4th Sunday in Ordinary Time A

Last night I heard Fr. Pat give a terrific homily about the Beatitudes and I was jealous of him.  It is his first go round with the three year cycle.  The Beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount are virgin territory stretching out for weeks.  And here am I on my sixth through.

Yet, there are advantages to being in my position as well.  You can find something relatively hidden and expound on it that you had never considered before and have not heard much discussion.  And so it is with “The Loneliest Beatitude.”  (Doesn’t that just beg to be a children’s book?”)

I divide up the Beatitudes into a few categories.  There are those traits I think any Christian would desire even if they are not always easy to accomplish.   I hope we would want to be peacemakers, merciful and clean of heart.  Then there are those which we do not necessarily invite into our lives but hope to have the courage to pursue:   to possess “poverty to spirit” and to need more Christ in our lives, to have the courage to withstand persecution for our faith and to be so fiercely devoted to righteousness that its lack feel likes the pangs of hunger.  No one desires to mourn but we it is inevitable and it is good to know we will be comforted.  So that leaves us with one last Beatitude.  What is it?  [Nobody answers.]  See, it is the loneliest Beatitude.

“Blessed are the meek.  For they will inherit the land.”   Meekness tends to be neither desirous nor inevitable.  We associate it with smallness, diminishment, being discounted, shoved aside.  The only slightly positive mention I can think of makes it kind of pity as in the great church song of my childhood which said, “Let me be a little meeker, with my brother who is weaker.”   My brother would point at me to say I was the weaker one and would elbow him in the ribs to prove him wrong thereby destroying the point of the song.

And if meekness is not popular, the promise attached to it seems far-fetched indeed.  There is no way to meek will inherit the land.  Land is won historically by struggle, by armies, by taking possession.   I saw an ad for a new show on TNT which I am sure I will never watch but will be highly critically acclaimed.  A character said that land is won only one way – through sin.  The meek inheriting the land would not be a blockbuster in the ratings I suppose.

So what is this meekness?  It is the opposite of pride.  It is the ability to put God and then others first.  Meekness means that we create space for one another.  That we are able to invite the other without fear of exploitation.  That we can occupy the same space without being a threat.  At our gathering sponsored by the Schenectady Clergy against Hate, Methodist minister Sara Baron recalled a homily given by John Wellesley, the founder of Methodism.  Quoting Second Kings, one says to another, “If your heart is my heart than take my hand as well.”  Wellesley goes on to say that they did not say if your opinion is my opinion or if your creed is my creed or if your color or ethnicity is my color and ethnicity.  All that matter is if your heart is my heart.

Meekness might be a critical Beatitude in these days.  A place to share dialogue, to understand with a common purpose.  The attitude of this Beatitude demands that we look at the other with respect and as sharing a common cause.  We do not look for superiority or advantage, but to grow with the experience of delighting with someone in a space and a world meant to hold us all.  And how will the meek inherit the land?  Well if you were not desirous or envious; if you simply wanted what was most righteous and what was best for the other, how could you ever lose?  You would inherit everything.

For all his power, Jesus Christ described himself as meek and humble of heart.   It is why his space included failing disciples, threatening enemies and sinners of every stripe.  It why he let the children come to him.  It why he still opens his arms to us his beloved sinners.  His way of seeing the world is badly needed now.  Let us have the courage to value meekness in imitation of the Lord.

“Blessed are the meek.  For they will inherit the land.”

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time A

I have always found something mysterious in this reading.  As Jesus walks along the Galilean seashore, he calls his first disciples.  This is not an altar call where he asks anyone willing to follow him to come on down.  He specifically asks four of the fishermen.  They hear him and they leave everything –their nets, their business, their family and everything they had known to follow Jesus into the unknown.

Had Jesus been recruiting them over a period of time and now was the time of decision? Had they heard Jesus speak a number of times and had indicated a willingness to follow?  Or maybe they had never heard Christ before and the voice resonated like destiny in their souls. The Bible gives us no evidence.  All we know that the call had an irreversibly profound determination in their life.

