5th Sunday of Easter C
Have you ever thought about what heaven would be like? Have you planned it out in your head? I would have every day be Niska Day (our great community celebration in Niskayuna) with everyone coming together and people calling out my name. The weather would be in the high sixties with just a bit of a breeze. And of course the Mets would win every game. It all sounds perfect except for one thing. If I had my perfect heaven, I would be all alone because it would be nobody else’s idea of perfection. After all, what would poor Rotterdamians and Glenvillites think if every day was Niska Day? And the other priests would be annoyed by all the attention I was getting. Some people like the weather a little hotter than I do. Although if you would like it much hotter, there is an alternative eternal reality you can choose. And if the Mets won every day, Phillies fans would be upset which would be theoretically troubling. In fact, my heaven might be someone else’s hell. When I think of it, my heaven seems a little selfish, which does not seem to be the point of the Jesus project. Maybe heaven is not where you get everything you want. Maybe heaven is where you want everything you get.
My picture of heaven has been greatly altered by the work of the wonderful scripture scholar N.T. Wright who has inspired me to look at heaven in a new way. Our goal is not merely to live a good life and end up somewhere else altogether. No, we are part of the remaking of the new heaven and new earth as we heard in the second reading. Salvation includes transformation of this place for and by God. We hear this in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans where he says “creation is groaning,” awaiting the redemption of God. (Romans 8:22) This view literally grounds us in our reality and our responsibility to “make all things new.” It is the project of tomorrow and the project of today as Jesus has already begun the formation of this new heaven and earth for when Christ came to earth, he “heavened” it up. We now have all the tools we need to make this new world through Christ for his love, mercy and compassion are available to us here. We are working on our salvation now by building the kingdom of God.
So if heaven is not the place where you get everything you want and it is not some far off place, what is it? I think we just heard it in the Gospel. Heaven is the place that is defined by Christ’s final and most compelling command to his apostles. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” In our final disposition, perhaps this is the sole rule of existence. Heaven is the place of selfless and gracious love. Laying down your life in love has brought us the greatest happiness here, and might be the key our ultimate and eternal happiness. In such a place, our arms are extended not to be filled with what we want, but by the embrace of another. In such a place, my personal bliss is the happiness of the other and their joy is my happiness. In such a place, service is not my burden, but my delight. In such a place, Jesus-like love reigns.
And do you know what the best part of thinking about heaven in this way is? I do not have to die to start. I can live more heavenly right now in this place in which God is preparing a new paradise free from death and suffering. The better I love, the more heaven will be familiar and the more people I will have familiarized it to. Let us live now as we ultimately hope to be. Let us love one another as Jesus Christ has loved us.


4th Sunday of Easter C

There is not a lot in this Gospel but what is there matters.  Jesus says his sheep know his voice.  And I imagine sheep should know the voice of their shepherd.   Otherwise, how do they get to where they need to go?  We all know the voices of our shepherds for they have shaped us and made us who we are.  I could never forget the voice of my mother or the sound of her laughter.  Most of us are blessed by the voices of our shepherds, not just parents, but friends, teachers and coaches.  Their voice makes an indelible impression hopefully of caring, generosity and life.  But all voices have an impact and we know all too well that some cut, hurt, bully and bludgeon.  What is the sound of our voice in the world?  How is it heard?

When I was in seminary we had to choose a pastoral assignment and I ended up at Bethlehem House, a home for intellectually disabled adults.  When I met my supervisor Dee, who became a mentor to me, she asked how I had ended up there.  I told her I chose last and she said, “That’s how everyone ends up here.  But you will never regret it.”  She cold not have been more right.  I volunteered there for three years after my course and the members were the gift bearers at my first mass.  I would come after a night at Bethlehem House and ask the other seminarians, who all had hospital assignments, how was their day.  They would say it was o.k.   Then I would ask them, “Did everyone hug you and tell you they loved you?”  They would say no and I would conclude, “I must be much better at my job than you are at yours.”

I have been thinking about Bethlehem House this week because it was inspired by Jean Vanier who passed away this week.  His is a remarkable story. He was born to a devoutly Catholic, prominent Canadian family and his father was Governor General of Canada.  Some who have told his story say it is as if the Kennedy family had brought forth Mother Theresa. He was in the midst of a successful naval career, but felt something was missing.  He sought it by earning his doctorate in Philosophy in France and was teaching at the University of Toronto, but had still not found the answer to his ultimate question.  A French Dominican priest suggested he tour the asylums of France for the disabled people taken in by the government.  He saw people “cared for” in way that animals could not be treated in our day.  He saw basic needs ignored and grown men chained to walls. He could not shake the sound of their screams.  He opened a dilapidated house and lived with Raphael and Phillipe, determined to do something for them.  But he would never use that kind of language again.  He soon realized that this new community was his place of healing.

