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6th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
I spent my first eight years of my priesthood as a campus minister when I was a young and arrogant, well not arrogant, but more of a brash priest. It was a wonderful time in my life. But that said, because of the narrow range of ages, some issues tended to recur, and of course nothing was more prevalent than the college break up. I was blessed to work at an interfaith center with Protestant and Jewish campus ministry and we eventually decided that on the third break up with the same person, we handed them over to another minister. “I am done, go to the Protestant minister.” Young men and women would come to me with fairly dark stories about the problems with their relationships. They did not or were not allowed to see their friends. There was an obsessive and all-consuming nature to the relationship. They felt small and vulnerable and afraid. When I would point out how unhealthy this all sounded, they insisted this is love. And I would tell them it is not love. They would see. [By the way, what a horrible thing to say. If you have a problem now, I am much better at this. I mean I was right, but that is not the way to say it.]
I bring this up because Jesus does something and claims something extraordinary in the Gospel. On the slopes of the hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee, he states, ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He is daring to touch the sacred institution of the law, the life beat of every Jew, the institution that literally ordered their days and their ways. He expands the law, gets to the heart of it; to the motives that move us to sin. It is not enough that we do not kill, everyone understands that. But we must also not give into anger that thrusts us into violence. It is not enough to avoid the obviously destabilizing and heartbreaking sin of adultery, but we must refrain from lust that makes us more vulnerable. Similarly, there is no longer cause for swearing or divorce for this is a new kingdom. And here is the astounding claim, all these things are different because Jesus is in our midst.
I wonder what the people clamoring up the hillside thought when they heard this. How did he have that kind of authority? I wonder what we think now. Does Jesus help us to live this more pure life, this more disciplined life? Is there enough there to quell our roiling anger, to focus our wandering eyes, to speak so forthrightly that you need not make an appeal to God, but to “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No?’” To answer that, we have to go back to the college break up.
I would tell those forlorn and lovesick young people that when they indeed were in love it would feel very differently. Their world would not shrink to two people but expand to many more. They would be better friends and they would find their care and commitment extended to far more people. Joy would be their measure and the sharing of that joy their delight. And I had no better feeling than when a couple of months or years later and truly in love, they would say, “I get it now.”
After all, doesn’t true love lift all of us? Don’t we see ourselves as more capable, more blessed and more treasured when we are in love? Only love makes us daring enough to create and raise life. Only the tenderness of friendship allows us to see everyone as precious. For when we have known love, we are not satisfied unless everyone has lived in this light. Once we have known peace, we want for all the world. Once we have witnessed justice, we demand it for others and once we have known joy, we are bound to share it.
And this is why Jesus is central to the fulfillment of the law. For there are times when we feel unloved and unlovable. There are times when peace seems an impossible thought and joy a distant memory. There are times when for all the love that others have for us, we cannot feel it. These are when we are most likely to give into our long simmering anger; when we surrender to our most base instincts and urges; when we fail to love others and ourselves. And then we recall the story of perfect God becoming perfect man wholived selflessly, loved widely and then, in an act of undeniable sacrifice, he gave himself up to death so that we might never doubt how much we are worth. And he did it for each one of us. When everything else disappears, that love reminds us of who we are and what we are capable of. We can love in the way of the kingdom. We can do anything for nothing is impossible with God.

