Even Now… Week 2

Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
– Mark 9:5

My Dear Friends in Christ,

These words of Peter are in response to the miraculous transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus has taken His closest friends up the mountain and then, all of a sudden, He is transfigured. The glory of the Lord is bursting forth from Him, he is different, glorious and His clothes are even better than bleachiest bleached white.  And then, on top of all that, He is talking to Moses and Elijah, the ROCK STARS of the Old Testament, God’s biggest and most important helpers, perhaps better to say that they are talking to HIM. They’re struck with fear, thrown down to the ground, amazed, confused, impressed and petrified. They know it’s Jesus, their good friend, but they have never seen nothin’ like this before. While they are scared, there is also something comforting about it, a sense of calm and control, a sense of God’s awesome power, a hint of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” that saved Israel from slavery, led them across the Red Sea as if on dry land, brought them through the desert feeding and watering them all of the time, plopping them gently and purposefully in the promised land after clearing it of their enemies. God had reached into human history and acted for the good of Israel.

God bless Peter, because, like me, he speaks when there ain’t nothing to say. He babbles, diarrhea of the mouth, not knowing what to say. He is frightened and yet he knows this is something important, something good, the tangible Presence of God, a reminder that God is powerful and close even if he (Peter) doesn’t get it, let alone understand fully and completely. It’s not just visible but audible as well.  The voice of God thunders over the whole scene. So, somewhat naturally (at least for me), Peter seeks to prolong the moment, he wants to build three tents (with what materials) so that this meeting of the minds, so to speak, can continue and he, along with James and John can continue their exclusive and immediate access at this historic moment. Rabbi, it is good that we are here.

Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart… return to the LORD, your God… [who is] gracious and merciful… slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. (See Joel 12:1-2) These very first words of Lent remind us what Lent is truly all about: that God loves us, that God is willing to accept us no matter where we are or where we’ve been, no matter how distant or separated we’ve felt, no matter how tired or angry. And in Jesus Christ, we see that God not only accepts us coming back to HIM. Much more, God comes out to us and offers us this sacred season of Lent to get to know one another better, for God to show me that I am a beloved daughter, a beloved son, a delight, that I am cared for, supported, cherished… LOVED.

Recognizing that God loves us, that God wants us closer no matter where we are or where we’ve been, that God comes to us is not enough. It’s like the perfect gift that remains unopened, untouched, unused. It looks pretty; it sounds nice (if you shake it). But it doesn’t do anything and certainly can’t make a difference in my life, let alone my daily routine. These facts need to reside more fully in the heart than in the mind. Intellectual ideas cannot sustain us. We need prayer.

But prayer can get complicated and I, for one, often get distracted by the vehicle rather than the destination. I get distracted, antsy, impatient. I can’t just sit down and pray the way I can play another game of solitaire on my computer or look at Facebook. To be honest, prayer intimidates me.  Nothing I do is more important and yet everything else I do seem easier and most everything else seems to have more impact. That’s why we’re focusing on quiet, personal, meditative prayer this Lent.

Prayer is what allows us to unpack the Gift of God’s love and make it not only accessible but useful, even essential in our lives.  Prayer is what allows us to be in contact with God, to establish and open channels of grace, or as Jesus put it more succinctly, to be friends of God. Like any friendship, our relationship with Jesus Christ is not magic nor does it happen overnight. Even a friendship that flowers quickly needs to be nurtured and attended to, cared for, worked on, appreciated and served. Prayer is time with our beloved friend, Jesus Christ and, through Christ, our heavenly Father. All of this made possible only in and by the Holy Spirit. Prayer is what allows us to welcome Christ into our hearts and allows God not only to love us but also to make that love fruitful for us and, through us, for the world.

And this is ultimately the purpose of Lent, that God wants us close, that God wants to love us, to share the Divine Self with us and to make our sharing fruitful: comforting for us, strengthening us, consoling us, guiding us but also fruitful for others in sharing the same love with them, in bring them God’s love, in helping them to encounter Christ.

Knowing that, all of that, I still struggle with prayer. As I said last week, people think I am kidding or being humble when I say that prayer is usually the most difficult thing I do on any given day. I have to prepare myself both physically and mentally to set the stage. I have to fight the temptations to skip it, or rush it or look for an immediate high, a strong recognition that God is somehow present and in charge. I’m amazed at the work I have to do internally; how active I have to be to spend any time passively before the Lord in prayer. If prayer is spending time with a beloved and dear friend, then I also need to let God do some of the talking. But God is with us, even in the struggles as we saw last week with the temptation of Jesus.  Even Jesus was tempted. The encounter with Satan in the desert was not some staged fight like a professional wrestling match or some spectacle Celebrity Death Match put on by God who simply moves the little Claymation figures around. No. temptation was real for Jesus and it is certainly real for us. Ultimately all of the temptations (the works of the Devil, not the singing group from the 50’s!) boil down to one: getting Jesus question His identity as the Son of God. It’s about distracting Jesus, focusing Him on earthly needs and wants, on what He can’t do in His earthly weakness or can’t have in His human frame. It’s about separating Jesus from God, getting Jesus to push God off to the side even a little bit, sowing seeds of distrust, looking for comfort, security, for calm contentedness rather than the failure fraught, mission driven laser focus Jesus needs. Jesus puts each temptation down with a quote from Scripture and, ultimately a trust that God will not only be present but active and save Him.

Our temptations are no different. We don’t necessarily have the Devil poking at us.  I think sometimes that’s far too easy a copout: I didn’t do it. The Devil made me do it. We don’t need some pitchfork-carrying, horned half man, half goat to distract us.  I don’t know about you but I have gotten pretty good about allowing distraction to take over, on focusing on my needs and wants, rather than God’s will, on seeking the easy way out, or comfortable path, or the path that doesn’t take me too much out of my way and inconvenience me, the safe way (Not the Safeway in Middletown but you get the idea) the safe way that doesn’t put me too far out there, doesn’t call attention to me, or let me oppose the angry guy I’m facing or the nasty girl who’s yelling at me. No, I don’t need a devil to make me do any of those things.  I’ve become proficient if not an expert. And yet, God still calls me, still wants me, still loves me.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is prayer is our understanding of it. Most people pray only when they realize a need for something. This is great. It’s natural surely human for us to ask for help. The challenge though is that when we pray only in this way, often times it seems God has no answer or, worse, that God refused to hear us, souring us on prayer, and ultimately when it keeps happening on God. After all, why pray if it doesn’t “do anything.” The challenge, I think, though, is not in prayer itself but in our understanding of it. Prayer is not about changing God’s mind or making something happen. To do that would imply that we can manipulate God, that we can control God.  Prayer is not about that.

Prayer, very simply, is about spending time with my beloved friend and the “rules” of any friendship apply. Do you have that friend who has no time for you? That you call or text repeatedly, looking for an answer let alone some quality time? Do you have that friend that is always looking beyond your time together to the next thing he or she has planned, as if you were some interruption or a distraction from their planned day? Do you have that friend that is always “doing something” while you are with them and, while it may not be a distraction for that person, it is kind of distracting to you? Do you have that friend whose head is always elsewhere, always needing to be asked if he or she heard you? And do you have that friend that is always in need, only stops by to ask for something? Sure, each of us does this occasionally but some do it on a regular basis? Do you remember how much these people, when their usual modus operandi is to act in one of these ways, do you remember how much these people annoy you?  Well, you and I are these friends to God, but God still calls us back. God always has time for us, always has full attention on us, always listens, always responds.

Well… you’re thinking, “I was with you, Fr. Rob, until that last one. I have often prayed, and God did nothing. Nothing changed. God obviously did not respond.” I was speaking with a friend just recently who shared with me a great quote.  “God,” he said, “God always answers prayer.  Every time, every prayer, no matter how brief or confusing the prayer, no matter how it’s offered, no matter how weak the faith or imperfect the intention of the one offering the prayer. God always answers.  Sometimes the answer is “Yes.” Sometimes the answer is “Not now.” And sometimes the answer is “I have a bigger and better plan for you than what you are asking for.  Be patient with Me and with yourself. Allow me to be at work. Allow me to unfold that plan in you and for you. Trust me. I’ve got your six, and, in fact, I have your twelve, your three and your nine as well. I know it is difficult to wait, especially when you or someone you love is suffering. I did not cause the suffering, I am not punishing you, but I AM with you, I AM with in the suffering, close and present and I hear you. And remember what my friend Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28) I have called you, drawn you close, and I will not let you down.

“Rabbi, it is good that we are here…” In all of his babbling, Peter makes a very important point. “It is good that we are here…” It’s a very simple statement but it shows, despite his fear, that Peter understands, at least in part, what is happening. This simple sentence also offers great insight for us when we seek God in prayer. Like Peter, we can take for granted the way God is usually present but then become terrified when God reveals Himself in a more profound (and/ or glorious) way. “It is good that we are here…” is a great phrase for us to remember as we continue our message series on prayer. Let’s pull it apart.

The first word is “IT.” It is a pronoun but not ambiguous. In fact, the antecedent is clear, both from the context of the passage and from the statement itself. For Peter, “It” recognizes that he, along with James and John, are in God’s Presence. The Transfiguration makes it obvious as the Glory of God shines through not just the clothes of Jesus which are caught up in the transformation becoming dazzlingly white. No, the Glory of God shines from Him, from His skin, from His Body, from His very being. And if you missed that, well then you’ve got Moses and Elijah, again, Rock Stars of salvation history, talking to Him. And if you missed both of those, well then there’s still the voice of God booming from the heavens. This is my Beloved Son. Listen to Him. (Mark 9:8).

All of these leave Peter, James and John in no doubt that they are in the Presence of God. Which is why they are struck with fear. They have and will continue to struggle with the way God is present in Jesus. We take for granted that God becomes one of us and walked among us. Peter, James, John would not have done so. As good Jews, they thought of God as great, too great even to mention or to write the name of God, too holy (and too wholly other!) to think intimacy such as friendship or the relationship of a child with his or her beloved Daddy (Abba) or as Jesus would speak later, as friends with God (I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father (John 15:15).

Even you and I struggle with the reality of God’s Presence. Even understanding the reality of God as one of us, knowing the Son of God came down from heaven, took flesh and was born. He grew in grace and age and wisdom. He worked miracles, taught the Father’s love and died on the Cross. Further, we can add to that over 2,000 years of salvation history, unpacking the words and reality of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s from our private prayer, Church doctrine, biblical exegesis, sacramental celebration, or even simply trusting in God’s grace, you and I – well, I shouldn’t generalize – even with all of that, I, still struggle with intimacy with God.  Yes, I talk a great deal about God’s love for us, and I believe it with all of my heart. But the reason I so often reference it is because I so often struggle with it.  I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the God who doesn’t answer prayers as I want Him to do. I struggle with the God who makes me wait. I struggle with the God who is silent and distant.

The experience of the Transfiguration offers an insight though, by proclaiming in a way that is unambiguous, that God is present with me. Ohhh, while God does not transform the clothes I wear, or glow from the humanity of Jesus anymore, while I do not see Moses or Elijah (or Peter, James and John who also became salvation history rock stars in their own right), while do not I hear the voice of the Father booming over my internal sound system or even coming through Alexa, I know God is profoundly present, unambiguously, even as I struggle with the mundane and ordinary ways God is present. No, it may not be as immediate or as dramatic as the Transfiguration, but they are the words of God Himself: “See, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) God is not a liar. God does not abandon me, nor leave me to my own devices. God has promised and God remains. And that tells me unambiguously that God is present even if I struggle with how. That is what “It” means.

“It is good that we are here.” Secondly, notice the verbs are in the present tense. Now, in this moment, God is present. God’s glory shines through. No matter what happened before this and no matter what happens next, God is present with me, ready to do all of the things God promised in the Old Testament, and then directly from Jesus, and then after the Resurrection and Pentecost, through the Church. God seeks to heal and to comfort and to console, to strengthen and to guide, to form and help. In other words, right back to God seeks to love us. Think about it for a moment, God draws close, God comes near, with all of His power, in all gentleness, with his mighty hand and outstretched arm. God reveals Himself to us in this moment, not making us wait, not challenging us to be better, to get our act together before He comes.

But God’s undeniable Presence in the given moment also present a challenge for us. It’s something that Peter realizes as he asks Jesus if they should construct three tents. Peter wants to keep this great thing going, this assurance of God’s presence, this tangible, visible sign of God’s presence.  Peter knows that he struggles, knows that he questions and lacks faith at times. So, he wants to keep this ace in the hole. But even before He’s finished asking the question, the moment has passed. Everything is back to normal and they are even told to tell no one. This is the challenge of faith. Often, God lacks tangible reminders. Often, God is quiet and not apparent. It doesn’t mean that God is apparent but there are no strong reminders like the Transfiguration. Rather, as God meets with us, we are reminded that God is always present. We need only believe that: “It is good that we are here.”