He called the home L’Arche, for the Ark, that place of salvation.  There are now 147 houses in 35 countries where the abled and disabled live together in community and equality.  A place where people are listened to and cared for, encouraged and told a story of their own beauty they might never have heard.  All members of the community are one family dwelling in God’s goodness.  They witness to each other’s brokenness, find redemption in relationship and healing in community and the abled are as transformed as the disabled.  Jean Vanier was a witness that not only should every life be protected and valued.  He showed every life is beautiful.

I heard him speak once at World Youth Day in Toronto.  I had come to see two future saints, St. John Paul II and St. Jean Vanier.  He spoke about our capacity, barely utilized, to be compassionate, to be healed through love, to be stronger through community.  I told my students whom I brought that I believed everything he said and if he did not say it, I was suspicious of it.  I wondered why the voice of this gentle, thin and elegant man moved me so and then I got it.  In his voice was the timbre of Christ’s voice.  For it was a voice that drew people together, that healed, lifted up and gave a sense of our beauty.  Just as Jesus did.  The voice of Christ may come from many angles, but it strikes only at the place where we know we are loved and are called to love.

Hundreds of people will hear and be shaped by our voice – family, friends, colleagues and parishioners.  It will be heard at work, at the dinner table and in the cafeteria.  We can speak many different ways, but we know they only yearning for one voice – the voice of the good shepherd.  It is the voice that has been breathed deeply into us at baptism, nourished at the table of Eucharist and confirmed in the Holy Spirit. We need only to speak it and the world will be changed.

Jean Vanier was also a prolific author.  My first bool of his was Community and Growth if you want to check it out.

2nd Sunday of Easter

Lent obviously culminates in Easter.  But this Lent, we heard so much of mercy with the stories of the Prodigal Sin and the Woman Caught in Adultery, it seems there is a double culmination with our celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday.  Indeed, the paschal mystery Jesus giving his life on the cross in love and his rising from the dead which proves that mercy can conquer even death.  Mercy is more than kindness or forgiveness or compassion.   Mercy is ultimately a person, Jesus Christ.

The German theologian Walter Kasper wrote a book entitled, The Name of God s Mercy for no other word can better describe the actions of God in this world.  God did not need to create; it was an act of mercy.  God mercifully gave us every beautiful things and adopted Israel to be the example and bearer of divine mercy to the world.  Finally, in Jesus, all the mercy shown in the world was compacted into a nucleus.  When that energy was released in the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection, it would cover all the world and echo through the generations.  Jesus Christ is mercy.

Look at the Gospel for today.  In its short span Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” three times.  It is not a mere greeting; it is a statement of fact.  Jesus is the peace that is with us.  It is the true new world order for love has defeated death.  And God knows we have messed it up, but peace reigns through the mercy of God. We need only live out this promise more vigilantly and wholeheartedly.  He then breathes on the disciples and announces, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  But it is not a random spirit Jesus gives them.  It is His own Spirit that seemed to forgive everything and retain very little.

Yet, less we begin to see mercy as a theological stance or a lifestyle choice, the Gospel gives us the story of doubting Thomas who was absent when the risen Jesus first came through the locked doors.  (I guess Thomas chose a bad time to get the groceries.)  Thomas refuses to believe the good news of the resurrection.  He does not believe for the same reasons we do not believe.  He has been hurt; had his hopes raised and then dashed.  He would not allow himself to believe “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.”  Jesus handles it well.  I would have been like “So Thomas, you did not believe. Well look at me now.”  Instead, Jesus extends his hands and offers his side.  He shows his vulnerability, the signs of his suffering, even in his glorified state and invites him to not be “unbelieving but believe.”   Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God.”  Then Jesus graces us as well.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  We will have life in his name.

We should not leave out the other night of the Holy Triduum.  For on the night before he died Jesus performed another act of mercy.  He gave us his body and blood so that we might be transformed into Jesus Christ, the one who is mercy.  And once he breathed on his apostles that gift of his spirit now belongs to the people of God.  We have all we need to fulfill our vocation of mercy.  Mercy is our mission, our greatest aspiration.

We assign many positive attributes to people:  kind, sweet and good. We rarely say, “Hey that Joe is so merciful.”  But think of the most merciful person you know.   Hold them in mind.  Are you inspired when you think of them?  Is thinking of that person making you a better person?  Wouldn’t you want to be the person someone else is thinking of?

Let’s make being merciful a life goal.  It is what we are made for.  Seek mercy out where it may be found; celebrate it when you see it.  When mercy is missing, fill the void and when it is violated, call it out in the name of justice.  Then we can answer the call of Christ. We will be the bastion into which the mercy of God flows.  We will be evidence of the infinite and divine mercy of God.