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
I spent my first eight years of my priesthood as a campus minister when I was a young and arrogant, well not arrogant, but more of a brash priest. It was a wonderful time in my life. But that said, because of the narrow range of ages, some issues tended to recur, and of course nothing was more prevalent than the college break up. I was blessed to work at an interfaith center with Protestant and Jewish campus ministry and we eventually decided that on the third break up with the same person, we handed them over to another minister. “I am done, go to the Protestant minister.” Young men and women would come to me with fairly dark stories about the problems with their relationships. They did not or were not allowed to see their friends. There was an obsessive and all-consuming nature to the relationship. They felt small and vulnerable and afraid. When I would point out how unhealthy this all sounded, they insisted this is love. And I would tell them it is not love. They would see. [By the way, what a horrible thing to say. If you have a problem now, I am much better at this. I mean I was right, but that is not the way to say it.]
I bring this up because Jesus does something and claims something extraordinary in the Gospel. On the slopes of the hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee, he states, ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He is daring to touch the sacred institution of the law, the life beat of every Jew, the institution that literally ordered their days and their ways. He expands the law, gets to the heart of it; to the motives that move us to sin. It is not enough that we do not kill, everyone understands that. But we must also not give into anger that thrusts us into violence. It is not enough to avoid the obviously destabilizing and heartbreaking sin of adultery, but we must refrain from lust that makes us more vulnerable. Similarly, there is no longer cause for swearing or divorce for this is a new kingdom. And here is the astounding claim, all these things are different because Jesus is in our midst.
I wonder what the people clamoring up the hillside thought when they heard this. How did he have that kind of authority? I wonder what we think now. Does Jesus help us to live this more pure life, this more disciplined life? Is there enough there to quell our roiling anger, to focus our wandering eyes, to speak so forthrightly that you need not make an appeal to God, but to “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No?’” To answer that, we have to go back to the college break up.
I would tell those forlorn and lovesick young people that when they indeed were in love it would feel very differently. Their world would not shrink to two people but expand to many more. They would be better friends and they would find their care and commitment extended to far more people. Joy would be their measure and the sharing of that joy their delight. And I had no better feeling than when a couple of months or years later and truly in love, they would say, “I get it now.”
After all, doesn’t true love lift all of us? Don’t we see ourselves as more capable, more blessed and more treasured when we are in love? Only love makes us daring enough to create and raise life. Only the tenderness of friendship allows us to see everyone as precious. For when we have known love, we are not satisfied unless everyone has lived in this light. Once we have known peace, we want for all the world. Once we have witnessed justice, we demand it for others and once we have known joy, we are bound to share it.
And this is why Jesus is central to the fulfillment of the law. For there are times when we feel unloved and unlovable. There are times when peace seems an impossible thought and joy a distant memory. There are times when for all the love that others have for us, we cannot feel it. These are when we are most likely to give into our long simmering anger; when we surrender to our most base instincts and urges; when we fail to love others and ourselves. And then we recall the story of perfect God becoming perfect man wholived selflessly, loved widely and then, in an act of undeniable sacrifice, he gave himself up to death so that we might never doubt how much we are worth. And he did it for each one of us. When everything else disappears, that love reminds us of who we are and what we are capable of. We can love in the way of the kingdom. We can do anything for nothing is impossible with God.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time A: Catholic Schools Week

This is a historic day.  It is the first Word of God Sunday.  It was proclaimed by Pope Francis in September to honor the Bible and Holy Scriptures in our lives.  We have several days set aside to celebrate the Eucharist, but this is the first day dedicated to the word of God, the other “leg” on which we stand.

And what a blessing that it occurs simultaneously with Catholic Schools Week for in our schools we learn, celebrate and follow the word of God.  It is what sets us apart and fills our schools with nothing less than the character of Jesus Christ.  The word of God comes alive in Catholic schools.

The Word of God comes alive because we teach it.  I have felt sorry for many of our teachers because they are trained to teach so many things, but rarely come to us with a knowledge of religious education.  I have asked them if they would prefer if someone else would do it, but unfailingly they tell me they love their time teaching religion.  It changes and warms their relationships with students.  They can talk about the really real.   So often it gives them the chance to tell someone what they really need to hear.

I am so glad that private and public schools have embraced values as a part of their curriculum.  But they cannot say what those values should be or why they must be true.  We know what our values are, why they are and most importantly from whom they come – the word of Jesus Christ.

The Word of God also comes alive because it informs our mission.  Beyond what we teach, the Word of God is what we are called to live.  Once in a very great while, maybe every two or three months or so, a child gets in trouble at our school.  I ask what happened.  They will say someone said something to them so I did so and so.  And I will say, “Oh, do you think Jesus would have acted as you did?”  Then slowly they admit, “No, Father Bob.”  On the positive side, we give out tickets to people who are “caught” acting like Jesus.  I have only received two tickets in the last five year. I have to really improve my game.  What a blessing to have Jesus as our cherished standard.