Now, let’s move on to the next word: “good.” I don’t think I need to spend a great deal of time here but I think first it is necessary to point out that Peter doesn’t say it is “nice” that we are here. It is GOOD.Masks, social distancing, medicine in general and certainly, for me, exercise are all GOOD but not nice, not comfortable, not pleasant. Sometimes we chafe and what is good for us, struggle to accept it, and seek to return to what is comfortable, or NICE. Further, “good” always involves sacrifice, sometimes a little but sometimes a great deal. That’s why it’s important to remember that prayer, being together with God, is GOOD even if it is not nice, even if it is a pain in the botox, even if it is inconvenient or challenging, when it is long and dull and dry, when it seems that God is at least distant if not wholly absent. This is why we cannot think of prayer as time spent to get something out of it, an activity that will “provide a reward” of increased calm, stronger faith, or better results. No. we need to recognize that prayer is GOOD, it involves our sacrifice of time and will. It is important to remember that prayer is gift I give to God, rather than something that will result in God giving me whatever I want. “It is GOOD that we are here.”

Next, let look at “we.” “It is good that WE are here.” Peter indicates the plural recognize that it is not just he who is present, not even just he and James and John that are present. No. He recognize that he is with God, that God has come to him, that, despite the glory of God that terrifies and throws him down to the ground, he, Peter, is in the God’s presence. Peter directed the phrase to Jesus by speaking a title: “Rabbi” Rabbi means teacher or master an honored title given to one who teaches and directs a way of life. When Peter speaks to Jesus, it’s clear that the plural involves the two of them together. That’s “we:” a God willing to empty everything and come to us and of our willingness to be with God.

“It is good that we are HERE.” Lastly in the phrase, is the word “here.” Again, we know from context that this has a host of meanings, most of which we have already covered: here, meaning together, here meaning with each other, here in the Presence of God, here as God works a miracle. But there is also a specificity that is important to understand for our prayer. “Here” recognizes that we have a body, that we can only be in one place at a time, that we must operate from that one place.

For us, though, “here,” is about more than physical location. “Here” is about the space, both literally and figuratively, that allow us to encounter God in prayer. First think practically and literally about your “here.” Where is a good location for you to spend time in prayer? My sister used to say that when her kids were young, the only time she had to herself was in the shower. Makes for high water bills but you get the idea.  Your “here” should be a place that minimizes distractions and maximizes your ability to concentrate. Perhaps it’s a space in your home, or, when the weather’s nicer, in your garden or yard. Can you be alone there, even if only briefly. How comfortable is the chair? It needs to be comfortable enough so that it’s not a distraction but not so comfortable that you will fall asleep. What’s the temperature in the room? If it’s too warm, I fall asleep. What’s around you? A candle helps me to focus and I like to have some pictures of the saints but too many things can be a distraction for me. Is the space quiet enough? Do you have some music playing in the background?

Next think figuratively about your “here.” What is the best time of day for you to pray? When is your head most clear and you are able to concentrate on offering God your time? For me, if I don’t pray in the morning, then all God gets is me snoring at night. I try to pray first thing, usually sitting in the chapel at the rectory with a cup of coffee.  The chapel is a luxury that I have come really to appreciate. When I arrived, I dedicated some space to a chapel.  It has moved since then but has settled in what was the formal dining room of the house.  Since I rarely used that room for meals (there is an eat in part of the kitchen that is just like a dining room), I took the dining room furniture out. A friend of mine, a carpenter, made an altar and a tabernacle. I’ve got my rocking chair in there. A rocking chair is perfect for me: it’s comfortable but doesn’t allow me to fall asleep (most days!). In the chapel the only visible clock is behind me, added only when we started broadcasting from there during the pandemic. If I can see a clock, then I am wholly consumed by how slowly the second hand seems to move. It’s even worse if there is no second hand and I have to stare at the even more slowly moving minute hand. I put Alexa in there and tell her to set a time for however long I have to spend. It’s a small thing, and I should be better at just not looking at the clock, but I know myself and what works: no clock!

Ultimately, your “here” should reflect whatever will help you know and be comfortable in the presence of God, with allowing God to come to you, in accepting what God wants to give you and in following God’s will. Peter, James, and John were caught unawares and had to respond on the fly. You and I, however, we can be prepared. Jesus is always prepared to meet us as we will see next week.

Our special guest stars, our saints that can help unpack all of this a little bit more are two of the characters prominently involved: James and John. James and John are brothers, sons of Zebedee, fishermen called by Jesus. sons of thunder. They are attracted to Jesus and follow Him eagerly. They leave their nets and their father behind to do so. But, even as the some of the closest and best friends of Jesus, they don’t always get it. They are distracted by ambition and a desire for earthly power, asking Jesus for places in the Kingdom at His right and His left (Mark 10:35-45). Matthew, in his gospel, tries to soften their ambition and puts this request in the mouths of their mother. After all, who doesn’t want the best for their children. But they also want to use power to force the good. When a Samaritan village rejects Jesus, James and John want to call down fire from heave and destroy the town. (You can understand why Mark calls them “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17)). Certainly, this would be easier and would make the rest of the towns fall in line. Jesus will not stoop to force, to overwhelming anyone through might and rebukes James and John. Then Jesus leads them toward Jerusalem where He will suffer and die on the Cross. But James and John will learn, especially through their repeated encounters with Jesus, to put ambition and earthly power aside. John, the youngest of the Apostles, will be the only Apostles to stand at the foot of the Cross, remaining with Jesus and receiving from Jesus Mary as his mother and ours. Traditionally, John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr’s death and lived on the island of Patmos (current day Greece). There he became very old and very frail, speaking only and always of the gentle love of Jesus. Tradition also holds that James preached the gospel in Spain, as well as in the Holy Land. He would become head of the Christian community in Jerusalem. After his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa, his disciples carried his body by sea to Iberia, where they landed at Padrón on the coast of Galicia, then took it inland for burial at Santiago de Compostela.

And all of that is why there is no wrong way to pray. In fact, there are many ways one can pray, even in the same day, moved by mood or situation or challenge, guided by Peter, It is good that we are here.” Whatever allows you to sacrifice time and effort, energy and will to pray, is a help. Whatever doesn’t, let it go. Don’t let yourself (or worse yet, God!) be boxed into one way of praying. Allow God to fill your heart and your time, however much you offer, with the love and delight God takes in you.

Take time to figure out literally what’s a good place for your “here” the physical location where you can encounter God. Then, take time to figure out figuratively what your “here” is. What’s the best time of day? How will you minimize distractions and maximize concentration? How do you set your mind and your heart at ease? How do you best focus on the ultimate goal of placing yourself in God’s presence and remembering that God wants to spend time with you. Jesus is always prepared to meet us as we will see next week.

Take some time this week, to reflect on our Gospel. Seek the presence of God. Remember that any time, all time you give to prayer is good, a gift to God. The distractions will be there to put something else first, to get distracted, to move God to a secondary place, to focus on the immediate challenge and our fear, to demand a certain outcome, to questions God’s presence. Don’t be stymied by distraction but keep bringing your mind and heart back to God, back to the duty of prayer. All of these were distractions for Jesus even as for us. Take some time this week to try to pray, thinking not of what you need to do or what you will get out of it. Rather, concentrate on offering something to God. Even now.

Use what I call the 7/7 rule: Take 7 minutes each day over the next 7 days to pray. Objectively, it’s not a long time and surely you can find it. Spend the first minute telling God where you are, and the last-minute asking God for what you need. But leave the 5 minutes in between for God. Allow God to delight in you, strengthen you. I guarantee you that God will make use of the time you offer if you can focus on your offer rather than the reward. Together, let us pray for one another and for all those who will come to encounter Christ during this Lent. Pray that, through the intercession of Saint Joseph they might be cared for and watched over by the God who loves us and draws us close.

Peace,

Even Now… Week 1

If you are the Son of God…”
– Matthew 4:3, 5

My Dear Friends in Christ,

Get ready to rumble!! These were the opening words for the most important matches of the WWF (World Wrestling Foundation). Back in the 80s (a decade for great music if unsatisfying cultural references in other areas), when I was just a wee lad, professional wrestling became quite the thing. It was a whole universe unto itself: a full cast of larger-than-life characters, outlandish fights in overacted situations. It was obviously staged, some would even say faked, but it attracted millions of viewers both on television and in person. Honestly, I never saw the attraction, but it continues to this day (although in a less garish way), and it did lead to a cynical satire on MTV. Called Celebrity Death Matches, these short segments were often aired as filler between music videos (when MTV actually played videos!). Each “match” was a Claymation depiction of an imagined boxing match between two famous (or infamous) characters from the news of the day. These would “fight” each other hyperbolizing the loud, overstated but underhanded dastardly ways of professional wrestling. Now, I know you’re thinking, “What the heck is he talking about?!!??” but I ask you to bear with me. I often think of professional wrestling when I think of this Gospel today of Jesus being tempted in the desert. Too many people relegate the temptation of Jesus in the desert as a Celebrity Death Match, a fake fight, created by God, manipulated like Claymation figures, for in this case “info-tainment.” Or perhaps they think of it as something like the Main Event at World Wrestling Foundation Match of the Century: a pre-staged match more real than the clay but with fighters that are only acting, the outcome predetermined, and the victory is assured! Sadly, this understanding relieves this account of the great gift and insight it could be for us. It takes away the real temptations Jesus faced and the real strength He needed to fight them off. More than that, this viewpoint doesn’t help to prepare us for the temptations that we face, that God seeks to help us overcome. And that’s the real lesson…

Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart… return to the LORD, your God… [who is]  gracious and merciful… slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. (See Joel 12:1-2) These very first words of Lent remind us what Lent is truly all about: that God loves us, that God is willing to accept us no matter where we are or where we’ve been, no matter how distant or separated we’ve felt, no matter how tired or angry.  And in Jesus Christ, we see that God not only accepts us coming back to HIM. Much more, God comes out to us and offers us this sacred season of Lent to get to know one another better, for God to show me that I am a beloved daughter, a beloved son, a delight, that I am cared for, supported, cherished… LOVED. And this begins in earnest today.

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:4) It’s a fantastic story, the first celebrity death match, long, long before it was a thing on MTV. Jesus squares off against the devil in the center ring. And the devil leaves his corner pulling no punches. For a very insightful and readable explanation of the Temptation in the desert, I recommend that you read Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict. It’s an excellent insight into this passage and very helpful for your spirituality.

 First, let’s look at the context. Jesus rises from the Jordan River, newly baptized by John. Suddenly, there is a sign from heaven: After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened… and… the Spirit of God descending like a dove [and] coming upon him. And a voice… from the heavens… “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 3:16-17) Jesus is revealed as the Beloved Son of the Father by the Holy Spirit who descends like a dove and, indeed, the very voice of God directly.

And immediately following this revelation, Jesus is sent by the Spirit into the desert. Jesus needs time, space to reflect on who God is and how God works, space from the demands of daily life, quiet amid the chaos that can consume time before we know it’s gone. So, Jesus goes into the desert to spend some quiet time with his beloved Father. And, perhaps like you, certainly like me, he is immediately met by the devil who seeks to draw him away, to separate him from the Father, and to keep him in the midst of that chaos.

Tell these stones to become loaves of bread. (Matthew 4:3). Jesus has spent 40 days in the desert, forgoing the distractions of food or water, focusing only on God and the Father’s love. And so, the devil tempts Jesus to use God’s power, perform a magic trick to relieve his bodily discomfort. After all, shouldn’t the Messiah, the anointed of God be able to feed the hungry? Shouldn’t Jesus relive the suffering of those in the world? God fed the Israelites in the desert when they were hungry… if Jesus is God’s son then why not do something like that. Jesus refuses. As important as food is, there is something more important: one’s relationship with God. After all, when the time comes, Jesus will create bread not from stones but by multiplying 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed 5,000 and then again, Jesus will feed his disciples at the Last Supper, offering Himself as Bread for the world.  Jesus makes it clear: simple hunger, as devastating as it can be, cannot separate one who has faith from God: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Stymied, the devil changes tactics: “…throw yourself down from this parapet of the Temple…see if God saves you. (Matthew 4:5-6). The sacred Temple was the dwelling place of God, where all good Jews made a pilgrimage to be with God. The Devil takes Jesus where holiness enfolds and one is able to know, depend on God. Once there, he pushes Jesus to provoke an artificial crisis to force God into visible action. And further, the Devil tempts Jesus quoting Scripture, better to say misquoting: God will command the angels to support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone. But Jesus knows full well that’s not how God works. Testing God, asking for immediate material signs of God’s help and love, demonstrates a lack of trust in God, a scarcity of faith. True faith doesn’t need a crisis for God to demonstrate His power. True faith is taking joy in God’s Presence, knowing God’s close no matter the situation, no matter what God does, or NOT, in any situation. And in fact, on the Cross, Jesus will take this leap of faith, now figurative but no less profound and demanding, trusting only in God, even and especially when it seems that God has abandoned him. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit…(Luke 23:46). Jesus, aware that one’s trust in God is not returned by parlor tricks, shows with absolute definitiveness where he stands: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.

