The baptism of Jesus — why again?

We do this thing at St. Luke’s, as many parishes do, where about once each month, the children come and sit at the altar steps and engage in a dialogue-style homily with that day’s preacher. Today was my turn. It can be fun; it usually gets my heart rate up too. Since a lot of the Children’s Liturgy of the Word is questions and answers, this one won’t read like one of my usual homilies, but I’m putting it here anyway.

The readings for this were Isaiah 49:3-6, Psalm 40 and John 1:29-34. We skipped the letter to the Corinthians.

What was this gospel about? The baptism of Jesus.
Who remembers what the gospel was about last week? (One kid thought it was King Herod. Close: that was a couple of weeks ago. Someone else got it.) Last week we heard about the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, by John the Baptist. Today’s gospel reading is about Jesus’ baptism again.

It’s as if the Church is telling us, let’s look at this again, don’t move on to other things so fast. Stop and linger over this story a while longer; it’s important.

Do you remember your own baptism? (A number of hands went up. One little girl remembered that her baptism was a few days after she was born, and she said she remembered the whole thing.) Do you know your godparents? Did you choose them, or did Mom and Dad choose them?

I don’t remember my baptism either. How long ago do you think my baptism was? (The little girl who remembered her own guessed, “about 80 years” and I told her she was warm. Another thought it was more like 40 years ago. God bless her!)

The priest who baptized me is my uncle. He’s still alive; he is 90 years old now. My godparents were my mother’s brother, and my father’s sister. They were young adults; later each married and raised their own families. My godmother’s birthday was yesterday. They always remembered being my godparents. They remembered my baptism for me.

Ask your parents and godparents what they remember about the day you were baptized.

The people who were there for when Jesus was baptized – did they remember that day? Did anything unusual happen? They saw something they had never seen before; they heard something amazing.

They saw the holy spirit coming down and resting on Jesus, and they heard the voice of God, saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
That’s the kind of thing you’d remember. John the Baptist certainly remembered it.

This experience for John made his whole life make sense to him; he realizes he has done what God put him on earth to do.

What did John see? The Holy Spirit came down from heaven and rested on Jesus and stayed there with him. The people heard the voice of God.

The same thing happened on the day of your baptism. The voice of God may not have been as loud, but God spoke, and the Holy Spirit was present. God said, “I am glad I have you! I have you to love and that makes me happy!” The day of your baptism was a wonderful day for you and for our Church.

Why was Jesus baptized? Did he need it? It was to begin his mission: working for peace and justice, bringing the good news of God’s love and compassion, and bringing healing.

The first reading from Isaiah: You are God’s servant, and through you God’s glory shows light to the whole world. Jesus was baptized to bring light to the world, by working for peace and justice, by bringing the good news, and by healing all who needed it.

Why were you baptized? Yes, to take away original sin, but that’s not all: The baptism of Jesus also tells us about our own baptism. (I just loved it when one of the kids got this.) Jesus was sent on a mission at his baptism, and so were we, when we were baptized. We are on the same mission that Jesus had: working for peace and justice, preaching the good news, and bringing healing instead of hurt. Through us, God wants to show light to the whole world.

We can’t do this mission alone. Who is on it with us? We’re doing it with Jesus, and with each other, the whole Christian community. (Our kids got this part too: they’re awesome. One said, “Our brothers and sisters, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, …” “Yes!,” I added, “and you can go on and on – it’s everybody.” ) When we continue the mission of Jesus, then the Father can say of us, “These are my beloved sons and daughters, in whom I am well pleased.”

So after mass today, ask your parents and godparents what they remember about the day you were baptized.

Excitement and Joy

(Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2019.  The readings were Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, and Matthew 11:2-11.)

Did I read those lines right? Seriously, is it what you expected Jesus to sound like?
When we read scripture aloud, we have a chance to feel the feelings of the people speaking.  We can be in that moment. There is a danger of over-dramatizing it, or of reading it in the wrong tone, or what somebody thinks is the wrong tone. But who’s to say?

Last month, I read something Jesus said to the healed leper, and I imagined him taking a humorous tone. What it sounded like to me was, “Hey, weren’t there, like, ten of you guys? Only one came back? What happened?” What I heard was that wryness, a little impishness. What I didn’t hear was anger or frustration, but I can see how someone else might, and might read it that way.

So today when Jesus said to John’s messengers, “Go tell John what you hear and see, …” what tone of voice do you think Jesus used? When I read it just a minute ago, and the way I felt it in here, he was excited. But you could also read it that he was annoyed: “Go tell John what you hear and see,…” He could even have sounded scolding, like, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you see what is going on here?” The workbook for lectors says to read that part using “a firm but gentle tone.” I think that’s a tone to take with errant children or someone who messed up at work.

So I went with excited. Jesus sounded excited to me when he answered John’s messengers. He knew they were looking for a sign of hope. The people had been waiting for the “one who is to come.” They had been waiting, basically forever, for God’s promise to be kept. The stories about Jesus that were starting to get out were reaching John and his followers. They were thinking, hey, this guy could be the one. I mean, The One. This could be it. So John had to ask: Are you the one we have been waiting for?

He could not go meet Jesus and see for himself; he was in prison. So he sent people to ask Jesus: Is it true? Are you the one? Is the waiting over? They really were asking him, have our hopes and dreams come true? And Jesus, knowing what the people were hungry for was a sign of hope, looked at them, and looked around, and told them, “Go tell John what you hear and see! Blind people are getting their sight back. The lame are getting up and walking. The poor are hearing some good news, for a change.”

