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.

 

 

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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.

Baptism of the Lord C
All of us some of the time and many of us most of the time use negative motivation in our lives. We put tremendous pressure on ourselves. We value our worth based on our success. In other words, we are utilizing the fear of failure to move us. We say things like. “I will be ruined if this does not work out.” Or “If I let everyone down, no one will like or respect me.” Success then is the border not between doing something well or poorly; it is the border between whether I am good or bad. We weaponize our insecurity.
This works well enough to deceive us. We use our fear of failure and we get the good grade, we finish the project, we have our fastest time. Then we give credit to our fear. However, now we have invited fear to always be at our door, in our thoughts. And we are only one mistake, one bad day from feeling like a failure.
This attitude can even creep into our prayer. Religion is not above negative motivation. Hell is the most successful negative motivator ever. But even if you are not afraid of Hell, guilt we do the trick. We turn to God and say not just that I am sorry, but I am bad, unworthy of your love. This happens to me when I bring my frustrations to God in prayer. I pray, “I am not a good servant. You must be disappointed. I am a bad priest.” Then having finished my rant, I pause and hear a slight chuckle and a voice that says, “Yeah Bob that is exactly what I was thinking.” We have that kind of relationship. It is a little funny and a little sarcastic. It serves as a reminder that God is never non-supportive or demeaning. God is light and encouragement. I was simply letting my words and fears block God from saying the words I need to hear.
I bring this up because there is a subtle difference in Luke’s account of the baptism of the Lord than the other Gospels. Yes, the dove appears in bodily form and yes, the voice from heaven is heard. But it is not the result of the baptism. It comes as Jesus is praying after this stirring event at a critical moment as he is about to embark on his public ministry. Do you think God used negative motivation? Can you imagine a voice thundering from the heavens and saying, “You are my beloved son. Don’t mess it up?” Or “Not to put any pressure on you but the salvation of humanity is riding on your shoulders.” Did God say, “Son, you better keep up the family name?” No, he said the most positive words possible. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
God knew the best way to guide his son and how to guide us. God chooses love over fear. Think about those words. “You are my beloved Son.” Go through this confident you belong to me; I have your back. “With you I am well pleased.” Know that you are loved. This gives Jesus all the faith and confidence to accomplish his mission. God wants to do the same for us. Let us run to the light of grace and away from fear. We do not live one step from the abyss, but we are being transformed from glory into glory. We are raised up by God to do good things. Our God believes in us.
So if your prayer (and your life) is filled with anxiety and negativity. If your prayer depresses, represses or oppresses, run to the sunlight and away from fear. Hear what God truly wants to say to you:

You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you I am well pleased. I am lost in the beauty of what I have created in you. You too are filled with grace like my beloved son and his Virgin mother. Unlike them, you will make some mistakes, but that is o.k. I want you to experience forgiveness so that you might offer it to others. I have made you stronger, wiser and more lovable than you will ever know. Come journey with me and come closer to this truth. I smile when you understand your power and goodness and I love the things you cannot stand in yourself. I did not make you to be perfect or above suffering. I made you like a jigsaw piece so that you might not exist by yourself but be clamped one to another. So that nose, that weight, that intellect, that phobia, that grade, that shyness, that hesitancy, that blunder – I love it all and wait patiently for you to love it as well. I am not going anywhere; you can never put me off. Even if a mother could unfathomably forget her child, I will never abandon you. I am here to forgive your sins, to heal your brokenness and to cheer your triumphs. Heaven was too far away so I placed my Spirit within you. It is my Spirit that pulses your blood, that colors that wonderful imagination, that falls in love. I have planted forever within you and mean for you to come home to me. You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.

Epiphany 2018
God used to be in our way all the time. You could not avoid God in your daily life. It was certainly true in Jesus’ time. Every moment was shaped by the law of God: what utensils you used, what food you ate and with whom you ate it, even how and when you bathed were signs of your relationship with God. And so it was throughout the centuries. I can imagine my grandmother’s hometown in Italy where the church bells were a summons and the church stood in the middle of town for it was the middle of life. When these churches and our school was built in the fifties, it was more than just a place to worship; it was where dances were held, where you met your friends – a second home. Even in my childhood, there was no competition on Sunday mornings. Everything was closed. You could not buy gasoline. And we were glad for it because Dad got to go to church with us because by New York State law, the bar he owned could not open up until noon.
It was a sign that life pivoted around God. God at the center of our lives and our culture. But we obviously do not live in those times now. Everything is open. Even sports teams hold practices on Sunday mornings. God now is caught only by our peripheral vision on on the side of the highway; a blurred object easy to ignore. God is not in the way. We live in the age of the Magi. We have to seek out God.
The story of the Magi might even suggest why faith is not so central now. No one who seeks Christ merely finds him. We experience him and we are changed by the encounter. The Magi met Jesus and offered their best stuff: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We too are called to leave our best with Jesus for our gifts, talents and blessings are not ours, but God’s. It really is a question of ownership. God is the origin of our gifts and they must have been given to us to share with all. There is a problem however. We like our stuff and want to keep it. We are called to surrender what we treasure the most; to lay at the feet of Christ so he can employ these gifts for all. And that bring us to the second problem of the Magi. They are told in a dream to depart by another way to avoid Herod. We are encouraged by our encounter with Jesus to take a path not of our own choosing. Our calendars, agendas and goals change. Even our purpose is redirected to follow the way of the Lord. Living life for others changes our definitions. Justice is not a reflection of how fairly I have been treated, but what is fair to all. Peace is not what makes me feel good, but the necessary condition for all to thrive. Love is not about how well I am loved, but how well I have loved.
Then why bother? Why not go with the flow of traffic and leave this inconvenient God by the side of the road? Why surrender and sacrifice our precious gifts? Why give others an advantage by putting them first? Because it is what the designer of the road has asked from us. It was meant to be shared by all and not walked in isolation for that is a guarantee of desolate loneliness. To live for one’s self is the opposite of love for that always begins with the other. Instead we are called push the boundaries of love and grace. To connect, to share and to bless. To make love the only measure of our success.
Let us choose the way of the Magi. Let us seek out God for there we find our humanity and are blessed with Christ’s divinity. Let us surrender our best for investing it in others leads to a hundred fold return. Let us take the path the Lord provides and walk in the soothing sunlight of mercy. Let us follow the star that leads to our salvation.