Once more, the Devil hasn’t won but He’s saved his best temptation for last: transporting Jesus to the greatest earthly height, showing AND offering, the very best the world has to offer: riches, power, wealth, possessions, and, perhaps even more importantly the control, domination, and security they seem to provide on earth. All these I shall give to you, if you…worship me. (Matthew 4:8-9) Isn’t this the very mission of the Messiah, to use all things for God’s glory and gather them all to God? It seems that the Devil is just trying to make Jesus’s job easy. Actually, the Devil wants Jesus to forget who He is, wants to get between Jesus and the Father, wants to question, even thwart Jesus’ faith in God alone. Instead, the Devil offers immediate gratification, focusing on creature comforts and earthly control rather than purity of faith and belief in and worship of God ALONE. The Devil offers worldly power over the powerlessness of faith, over the earthly powerlessness of Jesus.

The Devil wants to shift Jesus’ focus from eternal salvation to the difficulty at hand, to shrink all time to the trial of this present moment, offering anything Jesus could need to and overcome this obstacle. Jesus responds with a short and incisive command: Get away, Satan, (Matthew 4:10) naming the tempter for the first time: “Satan”, that is, ‘Adversary’ or ‘Enemy’ the death seeking opposition to God’s life-giving designs for our salvation. Jesus choses not earthly power but God’s power, love over domination, gentleness over brute force, not an easy choice to make or defend in His day (a world that seeks to have Barrabas released instead of Jesus), or in ours (a world that would rather storm the Capitol than accept defeat.

As the Lord suffers temptation after temptation, he peels away the layers of sly disguise and reveals evil for what it is. Jesus counters the specificity of evil with the specificity of Good. Every temptation is met with trust in God, a reminder that my life and my faith are based in God, bigger than this or any challenge, suffering, or difficulty. Jesus perseveres in His identity, continuing to trust in God, bringing every temptation and spiritual crisis back to one central principle: God alone!

It’s why Satan qualifies each temptation: If you are the Son of God… (Words that we’ll hear again as Jesus hangs on the Cross and is mocked by the passers-by. With these words, Satan offers Jesus an identity that is far easier than the primary one Jesus is experiencing as God’s Son. Satan offers an identity that has no suffering and makes no demands, or at least, makes demands that we can accept (like “Worship me.”) over those that are troubling us (the challenge at hand whether it is the death of a loved one, the sickness of child, a loss of income, unemployment, addiction, persecution). The Devil wants to substitute the faith of Jesus, uncertain, challenging, untested, only future rewards, for the immediate earthly security of food, comfort, wealth and domination.

You and I, each one of us is, like Jesus a child of God. What Jesus was by nature, we share by baptism. God has called each of us: You are my beloved Daughter. You are my beloved Son. The Devil, Satan, the tempter is challenging us too, more subtly than with Jesus but no less really, challenging us with the current moment, to THINK about who God is and How God works. But the Devil wants us to focus only on our immediate wants and desires, on the apparent absence of God if we don’t get what we want or if we experience suffering, on what we think we need to live our lives rather than trusting in God to give us everything to get us through. Think, the Devil says, and be dismayed, focus on what you don’t have and can’t do, on the God you can’t trust. God doesn’t love you. How could He? Jesus wants us to focus on God: who God is and how God works; not on our needs but on God who provides; to focus on trusting God rather than testing no matter the situation; to focus on God’s will even when we struggle, when we’re imperfect and incomplete rather than on earthly power and wealth and the security they provide. Think not of the world, but of God.

What a great message as we go through these challenging times for our world with a still raging pandemic and struggling economy, for our nation divided by vitriol and hatred, for our pastorate challenged by the need for change and the call to discern God’s will, to see where God is calling us to go, rather than remaining where we feel comfortable, and, perhaps especially for us, so exhausted by a year of lockdown, of being closed in, of Zoom Meetings and social distancing, of seeing too little of some people and too much of others! Yes, thinking of, focusing on, trusting in God and not the world is a great message. It is not easy. Certainly NOT. But not impossible. And that’s where prayer comes in.

People are surprised, or they think I am kidding when I say that prayer is one of the hardest things I do all day. A thousand things seem more urgent, chaos intervenes and disrupts my perfectly planned day, and on top of all that from the outside, there is my own feelings of dryness, of boredom, of anguish and anger: after all, why waste time on something that produces no fruit and offers no return. It is at precisely this moment that I need to remember my primary identity: God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased, pleased not because I am perfect (certainly not) or because I do all the right things and avoid the bad one (certainly I try but I’ve often failed even before I get up, let alone by the time I fall asleep at night. No. God is delighted by me, pleased with me because God created me and sees in me: the Robbie I can be rather than the Robbie I am.

And this is the message I need to know, that the God who seeks to spend time with me is not the finger wagging judge. In fact, God comes not to judge or berate or belittle but to console and comfort and strengthen. It is true, that I may not “get anything out of it right now” that it does not bear fruit immediately, that God does not answer prayers the way I want him to, or in the time frame I give him. But none of that means it’s a waste of my time. It is time given to God, a gift offered to the Beloved, even if imperfectly crafted and incompletely finished. Any parent can tell you that he or she would much prefer the hand-made, if simple, even primitive gift over the sleek store-bought item of the highest quality. It IS about the effort and the love behind the gift, far more than perfection, about the way the gift is offered rather than the perfectly place end result. This is why we pray, why God calls us back to him and it’s why we have Mother Teresa of Calcutta as our special guest star this week.

“If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” (Mother Teresa of Calcutta) I used to watch Mother Teresa and be in awe of the good works she would do, the gentle way that she did them, her unspeakable courage and perseverance in asking for, even demanding what she needed to do God’s work. I used to assume that her ability to do all of this was fed by her prayer, assumed that her service was grounded in prayer, that her prayer seemed to feed her and focus her on serving the other. And keep her going when challenged from within or without.

I was shocked to learn after her death of the spiritual darkness she encountered.  Shortly after she arrived in India, about the time she left her religious community, unable she said to step over another person dying in the gutter, called by God to serve the poorest of the poor, at that time, THAT TIME WHEN SHE WAS MOST VULNERABLE, she began to feel the absence of God.  Imagine for a moment, not the self-assured octogenarian who did not hesitate to be pushy, (always for God but still very, very pushy) not the later in life Mother Superior but the newly arrived religious sister, called once again to leave everything she knew behind to go where God asked, to do what God wanted and as she takes this leap, God seems to abandon here.

According to her letters and other writings, and according to her spiritual directors and the bishops she served, her prayer becomes dead, dark, filled with despair, a daily struggle becoming a lifetime challenge. All of this only known after she died, the reality and how deep and deeply shocking. Over and over, she would beg her spiritual directors or the bishops for help, for any insight or practical wisdom that would help her weather what John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. Yet, in all of that she was still faithful: every day she would spend at least an hour in quiet meditation before the blessed sacrament, every day went to Mass, every day prayed all of the Liturgy of the Hours. And if there was something joyous like a particular feast, or if she had a question of discernment, or if she or the community were facing a particular challenge she would pray more, more time in quiet prayer, more time with the community. And throughout most of it, this was her most difficult time of the day, the most painful, the most taxing, the most hurtful because God never came, like Jesus on the Cross, God seemed to have abandoned her. Yet still she was faithful, always going to pray, always willing to devote the time to prayer, to offer this gift to her beloved Father. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read the book of her letters regarding this spiritual darkness.  I must admit that it is heavy reading and I started and stopped for several years before I could get through it. In fact, it was only in one of my most difficult moments that I could read and appreciate her situation and her willingness to help me.

This is why she spoke of being a saint in darkness, that when we struggle to pray, when are worn out, when we are afraid, alone, discouraged and despairing, she has promised to be with us, to intercede for us. And you know, when she asked, people gave, even if only to get rid of her, so persistent was she.  She will use that force to be with you and to interceded with God. Then, even then God can draw you close, even now.

Take some time this week, to reflect on our Gospel. Remember that Jesus was fully human. Although his responses to the Devil are concise, stylized, and immediate in the Gospel these were still temptations for Jesus: to put something else first, to get distracted, to move God to a secondary place, to focus on the immediate challenge and our fear, to demand a certain outcome, to questions God’s presence. All of these were distractions for Jesus even as for us. Take some time this week to try to pray, thinking not of what you need to do or what you will get out of it. Rather, concentrate on offering something to God: the time and space to delight in you. Use what I call the 7/7 rule: Take 7 minutes each day over the next 7 days to pray. Objectively it is not a long time and surely you can find it. Spend the first minute telling God where you are, and the last minute asking God for what you need. But leave the 5 minutes in between for God. Allow God to delight in you, strengthen you. I guarantee you that God will make use of the time you offer if you can focus on your offer rather than the reward. Together, let us pray for one another and for all those who will come to encounter Christ during this Lent. Pray that, through the intercession of Saint Joseph they might be cared for and watched over by the God who loves us and draws us close.

Peace,

 

 

Ash Wednesday

“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your GOD. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”
– Joel 2:12-13

My Dear Friends in Christ,

BEST LENT EVER!! Hard to believe, tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday. Lent intimidates me: 40 dark days of sacrifice adding to my usual winter blah’s. But this year, God wants something different, SOMETHING MORE FOR YOU and FOR ME. God wants us to have the BEST LENT EVER: God offers us a time of blessing and grace to come back to God… even now. Rather than see simply a somber sojourn of sacrifice, allow this Lent to be an epic encounter with Jesus Christ bring you God’s love. No matter where we are or where we’ve been, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, no matter how distant we’ve become or how indifferent and separated we’ve felt, God wants us close, not to judge or challenge or berate, but to love and comfort and console. Your Father who sees in secret will repay every effort and opportunity you allow. Yes, sacrifice is important as is evidenced by the millennia old traditions of the Church involving prayer, fasting, and charity that Jesus lays out in the Ash Wednesday gospel.

To allow that encounter, to experience God’s love, let alone to revel in it, quiet, meditative prayer is essential. You know as well as I that prayer is almost always difficult, and sometimes, even seems impossible. Our Lenten Message Series, “Even Now…” takes up this challenge and focuses on prayer: how we can encounter Jesus Christ; how we can allow God to love and strengthen us; how we can know and operate from the delight God takes in us and the identity that gives us. We’ll explore ways to start and deepen a prayer life using the Lenten readings, especially the Gospels, which show us the very heart of Jesus Christ. We’ll also use the saints from the rich tradition of the Church to help us the love God has for us and God’s desire to draw us close. We’ll start tomorrow with Saint Joseph, Foster Father of Jesus and Patron of the Universal Church. Joseph was one who struggled to discern God’s call, understand where God was leading him, and trust God enough to go where he was called. Just this past December, our Holy Father called for a special year of celebration of Saint Joseph 150 years after he was proclaimed Patron of the Universal Church.

Make a Lenten commitment now to join us throughout this season as we search for ways to encounter and welcome Christ through prayer so that, at Easter, we can look beyond the empty tomb (He is not there!) to find Him right here among us…  He has been raised…

Start that commitment tomorrow. Come and receive ashes as a way to mark you (literally!) you and your beginning this time of grace. We distribute ashes in a safe, socially distant way, using single use cotton swab to mark the forehead. Just drive up any time between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to the main entrance of Holy Family and roll down your driver-side window.  We’ll impose Ashes and you can be on your way without ever getting out of your car. I’ll also be available for the Sacrament of Reconciliation during those times as well (save for from 9:00 a.m. – 10:15: a.m. when I’ll be saying Mass). If weather permits, I’ll be outside; if not, I’ll be in the Saint Joseph Chapel.  We’ll also re-broadcast at 7:00 p.m. the morning Mass on our website.

