7th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

I believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a survey of all that we would be capable of if we really knew how beloved we were by God.  But that is the rub.  If we doubt anything primarily, it is our own belovedness, so we are surprised or hold deeply suspicious the challenges Jesus gives us in the Sermon.

For example, last week we were told that to harbor anger against someone is roughly equivalent to murder!  And this week, Jesus charges headlong from the difficult to the near impossible.  In both the law against retaliation, which is really the law against violence, and the command to love our enemies, Jesus demands the seemingly impossible.

“But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.  When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.”  In thirty years of talking about non-violence, I have heard all the arguments against it.  It makes one too weak and vulnerable.  It is irrational, impractical and dangerous.  To which I say, non-violence has been used sparingly and often with great success.  From Martin Luther King’s America, to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe to Cardinal Sin’s Philippines and Gandhi’s India, people have witnessed the power of non-violence.  Or you can merely contrast it with the ugly record of violence and ask what has that gained us other than the scourge of endless war, distorted relationships, a darker culture and broken families.

Violence and non-violence aim for different goals.  Violence seeks the submission of body and will.   Do what is demanded or face consequences to your freedom of survival.  Non-violence seeks the conversion of minds and hearts.  No one has ever changed their heart at the barrel of a gun or at the end of a fist.  Instead, the wisdom of non-violence is that nothing can be forcibly taken if it is freely given.  That is why no resistance is offered to the evil one. If you want to strike one cheek, I will turn the other as well; if you try to take my cloak, I will offer my tunic; if you force to carry something for one mile, I will bear the burden of the second mile freely.  Now the relationship has changed.  Force is replaced by freedom and with freedom comes dialogue and hope.

Remember, we did not need the grace of the crucifixion and the resurrection so that we could know that after you hit, we should hit back.   We have proven we can figure that at on our own.  But the way of Christ, the way of non-violence, opens new horizons of peace that the shadow violence blots out.

So let’s say that we have managed to summon the strength not to be angry and not to retaliate.  Jesus asks us for even more.  Jesus calls us to what almost all scholars say is the greatest challenge of the Gospels.  “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Your enemy.  The one who opposes you and plots against you.  The one who persecutes you, who seeks your ruin.  And Jesus says, we are to take our most precious and divine gifts, to love and to pray, and spend them on our enemies?  Isn’t this finally too much.  Yet, Jesus boldly supplies his logic.  “For he [God] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”  In other words, we are all treated the same for we are all God’s creation.  Just as God is able to wade through my web of sin to see the Christ in me, he does so for my enemy.  He gives up on no one.  Once again, we do not need to be redeemed and loved by God in order to love those who love us.  The least of us figure how to do that.  Jesus came that enemies might be reconciled. So we must see not through our own eyes jaundiced by prejudice and limited perception, but see with the eyes of God who never fails to find the Christ in everyone.

It is no coincidence that Jesus follows the command to love your enemies with the challenge, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” for loving our enemies is as close as we can be to being divine ourselves.  Put the face of Christ on your enemy.  Let me warn you – it will seem disturbing at first.  It will look like a horrible distortion and feel like blasphemy.  But you will have surrendered your vision for God’s.  Your hatred for God’s love.

My friend Fred often teaches a course, “What if Jesus really meant what he said?”  We have tried for two thousand years war, violence and hate.  Look where it has gotten us.  My prayer for the world, our cultures and our families is that we now take Jesus seriously, as if he meant what he said. Turn the other cheek.   Love your enemies.

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Well, judging by Facebook and about a billion conversations, this seems like a good time to talk about anger.

Anger is a strange and complicated thing.  Often, people will confess in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that they were angry and I suggest to them that it is not a sin.  Anger is an emotion, a spontaneous reaction, often justifiable.  Trust me, when the Mets blow a four run year in the ninth inning I am not “choosing” to be angry.  My strongest theological argument is that it certainly appears that Jesus was angry at times. I wasn’t there, but I don’t think he would say things like “You hypocrites!” or “You brood of vipers!” in a lilting and comforting voice.

