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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.

2nd Sunday of Advent A

Last week I said that we should contemplate hope on our Journey to Christmas Day.  My greatest hope is for peace.  I sometimes feel guilty about this thinking my greatest hope should be for love, but, as we all know, sometimes love is not peaceful, but peace is always loveful.

And there is not greater depiction of peace than what Isaiah prophesies in the first reading.  He speaks of a holy mountain where “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb.”  A place where the bear and the cow can be friends (although I had not known they were enemies) and “the lion shall eat hay like the ox,” no longer a threat to others.  Even a child can play by the cobra’s den without being endangered.  Yes, everything is in complete harmony, in right relationship.  Ancient hatred and rivalry is peeled away and violence is eliminated.  Primal instincts are supplanted by attraction and friendship.  Peace reigns for all.

And this happens not because of a lucky confluence of events.  It happens because of a person.  “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse” another David who is endowed with the Spirit of the Lord.  One who carries “a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD” He is different than other leaders because he does not judge by appearances and judges the poor fairly.  The system is no longer rigged.  He puts down the bullies and does not allow the wicked to wield their power.  Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy.  In him, this peace becomes our inheritance.

How attractive is this?  How much would you love to live in a peaceable kingdom, a place of no ruin or harm?  John the Baptist is readying a people for something like that.  He prepares a way for the Lord telling those who come to him “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  He is urging the people to change their mindset, to expand their imagination, to widen their hearts to receive a new gift of the Spirit.  He is preparing a path for the peace and beauty that Christ will bring.

We cannot expect peace unless we invite it, pray for it and live it.  We must make peace our choice and our reality if we are to share it with others.  This is not a peace borne of circumstances – everything suddenly falling into place or your greatest anxiety resolved.  This is not a peace based on who is President of the United States.  This is a peace already planted within you at your baptism.  It is a peace you were built for.  It is a peace only God can give and only God can sustain.  It originates from the divine within us.  Then let us slow down, breathe and put ourselves in the presence of God and meditate on the gift of peace.

How can we expect peace?  Well, do you love anyone?  Are you loved by somebody else?  Have you been forgiven?  Has someone forgiven you?  Are you blessed by friends and family? Do you acknowledge them as God’s gifts to you?  Do you really trust in God?  Do you know that you are beautiful and strong and capable?  I know that you are for I know who made you.  Are you trying to win a victory that Christ has already won or scurrying to pay a price that has already been paid?  Do you believe that peace is possible?  Do you know that God’s love is complete and it is strong enough to overcome our every fear?  Allow the idea of peace to enter deeply into you, to be absorbed by you and radiate within you. Then we will be prepared, on Christmas Day, to welcome the Prince of Peace.

Christ the King C

How many of you have begun to put your Christmas decorations up?  So tere you are, getting in the Christmas spirit, and you come to mass and we get this Gospel and Jesus is on the cross.  (Perhaps a good idea is to wait for Advent.)

But that is always how it is with the cross.  It shocks our system and jerks us out of our current state.  It is stunning that we worship one who hung on a cross, one who appeared to fail so miserably yet we dare to call him the king of the Universe.

I often think what would a Roman citizen who had died 2000 years ago in the year 19 would think of if they came into  a church and saw it filled with crosses, some with a man being crucified.  They would know what an excruciating torture, what degradation this entailed.  They would wonder what kind of people would preserve such a horrible moment and celebrate it?  They would wonder what kind of king is this.

That is what is happening on the hill of Calvary.  Rulers and soldiers mock the powerless king who cannot save himself.  They jeer at what they perceive to be the ironic inscription above his head, the king of the Jews. Even one of the thieves crucified with him reviles Jesus. No friends have come to defend him.  This is not a complicated scene for most of them.  A poor preacher confronts the Roman Empire.  How else could it end?

Yet, one person sees something different – the good thief.  He recognizes Jesus’ innocence and he senses his holiness.  He does not protest his own innocence but champions Jesus’.  He asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And though his own pain, with life eking out of him, Jesus answers, “”Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What kind of king is this?  A king who suffers when he does not have to, who eschews the miracles he had for others when it comes to preserving his own life.  A king who endures humiliation, scarring, torture and death.  A king who does not seek vengeance on his enemies or retribution on those who abandoned him. A king who will only be led by his insistence on love to lead his life.   He can only be the king of love.