Furthermore, the Word of God reflects our philosophy and mission.  When Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them,” (Mt 19:14) we take it very seriously.  We let the children come, poor and rich, Catholic, Protestant and non-Christian.  We welcome all because that is what Jesus did.  Every facet of a Catholic school should be imbued by the mission found in the word of God.

And finally, the Word of God comes alive in more than just we teach or follow.  It is a person, for “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (Jn 1:14) Jesus is the Word of God and the one we encounter in our lives, especially in our Catholic schools.  He is the foundation on which we are built and he is the gift we are proud to share.  If you walk into a Catholic School, you not only meet us, you meet Christ.

So thank you for making the word of God come alive.  Thanks to our parents who sacrifice so that their children might have this journey with great education and great faith.  Thanks to our faculties and staff, our heroes who say yes to everything and who choose to live what they love.  Thanks to our administrators who have the hardest jobs in education and among the hardest in the Church, but perform their tasks with warmth and passion.  And thanks to our students.  You have the most important role in all of this.  The Word, the sacrifice and the love is invested in you.  If you share the good word you have been given; if you live by love you have been shown and if people see Jesus Christ in you, then our Catholic Schools will have fulfilled the mission of God.

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Have you ever thought of Jesus as a superhero?   I think he checks off many of the boxes.  Does he have other worldly origins? Check.  Does he have an intriguing birth story? Check.  Does he emerge suddenly in early adulthood with mysterious powers?  Check.  Do crowds marvel that he has done things no one has ever seen before?  Check.  Indeed, Jesus does seem to pass the test.  He has that wow factor; a charismatic figure some people fawn over, some dispute and enemies despise.  (This is likely true because superheroes are Christ figures and not the other way around.)

He also shares the most important trait – he has a mission.  Every hero has a mission and Jesus’ is spelled out by John the Baptist.  Jesus “takes away the sin of the world.”  Look carefully; he takes away implies that someone already has control of sin and Jesus wrests it away, a power move by a powerful man.  And from whom does he take it?  The baptismal rite lets us know.  “Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light.” Jesus defeats the ultimate villain in Satan; his is a rescue mission for all of humanity.  This is what it means to be saved. That is a superhero.

And what cool nickname do we give this superhero?  What is the equivalent of “The Man of Steel” or “The Dark Knight?”  How about “The Devil’s Terror,” “The Hammer of God” or as someone suggested “Captain Israel?’  What is the nickname we give to the one who “takes away the sin of the world?”  The Lamb of God. That’s it.  Not even a fully grown sheep.  How is that to be intimidating?  What can a lamb of God do?  Fluff enemies into submission?

Perhaps a little background can help.  The Lamb of God recalls the suffering servant mentioned by Isaiah who is led to the slaughter and the paschal lamb whose sacrificed blood protected the Israelites on the first Passover.  Or it might merely point to the docile and innocent nature of the animal. As Mary’s little went everywhere that Mary went, the Lamb of God surely would go wherever God led him.

The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world not by his miracles as impressive as they might be nor by his gracious and true words as meaningful as they might be.  The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world by love and sacrifice.  Though more powerful than anyone else, he would allow himself to be powerless. Though wiser than anyone else, he would never manipulate, only invite.  And though he held that glory of God, within him, he lived so that it might be shared.  This lamb would be wounded for the wounded, suffer for the suffering and befriend the friendless.

And maybe that is the brilliance of the nickname.  We cannot do the marvelous feats of Jesus any more than we call leap tall buildings or outrun a speeding bullet.  But we can be lambs of God for the Holy Spirit descended upon us as well.  We can replicate the gentle mastery of Jesus Christ.  Within us is the capability to stay with those who are hurting, to hear the cries of the oppressed as did Martin Luther King, Jr. and to pour ourselves out in love.   We can be like Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.  Maybe that is our superpower.

