Sunday, June 9, 2019

Readings: Acts 2: 1-11, Psalm 104: 1, 24-34, 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13, John 20: 19-23

Today we celebrate the Holy Spirit. But what is the Holy Spirit?

The Spirit is usually thought of as that which makes us alive, the spirit – or the breath- of life. The spirit of a person is that which makes them uniquely a living being.

The Spirit not visible, but is compared to the wind. The wind blows and we see the leaves move, the dust is animated and we can see it rise up from the ground and whirl like a dancer.  The wind moves against us and we feel the cooling breeze in the summer and its icy fingers in the winter, making us shiver.  Our hat blows off our head; the rain and snow come with the force of the wind and sting our face.

In the summer we can see waves of warmed air rising from our car. The Spirit is not visible, but the reaction of the metal moves the air, just as the leaves and dust were moved.  Somehow we feel our vision has changed to allow us to see the presence of that which is not to be seen. The Spirit makes all our senses energized and alert.

We use the same word for alcoholic drinks – we call them spirits. We celebrate the life of Jesus with wine, not water.  We feel a sudden and quick livening, we feel exhilaration when we bring the liquid into our mouth, when it flows down our throat and enters our blood stream.  Warmth and a heightening of being tingle through our body.  It changes our perceptions of our relationships and surroundings.  Our tongues are freed from restraint. Little wonder that some people can find it addictive.  Cocktail parties are proof that we long for relationships, for freedom, for that tingle that makes us feel alive.  We add bubbles and mixers to give movement and increased excitement to our drink, longing to be released from the flatness we often experience in our daily lives.

We say that the Spirit dwells within us. What do we mean by that?  Again, it is something we sense.  I am awakened early in the morning to write this blog, but not by a child who comes to my bed to steal my sleep, looking for nurturing, whispering, “Mom, Mom, are you awake?” No, it is some other force which nurtures me, stirring me to wakefulness, and giving me words to share with you.  It is a feeling of understanding that comes from stimulation in my brain and inmost being, not generated by my own intelligence, but by some force beyond me which knits words and thoughts together in images which transcends my abilities.  It is a feeling of connection, of being part of that which is greater, which transcends my short time on earth, which is greater than learned knowledge, but deeper and more ancient.

Why have I written words for nearly 2 typed pages to describe something which is as elusive as the Spirit of God?   Because The Spirit brings to my existence more than just breath, more than just a heart beat.  It truly brings life, life which is created to give me a fullness which is more than the sum of my parts.  Even modern medicine still struggles to define life.  Is it brain waves; is it movement of air or blood through the body?  Is it movement of muscles or response of nerves?  Is someone alive because machines maintain certain processes which can be measured?  These are difficult questions that bring intense debate.  Still, the events of birth and death remain sacred to those who view them with reverence, events filled with the Spirit, that mysterious source of life, and whose absence brings spiritual or even physical death.

When we feel unable to grasp the enormity of an idea or event, we naturally try to break it down into parts. Instead of bluntly saying we cannot grasp the idea of God, we try to break down God into what seems like more easily understood parts.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we say.

We have said that so many times that it rolls off our tongue as if we have finished studying that Trinity, thank you very much, and have moved on to greater things. Yes, we nailed all that down in confirmation class, we drew overlapping circles, we have learned that the Son is God, the Spirit is God, the Father is God, but The Son is not the Father and the Spirit is not the Son, the Father is not the Spirit, and so on.  It makes me dizzy!

It is a way of saying that our knowledge of God is incomplete, and that our vocabulary is inadequate for the job, that our minds are too small for the concept of God. We use labels that are familiar to make us sound smart, to make the concepts seem like things we know, but it is all a ruse.  Perhaps it makes us feel intelligent, or in charge, or less stunned but what we don’t know.  We have a fear of the unknown, of the powerful, of those things beyond us, so we compensate by easy formulas and false wisdom.  But does it serve us well?

Wisdom is another of those elusive words in the Bible. In some scriptures, Wisdom is personified as a woman.  I like that, that alone meets some needs of mine as a woman.  Christianity somehow, in a patriarchal culture, became very male.  “Father…son..”  Part of the issues surrounding the devotion to Mary, the Blessed Virgin, is not only the desire for purity and intentional and sustainable innocence, but for some of the feminine, something maternal in our worship of Divinity.  Perhaps some “Mother…daughter..”  Some authors suggest the ability to give birth brings women great power,  and men who find their strength only in might and force find that birth and maternity to be very threatening, something they must control.

