Sermons on the Sunday Readings in the Catholic Lectionary 2016

In 2013 I began writing homilies based on the readings read in Catholic Churches all over the world.

I was a Catholic priest, ordained in 1994. As with many of us I met someone, fell in love with her, and left active ministry in 1997. While there is a great deal I don't miss about being a priest, I have to confess I miss preaching.

Many priests will tell you that getting in the pulpit on Sunday after Sunday is the hardest part of his job. A calling to priesthood does not necessarily include an ease in public speaking and many priests will, in a moment of honesty, speak of the terror of looking out on an audience of several hundred people. Perhaps every calling includes the moment where we wonder why we're here and what we're supposed to do (and why anyone should listen to us).

I have to confess that when I was discerning priesthood the idea of preaching was nothing I feared. I was on the debate team in high school and college and public speaking was something I enjoyed. Frankly I was a little surprised when I was a seminarian and some of my classmates expressed nervousness when preaching.

Alas, even now, more than a decade after leaving active ministry, I still miss it. When I'm attending mass I often hear the voices of those don't take preaching as seriously as I do, for whatever reason. A few years ago I would sit in the pew and start thinking of how I would preach on these readings. I decided to write the homily I wanted to hear.

At the suggestion of a friend of mine, I write them a week in advance. If you are part of a bible study, this allows you to make my writing part of your discussion.

Thank you for your time in reading these. You can read back issues of my homilies from 2013, 2014, or 2015.

If you wish, I can email the homily to you. Enjoy!

Links to the Readings


January 3, 2016

January 10, 2016

Ordinary Time

January 17, 2016

January 24, 2016

January 31, 2016

February 7, 2016


February 10, 2016

February 14, 2016

February 21, 2016

February 28, 2016

March 6, 2016

March 13, 2016

March 20, 2016


March 27, 2016

April 3, 2016

April 10, 2016

April 17, 2016

April 24, 2016

May 1, 2016

May 8, 2016

May 15, 2016

May 22, 2016

May 29, 2016

Ordinary Time

June 5, 2016

June 12, 2016

June 19, 2016

June 26, 2016

July 3, 2016

July 10, 2016

July 17, 2016

July 24, 2016

July 31, 2016

August 7, 2016

August 14, 2016

August 21, 2016

August 28, 2016

September 4, 2016

September 11, 2016

September 18, 2016

September 25, 2016

October 2, 2016

October 9, 2016

October 16, 2016

October 23, 2016

October 30, 2016

November 6, 2016

November 13, 2016

November 20, 2016


November 27, 2016

December 4, 2016

December 11, 2016

December 18, 2016


December 25, 2016

December 25, 2016: Christmas

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: As we move from Advent to Christmas we continue to read Isaiah. This reading speaks with joy about a people who have walked in darkness but now have seen a great light. God has brought them abundant joy for their burden is over. "For a child is born to us, a son is given us." This child will be will be called "Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace." Luke's Gospel recounts the birth of Jesus. Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in accordance of a census. Unable to find lodging, they huddled in a barn where Mary gave birth. Nearby shepherds were visited by an angel who proclaimed that a savior had been born.

On December 9, 1965 the celebration of Christmas changed many of us forever. Virtually regardless of age we had been told (yearly) about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and how this changed the course of history. As children we all nodded and smiled and wondered what Santa would bring us. And we were accused of not fully appreciating what was done for us on that night when Joseph and Mary welcomed a child into the world.

But on that night in 1965 a beloved comic strip came to life. You've probably already guessed this, but the comic strip was Peanuts and the night of December 9th we all gathered around our black and white television set to view "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

We Christians are funny people, and our commemoration of Christmas points to this reality like no other. Let's begin with why we celebrate on December 25th. We're pretty certain Jesus wasn't born on December 25th but the first Roman Emperor (Constantine) proclaimed in the year 336 that all Christians will celebrate Christmas on that day. By the Middle Ages most of Europe recognized the need to gather with loved ones to celebrate Christ Mass.

And since all these events happened north of the equator, it's not a stretch to recognize the need to celebrate in the middle of winter. This time of year recognizes that light is short and dark is long. Our distance from the equator determines the severity; my three years in Boston convinced me that the relationship between darkness and depression is real.

A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with a question many of us ask: What is the true meaning of Christmas? I've spoken about this before but many of us dread Christmas because we look toward pressure to get "the perfect gift" to people we love.