What kind of king is this?  What kind of king are you?  That might not be how you describe yourself but we are all kings, shepherds or leaders in some way whether at work, as a parent, on a team or among your friends.  If anyone looks to you for help, you are a leader.  What will be the kind of leader you choose to be?  Will you be the leader most expect, strong, willful and bending others to your will?  Or will you be a leader like Jesus?

If you are the leader most expect, you will have many serving you; if you are a Christian leader, you will serve many.  If you are the leader most expect, you will save yourself first; if you are a Christian leader, you will save others first.  If you are the leader most expect, you will get even with enemies and those who have betrayed you; if you are a Christian leader you will make those people better. If you are the leader most expect, you will be known by the power you have wielded; if you are a Cristian leader, you will be known by the grace that others have received.  If you are the leader most expect, you will be, strong and willful; if you are a Christian leader, you will to be weak, vulnerable and small enough to bend down to hear the tiniest voice.  You can be the leader most expect or you can be the leader we need, a leader like Christ.

What kind f king is this? What kind of king is this whose only crown was made of thorns and whose only throne was the cross? A king of love and a king of salvation.  What kind of king are we?  Shall we lead with love, mercy and hope?  Shall we lift up or put down?  We can be a king like Jesus Christ, the king of the Universe.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time C
This Gospel comes around every three years after election time and I always like to compare the promises of Jesus to those of the lofty ones of the candidates. Jesus promises if you follow him you will be seized, persecuted, put on trial, betrayed by family and killed. Yeah! Vote for Jesus.
You see Jesus’ problem is that he just can’t lie. He knows that if we really follow him we will have to endure what he endured. And what he had to go through was remarkable. He knew the sting of rejection of his hometown. He would share the full revelation of his religion only to be hunted by the leaders of his faith. He preached a message of perfect love and found himself hated for it. Besides, Jesus is now in Jerusalem and upon the horizon there are trials darker still. He is about to face unjust arrest, torture and even crucifixion.
Incredibly, he chose all this. He could have made one definitive, selfish miracle to convince all he was the Son of God, but that would rob of us our freedom. At every step of the way of the cross, he could have summoned a host of angels to attack those bringing him to his death, and they would have succumbed, but that would not prove his love, only his power.
When I think of it, Jesus was tough. That is not a character trait of Jesus I speak of enough. Toughness does not negate the other qualities of mercy, healing and love, but underlies all those traits. They would be impossible without Jesus’ internal fortitude. When you realize all that he endured out of love for us you realize our Lord was one tough dude.
With him at our side, we can be tough too. We have known disappointment, hurt and loss. We too have had to endure divisions in our family and rejection. We are all too aware that forgiveness and peacemaking is not easy. And what Jesus predicted of those who follow him did come true and continues today for people are still being persecuted because of his name. Today, people decided to come to mass as we did, but they risked their lives to do so. And this week, at least a dozen people were killed for believing in Christ.
There is a very telling instruction that Jesus gives his listeners. He says, “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.” (Yes, I can hear the groans of lawyers throughout the congregation.) He insists that if we are totally reliant on him that will be enough for us.
Last week we had our priest convocation led by Fr. John O’Grady, as scripture scholar and priest of the diocese. He was discussing the word “Gospel,” usually thought of as “good news” but he gave a different tint to it. The word derives from when a king was seeking good news following a battle. So gospel also means victory. We tossed the thought around and decided the ultimate promise is that each of us will have enough victory in our lives. Let’s be clear about the promise of Jesus Christ. It is not that everything will go perfectly once you are baptized. It is not that the more you give to the collection, the more blessings you will receive despite what you might hear in other quarters. It is that we will have enough of the sinewy toughness of Christ to prevail over whatever challenges us.
Jesus speaks of perseverance. The word more commonly used these days is resiliency – the ability to rise up after you have been knocked down, the gift of never giving up. There is nothing I wish I could pray more into our young people or anyone more than resiliency. And Jesus says it is ours for the asking for he will not leave us orphaned, we will always have enough victory to love, bless and forgive. The more we open ourselves to his love, the more we will withstand and overcome that which threatens us, that which haunts us. After all, we follow one tough dude.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time C

Zacchaeus awoke to the large ramble of his house.  He said his morning prayers and began his rituals.  He came to his empty dining room table, gruff with irony.  No one in town had a more lavish or larger table, but everyone had more people around theirs than he did.  Lately, Zacchaeus had ruminated on many ironies or better yet contradictions in his life.  He was a devout Jew but rejected by the Jews as a tax collector for the Roman Empire.  Everyone knew him yet he was almost always alone.  He was a man with money, but without a place in the world.