Let us pray for one another during this season of Lent, that each of us all of us may come to know and welcome Christ more profoundly as we seek to share God’s love with one another and the whole world. In this way, we can make it the BEST LENT EVER!!

Peace,

Joyful in Hope

“Rejoice in Hope, Endure in Affliction, Preserve in Prayer.” 
– Romans 12:12

Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
– 1 Corinthians 10:31

My Dear Friends in Christ,

Leprosy was not simply an illness. It was a life sentence handed down to protect the health of the community from a dreaded contagion. Lepers were victims of far more than the disease itself. The disease robbed them of their health, and the resulting sentence imposed, robbed them of their humanity. They had no name, occupation, habits, family, fellowship, or worshiping community. They were reduced to their disease and their existence reduced to keep it from spreading. Other illnesses had to be healed, but leprosy had to be cleansed. To ensure against contact with society, lepers were required to make their appearance as repugnant as possible.

The offense of the leper’s action, then is immediately apparent. Rather than standing off at a distance, the leper approaches and compromises Jesus’ ritual cleanliness. The leper risks everything, breaking both law and custom, on the chance of being healed and restored by Jesus. No obstacle, not even the decrees of the Torah itself, prevents him from coming to Jesus. His obsequious approach and posture, begging Jesus on his knees, “ ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’ ” Such a cry betrays his long, humiliating suffering of his affliction but also contains the beginnings of faith that Jesus can save him.The leper does not question Jesus’ ability to save, only His willingness. The leper’s longing is profoundly human; we don’t question God’s ability. We only doubt God’s willingness to work a miracle for us.

Surprisingly, the response of Jesus is no less scandalous than the leper’s audacity. In the face of such an intrusion, the observant Jew should recoil in protection and defense. With Jesus, though, compassion replaces contempt. Rather than turning from the leper, Jesus turns to him; indeed, he touches him, bringing himself into full contact with physical and ritual untouchability. The outstretched arm of Jesus is a long reach for his day… and for ours. It removes the social, physical, and spiritual separations prescribed by the Torah and custom alike. The touch of Jesus speaks more loudly than his words; and the words of Jesus touch the leper more deeply than any act of human love. Jesus is not only able but desirous: “ ‘I am willing,’ ” he says, “ ‘be clean.’ ” Unlike an ordinary rabbi, Jesus is not polluted by the leper’s disease; rather, the leper is cleansed and healed by Jesus’ contagious holiness.

And this is a great image for us as we celebrate the opportunity to spread the holiness of Christ that Jesus showed to the leper. In just a moment, you’re going to see how we can participate in the Annual Appeal for Catholic Ministries. Like leprosy, poverty, injustice, and ignorance can beat a person down and wear him or her out. These can batter a person over and over again, making it difficult not only to take care of one’s family but also to have hope for the future.

Through the Annual Appeal, we can share in the efforts of Jesus to reach out in so many areas. The Annual Appeal helps us to proclaim the Gospel of Life and uphold the dignity of each and every human life, including and especially those thought by others to be unworthy. The Appeal does this by funding our Respect Life Office, the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, Special Education & Inclusion Programs, camps for those with special needs, ministry to those with disabilities, and those facing life challenging pregnancies before and after birth through Crisis Pregnancy Centers and Maternity Homes.

The Annual Appeal also provides care and services to our neighbors in need through Catholic Charities, the largest provider of care in the state save for the Federal Government. More, St. Vincent de Paul, Prison Ministry, Black Catholic Ministries, Hispanic Ministries, and Apostleship of the Sea also provide of community and faith-based services to people suffering from the effects of hunger, homelessness, and poverty in the Archdiocese, including right here in our own pastorate.

The Annual Appeal also provides programs for our young people in areas such as vocations, retreats, faith formation, Youth Ministry and College Campus Ministry. The Annual Appeal also funds tuition assistance for our Catholic Schools, including those here in our region. Beyond these programs featured on the young, the Annual Appeal also funds the Offices of Pastoral Planning and of Evangelization, both of which serve as important resources for us and for other parishes.

The Annual appeal also provides much needed funds for our clergy, including hospital Chaplains, retired priests, and priests needing special attention. The Annual Appeal assists with priest wellness, helping cover the costs of a priest’s medical leave or educational leave to pursue advanced studies. These gifts help to ensure that those of us serving in parishes and schools can be cared for even in times of uncertainty. (As I was when I had my emergency surgery just before coming to Holy Family in 2010). In addition to all of that, a portion of Appeal funds is forwarded to the Holy See to serve the mission and future of the universal Church as our Holy Father envisions them.

Please take a moment to watch this video that helps explain the Appeal and the many ways we can help spread the love and concern of Jesus Christ for those in need. And take some time to learn about the Appeal here.

And when you give to the Annual Appeal through our Pastorate, you will also be helping the Frederick Area Family Shelter for the Homeless. As you may know, there are several shelters in our area to help the homeless. They cannot, however, house families together resulting in homeless families being separated if they need accommodations. There is a family shelter for Frederick County but it’s currently operating out of church halls and basements. They have recently purchased a large, abandoned building that they are going to rehab to serve as a family shelter able to accommodate the whole family together. While they are staying at the shelter, families can work on what they need to do to get back on their feet. The pandemic has revealed a number of fissures in our economy and we are seeing more and more people and families suffering from the difficult economy right here in our own area. part of every dollar that you give comes back to us and we are earmarking it for our outreach efforts right here in our area.

Thanks for taking the time to be part of this campaign. It’s important for us as a pastorate community to participate and I ask every household to share in this endeavor to follow the example of Christ in our Gospel today. I know some of you have reservations about giving to the Archdiocese. The money raised through this campaign does not go to the general budget but goes directly to help the causes I’ve listed. As disciples of Jesus Christ, these are necessary areas that demand your attention and deserve your help. I myself give to the Appeal every year because I know the great, good work that is done through the funds raised. I, for one, am very grateful for the easier opportunity to give online this year because I often forget requiring the Archdiocese to send reminder after reminder.

Again, I ask each member of our pastorate to make a gift, no matter the size. Every gift, no matter how large or how small, helps us to serve our sisters and brothers in need. May God bless you always for your generosity.

Peace,

Come and You Will See – Week 4

Rising very early before dawn, Jesus left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus told them, “Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there, also. For this purpose have I come.” 
Mark 1:35-39

 

My Dear Friends in Christ,

“Phil?  Phil? Phil Conners? I thought that was you… Now don’t tell me don’t remember me because I sure as heck fire remember you. Ned…  Ryerson!?    Needle-nosed Ned?!! Ned the head…?!! Come on, Buddy, Case Western High!!??  Ned Ryerson… did the whistling belly button trick at the high school talent show?  Bing! Ned Ryerson… got the shingles real bad in senior – year almost didn’t graduate? Bing Again!! Ned Ryerson!!!? I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple times until you told me not to anymore… Bing!! Am I right or am I right or am I right?? Right?? Right?? Right?? Whooooohoooo!! Watch out for that first step is a doozy!” – Groundhog Day, 1993

Those with any class or taste at all, and even some with no class at all, will certainly recognize that introduction. It’s a scene in the tiny but infamous town of Punxsutawney, PA on the day that gives them their claim to fame, a day we just celebrated this past week: February 2nd, Groundhog Day. And these words came from the beloved cult classic of a movie starring Bill Murray. Murray plays an acerbic, sarcastic Phil Conners, big city weatherman assigned to cover Groundhog Day in, as he calls it, the hick filled town of Punxsutawney. Stranded by the blizzard he had predicted would pass over the area without impact, Phil is forced to relive the worst day of his life over and over and over again.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this movie, how everyday seems to be the same. COVID has kept so many of us inside, away from office or school and regular schedule. Many days seem a repeat of the one before. Admittedly, some days, I’m tempted, like Job in our first reading, to write them off as drudgery, a check mark until my end comes like a weaver’s shuttle, fast and furious, (even if there are so many sequels!). Truth be told, most are neither fast nor furious, just drudgery. I struggle on those days to avoid falling into the rut of letting another pass by with little to show, save a turn of the calendar.

God wants so much more for us, not just from us but for us than a day of drudgery, even in this pandemic, which has helped me to face this and realize it and at least start to do something about it. I’ve said it before in this past year, God does not want us to return to normal, meaning our lives as they were before COVID. No. God wants us to use this time to see the opportunities we have so that we can establish a new normal, based on the teachings and the live and the example of Jesus Christ, an opportunity, as Saint Paul says in our second reading, to preach the Gospel.

Over the past few weeks, our message series, Come and You Will See! has been focused on the most basic aspects of our faith and the call we share as a community:  our individual relationship to and belief in Jesus Christ, and the call Jesus has given us to make disciples. Remember Andrew and his unnamed friend? Both are disciples of John the Baptist, going about their daily lives but also looking for something more. There’s an unfilled ache in their hearts, not enough to upend their lives, but there is a tug to something more.

So, when they encounter Jesus, they start to follow but only hesitantly, unsure, unwilling to commit themselves to more than following from a distance. Jesus accepts that, accepts them where they are and, rather than trying to explain anything to them, he simply invites them to join Him: Come and You will see. Jesus invites them to draw closer, to come along with Him. Accepting this invitation changes Andrew’s heart and life. Immediately, he runs to his brother, Simon: “We have found the Messiah.” Simon, his brother, friend and business partner had probably spent hours talking while waiting for the fish to bite. Jesus receives Simon, with the same love and acceptance, and gives Simon a new name. Andrew and the newly named Peter are forever changed by the encounter. Then, we heard the formal call of Jesus for Andrew and Peter, James and John. It’s only after they have encountered Jesus, been with Him, understand enough to experience something special, something important even if they are not sure what that is.

They’ve been listening to Jesus, talking with Him, sharing faith and hope and dreams, discussing the promise of salvation. And from that relationship, Jesus calls them to a twofold mission: to follow and to fish. As Jesus makes clear right from the start, this call, while personal to each of them, is not private, not to be hidden, not to be savored or exercised individually. His call for them is essentially tied up with serving others, sharing with others the Good News. Jesus did all this using terms they could understand and held dear: fishing for others.

And last week we began to see what “fishing” means. Jesus went into the synagogue and astonished the people by teaching as one having authority, not like the scribes… A new teaching with authority. There was a newness in the teaching of Jesus, yes, a new method, a personal authority, coming from his own personal relationship with God. The greater newness came in the content of that teaching. 

Jesus was not focused on the law, on the rules, on what made a person unclean or not. Jesus was focused on the love God had for Him as a beloved Son and on sharing with everyone and anyone that same close bond of gentle yet awesomely powerful love. We saw last week that Jesus teaches and brings the love of God not just by speaking content or offering doctrine; His authority moves beyond mere words or concepts. Jesus takes on the demon in the celebrity death match of the century and wins hands down, not only silencing the demon but also healing the man possessed.

What Jesus teaches is how Jesus heals and who Jesus is: the breaking in of God’s kingdom, a tangible human reminder and effector of God’s love, the start of a new kingdom, in this world but not of it, using not brute force or domination, using not power, fame money or deception, but  a kingdom born of God’s love for us. And that’s the mission Jesus starts, practically, in today’s Gospel.

Jesus comes out of the synagogue and immediately starts putting into practice what He had taught verbally only moments before. It’s healing people starting with Peter’s mother-in-law who gets right up and starts to serve. On a side note, notice that there is no recorded response of Peter, as biblical scholars are not sure whether Peter thought this was a good thing or not.

All kidding aside, Jesus begins to demonstrate in all kinds of healing that the Presence of God, the love of God, changes things, changes people, changes hearts. He cures illnesses, drives out demons, holds hands and in all cases, draws people back into the community into the very heart of God. And this is not just some parlor trick to appease the locals or placating the home crowd to leave Him alone. Jesus makes it clear that it’s for everyone, that the same love of which He speaks, the love which heals and transforms, the love He shares in service to others, is for the other towns as well, for all the towns.

But, before they move on, Jesus needs to make a pit stop, not for gas or to pop into the loo, but to recharge His spiritual batteries. Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. His relationship with the Father is the heart of Jesus. It’s what drives Him, sustains Him, recharges Him, and it is a cultivated one. It’s important to note that Jesus does not take this relationship for granted. Rather He is attentive to it, develops it, seeks to deepen it. Remember the time the 12-year-old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem? Mary and Joseph had to run back to search for Jesus, and after three days, find Him in the Temple discussing God with the chief priests and the scholars: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Such a 12-year-old answer from a child obsessed, a child still being formed, still learning about how his actions affect other people.

