Pentecost

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.

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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!”

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!

St. Patrick and the Transfiguration

2nd Sunday of Lent, March 17, 2019

Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27 1-14; Philippians 3: 17-4:1; Luke 9: 28-36

Our Gospel today is one of those passages that you need a key to open. By that, I mean that it is written in symbols, a kind of Biblical code. Let’s go thru it, piece by piece.

“They went up the mountain to pray” –In the Old Testament, if God is in the sky (the “heavens”), then the higher you go up, the closer you are to God. In the scriptures, people often receive revelations from God on mountains.   Moses was given the Ten Commandments on a mountain; Elijah talked with God on a mountain.

“Jesus face changed and his clothing became dazzling white” – Jesus is portrayed in Luke as the New Moses. Remember that Moses’ face glowed after he came down the mountain with the tablets.  Now Jesus is radiant.  But, Moses just reflected God’s glory/light.  But Jesus actually radiates light; not reflecting God but he himself was the source of the light, just as God is. Also, remember that people with nothing but candles for light treasured light beyond our imagination.

“Moses and Elijah…appear.”- Moses represents the Law, while Elijah was a prophet who brought God’s words to the people- together they brought what was know about God.  They “spoke of the exodus Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.”- It is important to know that the transfiguration occurred immediately after Jesus’ 1st prediction of his death and rising to the apostles.   Moses and Elijah discuss it as a planned event. It is an “exodus” in the sense that Jesus leads us, just as Moses led the Israelites from “slavery and bondage” to “newness of freedom”. Only we experience slavery as things like addictions and materialism.

“Peter, James & John had been overcome by sleep.” – I have a granddaughter who, when she was little, would fall sleep whenever curtain girl and her mother would visit. The girl was loud and rough and having her visit totally overwhelmed my shy, gentle granddaughter.  The apostles were overwhelmed, understandably unable to make sense of the scene in front of them.  Is it a dream? A hallucination?  Had they lost their minds?mountai  What is happening; what’s it mean?

“Peter suggests making tents and staying here” – but he misses the point; he’s so like…us. Later, after the resurrection, he will grasp the meaning of this experience and understand who Jesus is and what he has done.  Also, later Peter will have the Words that Jesus spoke and find that the Word is the same as the Jesus’ presence in a body or in a cloud. He will always have Jesus with him.

“A cloud came and cast a shadow” – another reference to Moses. A cloud covered tabernacle tent of the Israelites and filled it, and it was the presence of God.

“This is my chosen Son, listen to him.” – God is telling the apostles to listen to what? To the prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection. Now it has been spoken by Jesus & witnessed by Moses, Elijah, and God. The apostles have seen the Godly radiance of Jesus, and entered the cloud that was God.  Hearing, sight and touch have declared the truth of Jesus to them.   Their silence will end when they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and they will spend the rest of their lives teaching and testifying about Jesus to the ends of the earth.  Luke writes this to teach us what the apostles learned, and wants our reaction to be the same as theirs.

This passage is read during Lent to remind us of some things. While we don’t need to climb a mountain to pray, we do need space and time set aside for prayer.  Prayer is often when God reveals things to us.  We need to pray every bit as much as to sleep or to eat.  God gives us to revelations as we read scripture or hear things as we listen to religious programs, movies or lectures. We can touch rosary beads or a pocket cross, or other religious articles.  But Jesus is always with us, and learning to see or hear or touch him is necessary. We must take the time to open ourselves to him.

I would like to hold up for you today St. Patrick, for today is his memorial. We have a short spiritual autobiography he wrote, the Confessio.  From this we have some facts, while many of the popular traditions about the snakes and the shamrocks may be legend.

St. Patrick was kidnapped as a slave by Irish raiders in Britain when he was 16, and held as a slave for 6 long, hard years.  He chose to rely on his faith to get him through that.  By a dream, he was shown the way to escape, nearly starving to death before getting back to his family.

He then studied under St. Germanus, who consecrated him later as a Bishop. Again he had a dream, and was literally called to return to Ireland.  For a long time, he struggled with that call.  He felt he was not up to the task, not worthy and certainly scared.  But once he went, he was very successful teaching the faith, baptizing and confirming the native Picts of Ireland as well as the Anglo-Saxons.

Which is not to say that he was safe all the time. He wrote that he lived in constant danger of martyrdom.  Daily he expected to be violently killed or enslaved by the non-Christian Irish.  He had to endure charges by British Clergy who claimed he wanted to be a Bishop only to inflate his pride.  In fact, his writings prove him to be a most humble-minded man, continuously giving thanks to God for sending him to the same people who had enslaved him as a boy.

His Latin was poor, and it took much effort to translate his book and to align what he wrote with known history. But his writing shows a man of truth and simplicity of the rarest quality.  He bared his soul in an unusually frank and honest way.  Even D.A. Binchy, a scholar who is one of Patrick’s most severe critics, wrote, “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence.”

So we come full circle to a Saint who also “shines” with the glory of God. He, like the apostles, after a period of fear and reluctance, took the Word of God to people, exposing themselves to harm and violence. They all cultivated their deep relationship with God and clung to their faith as a way to sustain their lives, and changed the history of the world as a result.  When they might have slept safely at home, they awoke and followed God’s call.

We tell the stories of transfiguration and of Saints not only to learn how to follow Jesus, but to question our own lives. Are our lives a time of sleep to avoid the truth and trials we are meant to face?  Do we miss the meaning of what we see?  Do we focus on our troubles or do we focus on God when we are troubled?  Do we really listen to God?  Do we love our enemies? God “frees” us in the most unusual ways to do things we would have never considered otherwise.  Peter had one thing right – “It is good that we are here.”  Where you are supposed to be?

