4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (January 28, 2018)

Jesus was asked several times: “By whose authority do you say these things?” – or in today’s Gospel – “What is this? A new teaching with authority.”

The old, authoritative, teaching from scribal wisdom, was passed on from older scribes and founded on avoidance, no-no’s: people, like lepers and tax-collectors and sinners; things: like, like pork, unwashed whatevers – persons, places, and things to be avoided.

Our idea of authority is two-fold:

1. There is, first, authority from outside. Someone else confers this authority - like being appointed a cabinet member, a CEO, a bishop. It is usually accompanied by an oath of office.

2. There is also the authority that comes from inside, from within a person. It is the authority that comes from experience, education, it is being “an authority,” for example, on Benjamin Franklin, on diamonds, on astrophysics.

Actually, inner authority is the root of the word ”authority” itself. The “auth” in authority comes from two Greek words: autos and epha: “He himself says so.”

It is the ideal to have both kinds of authority. The authority, which Jesus emphasizes in today’s Gospel, is inner authority. Jesus possessed no conferred, Jewish, earthly, authority. It takes an act of faith to accept that his authority came from his father. Repeated incidents like this convinced many that that was true.

The scribes would quote famous rabbis when asked a question. Jesus did not; he spoke boldly for himself. He held people spellbound, hanging on his every word because he possessed a profound inner authority. Jesus held complete authority both the authority conferred by his father and a life of openness to learning truth. It freed him to challenge the status quo. It ultimately got him killed.

A lot of folks with external authority do not see the difference between external authority and internal authority, and, in their frustration at not being recognized as “the authority,” get aggressive, even violent. It happened to Jesus . . .

Outside of military service, external authority is never sufficient by itself. The scribes rested on the laurels of their external authority. They lost respect among those who listened to and compared the scribes’ and Jesus’ teaching.

This raises the question of church authority. We believe 100% of the important church teachings in the apostles’ and Nicene creeds concerning doctrine. Main line Protestants agree 100% with us.

What about the moral decisions about which the church invokes its authority over us? Does the church always speak god’s will? Historically, the answer is no. Slavery and usury are two easy examples.

Most times, directives make good sense. Sometimes, however, they do not. “Discernment” is the traditional word for learning God’s will for oneself. We are to listen carefully to church directives; that is the literal meaning of “obedience.” ob + audire means to “listen carefully.” When we do not agree, we pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, examine the issue, our motives and the circumstances of the situation, and prudently make our decision. A habitual, good relationship with God is necessary.

Jesus trusted his God-given, Spirit-inspired gifts and powers; we are called to do the same. Like JESUS, we need to have the courage of our convictions.

When we are reflectively in tune with God, we, like Jesus, will do courageous and marvelous deeds in breaking scribal, fearsome boundaries - with authority, as did Jesus.

3rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (January 21, 2018)

I’ve never been to mainland Europe, but I have been told that some cathedrals from the 17th century have pulpits built in the shape of the mouth of a great fish. The preacher speaks to the people, standing as the prophet Jonah recently emerged from the mouth of the whale.

You remember the story; Jonah was sent to the east by God to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria -- modern day Iran. Assyria was the nation that earlier held the Jews in cruel captivity. Jonah, instead, headed west to the Mediterranean Sea and shipped out to go further west. Where, of course, he comes face-to-face with the whale.

This is a story loved by children, but it is primarily an adult story. Let us not get distracted by the story of how a man could be swallowed whole by a fish and live. This is not ichthyology, but theology. It is a comedic story more about what goes on inside a person than about what goes on inside a whale.

The Assyrians had done the Jews dirt; Jonah had been raised to hate the Assyrians. Jonah could not stand facing the truth that his own personal enemies were not God’s enemies.

God was threatening Jonah’s learned bigotry, threatening that puffed-up feeling of moral superiority. According to the scripture scholars, the Jonah story targets Jonah and fellow, narrow-minded Jews who were wrongly secure in being the “chosen people.“

There is good news: God brought about the single, most-sweeping renewal movement recorded in Scripture through the preaching of a man who was far from perfect. It proves again that God can write straight with crooked lines.

Who are our Ninevites? Terrorists, child-molesters, people of different national origin, different social standing, different racial background or sexual orientation? Could it be that God is sending us to bring his love to them?

In the beginning of Mark’ s Gospel, Jesus speaks to four Jewish fishermen. Each, like the Ninevites, responds promptly with his “yes” to Jesus. These, also, would stand out in sharp contrast to the many Jews who refused to accept Jesus.

So, the connecting link between the two readings is: God’s call & our response. The church, in placing these readings together, encourages a prompt, non-judgmental response, like the Ninevites and the four apostles.

How do we respond?

Perhaps we are like Jonah. Do we spend a good part of our life avoiding God by distracting ourselves with television or something else, so we don’t have to face our god?

Perhaps we are like the ancient Jews. We live out our personal exiles, bruised in heart with real or imagined hurts that we hold onto and stew over endlessly.

Perhaps we are like the apostles who quickly said “yes.” Peter and Andrew say “yes.” Jesus comes before business; James and john say “yes.” Jesus comes before family.

For both the apostles and for us, the journey may later get rough, and we need to remember that just as the apostles fell and got up, so must we. Our “yes” is not a once and for all decision. We, like them need to get up when we fall and begin again to live our ongoing “yes.”

2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (January 14, 2018)

In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus simply invites four fishermen to follow him, and they do it. In John, the first disciples were followers of John the Baptizer. John the Baptizer hails Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” and two of his followers go off with Jesus.

Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for.” Could there have been a more penetrating question? Were they legalists looking for answers to hard questions in the law, like Scribes and Pharisees? Were they revolutionaries looking to overthrow roman authority, like the zealots? Were they looking for power, like the Sadducees? Or, were they simply poor, sinful, quizzical, Jewish men, looking for light? Simple souls. “What are you looking for” is the key question for any would-be disciple. Is it money, power, prestige, or service?

Their answer seems, at first, off point: they answer his question with a question: “teacher, where do you live?” They are respectful towards the one whom john the baptizer showed the greatest respect; they call him, “teacher.” They ask by their question that they do not want a superficial, roadside, fleeting few words with him. It is not a “let’s do lunch” situation. They want to know him; they want to be friends, visiting with him in his own home.

He answers in the Jewish, rabbinic tradition “come and see.” which means, “come and we will talk together, find truth, and you will experience truth that I alone can open up to you.”

Two disciples followed Jesus. One was named, Andrew. Andrew then went to his brother, Peter, and did what Andrew is famous for: not trying to be famous. Andrew was a first-chosen apostle, but he was not chosen to be in the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. Also, he was very content in doing what he seemed to do best, bringing others to Jesus. He did it here, bringing his brother, Peter. Peter was the one chosen to lead. Andrew was fine with that. Andrew appears three times, each time introducing others to Jesus. Later, he appears in chapter 6 bringing the boy with the 5 loaves and 2 small fish to Jesus before the multiplication event. Later still, he appears in chapter 12 when he brings the non-Jewish, Greek inquirers to Jesus.