On the other hand, there is this challenge from the Sermon on the Mount.  “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ’You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”  What kind of anger grows into sinfulness?  I think it turns darker when it controls our vision of the world; when it grows like a tumor to block out hope, peace and reconciliation.  It makes us liable for judgment when we no longer possess anger, but anger possesses us.

A good analogy might be with our anger with God.  Of course we can be angry with God and as long as we have felt pain or utter confusion, I am sure that we have known the feeling.  I think that one of the most beautiful things about our God is that God can absorb our anger and love us no less for it.  Instead, our anger at God has the ability to be converted by God’s constant love for us into forgiveness and mercy.  But what if that anger for God is nurtured too long or too exclusively?  What if God just became simply the repository for our anger?  Then we would not be able to witness God’s blessings or acknowledge God in thanksgiving. Then would have our anger blotted out the light.  Our relationship with God would be toxic.

For Jesus, it all comes down to relationship.  Anger is related to murder because it is the motive.  Anger is related to murder, for when we have closed our minds off and cut off that person from our lives, they become dead for us.  And Jesus never ceased reaching out to everyone.  So words like “You fool” or “Raqa” (which means imbecile) are cut off words endangering the existence of the relationship.  They are murderous words for without dialogue, healing is impossible and the death of the relationship is inevitable.

Look at how much Jesus values relationship.  He says, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  Notice, it is not even a question if you are angry, but if your sister or brother is.  We cannot be made whole, we cannot even present our offerings at the altar unless we are in right relationship with all.

After all, who has ever changed the minds because of name calling?  Has anyone ever called you an imbecile and you thought, “Oh yeah, I forgot I am an imbecile.  You must be right.”  However, by respecting the other, by listening and being open to the other, the possibility of empathy, understanding and reconciliation appear.  Anger gives way to insight and hatred gives way to peace.

So let us never grow too easy or comfortable in our anger.  Let us not see anger as our right without letting it be a launching pad to being made whole. Let us extend ourselves in understanding.  Let us be peacemakers and children of God.  Next week:  part two!

 

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

 

When Ronald Reagan in the eighties used the image of a “shining city on a hill” to describe the United States, it was a point of pride and patriotism.  But in the original setting on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s “City set on a mountain” that “cannot be hidden” sounds more like a warning.  Jesus has shared his truth with his disciples and they know what the kingdom of God consists of.  We do too.

 

We know it is a kingdom of peace.  We know we are to lead with mercy.  We know that it is a place of compassion.  We know it is a kingdom of justice.  That is the stuff of the city on the mountain and the whole world knows it.  Now it seems that strangely enough, both those who are most hopeful about Christianity and those who are most cynical ask the same question.  When you will come down from the mountain and bring forth the kingdom of God?

 

For we are the light of the world.  And there is something special about this metaphor.  Unlike salt that can lose its seasoning, perhaps when the enthusiasm of new found faith dies down, light endures.  Jesus does not say it can be turned off or the oil run dry.  It is a given to those who belong to the kingdom.  The only thing you can do to halt its effectiveness is to hide it.  He seems to be saying that once the word of God is heard, it cannot be unheard; once you know the truth, you cannot think it is a lie.

 

You can only shield a light.  You can put in a bushel basket, which is exactly what we are tempted to do.  We can pack up that light and show it only where we want it to shine, to our family and friends, just within our clique.  We can live highly compartmentalized lives where the best and most loving part of ourselves is seen by but a few.   But we are called not to confine the light.  We must share it – to “set it on a lampstand,” where it can shine brightest and most widely.

 

Light is like the love of God.  It is undefeated.   If you were to light a match in the innermost recesses of the darkest cave, at least where that match burned, light would prevail.  Darkness is just the absence of light or as John’s Gospel reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  So wherever we spread the light of Christ, expect it to make a difference in warming your coolest relationship, in forgiving your must estranged loved one, in finding the soul that needs your love.  For I believe that for your co-worker or the stranger or the kid no one pays attention to in your class – if you merely flicked one ray of your light, it could make the difference between despair and hope.

 

So let your light dispel the darkness of injustice, isolation and persecution.  Aim it at your friend, your family and the stranger.  Trust in its power for it flows from God.  Know that you were called to shine that light and perhaps only your light may reach someone.  You are the light of the world.