5th Sunday of Lent C

When they caught the woman “in the very act of committing adultery,” what made the Pharisees think they had the perfect plan to ensnare Jesus?  This is clearly not about the law.  If it had been, they could have enforced their brutal punishment on the spot when they first apprehended her. (By the way, the guy got away scot free.  Not shocking.)   No, this was a trap to get Jesus to deny the Law of Moses right in the Temple, at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

You see, the Pharisees had been studying Jesus for a long time, following him and asking questions.  They believe they had found his weakness.  He was too merciful.  They knew he had claimed the authority to forgive sins.  They had heard him say to his disciples they should forgive others seventy times seven.  They had witnessed his astonishing and scandalizing fair and open treatment of women.  They had heard stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and know that Jesus would choose mercy every time.  Now was their opportunity.  With this woman caught in adultery, they had the clear law on their side, Moses on their side and the Temple on their side.  After all, the Pharisees lived for the law and its enforcement.  They were not interested in making exceptions to the law.  They hated the way Jesus practiced mercy.  It threatened them.

It seems that Jesus had only two choices.  Show mercy and defiantly deny the Law of Moses which he followed and treasured or pick up a stone himself and start hurling.  Of course, it always seems that when Jesus has only two choices, he does the third thing.  So first, he chooses time.  Don’t you wish you had the wisdom when confronted with the overwhelming to choose time as well?  He bends down and writes on the ground as they demand an answer from him.  When he straightens up, he responds with an idea so creative, it reminds us creativity is that the only remedy for violence.  Jesus asks a bloodthirsty, plotting and angry mob to reflect as he challenges them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, with great courage, he gives them time and resumes, all Clint Eastwood like, writing on the ground.  They go “away one by one.”

For my whole life, I had assumed they had left because of their guilt.  But with this reading, I paid attention to the elders leaving first, the wisest and most respected among them.  Maybe there is more than guilt going on here.  Maybe they reflected on and appreciated the mercy they had received in life.  The many times God had forgiven them.  The times their life was spared. The moments they knew the love of God.  Their reflection led to the recognition that mercy is the ultimate law of God.  They understood they could not take a breath without the mercy of God.

Many people have a fine habit of doing an examination of conscience at night.  They look back on their day and think of when they might have sinned, hurt someone or not paid enough attention.  They ask God for forgiveness and go to sleep with a clear conscience.  But I suggest one more strategy for sleeping even better.  Have an examination of mercy.  Consider all the ways that you loved and were loved that day and let it wash over you.  This weekend, I could recall how happy I was to have breakfast with a friend I had not seen for months; I was in awe of a rush of former students anxious to honor our own Melanie Anchukaitis as they sang their hearts out for her at Notre Dame Bishop Gibbons and the contentment in her face.  My examination would include spending time with another friend after the show as we got something to eat.  (The mercy thing is not always good for my diet or my sleep.)  And finally, the wedding of John and Jaclyn, who I have known and treasured for all ten years of their relationship.  I will never forget their heads bowed in prayer, the light in their eyes as they laughed and cried and the hope that radiated from their union.

What will be part of your examination of mercy tonight?  Besides this great homily, what will you marvel at from among God’s gifts?  Did your child say that they loved you?  Did you touch someone and they let you know?  Did someone touch you and you let them know?  Did you look outside and see a color you had never quite seen before?  All these are among a hundred moments of beauty which brush by us each day.

Back to our story though, for it is not quite done.  After everyone has left, Jesus is left alone with the woman and we suddenly remember that he can condemn the woman for Jesus is without sin.  He has the right to exact punishment, but he is full of mercy.  He lets her go saying, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”  He is convinced that the reason she will change is not because of her guilt, or her getting caught or the harrowing experience of nearly dying.  No, it is this act of mercy that will change her life.  Isn’t that what changes our lives as well?  Shouldn’t that be the way we change the lives of others?

4th Sunday of Lent C

What is it about the Prodigal Son that makes it so beloved?   Sure, we want to hear a story of forgiveness and mercy and know that we can always come home again.  But other stories share these same traits.  I think we are attracted to the distinct characters in this perfect parable. We feel we know the forgiving Father, the older brother and of course, the younger, prodigal son.  We identify with them, we root for them and defend our favorites.

I more admire the forgiving Father than identify with him.  I am not sure I would choose to be him for his is a difficult path.  We should all want his patience, mercy, generosity, and compassion even if in the back of our minds perhaps we think he might be a little naïve, or weak or even enabling. Yet, who would not want to be known for that of kindness and humility?

Then there is the older brother.  I identify with him because I am an older brother.  Actually, because I am the older brother.  I doubt my brother would argue that he was the more difficult child to raise.  The older brother is upset by the lavish treatment of his wayward sibling receives and refuses to enter the celebration.  I have heard many people express sympathy for the older brother. (Is the support of the older brother reveal our reservations about the Father?)  Yet, I always point out that there is a great party going on celebrating mercy and love, and the brother is out in the cold.  Ultimately, the story points to his jealousy and arrogance.  I was proud to be with the older brother.  Now I recognize that pride is what I share with him.