Our own Kris Rooney emailed me on what she called a morning of philosophical musing to suggest that our job is not to bring the light but to jump into the water and everyone know they already possess the light. And surely, she is right (and really smart.)  The light of God shines in all those whom God created.  We need to point to that light so that everyone might know they are already blessed and chosen.

When I thought of this light, the image that came to me was that of a pilot light.  The choice of image surprised me because I am the least mechanically inclined person I know.  Even after I thought of it, I had to look up the definition of a pilot light.  It is that small light without which nothing else can grow from, nothing could get warmer; the larger machine never engages.  Within everyone is a light of God to be nurtured into a living fire.

But Christ’s invitation to the first of his followers reminds me of something else as well.  The light needs tending.  He does not invite the fishermen by saying, “Follow me and your light will grow stronger.”  Instead he says, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men [and women].”  It seems that a light isolated and untended may be extinguished.  The fire grows only by sharing.  Jesus invites those who carry his light to engage the light of others.  To let it spread.  To come and see.

When I was a newly ordained priest, I would hesitate at moments of heartbreak and loss to ask the first question on everyone’s mind, “What happened?” It felt intrusive.  But as I learned to ask, and perhaps it is a privilege of the priesthood, I found that people were eager to tell me.  Tell me every detail.  They were entrusting their light to me when it was most vulnerable to see if it could grow brighter with the gift of understanding and compassion.  This light will only grow stronger when it is shared and met by mercy and love.

So as we say this year, “Come and see” as Jesus did to those fishermen, we hope that you share your light, your story and your faith.  We know when we do this in the name and compassion of Jesus, the light grows stronger, we become the people God sees us as, we are on fire for love. When we share our story we become fishers of men and women as we let them know how transforming and peace filled it is to be loved and chosen by Jesus Christ.  And we give them the space to share their story with us.

This weekend, we could take a full measure of the discord and polarization so many feel in our country.  But as Saint Paul reminds us, “Christ is not divided.”  Our greatest hope is to entrust our stories and our faith to another, to bridge the gaps that separate us and to recognize Christ and his peace is always among us.

Epiphany A 2017

How many of you would you say are comfortable with change?  How many are uncomfortable?  The story of the Epiphany is about how we respond to change.  A star that had not been seen before suddenly appears.  Change is in the air.  When Magi show up in Jerusalem, proclaiming there is a new born king of the Jews, the current king, Herod and all Jerusalem with him “were greatly troubled.”  Change is always a challenge.  What happens next will shape the history of peoples.

There are three possible reactions to the star over Bethlehem.  One is to ignore it.  In all the world, only a few people investigate the phenomenon.  [The Bible never says there are three.]  What about everyone else? It is easy to miss a new star.  Who has time to gaze upon the sky?  We bow our necks, do our work and keep our heads down to avoid trouble and lessen the scope of a far too busy world.  If we catch a glimpse of the change, we hope in our efforts to plow ahead and hope that the change is not meant for us.

Or we could have Herod’s approach to change.  We can reject it and fight it no matter its source.  We can see any change as a threat to a status quo we are comfortable with or benefits us. He closes his fist and his heart to the sign of the star, ready to kill to protect his place. Of course, it was never meant to be, but how differently would history look if the King of the Jews recognized the savior of his people.  But for Herod, change was a threat to be defeated, not a hope to be embraced.

And finally, we can choose the wise way of the Magi.  Upon seeing the star, they determine it a call to action.  They leave everything behind in pursuit of giving honor to the new born king of the Jews.  They travel across hundreds of barren miles in pursuit of that wavering star.  They seek to do homage to the change that God has brought and lay expensive gifts at the foot of the lowly king.

At the beginning I asked you how you felt about change.  Now I ask you if you have ever noticed that your attitude towards change has never prevented it from coming.  In a world literally spinning, we are in the midst of change, invited and uninvited all the time. We never stand in exactly the same space as we did before.