I bring this up because there is a way to have knowledge of God beyond our intellectual games with words and theories which have been elevated to “Doctrine”. That way is Wisdom.  Seek Wisdom, say the Scriptures.  Wisdom is the way to understanding of that which seems beyond us.  It is a more mystical path than those bound by scientific studies may seek.  It is a path which urges us to be still, to stop talking and listen.  To travel this path, words frozen in doctrine must be set aside, and the living warmth of the Spirit must indwell.  It is a way where the power of Truth transcends physical might and control, and freedom is found for all. It is where the wind blows freely, and that which is eternal, God (by whatever name you use), is ever present and brings life in the fullest.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.  O, God, who has instructed the hearts of your faithful by the light of the Holy Spirit, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may have a right judgment in all things and evermore rejoice in your consolations.  Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.


Stiff Neck?

For June 2, 2019, Ascension Sunday

Read: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 47:2-3,6-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23, Luke 24: 46-53

Have you ever had the experience of hearing an idea for the first time, and then suddenly hearing that idea again in different circumstances? I told you that Fr. Peter had given an excellent presentation at the General Assembly on Liberation Theology, a school of religious thought that aligns very well with the writings of St. Charles of Brazil, the founder of our own Catholic Apostolic Church.

Fr. Peter described two Church Fathers of the early Christian Church, and their theology in the years 300 – 400 AD. The first was St. John Chrysostom, who wrote this, “If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of the complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness, you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him.  You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts!” He certainly was direct!

The second was St. Basil the Great. He wrote, “(The rich) seize what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first, whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor!”

The point is that the church in the early years strongly emphasized that we must be about the love that Jesus taught and practiced. Mercy, good works, generosity, love – those were the necessities of faith.  But by the Middle Ages, the Church began to struggle to maintain itself against growing secular power: Kings and Kingdoms.  In response, the Church teaching shifted more to personal salvation.  The mindset changed from relieving suffering of others to viewing suffering as a way to be free of sin in preparation for eternal life.  This new focus was somehow stretched to mean that other people’s suffering was good for them, somehow could be written off as deserved or even necessary, and not any of my business as I pressed to ensure my own passage thru the pearly gates.

The very next week after I heard Fr. Peter’s presentation, I managed to borrow The Time is Now, the newest book from Sister Joan Chittister. If you’ve had the experience of reading anything written by Sister Joan, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, you know hang on to your hat.  She could well be compared to a strong wind storm.

She begins her book by describing her early days in the convent. A leader would read a passage from a Gospel, and ask the listeners to see themselves in the scene.  So, Jesus debates with the Pharisees or raises the girl from the dead, and then turns and sees you.  He holds you in his gaze, and asks, “What will you do for these ones – simply stand there looking on?”  The purpose of this was to develop a spiritual practice, but it soon became apparent to Sister Joan that she was to immerse her own life in the life of Jesus.

Out of this would emerge a personal challenge to her own focus, her own behavior, her own life. She learned the teaching of the early Church Fathers which Fr. Peter quoted, and found embedded in them the primary spiritual obligation: to reshape a world that has lost its focus, its integrity, and its understanding of Jesus’ teachings and his purpose in our world.

Sister Joan says, “The question, ‘What will you do?’ is at the core of spiritual maturity, of spiritual commitment.” We may tell ourselves that by risking nothing, we can lose nothing.  Sister Joan says we like our religion served calmly, silently.  And we fail to realize that when we risk nothing, we actually risk everything.  When there is no room in the inn for hungry children, when people fleeing violence must live in tent cities, when there is a growing culture of poverty or paying workers pennies to create clothing which sells for hundreds of dollars, when affordable housing is replaced by mansions, and wars are being fought where the innocent are used as shields, what are we to do?  Stand there, looking on?

It is not a new question. Jesus rose from the dead.  He appeared to believers for 40 days after his crucifixion, he presented proof of his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit was given to the Church.  Jesus directed us to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.  And then he was taken from their sight.  And two heavenly beings appeared, asking, “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?”

Some people want to focus on “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.” It was written by someone who had no words to describe what happened.  We are savvy people, we understand special effects, our satellites and telescopes and probes reveal the secrets of the universe.   But surely, you have seen something in your lifetime that was impossible to describe using the words. For instance, I have never talked with a brand-new parent who had words to describe the experience of birth.  The Ascension is a moment of wonder, mystery if you must, unable to be articulated in a way that we have.

