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16th Sunday in Ordinary Time A 2017

In the old comic strip for children – Goofus and Gallant – Gallant was the character to did everything right, always polite and kind.  Goofus on the other hand was a disaster of manners and consequences.  Each week the strip compared the failed exploits of Goofus and the triumph of Gallant.  To understand today’s Gospel, let us understand two more characters.  Dour and Hope.

Dour bases his life on cynicism. He is content to expect the worse so that he may never be disappointed.  He lives a quiet and small life, keeping himself closed off.  He applauds himself when things go badly and congratulates himself for knowing it first.  Dour does not love, less he be heartbroken; does not befriend less he be betrayed; does not hope, less he be crushed.  His greatest prize is smugness.

Hope live differently for Hope is a Christian.  He takes risks for the sake of love; he extends himself for his brothers and sisters; he believes the world is alive and dynamic, moving toward ever greater blessing.  Hope is sometimes made to look the fool by Dour, but Hope is persistent.  You see hope believes in the kingdom of God and its ability to surprise.  Hope knows that the mustard seed, though only the smallest of seeds can produce the greatest of bushes while Dour would never dare plant a seed so small confident he knows it would produce no yield.  Hope knows that just a little yeast can leaven the whole dough and indeed the world, while Dour eats flat bread.

You see Hope believes in grace, which is the action of Jesus Christ in the world. He believes that everything has been transformed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that has created space for the Holy Spirit to change our lives.  Grace is the space that Christ operates in and Hope trusts himself to it.  Hope risks love, friendship and expectations to be in the rhythm of a dynamic world.  Dour resists being heartbroken as his heart atrophies.  He refuses attachment, but can only claim loneliness as his friend. He dies to brighter things, but his dreams run dry.

How can you not choose hope when you see its effects all around you?  I see it in the Journey kids who take the tremendous social risk of asking those who are unchurched to join them on a four day retreat.  They are willing to face rejection and ridicule because they know what the living Christ can do for them.  I see it in best friends who run a Catholic Worker house and lie in voluntary poverty, to live poorly among the poor and changing the lives of over 50 families at a time in Albany.  Mostly I see it though in the little things.  How often you have shared time and talent for the needs of others?  How often you think and pray for those who need it even if they are unaware of that need?  How often are you Christ in ways life-changing and moment changing?  Hope believes that every kindness makes a difference, every ounce of strength applied to a mountain of oppression pushes it closer to justice, and every decision to love connects us to the Holy Spirit of another.

The religion needed in this age is not static – one content with containment, careful in welcoming and distancing itself from the plight of others.  We need a religion of dynamism – always open, anxious to accept the other, entangled in the lives of those who need our help.  One that looks just like the Lord.  A religion of “yes”.  A religion alive with miracles and expectations.  A religion of hope.  Let that be our church.  Let that be Jesus Christ.

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

It seems clear from the readings this week that what we are offered in the Christian life is identity with Jesus Christ.  St. Paul says, “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.”  And Jesus himself promises “”Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”  This is what St. Irenaeus called participation in Christ that, for believers, our lives are a mirror of Jesus.  And I promise you that if you choose to live the life of Christ, you will be more satisfied, complete, purposeful and loving than you could ever imagine.  Which leaves me with one question, “Do want to live as Christ did?”

One does not have to look too far as to why you may not. To say yes to Christ’s life is to say yes to all the painful and tragic things that happened to him.  To be fair, it is not like Jesus hid the fact.  After all we spoke of being buried and dying with Christ.  Jesus makes clear the implication of living “with” him.  “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”  Suffering is the entrance fee into the life of Christ. Is that something you want?  In a world that does not value suffering and only resists it, which finds any way but the easiest way abhorrent, can we say yes to suffering; can we say yes to the cross?  In other words, every day when you choose your clothes (admittedly more of a challenge for you than for me) are you also ready to eye your cross and choose to carry it that day?