But I want to look at Charlie Brown and his friend Linus in a new light. You see, Linus is the true hero of this story. Charlie Brown seeks the meaning of Christmas. His little sister Sally, his dog Snoopy, and Lucy insist it's about getting presents (or real estate for Lucy). Because of Lucy's invitation Charlie Brown finds himself the director of the Christmas play. When this doesn't go well Linus and Charlie Brown are tasked to find the perfect Christmas tree for the Christmas show. Charlie Brown walks passed artificial trees and finds a tree that everyone else ignored. He convinces Linus to choose this tree.

And they do, but when they return, Charlie Brown is ridiculed for choosing a "loser tree." Nearly everyone laughs him off, and Charlie Brown (in his pain) asks this: "Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?"

I love Linus for many reasons, but I love him most for his next scene. He walked on stage, asked: "Lights please" and read today's Gospel. You can find it on You Tube.

I've always been aware of the play between light and darkness. As the spotlight shone on Linus the rest of theater grew darker. There wasn't much light in the theater but there was enough.

And in the interplay between light and darkness I've always been fascinated by the power of light. I showed my age by talking about the premier of A Charlie Brown Christmas and Im going to show it again. In the days before digital cameras we used something called "film" in our cameras. We inserted this film in our cameras, took pictures, and then took the film to the local drug store. This film could only be developed in something called a "darkroom." These darkrooms worked only if there was absolutely no light. "Kind of" dark would ruin the film. "Mostly dark" would ruin the film. Only "completely dark" would work. We could only appreciate the light of our pictures if they endured complete darkness during their development.

The power of light has never been a true power struggle. Light doesn't need 51% to win. It only needs 1%. And we use the image of light vs. darkness to explain the power of good vs. evil.

All of us, all of us, root for, cheer for, and hope for the power of good over evil. We may disagree over what is good and what is evil, but we all want the good.

And let's face it: we fear that evil will win over good. But I don't believe it and I hope to persuade you to do too. Because a little darkness never defeats light. An eight bulb chandelier still lights a room if one bulb burns out. But it doesn't work in the reverse: One working bulb will still light the room, albeit not as well.

One light conquers a world full of darkness. And I write this against a backdrop of incredible darkness. We need not read much these days to recognize words that mark darkness: Aleppo, climate change, cyber warfare, and countless others.

But Christmas tells us that we who love the light need not fear darkness. Our world tells us to be afraid, while a scary percentage of our fellow humans profit from telling us that we should be afraid of people we don't know.

But our faith tells us that we need not be afraid. Our faith tells us that the birth of Jesus gives us eternity, and an eternity that excludes pain, or fear, or death. And this eternity allows us to live the light every day. It allows us to be the light to ourselves and each other. Small acts of kindness do not lead us to foolishness, but closer to the kingdom that this new birth will proclaim.

Props to my friend Linus, Christmas tells us this: "Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

Linus reminds us that Luke proclaimed a light that can shatter all of our darkness.

December 18, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue with Isaiah. God, speaking to Ahaz, asked Ahaz to ask for a sign. Horrified, Ahaz refused saying he will not tempt the Lord. God responds by telling Ahaz that he will give a sign anyway: "the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name hiim Emmanuel." Matthew, in his Gospel, recounts the story of Jesus' birth, and more to the point, the role of Joseph. When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant he elected not to call her out publicly but instead quietly divorce her. But in a dream an angel came to Joseph and explained that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and recounts the passage from Isaiah we read in the first reading. On awaking, Joseph took Mary into her house.

Can you imagine God coming to and instructing you to ask for a sign? Speaking only for myself, I'd be thrilled. I've been a disciple my entire life, and given my path in life you could say I've pushed all my chips on the table. If Jesus is not the savior of the world and redeemed us from our sin, I've made a terrible mistake. And as much as I value the power of faith, I would love to have a sign in my back pocket. It wouldn't need to be big thing. I wouldn't ask for a new BMW to appear in front of me or for instant completion of a job God wants us to do (e.g. end hunger). Maybe God could stop the sun for an hour or so right at sunrise.

So why on earth was Ahaz so horrified? I have a few ideas. Perhaps Ahaz feared that God couldn't create a sign. This may sound far fetched but given the historical context it's not as crazy as it sounds. While God announced in Exodus that he is a jealous God and nobody is permitted to worship other gods, it didn't necessarily mean there weren't other gods. We generally feel that worshipping other gods is a bad idea simply because no other gods exist. But this reading comes to us at a time shortly before they were conquered by Babylon and exiled, and many at that time feared that God was defeated by another, stronger god. Perhaps Ahaz feared God was making promises He couldn't keep.