 

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Last night I heard Fr. Pat give a terrific homily about the Beatitudes and I was jealous of him.  It is his first go round with the three year cycle.  The Beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount are virgin territory stretching out for weeks.  And here am I on my sixth through.

Yet, there are advantages to being in my position as well.  You can find something relatively hidden and expound on it that you had never considered before and have not heard much discussion.  And so it is with “The Loneliest Beatitude.”  (Doesn’t that just beg to be a children’s book?”)

I divide up the Beatitudes into a few categories.  There are those traits I think any Christian would desire even if they are not always easy to accomplish.   I hope we would want to be peacemakers, merciful and clean of heart.  Then there are those which we do not necessarily invite into our lives but hope to have the courage to pursue:   to possess “poverty to spirit” and to need more Christ in our lives, to have the courage to withstand persecution for our faith and to be so fiercely devoted to righteousness that its lack feel likes the pangs of hunger.  No one desires to mourn but we it is inevitable and it is good to know we will be comforted.  So that leaves us with one last Beatitude.  What is it?  [Nobody answers.]  See, it is the loneliest Beatitude.

“Blessed are the meek.  For they will inherit the land.”   Meekness tends to be neither desirous nor inevitable.  We associate it with smallness, diminishment, being discounted, shoved aside.  The only slightly positive mention I can think of makes it kind of pity as in the great church song of my childhood which said, “Let me be a little meeker, with my brother who is weaker.”   My brother would point at me to say I was the weaker one and would elbow him in the ribs to prove him wrong thereby destroying the point of the song.

And if meekness is not popular, the promise attached to it seems far-fetched indeed.  There is no way to meek will inherit the land.  Land is won historically by struggle, by armies, by taking possession.   I saw an ad for a new show on TNT which I am sure I will never watch but will be highly critically acclaimed.  A character said that land is won only one way – through sin.  The meek inheriting the land would not be a blockbuster in the ratings I suppose.

So what is this meekness?  It is the opposite of pride.  It is the ability to put God and then others first.  Meekness means that we create space for one another.  That we are able to invite the other without fear of exploitation.  That we can occupy the same space without being a threat.  At our gathering sponsored by the Schenectady Clergy against Hate, Methodist minister Sara Baron recalled a homily given by John Wellesley, the founder of Methodism.  Quoting Second Kings, one says to another, “If your heart is my heart than take my hand as well.”  Wellesley goes on to say that they did not say if your opinion is my opinion or if your creed is my creed or if your color or ethnicity is my color and ethnicity.  All that matter is if your heart is my heart.

Meekness might be a critical Beatitude in these days.  A place to share dialogue, to understand with a common purpose.  The attitude of this Beatitude demands that we look at the other with respect and as sharing a common cause.  We do not look for superiority or advantage, but to grow with the experience of delighting with someone in a space and a world meant to hold us all.  And how will the meek inherit the land?  Well if you were not desirous or envious; if you simply wanted what was most righteous and what was best for the other, how could you ever lose?  You would inherit everything.

For all his power, Jesus Christ described himself as meek and humble of heart.   It is why his space included failing disciples, threatening enemies and sinners of every stripe.  It why he let the children come to him.  It why he still opens his arms to us his beloved sinners.  His way of seeing the world is badly needed now.  Let us have the courage to value meekness in imitation of the Lord.

“Blessed are the meek.  For they will inherit the land.”

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

I have always found something mysterious in this reading.  As Jesus walks along the Galilean seashore, he calls his first disciples.  This is not an altar call where he asks anyone willing to follow him to come on down.  He specifically asks four of the fishermen.  They hear him and they leave everything –their nets, their business, their family and everything they had known to follow Jesus into the unknown.

Had Jesus been recruiting them over a period of time and now was the time of decision? Had they heard Jesus speak a number of times and had indicated a willingness to follow?  Or maybe they had never heard Christ before and the voice resonated like destiny in their souls. The Bible gives us no evidence.  All we know that the call had an irreversibly profound determination in their life.

Our own Kris Rooney emailed me on what she called a morning of philosophical musing to suggest that our job is not to bring the light but to jump into the water and everyone know they already possess the light. And surely, she is right (and really smart.)  The light of God shines in all those whom God created.  We need to point to that light so that everyone might know they are already blessed and chosen.