Baptism of the Lord A 2020

Let me start with a funny story about a sad time in my life.  My great friend Steve and I grew up in the same town.  Incredibly, as my Mom was dying of cancer, his Mom died in a tragic car accident.  I went over to visit Steve’s family and they asked me if I would preach at her funeral.  I told them I would do the best that I could.  The funerals were one day apart at the same church.  I preached Steve’s Mom’s funeral on a Monday and then presided at my own Mom’s on Tuesday.  Of course, Steve came and later came up to me and said, “Bob, I thought what you said about my mother was beautiful.” I said, “Thank you.” But then he said, “Well, I thought it was great until I heard what you said about your own mom. Then I thought you kind of mailed in my mother’s homily.”

Perhaps we could feel the same way about the baptism of the Lord.  It was spectacular. The skies were rent in two, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon Jesus and a voice came from heaven, declaring, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  Compared to that, our baptism seems mundane.  That did not happen at my baptism, or yours, nor at the baptism I did on Saturday.  But that would be missing the mark but a wide margin for Jesus’ baptism is all about our baptism.  He did not emerge from the water any holier or any more the Son of God than before.  But, we are transformed in baptism.  And in precisely in the ways shown at the Baptism of the Lord.

St. Paul got it.  That we who are baptized into Christ are forever united to Christ.  We share his life.  So at baptism the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that inhabited the body of Jesus, came down to rest upon us.  We might not have heard the voice, but baptism ensures we are the beloved of God. And yes, we are chosen as well.  In us, God is well pleased with us exactly how we are; not as we imagine we should be.  Even with all our faults and limitations, God is well pleased in us.

Sure we cloud this picture with sin and muck it up by our actions, but the truth of who we are lies in our baptism.  God does not, cannot take back love.  The definitional moment of our life is baptism.  From that moment we can track our truest selves as beloved, belonging and the desired of God.

If only there was a way we could remind ourselves of this miraculous gift.  Well here is a trick.  Stand behind a holy water font, dip in the fingers of your right hand and make the sign of the cross. Pretty novel I know.  And whether you make this action with the greatest of intention or you make a sloppy Long Island sing of the cross, you are renewing the wonderful moment God chose and celebrated you as God’s own.

Wouldn’t it be great to begin your day recalling this grace, this incredible power you have been given?  It is not impossible.  Go ahead.  Steal our holy water and bring it home.  I mean you don’t need a bucket, just enough to get your day off on the right foot.  You can bring water to me and ask me to bless it and make it holy.  I’m not bragging.  It is just something I can do.

And it would be worth it.  Remember each day the gift of your baptism.  Begin every day seeing yourself the way God sees you. If we understood that, really understood what we have been given, no fear would trouble us, no despair would conquer us and no mercy escape us.  Let us make our baptism the true mark of our life – when the Holy Spirit came down upon us, when God named us beloved and we knew our God was well pleased with us.

Epiphany 2020

(To be read fast)

Are you tired of the same old thing and looking for a new direction?  No longer want to be a slave to tests or pushing pencils or the drudgery of your current employment? Would you be interested in a job that allowed for exciting travel, new adventures and meeting interesting people? Then have you ever thought of becoming a magi?

You might be thinking, Fr. Bob, I could never be a magi. Well, just read the next 600 words or so and follow these four easy steps and you too could become a part of the fast paced and ancient magi industry.  So why not say yes to this life changing opportunity?  So let’s go!

Step one, is keep your head up and look to the sky.  Magi have their eyes gazing up, seeking something new.  You cannot be a magi if your eyes are always down, simply trudging through the day.  If you are only concerned about “surviving what’s next,” oh what you will miss.  When you look up, you find new things and discover what God is creating.  You might even catch a glimpse of a destiny that is waiting for you.  So crane that neck up and keep searching for the star that carries the promise that God has in store for you.

Second step is to follow the advice of that old secret magi Kasey Kasem who told us “Keep reaching for the stars and keep your feet on the ground.”  Magi keep their feet on the ground. They don’t just stare at stars – they get on their feet, they hop on their camels, they take risks and go follow them.  Your star is not something you know intellectually; your star is something that beckons and you are to pursue it with full out determination.   And we know that our stars are not all in the sky.  Our destinies are found in relationships that need healing, families that need wholeness and faults that need forgiveness.  It is where Christ is calling us and we are bound to follow.

