christ the King.
So how do we navigate this landscape of truth? How do we belong to the truth which is neither black and white, which allows freedom and diversity while still giving solid ground to view the world? I think we can find our answer in the readings of a couple of weeks ago when Jesus was asked “Which commandment is the greatest?” He boiled it down the essence of the essences. We must love God and our neighbor. The rest is kind of details. Important details but still not as critical as the direction the truth takes us. To belong to Christ, let us commit ourselves to this paramount truth. Let love of God and neighbor alone govern our vision. Let us build our world from the truth that God loves us and our greatest vocation is to love one another.
What would such a world look like? It would not automatically give us policies and programs. But it would set us on the right course with a common hope. How shall we belong to the kingdom of which Jesus preaches? If you belong to this kingdom, you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. If you belong to this kingdom, you value God’s word and God’s people. If you belong to this kingdom, you love what God loves and what God created. If you belong to this kingdom, you give thanks to God for everything and reflect that thanks in worship. That is how we would love God.
If you belong to this kingdom, you treasure the sacredness and dignity of every life. If you belong to this kingdom, you don’t ask should we help the poor, only how do we help the poor. If you belong to this kingdom, you show compassion and mercy every opportunity you have. If you belong to this kingdom, you seek justice; you are a peacemaker. That is how we would love our neighbor.
And if you belong to this kingdom, everyone would now what you stand for and why. They would know you are a Christian and we would be singing the song the world has been waiting us to voice. The Greek philosopher Archimedes claimed that if he were given a place to stand and a lever, he could move the world. Let our place to stand be our belief in Christ and let truth be our lever and we can build a kingdom.

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.

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.