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Epiphany B 2018
Some people are comfortable with change and some people are not. What we all discover is that change does not care how you feel about it. Change is coming for you.
Actually, we all occasionally welcome or resist change. When things are good, we want nothing to change and when things are bad, we desperately want everything to be different. Yet, it seems to me that every change represents an opportunity whether welcomed or unwelcomed for our God never abandons us. There will be news ways to be merciful, to console, to receive or give. Grace is present everywhere and sometimes change is the new light we need to notice blessings previously unknown.
Not all our reasons for not embracing change are positive or helpful. It may be to preserve power. It may be that which is habitual becomes deeply engrained in us, especially our worse habits. The regular, no matter how darkly imbued, is familiar and we become so attached that our fears prefer it over the new land God promises. So we stay in jobs that sap the joy out of our lives; or we endure in relationships that become toxic and even dangerous. And God’s voice is harder to hear for fear counteracts love.
I think of this for today we see two reactions to change. The Magi see a star rising in the East and, at best they hazard a guess that there is a new born king of the Jews. They abandon everything to follow that star and prepare to give the best they had in homage to this king. They do not hesitate even when their journey ends not in a palace, but before the poor parents of a humble child. They still surrender their best. The journey is rewarded.
The same change that the Magi gave everything for is right there for King Herod. Jesus offers the same salvation to him. He will fulfill the dreams of all his people. You know the song “Do you hear what I hear?” Of course you do for they started playing Christmas songs in late summer. He could have been the king who announced the birth of the Lord as the one who would bring us goodness and light. Instead, all he can think is how to destroy the child. If he had looked for beauty, he would have known it in its fullness; if he had looked for God, he would have met him.
We each have a star that leads us to Christ. It may not lead us to where we plan, but it will always lead us in the direction of peace and of love. And do you know what you get when you reach that place? That’s right – an epiphany! Committed to love, you will find love; searching for peace, you will be a peacemaker; living with hope, your light will shine before the world. And to live in the light, it is worth giving everything. So give your gold, your frankincense and… I know it is hard, but even your myrrh. Accept change and let it lead you to Christ that you may bask in his light and bear that light to others.

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Holy Family B 2017

I sometimes imagine Simeon receiving the promise from the Holy Spirit that he would see “the Christ of the Lord,” as a young man. There is no evidence of this but it seems to me his reaction to seeing Jesus is not just joy, but relief.  I think of the thrill he must have had when receiving the news and how anxious he must have been to know he would witness Israel’s salvation.  But as we know, not only are hope and expectation a great joy, but also a burden that taxes our patience.  In those long years, how many children did he see and wonder if that child is the Messiah?  How many times did he hear preachers in the precincts of the Temple who intrigued him and thought could that be the one?  The suddenly, on this day, he spies Jesus, a child no less or more beautiful than any other.  And he knows. He knows like one who had that thought they had been in love, but now truly know what love is.  And he boldly takes the child from his mother’s arms and beautifully proclaims, “”Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”

One can instantly sense that Simeon has met his peace; so much so that he is ready to go home to the Lord.   He is absolutely fulfilled by holding salvation in his arms – nothing else is needed.  And then there is the old prophetess Anna.  She was not given the same promise as Simeon, but she is so holy, so attuned to God, that upon witnessing the scene with Simeon and Jesus, she gets it.  And while Simeon is ready to rest in peace, Anna is just getting started, “She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”  She is among the first evangelizers of Jesus.

That is the beauty of the incarnation.  God has come to earth.  The Word has been made flesh.  And once that glory appears on earth, it remains here.  It becomes part of the fabric of our lives.  Heaven now intersects with earth.  Those heavenly moments, those zones of God’s presence become what we live for.  When we glimpse our salvation, we know the peace that Simeon felt and we feel the need to share it as Anna did.

The easiest way to know those moments is to think of the most significant ones.  Have you ever been to a bad baptism?  I love them because we are reminded of the promise we have been given as surely as Simeon – we will know our salvation.  Weddings too are a sign of God’s promise fulfilled as two people entrust their faith and lives with each other.  All our milestones: first job and retirement, first love and last breath are a window into grace.

But the incarnation means that God is everywhere, so our salvation is made known in the common and the subtle as well.  Moments when peace overtakes you and joy fills you.  I see it at holidays when children return and parents gleam that their families are intact.  You can find it in quiet moments with a friend or uproarious moments with your holy family.  In younger years, my friend Fred and I would choose a Mets night game on the west coast, pull a television out on the porch, back when you could pull a television, grab a cold beverage and watch a game in the warmth of a summer evening. That felt pretty close to heaven to me.