Well the one thing I can say that both those who carry their cross and those that don’t is that they will both suffer.  Suffering is inevitable to those who love.  Once you make the commitment to love, you become vulnerable.  Once you say that someone’s life matters more than yours, you relinquish all control.  If you want to avoid suffering, you could avoid love, but that indeed is the darkest and deepest suffering – a suffering of true loneliness and despair without the redeeming hope that comes from love.  So the choice is not whether you allow yourself to suffer; it is would you rather suffer with Christ?

Suffering with Christ, carrying your cross is simply putting your love into action.  It is holding precious what God holds precious. It is surrendering to love.

This year I asked the kindergartners at our school to ask me questions.  The little buggers gave me their best.  Who made God?  Who made the devil?  Did Jesus have any friends? And, most hurtful, do you have any friends?  They also asked me if Jesus wanted to die on the cross.  Now isn’t that a question?

And I thought of the agony in the garden. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”  I thought of how much Jesus valued life and must have hated to have it torn away.  Then I realized the question does not fit into a Jesus category.  It was never a question of “want.”  He only wanted to love his best at all times for all people.  And that is the ideal of freedom – to always choose love.

So if we are to be identified with Christ by the splash of baptismal water, we are invited to make all our decisions for love.  We are capable of it. And we can live by it. Our cross is not a cross of useless torture, but the sacrifice embedded in love.    It is the joy of being called a Christian.

 

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ A

 

 

 

It was over 25 years ago and I had told my friends that I was thinking of entering the seminary when my friend Alissa gave me a book by the German write Ranier Marie Rilke.  I was startled by the challenge to think of what you would die for, and then live for it.  It is the kind of answer that you cannot think about.  It needs to come to you in a flash and my answer surprised me.  The Eucharist.  Until that moment I had never known just how deeply I have been penetrated by the Eucharist.  How Christ’s body and blood had formed me and moved me.

 

I have been extra reflective this weekend because John Cronin was ordained a priest in our diocese and every ordination encourages you to recall the heady days of your own ordination.  I was not worried about my first mass because there were all these great priests behind me and I figured one of them would make this bread and wine the body and blood of Christ.  It was a couple of days later with hosts borrowed from the local church and with only my family around that I felt the pressure.  As it came time for the invocation of the Holy Spirit, I spread my arms wide, lowered over the bread and wine and thought, “Let’s see what happens.”   I think you know that I am not one to declare every little thing a miracle, but that mass I felt something go forth from my hands, something I am sure was the Holy Spirit.   And it has happened every time since.

 

I love all the symbolism that surrounds the Eucharist.  It speaks more eloquently of its nature than words might ever.  I love that the very gifts are bread and wine; one the staple of life, the other the celebratory gift of joy.  I love that wheat gathered from hillsides becomes, by the work of human hands the bread we bless.  I love that grapes grown, gathered and mixed becomes the precious gift of wine.  I love that nature combines with humanity so that divinity might further transform these gifts.  But what makes these symbols radiate is the realness of the Eucharist.  I know that if the Eucharist were anything less than the true body and blood of Christ, it would not have such a central role in my life.  It would not be enough for any of us. 

 

What evidence do I have for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?  The most compelling is the least admissible I imagine.  It is the utter conviction of seven year olds as they are about to receive their first communion.  It is those who stand in front of the altar as they are about to bring communion to their homebound loved ones as if they are about to receive a life saving remedy, for they are about to receive a life saving remedy.  It is the rare times when I have the great privilege of giving communion to those who are dying.  We call it viaticum which means food for the journey and the distance between life and death is bridged just as I feel the closest I can be to my deceased parents is when I receive Eucharist. 