Lent is Like…

8th Sunday Ordinary Time, year C , March 3, 2019

Sirach 27:4-7; Psalm: 92:2-3, 13-16;1 Corinthians 15:54-58; Luke 6:39-45

Lent is about to begin.  I was reading our Scriptures for today, and two thoughts came to mind. First, I was struck at how well all the readings move us into the mood of Lent.  They start us thinking about our speech, our thought patterns, how we worship God, and the impact that the resurrection has on our lives.  Secondly, I was struck all over again by how skilled and effective Jesus is as a teacher.  As I read the three short parables he gives in our Gospel, I think about how Jesus gave us concrete images which made what he was saying so very understandable, and how what he says becomes easy to apply to everyday life.  In Matthew 13, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed… or the kingdom of heaven is like a net” and so forth.

So, today, I ask, “How should I explain Lent to you?” Following Jesus’ example, what can I liken it to, that you would better know what it is?

Lent is like a woman who wants to stay healthy. Does she eat rich chocolates all Lent long?  No, instead, after Valentine’s Day, she sets aside chocolates, ice cream, and pastries, and sets her eyes on salads and lean meats.  She labors over a stationary bike, she glistens as she holds Warrior 3 pose in yoga class for ten full minutes; she uses her towel as she struggles with the elliptical machine.  After a while, her breathing is deeper, her blood sugar is lower, her heart and muscles stronger.  Lent is like this, a time when we labor and struggle to build our spiritual strength.  We purposely make time for this change of habits, for inwardly, we knew all the time, that it would benefit us in ways we didn’t even know about yet.

Again, Lent is like the farmer who wants a good crop. Does he sit idly in the pub all winter, watching the football games with the guys or take naps on the couch?  No, there is work to be done.  He must mend the fences so that the animals can’t become lost.  He must clean and sharpen the plows, overhaul the engines on the tractors and machinery, to prevent breakdowns.  He places his order for seeds.  He prunes the fruit trees before the sap begins to rise, so that the fruit will be large and healthy.  Likewise, we need to turn off the TV so we have Bible study time and time for prayer and meditation.  We must sharpen our understanding of the symbols of the wine and the wheat.   We must mend our fences with those we have hurt or offended, we must sow the seeds of good deeds, and trim back our lives from the dead branches of self-centeredness and disregard for the needy and overhaul some of the details of our lives.  Then our crops of charity and faithfulness will be large.

Again, Lent is like a widow who lives alone. Her children have scattered to the West Coast and to Atlanta with important jobs where vacation time is scarce.  Her husband recently died from cancer, and her friends are moving south.  Does she sit silently in her home and mourn her losses during Lent?  No, she looks to it for strength, for comfort and solace.  She calls her friends to encourage them in their troubles and illnesses.  She has taken over writing the Prayers of the Faithful for church, because writing them gives her an opportunity to make those prayers real in her life all week.  She reads the Sunday scriptures every day to enable herself to pray about them and seek out the subtle thoughts.  She now can better apply the lessons of Lent to her life and her attitudes toward her family, her neighbors, and her world.  Likewise, Lent is a time for us to go face-to-face with losses, with broken dreams and shattered expectations.  Lent is a time to re-build relationships with Christian friends we have neglected, and to open our hearts to new friends with whom we can find mutual support.  Perhaps you will make a visit to a shut-in or give time to a charity.  Or maybe find new ways to become active in our church and be part of all the work that goes on from the closing blessing of one Mass to the opening greeting of the next Mass. We can discover the rich blessings of preparing our self for every Mass by reading the scriptures ahead of time and finding lessons in them that are new and seemed designed just for our ears.

Lent is not a season that must be endured, again. Lent is more like boot camp, a point of beginning.  It is a time of intensity that is unequaled in the Church Year.  In some ways, we have to set aside our knowledge of Easter morning, of the resurrection, to really feel the fear of those apostles who recognized that Jesus was in true danger.  We must enter into working hard to face the agony and fear of Jesus as he faced a level of torture we hope to never experience. But some day we will be sick or injured or alone or disappointed in people we thought would be there for us, and will need Lent to prepare us.

We will be unjustly accused of wrong doing at some time, perhaps shamed and ridiculed. Jesus is our model to follow.  We will need to understand the depth and complexity of the washing of the apostles’ feet, as good leaders must be prepared to humble themselves for those they serve.  Can we grow during this time and be fed, on all levels, by the wine and wheat of the Eucharist?  Will be drawn into the mystical meanings of our liturgy and find more there than we ever imagined?

There is no way to celebrate the resurrection; there is no way to grasp the essential message of Easter, without the very strenuous and troubling work of Lent. It’s tough stuff.  Lent is a journey into the ugly side of life, into the darkness of human cruelty, and into the pain of disappointment and despair.  But at the same time, it is a journey into faith, into the answers and responses of Jesus to all that ugliness.  It’s a real-life experience, not preparing us for beauty, or farming, or aging, necessarily, but certainly preparing us again, in a new way, for the grace and mercy of God, and for the certainty of God’s faithfulness to us.  So let us work and cry and suffer together.  Let us do Lent in full this year.  Together we can find meaning; we can find strength and peace we never knew existed.  We will pack away the joyful Alleluias and the Glorias, and find the rock of faith that comes when we answer the call to life beyond rote and ritual.

Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.