Or perhaps Ahaz just felt overwhelmed and thought God didn't want to ask for a sign. And if we're going to be honest, we can all make offers we pray the other person doesn't accept. We say: "You don't have to visit me in the hospital" when you crave a visit. Or, "We'll be find if you spend the holidays with your spouse's family" when you know how hurt you'll be. Maybe this explained Ahaz's reluctance.

Or maybe it's something much, much deeper. As long as we have faith, and little or no proof, we find it easy to believe what we're told. We all grew up believing that Adam and Eve were the first humans (created differently from all other primates), that Noah's Ark was a historical event, and that Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. But as we matured and learned more about our faith, we came to recognize that our faith needed to include harsh realities.

We learned that we evolved to become human. We learned that Noah's Ark was not a historical event, but was instead a parable (much like the parable of the prodigal son). We learned that nobody lived to be 969 years old. My first reaction, as I grew and learned, was puzzlement, and some fear. If this isn't true, then what is? But through the patience of my teachers I learned that my faith can include these realities and even grow from them.

But this is far from a universal understanding. Large numbers of Christians describe themselves as fundamentalists and hold the same beliefs they held as children. They live in fear that if Noah's Ark didn't happen, then nothing of their faith is true. There is no nuance, no gray area, no sense that God exists even if Noah's Ark didn't.

I'm saying this because I learned something a few years ago that continues to trouble me. The bright shiny line between Isaiah and Matthew centers on the line: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel." This is generally seen as proof that Jesus is the Messiah. But it's more complicated.

Isaiah wrote in Hebrew and the word he used for virgin was "almah" which means "young woman." It does not necessarily mean virgin. But Matthew was reading from a Greek translation of Isaiah, and the Hebrew word "almah" was translated to the Greek word "parthenos" which does mean virgin.

So where does that leave us? Well, many non Christians point to this as proof that Jesus wasn't the Messiah and we are all fools to believe in him. Others, perhaps some who are reading this, insist that almah does mean virgin and people like me are trying to lead good people astray.

But I'd like to choose another path. For centuries we've believed that sex was evil and that fact that we were conceived by sexual intercourse meant we were conceived in sin. Jesus, the perfect person, was conceived without intercourse, and therefore without sin.

But if Jesus was conceived the same way as all of us, does that mean he can't be the Messiah? If Jesus had a biological father who is lost to history, does that mean that nothing of our faith is true?

I hope not. I pray our faith is strong enough and mature enough to accept that Matthew was mistaken in his reading of Isaiah. Matthew wrote to his fellow Jews to show them that Jesus was the Messiah and seeing the word parthenos seemed like a slam dunk.

But this doesn't mean he (and the other Gospel writers) were mistaken about Jesus. Our mature and growing journey of faith often calls us to accept things we may not fully understand. So let us not choose the path of childish faith, nor the path of disbelievers. Let us instead choose the hard, complicated path that welcomes truth. Or, in the words of St. Anselme, let us seek not to understand that we may believe but instead believe that we may understand.

December 11, 2016: The Third Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our Advent journey continues with the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. He uses the imagery of wilderness and dry lands to talk about how they will be transformed to a place that will bloom with flowers. Weary hands and knees will be strengthened. The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the lame will leap like a deer. The mute will speak for joy; sorrow and lament will be ended. In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist now finds himself in prison. Hearing about Jesus’ ministry, John asks if Jesus is truly the one whose coming he proclaimed. Jesus responds by saying this: the “blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor.”

We are now officially more than halfway through Advent. You can tell there is something different because the priest’s vestments are rose instead of purple. OK, most of us will not notice, and this Sunday doesn’t feel much different from most Sundays. And honestly, most of us are still obsessed with the burdens of shopping for the right gift, properly decorating the inside and outside of our homes, and getting our Christmas cards out (full disclosure: we’ve already gotten three Christmas cards in the mail while we’re praying most of our recipients get our cards before December 25th).

Much like Lent, the journey of Advent speaks to the dichotomy between light and darkness. We commemorate Advent during a time when the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer and while we all know that soon the days will grow longer, we also recognize the power of darkness.