Then today, as we will see many other times, Jesus goes off by Himself to pray. It’s especially true before big decisions or moments in His earthly life: at the start of His ministry with time in the desert (we’ll hear about that in a couple of weeks in the first week of Lent); before choosing and calling the Apostles; and, most profoundly before His Passion and death.  There, we even hear the words He prays: Father, take this cup from me but your will not mine be done.

It is these moments with His heavenly Father that allow Jesus to keep going, keep serving, remaining obedient even when the results don’t seem to add up. And in all of this:

  • in his teaching of the bigger picture of God’s love rather than focusing on the law and who lives up to it;
  • in his searching out and healing of those who are sick,
  • in his love for the poor, the marginalized and the foreigner
  • in his serving and being attentive to those in need, most especially those who thought themselves, or, more likely were thought by others to be beyond God’s love,
  • in his freeing others from demons, whether by the acceptance of and respect for each person he encountered, or the forgiveness of sins, or the exorcisms of those suffering from manifestations of evil
  • in his concentration on and attention to his relationship with God, studying, praying and spending time with His heavenly Father.

In all of this, Jesus shows us what it means to be a disciple. In Church culture, we often use the term “disciple” without defining it or, worse yet, without fully understanding it. Since the term represents the heart of our marching orders from Jesus (Matthew 28:16-20). The word comes from the Greek word mathetes” which, in turn comes from the verb “manthanein” meaning “to learn” (think of the term ‘math’).

To be a disciple, then is to learn, to be a learner. It’s not so much about remembering the content of individual teachings as it is about knowing the person of Jesus Christ. It’s not about being perfect, we can’t. It’s not about changing the whole world, we can’t. It’s not about giving up our whole lives to serve others, we can’t. But we can accept the invitation of “Jesus to Come and See,” to be welcomed into the heart of God, and to follow Jesus and fish for others, where we are, how we are, who we are. Jesus calls us unreservedly ready to assist even and especially when we are imperfect, not yet ready to change, or sacrifice too much. Jesus takes what little we offer and transforms it, takes the smallest opening and vulnerability and makes all things work together for God.

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to learn about Him, certainly but, even more importantly, from Him and from our relationship with Him. To be a disciple is not a one-time thing. To be a disciple means that we learn of and know intimately Jesus Christ and that we continue to do that over the course of time. To be a disciple is to be engaged in a lifelong process of learning from and about Jesus the Master, Jesus the teacher. It is a lifelong relationship of knowing Jesus Christ. The English term “Disciple” comes from the Latin, “Discipulus,” and provides the connotation that this learning is not haphazard but intentional and disciplined. To become a disciple is to commit to such a process, to learn from the example of Jesus who cultivated His own relationship with the Father.

You’ve heard, I’m sure the adage, “It’s not what you know but who you know. It’s all about who you know.” This is a perfect insight into becoming a disciple. Yes, it’s about making connections, about bringing people together. But it’s all in how we understand and use our knowledge. All of the Romance languages have two words for the concept of knowing, distinguishing between “knowing a fact” and “knowing a person.” For example, in the Italian “sapere is the verb I use to know a fact, like geography but “conoscere is what I use when I know a person, not just the fact of his or her existence but also who he or she is, something that has to develop over time, by spending time in a relationship. This distinction is what gave rise in days of old to the euphemism often used for sex: Joseph and Mary were engaged but before they “knew” each other. Sex was considered the most profound way one could know another, the most profound way one could deepen a relationship, a physical, tangible expression of the knowledge one has of another.  And this is why God sometimes uses sexual imagery in the bible to reference the intimacy God wants with us.

To know Jesus Christ is to make oneself vulnerable, open to the opportunity God offers, to take advantage of the time we have to allow God to change us, make us better, draw us closer, strengthen us not only to serve but to take joy in that service, even when we have to sacrifice.

That’s the heart of the message Phil Conners has to learn, to take what seems like endless repetition, unending days of monotony and make them useful.  And Phil gets this after more than a few false starts and misguided concepts about what living in the past means.  Phil learns to speak French, play the piano, avoid the puddle, and even gets the girl in the end.  More important than any of that, though, Phil must learn to change heart and mind, learn to become the better person even he didn’t know he could be. He can’t get out of that rut, until he learns to leave the past “Phil” behind and look towards the future and a better “Phil”.

You and I are called to something similar these days, even if they seem like Groundhog Day, and to make use of them, to draw closer to God, to learn of and from Jesus Christ, to improve not our skills but our hearts, not only to get the girl but to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. And this call, to make the best use of our time by praying and serving others is also the call that we share as a community. To be disciples and to make disciples.

Lent’s coming up very soon.  I want you to take a few moments, even discuss with one another in the family, what you are going to do for Lent, how you are going to be different, how you are going to draw close to God so that you can better celebrate at Easter.  Lent isn’t a test of will power. The goal of Lent is to draw closer to God, to strengthen and deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ, to become a better disciple.

We’ll have a very special opportunity to do that next week in the annual Appeal for Catholic Ministries. The Annual Appeal for Catholic Ministries is not just another special collection. It’s an opportunity to join together in mission to make a shared commitment to support the work of Jesus Christ throughout the Archdiocese. This commitment serves the needs of those less fortunate along with schools and parishes throughout our Archdiocese. It’s about reaching out to something bigger than ourselves, serving God together with others. For us here in the Pastorate, we have designated our parish portion of what you give in the Appeal to go to the Frederick Family Shelter. Because of the economy and especially during the pandemic, there’s an increase among homelessness, including families. This shelter will provide a temporary place for the families right here in our area to stay while they get back on their feet. Next week, we’ll be asking those who have not yet contributed to make a commitment or gift.  Please reflect on the generosity of God in their lives, and, in the coming week, to decide upon a suitable gift to reflect their appreciation for God’s gifts. Regardless of the amount, we ask each of you to prayerfully consider a gift.  No gift is too small. and we ask all to pray for the success of the 2021 Appeal for Catholic Ministries.

Our Mission is to Love God. Love others. Make Disciples. Six simple words, but with the “new” command of Jesus something so radical as to change not only our lives but the whole world as well. Join us as Jesus invites us closer, as Jesus welcomes us and all into God’s Heart, as Jesus calls us to follow and to fish for others. Join us as we continue to look practically at what it means as individuals and as a community to follow Christ, to become comfortable with our faith, and uncomfortable with ourselves unless we share that faith with others, to live better the call Jesus gives. “Come and you will see.”

Peace,

 

 

Come and You Will See – Week 3

“A new teaching authority.” 
Mark 1:27

 

My Dear Friends in Christ,

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New and improved!

These are three of the best-known marketing tricks to attract new and renewed attention for a product. It’s more about the concept rather than the words. Take for example, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile,” is simply another way of saying “new and improved.” These tricks (or the politically correct word is strategies) are about shaking up the status quo: maintaining a strong connection to current customers but also reaching new customers who may have been waiting for it to be more or cheaper or just plain better. It’s expanding the audience without losing the base. Often, it’s more about form than content, the box over the product, about changing just enough to entice, to reach a new market, to get better sales, to think outside the box.

Over the past few weeks, our message series has been focused on the invitation of Jesus, “Come and you will see.” John the Baptist had pointed out Jesus to Andrew as the Messiah, God’s chosen one, God’s anointed, the Christ, the title taken from the word “chrism,” the oil used to anoint priests, prophets and kings, the most important people of their day. Even from a distance, Jesus had sensed in the heart of Andrew and his friend an unmet need, an ache that seeks healing, an emptiness that looks for fulfillment. It was what opened their heart to Jesus, even if they were afraid to follow Him too closely. “Come and you will see.” Jesus invites them to come close, wants them not only into His Posse, not only into His home (the place where He was staying at that moment), but wants to welcome them into the very heart and the life of God.

At that early stage, Jesus asks nothing of them except an openness to see who God is and how God works, an awareness of the possibility of discovering God’s infinite mercy and extraordinary gentleness, the chance to encounter a God so radical love for us, so radical in the offering and in the opening of the kingdom. And they are changed in that encounter with Christ. Andrew invites Simon; Simon gets a new name and then, once they are aware of God’s love, of God’s plan (no matter how confusing it may seem, they are ready for God’s call.

And we heard that call, made to Peter and Andrew, James and John not because they were high born, greatly educated or well connected. In fact, they were none of those. Jesus calls them as men of faith, open and willing and vulnerable. With their openness, Jesus has called them each by name, both to follow Him and to fish for others. And now we see them dipping their nets into the water.

Jesus and his four new disciples have made their way from the shore into the town of Capernaum, the home of the four just called and chosen by Jesus. When the Sabbath comes, Jesus goes into the synagogue and immediately begins to teach. They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes… All were amazed and asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. The teachings of Jesus are not some marketing strategy, not simply a repackaging of old stuff for new ears, not novelty only for novelty’s sake. And the people are amazed at these teachings of Jesus; they’re astonished. A new teaching with authority. They’re engaged, asking questions, startled, awakened to a whole new reality in the little local synagogue.

Unlike the temple in Jerusalem (the most sacred spot, on the most sacred hill, in the most sacred city) where animal sacrifice was practiced by priests, Jewish synagogues, according to rabbinic nomenclature, were “assembly halls” or auditoriums where the Torah was read and expounded. There was but one temple and it was the dwelling place of God on earth, the very footprint of the eternal Divine in the world of the ever-changing world of the mortal creatures. It was here that the High Priest would make sacrifices for the people and bring the people’s prayers to God. And it was tradition to make a pilgrimage to the Temple at least once, if not more often, for the high, holy days. Synagogues, though, the Greek derivation of which simply means “gathering places,” could be found throughout the Jewish world. Any town worth its salt, every town that could afford to build one, had a synagogue, a place of learning more than prayer, a place of study and scripture and more than ritual. The only official in charge of a synagogue was the “ruler of the synagogue,” a position that included the responsibilities of librarian, worship committee, custodian, and perhaps schoolteacher. The ruler of the synagogue did not preach or expound the Torah, however, which meant that Sabbath teaching and exposition fell to the laity, and on this occasion to Jesus. That Jesus does not wait for such an invitation, or at least that the invitation is not recorded, implies his amazing charismatic power. The grace and power of God, the attraction which breaks down barriers, is beginning to make itself felt. Something is happening. Let’s look at what was so radical, so shocking, so astonishing, so amazing that it stopped people (and demons!) in their tracks.

It started with the method Jesus used. The usual teachers – priests and scribes, the literate ones, and Pharisees as well – always taught by referencing another. ‘As Moses said’, or ‘as Rabbi so-and-so said.’ They were focused on the law as the self-appointed scrupulous guardians of Jewish ancestral traditions. In the first century, before the advent of universal education and literacy, there was a great demand for scribes throughout the ancient world, and especially in Judaism where the written code of the Torah regulated Jewish life. The Hebrew word for scribes, sopherim, has to do with counting, reckoning, and keeping written documents provides an initial understanding of the scribe’s function. Later, the word “scribe” came to designate an expert in the Torah. Their importance and fame grew when the Torah began to be rivaled and threatened by contemporary Hellenistic ideals. As experts in the Torah, Scribes could issue binding decisions, and so devolved into assuming further the role of legal jurists.

With the growth of the synagogue, scribes also became, teachers of the Torah, whose reputation was honored by the title “rabbi,” meaning “my great one.”  Their “control” over Torah was almost absolute and they were regarded (including by themselves) as the chosen few, those called by God to protect and pass on the Torah. In all actuality what they actually passed on was their own teachings which limited, obfuscated and sometimes, even challenges the Divine teaching of God. “Scribe” thus combined the offices of Torah professor, teacher and moralist, and civil lawyer. Their erudition and prestige reached legendary proportions in the day of Jesus. Only scribes (apart from the chief priests and members of the patrician families) could enter the Sanhedrin. Commoners deferred to scribes as they walked through the streets. The first seats in the synagogues were reserved for scribes, and people rose to their feet when they entered a room. They became the chosen frozen, focused on the technicalities of their own teachings rather than on the gracious and divine laws of God. That made themselves the arbiters, not only of the Torah but of God’s mercy and forgiveness: who needed it, who got it and who DIDN’T.

And then there’s Jesus, not a scribe, not even one of their recognized teachers. Yes, Jesus attended both temple and synagogue; but, He did so unlike any other teacher. He didn’t quote nor rely on any great scriptural or rabbinic names as precedent; He doesn’t reference any other teacher or rabbi. He’s not focused on the law or what was kosher. Rather, Jesus begins to speak on his own authority to tell people what God’s will is, how the kingdom is coming, and His hearers are amazed at the assumption of personal authority.  Jesus speaks in personal terms of a strikingly personal and intimate connection to God, revealing personal call and responsibility. Jesus spoke of a much bigger picture than the scribes. Jesus spoke of a God who wanted to fulfill the promises made earlier to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and Noah, to Jeremiah and Isaiah; a God loves and delights in His children, a God of mercy and forgiveness, a God who offers and opens and inaugurates the promised kingdom right there in their midst.