I think Jesus had to be excited by the good things going on around him, the blind seeing, the lame walking, the proclamation of good news to the poor. He was excited to see the will of God was being done, and to know that he was part of it. I hope everybody has had a chance to feel like that: When things are working out just beautifully and good things are happening, your heart gets going; the corners of your mouth turn up into a smile; you feel the energy surging inside you. I think that’s how Jesus felt.

Jesus was giving the messengers a message too, when he spoke about the blind seeing and the lame walking. The words were from Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets before John. It was the same passage we heard in the first reading today, telling us how the presence of God transforms the world: the desert blooms; the blind see; the lame “leap like a stag.” He knew what he was saying, and he knew John would get it.  He knew it was exciting stuff.

So right after making people remember their Isaiah, the greatest prophet, Jesus then started talking to the crowds, and he told them there had never been anyone greater than John the Baptist. What could he mean by that? “None greater than John the Baptist” – “greater” at what? John was not rich; John was not politically powerful. John did not have beautiful homes or beautiful clothes. But he had a sense for doing the will of God. And he had patience, the quality of the prophets that St. James wrote about, in the second reading today. He knew he was waiting for something real.

But then Jesus really confounds us, saying that even though no one has ever been greater than John, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. The least.

The least in the kingdom of heaven is even greater because the kingdom of heaven is not at all about being the greatest. Everyone in the kingdom of heaven is exalted; everyone is at their best, so it’s not about competing, not about winning, not about getting something so someone else doesn’t. It’s about connecting with each other, about aligning ourselves with the will of God: it’s about justice; it’s about peace; it’s about love. I’m not just talking about some beautiful afterlife we all hope to attain; I’m talking about what it’s like right here in our world when God’s will is being done and we’re helping to make that happen.

Maybe this will help you see what I mean: When you loaded food baskets at St. Agatha last month on Turkey Sunday, did you feel any need to be the best at it? To be the greatest? When you step up to receive communion after humbly reciting that you’re not worthy, do you feel any need to be the best at it? The greatest?

All you want is to be in a good relationship with God, doing what God calls you to do, being who God made you to be. You know you’re doing that when you see good things going on around you and you realize you had a hand in it, cooperating with the will of God, being like one of these lit candles, receiving the light and spreading the light, against the darkness. Darkness. Our world is so full of darkness, and we’re hoping for the light. The physical world is dark too – this coming week is just about the darkest week of the whole year. The sun sets earlier each day, and it rises so late in the morning. (But between 6:00 and 7:00 in the morning, you can see the night sky giving way to shades of purple and pink in the east, just before sunrise. It’s like an advent wreath in the sky.)

And today we light the pink candle and call this “Gaudete” Sunday: It means we’re more than halfway through the season of Advent. The word means, Rejoice! Feel the joy! Feel the excitement Jesus and his followers felt.

The crowds who followed Jesus felt his joy and felt his excitement. They saw and heard the good things going on around him, and they began to understand that the will of God was being done, right there in their presence, and that they were part of it.

I think it would be pretty exciting if we saw the good things going on around Jesus now, knowing that the will of God is being done, right here in our presence, and that we are part of it.

 

Thanksgiving Day

I wrote a homily for the Thanksgiving Day mass (the readings (Sirach 50:22-24, Corinthians 1:3-9 and Luke 17:11-19) but did not deliver it. Instead I heard a good one from Fr. Ed Fialkowski at 9:00 mass.  Maybe I’ll give this one another time.
Jesus gets to be funny sometimes.
He knows what happened; he knows all ten were healed.
Only one comes back to thank him, so as I picture it, he gets that look on his face, pausing, and saying, “Weren’t there, like, ten of you guys? Am I only batting .100 here?”

The way this sets up reminds me of how Jesus heals us, in our lives, with our problems.
He sends the ten lepers to see the priests – he sends them someplace else – knowing that they are going to come to notice the healing after that. Down the road, not right in his presence.

We would all love to get the answers to our prayers right on the spot.

I had a friend who had an important job interview downtown, and she was looking for a parking place and hoping not to be late. She began fervently praying, “Please, God, find me a parking place and I will change my ways and I will come to church every Sunday and – oh, nevermind, God: I just found one.”

But that’s rarely how it happens, especially if we are praying for big, life-changing stuff.
Healing from leprosy is a life-altering experience. The people with this disease were cut off from the community; healing from it is a way back in.

Jesus arranges it so these people will notice their healing later, over time, after trying out what he tells them to do.

That’s what happens with us: we come in here, or to our regular daily prayer places, and we ask for what we need. We listen to Jesus and go try to do what he tells us. Sometime after that, often when we aren’t even thinking about it, we come to notice that whatever we needed has happened. Or that something else we didn’t count on or ask for has happened, but it made a difference in what was troubling us before.

Those are good moments to return to prayer, especially with prayers of thanksgiving. Ah! Okay, God, I see what you did there! Thank you.

Eucharist is Thanksgiving. That’s what the word means in Greek. One great way to explain to small children what goes on here at mass is to compare it to Thanksgiving Day. The whole extended family gets together. Everybody brings something to share. People who may have been on the outs tell each other they are sorry. The old people tell stories, often about the people who were old people when they were young people. The people try to understand what the stories are about. The stories are important to them; they help them understand who they are. After the stories, everybody eats a special meal together, and at the end, everybody goes back to where they came from, feeling thankful.

I still don’t yet know how NFL football fits in to the analogy, and if you mention shopping on Thanksgiving Day you are going to see Bob’s dark side come out, and you would not like that.