Epiphany still speaks to us for I can guarantee you at the outset of this year, a star will appear in your life.  A star that will invite you to a new horizon. A star that will challenge you.  This star will ask you to forgive what you have never forgiven or to care about what you have never cared for.  This star may ask sacrifice from you.  This star might challenge you to love with greater width or depth.  But I assure you, a star will appear.  For God is asking us to come ever closer, to trust ever more deeply, to find new ways to express the grace we have been given.

And because our God is a god of freedom, we will have a choice- to not notice the star or ignore it.  But its light is meant for you.  Or we can be like Herod and seek to destroy the change that is meant for us; to cut off the blessings of God before we can taste them because our fear overrules our love.  Or we can be like the Magi and seek the star, sacrifice for it and embrace it wholly as God’s truth.

We are called to be continually converted in Jesus Christ.  To go more fully into his life to discover the hidden beauty in our own, to witness colors and dreams beyond our imagination.  A king born to a poor family, a relationship repaired, justice done.  Your star is calling. Answer it and find where Christ is leading you this year.

Solemnity of Mary 2017

Did you ever wonder how Mary and Joseph kept it together?  For the past few weeks, we have heard of their remarkable journey.  It is composed of an unending stream of miracles, prophecies, angels and dreams, all speaking of a life beyond their imagination. Given how outrageously the mission of giving birth and raising God’s son was given to them, how did they handle it so graciously?  Why isn’t there a verse around Luke 2:46 that says, “And then Mary had a panic attack.”

We learn a great deal about why in this Gospel when we hear, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” She did not allow any detail of God’s great plan escape her notice.  She held on to all of them and reflected on them, making sense of what this meant for her child, her family, herself and her nation.  It did not get too big, because in her immaculate heart there was enough space, creativity and love to hold all these marvelous things together.

Mary contemplated.  Mary prayed over the events of her life. In doing so, she was exercising a practice that existed even thousands of years before her.  Nowadays we hear of “Mindfulness.”  Mindfulness is focusing on the moment, the here and now, while blocking out the past and not slipping into the future.  It is a wonderful tool that has become all the rage, but it also deeply connected to contemplation, a gift shared by even the most diverse religions.

One day this past semester, a college student wrote me an email asking a theological question. Let me say that again.  A college student wrote me an email asking a theological question.  This is what I dream about.  I get up in the morning for moments like this.  She asked my opinion on mindfulness. I told her how much I appreciate the gift of now and the urgency of the present.  I responded that Jesus seemed to me to be awfully mindful, acting in a moment, moved with pity as when he raised the son of the widow of Nain with no greater purpose than to relieve her pain.  Her email encouraged me to be more mindful of those around me a part of my vocation.

I also shared my reservation.  I think that Christians need not fear the past or the future for we believe we live in a redeemed world.  If grace is always a part of us, even the most difficult things, we should consider it knowing that God has taught us and given us enough to go forward.  That we should be present to a wider spectrum than just the now.  For not all the past is toxic and not all the future is forbidding.

A Christian mindfulness then might have us contemplate the past in such a way that we consider all those moments that brought us to this place.  The people whose love has shaped our lives, the circumstances when God’s love was apparent to us and where our lives shared the same plane of God’s love.  Then we could confidently move to the present knowing the God who has always been there for us will be for us now.  We can look at what our opportunities are and buoyed by God’s abiding presence, seek where we are needed and where we might be best fed.  Finally, we cannot turn a blind eye to our future for hope is a bedrock Christian value.  The future is an unfurling of God’s grace.  We dare to look forward to a future of unlimited horizon and love given us beyond our imagination.  This must color our present as we are called to let the promise of salvation seep into the now so that we might share something of our heavenly hope for all around us.