The other of the two disciples who joined Jesus this day is not named. Scholars suggest that it was the beloved disciple, John. Why? John wrote this Gospel. The author notes that this incident occurred “about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.” Is it not true that we remember the place and time of our most significant events, where and when we were at an earthshaking moment. This may well have been this common experience that led the author to note the time. If he was there, John would never forget this event and never be the same as long as he lived.

I would suggest that the most relevant line for us in today’s gospel is the question of Jesus, “what are you looking for?” What is the bottom line for you in coming to me? What are you looking for? Is it for relief from guilt because of the fear of punishment for past sins or indiscretions? Is it for a need for eternal security? Is it for some kind of career opportunity that could come from doing Jesus’ work? Is it to achieve some form of peace when anxiety is an ongoing probability with all the concerns of living today.

All the foregoing questions may play some role in the drama of our lives. Absolute purity of intention is an ideal seldom realized. But – and it is a large but – should not the right answer to “what are you looking for?” be: I recognize the centrality of relationship in life. I am looking for the perfect relationship. I recognize you, my lord, to be the other person that makes the perfect relationship. I recognize your revelation to me as love. I want my prime, love involvement with you, my lord. I want to be your disciple in my life with you and in all my relationships

I believe that that is the answer that Jesus was looking for from these first two disciples on this day . . . At four o’clock.

Epiphany of the Lord (January 7, 2018)

The journey is a profound vehicle for a story: as old as the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and the exodus of the Jews - as new as the story of you and me. The first reading told of a journey of kings to Jerusalem with gifts of gold and frankincense.

The Gospel reading from Matthew is the writing of a Jew to fellow Jews - about another Jew who is the fulfillment of their promised Messiah. Matthew tells the story with wonderful images and great drama. Like every good storyteller, Matthew weaves tempting previews and the possibility of danger.

King Herod had a terrible affliction, paranoia; he killed his wife and three of his sons and later would kill the Holy Innocents. Herod was not interested in showing homage to the newborn king. He got information from the scribes, then lied, then used it in an attempt to maintain power. For some unknown reason, the scribes did not follow up on it themselves: “and you Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah, a savior will arise from you,”

The scene at the Bethlehem stable has more participants. We know how Mary and Joseph got there. The shepherds came - and had it easy. The journey was short; the directions were excellent; the light was bright; the music was great!

The magi had it tougher. There was much confusion. The magi followed a mysterious star; they sought help from Herod, who introduced them to the Jewish scriptures that were explained to them by experts, scribes. The starlight may have been poor, especially by day, but it was enough to get them there; they found Jesus.

Today, we celebrate their arrival and the meaning of it. “Epiphany comes from the Greek word for ”“appearance,” “manifestation.” Until the fourth century the western church celebrated three principal feasts: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Christmas, narrated by Luke, was not a big feast. The significance of epiphany, narrated by Matthew, is the celebration of Jesus’ first contact with gentiles.

Closer to the birth of Jesus, the shepherds came to the stable. Christianity in the west sees shepherds held in higher esteem than middle-easterners. God, characterized as a shepherd, spans both testaments. Numerous major figures were shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. Hear the words from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd.” In Matthew [2:6:] “From you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Jesus is the consummate good shepherd. Shepherds’ love for sheep is not dependent on sheep being well behaved.

In the middle- east, shepherds with their 24/7 jobs were unable to keep Jewish precepts regarding eating and washing. Also, they allowed sheep to nibble in others’ pastures; they were therefore looked upon as thieves. Their inclusion by Luke is significant. It was they came down from the hills to the stable. They were not turned away, not rejected.

Matthew includes the magi, the wise men. They came from the other end of the economic spectrum. They were wealthy enough to make the long journey and to bring precious gifts. They were smart enough to ask directions when they were in doubt. Although they may have enjoyed great prestige in their homeland, but to the Jews they were gentiles, foreigners. They did not enjoy the divine election of Jews. They, also, came to the stable. They were not turned away, not rejected.

We remember that one of the first major problems with the young, Christian church was to decide whether new, gentile Christians had to first become Jews before being accepted. The belief in divine election of Jews was an ongoing, powerful force.

The Epiphany celebrates the fact that regardless of position on the economic continuum or religious opinion, all are welcome to the table in Christianity.

It challenges us as individuals and as institutional church to be inclusive: always. This wonderful parish, in my opinion, has no problem with this individual challenge and cannot change an institution, but . . . It is the lesson for today in the scriptures.

MARY - MOTHER OF GOD (January 1, 2018)

Mary is celebrated in surprising places; she is the person who has been on the cover of Time Magazine more than any other.

Mary is honored with many, many titles. Today we celebrate her under the most basic of all her titles: Mary the Mother of God. This is the one title from which all others flow - and my personal, only title. For me, all other titles are redundant. All other titles derive from this one. She, a young, unknown Jewish girl from a relatively obscure village, was chosen to bear in her body the Messiah.

Little is known about her. Matthew and Luke are the only two authors in the New Testament that include any description of events before Jesus began his public ministry. Nothing at all is known about Mary prior to the angel’s arrival.

Devotion to her approached adoration by the beginning of Vatican II in 1962, there was a proposal to publish a separate document on Mary. The council fathers decided against it. They noted that many of the faithful were honoring Mary more than Jesus. So, the council fathers decided to speak of Mary in the context of the church. Why? She was present at its foundation; she was the mother of Jesus and she was one of his first disciples.

There is a dubious Latin inscription in many churches: Ad Jesum per Mariam - to Jesus thru Mary. We cannot ever forget that Jesus/God is the end point of our prayer and worship. We need no intermediary when we speak to our Lord – his door is always open; there is no gatekeeper.

The primary place of Jesus is brought out in today’s Gospel. When we carefully read it, we recognize that the focus is not on Mary but on Jesus and what his coming into the world means. This highlights the difference between how peter reacted so differently, decades later, at Jesus’ transfiguration from the way Mary reacted, here. Peter experienced a marvel and said: let’s do something – let’s build three tents here. Mary’s reaction to her experience of angels and shepherds is not to do, but to treasure, to reflect, to ponder.

Reflection follows observing and listening carefully. She took the experience to heart. She quietly went over the words, interacted with the experience, allowed it to saturate her memory of it. Mary’s attitude of treasuring and pondering brings us back to the very heart of Christianity: Jesus - the one whom she treasures and ponders.

Besides forming Jesus body during her pregnancy, Mary would later help Jesus form his human personality as he grew. We need to remember that Jesus was like you and me in all things but sin. His mother influenced his personality as our mothers influenced us. For us, there were traits we took on from our mother and perhaps others we did not take. Jesus’ personality traits can also be traced to his mother: his gentleness, his compassion for people who were hurting, his kind and respectful treatment of women in an historical period that treated women as things, mere possessions. These gifts were part of her motherhood; these were the qualities she passed on to Jesus.

Standing at the threshold of a new year, we are invited to honor Mary both for teaching us the need for reflection on our experience and for her helping to form Jesus’ personality. More profoundly, we honor Jesus who came to show us the way to his father, the way into the kingdom of God.

Our treasuring and pondering prepare us to be ready for the mysteries of what this New Year will hold for us.

Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (December 31, 2017)

Today we celebrate the feast of the holy family. I recall when I was a very young priest, preaching that the holy family was the model family. Now that I am not so young, I have to smile recalling some of those homilies. The mother of the family is a virgin wife and mother, full of grace. The father is one who does not seem to have a problem with that. Ah, that would be after he had a miraculous dream – as all fathers many not have: a son who is 100% God and 100% man -- at the same time. It may be called a model family, but it is not the family next door?

Christian models are supposed to be imitated, replicated somehow. Yet, it is impossible to replicate the holy family. Is that to say that there is nothing to be learned on this feast of the holy family?

Ours is an era when we hear much negativity: stories of children out of control, spouse abuse, child abuse, children calling 9-1-1 after being appropriately disciplined, destructive relationships, drug-afflicted families and/or disputes resolved by violence.

Today’s feast says that the holy family does have something to say to us in the readings we just heard. Our reading from Sirach teaches us that every marriage and family requires a basic respect by each member for all the others. Respect comes from the Latin verb respicio, meaning “to look again” – not simply “look, “ but look a second time. Lack of respect makes the atmosphere both unhealthy and unhappy – and, ultimately, destructive.

From Paul we learn that we need to cultivate all the virtues characteristic of a Christian, but above all. Love. Life in the Christian family is rooted in compassionate love.

The gospel teaches that no matter who we are - even Jesus – obedience must be a part of life. “Obedience,” we know comes from the Latin verb obaudire, meaning, “to listen carefully. “ There is military obedience that calls for following orders without question – tending toward blind obedience. Christian obedience is, on the other hand, is closer to the Latin; it means to listen attentively. [There are two credits in classical language for listening to this homily.]

All of us - children and parents - need to listen attentively. When we are compassionately loved and respected, we listen more easily to the other. Love and respect are the foundation of authentic obedience, real listening.

Jesus freely chose to submit himself in obedience to his parents. Jesus’ respect, love, and obedience are based on his respect, love, and obedience toward his father in heaven, which he showed throughout his life.

We hear so much about dysfunctional families these days. But, really, how many cleaver families have we ever known? No one, nothing is perfect. Every family is somehow dysfunctional, and concentrating on negatives depresses us.

Today, let’s look at the bright side. Let’s look at all the good things that happened on Christmas: the laughing, the caring, the helping, and the generosity, the being there for one another. Let’s concentrate on the positives as we celebrate the feast of the holy family.

As Christians, we have something very important to offer the present family situation in America. The example and message of Jesus and the values expressed in today’s readings: respect [looking again] - compassionate love – obedience [listening attentively]. All are lights that we can bring to a world that desperately needs light.

Nativity of the Lord (December 25, 2017)

Verbal communication may be our most precious gift. We have all been successful with it. We have all failed miserably with it. Sometimes, we are inspired; other times we put our foot in our mouths up to our knee: spouse to spouse, friend to friend, parent to children, children to parent. All, at times, become exasperated – and that is only within the circle of those closest to us. Imagine God’s problem in communicating with many diverse people in many, diverse cultures!

Communication depends upon the common experience of the two involved. Our God wanted to communicate with all of us so much more deeply than through Jewish prophets. Christmas celebrates a divine breakthrough in communication through a universal, common experience. Everyone loves a newborn baby. God, in his infinite genius, employed childbirth, a universal, celebratory experience to touch every one of us, to speak to every heart.

Today, we celebrate this miracle of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Our Father’s Son came to us. God became one of us. Our God inspired the writer John to call Jesus “the Word.” The word became flesh. Both God and we know that words are mere tools to communicate, to express ideas. Some word-tools have temporary use. Some last or change meaning. But, our greatest words achieve clarity and permanence when they are embodied in persons.

The word “justice,” when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a Moses who stood up to pharaoh in Egypt. Justice, when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a Lincoln when he published his Emancipation Proclamation. Justice, when it is embodied, takes on flesh in a martin Luther King when he delivered his “I have a dream” speech and marched in Montgomery. In those instances, the word “justice” took on flesh in the persons who embodied justice.

When a wise wordsmith was asked to define “prudence,” he paused thoughtfully and gave a definitive answer: “prudence is what the prudent man does.” The important words take on flesh and live in persons.

Love is surely a “many splendored” word. It has many meanings in the mouths of many, diverse people. John the evangelist told us in one of his letters, “God is love.” God’s love is the highest form of love. God/love is concerned totally with the other. It is completely unselfish. It is unconditional; God loves us no matter what we do. God’s love cannot be earned; it is freely given to us. Love took on flesh in the person who embodied love.

In John’s Gospel, we hear: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with god, and the word was God…The word became flesh and lived among us.” Love took on flesh, became incarnated when love became enfleshed in Jesus. Jesus lived a life that always modeled, enfleshed love.

Today we celebrate the one we have been given by our God. His generosity moves us to give gifts from our hearts as tokens of the love we have for him and for one another in a wonderful ripple effect of love of our neighbor.

In the same passage, John goes on to write the sad words, “He came to his own and his own did not receive him.” May each of us have the courage to accept Jesus in our hearts and follow the way of love he modeled for us.

May Jesus’ love be enfleshed in us. May we live Jesus this and every day of our lives with joy and gratitude.

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)

The connection between the first reading and the Gospel is a question for every Sunday. The answer reveals the theme for the Mass. In today’s readings, the church has put David, the shepherd-king, and Mary, Jesus’ mother together. Why? Let’s look.

In the scene of the first reading we see David, alone and musing. He has conquered Jerusalem, built a safe wall around the city, built for himself a house of cedar - an upscale building material in Palestine. Now he thinks of the box that holds the tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments. Jews held the arc and stone tablets to be the place of the presence of God. David wishes to build a magnificent temple for God’s presence.

The prophet Nathan encouraged him in this. But, that night, god corrected Nathan [it is rare to have God correct a prophet]. Nathan returned to David and reminded him of blessings past: the victory over Goliath and many enemy armies, his becoming king . . . And a future blessing: God will establish a “house” for David. This works in English; we have the house of Dior, the house of Windsor. House denotes dynasty; here, the dynasty of David

God pointedly asks: “Do you build me a house?” In other words, “You have a lot to learn. Remember, you were the runt of the litter of your brothers. I made you the shepherd-king. Whose choice determines where I live - yours or mine?”

God - not humans - has the last word. It is wisely said: “Man proposes, but God disposes. David heard God and understood; he would later write in his Psalm 65, verse 5: “Happy the man you choose and bring to dwell in your courts.” David “got” it - finally. David wanted control; God did not allow that to happen.

Remember, this Gospel episode took place nine months before the nativity, Christmas. It is related today to make a point. The angel announced that Mary was God’s chosen one for a temporary dwelling place on earth. The angel told Mary that the reign of king David would likewise run right through her body in the conception of a child whose kingdom would have no end. Mary let God be God. She remained open - open to surprise -- and here she is called “blessed” among women, unlike David who tried to control.

In John’s Gospel, when Andrew met Jesus, he asked, “Where do you live?” Jesus answered: “Come and see.” Andrew went and learned that the “son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” No mailing address. Andrew would come to understand that Jesus’ dwelling place was within the hearts of his followers.

Also in John’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman says that the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim, while Jews worship on Mount Sinai. Jesus replies that neither mountain will be the place for future worship. Worship will take place in one’s heart. The heart is where Jesus is found -- in “a house not built by human hands.”