When I thought of this light, the image that came to me was that of a pilot light.  The choice of image surprised me because I am the least mechanically inclined person I know.  Even after I thought of it, I had to look up the definition of a pilot light.  It is that small light without which nothing else can grow from, nothing could get warmer; the larger machine never engages.  Within everyone is a light of God to be nurtured into a living fire.

But Christ’s invitation to the first of his followers reminds me of something else as well.  The light needs tending.  He does not invite the fishermen by saying, “Follow me and your light will grow stronger.”  Instead he says, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men [and women].”  It seems that a light isolated and untended may be extinguished.  The fire grows only by sharing.  Jesus invites those who carry his light to engage the light of others.  To let it spread.  To come and see.

When I was a newly ordained priest, I would hesitate at moments of heartbreak and loss to ask the first question on everyone’s mind, “What happened?” It felt intrusive.  But as I learned to ask, and perhaps it is a privilege of the priesthood, I found that people were eager to tell me.  Tell me every detail.  They were entrusting their light to me when it was most vulnerable to see if it could grow brighter with the gift of understanding and compassion.  This light will only grow stronger when it is shared and met by mercy and love.

So as we say this year, “Come and see” as Jesus did to those fishermen, we hope that you share your light, your story and your faith.  We know when we do this in the name and compassion of Jesus, the light grows stronger, we become the people God sees us as, we are on fire for love. When we share our story we become fishers of men and women as we let them know how transforming and peace filled it is to be loved and chosen by Jesus Christ.  And we give them the space to share their story with us.

This weekend, we could take a full measure of the discord and polarization so many feel in our country.  But as Saint Paul reminds us, “Christ is not divided.”  Our greatest hope is to entrust our stories and our faith to another, to bridge the gaps that separate us and to recognize Christ and his peace is always among us.

Epiphany A 2017

How many of you would you say are comfortable with change?  How many are uncomfortable?  The story of the Epiphany is about how we respond to change.  A star that had not been seen before suddenly appears.  Change is in the air.  When Magi show up in Jerusalem, proclaiming there is a new born king of the Jews, the current king, Herod and all Jerusalem with him “were greatly troubled.”  Change is always a challenge.  What happens next will shape the history of peoples.

There are three possible reactions to the star over Bethlehem.  One is to ignore it.  In all the world, only a few people investigate the phenomenon.  [The Bible never says there are three.]  What about everyone else? It is easy to miss a new star.  Who has time to gaze upon the sky?  We bow our necks, do our work and keep our heads down to avoid trouble and lessen the scope of a far too busy world.  If we catch a glimpse of the change, we hope in our efforts to plow ahead and hope that the change is not meant for us.

Or we could have Herod’s approach to change.  We can reject it and fight it no matter its source.  We can see any change as a threat to a status quo we are comfortable with or benefits us. He closes his fist and his heart to the sign of the star, ready to kill to protect his place. Of course, it was never meant to be, but how differently would history look if the King of the Jews recognized the savior of his people.  But for Herod, change was a threat to be defeated, not a hope to be embraced.

And finally, we can choose the wise way of the Magi.  Upon seeing the star, they determine it a call to action.  They leave everything behind in pursuit of giving honor to the new born king of the Jews.  They travel across hundreds of barren miles in pursuit of that wavering star.  They seek to do homage to the change that God has brought and lay expensive gifts at the foot of the lowly king.

At the beginning I asked you how you felt about change.  Now I ask you if you have ever noticed that your attitude towards change has never prevented it from coming.  In a world literally spinning, we are in the midst of change, invited and uninvited all the time. We never stand in exactly the same space as we did before.

Epiphany still speaks to us for I can guarantee you at the outset of this year, a star will appear in your life.  A star that will invite you to a new horizon. A star that will challenge you.  This star will ask you to forgive what you have never forgiven or to care about what you have never cared for.  This star may ask sacrifice from you.  This star might challenge you to love with greater width or depth.  But I assure you, a star will appear.  For God is asking us to come ever closer, to trust ever more deeply, to find new ways to express the grace we have been given.