Likewise our various accounts of the Ascension don’t exactly match. Each author belonged to a different faith community, and had a different emphasis in their preaching. They used settings that matched the background of those they were teaching.  Any good teacher does that, making the lessons appropriate to the life and culture of the students.  But they all proclaimed the same message – Our Lord is Alive, is with God, and the Holy Spirit is within us. We say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

So, now what will we do with this information? Do you want the risen Jesus to remain in the Bible story, where you can close the book, put it on the shelf and go on with life?

Do you want to leave the risen Jesus to the clergy, and let them carry the burden of faith? Do you want to leave the work of Jesus to the Social Service agencies, have Bill Gates fund it, have public safety keep the homeless off the streets?  Shall we let Mother Nature take care of the earth? Is the ending of Thrones or the newest superhero movie enough for you?

Or do you want to stop looking at the sky and invite people to church, to share your wealth of talent and experience and compassion with people who simply need some help?  Do you want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the dying and visit those in prison? (Don’t blame me, those are Jesus’ ideas.) Do you want to get dignity by giving dignity, pride by nurturing pride, joy by sharing joy?  Do you want to give people a voice by speaking out? Do you want to make a difference and be a Christian, not just a consumer?

If what I see in the church today is accurate, I would guess that moving our focus from the Love for one another taught by Jesus to a focus on personal salvation wasn’t the answer to growth of secular power. We are here together in this place because of a Catholic Bishop who decided loving each other, especially the poor and powerless, was essential.  If Sister Joan is right, having taken her cue from the angels in the white garments, then standing and looking is the wrong answer.   There is no joy to be found there.   I say, “My neck is getting stiff looking up, let’s look around us, see the needs and opportunities, and get busy.”

What is Glory??

5th Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019

Read: Acts 14:21-27, Ps 145: 8-13, Rev. 21:1-5a; John 13: 31-33a, 34-35

Let’s look at the Gospel, then the 1st reading from Acts, and finish with Revelations.

First, the setting of this Gospel: we are at the last supper, shortly before Jesus is arrested. Jesus has washed the apostles’ feet, and Jesus has dipped his bread into the dipping oil along with Judas, identifying Judas as the one who will betray him.  Then Judas left the room, which is the first sentence of our reading today.  What does Jesus say now?

Our Missal offers this translation of the Greek: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.”  Now it would entirely inappropriate to laugh at this, but I feel that little tickle in my toes that makes me want to throw up my hands and say, “WHAT??”

But I know John is working hard to tell us something important. Let’s see if we can’t make some sense of it. First, what does “glorify” mean, Mr. Webster?

Glorify: “to give glory, honor or high praise, or to worship.” If something is glorious, it has great beauty, splendor, is magnificent or wonderful, like a glorious sunset. To have glory is to be highly praiseworthy.

Next, let’s read the translation in the “Living Bible”. It is a less precise translation of the Greek, but very helpful with things like this.  Jesus said, “My time has come; the glory of God will soon surround me – and God shall receive great praise because of all that happens to me. And God shall give me his own glory, and this so very soon.”

So we end up with this: Now is the time! God is going to give Jesus praise and honor; God’s own greatness will be wrapped around Jesus like a blanket, because of what Jesus will do on the cross.  God will also receive high praise and worship because of what Jesus does. Then Jesus, very shortly, will become highly praiseworthy himself.

John wants us to understand the importance and the consequences of Jesus being willing to be crucified. Jesus is innocent, without sin.  We are not so innocent.  He is willing to bear our sins on the cross.  I don’t necesssarily mean sins like murder and robbery.  But the sins of jealousy, of pride, of desiring more power than we can handle, the thoughts and desires that leave black holes in our souls, the more subtle sins of us all.  And the consequences are not just that an innocent man “pays back” our sins, but that we are forgiven, and life triumphs over death and light overcomes darkness.  The way to eternal life is opened, because we are now made pure again, now able to live in the light of God’s purity.

But there is one last thing Jesus has to say to us: the part we have in this. We are not just bystanders watching a play.  No Christian can just be a spectator.  He says, “If you want to remain part of me, want to be identified with my glory and praiseworthiness, here is what you have to do: Love one another. Love one another as I have loved you.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  That is not easy; it is difficult, but easier than crucifixion!  Jesus was and is here with us to show us how to love. Love will be our badge, our uniform, love will be the sign that all can see and recognize, when we love our neighbors in this special & intense way.  Is it true, do we wear our love, so that people know?

Now let’s jump ahead a few years to the travels of Paul and Barnabas. These two men traveled long distances, primarily on foot, and they frequently were in danger, suffered from need and poverty, ridicule, and gave up their lives at home.  They proclaimed the good news to city after city, building up churches, training elders and leaders.  They strengthened the spirits of those new disciples, urging them to be strong in their faith, preparing people to undergo ridicule, slander and suspicion, and modeling it all.