The younger son is a mess; just ridiculously bad.  Imagine asking your parents for your share of the inheritance while they are still alive then splitting for a faraway place.  Luke wonderfully says, “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.”  Before I understood what the words even meant, you could sense the emptiness, the waste.  After a famine struck, he hires himself out to take care of pigs and is actually jealous of them.  And that is really funny in a kosher society.  His return is hardly nobler.  He does not come back because he realizes how much his Father loves him.  He returns because he is desperate and hungry.  He even develops a canned speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  While he is still a long way off, his Father spots him as if he were looking for him every night, runs out to meet him and cuts off the planned speech.  He insists that he put on the finest robe, a ring on his finger and slaughters a fattened calf to celebrate for his child, “was lost, and has been found.”

I don’t identify with the younger son because I do not want to.  I don’t want to admit to my own darkness, my own sin.  I don’t want to dwell on my selfishness, whom I have hurt and when I have not acted as Christ.  A man once leaving church told me his greatest regret and said, “The greatest thing about our faith is that we can be forgiven for anything.”  When I don’t want to admit that I can be the younger son, I am missing out on the Father’s mercy.  I am away from that loving embrace the Father extends to me.

Pope Francis has a wonderful line.  “We may weary of asking God for mercy, but God never wearies in giving it.”  To know the compassion of God, we must admit of our sins.  So take a while and think of your greatest regret or your worst sin.  Stay with it for a moment…


Now picture God running to embrace you.  Not an angry God, not a disappointed Father, a reluctant forgiver, but one anxious to celebrate our return.  Imagine now the peace, the freedom and the love God lavishes upon you.  Know you are forgiven, loved and healed.

On April 12th, I will be sharing the sacrament of Reconciliation for 24 straight hours again.  And all we will be doing is enacting the story of the Prodigal Son by wrestling demons and celebrating the mercy of God.  Come and be forgiven.  Enter the feast.

3rd Sunday of Lent C
Last time I was on the Journey Retreat I gave a shorter sermon than normal and I received shockingly, and disturbingly, few complaints so I thought I would try it again.
The Baptismal Rite for infants begins with an interesting question. What name do you give your child? It is not because the priest might have forgotten or that we do not have adequate paperwork. (The Church might not get everything right, but no one doubts we are good at paperwork.) It is because this is the beginning of a relationship between God and the child. And like any relationship it starts with a name. “Hi, my name is …”
But it meant more than that in the culture in which the Church began. We think of names as an identifier, something to differentiate one from another. You call me Bob so you do not confuse me with Bill for example. But then a name carried more significance; it carried your essence. It was who you are. For someone to know your name was for them to be a part of you. In sharing my name, I would not be just saying this is what you call me; I would be sharing my “Bobness.” There is power in a name. Our children’s names strike a resonance within us. We bow our heads at the names of Jesus and Mary.
That is important as we hear the reading of Moses and the burning bush. Moses, understandably, is overwhelmed by God’s call to free his fellow Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He is not even welcomed in Egypt and has no leverage with Pharaoh. He argues that it should not be him; that indeed what God is asking would be impossible. Yet, the God of his Fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob insists he end the suffering of God’s special people. Moses needs more. He dares to ask for God’s name. You can sense the reluctance of God to give a name. After all, no person could handle the essence of God. Sharing the name would shake the foundation of the world. So when God reveals the divine name, it is not as if God says, “I am the Lord your God, Eddie.” Or “I am Phyllis the almighty.” Instead, the name is more of a definition of God. “I am who am.”
This is a breathtaking statement. God is the ground of all being. Actually, God is being itself. And that is definitively true. But scholars, especially the great American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, look at the translation and the circumstances in which it is said (Moses’ mission to free Israel) and concludes the more accurate translation would be “As I am I shall be there with you.” What a revelation! The essence of God is to be there for us. What a beautiful name for God. Our God is truly love.
So when his son came into the world with a very common name, he lived up to the name of his Father and elevated his own so “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.” (Philippians 2:10). He would be “there for us” in his healing, in his praying and in his suffering. He would be there for us in giving his life on the cross. He took up the mantle of the divine name with his life.
We, who dare to call ourselves Christian, also claim a part of the divine name. If we are truly made in the image of God and then we must be able to say “As I am I shall be there with you.” We are now the agents of God’s peace, mercy and blessing. We are consecrated to the mission that no one is forgotten as God did not forget his people; that no is alone as Christ welcomed all; that no is excluded from the grace of our God. It is our duty, responsibility and life to follow the name of our God. We must be able to define ourselves, “As I am, I will be there for you.”

2nd Sunday of Lent C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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