Isaiah recognizes this in ways that speak clearly to us. He prophesized during a time when everyone recognized their powerlessness over their climate. Rain may come, maybe too much, maybe too little, or maybe not at all. And he knew that their lives depended on the rain. Today, while we've mitigated some of this powerlessness by constructing dams and learning how to irrigate, we still find ourselves subject to his next dichotomy: strength and weakness. Isaiah also wrote during a time of great weakness when the Israelites were slaves to the Babylonians. It was a time of great darkness and they well could have surrendered to that darkness but they didn’t.

The prophet Isaiah instead spoke to a time in the future when all will be well. He wrote about a time when the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will leap. Listeners to the 1996 song by Wynonna Judd and Kenny Rodgers will recognize the song Mary Do You Know. Isaiah recognized, through the eyes of faith, that their worst fears would be replaced by their wildest dreams. And he was right: not long after this reading the Israelites returned to their Promised Land when the Babylonians themselves were conquered.

And the theme of strength out of weakness, hope out of despair, continues in the Gospel. Last week we saw John in his strength: he called the Pharisees and Sadducess as “broods of vipers.” Today we see him in prison, in his weakness.

And in his weakness we find him doubting all he did. Last week he proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah but here he doubted his choice. He wondered if he made the right choice and “backed the right horse.” We can read in his words that despair is creeping into his hope.

In fairness, we all do this. We all look back on the decisions we’ve made with some fear. Did we choose the right college? Did we choose the right major? Did we choose the right career? Did we choose the right spouse (and truthfully, did God choose the right child for us?). We all love hope and hate despair, but nevertheless despair continues to occupy space in our heads.

And props to Jesus, he didn't feed into the despair but instead reacted to this news well. Jesus didn't feel betrayed or get angry. He didn't criticize his cousin. Instead he hearkened back to Isaiah. He instructed a messenger to tell John this: "the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."

Instead of feeling offended, Jesus blessed those who feared he wasn't the Messiah. Jesus finished this Gospel by praising his cousin John the Baptist.

Discipleship calls us to overturn our view of everything: our understanding, our world, our relationships, our feelings, and even our beliefs. We live in a world that worships power and flocks to those who claim it. We live in a world that tells us to guard our resources and hate those we fear will attempt to steal them. But we need to understand that strength comes not from power but from weakness. We need to understand that when Jesus tells us that the last will be first, he meant it. We need to understand that Jesus proclaims a Kingdom where we need not fear others or see them as threats but instead love them as partners in Redemption.

Our salvation comes not from the lush farms but from the dry lands. Our glory comes not from wealth but from poverty. And our loyalty should not look to those who promise to make our lives better but to those who promise to improve the lives of those poor who will never meet us. Only those prophet leaders will truly welcome us into the paradise we all seek.

We live two thousand years from Matthew and we can find It easy to ignore his message. Jesus and John the Baptist can easily become statues that we revere but do not hear. Their messages can fade into the background where our ignorance becomes convenient and fashionable. But I implore everyone to choose another path. Jesus came to us for a single purpose: to redeem us from our sins and welcome us into salvation. We all wish to be saved but our desire for salvation passes through the command to feed the poor and listen when we ask the questions John asked.

Let us read these readings and look forward the birth of our Receemer with an awareness of Advent in our lives,

December 4, 2016: The Second Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to read from Isaiah; this reading is a few chapters later than last week. Isaiah continues to describe the coming Messiah, who we recognize as Jesus. Isaiah describes him having "a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord." Furthermore "he shall judge the poor with justice." He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. He concludes this reading describing how enemies will be friends: "Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb." Finally, "the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious. Matthew's Gospel gives us a much different tenor. John the Baptist, preaching in the desert, calls for everyone to repent. He baptized many who did repent in the Jordan River. But when he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees he called them a brood of vipers. He ended this reading by describing one who will come and baptized not in water, but in the Holy Spirit.

In the weeks after Easter I speak about how the readings are backwards. The first reading (from the Acts of the Apostles) describe events that come after the events described in the Gospel. In a funny sort of way, these readings are backwards.

In one sense they're not: Isaiah was written hundreds of years before Matthew. But we believe that Isaiah's words describe a man we now know as Jesus, and in Matthew's Gospel John's message comes before Jesus. And both readings give us a strong flavor of these two cousins and how one leads to another.

There's no easy way to say this: John preaches a harsh message. The message to repent means only one thing: there is need for repentance. Something is going on that God is not pleased with. Today we all recognize that we are all in need of repentance but we recognize that only because of our belief in the redemption of Jesus. When John preached he lived in a place where everyone believed God would judge them all as a whole.