Step three is to gather all your treasures.  Get your gold, your frankincense, find out what myrrh is get some of that as well.  (I am pretty sure it is oil.)  For when you reach your star, you will not want to hold anything back.   You will give it everything you have.  Many people ask me, Fr. Bob, if I all I do in this job is to gather treasure and then give it away, how do I make any money?…………Anyway, at your star you will know there is no choice to give your very best and the only regret you could have is that when God gave you the chance, you did not give your all.

And finally, return another way.  Don’t listen to the Man and report back to your previous life.  Allow yourself to be changed by the Christ led encounter.  Magi change for the good because they follow the path God leads them on.  You will not be the same person so you cannot take the same path.  Instead, take the road of the healed, the forgiven, the just and the merciful.  And invite others to share your new way.

And there you have it:  four simple steps to become a magi and you can start as soon as today.  I think you should.  Earlier I admitted that I don’t know how magi make money.  But if you can say yes to Christ’s destiny for you and have the courage to follow it.  If you then give all you have to the moment God has given you and become better for it, more generous and more loving for it, could you imagine being richer?  So take up the offer and say yes to being a magi today.  God knows we need more of them!

4th Sunday of Advent A

Follow your dreams.  It is a platitude for sure, but good advice.  It seems it should be accompanied by an inspirational bedroom poster or a meme of a cat trying to do something really difficult.  But at some level, we understand that following our dreams is serious and demanding business, one that will require all that we have.  Dreams are both our destiny and our challenge, sprung from the center of our lives. And if it is God’s dream we are following, it will ask of us all are hope, faith and love.

Joseph has a dream in today’s Gospel, one of four that in Matthew’s Gospel that serve as a thread that connects the birth and childhood of Jesus.  An angel tells Matthew that he should take Mary into his home despite her unexplained pregnancy.  He says yes despite the outrageous circumstances described by the angel.  He is not just saying yes to a dream; he is saying yes to a weird dream.

Think of the last really weird dream that you had. Would you follow it? I would not advise that.  Two nights ago, I dreamed that Fr. Leo Markert was composing a really bad poem about how much he liked Durham, North Carolina.  I don’t think Fr. Leo has ever thought that much about Durham, and I not really sure that he has ever been there.  Would it make much sense if I said, “Leo, leave everything and everyone you know at 82 years old and move to North Carolina?”  But I promise you that no matter how strange your latest dream you had, it is not stranger than what Joseph experienced.  Yet, he followed it without reservation and thus here we are on the near eve of another Christmas.

Trust me, when Joseph’s head hit his pillow that night, he was not thinking if he could somehow do more for Mary.  He was probably wondering if she had been punished enough.  The law may have called for Mary to receive the ultimate punishment, but he decided to divorce her quietly, sparing her life.  But as a righteous and pious Jew, he likely wrestled with his decision to not follow the law precisely.  Yet, when the dream comes, asking him to take on the burden and joy of raising the savior of humanity, of accepting Mary despite the ridicule sure to come, he does not hesitate.  Through his prayer, his faith and his understanding, Joseph believed the implausible was plausible.  He trusted that God had a plan to save and he was willing to be God’s instrument.  He surrendered to the strange and merciful will of God.

Of course all our dreams do not come at night.  There are those that we formulate with full consciousness.  Dreams that fill our horizons.  They are our vision and goals.  These treasured dreams are the pursuit of our lives.  But in some ways, we should be reminded that they are ultimately expectations.  They are our plans hopefully founded in life and in prayer.  But we should always remember that those expectations can be interrupted by a crazy dream of God’s destiny for us.  Do you think it made sense to Joseph that God would plant the dawn of salvation in his family and the child he would raise would save all the people from their sins?  Surely, every carpenter in Nazareth thought that the king of universe was bound to be born to them.  However, his expectations of a quiet life lived out in obscurity were disrupted and he surrendered himself to the surprising will of God.  Is our faith capable of doing the same?  Of foregoing our carefully planned expectations for the dream God might have in store for us?

I hope we can for this is Christmas week. This is not the week to believe that miracles cannot happen or that we are not capable of great things.  This is the week of heeding God’s dreams and seeing how we play a role that might surprise us as much as it surprised Joseph.  This is a week to say YES, for nothing will be impossible for God.