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2nd Sunday of Lent C

Jesus, Moses and Elijah go up a mountain sounds like the beginning of a great joke but indeed is the story of the Transfiguration.  It is a moment of stunning glory, an affirmation of the highest order of Jesus’ mission.  It is meant to sustain the apostles in hope as they are about to make that fateful and dangerous journey to Jerusalem.  For us, it is a flash of Easter glory in the midst of our Lenten sojourn.  Heaven invaded earth on top of the mountain.

Imagine the shock it must have been for Peter, James and John when they finally woke up.  (They do seem to be a sleepy bunch throughout the Gospels.)  They see Jesus their friend with the two great leaders of their faith.  They crane their necks to hear what they are talking about. It is one topic summarized in one untranslated word.  As Luke relates, they “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Now exodus can be translated as leaving or departure and sometimes is.  But you don’t translate it when you are talking to Moses.  Of course, Exodus is the title of the second book of the Bible.  It tells the story of Israel’s dramatic escape from slavery in Egypt and its forty year trek in the desert to the land God had promised to Abraham.   In that journey, there would be heroes (Moses foremost among them) and villains, stories of triumph and failures of obedience to God.  It is ultimately a story of liberation, a journey to freedom.  Jesus too would have his own Exodus experience as he led us to a promised land of eternal life that would include the desert moments of rejection, betrayal and death on a cross before the full glory of his mission was revealed.  You don’t get to where you intend without some time desert in your life.

We too know the desert reality on our way to the promised land.  We know of times of wanderings, loss and testing.  In the middle of the desert, far from your destination, you may forget where and why you are headed there.  You may know that you are no longer slaves, but you do not quite feel free.  You may buy into what feels like freedom for a while – money, power and possessions.  But you soon realize they may possess you as much as you possess them and you are merely slaves of another master.  And we wonder, “How can I accomplish my exodus? How will I make it to the promised land?”

I am just finishing a brilliant one volume history of the United States by Jill Lepore, a history more of ideas than politics.  Among those ideas are freedom.  What is it?  Who is entitled to it?  A question we have always struggled with and still do.  How do we finally reach our goals as a nation?  Our Church both possesses the promised land for we have the truth of the Gospel and we are about to receive Christ, yet still we are clearly wandering in the desert. And each of us is in the midst of our exodus for we are baptized into the life of Christ and are destined to share the path he walked.

Back to the mountain.  Suddenly, this brilliant scene is literally overshadowed by a foreboding cloud.  The blissful joy of the apostles turns to fear and trembling.  We too live in the midst of shadows.  This week, we live in the midst of shadows of the tragedy in New Zealand where in the city of Christ Church, a name that slices me like a hot knife, people were killed for simply coming to worship God as we chose to do this morning.  We live in a time where we seem to be much better at counting our enemies than loving them.  And we are familiar with the shadows of our own life – despair and depression, addiction and loss and violence.  But there is a way.  For from that cloud came a voice.  “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

We have to listen to him.  We have to believe that we must welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.  We must love and accept everyone as he did.  We must act with compassion and mercy and deny the forces of violence and hate.  We must be aware of our own redemption and the beauty of our brothers and sisters. We must choose forgiveness over vengeance and peace over division.  “Listen to him.”  It is the way to true freedom.  It is the path of liberation.  Can you think of another way to make things better?…neither can I.  Nothing else will change our situation.  Not one of the 128 people running for President will make that kind of difference.  Listen to him.  It is the way to the Promised Land.

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1st Sunday of Lent C 2019

Last week I marveled at how perfectly Jesus understood human nature.  This week we meet another character who understands it very well – the devil.  He knows what to do to make us succumb to his temptations.  The devil goes after Jesus likes he goes after the rest of us.  He attacks when Jesus is it at his weakest, when he has been fasting for forty days in the desert.  He is hungry, vulnerable and far away from anything or anyone who can help him.  But it is not just where and when the devil attacks, but how.  He tempts Jesus with those things we all desire – security, power and invulnerability.  Give the devil his due, he knows what we want.

After all, who after not having eaten for forty days would not want to point at a rock and turn it into bread?  If you were born to rule over the nations, who would not want to have them given rather than suffering such hate and pain to gain them?   If you faced the dangers and threats that Jesus knew were coming, why would you not want angels to rescue you?

Notice, Jesus does not say that he cannot do these things.  Stone could turn to bread and angels would gladly serve.  But there are no shortcuts with Jesus, no easy ways out.  For if he were to turn bread into stone, he would only serve himself.  If he were to accept kingship over the nations, his power would be power over, not power for others.  If angels rescued him as he fell from the Temple, he would never share in our sufferings.  Jesus chooses hunger over plenty, service over subjecting others and suffering over invulnerability.