Looking on this with 21st Century eyes I'd be terrified because I would have feared all of us would be judged by the actions of our worst. It was like being back in 5th grade where nobody got to go to recess because a few refused to behave.

But John's audience didn't see it the same way. They believed they kept the faith despite Roman occupation, and the Pharisees and Sadducees led them well. They understood God's word and they were cared for by these smart, faithful men. Hearing their leaders described as a "brood of vipers" couldn't have shocked anyone more. John preached a message that likely frightened nearly everyone but caused some to repent. He introduced something that all of us as Christians recognize: baptism.

And while I think most of us wonder about those who did not choose baptism, I'd like to talk about those who did.

Because what happens to those who choose repentance, choose baptism? Well, since our baptism declares (in our voice or our parents) that we will follow Jesus, we need to look carefully at the words of Isaiah. And yes, I understand that many of us were baptized as infants and had no need to repent; we can look at that through the eyes of following Jesus and always needing to repent for our sins. It's also true of adults; even though baptism begins our role as disciples it doesn't mean we need never repent again.

I've been told that 88 times in the New Testament Jesus instructed his disciples to follow him (I was told this in a sermon but haven't verified it). If we believe it, we have no clearer path than our first reading from Isaiah.

The original listeners of Isaiah heard these words and hearkened back to King David. As Christians we read these words and hearken to Jesus. But I believe we should read these words and take them as our own.

If we believe we are called to follow Jesus then we are bound by the words of Isaiah. And while we who follow Jesus think about those who have been marginalized, we have to recognize our place as those who aren't marginalized. We need to recognize that the fact that anyone who reads this homily is blessed. We are blessed with enough wealth to have a computer, internet access, and literacy.

Whenever I read these readings I think of a priest I lived with then I was a deacon: Fr. John Carr. When I met him he was 81 years old and lived with Parkinson's disease. He felt self conscious because his hands trembled and he didn't want to celebrate mass. But his hearing was excellent and he gained a reputation as a confessor. But his reputation as a confessor didn't come from his hearing but instead from his compassion. Fr. John's genius came from his ability to believe that we are all called to be Christ, and that we can. Every conversation I had with Fr. John convinced me that I had his full attention and that nobody else in the world existed. He wasn't looking over my shoulder, he wasn't planning his next encounter. To John I was all that existed. He lived his life embodying Isaiah's call to be gentle and bring together the lion and the lamb. Nobody has taught me about ministry more than him. He died in 2011 and I love him still.

He taught me that we have the power to judge, if not in court, in our relationships. We should judge not from appearance but in favor of the poor. That means that we choose to befriend a coworker who needs an ally instead of someone who will advance our career. That means we choose to reach out to someone who is marginalized because of race, faith, sexual orientation, or political beliefs.

We have the power to strike the ruthless with the rod of our mouth. Maybe that means we stand up to a friend who speaks ruthlessly about a group that we know that he doesn't. Maybe it calls us to challenge a racist, xenophobic, or sexist comment even when it comes from someone we care about.

And ultimately we have the power to bring enemies together. Woody Allen's fame comes from hundreds of quotes, but one of my favorites is this: "The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won't get much sleep."

With all due respect to Woody Allen, I think that the calf will sleep well if we take these readings seriously. The repentance that John calls us to also calls us to recognize each other without divisions. It calls us to judge each other with mercy. It calls us preach truth to power in a way that gives power to all. It calls us to bridge the divide between enemies that calls them to see each other as part of the same team.

We are now in our second week of Advent, two and a half weeks from Christmas. We commemorate Christmas best when we commit to the world that John and Jesus calls us to.

November 27, 2016: The First Sunday of Advent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We're going to spend much of Advent here, but we begin with the beginning of Isaiah. It's a hopeful reading, talking about the "days to come [where] the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest mountain." We are invited to climb this mountain where we will be instructed in God's ways and walk in His paths. We are promised a time of peace where we "shall beat [our] swords into plowshares and [our] spears into pruning hooks. Let us walk in the the light of the Lord. Matthew's Gospel describes Jesus' speech to his disciples. He describes a time when "two men will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Jesus warns them to be vigilant for the day the Son of Man returns

So are you ready for Christmas? I have to confess something: I hate that question. I know it's a throwaway line, something you say when you're talking with someone this time of year and you don't know what to say. And I know my answer is supposed to be some variation of: "I can't believe it's coming so soon."