As we heard in last week’s gospel: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” But Jesus does not merely speak His teachings. There is also a new power in His teaching. It’s a strange commentary on the spiritual situation in Capernaum that a demoniac could worship in the synagogue with no sense of incongruity, confronted neither by the scribes nor any other member of the synagogue, let alone by the heavenly armies of God led by Michael the Archangel. Further, there is apparently no initial desire to be delivered from his affliction until confronted by Jesus.

It’s the demon who recognizes who Jesus is and seeks to gain control. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” The instant response of Jesus was to muzzle this involuntary demon-testimony and free the man from the incubus. Better translated ‘be muzzled,’ the original Greek word is both strong and blunt, like ‘shut up’ in modern colloquial English. It’s a technical term in Judaism “by which evil powers are brought into submission and the way is thereby prepared for the establishment of God’s righteous rule in the world.” The main emphasis is on the silencing of the demon. The evil spirit knows that Jesus’ mission is not simply to defeat one demon, but to lay waste the entire demonic power structure. The first clash with Satan’s minions following the temptation is a no-contest event. The strong Son of God prevails over evil and “binds the strong man.” Jesus will not accept compulsory witness to his god-head, when given by the powers of evil. Jesus is no ordinary exorcist, who has learned techniques for channeling and manipulating spirits; he comes, rather, as the sign and agent of God’s eschatological reign, in which there will be no room for demonic opposition to God. And there isn’t any. The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. Again, the original has been cleaned up a bit. It’s “convulsed” as much as ripped him apart, tore him into pieces, the same word as when a predatory animal gnaws the flesh off of wounded prey.

It’s no accident that this exorcism happens here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. With a quiet but compelling authority all His own Jesus not only taught but healed. Jesus spoke with a quiet but compelling authority all of his own. And with the same authority he spoke words of healing. Sometimes people for whom life had become a total nightmare—whose personalities seemed taken over by alien powers—confronted Jesus; indeed, they seem to have had a kind of inside track on recognizing him, knowing who he was and what he’d come to do. He’d come to stop the nightmare, to rescue people, both nations and individuals, from the destructive forces that enslaved them. So, whether it was shrieking demons, a woman with a fever, or simply whatever diseases people happened to suffer from, Jesus dealt with them, all with the same gentle but deeply effective authority.

All of this, though, is only part of the newness of the teaching of Jesus. Notice, that Mark references how Jesus taught and how the people responded. But Mark makes no mention of the content of Jesus’ teaching in that synagogue that day.  It’s an important and intentional omission. The accent falls rather on Jesus the teacher. The word for “teaching” occurs in various forms thirty-five times in Mark, and in all but one Jesus is the subject. In the synagogue of Capernaum, the “teaching” indeed amazes the congregation, but because of the authority of the teacher, which is so unlike that of the scribes. In the Gospel of Mark, the person of Jesus is more important than the subject of his teaching. If we want to know what the gospel or teaching of Jesus consists of, we are directed to its embodiment in Jesus the teacher.

And this is the most radical newness of the teachings of Jesus. “New” is a relational term, implying both comparison and contrast. Jesus does not merely teach about the Kingdom, He inaugurates it, establishing in His person a new and definitive reality, a divinely and ultimately established order of things.  This newness of Jesus acquires an eschatological connotation, related to a Jewish understanding of time and an apocalyptic world view. All of history is under the direction of God and oriented to its ultimate realization. Newness is characteristic of God’s ultimate and definitive action in history in Jesus Christ.

Later on, (in Mark 12:29 ff) a scribe will ask Jesus what’s the greatest commandment.  Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Jesus offers a recognized answer but in a whole new way. John portrays it in His gospel in slightly different words. At the last supper, following His example of the washing of their feet, Jesus said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Here, Jesus is not referring to the 10 Commandments nor to other specific tenants of the law. Jesus is referring to the heart of the law, to the essence of the 10 commandments, the love of God for each of us. This is the radical newness that shocked those listeners in the synagogue, that gave Jesus not only His authority and connection to the Father but also the power to drive out demons. This is the uncompromising newness that led to Jesus’s fame, to His clash with the religious and civil leaders of the day, and to his death. His is love so radical that God is willing to suffer the passion, bear the cross, and to die for us. The eternal, omniscient, omnipotent God is willing to shed all of that for us. 

Oh, and it is to be our love for others as well. John will later clarify this in his first and second letters: Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. And yet I do write a new commandment to you, which holds true in him and among you, for the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:7).

The newness of the teaching of Jesus which operated out and called for love. This was in direct contrast to scribes’ focus on the insignificant, petty legal details, on their willingness to judge and hate and cast aside. Indeed, Jesus handling of law and tradition must have seemed completely cavalier if not outright dismissive. And frightening in the upset such an outlook could have. The immediate result of the preaching and teaching of Jesus, of the life of Jesus was not harmony, but division and strife, exactly as Jesus would later warn, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword… whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” This strife might lie concealed in the minds of the congregation, but it was made plain in the outcry of the demoniac. He, at least, bears unwilling witness to the person and work of Jesus, though he recoils instinctively from his purity, realizing that Jesus is a preacher of pure love, a reality with which he had nothing in common. Again, this is the newness of the teaching of Jesus. He wants us to love others and to love them as He loves us, with concern, without judgment, in gentleness, with consolation.

This is the radical nature of our call as individuals and as a community.  As individual disciples, we are called, as Peter and Andrew, James and John were to follow Jesus and to fish for others.  “Following” Jesus does cannot be reduced to lip service or to the shrunken, petrified world of the scribes and Pharisees focused only on the law and what we get. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, as Jesus Himself made clear, by loving as He did, by sacrificing as He did, by fishing for others as He did. This is the most basic definition of a disciple.

In Church culture, we often use the term “disciple” without defining it or, worse yet, without fully understanding it.  Since the term represents the heart of our marching orders from Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20). The word comes from the Greek word “mathetes” which, in turn comes from the verb “manthanein” meaning “to learn” (think of the term ‘math”) To be a disciple is to be a learner. TO be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be engaged in a lifelong process of learning from and about Jesus the Master, Jesus the teacher. The English term “Disciple” comes from the Latin, “Discipulus,” and provides the connotation that this learning is not haphazard but intentional and disciplined. To become a disciple is to commit to such a process.

To become a disciple is to accept the invitation of Jesus to Come and See. To become a disciple is to be welcomed by Jesus into the Heart of God, to enter into the dance that is the interchange of Trinitarian Divine life so fruitful and so filled that it leads to creation. To become a disciple is to accept the call to follow Jesus and to fish for others, to fish for those not necessarily of our choosing and in a manner far more radical than we are comfortable with. It’s not that we do any of this perfectly or that we are ready to finish the race.  Rather it is the beginning, a tentative step, an openness, a vulnerability to allow God to be at work on me, in me, with me, and, so importantly, through me.  This is what God wants of us as a pastorate. I dream of a community of disciples like this who are comfortable with their faith even as God calls them to make uncomfortable leaps, to leave their comfort zone. I dream of a community of disciples who realize that being comfortable in our faith doesn’t mean being complacent in service or accepting of a status quo that leaves anyone out no matter how different or difficult he or she is.  I dream of a community that is comfortable in their faith but so very anxious to live it out by following the new command of Jesus Christ.

Our Mission is to Love God. Love others. Make Disciples. Six simple words, but with the “new” command of Jesus something so radical as to change not only our lives but the whole world as well. Join us as Jesus invites us closer, as Jesus welcomes us and all into God’s Heart, as Jesus calls us to follow and to fish for others. Join us as we continue to look practically at what it means as individuals and as a community to follow Christ, to become comfortable with our faith, and uncomfortable with ourselves unless we share that faith with others, to live better the call Jesus gives. “Come and you will see.”

Peace,

 

 

Come and You Will See – Week 2

“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.” 
Mark 1:15

 

My Dear Friends in Christ,

In October 1964, a struggling young British rock band released their second album that year. One of the songs on that second album became quite a hit for the group. Entitled “Time Is on My Side,” the song offered the perspective of a jilted young man in love who will wait for his lady to return. He does not need necessarily to be active because he can wait her out. No matter how long it takes, no matter what she goes through, he will be waiting, and he can wait for her longer than she can run from or escape his love. The song went onto become an anthem for the burgeoning rock generation, even being re-released several years later.

Just five years after the original release of The Rolling Stones, Louis Armstrong would record one of his well-known hits, the last recording before he died. It was a secondary musical theme for the James Bond movie, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (for you Bond fans, this was the only time the title role was held by George Lazenby). In that song, Louis Armstrong belted out the fallacy that gave the song its name: “We Have All the Time in the World.” The song spoke of time that allows the unfolding of all the “precious gifts love has in store.”

Both of these songs portray a common theme in music and popular culture: that with determination, we can secure a better outcome or, at the very least, out-wait the negative. Certainly, a great theme for romantic literature and culture, and a popular (though still romantic) view of life. That time is on our side, that we have all the time in the world, is a tantalizing theme but it belies the reality we may hesitate to recognize, but a reality that often crushes in. And it’s a reality highlighted by each and all of our readings this week.

Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him…a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John he called them, [too]…. So they left their father Zebedee ….and followed him. We hear in our gospel today the Jesus’ call of Simon and Andrew, James and John and their response to him. This isn’t the first time they have met Jesus as we saw last week. But it shows us what can happen when we respond to the invitation of Jesus: “Come and you will see.” This invitation is the scriptural basis for our message series and for our call as disciples. Jesus senses in the heart of Andrew and his friend an unmet need, an ache that seeks healing, an emptiness that looks for fulfillment. So Jesus invites them and then Jesus welcomes them not only into His Posse, not only into His home (the place where He was staying at that moment) but into the heart and the life of God. Jesus asks nothing of them except an openness to see who God is and how God works, a God of mercy and gentleness that challenges even the great prophet John the Baptist, so radical in God’s love for others, in the offering of God’s mercy, and in the opening to the kingdom. And they are changed. Andrew invites Simon; Simon gets a new name and then, once they are aware of God’s love, of God’s plan, no matter how confusing it may seem, they are ready for God’s call. Now, Jesus calls them by name and asks them to follow.

Our familiarity with the story of the call of these first Apostles can sometimes cause us to miss how radical the interaction of Jesus and Peter and Andrew and James and John. It’s radical in two major ways:

  1. We first see the radical nature of the call if we focus on who it is that Jesus calls.  It is only one line, and a short one at that, but to the hearers of this story and, later, to the early readers of Mark’s gospel, it would have spoken volumes: they were fishermen. Jesus calls fishermen to help him in his ministry. These are the salt of the earth kind of guys, uneducated and uncultured, not the high-falootin’ types of well-born society. These were the men who got up every day and went to work, doing hard work, back-breaking work, tiring work that involved long hours and little reward. These are the men whom Jesus calls, first. He does not go first to those that society says are preferred: the well-born or the well-educated, he does not go to the scribes or the Pharisees, and he does not go to the civil leaders of his day. He goes first to these simple men.

And he goes not because they are blue-collar or because they work hard, he goes because they are men of faith, because they believe deeply, because they are waiting for the messiah, because they are, in their own simple ways, preparing their lives for that messiah’s coming. And so they are open when Jesus comes, despite not being quite what they are excepting, they are open to the call that Jesus speaks. And this very fact that Jesus called, what the world considers so low-born, would have spoken volumes to those in the early church; especially, those who knew how the apostles, despite some initial weaknesses and failures, would all end up giving their lives, figuratively and then literally, in service to Christ and his Church.

Jesus will go on to call the rich, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary who were from a very wealthy family; he will go onto call the well-educated, the scribes and the Pharisees, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both members of the Sanhedrin; and he will go onto to call the civil leaders; Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew’s call by Caravaggio above) and Longinus, called by Christ’s example on the cross was a Roman centurion.

But Christ’s first call to Peter and Andrew, James and John, simple fisherman, was radical and it serves to remind us that God does not care about what we are, or what we do, or how much education we have. God cares how open we are, how deep our faith is, how fully we are preparing for the coming, now the second coming of the Messiah. God cares not how rich our bank accounts are. God cares how rich our relationship with Jesus is.