Finally we hear from St. John in the Book of Revelation.  John was captured in a persecution campaign by the Roman Emperor Domitian and sentenced to Patmos, now known as Patino, 55 miles southwest of Ephesus. Patmos was a small, rocky and barren island where many criminals of Rome were sent to serve out their prison terms in harsh conditions. There were mines on the island that the criminals were forced to work in them. John was sent to the island because the early Christians were considered a strange cult group who were viewed as trouble makers within the Empire.  John had taught the Good News of Jesus and refused to worship the Roman gods. After John had arrived, he began to have visions, recorded in the Book of Revelation.

John wrote to his followers, “I…share with you in Jesus the persecution (the really bad times) and the kingdom( the really good times) and the patient endurance (it takes to get from one to the other).”   John fully understands how really difficult life is.  No doubt his visions enabled him to endure the hard conditions, and his writings encouraged other Christians who were being persecuted.  He talks of the future, the eternal life, with a new heaven and a new earth, where God’s dwelling is with the human race.  God will always be with them as their God, and death, mourning, wailing, and pain will end.  And God says, “Behold, I make all things new.”

So we started with an explanation of the importance and consequences of the crucifixion. The end result is to make us able to be God’s people, face to face.

Our task is to embrace that enormous love and live it, to give it to everyone. We are given role models, people like Paul and Barnabas and John to demonstrate in very large ways what they did with that love.  And finally we are given a glimpse of what is to come.  That provides reassurance that our faith is not in vain, our efforts to love are not worthless.  Our face is the face of Christianity to other people, and we must wear our love in a way that people will recognize it and say, “I want what you have!”

Stones in the Road

May 16, 2019 Nationa Church General Assembly –  Closing Mass

Acts 13:13-25, Ps 89:2-3, 21-22, 25, 27, John 13: 16-20

Our readings start tonight with St. Paul.  We first met Saul, as he was called then, at the stoning of Steven.  Saul was there, graciously watching over the coats of those who were stoning Steven, and he watched as Steven died.  Saul was a proud Roman Citizen and an accomplished Pharisee.  Saul knew what was being done and approved of it. He believed he was doing the right thing, preventing the spread of Christianity at all costs – even murder.  He saw his sin as justified.

If Saul had been a stone that day, we wouldn’t have stopped to pick him up. We certainly wouldn’t think of him as a gemstone; but more like a ragged lump of broken concrete.  A lifetime in the tumbler, we think, would not improve him.  But everyone has their Steven- the person they should have helped, but didn’t, the cause they should have supported, but didn’t.  Did that make Saul any less valuable to God?  No.  Did God turn away from him?  No. God is a God of 2nd chances, regardless of how it appears to us at the time.

From there, Saul headed out on the road to Damascus, not to throw stones, but to arrange for the arrest and death of other followers of Jesus.  It was an unusual and dramatic journey.  In Acts chapter 9, you can read the whole story of the appearance of Jesus to Saul.  Note that Saul’s change was not instant, but there were a lot of Christian believers who helped and a learning curve was involved.  It took time for people to believe his conversion and for him to be accepted by the apostles.

Now we see Saul again. There have been some changes since we last saw him. He is a changed man; so changed that his name is now Paul. He is traveling with Barnabas, one of the first Christians to take Paul under his wing. They had been in Antioch in Syria, went next to Paphos in Cyprus, next headed north to Perga in Asia Minor, to go on to the other Antioch, in Pisidia.  They had been teaching the Good News of Jesus, telling of his resurrection, baptizing, laying on hands, establishing faith communities, and encouraging those who were persecuted or ridiculed for their faith.

Paul was going to the Synagogues, praying that his fellow Jews might understand Jesus as the promised Messiah, the One Sent by God. He hoped the Holy Spirit would come to them with wisdom and open their hearts, as his heart had been opened. So he speaks in the traditional teaching style, recounting the history of the Israelites, from when God chose them to the Exodus from Egypt, brought them to the Promised Land, and gave them King David, who had the heart to fulfill every wish of God. Now we see Paul as a jewel of a witness and evangelist, a reflection of the glory of God.  Not too shabby for a broken concrete; that was all we saw him as before.  Perhaps our rating system isn’t always the same as God’s.