But I want to say this: What does it matter? Christmas is December 25th every year, no matter what. If you're asking if I'm on track to do all the things I think I'm supposed to do, I'm probably not going get there.

Like the rest of you I'm bombarded by commercials, advertisements, social media, and conversations that tell me I'm not doing enough. On Christmas morning many of us will hold our breath, praying our loved one will unwrap our gift and find it "good enough."

OK, I'm a big fan of capitalism and I understand that our economy depends on us buying enough stuff and I understand that "Black Friday" means that many retailers depend on the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to be profitable ("in the black"). And I understand that much of our economy lives and dies on the next five weeks.

That said, I'm going to say something dangerous: let's not spend a scary amount of money trying to convince those we love that we love them. Let us find another way to express our love. Let us spend these weeks before Christmas choosing not anxiety over expectations, but instead choosing love.

Today we begin the season of Advent, the days between Ordinary Time and Christmas and we don't give it much thought. Unlike Lent we don't believe it will change our lives. Nobody "gives up something" for Advent. And truthfully, I don't think we should.

Lent, the six weeks before Easter, calls us to repent. Advent, on the other hand, calls us to hope. We all live in a history that has witnessed both the birth and resurrection of Jesus. And while we await return of Jesus, we cannot forget the time when we awaited his birth.

Isaiah reminds us of our future when we will all "climb the mountain of the Lord." We all think that climbing, going uphill, is both challenging and good. And I think there is wisdom to that. From our very beginning we've "reached for the sky" and thought of the sky as "the heavens." The effort it takes to reach our goals is worth it.

Reaching for the sky isn't simply about ambition, it's about seeking the light. We know that sunlight comes from a star 93 million miles from us that centers our solar system. Science also explains to us that our planet obits this star with a tilt that causes us to have seasons.

And these readings come long before we understood the science we take for granted. For them the concept of light and darkness meant much more than understanding the path of earth around the sun.

For them the pattern of days growing shorter caused them fear, and the pattern of days growing longer the next month gave them little comfort; they feared that one year the days would continue to grow shorter until there was no light at all. Simply put, they chose fear over hope.

But every year the days after the Winter Solstice grew long. If Advent calls us to anything, it calls us to choose hope over fear. As Christians we know that Christmas celebrates the birth of our Redeemer and while Good Friday acknowledges his death, Easter tells us that life is everlasting.

Easter calls us to recognize our salvation, but we should not ignore that Christmas calls us to recognize that Jesus walked among us. And our celebration of Advent calls us to look forward to that.

Twenty one centuries from these events may well cause us to look in different directions. But while Jesus' birth likely didn't occur on December 25th, it did occur in the middle of our darkness

God's love for us knows no bounds, but God has given us the ability to be generous with each other and our generosity reflects our love for each other and our ability to be light to each other. To bring light to those in darkness.

Let us spend this Advent, and every Advent, recognizing that our love limits us if we let it. Let us recognize that Advent calls us to the time before Jesus, to a time when we sought a redeemer. Let us recognize that our redeemer was born as a tiny child to unmarried parents who sought refuge in a barn and his first cradle was a feeding trough. Let us recognize that Jesus was born long after the Chosen People were exiled, returned, and then conquered by the Greeks and Romans.

None of these events tell us that hope is a good or realistic thing. We often think of hope as a synonym for optimism. But while optimism is evidence based, hope is faith based. Advent means nothing to us if it doesn't mean that we need to choose hope over evidence. It's easy to look at our world and believe that we're not redeemed. We see war, division, hate, and greed wherever we look.

So where do we see Advent? Clearly we don't see Advent where most of us get our information. But maybe we see Advent in other places. Maybe we see Advent, maybe we see hope, in the smiles of strangers we smile at. Maybe wee see Advent when a white person of European descent greets a women who wears a hijab and makes her feel welcome. Maybe we see Advent when a person of color is made to feel welcome in a land where he wasn't born but is a land where he can feed his family.

We're going to spend the next four and a half weeks preparing for the birth of our Redeemer. It's going to be a crazy time and we'll be bombarded by messages that try to convince us that our worth is based on how much we spend on our loved ones. Let us respect those messages but not follow them.

Instead let us think about Advent in terms of hope instead of expectation. Let us recognize that we celebrate the birth of the Redeemer in our deepest darkness for a good reason. Let us bring light.