 

Such is the power of Eucharist is that I have argued that if Jesus could make it real, could actually give himself through the sacrament, he certainly would.  And since God knows no limits, I do not doubt that he truly gave himself.  In a simple formula, if he could, he would.  He could, so he did.  Jesus certainly insists that “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”  Even when they wanted him to back off, his listeners begged him to say he did not really mean true food and drink, only doubled down.  “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

 

Jesus Christ, the same Christ who became human, who befriended and was betrayed, who walked this earth and stumbled with the cross, who knew grew great victory and agony, is within us.  We can never say we are alone, for we have been chosen to receive him.  We can never be diminished for he grows within us.  We can never forget our dignity because God has come into our lives.

 

Yes, on this Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, we assert that Christ is real in the Eucharist.  We proclaim he has placed his life within us.  How could he love us less by denying his own self since he could only love perfectly?  How could we as a community be transformed into a family of care, compassion and true concern unless the actual body of Christ really made us the true Body of Christ?  Let us rejoice, marvel and thank Go d that we have received from God the true body and blood of Jesus Christ.

 

Most Holy Trinity A

On this first beautiful and summery day, I thought nothing could be more beneficial than an overly theological homily!

Couched in the second reading is a very familiar phrase as Saint Paul greets the Corinthians in his second letter.  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” I congratulate all of you for not saying “And in your Spirit” as a response to the second reading!  Yet, this phrase, with the slight correction of the recent liturgical translation of fellowship to communion, represents a staggering insight into the Trinity. And through this insight, we might discover that what seems the most theoretical and foreign of doctrines, the Trinity, provides the greatest revelation of our character and humanity.

Let us begin where everything began.  The Love of God.  Love is the most complete thing we can say about God.  But love as we know is not static.  It immediately and inevitably seeks an object.  First among those objects was that Jesus was begotten.  He stands first as the beloved of God.  His being the beloved makes Jesus the verb of God, love in action.  When he became human, he was still the uniquely beloved of God.  But love does not stop at perfection, fortunately for us.   Love presses on, always needing to express itself so God presses on and expresses God’s self.  And thus came the next thing to be beloved:  creation.  Love is always creative and God’s love brings forth the world.  It is good as we hear in Genesis not just of itself, but more importantly because it is of God and God is good.  Therefore in our deepest place, in the marrow of our bones with more certainty than our DNA, we know we are created in love and are the beloved of God.

Now all of us have been loved.  Two things happen immediately.  We come to true self-knowledge when loved. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself would you know who you were if no one loved you?  If all refused to recognize your dignity, if no one found in you anything redeemable or loveable, not only would you not know yourself, you would likely just wither away.  Being beloved of God changes all that.  Not only do we have a dignity; it is a supreme and unassailable one as we are loved by God – indeed, loved by love.  Jesus accepted this dignity and this love perfectly, retaining everything that God has given him.  Grace is the action of God as shown in Jesus Christ.  And while far from perfect, we come to know ourselves through our experience of grace no matter how stumbling and bumbling is our reception of that grace.  As the beloved one, Jesus Christ, perfectly reflected God.  You and I, imperfect as we are, are still the image of God.

Within the Trinity, the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ is bound by the Holy Spirit as it is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring together, to create a common union.  As within the Trinity, so it emanates outward and the Spirit is the agent of our love of God.  And since God is all love, then all love is expressed through the Holy Spirit.  For the beloved then asks another question, “How can I return love to the one whose life gave me life and whose love gave me love?”

A young adult once asked me one of the great theological questions of all time.  “Were Adam and Eve cavemen?”  Wow.  But with the help of another friend, we actually developed an answer that I think is pretty good.  If the most elemental human thing is to love, than that which defined the first humans was not an opposable thumb, but the ability to love and the ability to return love to its ultimate source. Perhaps that is why the religious instinct runs so deeply in all cultures.  We are here because worship of the one who loved us first is the first and most fitting of our desires.

The love of God, its action through grace in Jesus Christ and its expression through the Holy Spirit is not just the story of God, it is ours as well.  Lost in the debate of the origin of the universe is the most important fact – that it is fundamentally a pouring out of the love of God.  Love is the foundation of the world and every creature as it is the entire nature of God.