Today is New Year’s Eve.  Promise me to make this resolution:  Aware of God’s presence you will spend your time looking for glimpses of salvation; treasuring the heavenly things of earth.  Be on the lookout for the beautiful, the miraculous and the loving and your eyes will see the salvation that God has prepared.  Be like Simeon and let that peace rest in your soul.  Be like Anna and tell the story of the touch of the Holy Spirit.  Then you will know true peace.  Then you will celebrate the glory of our God!

3rd Sunday of Advent B

This is the time of the year when people talk about “Christmas Spirit.”  It is a good thing.  It is an expectation that all will find this a joyous time.  That people will be friendlier, more caring and even more generous whether we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ or not. It is summed up perhaps by the song “It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas.”  Anything in this day and age that promotes a more congenial feeling, anything that strives for harmony among people is a good thing.

But for those of us who believe that the birth of Jesus Christ ushered in a new era of human history; for those who find the beginning of their salvation in that moment in Bethlehem, the Spirit of Christmas means something entirely different.  It is the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit that overshadowed Mary and suddenly the “Lord was with” her.  It is the Spirit that drove John the Baptist into the desert and in the words of today’s Preface “sang of his coming and proclaimed his presence when he came.”  It was a Spirit so evident even in an infant that shepherds left their fields at the urging of an angel and magi came from the East with gifts.  Despite the spare circumstances they encountered for this new born king, they did not leave disappointed.

Most importantly, when the Son of God came among us, his Spirit was unleashed in the world.  It would drive him to share divine wisdom, to create a community of love and led him to the cross.  It is the same Spirit that raised him.  And remarkably, for those baptized into his name, the same Spirit inhabits us.  Yes, the Spirit that made Jesus Jesus is within us and transforming us.  When we acknowledge that we are carriers of God’s Spirit, we must look again at ourselves. St. Athanasius said that God became human so that we might become God.  So we must be strong, for if God is not strong than what could be strong.  We must be wise for the agile Spirit of God that is the font of all wisdom is God’s gift to us.  We must be beautiful, for the Spirit ensures that we are made in the image of God from whom all beauty comes.  And we must be loving for God is love.  The Holy Spirit is meant to define our lives.

Oh there are certainly other Spirits lurking within us.  Not everything or everyone is holy.  A couple of weeks ago I was a mess at mass.  I stumbled over words, said the wrong prayer at the wrong time.  I felt horrible about that Sunday.  It made me look back over my week and I realized that my prayer had not been as good as it usually is.  That I had lacked focus on God all during the week.  Without connecting more intimately with the Spirit, I was not the best I could be.  So I got back to work on my prayer, my gratefulness and my service so that the Spirit of Christ would be more evident in me. As we are reminded in the second reading, “Do not quench the Spirit.”

Imagine an entire people who are generous, caring and good and moved by God.  Imagine a community and a church that knew they were divinely strong, wise, beautiful and loving.  Those are the people who can fulfill the vision of Isaiah whom the Spirit anointed; a vision that Christ would make his own to “bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.”  We can speak to the poor about compassion and justice and to the poor in spirit of the hope we have found in our faith.  We can cry with the brokenhearted and promise then of the good things to come. We can release those captive to addictions or ruinous patterns of behavior with the new way of Jesus.  Imagine a community so joined in the Holy Spirit that we dare to announce that this year, for all the trials and the division we face, will be a year of favor from the Lord for his Spirit will lead our actions.  Then we will truly bring forth the kingdom of God.

So when we ask for the Spirit of Christmas this year, let us ask more boldly and believe more deeply.  Let us dare to be beautiful, wise, strong and loving. Then we will truly be disciples of Christ fulfilling the prayer of the angels to the shepherds, giving “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

2nd Sunday of Advent B

Offensive linemen are the unsung heroes of football.  Mischaracterized because of their large size, they are statistically the most intelligent people on the field.  And their movements, so easily perceived as simply brutish, are deceptively agile and athletic.  [Don’t worry.  I think there will be a homily in here eventually.]

For example, there is the guard who is occasionally asked to “pull.”  This means that instead of blocking the man right in front of them, they actually move laterally around the end and block for the much faster running back following him.  And whether they know it or not, they are on a mission from the Prophet Isaiah to make mountains low, the rough ways smooth and “the rough country, a broad valley.”