My track record in rejecting such temptation is not as good.  When we are at our weakest, we all too often travel the road more travelled.   We grab what is in front of us in order to satisfy our needs regardless of the consequences.  We desire power so we can protect ourselves and manipulate people and things giving us the illusion of control we so endlessly seek.  We consider success to be far from pain and hurt, rather than honestly entering into it.  And our falling into temptations does indeed bring us temporary benefits and comfort.  But those benefits corrode us.  We ultimately find ourselves more isolated, more selfish, more lonely and grown a little colder.

And isn’t it something that when the Church fails, it fails in the same way we do?  This wonderful Church that does so much good, that stands up for so many, that serves like no other institution in the world; this church I love and have given my life for falls into temptation.  It falls when it chooses the easy way of silence and cover-up over the messiness of honesty and accountability.  It falls when it relies on power over others rather than the power of mercy.  It falls when it turns a deaf ear to the victim, the poor, the struggling and the excluded.  The Church falls when it seeks to preserve its status rather than absorbing its wounds and becoming an agent of healing for those whom it has wounded.

How do we get better?  How does the Church get better?  Well, we can only resist temptation the way Jesus resisted it.  It can only be overcome by choosing as Jesus chose and living as Jesus lives.  To resist evil and to proclaim the good news, we have to get down to the Jesus of it all and follow only him.

What would that look like for us and the Church?  It would mean not choosing the easiest or fastest way out, but instead walking only as fast as the most injured of our brothers and sisters. We must talk openly with those who feel ignored and listen carefully to those who have been silenced.  We must welcome all because it seems to me that the thing Jesus made easiest for everyone was to get to know him.  We must get to know him again.  That is getting down to the Jesus of it all.

We must reject the notion of power over others for Christ’s power was of service, love and mercy.  For “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Our idea of power must be stripped of everything else besides the power of Christ’s love and grace. That is getting down to the Jesus of it all.

We must not protect ourselves in a cocoon of invulnerability, but be led by those who have been hurt.  We must apologize in all humility and acknowledge and turn to those whom we have damaged.  For Jesus, there was no child too small that he would not bless, no woman too scorned that we he would not engage.  Indeed, those who should not have been around – sinners, a hemorrhaging woman, lepers, they all vied for Jesus’ attention and gained it.  For he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”  We must be the wounded healer.  That is getting down to the Jesus of it all.

This is the path that each of us must take.  This is the path the Church must take.  There is no other way.  And I promise you this will be the path our parish will take. We will only be of Jesus, for Jesus and with Jesus.  I can make that promise because that is where you have led me; what I have learned from you.  This Lent and for all time going forward, let’s get down to the Jesus of it all.  Let us be about nothing else.

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

There is a great line in the Gospel of John.  “[Jesus] did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.” (John 2:25)  Stories as in today’s Gospel today prove it.  Isn’t it remarkable that Jesus could speak in a time so long ago in a culture so different from ours and the words still ring true and describe us so well?  Like a great piece of art, his insight his timeless.

This is apparent in that snippet of a parable of the man with a wooden beam in his eye who attempts to remove a small splinter in the eye of his brother.  Now this is understandably hyperbole, for no one walks around with a whole wooden beam in his eye.  But in another sense, we know that guy.  We know the gravely injured person who walks around with his hurt on the outside, but never seems to fix it.  The pain is so embedded it feels there is nothing you can do about it.  You meet him on the street, and after you leave you might say to a companion, that guy should really so something about that big wooden beam in his eye.

You wonder why he doesn’t.  But after a while, one gets used to a hurt and lives around it.  What is odd becomes normative.  He has adjusted as best as he can.  There is a resistance to change in all of us and what we are “used to” is more valued than what might be best.  What if the wooden beam comes out?  Would there be too much light? Would I see too much?  What would I be without this thing that has defined me for so long?

So on he goes with the wooden beam and somehow he notices the splinter in the eye of another.  He wants to take it out, but the guy with the splinter, says, “Whoa, I am letting wooden beam guy perform this delicate operation.”  A decision has to be made.  He must change to help his brother.  He removes the wooden beam.

I find it fascinating that so one so impaired could spot something as small as that sliver of wood in the eye of another.  Maybe, despite his deficit, he just know something about wood in an eye and he could find it in another.  Once he removes the wooden beam, his brother most likely think he is the best person to take out the splinter.  After all, he has already done something far more complicated and dangerous.  What’s more, they share a bond in their common pain.  They are connected.  The man who had endured the wooden beam for so long is, in Henri Nouwen’s famous phrase, a wounded healer.  The hurt he has endured has made space in the life of another for healing.