  1. And the Gospel story goes onto show that not only was the call of Jesus radical, but so were the responses of Peter and Andrew, James and John: Then they abandoned their nets and followed him… So they left their father Zebedee ….and followed him. Without hesitation, they leave their nets and they leave their boats all to follow Jesus. But even more importantly, they leave everything else behind as well: they leave their families, their friends, their way of life, their comfort zones, and their security. They leave everything that they know and have to follow Jesus. And they do it without hesitation. What a radical response to Jesus’ call, what radical transformation, and for us, what an example.

Peter and Andrew, James and John serve as an example for us, because each one of us here has been called by God by name. Oh we were not standing in a boat or hauling nets, but we were near water, most likely held over the waters of the baptismal font by our parents or godparents. Robert John, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our name was spoken three times as the water was poured. And God used this event to call us, just as he called Peter and Andrew, James and John. He called us then to follow him and gave us the gift of his spirit that we may respond to the call. And for most of us it has taken awhile to respond and most of the time we have responded half-heartedly, busy about many things. These are mostly good things – taking care of our families, earning a living, but there are also things that just keep us busy, things that keep us from responding in the radical way of Peter and Andrew and James and John.

Our call is to recommit ourselves to our response, to begin anew and to begin again in the radical response of those Apostles. And Saint Paul tells us in our second readings as he told the Church at Corinth: I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out….For the world in its present form is passing away. The world as we know it is passing away. Time is running out, time is NOT on our side, we do not have all the time in the world to respond. Jesus calls us to respond now; our call is to catch others with the net of Jesus Christ and the love of God He offers; our call is to become here and now fishers of women and men. We’re not going to do this only by our words. In fact words are ineffective when the example does not line up in the same way.

But the God we must preach is the God of mercy we hear of in our first reading: The God who pardons Nineveh. This passage is the second chance for Jonah. You may recall that he was not too excited about God’s call to go and challenge Nineveh, an exceedingly wicked city, as well as an exceedingly great one. So he upped and fled, hightailing it away from God, escaping by the first sea going ship available. When the sailors fell on hard times, they threw Jonah overboard where he was swallowed by the whale. After God commands the whale to spit him up, Jonah was a little bit more amenable to God’s request. Whereas he fled the first time, he immediately arises and carries out YHWH’S instruction this time. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Now, Nineveh was “an exceedingly large city” (literally, “a great city to G—d”) requiring three days to walk across it. After only one day, Jonah witnesses Nineveh’s repentance first-hand: They believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. That such a great and wicked city repents so quickly, makes the repentance of Nineveh especially noteworthy. Our translations reads the people of Nineveh believed God,” as if they were only afraid God would carry out the violence promised. However, the original text reads more literally, “and the [people]…of Nineveh believed in God.” Everyone in the whole city did more than merely acknowledge some form of divine power. Immediately they declare a fast and put on sackcloth, common signs of mourning, sorrow, and repentance in the ancient world. They come to believe not only in God’s power to destroy but they come to believe more deeply in a good and merciful God.

Jonah’s message even reaches the king of Nineveh who was an arrogant monarch (sound familiar?), who not only defied YHWH and threatened Jerusalem, but boasted that his power was greater than YHWH’S because he has been able to overthrow violently and who stood in his way, including God’s chosen people. Might and brute force seemed to him more powerful than a distant God. These were his answer to any challenge he faced and to his identity and his perception of himself. But even this self-styled rival to Yahweh recognizes God’s power. Upon hearing the message of Jonah, the king rises from his throne, removes his robe, puts on sackcloth, and sits in the dust or ashes, willingly acknowledging that YHWH’S is greater. Together with his people, the king looks prays for the God of Israel as described in the Book of Exodus: merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation. The people of Nineveh hold out the hope that by turning from evil, justice may be served through compassion rather than through punishment.

All around him, Jonah, the Israelite prophet, one of God’s chosen who should know better and rejoice in the reality of who God is and how God works, sees pagans acknowledging God. But Jonah gets angry at God who didn’t carry out the destruction of Nineveh as promised. He wanted the violence, the destruction of those who had turned away from God. Now that’s another homily but I encourage you to read the rest of the story of Jonah.

What we see in all of these readings is God making use of time in a way different than was originally intended by the one called by God. Jonah wanted God simply to destroy the pesky Ninevites. Instead, God wanted them to repent and use the time to believe in God. Saint Paul reminds us of a similar principle. Focus not on the things of this world.  Rather, use the things of this world, in communion with others in the world, to look beyond, to focus on eternity, to think about God’s coming kingdom more than our earthly one. And of course, Jesus calls Andrew and Peter, James and John to a life of faith, both bigger and deeper than their immediate families and the small world around them.

Each of these readings adds to the clarion call that Louis Armstrong and the Rolling Stones were wrong: time is not on my side. I do NOT have all the time in the world. AS Jonah was challenged by God’s call and methods, so too, I must stop fleeing from God,  and fighting God, replacing my will with God’s. Like Saint Paul, I have to begin today to see my own life, even my family and my service to them in terms of the larger context of my relationship with God. It’s not that God is calling me to dump my life or the possessions I have but that God is calling to understand that I begin today to act. And Jesus reminds us that the primary call for us as disciples is two-fold: to follow Him and to fish for others.

Now, I may not be called as they were to upend my life, leave my wife and family, quit my job or drop out of school. Now some are called to serve by leaving these behind. I think of missionaries or seminarians or men and women religious who have done just that. But, even for those who remain in the same place, with the same family, working the same job, studying in the same school, facing the same routine, they cannot continue with the same attitude. Each of us must respond as radically as Andrew and Peter, James and John.


Part of that response for some we see today in the Rite of Welcome we celebrated today as part of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) the journey of faith and discovery, prayer, study and formation for those who wish to draw closer to God by joining the Catholic Church. For some, such as for Dawn Kuti, Jen Ondrasik, and Liz Zamana who we welcomed today, this will mean being baptized. These women are answering God’s invitation to “Come and to see.” They’re accepting the invitation of Jesus to be welcomed further and drawn deeper into the love of God made known through our community. These three women want to be baptized and, along with two others who have already been baptized, received into the Church and become a fuller member of our community. Each of these have a story to tell of how she encountered Christ, how she had been, like Andrew in our Gospel last week, following Christ from a distance. And each of these were drawn closer to Christ in and by our community.

Dawn, Jen and Liz make known the grace of a God who calls in God’s time and in God’s ways. None of them had the grace of being baptized at birth. But God made our efforts fruitful in helping them respond to the invitation of Jesus. It’s the very essence of our call to make disciples. Not one of these women is coming only for what she gets from Jesus and our community. Nope. In their lives they are already active in a life of prayer and service, with their families and the children they have and are raising in the faith, with our community the service each offers in different arena, and, most importantly, they are actively building their relationship with God in their study and formation and prayer. God has called them through our service as disciples. The celebration we had today is the very essence of who we are called to be, a community that invites, that welcomes and, by bringing people to Jesus a community that also calls, that makes disciples. And that is why we have to make the best use of our time.

Join us as Jesus invites us closer, as Jesus welcomes us and all into God’s Heart, as Jesus calls us to reach out to others. Join us as we continue to look practically at what it means as individuals and as a community to follow Christ, to become comfortable with our faith, and to live better the call Jesus gives to share our faith. “Come and you will see.”

Peace,

 

 

Come and You Will See – Week 1

“What are you looking for?” 
John 1:38

 

My Dear Friends in Christ,

It hardly seems possible that the Christmas season has come and gone. In some ways it was the longest of times and yet it passed so quickly. Certainly, it was the weirdest of times. I missed seeing my family (although they didn’t say the same about me!). I appreciate using it and the connection it brings, but I HATE Zoom! Most of all, I missed being together in the hectic, blessed chaos of our Christmas Eve. I missed seeing people and teasing and being teased by them. I missed the joy of our kids and the excitement of hearing about Santa directly from them.

Christmas always brings us together in a way that nothing else does and I missed that. I am sure that most of us had similar experiences of missing friends or family, slightly altered traditions and a sense of disconnect. But through it all, we were able to make the best of it and I am so grateful for all those who assisted us in reaching out in different ways, allowing us to bring the new-born Christ into the homes and hearts of so many. At the very least we were able to pray together. We mourned for those who have died (Several of our own community as well) and grieved with their families. We’ve been touched by the struggles of so many because of the pandemic, whether financial, job related, or of spiritual, mental or physical health struggles.

In all of this, the early Christmas message of Pope Francis ring true (and convict me as of late): “Instead of complaining in these difficult times about what the pandemic prevents us from doing, let us do something for someone who has less: not the umpteenth gift for ourselves and our friends, but for a person in need whom no-one thinks of!”

And so, we go forward, not in fear or complaining, but in joy and hope. And our Gospel today gives us a grand sense of why joy and hope are possible. We hear of the encounter of the disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and another unnamed, who, at John’s urging, encounter Christ. In the passage of our gospel today, John had to admit, not once but twice that he did not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah. He was looking for the great warrior king who would crush the Roman oppressors, eliminate evil, and force all to believe as he thought. Instead, come the gentle Jesus who proposes rather than imposes, who invites rather than forces and who offers rather than insists. Instead of being surrounded by pomp and circumstance, Jesus comes in humility, vulnerable, to be baptized. From this act of sacrifice and submission, Jesus inaugurates the kingdom here on earth by bringing God’s love and forgiveness.

And we see in today’s Gospel, how Jesus progresses. Andrew and his unnamed friend are hesitant. They are men of faith but are attuned to the message of John the Baptist. At his direction, they follow Jesus but only from a distance. Jesus sensing the ache in their hearts, turns and asks the question above, “What are you looking for?” They respond with another question, one that reveals their longing but also their hesitation. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” They recognize Jesus as one of authority, perhaps they have heard him preach in the temple. Rather than answer their question directly or only with words, Jesus invites them closer: “Come and you will see.” Jesus welcomes them not only into His posse, not only into His home (such as it is), but into the very heart and life of God. The invitation of Jesus and welcome by Him are not mere words, nor are they superficial actions; they are life changing encounters. And in fact, at the very least, Andrew is changed by his encounter with Jesus and immediately goes to call his brother, also a man of faith. They’re not only brothers, but friends and business partners who must have spent a great deal of time in the boat, waiting for the fish to bite, discussing, among other things, matters of faith. And he brings Simon to Jesus who gives Peter a new name and a different life trajectory.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus realizes that there is within each of us an ache that needs healing, a questioning that seeks answers, an emptiness that needs to be filled. We’re looking for something, questioning, seeking consolation and comfort. We’re attracted to the message Jesus brings and the love of God Jesus offers, but we’re still hesitant to follow too closely, unsure of what it means. With this new year and the return to Ordinary Time, we are starting a new message series, “Come and you will see.” Over the next few weeks, we’ll be examining our response to the question of Jesus. A true and profound response comes in understanding the gentle call, our being drawn closer by God Who delights in us and Who loves us (and loves us and loves us and never stops loving us! – You knew I had to work that in!). We’ll gather from the examples we get in the Gospels of these early weeks, the basics of the call from Jesus and the response of those early disciples. Unlike what you may expect, these are not all immediate or complete acceptance. Like us, they have questions, they are hesitant, and they are often struggling. But eventually they respond to Jesus who invites and welcomes and only then, calls them to action.

Join us as Jesus invites us closer, welcomes us into God’s Heart and then calls us to reach out to others. Over the next four weeks, we’ll look practically at what it means as individuals and as a community to follow Christ, to become comfortable with our faith, and to live better the call Jesus gives to share our faith. “Come and you will see.”

Peace,

 

 

Baptism of the Lord


On coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:10-11

 

My Dear Friends in Christ,

Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus went out to John who was baptizing in the Jordan River, at the edge of the Promised Land. John was calling everyone and anyone who would listen to repent of sins and turn back to God. John was the original fire and brimstone preacher, moved as he was to draw people, even kicking and screaming to the Lord. He reminded them of the just and rightfully harsh judgment that would come when God would put before each person his or her sins and call each to account. This was the focus of John’s preaching and he preached that the remedy was to turn to God in Baptism, not a onetime event that would wash away sins with the stain never to return but a true repentance, a change of life and a turning back to God.