I recently tried to put this in practice when the Bishop asked me to take on the new role of Vicar for Catholic faith formation and education.  It is weird when a Bishop asks you something because it is like, well, you know you are going to do it.  But you should know why you are doing it.  And it turned out the very next day, I was driving to hospitals in Cooperstown and Saratoga, so I had a lot of time to contemplate.  I thought of the past, and how every time in my vocation, a new opportunity presented itself and I pursued it with faith, I had been so richly rewarded.  I thought of my present, and the strength and support I have from all of you and knew that I would be capable.  And this allowed me to be excited for a future of helping to build something beautiful that we might all rejoice and share our beautiful faith.  It was amazingly comforting.

So that is my plan.  It isn’t really worked out or practiced that much.  It is why I call it Bobfulness because it isn’t really a part of our spiritual heritage. But perhaps it is a way to look at our lives as Mary did:  with an eye on the providence of God which she counted on, with a yes to all that God presented her and finally to a future full of the salvation she made possible through the birth of her son.

Christmas A 2016

The night shepherds, quietly watching their flocks are disturbed by a miraculous sight:  an angel of the Lord shining in the glory of God.  What the angel has to say is as unimaginable as its appearance.  ““Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”  These outcasts, the lowly among the lowly, are given the news Israel had waited its whole existence to hear.  They trust their eyes and ears and leave their flocks behind that they might, in the words of our theme this year, “Come and See” this child who fulfills the long awaited promise:  ““Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

[Walk to crèche.]  What they are looking for is remarkable as in the Savior come to earth and as unremarkable as the purported sign of a baby dressed like a baby.  When they come upon the mother and the father and see the child, they stumble into the most humble of scenes, a stable where the child lays in a manger, a feeding trough for the animals.  We must “Come and See” as well.  How did the savior come to us?  As a poor one, as one for whom no room could be found, as a literal outsider.  The king is born just miles from Jerusalem, yet forever away from a palace.  Jesus appears in such a way that every poor person might recognize his coming. 

You know I am always surprised how often I hear people say that they don’t believe in Jesus as God but see him as a great philosopher and model of the way to live.  If he was not the Son of God, where did he get the creative words and moral vision that shapes our world today?  This is not the birth of a noble; in his town few people were likely educated at all.  He does not grow up in Aristotle’s school.  Yet, his ideas hit us as true, hopeful and blessed.  It is as if his DNA were written up on us before our own.  Come and see the fount of all wisdom, the foundation of all love.

[Walk back to ambo]  But it is not enough that we come and see, we must also “Come and Hear.”  Hear and study the words of Holy Scripture that come with such a force that entire meanings of words are changed like “Samaritan” and “talent.”  Hear these stories which echo with such resonance that they still speak to every situation of today.  Listen as truths are told that have stood the test of time.   Hear what God has to say about love and how its salvation is never outdated.   Be amazed at what our God believes we are capable of – “Love one another as I have loved you.”  See yourself through the lens of these words and understand the love with which God sees you.

[Walk to the altar]  But we are invited not just to “Come and See” and “Come and hear,” we gather primarily to “Come and taste.”  Yet, still our God finds us and feeds us in every place as he did for the crowds that followed him when he took a meager amount of bread and fish and satisfied thousands.  He still wants to feed us.  He still wants to feed us through his death and resurrection.  He still wants to be among us with his body.  He still wants to be intimate with us – held in our hands as his mother held him as a child.  When the shepherds came to meet him on that first Christmas night, they searched for a child lying in a manger, where the animals fed.  This child was meant to be food for the world.  And we will not go hungry.

[Walk in the middle of the Assembly]  Before we can “Come and see,” “Come and hear,” and “Come and taste,” we must first “Come and gather” as you have tonight.  Take a look at each other.  Aren’t we beautiful?   There is something special in this night, whether it is sacred to you or you simply hold it as precious because it seems to hold the hope of peace within it.   Whenever we are blessed and together, we are strong.  This parish is where I find my strength.  From our study, our thirst for justice, our feeding the poor to our celebration of these great mysteries, I am ennobled by you.  On Friday, I took three college freshmen to visit nursing homes and homebound people including a 102 year old man.  They simply delighted and marveled at each other’s company.  There are political boundaries and stifling walls – distinctions and barriers throughout our society.  Yet, here they seem to melt when we “Come and gather.”   