Perfect people drive me mad.  Always being right takes all the fun and need out of a relationship.  You are so lucky you do not have a perfect pastor.  There is a mysterious line in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was made “perfect through suffering.” (Hebrews 2:10)  He could not be like us in sin, but he could be like us in suffering.  As we are about to embark on our Lenten journey, we recognize Jesus as prime wounded healer, whose cross ensured we knew that he faced our every fear and shed our every tear.  As we determine what we will give up this Lent, let us remember that our every sacrifice, our every want and our every hurt allows us to welcome people into our lives.  Let us dare to be make perfect through suffering.

 

 

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
So how do you love your enemy? Well first you have to define the terms. Love in “Love your enemies” is clearly a verb. You won’t get noun love with your enemies – that sense of comfort, trust and delight we have with our loved ones. Our enemies are not going to suddenly appear on our Christmas cards. [Here are the kids, the dogs, and my greatest enemy.] I believe what Jesus is calling us to is to apply the principles we use in loving one another even to our enemy. A good, classical definition of love is to “will and do good for someone.” Love is s decision. It is what we do every day. It is what we decide to do after our parents have been completely unreasonable; when someone is aloof and distant. We renew our decision to love.
Fascinatingly, we kind of do the same thing when we hate our enemy. We make a decision. We draw a circle of all those things that we treasure in relationships – peace, harmony and hope and keep our enemy on the outside and decide they are unworthy of any of this from us. Indeed, to hate is as intentional decision as to love. Hatred and love are not the opposite ends of a line, but they are part of a circle that begins with love and comes around again to hate. And that which joins them together is intentionality and intimacy.
The first step in loving your enemy is to admit they are a real person. When you fall in love there is often a period of infatuation, when we idealize our vision of that person. Then we might date them, get to know them, marry them and we no longer have that perfect idea. And that is better because we end up of loving a real person. When we hate our enemy, we choose something not real. We objectify them and make our enemy not a “he” or a “she” but an “it.” Even our language betrays this when we say that person is a “monster” or someone is “nothing to me.” We have given ourselves permission to not treat them as we would other human beings. We no longer owe them our respect and their dignity. But there is a flaw in the plan. That is not how God sees them. Yes, even our enemies are loved and created by God who looks over them and cares for their welfare. And it is our duty and privilege to see them the same way even if it cracks our hostility.
The second key is context. Everyone has a story. For our loved ones those stories are precious to us; we honor them. We know their stories so well that we make excuse for the ones we love. “You gotta understand:” it is because of where they come from or what happened earlier. But we deny a narrative to our enemies. We invent a caricature of them that boils down to the way they hurt us. A moment frozen in time and in our mind. But we would never want to be remembered for only our worst action or our worst thought. Our enemies have a story, something that pushed them in a direction. We will likely discover their offense comes from a place of pain or loss. We know this, for when we hurt others it comes from our pain and our loss. If we allow our enemies to have a story, it will not justify their actions, but we can begin to understand them. Then something new happens – sympathy. I will prove it to you. If you are thinking of someone right now, would you rather be them? I thought not. And suddenly, our enemy, who was nothing but a red hot blur to us, takes on a face, a reality, a life.
Finally, we can take back our power when we love our enemy. We believe we were put on this planet to befriend and love; not to make enemies or hate. Yet, when we make the decision to hate our enemy, we choose to live the opposite of our purpose. We live beneath our promise. We give our enemy the power to make us less than we are. And it takes up energy and space in our minds and in our hearts for we do not casually hate and there are not casual enemies. They are deeply embedded in our marrow. But if we can find a way to compassion, mercy and hope for our enemies, if we can push to forgiveness one day, then we will be free from the burden of our hate; free to be who God created us to be.
Jesus did not just say “Love your enemies,” he actually loved them. When they came to arrest him and a disciple saw in one of the soldiers, the embodiment of all who were coming to crush Jesus and he cut off his ear. But Jesus saw the person, not the symbol and healed him. Women kept showing up who were to represent the enemy – a sinful woman, a woman caught in adultery, a woman at the well who had been married five times, but Jesus knew their stories and loved them for it. And when he was dying on the cross, he proclaimed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” turning an instrument of hate into the universal sign of love. We can turn the world upside down as well if we follow Jesus’ most challenging commandment and love our enemies.