But I hope you see the parallels to what we do here: gathering, the penitential rite, the scriptural stories and trying to understand them. The sharing of what we brought in with us, and the special meal. When we leave, we have a renewed connection to this, our family, and a renewed sense of who we are and what we need to do.

The experience of the lepers tells us what we need to do. We need to notice the action of Christ in our lives, then get back to him to thank him. One way to get back to Jesus is to come here, certainly each Sunday, but sometimes during the week too. Another really good way to find our way back to Jesus is by meeting him again in other flesh-and-blood human beings.

Be thankful for them.

The World Is Ending. Keep Working.

(Homily for November 17, 2019, the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The readings are Malachi 3:19-20, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12, and Luke 21:5-19.) 

I’ll talk about this gospel in a minute, but first I want to dig in to that second reading.

Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “Hey, it’s getting back to me that some of you are not minding your own business.” Instead of getting done the work that needed to be done, some people were getting up into other people’s business. Can you imagine something like that going on in our place and time? People being busybodies? Paul says to them, in writing, from a distance, “Knock it off. Do your work, quietly, and eat your food.” Paul reminds them of the example he set when he was there in person: he did his share of the work, he earned his keep.

We all have work to do – studies and homework to keep up with, businesses to attend to, bosses to please, homes to keep clean and safe. More importantly, we all have spiritual work to do, the never-ending effort to draw closer to God, to respond to God’s invitation: God is constantly saying to us, “Come with me, do this work with me.”

It’s the most important work of our lives, but we can’t attend to that work if we’re investing time, attention and energy in judging the souls of others. (Even when some people just seem to be asking for it!) The temptation to congratulate ourselves over being better than someone else is just that, temptation. There’s no need to be in the business of judging other people, when all it really comes down to is judging them not to be as good or holy as ourselves.

We can understand Paul’s reminder to say that each of us has enough work to do on our own spirits; we should do that work, instead of trying to judge others. Instead of putting each other down and holding holiness contests, what God asks of us is to accompany each other, to help each other along. It’s not a competition: I can’t earn a place in the Kingdom by beating someone else out for it, but there is a place prepared for me, and I find the way there as I help others.

Jesus tells the people who have been following and listening to him,
It’s going to get ugly: “See this beautiful temple here? It’s all going to come down.
“There won’t be left a stone on another stone.”

What he’s telling the people is that this grand, formidable place they had been building for years, what they counted on, this edifice they have assumed to be indestructible, which they have made the center of their lives – It isn’t going to last.

For the center of your life you need to pick something that will last, something that will endure. That’s why Jesus is saying, pick me. Make me the center. He will endure.

Jesus is also saying, “You, too, will need to endure. You will need to endure hardships and persecution. People will shun you or abuse you. It’s going to get ugly.”

Put your faith in me, he says.
Put your faith in what is going to last.
I will be there when everyone else is gone.
When all the hot hot places have come down to burning ash, I will still be with you.
I will be the gentle voice in your head, giving you the words you need.
Don’t be afraid.
Persevere.
Don’t believe the false leaders.

Jesus warns us: The world is going to change. Things we counted on won’t be there.

Jesus tells us all that things will be difficult and sad sometimes.
Sometimes it’s just going to suck, but he will be there with us.

When we are accompanying someone who’s hurting, we don’t deny that it’s bad and it hurts; and we don’t pretend that we can make it stop hurting.
All we can do is be there for each other.
It’s the most honest and human thing one can do for another, and it’s what Christ does: Just to be there for each other is a Christlike thing that we can do.

Jesus is with us and for us: I’m going to be there with you. I’m never going to abandon you. Whatever else changes, I’m with you to the end.

November gospel readings always turn our attention to the end of the world. The signs in the sky, the destruction of the temple – we acknowledge the fact that nothing here will last, nothing except the love we share.

Part of the reason for the problem back in Thessalonika, the reason Paul had to write that letter, was that people figured the end of the world was coming any day now, so why bother with work or anything? He set them straight: Get back to work. Us too:
The point of the gospel isn’t that we’re going to need Jesus to survive some future tribulation; the point is that we need Jesus now, to confront the challenges that are always part of our world. The world we know is changing, all the time.

We need him with us, to persevere through the changes. If we rely on Jesus, we can experience all this change as grace and an opportunity to give witness. But that’s what it will take – relying on Jesus. And doing our work.

A good golf story at the wedding

(This is the homily I delivered at the wedding of my son Brendan and my new daughter-in-law Ashley, on October 12, 2019.  The readings they chose so well were Sirach 6:14-17, Philippians 4:4-9, and Matthew 7:21, 24-29.) 

That was a pretty good gospel to read for two design professionals. The people who first heard Jesus compare discipleship to architecture were astonished; he didn’t sound like their scribes. “This guy gets it,” they realized. The fact Ashley and Brendan picked this piece to be read here at their wedding says they get it too.

Does anyone want to hear a good Brendan story? I should leave the good Brendan stories to his three sisters and his friends who may want to tell them at the reception tonight. But there is one Brendan story I really need to tell here.

He was maybe 8 or 9 years old, and he had been practicing with his first set of golf clubs. We cut down the shafts on a set that had belonged to my dad and then to me. Made them the right size for the newest golfer in the family. He enjoyed going to the range with me and hitting ball after ball into the night, sometimes better than me. (Now he’s always better than me, but that’s not saying much.) One day, I took him to Columbus Park, a little 9-hole Chicago Park District course, to play his first round on a real golf course. A really lousy golf course, but a golf course – a place to start. We arrived as a twosome, and the starter hooked us up with a single player, an old black dude from the neighborhood, and sent us off as a threesome. This poor guy, had to play with a crummy player from the suburbs and the crummy player’s little kid who was playing for the first time. But he was friendly and patient – which is the coolest thing about golf and golfers. It’s why Harvey Penick titled his book, If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend.