November 20, 2016: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin our readings with the 2nd Book of Samuel. This is written shortly after the death of Israel's first king, Saul. Here the people approach David and ask him to succeed Saul as king because they believed that David was God's choice: "And the Lord said to you, You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be the commander of Israel." David agreed and he was anointed King of Israel. Luke's Gospel describes a gruesome scene: While Jesus was dying on the cross he was ridiculed. "He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God." Furthermore, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself." Jesus was crucified between two others. One of them also ridiculed Jesus while the other rebuked the first one: "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." He then asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus replied: "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Today we conclude the liturgical year. Next week we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent and we begin the march toward Christmas. So how do we end this year? We can finish with a sense of gratitude that we've made it through another year. We can finish with a sense of despair that we haven't accomplished all that we hoped. Or we can finish with a sense that we've had good days and bad, but the goal of building the Kingdom of God is a year closer.

I'd like to think that the last answer is correct. When people ask me to define Christianity I have a few answers. My friend Lynn says this: "Here comes everybody" (I think she got it from James Joyce but I like giving her credit). I tell people that we are a billion and a half people who are all trying to get along and understand what God wants us to do. Regardless I trust we are all marching in the same direction, all working toward the same goal.

And we can't talk about our journey without talking about our leadership. We all claim discipleship in Jesus Christ and look to him to tell us how we should live our lives. But the idea of calling him "king" brings a certain baggage.

Many of us who live in the United States (particularly my fellow history buffs) view the word "king" with suspicion. We were born out of a decision to declare independence from a king who we believed ruled not out of justice but out of greed. We see George III as a tyrant whose providence was not God given and unjust.

And even today while most of us revere his 4th Great Granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, we proudly acknowledge that we are not ruled by a king, but by someone of our own choosing. The concept of passing the mantle of leadership from father to son (or parent to child) puzzles us. We look to North Korea as our best evidence that human kingship makes no sense. They are currently ruled by Kim Jun Un who succeeded his father Kim Jong Il, who succeeded his father Kim Il Sung. We are told that citizens of North Korea refer to their king as the "dear leader" but the rest of us see his leadership in terms of oppression and starvation.

So what do we do with the term "king" and how do we commemorate today's celebration? I think we do well when we look on this term with suspicion because we have a rich history here.

If we see the title "king" as absolute ruler we can also see other titles. The Israelistes of previous generations from our first reading knew well that the title "pharaoh" designated not "leader" so much as "oppressor." For Americans we don't see King George III as a king but as a tyrant.

But how can we connect these abuses of power with a concept of Jesus as "Christ the King?" Do we need to correct our concept of Jesus?

No. We need to correct our concept of king. After their liberation from slavery in Egypt and their founding of the Promised Land, they were ruled by Joshua. After Joshua died they were ruled by a series of Judges.

But when the people wearied of the Judges they asked God for a king. Despite God's warnings of a king, an absolute ruler, they continued with their demands. Listening to their demands, God chose Saul to their king. Saul's record is mixed as best and a complete reading of the books of Samuel shows the complexity of this story.

But for the purpose of this reading we can say that Saul committed suicide by "falling on his sword" to make it appear he was killed in battle. Eventually (and this begins our reading) David is chosen by the people and is anointed. He was chosen over Saul's sons and several others. We can read this passages in several ways, but I think we can all agree that David did not come to the throne by anything other than God's plan.

David became king, and holds the apex of Jewish history, not because he was born to the right father, but because he was chosen by his followers, presumably listening to the will of God.

When we look at the first reading we see a king who was great, but flawed. The same David who slew Goliath also impregnated Bathsheba and killer her husband Uriah. He was a great man who suffered from being human.

On the other hand, we see the king in the Gospel in a much different light. Luke shows us Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, in the last few hours of his life. Anyone who witnessed this scene would be hard pressed to see him as king of anything.

The Romans crucified Jesus out of fear that he would claim to be King of the Jews and attempt an insurrection against the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was reserved for those whose crimes threatened the social order, and their crimes were written on the cross above their heads. Written above Jesus was the label "King of the Jews," and it was meant as a show of contempt.

And it worked. For the most part his disciples fled and those who were left jeered and mocked him; even one of men being crucified with him mocked him. But we find the hero in this reading in the other man being crucified. He admitted his guilt, acknowledged the innocence of Jesus, and asked for mercy.

And in the last few hours of his earthly life, in physical agony that we can't even imagine, Jesus chose mercy. Jesus promised him salvation.