Yesterday, was a tough day for me.  The youngest child of two of my friends passed away at 13 and yesterday we had a service for him.  What can you say when you can barely breathe?  And yet a beauty showed forth.  Rather than the mourner’s black, we wore the bright colors that Ian favored.  There was nothing to do but to smile and cry.  And love.  We all loved the parents, their daughter and each other.  Stripped of everything we could still do the one thing we were made for.  We could still do the one thing that matters most.  We could still be as God made us to be and we could still be what God is.  We could love.

Pentecost A 2017

 

I usually think of Pentecost in terms of unity and commonality and it is a powerful symbol of such.  After all, those who speak many languages are able to hear St. Peter’s speech in their own language.  The Holy Spirit creates the Body of Christ and only those who belong to the Body can claim, “Jesus is Lord.”  It is the birthday of the church and a celebration of our oneness in Christ.

Yet, there is also a particular and intimately personal aspect of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul reminds us of the different gifts, service and workings that come from the same Holy Spirit, but are received in us differently.  “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

So not only did Jesus breathe on all the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit, each one of them received it, just as each one of us received the Holy Spirit at our baptism.  The Spirit of Jesus Christ inhabits and abides in us.  It has given us something perfect within us, something divine that ultimately defines us.

I would like to point out three promises that come with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first is the gift of vocation.  Sometimes that vocation might be you do with your life.  More often than not, that vocation is how you live your life.  God has given us through the Holy Spirit some qualities that are more highly developed in our nature than others.   The more we time and the more energy we give over to exercising these gifts, the more fulfilled we will be.  We will be doing the most satisfying task in all the world:  ministering and caring as God as made us capable of doing.  So if you are a great listener, listen.  If you are happy, smile.  And if you have the gift of fixing, fix it.

I once did a strength assessment and I can recall might two greatest strengths were WOO (winning others over) and Maximizer. A maximizer focuses on what they do well and cares little about the rest.  The description said, “You are not a well-rounded person.”  There are about four things I do really well in life.  I hope this is one of them.  I can also watch baseball with great attention.  My sister-in-law famously said, “The Longo boys have no skills.”  And it true.  But I have the great privilege of serving God and others in the way God made me.   You have a unique way of serving as well.  Your destiny will be found by the gifts that Spirit has empowered within you.  No one else can express their Spirit as you do.  Find how the Spirit has gifted you and it will lead you to your meaning and your joy.

The second promise of the Holy Spirit to the individual is attraction.   We are at our best and most attractive when we are being what the Holy Spirit has called us to do.  How peaceful are those who find their element, who know how to answer their call.  They know who they are and what they are meant for.    And what is more, true love and friendship begin when we discover how the Spirit has empowered us to make us our truest selves. It is as if each of us have been given a superpower.  Why waste our time on the rest?  Why do we seek to become what we are not or to attain what we have in no way been given? Isn’t God smarter than we are?

Yet, as beautiful as that is, it is also clear that none of us is Jesus Christ.  God did not simply make us all Jesus so that we would not be full unto ourselves, but that we might appreciate and need one another.  And this lead to the third promise of the Spirit to the individual – the promise of reliance.  What I am missing is not forever gone, it needs to be found in another:  a calm to slow my energy, an activity to complement my reflection.  God meant us to be in relationship so that all our gifts could be discovered and shared.  God meant us to be in community that all the gifts that build up the body of Christ might be found only when we come together.  Those who live Christianity on their own are missing the ways we can help them.  Christianity is a project that is meant to be done as a community.

When we speak of “Come and See” it is not in a voice that merely says “Come and see what we have.”  It is a plaintive voice as well that is desperate to share in how the Holy Spirit has blessed you.  We are not as completely Christ as we could be without everyone’s unique gifts.