Then we have a Psalm about King David. If you remember, his father Jesse did not even bother to bring David in from the fields when the Prophet Samuel (1 Sam: 15) came to anoint a new king to replace King Saul (where have we heard that name before?).  David was too young, too simple, not able to be the crown jewel of a nation, his father thought. He was just a boy who sang psalms and who smelled of sheep.  Pope Francis would have approved! Scholars guess it might have been 20 years later before Saul was killed in battle and David became king. Again, there was a long learning curve, a slow process of David’s development, and David had a history of mistakes along the way. Oh yes, and David had his Bathsheba, when in a moment of human desire he abandoned his freedom, stole her liberty, and selfishly hijacked his God-given gift of authority.  We all do, in one form or another.  We all fail; we embarrass ourselves and those who love us.  Sometimes, even a King like David must prostrate them self in front of God and beg for forgiveness and face the consequences.

Neither Paul nor David ever became perfect, they both made mistakes, sinned, grieved and asked forgiveness. They struggled and became discouraged, faced betrayal and were let down by others they trusted.  In the end, they had to depend on God; they had to face life with all the twists and turns and disappointments.  The Blessed Virgin may have been born without sin, the most pure of women, but she still stood in front of the cross and had to watch her tortured son die in agony.  My father was a jeweler He often said, “There are no gems that are not cut to reveal their beauty.”  There are no smooth stones that have not been hammered or smashed against other rocks to snap off their ragged edges.  Even Jesus tells us that “there is no messenger who outranks the one who sent him.”  Just because we are Christians doesn’t make us perfect or superior or glorious.  The perfection and the glory is God’s.

Does this make us inadequate or without value? No, very much No!  We each have great gifts to bring, blessings to bestow on others, the joys of gratitude to share.  We have the gift of self to give, again and again, to friends and family and strangers and neighbors and to God.  We can bless others with simple acts, with gentle words, with forgiveness and generosity.  We can move from just coming to church, to bringing others to church so they might meet the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread.  We can read the story of the Good Samaritan or we can go out into the word and be the Samaritan that ministers to the innocent victims of our society.  That is how we bless and share and give the gift that we are.  No Christian can just be a spectator.

Jesus said, “(The person) who accepts anyone I send – accepts me…and in accepting me accepts (God) who sent me.” The person standing in front of you at any given time is the one Jesus sends.  Someone wrote once that any one who walks into a church is seeking God, although they might not know it.   All the stones in you find in the path of life represent the blessings of the past and of the future.  They represent your cries for help and your prayers of thanksgiving.  They remind you of your choices made and yet to be made.  May Almighty God give you joy and be with you every step of your journey.+



7 Sundays

3rd Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Psalm 30:2,-6, 11-13; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21 1:1-19

At the opening of today’s Gospel, Peter and 7 of the other apostles are still reeling from the shock of the crucifixion and are still not entirely sure just exactly what happened afterwards. When we lose someone very dear to us, we may also fear that we have no hope for the future. That is how they felt: hopeless, without a future, empty inside, lost.  So it doesn’t surprise us that the 8 men, like a bunch of mother-less boys, don’t know what to do.  They do what they always did before – they went fishing, maybe for something to eat, maybe make a little money, mostly, just for something to do, something they were used to, that brought back good memories, and something that didn’t demand their confused brains to work very hard.

But night turns into morning, and no fish had been sighted; nothing. A voice calls out an Aramaic word which means something like lads, or guys, a name for young men.  And the voice tells them to fish on the other of the boat.

Now isn’t that just like real life. We can be so close to success, to making sense of our lives, to achieving an important goal, and we never think of making a small adjustment that might bring success. I was an employment counselor for 13 years, and oversaw job training programs.  I saw people make foolish decisions, do things they knew would ruin their chance for finishing the training, when they were close to the end.   We all tend to have a habit of fishing out of just one side of the boat, to keep things from changing.  We continue to flounder because we keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work anymore.

We need the voice of Jesus in our lives to lead us to good alternatives. I can’t tell you how many times Jesus has offered me solutions to really hard situations – ideas I never would have considered, but ideas that were absolutely brilliant and successful yet at the same time simple.  John recognized Jesus by what he did – Jesus changed one small detail which made everything different.  That is how Jesus tends to move in our lives, not with fireworks, but a gentle nudge.

Jesus is on the beach with another charcoal fire. Do you remember the first charcoal fire we read about in John’s Gospel?  The first fire warmed Peter in Caiaphas’s courtyard when, as predicted, Peter denies Jesus three times. Today John tells us about this second charcoal fire, where Jesus invites Peter to seek forgiveness for his 3 denials by declaring his love three times. Each time Jesus asks Peter to act out that love by service: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” He then predicts that Peter’s service will take him where he does not want to go. Social justice ministry is important, but sometimes that ministry takes us where we might not want to go, we might work with people we don’t understand or even like, we will seeing suffering that is hard to witness and calls us to give more of ourselves than we had planned on. Serving Jesus means loving our enemies, like the Roman oppressors, like the narrow-minded Pharisees.  You know people today that you could call your enemies.  What Jesus asks is easy to say and very hard to do (or we would do it).