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
The other night I went out to dinner with two friends. They mentioned that they went out all the time which surprised me because they are very fit. Then they asked me if I liked leftovers. I said I do and love to eat anything. It was a great meal because it was Ferrari’s and I devoured everything before me. Then I noticed they each took a small, reasonable and satisfying portion and kept the rest for leftovers they would eat for the rest of the weekend. This I promise you, is a thought that has never, ever, occurred to me. The leftover conversation made more sense now but I realized that while I am a consumer of leftovers, I am not a creator of leftovers.
This applies to the Gospel where we hear, “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied.” And sure enough, those who were not filled had food aplenty and I came home with nothing. I only thought of now as opposed to thinking of a wider time span. “Now” is a key, subtle word in the Gospel. Those who are poor now will be rich, the hungry now will be satisfied, the weeping now will laugh and those who are hated, excluded and bullied should leap for joy. Things not only can change, they will change. And changes come for those who are currently fortunate – the rich become poor, the filled go hungry, the laughing will weep and those who are well thought of turn out to be frauds.
We forget things like change and growth and only emphasize the now. If you see someone you know, what do you say to them? (How are you?) They are asking for our status now. And we want an answer that reflects positively on ourselves. It is the question we are obsessing about when no one asks it. We want to feel that we are in a successful place in the moment as if that is the only moment that will ever be. As if “now” defines your success, your beauty and your being. There is no space to grow into something; something that God has planned for you.
The tyranny of now leads to sin. In our effort to win “now,” we take before things are due to us; we seek satisfaction without sacrifice; we put ourselves before others. That is the reason Jesus so sharply contrasts the blessings with the woes. For the rich of his time gained their position often through exploitation, the well fed had to answer for all the hungry around them and the self-satisfied ignore the injustice faced by so many.
Thank God we have the Smith Defensive Driving System to answer all our problems. If you have not heard of it, it was a big deal in driver’s education on Long Island in the early 1980s. The first rule is to aim high in steering. The world of driving does not end at the end of your hood. It recommends you look fifteen seconds down the road. To do so you must lift your chin a little higher. We can look beyond today and embrace our becoming. The song in Rent claims, “There is no day but today.” But there are other days, like tomorrow. We are not only a point on a line. We are pilgrims on a journey growing into the grace God has prepared for you. Unless there is more than just the now, we cannot live in hope.
The second rule is also helpful. See the big picture. We are not the only car on the road. This is not just about me, but about we. We live among others and we must account for their welfare. Another common question shows us our failure to see the big picture. When asked, “What do you do?,” we always respond with our occupation. Have you ever considered answering “I am a merciful person?” Or “I am compassionate friend?” or “a great mother?” We need to operate in a bigger field. No story is complete unless the whole picture is in view.
This is simply seeing things the way God sees them. God knows we are on a journey and allows it to develop. Last week, we heard that love is patient. Therefore, God is patient too. Look at evolution. Can you imagine a more patient way to create the world than allowing it to grow in relationship and in harmony? Think of the redemption of Jesus. He did not fly on to the scene the moment that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit. Instead he came in the fullness of time when his message could be heard and absorbed. Pope Francis has a lovely image. He describes space as the now, cramped and fixed. But time flows over space, offering new vistas and hopes. We are not imprisoned by the now, but we are filled with the potential of the Spirit that burns within us. Our “now” is a precursor to the glory God intends. Let us allow ourselves to grow into God’s peace.