So let us honor the Holy Spirit on this day by discovering it within ourselves.  Share the best part of yourself and then rejoice how you have been chosen.  You will be showing the world the grace filled and beautiful face of Christ. And you will seek that same face in everyone.  It would be a world filled with overwhelming dignity and every life would be respected.  Let our Church be a gathering point for all the gifts the Spirit has endowed in God’s people.  Then we will truly be building up the body of Christ until the Holy Spirit of God abounds and fills our world with peace.

5th Sunday of Easter A

I have been following St. Thomas a lot this year.  We heard him showing great courage when Jesus decides to return to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead.  As all his enemies are waiting for Jesus there, he says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”  Then we witnessed most famously his denial of the resurrection after the others have seen the risen Lord.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  When you put those two statements together, you realize that Thomas was neither primarily brave nor doubtful.  He is a realist.  So it is not surprising as Jesus gives his speech to the disciples at the Last Supper, saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” when the whole world is closing in on them and then says, “Where I am going you know the way,” you can almost picture the scene.  All the apostles, nodding their heads politely as what Jesus says is going directly and swiftly over their heads. Thomas probably looked around, sighed and rose his hand and did his duty by saying, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

And of course, Jesus responds in the most comprehensive way possible.  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  What a stunning statement.  How it must have gripped those who were in the room with him.  What a startling revelation.  It was and is almost too much consume in one breath.  Jesus is the answer.  Entire philosophical systems were designed to seek the way and the truth and the life.  It has been the goal of politics. But Jesus insists that it not in a book or at a school of philosophy from which life derives its meaning.  It is through him.

And if it were difficult to accept this massive statement then, how much more difficult is it to do so now?  In an age of relativism, does this make any sense?  When every way is considered a valid way, when every truth is true as long as you believe it, when every life chooses its own meaning, how can, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” seem plausible, if not outright egotistical.

The only thing I can do is to check it with my life.  For example, we have or will have all lost our way in life.  How did you find your back?  For me, it is when I turn outward or find a reason to love someone else, that I find my way back; I discover myself again.  And that just happens to be the way of Jesus who urged us to look beyond our self and our own satisfaction so that we might entrust ourselves to another. His way is the way of the other before ourselves. That is the way that has worked for me.

And his truth is far superior to anything I could conceive.  Would I have known that feeding my selfish need for vengeance injures a world in a way only forgiveness can heal?  There is no chance I could have figured that we are joined so intimately and perfectly – that we were made for harmony and not discord.  I prefer his truth to whatever has been or could be proposed.  His truth is best called wisdom because it is governed by love and by mercy.

And finally, when I seek to know what I have valued in my life, it is never what I have gained or taken.  Ultimately, it is what I have given and preferably even given up.  It my love for others that will leave my mark on the world and to the degree that love was selfless is how I can measure my success.  This is called in Greek kenosis, or emptying out.  And no word better sums up the life of Jesus but the one who had everything and left with nothing for he gave it all to us.

So with all due respect to everyone’s way and their truth and their life, unless it can all funnel back to love, it has no value to me.  Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life because his love is perfect.

There is an intriguing line toward the end of the Gospel.  “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”  How can we do greater works than Jesus?  Well the work of Christ was to bring people to his Father.  We have done these works exceedingly well.  There are likely about as many people who are members of this parish as there were followers of Jesus in his lifetime.  But the work goes on for there are still those who have lost their way.  There are still those who seek the truth but cannot find it “out there.”  So many want meaning to their life, but cannot possibly find it in an answer that is not ultimate.

Let them come and see Jesus.  We need not sell it as Jesus is the solution to all their problems. That can only be found by the person themselves.  But we trust once they have heard his word and tasted his presence they will know there is an answer for all they seek.  Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life.