I am once again astounded by the way Jesus handles this reconciliation. I know of no one that would be so gentle, yet at the same time so firm.  A man I know has the most active prayer life I have ever encountered.  He tells me he has never experienced such gentleness as the gentleness of Jesus.  But, on the other hand, he when he tries to describe the power and strength of Jesus, he is at a loss for words, and just shakes his head, amazed.  I think that is the Jesus that this passage describes.  Jesus addresses Peter with 4 simple words “Do you love me?”  Peter offers his whole heart with his reply, “You know that I love you.”

Those words bring Peter to tears – and complete and lasting change. This is literally a point of life change for Peter.  He could have ended up taking his own life out of remorse, as Judas did.  Judas could have come to face Jesus and lived, but he didn’t.  Judas believed the lie that his sin was too great.  Surely his betrayal was a sin, but the real sin was to turn his back on Jesus and refuse to believe that Jesus has the power to forgive our sin. Do we have what it takes to forgive those who have hurt us?  Do we have what it takes to face our failings and ask for forgiveness? Do we understand that our sins, our failures, our moments of greed and self-absorption can lead us to a point of life change? The very worse mistakes in our lives can bring us blessings untold when we take them to Jesus.

Our 1st reading from Acts therefore has a totally transformed Peter, saying to the very same High Priest he was so very fearful of not long before, “We must obey God rather than man” and so bolding finding joy in suffering threats and dishonor for being true to Jesus.  He not only returns to be an apostle, a follower of Jesus, but moves ahead, and moves to the “other side of the boat” – leadership.  One side of the boat there was a gentle call; moving to the other side of the boat, there was the power to create a multitude of fish where there were none before.  So Peter moves on to publicly witnesses to the Risen Christ, a true fisher of mankind.

After Easter, we can return to the world we were used to, seeming unchanged.  Maybe that’s why we have 7 Sundays of Easter Season.  It gives us time to face a living, resurrected Jesus, and a world where life does triumph over death.  It gives us time to hear a call from the beach, to witness the miracle of Jesus’ power.  It gives us time to move to the other side of the boat and recognize Jesus for who he is. It gives us time to draw near to Jesus at the charcoal fire, sinners as we are, and be given the gifts of reconciliation and forgiveness.  There we can proclaim a new level of love and desire to take the love given to us to all the people who are lost sheep in this world.  My friends, the sheep are waiting!

What does Easter mean to us, today?

Easter 4-21-2019

Readings:  Acts 10: 34, 37-43; Ps 118; Colossians 3; 1-4; John 20: 1-9

One Easter, Several years ago, I was sitting in a church aptly named Holy Trinity in Glen Burnie, MD. Just across the aisle from me sat an older woman and a younger woman.  The older one leaned over and said to the younger, “You know, Jesus didn’t really die.”

I have wondered ever since what people think Easter is. But Jesus left us (all) in charge of spreading “The Good News” which includes telling the triumph of the resurrection.  Maybe preachers aren’t talking about the Gospels as much, and maybe the parishioners don’t tell their friends and family either.  But we’ve moved into an age of easy, wide-spread, and instant communication.  We can talk about making ourselves know, or we could make it a goal and actually do it, make it real.

If we did that- I mean really reached out in an informed, decisive way with intent to reach a goal of just 3 new people a month, still, sooner or later we will put ourselves in the awkward position of having to explain Easter to someone. By the way, Fairfax county has more than 1,200,000, so 3 people would be .00026% of the population.  Naturally, doing this means explaining what resurrection is and how Jesus died and what brought about his death, and what he did that made certain people so angry.  And what the results are for us.  Not just a history lesson, but something that has an impact on our lives.

Like something that brings about a change of circumstances for every single human being on the planet for all time; something bigger, way bigger than Easter eggs and bunnies and, of course, chocolate. But chocolate companies know how to advertize, effectively, and they do it, and all they get out of it is grubby old money. Yuk.  They have to hire tax lawyers and have high stress levels and fair trade issues, paying their farmers sustainable wages and all kinds of things that keep them awake at night. Explaining how Easter impacts us personally is nothing next to all that hassle!  We’ve got it easy!