The second thing I know about a pulling guard is that they are not famous or bask in glory.  I cannot tell you the best pulling guard in the NFL although it is clear he does not play for the Jets or the Giants.  But I can name the best running backs who are only successful because of the guard.  What they do is necessarily for the team, the other.  They do not want the spotlight pointed at them.  So you see, John the Baptist was a pulling guard preparing the way for Jesus, removing the obstacle from his path and widening the hearts of his listeners who would follow the one mightier than he.  To be a disciple, we must do the same.

Our parish makes a straight path to Jesus in a hundred different ways.  I hope you were among the hundreds of people who came to our fair trade sale on Saturday, buying beautiful goods from around the world and changing the communities that produced those goods.  We fill in valleys with our service to the poor, our compassion and our education.  We make a highway for our God when we celebrate the word and receive the sacraments.  But today I would like to challenge you to prepare a way that is not as familiar to all of us.  I would like us to tell our story of faith.

This is something we do not embrace or think of often as Catholics.  (However our Evangelical brothers and sisters do this quite well.)  But how will people know the way to Jesus unless we show it to them?  We each have a story to tell that is rich in blessing and grace and whenever we have the courage to tell it, we may unlock the spiritual hunger of others.  We are not imposing when we tell our stories for it is never wrong to tell a story of love, of peace, of joy.  And it might be just what they want to hear.

John the Baptist did not impose.  Indeed he left civilization to tell his story and people were so compelled they came to him.  Indeed, John the Baptist is a great model of faith sharing.  We do not need to dress in camel hair and eat grasshoppers, but we can follow in his way.  First, he certainly told his story in his own style.  No one could doubt the authenticity or realness of what Joh had to say for it came from the heart and with conviction.   Secondly, he stubbornly held onto the truth; even telling truth to power.  There is something about the truth that cannot be unheard.  It rings too clearly in our soul.  And finally, the story was not about him.  It was as far from an ego trip as possible.   It spoke of hope in what was to come and when he saw it in John’s Gospel, he literally pointed at Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God.”

We can do at least that.  We can tell our truth our way from our heart.  And we can hope and pray that it does not lead to a revelation about us, but about the one we follow.  We can and have counted endlessly the reasons for the decline of faith:  secularism, science that leaves no room for the divine, consumerism and a grasp of only the now.  But this rough country may still be made a broad valley once we show others the way we got to Jesus and how they may still arrive there.  God has given each of us a way to deliver the good news of our life.  Funny people have funny stories, sweet people have sweet stories and DRAMATIC people have DRAMATIC stories.  But they will all serve the purpose. Be a pulling guard for the Lord and make straight the paths to Jesus.

 

Christ the King A

I went to a conference last week for Vicars from across the Northeast.  It was a surprisingly fun crowd.  And I learned a great deal from the wonderful people at the St. John Vianney Institute.  Among the most valuable is this little gem. Psychologists conducted studies after the devastation after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to determine what makes someone more resilient.  What makes one person rebuild their life and another not be able to move on? What they found are two factors that are at the heart of what we hold dear as people of faith.

The first is a sense of thanksgiving, appropriately enough for this weekend.  Those who count their blessings and who do not dwell on what is lost have more perseverance. That make sense to me.  The second one surprised me.  It is a sense of awe.  They took city dwellers out in the country and they noticed that as they took in more beauty, their heart rates settled and blood pressure decreased.  What is it about a sense of awe that could make us more resilient?

Well, a sense of awe always takes you out of yourself.  It is a reminder that there is indeed a bigger picture; for in crisis our world tends to shrink just to our greatest challenge.  Awe minimizes your problem in light of all the things, especially the beauty in the world that is simply given.  It allows us to surrender to something else, a higher power, recognizing it is not ours to hold up the entire world.

For us that higher power is ultimately God.  A sense of awe is a necessary component of worship and belief.  When we surrender our greatest obstacle to God we trust we are handing it over to someone with more sure hands, with a more gentle touch and loving wisdom.  Believing reminds us of three things that are critical:  we are not God, we don’t need to be God and someone more qualified already has the job.

Awe and God go together seamlessly.  At the scene described in the Gospel at the end of the world, it would be pretty difficult not to have a sense of awe.  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him.” If you aren’t awed then, you are never going to be awed.  I also think that each mass provides a sense of awe as well. No matter you were thinking of when you walked into church or what you will be thinking when you leave, at least for this hour, you know it is not about you.  It is about the words on fire in the readings; it is about the perfect sacrifice of Christ given to us as his body and blood.  We know we are not alone in the world.