The point? The theme? Jesus dwells within us. David and Mary are presented to us here as persons who said, “Yes” to Jesus’ call: David, with a detour; Mary, directly. She stands on the ledge of jeopardy and courageously leaps. Each came independently to deeper understanding about God. David tried to control, but eventually came to accept. Mary simply listened, accepted and committed.

St. Augustine thought that Mary conceived through her ear. This powerful image emphasizes the word that came through the ear, enters her heart and grows in her belly.

If we accept God into our hearts, God becomes incorporated within us, we then become more than someone with a personal life and a social life. We have a third dimension and share in the divine life. Theology has a name for this spiritual phenomenon “sanctifying grace.” We are also thereby equipped for a life of eternity -- a reality that begins now, not later.

In the still busy days between now and Christmas, let’s make the time to quiet ourselves and acknowledge that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is actually God within us - and listen and talk to him in an ongoing conversation that begins here and now and goes on forever. We may need to remind ourselves that eternity is already in place. A forever kingdom in God’s presence is much richer than merely the promise of a future time when we meet God face to face.

Third Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2017)

“Rejoice” is the high frequency word in today’s Mass. Today is Gaudete Sunday; the pink candle of our advent wreaths is lit. By God’s grace we do not have pink vestments, which I prefer not to wear - for reasons that have nothing to do with liturgy.

We hear “rejoice” in church, but when we walk in the mall, we see few smiling faces. Shoppers seem to be intent and tense.

As William Sloane Coffin remarked: “So why are Christians so often joyless? It is, I think, because too often Christians have only enough religion to make themselves miserable. Guilt, they know, but not forgiveness. Nietzsche correctly noted, ‘Christians should look more redeemed.’”

Perhaps we are experiencing increased stress, painful family memories, broken relationships, shattered dreams, unrealistic expectations - to name a few experiences that impact us in this season.

Does it not seem inappropriate, incongruous to hear about rejoicing? Not at all!! The reason for rejoicing is not finding the perfect gift for someone you really love or finding the adequate gift for someone you really don’t. The reason for rejoicing is not a shallow, temporary change from emotional “business as usual.”

Where is joy to be found? Today’s scripture readings teach us our source of rejoicing. Isaiah, in the first reading, speaks to the children of Israel who suffered so much for so long: “rejoice in the lord.”

In the responsorial psalm, we answered: “My soul rejoices in my God.”

Paul was shipwrecked, flogged to within an inch of his life several times, publicly mocked, run out of town. He said to those who were waiting for the second coming of Christ: “Rejoice always, render constant thanks.” This was surely more than urging a positive attitude toward life, more than a first-century, pop psychology of positive thinking.

Paul also says, “render constant thanks” for the forgiveness Jesus brought.” He deeply believes that real joy abides in the soul of the one who has absorbed this and has entrusted himself totally to the hands of God. It is anchored in something more stable than the shifting sands of life’s fortunes. It is rooted in god himself.

Joy is a resilient choice no matter what happens to us. Joy arises out of a contented heart where the contentment is based on the lasting presence of God.

Joy is a fundamental stance of the heart: a conviction, a gift of God. It is rooted in our enduring relationship with god, remembered during advent as we recall the coming of Jesus who made our relationship a reality.

Joy is a constant glimpse of eternity. It is a whisper in the night of difficulties that will become a resounding chorus of the full presence of God.

Jesus’ gift of joy is recalled in the holy card that portrays him in the scene described in the book of revelation: standing outside a door knocking. The door has no handle on his side; it has to be opened by you, by me on our side.

In the morning, preferably, before the day begins to roll like a snowball downhill, gathering chaos, we take the time to enter within ourselves. We picture our lord vividly before us. We look at the expression in his eyes. We “waste” time with him - first in total silence -- just looking at him with his loving eyes that encompasses forgiveness, acceptance, and value.

I acknowledge my total reliance on him.

The experience that follows is joy.

Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2017)

For some - to a tragic degree - and for most, to some degree, there is a let down when Christmas finally arrives.

There is a psychological explanation for this. Most of us, consciously or unconsciously, have the image of Christmas as a Norman Rockwell painting: a happy family surrounded by loving friends trimming a flawless tree, eating cookies and drinking our favorite beverage: a roaring fire in the hearth with snow seen through the window falling gently and piling in the corners of the windowpanes.

Well, the reality for most - there is more than the snow that is missing.

Spiritually, Christmas is also frequently a letdown. We hear the Advent imperatives urging us. We remember past Christmases and may recall little spiritual progress during our advents.

But, there is light at the end of this tunnel. Our readings this morning suggest some ways of being in the world. Advent is often long on the doing, but short on the being. That leads to the inevitable frustration. Of spiritually empty spirits on Christmas morning,

Perhaps this advent we might concentrate on why john the baptizer is chosen for this time of year. Isaiah, in the first reading, cries out to prepare the way of the lord. John the baptizer proclaims and lives the truth that preparing the way is not in doing, but in being, not in filling, but emptying our lives. He seems to tell us that the desert is the only place bare enough and quiet enough to mirror our lives, our motives, and our disguises.

We need quiet time in Advent, in the beginning of the church year. To get quiet time, we need to reschedule, to reprioritize, and to enable us to get inside ourselves for being with our Lord. That desert, quiet time gives us the opportunity for getting insight in our hearts. John got the insight to “decrease,” to allow Jesus to “increase” in his life. John got the insight to point to Jesus, not to himself. John got the insight to free himself from the system besides getting free from himself.

John called the Jews to the desert wilderness where God could find them. The desert is the perfect place to prepare. In desert isolation, we have no distractions of job, parenting, grand-parenting, even mindless religious practices that maintain our usual routine. When our minds are full of “stuff,” not even god himself can break in to us. John, in his stark lifestyle always had one foot in the desert.

To make this quiet time real for us [it is real without us!!] It helps some to picture Jesus, present, in front of us or present within our heart of hearts, Others use deep-breathing exercises to settle themselves.

We need to be with him . . . and pause to listen to what he has to say to us - what thoughts he plants in our minds. This even helps us to discover God’s presence in the people and events around us. We can see in others that presence/ manifestation of the holy. We can see their underlying goodness

Wonder of wonders!! The more attentive we are to God’s presence, the more we become God’s presence for others.

Finally, when we bask in the presence of God, we feel a quiet joy. We do not have to wait for Christmas there is already a residual joy within us.

What a relief! We do not have to be in a Norman Rockwell painting; we just smile at all that. All we need to do is live in the meantime - cultivating his presence.

We do not have to come to the night before Christmas and try to look like a perfect person who is perfectly ready to greet the Lord when he comes. He has already arrived. Our God loves us as we are - and comes to us in our opening the door when he knocks.

Oh . . . Did I mention that Norman Rockwell was married three times?

First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)

Mark, within a brief five verses, uses the injunction “watch” three times. Watch means that we are called to be alert, to wake up…and smell the incense.

Remember Jesus’ words: “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” [MT 24:42] Remember Jesus’ words when he took Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane on the night before he died? “Remain here and watch with me.” Remember Jesus’ words to Peter when he returned from that prayer: “Could you not watch for even an hour?”