The first four holes at Columbus Park are pretty straight, and Brendan played them methodically, using the flag as his target, keeping his score and beginning to learn the principle that the most important shot is … the next one. But we got to the fifth tee, the only par-5 on the course, which is a dogleg left with woods around the turn. So for the first time ever, Brendan didn’t see the flag from the tee, and he didn’t know what the route to the green was going to be.

So Brendan asked me, “Where are we going? I can’t see the flag; I don’t know where the hole is.” And I casually explained what a dogleg hole does and how he’d be able to see the flag when he went up to hit his second shot. “So what do I aim at?” he asked. I realized he needed a target so I looked down the middle of the fairway and followed that line beyond the golf course to a light tower, over an expressway, probably a quarter-mile away, maybe more. “Do you see that light tower, B? You can aim at that.” And Brendan said, “What if I hit it?”

I looked out there at the tower, 40 feet high and a quarter-mile away, and I said, “Brendan, take a nice, easy swing, and if you hit that light from here, I will buy you a beer.” And the patient old black dude playing with us added, “And, yo’ daddy will let you drink it, too.”

I have told that story for two reasons. One, it is my favorite Brendan story of all time. But I brought it up because of the three questions Brendan asked me while standing on that tee-box twenty years ago.

The three questions he asked were: Where are we going? What do I aim at? and What if I hit it?

Those three questions are really good to reflect on as Ashley and Brendan set out on the rest of their life together, joined in marriage today. Where are we going? What do we aim at? What if we hit it?

Where are we going? Just like Brendan standing on the tee of a par five and not being able to see the flag around the turn ahead, we can’t see where life is going to take us. In 2014, Brendan and Ashley completed their master’s degrees together at Kansas State. Brendan got his dream job, which took him to Fort Lauderdale, and Ashley followed him, postponing some of her own dreams. I thought of that when Meredith read the passage from Sirach, about the happiness a good, loyal spouse brings. Last year, Ashley started on her dream job in New York, and Brendan followed her there. It was his turn.

Anyone who says they could have predicted all of that five years ago is just showing off. We don’t get to see what’s coming around the turns in our lives. What we do get to see is the people we are with, heading into those turns together and supporting each other. What we’re doing in a church today, surrounded by family and friends, is celebrating that. We can’t see where we are going but you two are going to walk there together. You’ll continue to help each other get there. That’s what matters.

The second question was, What do I aim at? We all need a target. In everything we do, we need a goal, something to aim at. Our human condition meas we are not always going to hit the target; in fact, we’re going to miss it a whole lot of the time. That’s what forgiveness is for. Old married people like us have experienced a lot of forgiveness in life; that’s how you get to be an old married person, by forgiving each other. A heart full of patience and mercy is a useful thing for young married people too. Don’t go out without it.

What do I aim at? Emily read from St. Paul’s letter: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious. Think on those things.” Aim at those things. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Always aim at love. Don’t miss the wonderful life you have been given by worrying about “What’s in it for me?”

It’s a mystery, a mystery we celebrate: through love two become one, but that doesn’t mean losing your identity or just collapsing into each other. It means becoming the best version of yourself, accompanied there and drawn there by each other. Aim at that: Aim at becoming who you really are, who God made you to be. Aim at making a wonderful life for each other, and for * your future children (whom you can bring to our house any time you want). [Here I choked up and joked that there was a bet going on how many times I would lose it during the homily.  That’s one.]

What was the third question?

One: Where we going? Two, What do I aim at? Three, What if I hit it?

What if I hit it? Stay open to what’s possible, even to what seems impossible. An 8-year-old boy has no conceptual problem with doing the impossible, achieving the unimaginable. What if I hit that light tower, 40 feet high and a quarter-mile away with this used golf ball and a cut-down driver?

Ask each other “What if …?” and talk about it. When your spouse starts a conversation with you with “What if …?”, be open to the possible, be open to what seems impossible – just be open.

You’ve been doing it so far, and it has brought you right here.

When things are hard, remember that Jesus has two arms, and that one of them, Ashley, is around you, and the other one, Brendan, is around you, and that is how you got here. Those loving arms will always be around you. Remember that when you contemplate whatever seems impossible.

St. Paul, in today’s second reading, encourages the people to follow the good example they have been given, and promises them that God will be with them. You’ve been given good examples of loving and lasting marriages: Neil and Susan, Courtney and Aaron, Aubrey and Trevor, Emily and Daniel, Marmie and Pop, me and Julia, many more. Marriages like a house built on solid ground, standing up to the wind and rain. Not just built, but lovingly maintained and cared for.

Some people have their marriage blessed in a church ceremony because it’s what they think their parents want. In today’s culture, you didn’t have to have a wedding ceremony at all, and you didn’t have to have one in church. The lifelong gift and sacrament you give each other is witnessed here in the presence of God and the presence of your friends and family, because you have made the good choice to allow God to collaborate with you in your life together.

Speaking for Julia, which I am seldom allowed to do, I know she has always wanted this, and speaking for me, there is no place I’d rather be right now than right here with you. It may have been a surprise to some to see Ashley walked down the aisle of a Catholic church. Others may be surprised that Brendan was here at the end of the aisle in a Catholic church to meet her. We all are happy that you’re doing this not just for your parents but because you trust in God, and you really buy into the idea that the presence of God in your lives is central to your marriage, crucial to your life together. You’ve mixed the two Christian traditions you were raised in and found what you can both live happily with; the only way to do that is to trust in God.