So, let’s start with the easy stuff. I figure if anyone knew about death, Roman soldiers knew. Their job at the crucifixion was to kill Jesus. First they beat and flogged him so badly that he was bleeding to death long before they nailed him to the cross.  It was a process designed to end in death.  Then they thrust a spear into his heart and lungs to eliminate any possible doubt.  It’s a no brainer.  Now, some of the parables and stories of Jesus have been arranged by Gospel authors to teach a particular lesson.  But, who would make up stories of Peter “the rock” betraying Jesus 3 times?  Lesson # 1: when we read Biblical eye witness accounts, full of details, about known historical events, like crucifixion, confirmed by all 4 Gospels, we really don’t have any reason to doubt it.

St. Paul evidently was sick and tired of answering this type of resurrection questions, because in his 1st letter to the church at Corinth, he really goes off on it.  He tells them to “Hold Fast” to what he had taught – that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried (because he was dead), and raised on the third day, as the scriptures had foretold, and he appeared to Peter, then to apostles, and then he appeared to more than 500 people at one time, and some of them were still, in his day, alive and talking about it. Then Jesus appeared to James and finally Paul himself.  He’s clear about it.

You know, unexpected things happen when you wear one of these collars. I’ve had people (plural, men and women, sane) tell me about Jesus appearing to them, and they describe him to me in the most personal of terms.  Jesus rose from the dead.   Lesson # 2: Jesus is alive.  Jesus is more alive than the cultures in my active and alive yogurt. You don’t get weirded about out that, you don’t go buy a microscope when you hear that, why is it so hard to accept, why should you be amazed for me to tell you that the same Jesus that raised Lazarus and the little girl and the widow’s son from the dead is alive?

Well, if this still troubles you, don’t feel bad, even St. Peter had some issues with it, even after spending years with Jesus, even after seeing the empty tomb and the burial cloths, with one rolled up and deliberately set aside. The problem was that he couldn’t open his mind up to it.  It can be a big jump from reading the text book (in this case, the scriptures), and understanding on a personal level.  We use cars, machinery, and electronic devices all the time and many of us have no real idea how they work or how they’re made.  We use them because they work, “believing” in them in a way, without understanding.

We’ve probably all been duped by a slimy salesperson, yet we don’t stop shopping. Do I ask too much when I say, “Believe, trust, pray”?  I don’t ask you embrace everything whispered in your ear at church, or every bit of church dogma or what you think your 4th grade religion teacher said; that might be a mistake.  Faith must be questioned and explored, and there is a learning curve involved if your want your faith to grow.  Lesson # 3 – open yourself to the possibilities -not just a historical Jesus on the pages of your Bible, but a real, living Jesus.

Finally, don’t get hung up on the “born again” thing. You were “born again” when the water was poured over you at your baptism.  If you weren’t baptized, come see me, I can fix that.  But approach it like a physicist.  Every action (baptism) must have an equal and opposite reaction.  And what is re-action to baptism?  It is Behavior filled with Belief!  (Makes me think of that great lemon cream in donuts – you can come up with your own image of Behavior filled with Belief, until it oozes out.) That is the authentic re-action to Baptism!

During Lent we read how Isaiah was so critical of people who performed the rituals of the church, yet they never lived their faith. In St. John’s letter (3:17-18), John wrote, “But if (we) have the world’s goods and see (our neighbors) in need, yet close (our) heart against them, how does God’s love abide in (us)?…Let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.” St. James (2:17) is even more direct.  He wrote, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Last Lesson#4: The reaction to Easter is actions of love, mercy, and generosity.  Our minds must open, but so must our time, our wallets, and our compassion. That is what the Jesus of the Bible did, and the living Jesus does now, and what we as Christians are to do.  “By this, all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” Jesus said. (John 13:35)

So let’s recap what Easter means to us, and this is how we will do it: On Easter, our Tradition is to renew our baptismal promises. If you were baptized as a baby, you might not have known the words, so you get a chance to say it today.  If you need to be baptized, this is a great chance to practice for your big day.  We do this in a question-answer format, which starts on the bottom of page 65 of your Missal.  If you listen to what you are saying, it sounds very much like the Creed we usually say at this time, and I will sprinkle you with blessed baptismal water afterwards.   So please stand and turn to page 65.

Love Triumphs Over Loss

5th Sunday of Lent 4-7-19

Readings: Isaiah 43: 16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3: 8-14, John 8:1-11

There are two pivotal stories of the Jewish people. The first is the Exodus from Egypt, the people being led from slavery to the Promised Land.  They are literally led by God and fed by God on the journey. But most importantly, they must go thru some big changes; God must de-program them from slave mentality, they must leave their fear of Egypt behind, with all the physical and emotion abuse they had suffered.