[Walk to the doors of the Church]  Yet the facts that we “Come and see,” “Come and hear,” “Come and taste” and “Come and Gather” would mean nothing if we did not “Go and share.”   For what a waste and tragedy it would be if this good news never escaped the walls of this church.  How greedy it would be if we did not want others to rejoice in the blessings we have been given freely!       

Go to Union Street and Rosa Road and every place you live and every place you live and every classroom you occupy and let them know what you have seen, heard and tasted.  Let them gently know where you receive this peace.  Welcome them to the place where Christ welcomes us in word and sacrament.  Where we feel the full vigor of his power in us reflected in the beauty we share with one another. 

Angels allowed shepherds a wonderful sight of a new born king.  Listen to the angels among you and they offer the same light shining right here.  Come and See, Hear and Taste the goodness of the Lord.   Merry Christmas.                                                                                                                                                          

4th Sunday of Advent A

It sometimes surprises us, but in Matthew’s Gospel, the focal point of the birth of Jesus is not on Mary, but Joseph.  In fact, Mary does not speak a word in the birth narrative while all the action appears on Joseph’s side.  To him belongs the dream and to him belongs the decisions we await for salvation history to unspool.

So let us follow Joseph through this story in the Ignatian style.  St. Ignatius of Loyola trained his Jesuits to choose a character from a Gospel story and follow them along imagining what their emotions and reactions would be.  Perhaps it is why Pope Francis has such keen insights into the Gospel.

We meet Joseph in the middle of the story. We are told simply that Mary became pregnant in the time after she was betrothed to Joseph but before they lived together.  Imagine the heartbreak and shame he must have felt.  A new future with a new wife obliterated by what to all the world looks like Mary’s indiscretion.  In his anger, he could bring the full brunt of the Law against her.  He is thrown into the same situation as Jesus was with the Woman Caught in Adultery. He defies the Law he must cherished his whole life by sparing the life of Mary and choosing only to divorce her quietly. He is a man of mercy.

But then God asks for more.  An angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream and says, “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”  Not only that but the child will be the long awaited messiah whose very name means the people will be saved.  Could Joseph have a faith elastic enough to believe this would be true?  Could he believe that the redemption of the world could begin with a young woman and a poor carpenter?  How much do you believe in your dreams?

But Joseph, in a step that is never taken lightly, entrusts his entire life to that dream.  He believes in Mary’s choseness and his own role to play in redemption.  He is ready to believe the impossible, the Virgin becomes a mother, the poor child who will become king of kings, because he has faith in a God who has saved his people time and again in such unpredictable and outlandish fashion.

Yet, we have one last scene to be played out.  It is couched in the readings as “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”  Clear enough.  But what was it like when he actually took this pregnant woman into his home.  He had already made the difficult decision not to expose Mary to the law.  Now he has taking her as his wife.  Imagine the scowls and the disdain they must have felt from their neighbors.  Do you think that Joseph even bothered explaining his dream to his friends? “Well.. you see, it’s alright because an angel said it was a miracle and Mary did nothing wrong and my son will be the savior.”  Would anybody who had not had the experience believe the experience?  He has to make a choice.  Will he let their opinion matter more than his mission? Thank God for us he does not.

But daily we face the same question.  Will we give power to others who would distract or who would insist that religion not be valued highly?  Will we stand up for what we believe in the hallways of our high schools?  Will the thoughts of others dissuade us from what we believe that God is calling us to do?  Will we surrender to God’s dream or live out a compromised version of love?  If Joseph or Mary allowed the hatred and cynicism of others to direct their lives there would be no Christmas to celebrate.  We would miss out on the greatest loves and moments of our lives if we too surrendered God’s call for others approval.   St. Joseph, give us the courage to heed the mission of God and we too will discover Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, as our reward.