What if I hit it? Trust in God, and you will hit it.

God, for whom nothing is impossible, is inviting you into something absolutely wonderful. And if that is where you always are aiming, and you have faith that is where you are going, then you have already hit it. * [That was two.]  What you have ahead of you is the joy of finding that out.

 

God’s weakness

(I preached this homily on September 15, 2019.  The readings are Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Luke 15:1-10, the way I did it.)

This Gospel passage of two lost-and-found parables segues right into the parable of the prodigal son. If you keep reading in Luke, ch. 15 after these two little stories, Jesus tells the big one. All three stories – the shepherd searching for the one lost sheep, the woman searching for the lost coin, and the father welcoming back the son who wronged him and pleading with the son who wronged himself – they all make God out to be so overwhelmingly generous and loving that even those whom God loves can’t understand it.

These parables have a pattern: Loss – searching – finding – rejoicing – sharing that joy,
and they do it in a way that makes God out to seem impractical, and actually, kind of foolish.

The shepherd responsible for a flock of 100 leaves 99 on their own to go find the one lost sheep and brings that one back. What was he thinking? What if he has to go and do it another 99 times? Jesus asks the scribes and Pharisees, “Who wouldn’t do this?” and they’re all thinking “I sure wouldn’t!” Are we too?

Any time the gospel illustrates God as a woman, we ought to sit up and take notice. Picture a woman losing a quarter, turning on all the lights and cleaning the whole house until she finds it. Not only is the coin found, but the whole house is clean. Then throws a party to celebrate. She’s sharing the joy that what was lost has been found.
But did she spend the rest of her money on the celebration?

It seems a little foolish. Does God have a screw loose, a weakness?
I think so. God has a weakness for us, a real soft spot.

Bishop Tom Gumbleton in Michigan says “What God does seems foolish, but it’s wiser than our way of thinking. This weakness of God is stronger than our way of thinking.”
We can look at what Jesus practices and preaches say, you know, that is all good and beautiful, but we’re also tempted to say his teachings are quaint and impractical, and maybe a little foolish. Maybe a lot foolish. It works for him, and it works for holy people, but for us? We’re sophisticated 21st Century humans with jobs and responsibilities and important stuff going on. We need to be taken seriously by our neighbors, not foolish.
And if you want to see where that way of thinking is going to get us, it’s in right in the first reading today. While Moses is away with God on the mountain, the people of Israel turned to idolatry, worshiping the golden calf. Making sacrifices to gold, behaving badly: does that sound like anybody we know?

God tells Moses to go to those people “whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” God tells Moses, You brought them out; I pointed out the way; they turned away. So get out of my way; I’m really gonna let them have it now. Moses responds, well wait a minute God, you love these people. You brought them out of Egypt; you promised to make their descendants number like the stars. Please don’t hurt ‘em now. Don’t let them stay separated from the source of everything good.

The people had turned away, choosing not to follow, separating themselves from the source. Our need to be taken seriously by others; our need for money or power or affection or whatever — that is our way of choosing not to follow, our way of separating ourselves, and, well, getting lost. The consequences of our bad decisions, our turning away from God, isn’t some bad thing God did to us. People blame God for the things that go wrong in life. (I don’t mean an illness or the death of a loved one; that’s someplace we are all going, and the time never seems right for it.)  What I mean is the pain of not liking how my life is going, wishing things were different – the suffering that comes from the sense of having lost your way.

God did not drive you away. On the contrary, God came looking for you. God dropped whatever God was doing and went searching just like the shepherd left the 99 to look for the one lost sheep, like the woman who cleaned the whole house to find the one lost drachma. Then God celebrated when one of us was found. There’s the pattern again, in our own lives:  Loss – searching – finding – rejoicing – sharing that joy with others.

We want to share the joy of being found and cherished, and one important way we do that is the RCIA. Today after mass we’re welcoming everyone who wants to learn more about this Catholic faith of ours and wants to share in it.

What really seems foolish and impractical is that God accepts and cherishes all of us, with all our flaws and errors, with everything in our past. Moses tried to change God’s mind. Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. He came to change our minds about God — and about ourselves. People who accept themselves accept others. People who hate themselves hate others. The love of God is what allows us to accept ourselves, with all our flaws and shadowy places, with all our pasts and all our potential, all our mistakes and all our successes. God’s relationship with us isn’t “us & them”; God is intimately in us all, intimately involved with us all.

Because of that we don’t need to run away from our crosses; we can carry them more gladly in union with Christ. And we still choose to go another direction sometimes, but the best part of losing our way is the humbling joy of being found and forgiven. The question we have to tackle is, Do we want to be found?

It’s not necessarily an easy question. It should require some serious soul-searching, prayer and reflection before we give our answer. We hope the answer for each of us will be: “I choose to follow Jesus.”

Strive!

(This was the homily this morning, August 25, 2019.  The readings are Isaiah 66:18-21, Psalm 117, Hebrews 12:5-7 and 11-13, and Luke 13:22-30.)

This is kind of a harsh gospel. Maybe some of you are like me and wonder if that Slobig guy is ever going to give a harsh homily.

We seem to be having a run of hard gospel messages. Last week (Aug. 18), the gospel reading had Jesus saying “I have come to set the world on fire,” and warning his followers that his teaching is going to turn families inside out, fathers against their sons, mothers against their daughters, in-laws against in-laws.

And now we hear about the door being locked for the night, and the master saying, “I don’t know where you are from.”

Jesus’s point here is persistence. Keep after it. He’s persistent himself, repeating that the last will be first and the first will be last. Today he uses a meaningful verb, strive. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” The “narrow gate” reminds us of the “eye of the needle”: It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich and comfortable to enter the kingdom.