Today I would like to reflect on how to watch. I am going to talk about a topic rarely mentioned: hope, as in faith, hope and love.

I find that Christian hope is best defined as “being open to surprise,” a definition provided by the Benedictine brother, David Steindl-Rast. Hope is a virtue that can exist only when supported like a hammock at its two ends: faith in Abba at the one end and Abba’s unconditional love for us at the other. If you trust God and bask in God’s love, you can be open to surprise in life: hope.

We can be open to surprises that will come our way. Hope is not optimism sprinkled with holy water, as some would have it. Hope is often misunderstood and mistaken for hopes - with an “s”. A proportion with faith may be helpful. Faith is to the beliefs that we hold as hope is to hopes that we have. That is, just as saving-faith, trust, is the important underpinning to creedal-faith / beliefs [“I believe in one God, etc.}, so hope, openness to surprise, is the important underpinning for hopes we have. Both beliefs and hopes are distracting look-alikes for faith and hope.

Examples of hopes would be: that our team will win, that everyone will be healthy, that everyone in the family will get along. Hopes are always the direct object of a sentence that begins: “I hope that…” The common denominator for hopes is something I can imagine. Hope is far more profound than hopes

So, what is the relationship of hope to hopes? Question: when our hopes are shattered, what is left? Answer: hope! If a person has hopes without hope underpinning his hopes - and then has his hopes shattered, the person is shattered.

Hope is the seedbed of hopes; when one’s hopes are shattered, a new crop of hopes will spring up overnight, expressed, for example, “Wait ‘til next year.”

Dag Hamersjold said it so well about two important virtues, gratitude and hope: “For all that has been, thanks, lord, thanks [gratitude]; for all that will be, yes, lord, yes.” [Hope – openness to surprise].

Advent is the season for becoming more aware of hope and practicing hope, a season to arouse our watchfulness for the surprises that we experience daily, so that hope becomes an active attitude, like faith (trust), and unconditional love. Hope, with practice, can become as natural as breathing.

How do we “practice”? Faith in God or in another is deepened by trusting, isn’t it? Love for god or for another is deepened by loving, isn’t it? Being open . . . To surprise deepens hope in God or in another.

Hope provides a wonderful, God-given coping dynamic: in practical terms: we say, “Yes, lord, yes” before we say, “Oh, no.” This is key! Remember, hope can happen only when supported by faith and by love. It does not stand on its own. It has the needed support of faith and love.

We can learn something about hope from its opposite; the opposite of hope is not hopelessness, for hope thrives on hopelessness; the opposite of hope is despair - being shattered. Despair comes from giving God or another an ultimatum: “I’ve got it all figured out; there is no other solution than mine.” No possibilities for surprise.

We believe the Lord Jesus has already come; the kingdom of God is already in our midst! We also believe that the Lord will come again. There is tension in this notion of the “already, and the not yet.” In the now, the in-between time, God’s enduring grace and unending presence is always with us.

Advent reminds us that we need to be aware of this and to be open to the God of unimaginable surprises - in hope.

Christ the King (November 26, 2017)

On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, the church uses kingship as a metaphor to celebrate Christ’s universal lordship - a more elegant way of saying god must be absolutely our number one, overarching, priority - with no equal on earth.

What can we know about that final moment of judgment before God? This parable of sheep and goats sheds some light. I would like to make three points.

First, Jesus tells us that our decisions in life do matter. We have responsibility, and this parable warns us to accept it. Some think that all people will be eternally reconciled with God, that God’s love will over-power any human resistance. Wishful thinking in the light of today’s Gospel!

If God’s love is non-coercive, and it is, then we cannot be sure that some will not resist that love after a lifetime of rejecting god’s offer of love.

The Scriptures teach that it is not God’s desire that anyone should perish. Today’s Gospel makes clear that our daily decisions have lasting consequences.

Experience has shown us that our decisions in this life both unite and separate us from each another. The sum total of our decisions effectively unites or separates us from God.

Second, God, not by us, sets the criterion for judgment. Jesus suggests that when the sun sets on human history, God will separate us on the basis of our hearts. He gave us two commandments. We did not hear that his judgment will be based on the ten commandments on which so many folks base their sacramental confessions, but on the extent to which we listen to Jesus’ articulation of the love of God / neighbor spelled-out in today’s Gospel.

He looks to both our decisions and the motivations for our decisions in our care for the least powerful in society with whom he identifies himself. Doing or failing to do for them is doing or failing to do for him. If we have been motivated by personal recognition, we heard in another place, “They have already received their reward.” The one required motive is love.

It is significant that both the sheep and the goats were surprised at the criterion for judgment. Whether the sheep fed and clothed the poor, or the goats ignored them, they acted or failed to act from their loving or unloving hearts. Jesus is advocating genuine selflessness here. The “goats” ignored the poor, the “sheep’ cared for the poor, not knowing that they would receive any reward for their service. It was that attitude of loving concern that god rewarded.

Third, Jesus, like those who preceded him, offers this parable to help prevent a sad judgment. We heard in the first reading from Ezekiel: “I myself will look after you and tend my sheep.” Our responsorial was a prayer praising the tenderness of the divine shepherd toward us. Examples abound.

Through Moses, God warned pharaoh of the coming plagues - trying to help pharaoh avoid those plagues. Through Jonah, god threatened judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh - as a last effort to help the city avoid destruction. Through Jesus’ teaching on sheep and goats he tries to help us comprehend the consequences of our heart’s attitude.

Today’s Gospel is as if God is offering us a copy of the final exam early. He does this because it is his will that we should be with him forever.

If God gives us even the example of Jesus to model the way, how can any of us refuse to listen?

We do like closure, don’t we? We have all left a movie or finished a book with a sense of frustration because it did not end adequately. Perhaps, it just stopped without really ending, or left some scenes hanging. Scripture agrees with our frustration. It tells us that as surely as god called human history into being, God will bring it to conclusion. Time ends at the feet of Christ the king of our hearts.

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 16, 2014)

At this time of the church year, we hear Jesus’ stories about the end of time. Today, we hear about a giver of talents, who is about to become an absentee landlord.

The parable employs “the format of three.” We are familiar with it in jokes and in stories: “There was the Catholic, the Protestant and the Jew.” “There was the German, the Irishman, and the Italian.” Almost always, the first two set up the third for the punch line or the lesson line. It ends on a good note. But, today’s parable reverses the format; the first two are good news; the third is bad news, but a good lesson.

A “talent”, we are told, was originally an amount equal to 15 years’ wages for a laborer. Today, it means “giftedness.” The English word “talent” originated from this parable, as in “time, talent, and treasure”.

In the story, the first two imaged the master positively. They accepted the confidence the master had in them and doubled the talents.

Then, there was the third man. He was the fearful servant who calls his master “a hard man” and focuses on that negative label. Fear enters and does what fear does best, whether it is Peter walking on the water or a deer in your headlights: fear paralyzes. The man tried to “play it safe - be cool” -- so he thinks. He used the safety deposit box of his time: he buried it

“Hard man” is not an appropriate title for Jesus, but the label does have value in insofar as we come to acknowledge that we will have to account for our stewardship of our talents. Not using our talents renders us “worthless servants.”