3rd Sunday of Easter A

The story of the Disciples on the Road to Emmaus is my story.  It fits all I believe of Christ.  It holds paramount meaning in my life.  The Journey Retreat is based on the story of Emmaus.  When we started the Albany Catholic Worker, we called it Emmaus House and as I read to my mother the Gospels for funerals as she lay dying, she passed away as I read about Emmaus.  I thought, “Of course.”  These verses from Luke have always brought me consolation, challenge and joy.  I hope you have a favorite Christ story, a story you can have a special relationship with that could speak to you at a first communion, a wedding or a funeral.  Emmaus is my story.

I love the story for its multiple images of Jesus upon which I can rely.  This time I saw Jesus along the watchtower.  It is Easter Day.  He has been raised from the dead and it is late in the afternoon. But two disciples are leaving Jerusalem despite the growing buzz among the Christ believers of the resurrection. They are not two of his most important disciples.  We have never heard of Cleopas and the other is never named.  Let’s say the other one is Mrs. Cleopas.  And yet there is ultimate concern on Jesus’ part for them to understand.  He cannot let them go.

He knows there faith has been shaken.  The cross has crushed their dreams and not even rumors of a resurrection can raise their hopes.  They have given up.  As Jesus predicted, all of us have had or will have our faith shaken.  He is coming to restore theirs.

He joins them on the road and joins their journey the only place he can – where they are.  Like a friend catching up with others, he comes up from behind, clasps his arms on their shoulders and says, basically, “What’s up?”  But a familiar theme in the resurrection narratives helps to advance the plot.  They look at their new companion, but they fail to recognize Jesus.  Obviously, if they did, the point is made and their doubt comes to a screeching halt.  But that would not allow them to do what everyone whose faith has been shaken.  They must tell their story.  They must tell their story if they are a young person who feels their faith is slipping away. They must tell their story if they have asked desperately for something precious, something good, and have not received it.  They must tell their story if they prayed for someone to live and they died.

These disciples must share their heartbreak as they do the stranger.  They are amazed that this visitor and not heard of the remarkable events of the crucifixion.  They speak of the strength of the one they had followed, “Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. “  They spoke of the hope they had lost “that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”  So profound is their loss that even the whispers of life beyond death cannot bring them back to Jerusalem.

Jesus listens patiently to their whole telling of their tale.  But then he presents another narrative.  He says, “Oh, how foolish you are!  How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” Don’t say that to those whose faith has been shaken.  He gets to do it because he is Jesus and he knows how this is going to end.  But follow his way of bringing them back.  He spoke of what they knew and they always believed from Moses and the Prophets. He showed a God who always engages people.  He makes sense of the suffering on the cross for the life of God must include every life, no matter how lonely and cruel, and finally he unpacks for them the promise of the resurrection which makes the horror of the cross a triumph and its defeat a victory.  They would look back on this moment of teaching and say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”

We must reach out with the same narrative to those whose faith is shaken.  We must paint a God who is always with them, who cares about how they are hurting and knows how to return them to the peace they have longed for.  We must share the same God of their Good Fridays is the God of their Easter Sundays.

Then, with patience beyond patience, Jesus allows them to grow still deeper with them.  He acts as if he is going on toward Emmaus.  He gives them the opportunity to invite Jesus to dine with them.  As Catholic evangelizers, we do not cram God down the throats of anyone. We simply share ourselves and our story and give them the space to invite Jesus in.  Of course, when they are seated together, Jesus does Jesus.  He presides. He breaks the bread and gives it to them.  “With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.”  The shaken have been stirred by the talk on the road and the doubting now see.  They see what so many who have had their faith shaken come to recognize – that Christ was there with them always.

Here we break open the word and tell the story of love; here we broken open our lives and share the story of faith; here we break the bread and our eyes are opened and we see Christ with us.  This is the stop on the road to Emmaus where lives are turned around.   Here weakened knees are strengthened and sloughed shoulders are made broader.  Here is our peace and hope and faith.  Let us go out to the road and catch up to those who faith is misplaced or forgotten and tell them the story of Jesus Christ.