It was with these heavy thoughts that he plowed into another day of work in the surging, bustling city of Jericho.  Another day sure to be filled with taking from others, financial success and deeper scarring.  He was neither a fair nor a generous man.  The system was set up for him to take advantage and take advantage he did.  The rejection of the citizens made his plunder easier.  His actions sprung from bitterness and bitterness sprung from his actions, driving him further from his own people like repelling magnets.  Yet, he could not quite give up his religion.   He was a Jew.  The story of his people was his story and it created in him an inconvenient longing to be one with the people who uttered the same rich and ancient prayers, celebrated the same holidays and worshipped the one God.  To be a Jew was to be with other Jews.  He knew that, but that river of contradictions kept him from truly belonging.

However, the tough drudgery of the day was disrupted by an almost audible buzz in the air.  A rabbi of great power in word and deed was making his way through town.  He had heard of Jesus in the wide circles he traveled and he was intrigued.  Jesus seemed never to do or say quite what was expected and often was unaccepted.  Perhaps he was on an island too, but whereas Zacchaeus’ island left him alone, judging by the thickening crowd gathering to glimpse Jesus, people were clamoring to be on his island.  Zacchaeus decided to see him; he decided he must see him.

And therein lied the problem.  As the crowd along the road grew to three or four deep, Zacchaeus could not see for he was, to put it mildly, “short in stature.”  He was left with only one foolish option, a sycamore tree up ahead would give him a vantage point to spot Jesus.  He hesitated.  A man of his status and wealth climbing a tree would surely be ridiculed.  But there is a freedom in being despised – no one would think less of him because no one thought anything good about him anyway.  Besides the tree was a kind of refuge from a crowd that did not want him around and who wondered why such a loathed man wanted anything to do with this holy man.

From his perch he observed Jesus, walking with the crowd and they seemed to flow to his rhythm until it suddenly stopped as Jesus quickly conferred and pointed at him!  Zacchaeus realized there could be no better way to make a positive impression on the crowd, to gain more followers, than for Jesus to make fun of the most hated man in town now caught in an embarrassing position.  He braced himself for what was next, the tenuous thread that held his faith together seemed poised to snap.  In no world could he have imagined what Jesus would say next.  “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”

If climbing up the tree had been childish, he climbed down like a child, swiftly and with abandon.  Yet, everything changed during his descent.  The chasm between his faith and his life was bridged by one simple gesture.  He knew what it was like to be singled out, but now he was singled in.   And for all his heavy pondering he had failed to realize one thing that Jesus’ words made crystal clear.  If you are believed in, you can change.  Bitterness could turn into charity, fraud to generosity, despair to hope.  And it all happened in a second and it happened because of Jesus. His heart pounded, his vison grew lighter.  This is conversion.  Not even the low roar of the grumble, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner,” would deter him.  H responded, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”  Twelve words from Jesus and his world had changed.  He belonged.

That night, the large table was filled with disciples and sinners and outsiders.  The air was cheered by laughter and wisdom and hope.  The words Jesus said at the base of the tree rang true to his ear.  “”Today salvation has come to this house.”  It certainly had for salvation has a moment and a definition:  salvation is meeting Jesus.