Some, like the fearful servant, focus on “playing it safe”. Matthew’s Gospel is famous for its fearsome stories about those who do not respond appropriately to Jesus’ invitation to follow him: being tied hand and foot and thrown outside into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, or handed over to torturers until they pay off the entire debt, or they can be put to the sword, or can burn with unquenchable fire.

Does this sound like the God of unconditional love? How do we come to terms with God’s unconditional love and a state of fear of punishment? We have read: “Fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Just the beginning. And we also hear Paul say: “Perfect love drives out all fear.” The book God First Loved Us by Antony f. Campbell, SJ, offers some helpful observations on this subject.

Campbell says that the “widely held approach” is the “level playing field” theory. The images for god as fearsome judge on one side and god as unconditional lover on the other side are given equal value, but they actually cancel each other out, resulting in indifference about god. How can you deeply love another whom you deeply fear? The tension forms a mystery. Mystery is not “chickening out; “ it is facing fact. Let’s do what we always do when we face mystery: try to somewhat penetrate the mystery, remembering that it is mystery.

The “tilted playing field” gives priority to god as unconditional lover. Fear is subordinated. A loving God invites personal relationship and involvement. I firmly believe that and think it appropriate to take on much more in life than keeping my eyes on the rules. Hopefully, most of the time, our loving God’s will - as we understand it - and “the rules” rules are identical. I will constantly look to our Lord rather than rules. What matters more is how much we love, not what the rules dictate.

Does the unconditional lover image adequately reflect the Judeo-Christian tradition? I want to say it doesn’t. The teaching church, as far as I can see, does nothing to address this issue of love vs. fear at the institutional, teaching level. It leaves us with a conflicted, level playing field. In the tilted playing field, as I view the situation, if there is a little more fearing than loving or a little more loving than fearing, I see no big problem. People’s consciences and priorities are theirs, not mine. It is mystery. If there is a lot of fearing and little loving in someone, we have someone in the same boat as the fearful man in today’s Gospel. But, if there is a lot of loving and very little fearing in someone, I find a kindred spirit.

As our relationship with God grows toward mutual unconditional love, I hope that the God-the-judge image may disappear altogether. When unconditional love is the context for our living, we can be sure that appropriate behavior will be its hallmark.

Thirty-second Sunday in ordinary Time (November 12, 2017)

As the church year begins to draw to a close, the liturgy appropriately draws us to two basic spiritual realities: wisdom and the kingdom of God.

I like the homey definition of wisdom: “Wisdom is what you have left when you forgot all that you learned in school.” Wisdom is rightfully given a place of honor in the first reading. Wisdom does not impose herself, is gracious to all who desire her and reaches out to those who want her. Wisdom is not a gift to old sages but a gift to everyone who cares.

The Gospel reading is from Matthew 25, the fifth and final sermon of Jesus, “the final things.”

Jesus taught in his first discourse in chapter five, “the Sermon on the Mount,” that our light should shine so others might see the goodness of our acts (5:16). Here, there is a second image that joins chapter 25 with chapter 5: oil, which burns to make the light, indicates the same thing as light. Goodness cannot be irresponsibly ignored; it cannot be borrowed.

Praise of wisdom is a perfect introduction to address an understanding of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God, I think, is best described by John Shea: “The kingdom of God is a state of inner consciousness and outer action that Jesus embodies and offers to his disciples. However, receiving this offering entails strenuous effort. The disciples must transform their own conventional consciousness into the consciousness of Jesus and have the courage and the creativity to act in accord with this new vision”. This is metanoia – change of mind – of heart. Shea clearly articulates “living Jesus,” the expression St. Francis de Sales used for becoming “a new person in Christ.” The Gospel tells us that we need to be alert to meet the call when we do not expect it. The parable of the virgins stresses the failure to develop this mind-set, heart-set.

No criticism is made of the women’s need for sleep or for the lack of sharing the oil. Two criticisms are made by Jesus; first, the thought-less and care-less attitude of part of the group; they have come without engaging in the process of preparation and expect the cooperation and sacrifice of those who have come to the festivities properly prepared.

Second, Jesus is telling us of the impossibility of borrowing spiritual riches from others. Do you ever hear: “My wife/mother does the praying/church-going in my house.” I surely have. Jesus is clear in saying that each of us, individually, is to take responsibility.

The foolish imagine that Jesus will open the door for them. They don’t understand that the kingdom has already been passed on to them. What opens the door is their having the lamp of their consciousness burning with the oil of their dedicated lives. Lacking this, they will hear, “I never knew you” in spite of their claims that they knew about him and somehow value him. They have failed to appreciate, to value themselves as the new bearers of his inner consciousness and outer actions.

Responsibility is our greatest burden; it is also our greatest gift. Jesus is telling us that he takes us seriously and wants us to take ourselves seriously. It is no small responsibility to be co-responsible with god in the forming of the kingdom of God.

Later in this chapter 25, Jesus will speak of sheep who will be separated from goats on the basis of working on our inner consciousness and outer actions that flow from our inner consciousness.

The days are growing shorter. The cold weather is beginning. The church year is drawing to a close. That is the mood for today’s readings: darkness descending on Jesus and coldness of hearts on those who do not listen to his call. Not exactly a warm parable for a chilled heart, but surely a warm invitation to a warm, bright banquet hall for a listening disciple.

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 5, 2017)

Today’s gospel sounds a bit strange: phylacteries, tassels, don’t call anyone teacher or father. It comes from Matthew’s Gospel, so we need to put on our Jewish ears to understand, for it was written for a Jewish audience.

The Jews were well aware of the continuity of their faith: God had revealed the law to Moses, who handed it on to Joshua, who handed it on to the elders, who handed it on to the scribes and Pharisees. [In football language, the Scribes and Pharisees missed the hand-off; they fumbled the tradition.]

What Jesus was saying equivalently is: “Insofar as the Scribes and Pharisees have taught you the great principles of the law which Moses received from God, you must obey them.”

What were the great principles? Think about it; you know them as well as I. The first three commandments . . . Regard reverence for God; the last seven . . . Regard respect for our fellow humans. The Ten Commandments are about two things: reverence for God and respect for others. Sounds like last Sunday’s Gospel: the primacy of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves was Jesus summary of the law and the prophets.

The religion of the Scribes and Pharisees became a religion of showiness because they took the Ten Commandments and spelled them out and out until they had 613 rules that were - in their words - fences around the commandments. For example, keep holy the Sabbath was a commandment, but the fences around it to make sure that no one “trespassed” included highly specified handling of food, footsteps allowed, etc. Etc. The love of God and neighbor became sidetracked with the “things of religion”.

We heard today some strange words that may be puzzling: phylacteries & tassels. In the book of Exodus, we read: [The Commandments] “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and a memorial between your eyes.” The idea, of course, was to pay attention to the commandments ready at hand, in the forefront of your consciousness. The Scribes and Pharisees wore at prayer - and still do - except on the Sabbath and special holy days - small leather boxes strapped to their wrists and forehead, called phylacteries. They each contain four important passages of the Hebrew bible. The scribes and Pharisees even increased the size of these to draw attention to themselves.