John preached also about the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed warrior of God who was coming to bring about the judgment and the justice of God. This Christ was greater than John, sent by God and John was not worthy to untie the sandals of this great warrior. You can imagine then the embarrassment of John as Jesus shows up to be baptized.  John may not have been able to understand that Jesus was without sin entirely, but John knew that Jesus was the one sent by God. John stops short in his tracks, realizing his own unworthiness to baptize Jesus. But Jesus urges John onward and John baptizes Jesus. The heavens open, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father is heard: “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”

The hesitation and confusion of John is recorded but you can imagine that this was no easy event for the early Church to understand either. If Baptism were about washing away sins and returning to God, how could Jesus, who was without sin and so closely aligned with the Father, then why would Jesus need to be baptized. You would think that the early Church would want to push this one under the rug, cover up the embarrassing fact. Yet, the baptism of Jesus one of the few events outside of the Passion covered in all four of the gospels with little difference. The early Church saw it as important enough not only to record but also to understand and live out.

The early Church was right: Jesus did not need baptism in the same way that the disciples of John did or even we who have been baptized today. Jesus was, is free from sin and did not need to have sin washed away. Jesus was perfectly in tune with the Father, listening for the Father’s will and acting on it without fail. Jesus did not need to be called to turn back to the Father, let alone to do so.

And yet Jesus not only submits to Baptism but searches it out and then forces John to perform the action. Jesus’ own actions mark this as something truly important: First, by his own submission, Jesus sanctifies the waters of Baptism. By his own submission, he begins to turn the symbolic action of John into the sacred sacrament of the Church, that he will, just before he ascends into heaven, call the Apostles and the early Church to do in earnest: Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Second, and more profoundly, Jesus will show, by that very act of submission, the humility of God. In doing this Jesus revealed how royalty truly acts, not in parades or in medals or guards, not in shows of wealth and expressions of power, but in humility, placing oneself in God’s service, submitting fully one’s own will to the plan God has, not merely out of blind obedience but out of love. Imagine this omnipotent, omniscient God who could do anything and be everywhere, has emptied himself as Saint Paul says, and taken on our human form. And now he submits even further to the preaching and action of John all to show how much God loves us.

No barrier will separate us from Jesus, even our sinfulness is not insurmountable as Jesus shows us how to get beyond it with God’s mercy. The call is to repentance, to turn back to God and trust that God will not judge except in mercy. Jesus shows us symbolically by his action here that God is trustworthy, that if one does humble himself before the Lord, the Lord will not crush him but raise him up to new life. In his humble submission, Jesus shows us what our proper stance is before God our heavenly Father. And in doing this, God reveals not only what God does and how we are to react, God also reveals who God is. God is Father, Son and Spirit. God is three in one, an inexplicable mystery of love, relationship and procession: The Spirit descends upon Jesus and marks him as one filled with the Spirit; the voice of the Father is heard: You are my beloved Son.

In this act of humiliation, of humility Jesus shows us who God is: Father, Son, and Spirit. And this is why, then, the Church uses this feast to celebrate and call for a greater awareness in each individual of his and her vocation. As the Father called Jesus to a specific vocation so to God calls each of us to do something for God, to help God enter the world, to help all people understand how much God loves them. Now the role of Jesus was unique; the salvation He accomplished was universal and complete. But each one of us as Christians is called to share in that mission and bring that salvation to others. This goes far deeper than action and involves truly a dedication of one’s whole life to the will of the Father. This is one’s vocation and each person on earth has one.  God calls each of us, without exception to some specific purpose in sharing God’s love.  This is not merely what makes us most happy but what makes us most human as we were created to share in God’s life and respond to God’s will.

There are three major vocations: The most obvious that most people first think of is  service to the Church. One thinks of priests and consecrated religious sisters and brothers, called by God, trained and tested by the Church to serve ones’ sisters and brothers through the Church. We need to pray for these vocations in a particular way, we need to invite young men to consider becoming priests and young women to consider becoming religious. These are essential not only for service but for the life of the Church. Without the priesthood we cannot have the Eucharist, without the Eucharist, we cannot have the Church. Without consecrated religious, we lose the symbolic action of God’s kingdom breaking into the world. But vocations are not limited only to priests and sisters.

In fact there are two more vocations: Marriage is a vocation. In marriage, God calls a man and woman to serve each other and to serve their family. In marriage, the call to serve is more particular than in religious life but it is no less profound. The call is not to serve all of God’s people but a single person in love and to allow that love to spill over into children, not merely creating them but raising them as a true family in the image of Joseph and Mary, the Holy Family. This is no easy task and is not merely a second tier for those who can’t handle religious life. It is an essential vocation that expresses God’s love in this world.

There is also a third vocation. This vocation comes in one committed to the single life and marked by service but not as a religious sisters or brother or as a priest. Called neither to marriage or to the priesthood or consecrated life, the person called to this vocation exercises his or her vocation by serving in a variety of ways as is evidenced by so many of the new lay movements that mark our church. Again, this is not a throw-away, but an essential way God acts in the world.

In each of these, vocations, it is not merely a single decision, but a life commitment marked by the actions of one’s whole life. No matter our vocation, no matter our age, no matter our state in life, we are called to follow the example of Jesus and submit to the will of the Father. If we do this and commit each day and every action and our whole lives, then we will hear, perhaps with less drama, but no less profoundly: You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.

Peace,

 

 

EPIPHANY

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Matthew  2:9-11

My Dear Friends in Christ,

It is a fantastic story: a powerful and vicious king in his palace insecure now that he is hearing hints of a usurper. Wise men led by a star in search of the new king have come from across the known world and make the politically incorrect move of stopping and asking the current earthly ruler where one might find his eternal successor. The chief priests and the scribes, the cognoscenti of the day offering up the location of Bethlehem, some backwater town to the south east of the mighty Jerusalem. Palace intrigue as the earthly king plots to keep his power  and destroy any who would rain on his parade. And at the heart of it all, what sent the star skyward, what drew the wise men from their distant land, what caused Herod to quake in his fashionable boot, at the heart of it all is a small child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, protected by his mother in a little hut, perhaps even a cave.

It IS a fantastic story. But fantastic as it is, this story is not without lessons for us today, as disciples, right here in Frederick County at the start of the new calendar year of 2021. While I am sure that there are more, I would like to offer you five lessons that this ancient but fascinating story keeps relevant for us today.

  1. The wise men are astrologers. They study the stars and in the course of their learning and work, in the midst of their daily lives, they discern a message from God. A new star has appeared in the sky, a message from God that there is something beyond what they can see. That’s Number 1: in the course of our daily lives, God sends us messages. God wants us to know, not only that He is with us but that He wants us to draw us ever closer to Himself, moving us far beyond what we can see or discern with the senses. God offers us a gift to stop us in the midst of the daily grind and help deepen our faith. This message, this hint, was a star for the wise men but it will be different for us. It may be as mundane as realizing that you have just made all of the traffic lights between here and Frederick or it may be as profound as a newborn baby lifting his head for the first time.  Perhaps it is a moment of fulfillment and peace in prayer. Perhaps it is a successful surgery or quicker than expected recovery. Whatever the message, we are called not only to relish the moment but to look beyond and allow ourselves to be drawn closer to the One who sent it.
  2. So the second lesson follows quickly on the first. The wise men, now aware of this hint of God, seek to go further.They want to know more. But they know that they can’t satisfy this longing where they are, so they head out on the road. That’s the second lesson. God has offered us the gift of faith and sends us hints to deepen that faith. But God will not force us to follow, nor mandate that we accept his gift. We have to do that on our own.  Like the wise men, we must go in search of Jesus, attempting to go beyond what the message and draw closer to God and God’s love, closer to the very person of Jesus Christ.
  3. But, most likely it will not be an easy search which brings us to lesson three. The wise men brook no obstacles in their search and let no one deter them. Distance won’t deter them. They pack for the trip and come across the known world. Ignorance won’t deter them. They are not of the faith, they do not know Scripture or the prophets, so they head for the city of David, of whose line the Savior is promised and to the palace.  After all, when one is looking for a king, one starts at the palace. The conniving of Herod and the incompetence of those who serve him won’t deter them. Despite all of that the wise men continue to be guided by the star beyond Jerusalem to that little town of Bethlehem. Even their own expectations don’t deter them; expecting the great warrior king, they are not led astray when all they find is the little child and his mother. The parallel lesson for us is obvious. We live in a world that either ignores our faith or attacks it as irrational and out of date. We live in a time where the internet gives every voice equal weight; the pope, the Church and her traditions, have no more say than the New York Times or CBS or You Tube. With our I-phones and I-pads and androids and e-mail and g-mail and wi-fi and 4G and 5G and High Def, we live at a pace that refuses us time to think let alone stop and smell the roses. We live in a world filled with suffering and meanness and pettiness and that’s just in our own hearts let alone across town or the nation or the globe. But like the wise men, we must persevere in our search for Jesus.  Like them we can let no obstacle human or otherwise deter us. The journey will be long and difficult, but we are not unprepared.  Find out what helps are available and cling to them: I think first of family and friends who love us and support us and strengthen us, who not only share our values but lift us up us on the journey, I think of the Church and the community here and the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist wherein God has promised not only to come to us but to remain with us: food for the journey. I think also of the teachings of the Church about life and justice and morality and marriage; these are rooted in the gospel and maintain their relevancy. Allow each of these all of these, to help you reach Christ.
  4. And when you reach Christ, you’ll need the fourth lesson. When they find Jesus, no matter the small hut, no matter the smallness of the outward trappings, no matter the size and age of the gurgling child, despite finding nothing of what they had expected, when they find Jesus they fall down and worship, without hesitation, no questions asked. And they offer him not only their worship but the finest gifts they have to offer. So too with us. We have fall down and worship Christ with our whole being, fully prostrate, humbled before the Lord of love. And then we have to offer the best gifts we have: Not Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh but these gifts, given to Jesus who was priest, prophet and king tell us something about our relationship with Jesus. Gold is the gift given to our king and so we return the treasure we have received to King of Kings. God has gifted it to us and now we return a portion of it to him. Frankincense is the gift given to a priest and used when he offers sacrifice.  It symbolizes the time and efforts we offer in sacrifice to God, our time in public prayer such as coming together at Mass and also in quiet prayer which is necessary every day. And Myrrh is the gift given to the prophet.  Now, it is not a very appropriate gift given at birth since its primary use is for embalming a dead body, but it speaks of the total sacrifice of the prophet who is called to proclaim the gospel not mere in speech but in action as well.  We are called to proclaim the gospel by the way we reach out and help others, by the way we share our faith living and active in our world. In all of this, we must offer the gift of our whole self, our own will included, allowing God to lead us and our hearts where God wants them to be.  This is true of where I am and what I believe.  This is often the hardest to offer.

We don’t worship Jesus only in church, although that will certainly be part, but we must also worship Christ as we find him in one another even those who are challenges for us, especially those who are challenges for us. The appearance of the wise men: foreign, Gentile, wealthy, educated, cultured, sophisticated, socially connected, politically astute complements the appearance of the of the shepherds: indigenous, impoverished, uneducated, marginalized, socially distant, naïve, Jewish.  Jesus came for all.  This feast reminds us that all of humanity is part of a single family, a great big family of sisters and brothers, all children of one God. This great feast shows us not only the universal and catholic nature of the Church but also the interconnectedness of all humanity.  No one is excluded from God’s plan, no one is beyond God’s love. And God’s love has the power to transform.

And that’s part of the last lesson to be learned from the wise men. Once they have met Jesus, once they have fallen down prostrate and truly worshipped, once they have offered their hearts as well as their gifts, they are forever changed. They can’t go back by the same route. So too with us, we have to be changed by our encounter with Jesus. It is not enough simply to think I can worship Jesus on Sunday and get away with thinking or doing or saying anything I want about anyone else.  Once I have encountered Jesus, once I have offered my heart in worship, I have to think and act and speak like Jesus.  This is what it means truly to worship: not only to adore but to think and act and speak like Christ, to be Christ for others.  No easy task.

So, there you are, five lively but laconic leadership lessons liberated and lifted like leaven to be learned for life. But this feast has to means more to us than the average disciple because we have a special relationship to this feast. Holy Family parish was started as a community on this feast almost 40 years ago. So I ask you, I challenge you: how will you be different this year? How will you live the lessons of the wise men differently this year? How will you search more profoundly for the hints God is leaving to deepen your faith? How much further will journey and how much deeper will you look this year? How creative will you be in overcoming obstacles and in not being deterred? How quick will you be to worship Christ even when it is difficult or embarrassing or challenging?  How fully will you offer up your gifts and will these truly be the best you have to offer? And then how will you be changed?  What will the new route be after your encounter with Christ?

Because that is truly at the heart of it all. Our changed experience, our new route, our more gentle life after our encounter with Christ could very well be the message that starts someone else on his or her own journey. What God did by the light of the star, namely drew the wise men to Christ, now he does by the light of Christ himself, not shining in the sky but in our hearts and through our words and thoughts and actions, through our very lives.

Peace,