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
That is some prayer the Pharisee says. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.” Can you imagine if the opening prayer was like that? “O God, we thank you that we are not like the rest of humanity – mean, rotten and smelly. Or even like the fourth person in the third pew.” Nobody prays like that, at least I hope no one prays like that. The Pharisee even goes on to brag that he fasts twice a week and pays a tithe on all his income; doing more than the law requires of him. As if God would not already know that! The key to understanding the Pharisee’s prayer is that he, “spoke this prayer to himself.” The Greek, like the English, might mean that he prayed quietly to himself. Or perhaps he was the object of his own prayer, the one who receives the praise and glory because God seems rather ancillary. This prayer is about himself.
So what can we learn from this prayer? I do not think for a moment he lied in the prayer. I am sure he fasted and tithed as he claimed. I am confident he did not commit the sins he named. Certainly, he was glad not to be the tax collector. What is wrong is that it lacked humility. What is wrong is that is lacked need, and that is place for us to reflect for we are not comfortable being needy, to dwell on what we lack. We can name our sinful actions easily enough, but how often do we go to those deeper, darker places as to the motivations of our sins – the anger, hurt and fear that drives us. We are called to put our brokenness before God for our need is the space God uses to enter and change our lives. Once we place our brokenness and pain before the Lord, healing can begin and the light can dispel the darkness, hope emerges from the fear and peace overshadows our turmoil.
Of course we can do the opposite of the Pharisee and list all our ailings and shortcomings to God without any real hope our God can transform them. A litany of woes does little to alleviate the pain unless we trust that our God is a healer of our ills, the bringer of joy into our lives. Allow God to be merciful at mass. As the gifts of bread and wine are transformed into something so perfect as the body and blood of Christ, we can place our brokenness and pain, our failures and shortcomings, what we are not now and what we have never been on the same table and ask God to make these wounds beautiful as well.
That is why the prayer of the Pharisee is perfect. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It admits the need – “I am a sinner,” but is still reliant and trusting in God’s mercy. As a matter of fact it is the basis of an option for the Act of Contrition. Did you even know there were options? Well it goes “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Just ten short words that is easily memorizable. I would not mind hearing that more often in the sacrament of reconciliation rather than stumbling through and trying to remember such a long prayer. After twenty years, I would like it if did not have to hear people say they are HARDLY sorry for having offended thee.
Instead, let us be as humble as the tax collector and place before the Lord all that is broken with faith in his mercy. For when our great need meets God’s power, we open the door for grace to flood in. So let us close with an Act of Contrition. “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  After a funny parable and an encouraging promise of God’s ability to respond to our needs, that line seems to come out of the blue.  I think it is the most haunting question in the New Testament.  “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Why does Jesus ask the question in the context of this story?  It is a great story by the way.  The persistent widow, a woman with no status and power demands a just settlement in a case from a judge, “who neither feared God nor respected any human being.” All she has on her side is the demand of God that widows and the poor be treated fairly.  But that will not budge this wicked judge.  So she simply wears him down, nags him until he gives in.   He explains his relenting, “because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” (Actually, the Greek says she might give him a black eye.  Isn’t that great!)  Of course in comparison, God is anxious to hear our prayers and swiftly answer them.

Perhaps Jesus asks that haunting question because he knows what usually happens.  He knows the widow does not usually get her way. That when power is arrayed against the weak, they lose.  The system really is rigged and often we must surrender. When the wave comes in, we know it is easier to ride it.  And when the breeze stiffens, we can turn our back and walk with it.  We choose the easier, the more convenient.  But that is not the way of faith.

I would say the wind is blowing against us right now, wouldn’t you?  It is true of people of faith, those who love peace and certainly for Catholics.  Our faith is asking us to walk into the wind.  So many, with perfectly understandable reasons, have left.  They still have faith, but they try to go it alone.  The problem is, it does not appear it is meant to work that way.  Look at the first reading.  Moses needed help.   Jesus chose to have help – dim-witted, timid, and slow to comprehend help even.  Yet, he knew he had to show them every loving act for he placed his bet that these disciples would share his story and win the world for him.  He is counting on us to do the same.

Let’s go back the first reading.  Israel sends picked men to battle Amalek, but as always, it is God’s fight so as long as Moses raises his hands, Israel wins the battle.  But when his arms sag, Amalek has the better of the fight.  As a guy who has to raise his arms a lot each hour, I feel for Moses.  But eventually his friends find him a chair and support his arms until Israel routs their ememies .  When the Lord asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I don’t think he is asking if this person or that person will have faith.  I think he wants to know that we will be there for one another to lift wearied arms.  I think he is asking will we go after lost sheep and comfort the hurting and do other holy and inconvenient things.

That is why when I see someone’s faith slipping or fading away, I will never, never, never, never give up.  Just like you never, never, never, never give up on anyone you love.  I think we were made for this moment.  To lock arms and march into the wind.  To be strength for wearied arms and be breath for tired souls.  Then our care for each other will be the faith Jesus finds.