They wore tassels to remind them of god’s commandments; these are still worn today at the corners of the Jewish prayer shawl. They were enlarged to draw attention to themselves not to experience the will of God.

The design of the scribes and Pharisees was to draw attention to themselves. The design of Jesus was/is not to pay most attention to oneself. “He who loses himself finds himself.” “The greatest among you shall be the one who serves the rest.”

What are the lessons for us? Each of us has to examine our own situation. There are as many lessons as there are people in church this morning. I would suggest two questions for our consideration:

First, how do we focus too heavily on the things of religion and miss the reverence for God and the respect for our neighbor? It is easy to do. My reflection on this led to an insight. “Things” for me at this point in my journey are prayers “said” not prayed. Distractions during the prayer of the mass can lead to mass becoming a thing. The effort toward praying the Mass invites and involves relationship with our community and with our Lord.

Second, how do we draw attention to ourselves? Do we want to be the star, the center of attention? Football again provides an example about drawing attention. Who do we hear about? The key players! The starters. The coaches. Even the strong bench. The fans - “the 12th man.” Who does not get mentioned? The team servants! The squirters of Gatorade, the towel carriers. They are off-camera. Almost invisible. Nobody mentions them.

Doesn’t that remind us of Jesus’ words about the greatest being the servant? Doesn’t that remind us of Jesus’ actions? Taking a towel. Washing with water his disciples’ feet at the last supper.

Who is more Jesus-like in this Eucharist? I who preside and preach or the bread baker, the servers or the sacristan? Each plays a role in the celebration. This is community.

We will finish this sermon. I ask you to ask yourselves:

  • How do I lose sight of the great principles of reverence and respect and substitute practices that are not relational?

  • How do I - no finger pointing - draw attention to myself in the practice of religion?

All Saints (November 1, 2017)

The raising of individual saints was a hallmark of the papacy of John Paul II (who, just this year, was canonized himself). More saints - folks who have lived extraordinary lives - have been canonized, that is, put into the list of saints, during his pontificate than all the other canonized saints in 2000 years put together.

On this day, we celebrate another, much larger group of people. These are the ones who have lived ordinary lives, extraordinarily well. Each of us has his own list of those we have known and loved -- and whom we know to have lived their ordinary lives, extraordinarily well.

We gain direction for living our lives by gaining spiritual strength from the stories of their lives. When we stay firmly linked to those who have remained faithful to the Lord, we find ourselves blessed in abundance.

It was St. Francis de Sales who spoke of God’s call to each of us to do the best we can with what we have. At the Second Vatican Council, this became known as the universal call to holiness. It defines us as God’s own. Faith in our God gives rise to hope -- that openness to surprise that brings us light in the face of darkness.

The feast of all saints is not a feast about the accomplishments of any human being. It is the affirmation of the gratuitous activity of the Father.

Hello, World!

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 29, 2017)

Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees in their attempt to test and trap him on the issue of the resurrection of the body [MT 22:34f’]. In today’s reading, a scribe: that is, a Pharisee with a degree in canon law, “steps up” to take his shot at Jesus with a question. Which of the Ten Commandments plus the six hundred and thirteen rules [the Deuteronomic laws] that rabbis believed God orally gave Moses was the most important of all?

Some rabbis thought all were equally important -- a kind of early example of “the seamless garment “ notion. Most others used to dispute which ones were the greatest.

Jesus’ response is an acceptable one, quoting DT: 6:5 stressing that the love of God must involve the total person: heart, soul, and mind. Then, Jesus goes on to quote LV19: 18, which stresses that one, should love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Jesus combines these two commandments and declares that they are the foundation of God’s entire revelation; that is, the whole law and the prophets. Combining these two may not be unique to Jesus, but it clearly shows his position on these essentials of the Torah.

We have the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When one part fails, the entirety fails. This applies to love, too, in regard to the three-link chain of love: for ourselves, for our neighbor, for our God.

Love of self is the trickiest one. Today, let us look at that in more detail.

On the one hand, we sometimes revert to infantile behavior - life is all about me. We have trouble learning that I am not the center of the universe -- as a young child believes. If we fail to learn to admit that we are sinners, we are in for trouble. We all admit we are not perfect, but many have trouble admitting being wrong in any specific instance. We do anything to avoid admitting failure.

On the other hand, some may have been love-starved or abused when young, or authority figures may have put us down so heavily that our self-image is badly damaged. We have real trouble with loving ourselves

The romans said it well: in medio stat virtus - in the middle (between the extremes) stands virtue. A healthy self-image stands in the middle: I am neither a doormat - nor am I the center of the universe.

Perhaps we all need to check for need for balance on this first step in the progression from love for self, to love for our neighbor, to love for our God. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves - how do we love ourselves?

For those who are in the extreme mode of “life is all about me,” there is not much another can do for one in that extreme place. But, for those whose self-image has been injured, a helpful hint is to remember that a big part of faith growth for Christians is acting as if something were true. This neatly dovetails with one of those wonderful insights of the Alcoholics Anonymous program: “Fake it ‘till you make it.” “Fake” in the sense that you assume the attitude that you are lovable. Act as if you are a loveable person. Try to do something at least once daily that a person with a healthy sense of self-respect and self-worth would do.

A second and more spiritual effort that we can make during the same time is to internalize the truth from St. John’s letter: “God is love.” Love is who God is. Love is what God is. We come to the realization that we can love because God has loved us first. We are all lovable for that basic reason.

Then, act as if you feel loving toward a troublesome neighbor. At least once a day try exercising patience and understanding toward the other for behavior that would normally upset you.

Finally, we are able to bring love into our relation-ship with God. We come to recognize God as the “initiator” of love. We are created to love ourselves our neighbors, our God. That is what Jesus did. That is our call: Live Jesus.

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 22, 2017)

One of the current religious issues is also an ancient one: what is the proper relationship between God and Caesar? Between religion and the secular state?

Jesus cleverly avoided the trap of the Pharisees and Herodians. Giving to Caesar the things that is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s is not a direct answer to the question asked, but it is certainly a starting point for discussion. The discussion involves the mystery of who God really is.

Two examples come to mind: (1) In some Muslim countries, the law of the land is the Koran, and the civil rulers are also the religious leaders. For them, od and Caesar are one and the same. A theocracy. (2) Currently, in the United States, the religious, far right would like an evangelical-Christian president and government establishing their image of god and Caesar, as one and the same. Another theocracy.

Where are we in this? I suggest a reflection arising from two questions -- and two proposed answers for your thoughtful consideration. The questions:

  1. Are we to accept non-Christians’ right to other belief systems or do we recognize only our own?

  2. What practical lessons can we draw from Jesus’ answer to the Gospel question?

In regard to belief systems: the first and third readings are curiously linked. The prophet Isaiah was the first to go on record in declaring the God of Israel. Yahweh, as the one legitimate authority who is behind every power. In spite of the fact that Cyrus was in service to the god, Bel-Marduc, Isaiah saw Cyrus as being used by Yahweh, the God of Israel and our God, to achieve the deliverance of Israel.

Much later, the Magi, who probably adhered to Zoroastrianism, would be given places of honor in the Christian tradition. They were never maligned for their worship.