But that verb, strive. He didn’t say “try”. When you say strive, can’t you feel the effort, the dedication, the persistence? When someone strives, you know they are really putting their heart into it. This is not a context where you want to say “try”. Just “trying” doesn’t sound like persistence or dedication. “Try” sounds like just showing up, and maybe it will work out; maybe it won’t. Remember what Yoda said to Luke in the early part of his Jedi training: “There is no try.” The one who strives doesn’t have any quit in her, even in the face adversity, even in the face of failure.

So, thinking about the difference between striving and just showing up, I got to thinking about what we are doing here.

You’re hearing this, which means that it mattered to you to show up for mass this morning. And that’s good! Some of us here are striving, struggling; some are searching and yearning. Some of us are just showing up.

Do we just show up at mass? Do we merely show up, or are we really putting our hearts into this? Did we bring anyone with us? Do we recite the prayers, joining our voices with everybody else, and do we really mean them when we say them?

Do we sing?

Pope Francis says that “one cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one’s life.” That means it has to show. People should know who we are, both by the vigor and care we bring to Sunday mass together, and by the way it informs and illumines our lives the other six days of the week.

The disappointed people in the gospel story tell the Lord, “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” But that’s all the receiving end of it. The implicit question is, “Okay you ate and drank with me and listened to me and heard what I taught, and then what happened? Did it make a difference in your life? How did you act on that?” What changed inside you, anything at all?

Was it ever hard? Did it ever make you cry? Did it ever make you change?

If we only called ourselves “Christian” while it was convenient and painless,
God is going to say to us, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me.”

St. Paul picks up on that a little in the letter to the Hebrews, today’s second reading, commenting on discipline.

Discipline seems like a pain, not a cause for joy. But Paul says it will do us good.
When things don’t go the way we want them to – do we lose heart or do we try to see where God is taking us?

And what happens when we respond to God and truly strive to be the people God made us to be? In today’s first reading, from the end of Isaiah, there is a prophecy of all of the people coming together, arriving on “horses, chariots, carts, on mules and dromedaries.” That image means the rich and the poor, the women and the men, the children and the aged, all traveling together, all striving toward the same goal. The different means of transportation is a metaphor for the variety, for the differences among all the people, all going up to our common destination. In today’s culture it might have been written “in minivans and SUVs, on bicycles and in limousines, on scooters and Priuses and Cadillacs,” variety like that. For the Jewish tradition, this is the goyim, the Gentiles: People from outside our clans and circles, all joining together. And it even says God wants to make some of them religious leaders, examples for the rest.

It brings to my mind a line from James Joyce about our Church: “Here comes everybody.”

This is not just about “getting into heaven;” the next life isn’t where the kingdom of God is found. The kingdom of God is at hand; it’s within our reach, and it exists and thrives where God’s will is being done. This is about cooperating in God’s unfolding plan all our lives.

We can show up here to check a box and fulfill an obligation that our parents and grandparents taught us, or we can really throw ourselves into a full, conscious and active participation in bringing the kingdom into being and making this world a place where every tear is wiped away and every person matters and is cared for and cherished. That starts with us striving here and continues with our persistent striving in the world. Sometimes that’s going to get uncomfortable.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy; I’m saying it’s going to be worth it.

 

(Both) Martha and Mary

This was my homily for July 21, 2019. The readings are Genesis 18:1-10, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:24-28, and Luke 10:38-42. 

So does it sound like Mary was the winner here?

We have a tendency to divide things up in terms of good and bad, winners and losers, who’s right and who’s wrong. Don’t we? Dualistic or binary analysis, you may call it.
It makes things easier to sort out, but it doesn’t really always help us get to the truth.

We’ve heard the story of Martha and Mary a million times, and let’s face it, most of those million times, didn’t we want to pick a winner at the end?

Today, can we not? Please? Can we go a little deeper than saints and sinners, losers and winners?

Seriously, as I read this gospel, how many of us were lining ourselves up with one of the sisters, against the other one? Weren’t you feeling it — Mary wins this one.  She’s in there with the men, sitting at the feet of Jesus and drinking in his wisdom. Even he says it, “Mary has chosen the better part.” Did he hold her hand up like in boxing ring? He sure made it clear that his teaching and disciples include women.

In the meantime, the other sister, Martha, is doing what you do when you suddenly have a house full of unexpected guests. She’s making sure they are all comfortable, getting them something to drink, fixing them something to eat.  You just know Jesus didn’t show up alone at their house, and he didn’t bring a bottle of wine or a dish to share. He probably had an entourage with him, that group of followers he had. The 72 disciples Jesus had sent on a mission had returned, with stories to tell, and Jesus was celebrating with them. Then he got into it with a lawyer trying to earn his way into heaven by doing the minimum, and told him the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard last Sunday.
Next thing the gospel says, he’s here at Martha’s door. Probably more than one weary traveler.

So this is about hospitality. Last week the message was about compassion; this one is about hospitality.

Which reminds me, did you catch what was happening in the first reading? God shows up unexpectedly to visit Abraham, but it looks like three men. So what does Abraham do? He immediately sees to their comfort: get their feet washed; get them something nice to eat. Hospitality.

More precisely, Abraham makes his wife see to feeding them and making them comfortable. The first thing he says to her when company comes is “Quick! Get in the kitchen and get busy!”

I wonder whether Abraham knew it was God come to visit him and Sarah. He saw three and addressed them as one. Is that a trinitarian image? Did he know who the strangers really were?