Their sons had been slaughtered by the Egyptians, their daughters made concubines of the pharaohs, they were used to eating what the Egyptians gave them to eat, and worshiping the idols they were told to worship. They were accustomed to doing what they were told and to cower before their masters. The journey took 40 years not because of the distance, but because of the enormity of the task of freeing them from looking back at their old life, and preparing them for a new life ahead.

The second pivotal story of the Jewish people is the captivity in Babylon for 40 years, and their ultimate release to return to their homeland.  The brutality of the war with Babylon, the total destruction of their temple, their homes, their cities, and their culture – all this left them deeply wounded psychologically.  Again, they must begin all over, and rebuild their buildings, their infrastructure, their very way of life, and their worship of their God that they hardly remembered.

God took the initiative here.  So God tells them, “don’t look back.”  Don’t waste your time rehashing your troubles and clinging to what had seemingly become “the new normal” of captivity.  He calls them to wake up, he says look and see what I’m doing, something new, it springs forth, can’t you see?!  Even the animals can see it, but I do it for the people I formed, “That they might announce my praise.”

This story continues in our psalm, with the people’s response. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.  We need help as large as and powerful as of a mass of rushing water, like a torrent in the time of flood. We are weeping at the destruction of our land and of our hopes, but we will rebuild, and we will rejoice in what we accomplish with your help.”

We know the pivotal story of the Christian people. Paul writes of his losses in the decision to follow Christ. He lost everything he had.  He lost his place and status as a learned Pharisee.  He lost his home, and became a traveler.  He certainly lost friends, he was physically attacked, he lost his wealth, and had to work as a common tent maker to buy food.  Yet he always looks forward to what God is doing. Paul had discovered himself on the receiving end of a divine love that enabled him to live by the law of love.  He says all the things he lost were “so much rubbish” in the light of his faith, in knowing Christ, and the “power of his resurrection.”   Paul says that he lets go of and forgets what lies behind, but strains forward to what lies ahead, and continues pursuit of the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling to eternal life.

The strength of the faith of the Jews as they rebuilt their lives, the strength of Paul as he pursued God, sound to me like that sound rushing water makes in flood time. There is a power behind them, they see the new things that God is doing, a force which stronger than any opposition and better than anything they had lost.

Then we have Jesus and the woman. The woman was as battered and beaten down as the Jews had been in Egypt.  Most likely she was a woman who had been widowed and had no family to support her.  Prostitution was then and is now the last resort for women who are not loved, who have lost hope, and have lost any sense of value of themselves.  Since this situation is clearly a set up by the Pharisees, there is no doubt in my mind that this poor woman was just hoping to have enough payment for her services to buy one meal that day.  Clearly, she was just being used and shamed one more time by people who regarded themselves as superiors.

I remember when my last church was a brand new church, searching for worship space. They were renting a single basement room, it used to be a Sunday school room in a church that was dying, financially on it’s last legs, had spent all its reserves, was in an area where gun shots were heard and the copper gutters had been stolen off the church building. A beautiful old church nearby had been purchased by another independent Catholic group, and some discussions had started about moving there.

It was mentioned that a group of local prostitutes would sit on the church steps in the early evening, getting ready to go “to work.”  Everyone at the meeting acted like they had not heard that piece of information, like it had nothing to do with them.  Afterwards, I approached the speaker, and commented that there was a great opportunity to help those women.  The speaker, sighed, and said quietly, “You’re the only who mentioned that.” Now and then, such women are still considered expendable.

But God was initiating something new that day for the woman in front of Jesus. The Pharisees had no authority to inflict capital punishment on this woman.   That authority belonged to Rome.  She was being used like a trap against Jesus, but she might become the laughing stock of Jerusalem by nightfall and, as a result, die of starvation anyway.  He saved her with a single sentence, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

With those words, he reminds the Pharisees that they, like the woman, had no power in this situation, and thereby shames them with their own sins – the lies they have told and their pretense of authority they did not have, authority they had prostituted to Rome in a desperate attempt to salvage their social status.  Once again, as you read the story, you hear that torrent of water, water of truth, life-giving water, and power…the power to rebuild, to change, for her to become whole again and shine with God’s light.

I hope you don’t drive down the road looking in the rearview mirror, but rather “staining to see what lies ahead.   During Lent weep over the past, but in the celebration of Easter we return rejoicing.  Both long ago and today, Jesus forgives the sinner without denying the sin. Listen, Believe, See something new, And Rejoice.