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
Let me be clear. There was a miracle on the Lake of Genneserat (aka Galilee) where the remarkable catch of fish was made. The newly called disciples needed that kind of encouragement. But it is a miracle born of common and valuable sense. Jesus tells them to, “Put out into deep water.” Simon Peter is skeptical. After all, they had been working hard and caught nothing. Besides, why should a carpenter tell fishermen how to fish? But Jesus is telling them more than to try again. He is asking them to try something new. To take a risk in trusting him. It is a risk for the deep water is more dangerous than the shallow. The waves are harsher and the safety of the shoreline is further away.
But something new is needed. I am no fisherman but I am pretty sure that you could have the best technique and the finest net money could buy, but if there ain’t no fish there, you are not going to catch any fish. It is an apt metaphor for the adventure they are about to take, leaving everything beyond to follow Jesus, far beyond the security of what they have known. But it also speaks to our church today and to each of us.
As a church, we are expert at using the tools we have always known. Our technique can be flawless and has had a history of success. Indeed, our plan for evangelization was to simply keep the doors open and people came streaming in. We had a secret weapon – it was called reproduction. But that does not same to be enough anymore. We cannot lower our net in the same empty spot and expect a different outcome. Instead we must head out in the deeper water and take chances. We must take the chance of telling our stories and force ourselves to invite others. We must share the experiences of peace and wholeness that brings us here today. The Church must put out into deep water to find its legitimate voice in speaking for those who are silenced: the unborn, the immigrant, the oppressed anywhere and everywhere. It is in the fringes, in the turbulent middle of the lake, that we might find our salvation.
Does it seem like a longshot? Well, I have good news. It can happen. Would you all agree that Niskayuna High School is deeper water? This past week, our young people made a list of 86 people to ask to go on the Journey retreat. Why? Because they had an experience, an encounter with God that they want to share. They are like Isaiah, “For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips,” who is encouraged by God and is able to say, “Here I am, send me!” (And thus we could have one hymn we all know.) Or like Paul, who persecuted the Church, whose very name brought fear to all Christians, whose experience of Jesus Christ led him to be the greatest promoter of the Gospel.
There are also the deep waters in our own life that we must sail into. There are places within us filled with fear and vulnerability. When we venture beyond the shore and confront what we would rather avoid, there too we discover a surprising abundance. Our pools of fear dissipate before the grace of our loving God.
In the fringes of our church, in the deep recesses of our soul, we discover truth and the truth we need to share. Let us not hesitate to put off into deeper water, to take risks to share the story of God’s love for us. Then we will lower our nets full of hope. We will find the place of abundance.

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C
It’s hard to imagine how dramatic the scene in Nazareth was that day when Jesus returned to his hometown. But let’s try.
Imagine you are in the synagogue that day when Jesus came back. You sense the excitement in the air. You have known Jesus perhaps for as long as he has lived. He has sat with Joseph in the same place because no one ever changes their seat. But this time is unique. For from every neighboring town there are reports of his powerful preaching and miraculous deeds. It is hard to believe, but already you can tell he looks different. It is not just the change of boy to man. He is different than even a year ago. It is how he carries himself, his presence. He stands before everyone and is given the great scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He unfurls it to the passage that sets a new horizon for Israel, God’s vision for God’s people. He reads,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
These words are the shape of hope for Israel. They go to the heart of God’s promise.
Jesus sits down; the eyes of everyone are riveted on him. Then he speaks, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” It is stunning. He not talking about what God is going to do. He says it is happening now and it is happening because of him. At this point you could have three possible reactions. #1. I wish Fr. Bob’s homilies were only nine words long. #2. The carpenter’s son has absolutely lost it. Or maybe you think #3. Maybe if we follow him, our dreams for ourselves and the world might be realized.

You are here because you believe in that third option. These are words that galvanize or repel, but we who claim the name Christian drink in those words, believe them.
It is not that it has not happened. This vision has made progress. I believe the world is more directed toward love than pagan society could have made possible. People can be more welcoming. Our church, for all its faults has also made the vision real – feeding millions, caring for the sick like no other institution in the world. Our parish lives out the vision by feeding the hungry, standing up for justice and sharing the good news from the smallest child to our oldest person.
But the vision is clearly not fulfilled. Not when our church is wounded and has wounded. Not when the most expansive abortion measure in the United States has become law. Not when a Cathedral is bombed in the Philippines by terrorists. Not when our politics are so fractured and the poor have to carry the burden first. Not when people are still judged by the color of their skin, where they came from and when they came. And you might think how could Jesus Christ have left us before the job was done – before we were all professed in mercy?
But he did not leave us. He is right here. Before we focused on Jesus; now let us focus on each other. We are the body of Christ. Born of God’s Spirit, we are the inheritors of Isaiah’s hope. It will take all of us to complete it, but if this is Christ’s promise, then somehow the body of Christ can still make it true.
We welcome all because the task is so great and our capabilities are endless. We welcome all because we need all. We need each of you and your family, the stranger sitting behind you and the person in the empty seat who could be here as well. If the poor are to receive good news, the blind recover their sight and the oppressed are to be freed, we need every person, every talent, every blessing God has given us. This is what we are about because this is what Jesus was about.
Imagine once again. This time Isaiah’s vision is reality because we the body of Christ took up the mantle. Eyes will be opened and ignorance dissipates for we are the body of Christ. People who are oppressed will have someone to stand up for them, for we are the body of Christ. The poor will know justice and equality because we never leave their side, for we the body of Christ. This will be ayear governed by the grace of God for we are the body of Christ. Then Isaiah’s promise will not be ridiculed. It will not be said that it is impossible, too impractical, a fool’s passion. It will happen because it is the word of God. It will happen for we are the body of Christ.