Or was he just observing what would become an important Jewish tradition, caring for the guest and welcoming the foreigner?

This is about hospitality. Abraham and Sarah were hospitable. They put themselves out for their visitors.

Martha did the same thing. This is not a competition between Mary and Martha; it’s a way to see that we all have different gifts and they are all important. We all have both Martha and Mary in us. Mary represents the spiritual and the relational, and Martha the physical and the practical. We have to have both or we won’t have a sustainable, robust life of faith that we can share as a community.

Speaking of a sustainable, robust life of faith that we can share as a community.
How hospitable and welcoming are we as a parish?

  • Do we put ourselves out to make others feel at home? What do people think when they come to visit St. Luke’s?
  • Are we hospitable to strangers? Or even to the people we already know?
  • Are we giving the people around us a sense of belonging?
  • Is this a place you would leave your purse or wallet on a pew and walk away from it, to go have a conversation at the other end of the church?

When we welcome the stranger, is it because we are following the precept to treat the visitor with hospitality, or is it because we recognize the presence of God in the stranger? Or is it both?

When we try to see what God sees, we can get past that “either-or”, winners-and-losers mentality that we think makes our lives easier, but actually holds us back from being the best, most thoughtful, most compassionate, most hospitable version of ourselves. So many of the questions that are easy to answer with an “either/or” and better answered with a “both/and”. Both Martha and Mary are part of who we are, and both are necessary parts. Our lives are contemplation and action. It starts with prayer, which leads to action. Then we reflect on the action, what we achieved, what still needs to be done, and return to prayer and contemplation with that, and then to action again.

We need to turn to the world with both contemplation and action. There is something awful going on at our nation’s southern border. It requires something of us, and it requires both contemplation and action. I look at those camps and ask, Where is our compassion? Is this how we treat our guests?  I’m not making a political point. It’s not a political issue. This is about hospitality. There are human beings suffering. What are we doing to meet their basic human needs? What are we doing to see to their safety and their right to life?

Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus as a guest in their house. What’s it going to take for us to see Jesus in the sad faces of the immigrants at the border? What’s it going to take for us to realize that the people suffering at the border are not some anonymous “them”? They are our brothers and sisters in the human family; they are the suffering neighbor Jesus talked about in the parable last week, and the neighbor needs someone to help, not cross to the other side of the road to avoid. What’s it going to take for us to treat these people as our neighbors?

It starts with what Mary did, listening to Jesus. It leads to what Martha, Abraham and Sarah did, taking care of others’ needs.

Jesus compliments Martha for taking care of the company; he acknowledges that she’s been taking one for the team by doing all the worrying and all the serving. But he also reminds everyone that the most important thing they are doing that afternoon is listening to him. When you think about it, nobody would be able to do that, to listen to him, unless somebody else is taking care of the hospitality. We need to do both.

 

Perfect

(Homily for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019.  The readings are Proverbs 8:22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15.)

This past Monday I was at work, as usual, but I did get outside at the lunch hour. The sun was shining; the sky was blue; and the temperature was just right, not too warm, not too cool. On the way back to the office after lunch, I overheard someone on the street say the day was perfect. When I got home from work, I thought back on that and came in the house saying to Julia what a perfect day it had been. I wished I could have spent more of it outside than I did.

So why don’t I just move to San Diego, where it’s like that every day?

But in San Diego, do they even know? Do they notice that it’s perfect every day, or are they just used to it? They didn’t have 29 days of rain in May and before that a lingering winter that just wouldn’t go away. All they seem to have is sunshine and 70 degrees, all the time. Who needs that? I’d rather be here with you. This place isn’t perfect, but it’s good, and trying to get better. Count me in for that, any time.

Who here had a perfect upbringing, a perfect marriage, a perfect job? Who has perfect children, a perfect family? When have we experienced perfection? Almost ten years ago, Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game for the White Sox; that was pretty cool. It was a team effort: the guys playing with him made all 27 putouts, including one pretty amazing catch at the wall in centerfield in the ninth inning.

Some days give us a little taste or glimpse of perfection. What would it feel like to live in a perfect world, a perfect relationship, all the time?

Here’s the surprise: We do. We have our existence in perfection. Saint Paul reminds us in the second reading, saying, “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” The love of God is perfect.

This is Trinity Sunday, and all the readings have something to do with the perfect love of God that is the Trinity. It is the perfect relationship, and we do live in it. We may not realize it all the time, but life is better when we do realize it, when we grasp what we are sharing in, this great gift given to us: God’s perfect love for us.

The perfect love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for the Father is so strong and so perfect that it is a person, and God in its own right, the Holy Spirit. Together, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share that love among each other and with us, God’s delight.

Perfect love loves people – that is what perfect love does. In the first reading today, the voice of wisdom remembers the wonder of creation, what marvelous things God has done, and one line stands out: the wisdom of God, saying, “I found delight in the human race.” Think of that voice as the voice of Love itself. God is love, and Delight is what we are made for. Can there be anything better than being someone’s delight? We are God’s delight.

It’s perfect. The love of God flows through the Trinity as a perfect sharing, and from there it flows all over us, “poured out into our hearts.”

So here we are, surrounded by perfection, every day, and maybe we just don’t know it. Look at us, wrapped in perfect love, the object of God’s delight, and not noticing it.

We were just talking here last week about the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. God’s love for us people finds its way to us through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gets us ready to receive those gifts, as he explains in this gospel reading. He says the Holy Spirit will take what God the Father has given to God the Son – and that’s perfect love – and declare it to the Christian community. Jesus says this at the Last Supper, and the point is that Jesus knows he won’t be walking side-by-side with the disciples any more; he won’t be able to explain everything to them in person. So God sends the Holy Spirit to us. The Spirit shows up, inside us, and in the sparking connections between us. That’s how we know.