And because our God is a god of freedom, we will have a choice- to not notice the star or ignore it.  But its light is meant for you.  Or we can be like Herod and seek to destroy the change that is meant for us; to cut off the blessings of God before we can taste them because our fear overrules our love.  Or we can be like the Magi and seek the star, sacrifice for it and embrace it wholly as God’s truth.

We are called to be continually converted in Jesus Christ.  To go more fully into his life to discover the hidden beauty in our own, to witness colors and dreams beyond our imagination.  A king born to a poor family, a relationship repaired, justice done.  Your star is calling. Answer it and find where Christ is leading you this year.

Solemnity of Mary 2017

Did you ever wonder how Mary and Joseph kept it together?  For the past few weeks, we have heard of their remarkable journey.  It is composed of an unending stream of miracles, prophecies, angels and dreams, all speaking of a life beyond their imagination. Given how outrageously the mission of giving birth and raising God’s son was given to them, how did they handle it so graciously?  Why isn’t there a verse around Luke 2:46 that says, “And then Mary had a panic attack.”

We learn a great deal about why in this Gospel when we hear, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” She did not allow any detail of God’s great plan escape her notice.  She held on to all of them and reflected on them, making sense of what this meant for her child, her family, herself and her nation.  It did not get too big, because in her immaculate heart there was enough space, creativity and love to hold all these marvelous things together.

Mary contemplated.  Mary prayed over the events of her life. In doing so, she was exercising a practice that existed even thousands of years before her.  Nowadays we hear of “Mindfulness.”  Mindfulness is focusing on the moment, the here and now, while blocking out the past and not slipping into the future.  It is a wonderful tool that has become all the rage, but it also deeply connected to contemplation, a gift shared by even the most diverse religions.

One day this past semester, a college student wrote me an email asking a theological question. Let me say that again.  A college student wrote me an email asking a theological question.  This is what I dream about.  I get up in the morning for moments like this.  She asked my opinion on mindfulness. I told her how much I appreciate the gift of now and the urgency of the present.  I responded that Jesus seemed to me to be awfully mindful, acting in a moment, moved with pity as when he raised the son of the widow of Nain with no greater purpose than to relieve her pain.  Her email encouraged me to be more mindful of those around me a part of my vocation.

I also shared my reservation.  I think that Christians need not fear the past or the future for we believe we live in a redeemed world.  If grace is always a part of us, even the most difficult things, we should consider it knowing that God has taught us and given us enough to go forward.  That we should be present to a wider spectrum than just the now.  For not all the past is toxic and not all the future is forbidding.

A Christian mindfulness then might have us contemplate the past in such a way that we consider all those moments that brought us to this place.  The people whose love has shaped our lives, the circumstances when God’s love was apparent to us and where our lives shared the same plane of God’s love.  Then we could confidently move to the present knowing the God who has always been there for us will be for us now.  We can look at what our opportunities are and buoyed by God’s abiding presence, seek where we are needed and where we might be best fed.  Finally, we cannot turn a blind eye to our future for hope is a bedrock Christian value.  The future is an unfurling of God’s grace.  We dare to look forward to a future of unlimited horizon and love given us beyond our imagination.  This must color our present as we are called to let the promise of salvation seep into the now so that we might share something of our heavenly hope for all around us.

I recently tried to put this in practice when the Bishop asked me to take on the new role of Vicar for Catholic faith formation and education.  It is weird when a Bishop asks you something because it is like, well, you know you are going to do it.  But you should know why you are doing it.  And it turned out the very next day, I was driving to hospitals in Cooperstown and Saratoga, so I had a lot of time to contemplate.  I thought of the past, and how every time in my vocation, a new opportunity presented itself and I pursued it with faith, I had been so richly rewarded.  I thought of my present, and the strength and support I have from all of you and knew that I would be capable.  And this allowed me to be excited for a future of helping to build something beautiful that we might all rejoice and share our beautiful faith.  It was amazingly comforting.

So that is my plan.  It isn’t really worked out or practiced that much.  It is why I call it Bobfulness because it isn’t really a part of our spiritual heritage. But perhaps it is a way to look at our lives as Mary did:  with an eye on the providence of God which she counted on, with a yes to all that God presented her and finally to a future full of the salvation she made possible through the birth of her son.