How can we break this sense of awe out of our church and into our daily lives so that we might calm the frenzied pace and anxiety of our days.  The Gospel provides an answer for that as well.

It is hard to blame either the sheep or the goats for not recognizing Jesus in the poorest of the poor and the most alone of the alone.  After all, they are in the midst of being awed by God and angels and judgment.  What Jesus lets them know that he is present as the mightiest and the weakest.  He is not be ignored in all the places he can be found.

Let us develop a sense of awe in the small as well as the large, especially in the least of our brothers and sisters.  We can be witness to the beauty of the mother struggling to feed her family. We can celebrate those who struggle with mental illness. We can stand in awe of the gift of the stranger and the courage of the ill.  Perhaps then we can even find the awesome beauty in when we are at our least:  when the darkness descends upon us; when our fear eclipses our love; when we feel alone – God is still there, Christ is present in our leastness and we are still beautiful for the divine abounds within us.

And perhaps this is the plan.  That everything brings us a sense of awe.  That we are engulfed in beauty.  That we, nor anyone else, can never escape the glory of God’s love for us.  That when we talk about the dignity of each person, we are really saying that we can testify about the utter, remarkable and unique beauty each one of us holds.  And it is a marvel.  We reserve awe for our God.  And God is everywhere and in everything.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Every year I teach each grade in the school a bible story.  I choose the Parable of the Talents for the fifth grade so we can talk about leadership.  We always give the servants names and it makes it more fun.  So this year it was Harold who had five talents and made another five.  Jeffe (I don’t know why but they spelled it for me) had two talents and made another two.  And then there was poor Mario, who buried his talent.

And for as long as I have been doing this, they always complain that Mario did nothing wrong.  And I would argue with them but I finally realized that this many years of fifth graders cannot be wrong.  I bet many of you feel the same way.  I conceded.  Mario did nothing wrong.  And that brought me back to trying out for the Junior High basketball team in Locust Valley.

It was the day before cuts and I was asking my friend Tom DellaVechia how he thought it went.  He said well and he asked me what I thought.  I told him I felt good because I had not made any mistakes.  He said to me, “But what you have done well.”  The next day I got cut.

Now our coach had told us that if we were cut and wanted another chance, we could ask for one.  With all the moxie I could muster, I asked if I could continue my try out. Months later he told me that no player had ever taken him up on his offer.  Now my jump shot was not going to improve in those couple of days and I was not going to jump higher.  All I could do was give my best. If the ball was rolling on the ground, I would be on the ground. If there were sprints after practice, I would win them regardless of not being the fastest.  And sure enough, when the final roster was posted, there were sixteen names in roster and Bob Longobucco written in pencil beneath them all.

It is funny how something like that can have an impact on you the rest of your life.  Since that time, I have tried to dive for every loose ball in my life.  I have vowed to try harder and give my best to what I do.   I want to do the very best with what God has given me.

Mario did nothing wrong. But ours is not a religion of not doing anything wrong.  It is about doing our best.  It is about knowing how blessed we are and sharing those blessings is our mission.  A talent is a huge amount of money, perhaps as much as 15 years’ worth of wages.  Yet, aren’t you not far more blessed?  Think of how many people and reasons of giving thanks you have in your life.  You will likely find that you have thousands of talents.  We are loved so that we might be lovers.  We are blessed so as to bless.

You have not had a good Fr. Pat like challenge in a long time; well since Fr. Pat left.  I will give you one.  Next weekend, look back on the week and think of the time you did something with your talents; some way you were different because you are blessed by God.  Will you spend an hour you could not afford with someone who sought your help or needed your ear?  Will you stand up for someone put down?  Will you go where you are needed even if you do not have to be there?  Then you will multiply your blessings.  You will be Harold and Jeffe.  Then you will share your master’s joy!

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

My job would be a lot easier if every rotten, lying, mean and angry person did not believe in God or did not profess a particular religion and if every good, kind, compassionate and happy person did belong to God and followed a religion.  Then all I would have to do is just say, “Look around!”

But we know that is not true.  We all know so many people who do not profess a common belief that are kind, caring and loving, especially to their neighbor and to the poor.  And to be honest, we all know that there are a couple of bad apples in our bushel basket.  I bring this up because in the Gospel Jesus says that the first and greatest commandment is that we, “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  The second commandment is connected, and indeed like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But it seems to me that many people are skipping step one and going to right to step two and quite successfully.