We have been given great capacity for love, and we don’t use most of it. Even if we did, it could never be enough, on its own, to reciprocate the perfect love of God for us. But, through the love of Christ for all of us, we are being perfected. We are becoming the body of Christ, the perfect expression of Jesus’s love for God and for us. The mass is where we express that. It’s where we are strengthened and fed so that we can get better at love.

If we have a prayer life, we can start to notice the love of God at work in the world.
With the realization that we carry in us the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we can start to see how we ourselves can cooperate with the love of God at work in the world. As we increase our cooperation with God’s work in the world, we can start to see things change, in us and around us.

Saint Paul says we are still going to have our troubles and problems, “afflictions” as he calls them, but our troubles summon up endurance.

Endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Hope is actually a gift from God, and it’s not the same thing as optimism. What hope does is increase confidence, and it drives away doubt and fear. When we operate out of hope and confidence instead of operating out of doubt and fear, we can do some pretty good stuff. It doesn’t need to be perfect.

Ten years ago a White Sox pitcher threw a perfect game. Some day maybe, a Cubs pitcher will throw a perfect game. Cubs fans, imagine how that will feel. Sox fans, remember how it feels. Now, allow yourself to be held there: you are God’s delight. Hold on to that feeling. Feeling it is the first step to practicing it. The perfect love of the Trinity is the love we are practicing for.

Keep practicing.

When does Easter end? (It doesn’t.)

(Homily for May 19, 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.  The readings were Acts 14:21-27, Psalm 145, Revelation 14:1-5 and John 13:31-35.)

About a month ago, on holy Saturday, I did a short reflection for the morning prayer service. I called it, “When does Lent end?”

The point was that Lent is our 40-day pilgrimage toward a joyful destination, Easter, and that the hallmarks of Lent, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are things we can continue doing all our lives, because Lent is a pilgrimage, and all of our lives, we are on a pilgrimage toward a joyful destination of perfect unity with God. All our lives, we should continue to pray; we should continue to fast from what we don’t need, so that others’ needs can be met; and all our lives, we should be generous with the poor and the powerless.

That same morning, as soon as morning prayers were done, a dedicated group of volunteers came in and decorated our church with new greenery and fresh flowers. They took away the purple cloths and replaced them with white ones. They made everything new for Easter.

The church should feel new when the season of Lent comes to a close, so that we can experience the joy of Easter again, a new season of rejoicing, a season of singing “Alleluia”, of being sprinkled with life-giving water. A season of newness. New hope. New joy.

Today’s readings tell us about this newness. Especially the second reading, where John writes of his vision, how he saw “a new heaven and new earth.”
The old heaven and old earth were gone; something new had taken their place. Even the sea was eliminated, symbolizing the complete victory of life over death, of creation over chaos. At the end of the passage we heard, a mystical voice announces that death will be no more. It’s a voice of newness.

The voice says God will wipe away every tear. Do you remember that we heard that last week too, on Good Shepherd Sunday: God will wipe away every tear.

Not only that, but the voice announces that God is present with the people in a new way: God is dwelling with the human race, always with them as their God.

This passage from Revelation ends, “there will be no more death, or mourning, wailing or pain.” That says everything is new because Jesus has risen from the dead.

The good news that Jesus rose from the dead to save us means something.
It means that we can’t just go back to our old stupid ways of doing things.
It means the world is new and we’re going to need to live in it a new way.

When I say “our old stupid ways,” I’m talking mainly about selfishness and about fear. (Those are my old and stupid ways; maybe yours are different.)  Now that it’s Easter, there’s nothing to be afraid of any more. Maybe that’s why, in the first reading, Paul and Barnabas can go back to places they had problems before. Paul and Barnabas went back to these towns in Asia Minor, places they had been thrown out of last time they were there. They came back, and strengthened the faith of the people there. Because there’s nothing to be afraid of.

We can stand to be reminded of that, as we go stumbling through our messed up lives, that everything is new and there is nothing to be afraid of.

So Jesus gives us what we need, to be able to live in the new earth and the new heaven. He gives us a new commandment:

In the gospel passage, Jesus says, “I am giving you a new commandment,” and his new commandment is to love one another. “Love one another,” he says, “as I have loved you.”

It’s not, “obey all the old rules.” Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus also doesn’t say, I’m leaving you a long, detailed instruction manual. He says just one thing: Love one another. I think we’re supposed to work out the details. The one thing we need to know is that the new heaven and new earth are about love.

The way we live in the new heaven and the new earth is to love one another.
And when that gets too complicated, well, who do you think did that?

John’s vision in Revelation, back in the second reading, describes this new world Jesus has given to us, what it looks like and feels like:  a wedding  — Jerusalem adorned like a bride and coming to join her husband. God now lives with us and in us, the people God loves, espoused, close by, like a groom with a bride. There will be no more hurting, no more death. There will be kissing and hugging, and more. Everything is new.

This is the surprise ending to the story, to our story, to the story we all are part of. God will always be with us, and in us; we are God’s delight, like the bride.

The season of Easter ushers us into the new heaven and new earth. We’re in it. We’re assured of God’s love for us, and we’re assured that God is with us and in us, holding us close, ready to wipe away every tear; and we’re assured that God will always be with us. If it doesn’t quite feel like that just yet, that’s not because of God. It will. God has done God’s part and will keep doing it. When we love one another as God has loved us, then people are going to know who we really are.

And so will we.