In accepting Isaiah’s understanding, we can broaden our notion of the one god and view the Judeo-Christian tradition as underlying other traditions and see that god can use folks who worship a different deity to his own purpose. That is progress in God-talk.

In regard to lessons drawn from today’s Gospel, the Herodians and the Pharisees hated each other but joined forces this day against their mutual enemy, Jesus. The Herodians were Jewish collaborators with Rome, sympathetic to King Herod [hence, “Herodians”]. Their trap: if Jesus says, “pay the taxes,” he will lose the support of his Jewish followers; if he says, “don’t pay,” he will be a treasonous rebel against Rome. It seemed like an airtight scheme, a win-win situation for Jesus’ enemies.

External politics is not a “kingdom issue” for Jesus. “The kingdom within hearts” is what concerns Jesus, that authority reigns only by personal relationship. You and I need to open the door and welcome the king of glory. We give God our hearts. We make God our first priority - above friends, above family, above country, even above a spouse.

Another lesson that we can draw from today’s Gospel is that the Caesar / God issue is not either / or – Caesar or God, but both / and. Jesus recognizes that where we live under a system of government that provides public services, economic stability, and the protection of the law, we have the obligation and need to be supportive of a government whose protections and benefits we accept, even if we are working to change / improve the system.

A final lesson is that Jesus said, “Render to God the things that are God’s;” he did not say as the second half of “render to Caesar.” Render to the church what is the Church’s. The church had not been formed when he spoke, this is not to say that the church has no role in “rendering,” but is a reminder to us all that Jesus did not proclaim this. And it needs to be said lest we allow our minds to morph church into god.

Americans have long seen the wisdom in separating the realms of church and state. The turf governed by both God and government sometimes overlap, causing ongoing problems for those who see competing values within our citizenry -- issues like euthanasia, capital punishment, stem-cell research, abortion, war, services to the disadvantaged and help for the poor.

We may and should give Caesar our money for the common good; we must not give Caesar the authority to determine our conscience. Our God renders to us the power and freedom to discern this choice and all our personal choices.

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 15, 2017)

The time of this parable was the week of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and before his arrest. Hearing the time of the parable helps us to understand the forcefulness of it. Jesus is so frustrated with those to whom his father sent him!

  • the a-list guests refuse the invitation

  • the invitees kill those bearing the invitation

  • the king then destroys the murderers and burns their city

  • the king next invites everyone to the wedding banquet

  • one of the recent invitees is ejected for not being properly dressed.

    Matthew’s gospel was written after the romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, so that is probably the reason for the segment about the destructive and vindictive king. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a banquet, an image difficult to perceive for Jewish leadership who saw the protection of tradition as their job. We understand the kingdom of God as banquet or, more abstractly, as a sphere of existence or a state of consciousness with required, consequent action.

    We who accept the invitation are surprised upon entering the banquet. We discover as we mature that the unnamed partner of Jesus is you and I – if we choose to wear the proper garment – enthusiasm to be with Jesus.

    As we mature from infancy to childhood to adulthood, we do so by taking responsibility, a word better understood if we take the time to say it slowly and reflect upon it: “response-ability.” Using our ability to respond.

    As infants and for a while after, we have almost no responsibility at all to the worldly attentions given us. At best, we offer a smile of contentment – before the next outcry for the satisfaction of a need.

    As young children we are taught to say “thank you” when people do good things for us. We are taught to share what we have been given. With the passing of the years towards adulthood we mature in our response-ability or we may think we are independent of God, and, as the poet Francis Thompson wrote, we avoid him - in one way or another. Thompson describes this:

“I fled him down the nights and down the days. I fled him down the arches of the years. I fled him in the labyrinthine ways of my own mind, and in the midst of tears I hid from him, and under ruining laughter.”

I wonder if anyone of us is totally free of avoidance of God, of avoiding openness to our lord who renews his invitation each day. The invitation – always initiated by our God – is ongoing as we mature, as we grow in the spiritual life.

One guest in today’s Gospel was evicted because his response was inappropriate. More was expected of him than simply showing up at the banquet. Jesus is telling us here that god expects an open response from us. Not any response will do. The response must be ongoing and fitting for our stage in life.

When we look at life in terms of response, we also get a good understanding of what it means to sin. Sin is failing to make the right response. It is failing to accept our “response-ability.” It is both a personal failure and an offense against the one who invites us to share the table with him.

In the light of today’s Gospel, let us once more accept “response-ability” for life at the banquet.

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 8, 2017)

We have often heard about the lethal fault in spiritual life; self- sufficiency. The pride that resides in each of us moves us from a healthy sense of independence toward the unhealthy extreme sense of self- sufficiency. When we think that we are sufficient unto ourselves, we do not need God. God becomes irrelevant. The traditional sources of self-sufficiency are wealth and intelligence. Very comfortable wealth tends to put us in a spiritual place where we tend not to pray for the things of this world; we just buy them. Being very intelligent or thinking we are, we tend to behave as though we know with the knowledge of God.

Gratitude tends to put us in right relationship with god: dependent, reverence toward one deserving of reverence. If we are stuck on ourselves, either through wealth or learning, we do not need to thank God. With hard work and further learning, who needs him?

“Eucharist” means thanksgiving. Gratitude to God is not held to be necessary each Sunday. We dispense ourselves.

Upon reflection, I would like to add a third source of self-sufficiency that seems to characterize many living in our age. It qualifies because it has the same basic ingredient as wealth and intelligence in diminishing our gratitude to god. The third source is: a sense of entitlement. It is spawned in and by our society. How often do we see indignant, fiery eyed faces, vein-bulging necks, on television, angry in being “deprived” of having something they “deserve” – something that others have worked for long and hard, but they patently deserve to be given at no cost to them.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about, not observe – so the passion is less strident - a group of tenant farmers. In the parable, God is the owner of the vineyard. The vineyard is Israel itself. The vineyard workers are those who plot to become the owners of the vineyard. The owner, we are told, did the basic work; he planted the vineyard, put a protective hedge around it, installed a wine press for producing wine, and built a tower for spotting would-be thieves.

The parable is clear: the tenants were the Jewish leaders. They did not see themselves as interdependent partners with the landowner, God. In their working in the vineyard, the people of Israel. Rather, they saw themselves as authorities over the people of Israel. They took on a sense of entitlement.

Jesus refers to them as the murderers of the prophets who would kill even the son of the landowner, Jesus himself in order to maintain the authority that they enjoyed. The image changes in the next parable from the image of a vineyard to the image of the building trade. As Jesus was rejected as a mason would reject a stone in building a structure. He was, in the new image, the building’s corner stone. What the Jewish leaders rejected will be selected as the cornerstone of a new “structure.” The old rejected him; he will be key to the new.

The temptation of supervisors who give direction to the project remains the same: acting like owners of the enterprise of God’s plan. Jesus calls us to faith. He calls us to love. Why would any “supervisor” propound any devotional practices that they guarantee would assure entitlement to eternal life?

Jesus asks us to put our trust, our faith, in him. We love the father, his son, the Holy Spirit in a prayerful, grateful way – best expressed in Eucharist – and carry this love of “all of the above” to our neighbor.

We know that it is by grace, gift without semblance of entitlement, that we stand humbly before our God.