What we are talking about is the fastest growing religious group in America.  (Spoiler alert:  it is not the Catholic Church.)  They are the “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation at all.  They usually describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  They have built their world on a spirituality that they have named and owned for themselves.  And I get what is attractive about.  No one passes a collection basket around to support your own beliefs!  More importantly, they have an integral sense, a feeling that it all hangs together, that must be gratifying for their spirituality can match their values, ideology and politics.  Everything fits for everything is theirs.  And in this anti-institutional age, there is not bigger institution that the Church.  To be free of institution feels like freedom. And one is not bound to the pain and the stain when the institution fails as we endured when our Church failed to protect our young people as they should have.

But I believe there are five important advantages to being both spiritual and religious.  Six if you count my wanting to remain employed. The first is evident before us – community.  It is not possible to form community around beliefs that are simply your own thing.  When we form community, we know what we are about and why we are formed.  There is a spirit that brings us together.  And while there are certainly other ways to form community, there is nothing like the one that is formed around something ultimate; something from the heart of our lives where our souls are revealed and we promise to be there for both the good and the bad, the rejoicing and the tragic.  I met my best friends over thirty years ago at Chapel House at the University at Albany, now called the Interfaith Center, which is bizarrely threatened by the University.  We don’t talk about it much because it would be weird, but we know there is a reason we have stayed so close and mean so much to each other.  It is because God brought us together.

Second – there is what we are doing right now:  worship which is again precluded by not belonging.  We all have incredibly busy lives.  The beauty of worship is that for an hour our lives are not about our calendars and our agendas.  They are about something bigger. Worship enlarges our world which so increasingly becoming cramped and claustrophobic.  It is good that we can look up to something bigger than ourselves and be able to do it together; to spend some time on something not just important, but of ultimate value; something that is meant for the heart.  And that happens in any worship in any faith.  When we worship however, we celebrate that the God who became incarnate to live among us is still coming to us in this gathered community, in his word and in most intimately in the Eucharist.  In our world that values individuality, I believe we are craving the experience of knowing we are not alone.  Worship reminds us that we never are.

The third reason might seem contradictory for it is the opposite of one of the advantages of being a “none.”  I think it is good to have tension and conflict among your beliefs.   Do any of you have a problem with any position of the Catholic Church?  Don’t raise your hand.  And I won’t raise mine.  Yet, that tension has caused me to grow as I seek the wisdom of another way of looking at the Gospel, trying to see how others have come to a different conclusion based on the same material.  After all, how can we grow without stretching?  Like-minded people tend to be similar in background and concerns and can form a self-selecting group.  The very word catholic means universal; it means here comes everyone.  Diversity in people and thought is at the heart of true community.  Look at the different people Jesus gathered around him.  Besides,For the danger of only believing what you believe is that it limits God or any mystery.  We cannot know it all for the universe is unfathomable.  We must leave some space in our lives for the likelihood we are wrong.

Reason number four is the question of why.  When “religious and not spiritual” people express what they value, they usually say things like compassion, justice, forgiveness and love of neighbor.  I think to myself that sounds pretty familiar.  We are a society rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition and our common values are at the very least related.  But my worry for my family and others is what happens after generations when we have become unmoored from the founder of those beliefs?  When someone says. “I don’t want to forgive; why should I?  Why should I care about the poor if I am not poor?  Why involve myself in someone else’s fight for justice?”  Without a foundation in Christ, these values all come down to a choice.  For us, there is no choice.  We must follow the Master.

And that brings me to number five.  We are not here because we share the same values or moral code.  .  We are here because we have had an experience, an encounter with Jesus Christ.  Ascribing to a certain doctrine does not make one a Christian.  We are formed by having a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our God came to dwell among us in friendship, to show us a way and to save us here and then forever.  He intimately and completely loves us and I can’t imagine my life without him.  It has formed into the person I am and I find my greatest joy by growing closer to him.

I cannot emphasize enough that I am not casting aspersions on anyone.  I admire and love so many of these people.  Many of them are far better “Christians” than I am.  Nor do I blame them.  Jesus drew a line between love of God and love of neighbor.  We hardly ever do.  How often do you say I love God therefore I am serving at the Welcome table.  Or I love God therefore I am helping my neighbor.  Or I love God therefore I am speaking for the voiceless.  I ask you, if we do not draw the line, how do we expect anyone to see it?