3rd Sunday of Advent A

The Gospel on this joyous Sunday begins in a dark place both literally and figuratively.  John the Baptist has been imprisoned by King Herod after his astoundingly successful ministry in the desert.   John had preached about the need for repentance and the forgiveness of sins through his baptism.  And before his arrest, he had pinned his hopes on Jesus, the one he believed to be the long promised Messiah to rescue Israel.  His influence had grown so large that he was considered a threat to the king whom he had directly criticized.

Now in prison, under the constant threat of death, John seems to be having his doubts about Jesus.  Perhaps Jesus was not meeting his expectation of a Messiah; perhaps the Jesus movement had not developed the momentum he expected.  He is worried about his legacy – had he prepared the path for the right man?  He was experiencing what John of the Cross would describe 1500 years later as a dark night of the soul.

He looks for reassurance and sends his disciples to ask Jesus the only question that matters.  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Jesus’ answer is succinct, powerful and right from the scriptures.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”  John must have known great peace at his not too far off death knowing Jesus was indeed all he had prayed he would be.

But in a different age, at a different time, the “only question that matters” still haunts: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  It comes from those who wonder if Jesus truly is their answer.  It comes often but not always from a younger generation whose doubts are rooted in their values.  In an increasingly material world, how can we put something as immaterial as God at the center of it? In a scientific world that demands that each proof be based on evidence, what role does faith have to play?  In an increasingly cynical world, who relies on miracles?

We no longer have Jesus to defend himself, we only have his Church, a powerful institution at a time when every institution is suspect.  We cannot point as Christ did to John the Baptist to those who have been healed or as they came to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead.  We only have their stories.  Is that enough?  I believe it is.  I bet my life on it.  So did you.

It is enough because of the keeping of the promise of proclaiming the good news to the poor.  It is what we do in our teaching and above all in our actions.  You would be stunned by the thousands of pounds our parish donates each year to our local food pantries.  We open the doors of our school to anyone without regard to their ability to pay because God does not ration the Gospel to only those who can afford it.  We welcome every vulnerable population and let them know they belong.

This is such a Jesus instinct- to not see others’ weaknesses as competitive advantages for ourselves, but to instead feel beholden to the poor.  We are called not to exploit the least among us, but to serve them.  We do not look down on the least fortunate but honor life and value it from the moment of conception throughout all their lives.  It is impossible to be Christian without loving the poor and recognizing the poverty within each of us because the poor and darker parts of our lives and the lives of others is where Jesus abides now.  Proclaiming and lifting up the poor is not “merely charitable,” it is the foundation of our salvation.

And finally, we rely on loving as Jesus Christ taught us.  As materialistic, scientific and cynical we may all be, we put love at the center of our existence.  And at some level we know that love is not a hormonal outcome or a chemical reaction.  It is what moves us.  It makes all the difference worth making in our lives.  Ironically then, despite the protestations, we do place something immaterial at the heart of the matter.  What requires more faith than love?  Love is the food of the Divine.

And if I am going to love, I am going to love the way it has been described and lived by Jesus.  He explained it with command and intimacy. As if it were his own idea.  Because it was.  Who else could have defined love as laying down one’s life for one’s friends?  How else would we discover that to live our life we would have to surrender it?  How wide he made love so that it would also embrace our enemies for every other solution leads to death?  He called for a love that was whole, that rejected violence and made the stranger a neighbor with a reasoning and a hope that could only be divine.

This is the soul of the human experience. There is no love without sacrifice.  There is no moving forward in our relationships without mercy.  There is no resurrection without death. Jesus did not explain love, he embodied it.  If this is what you believe love is, why wait for another?  Jesus Christ is here.  Jesus Christ is Lord.