Twenty one centuries later we struggle with the concept of capital punishment but are nearly uniform in the desire to make death quick and painless, and we can ignore the fate of these three men. Crucifixion sometimes took a few days of slow, painful suffocation and it was meant to make death long, harsh, and painful. We believe that Jesus died within about three hours of being raised on the cross and that was seen as quick. But his mercy found its voice even here.

So what do these images tell us about being king? Clearly the image of King David shows us that power is not equated with winning the genetic lottery, being born to the right parents. David also shows us that kingship does not guarantee a perfect moral compass.

Jesus dying on the cross does not speak to us of equating kingship to earthly power. It would be hard to imagine anyone on earth commanding less power than Jesus in the reading.

So instead let us look to kingship, to power, not to the people we choose or the people who appear powerful. Instead both David and Jesus hold important places in our hearts because of how they served. David, for all his faults, led Israel at a time when they built the Temple and ruled their destiny. Jesus led his disciples, and all of us, in a place of oppression that today commands the hearts of a billion and a half of us ("Here comes everyone!").

Several years ago I first heard the phrase "servant leader" and I think it speaks to us. Today a king isn't someone who holds the power of life or death over us, but if we believe these readings, a king is someone chosen to use power to make all of us better.

November 13, 2016: The Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament prophet Malachi. He speaks about how the "day is coming now, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and the evil-doers will be like stubble." But he also writes: "for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing its rays." In Luke's Gospel some were bragging about the Temple and how beautiful it looked. But Jesus warned that there would be a day when "not a single stone will be left on another." His listeners were disturbed by this and asked if there would be a sign that this was about to happen. Instead of directly answering their question he told them that there would be others who would falsely claim Jesus' name and predict that the "time is near at hand." He further tells them not to be frightened by predictions of war and revolution. Finally, he tells them not to fear persecution. They "will hand you over to the synagogues and to imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name." Jesus instructs them not to prepare a defense but instead "I myself will give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict." "Your endurance will win you your lives.

The end of the liturgical year is coming soon. Our secular calendar ends on December 31st but the liturgical year ends next week with the feast of Christ the King. The liturgical year begins with the First Sunday of Advent and this year it's November 27th (it's usually the end of November but is sometimes the beginning of December).

The readings for the last few weeks of the liturgical year center on what we call "apocalyptic literature;" fancy words for prophecies of the last days. Much of the early books of the Bible tells us how the world began; apocalyptic literature tells us how things will end.

And these readings sometimes scare us. We all like to hear stories about how we began: the Garden of Eden, the Call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, etc. They make us feel good because they end with happy endings: we were born.

But stories about the future tend to concern us because we often don't know what they mean. On a human level we all know that at some point we will die and we don't like to think about that. And, in the final word, this informs how we read Biblical writers about how things will end.

When we hear the phrase "apocalyptical literature" we tend to think about the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. But apocalyptic literature is much larger than this one book and it points to hope.

Much of the Old Testament centers on how God works in our lives. Abraham founded a new nation, Moses delivered us from slavery, King David lead a great nation, etc. But our history doesn't limit itself to our own victories. God may have our back, but we can look at our future with hope.

And let's face it: apocalyptic literature is supposed to give us hope for the future. Much of it was written during times of oppression when we feared we would not survive. Again and again its message was this: even when evil appears to have power over good, even when goodness appears doomed, do not despair. God is good and goodness will always triumph over evil.

But there's a problem with modern interpretations of this. Writers and preachers have found in this a way to advance their own causes. They have turned these readings on their heads and make people afraid. I'm not certain when this started, but it certainly got a boost in the 1970s with a book called The Late Great Planet Earth. The author read this literature and made a fortune telling good people that they should fear these readings. He proclaimed that these readings served as a warning that we were not those who were saved, but were in danger of being the ones who would be condemned.

But even a cursory reading of Luke shows how this is not possible. We all know that Jesus' relationship with the Temple was mixed at best. Jews of the time saw the Temple as the apex of their history, the singular sign that God favored them over the Romans. On the other hand Jesus saw the Temple with an awareness that for all its beauty it also showed our flaws. The disparity between wealth and poverty did not end at the Temple door, and the Romans' strength was greater than Temple walls.

We know, from the great sweep of history, that when Jesus spoke these words, the Temple would be destroyed in a few years. It has never been rebuilt.

But we persevere. And the way we persevere matters.

God promises that good will triumph over evil but God does not promise that bad things won't happen. When Jesus tells us that others "will seize you and persecute you; they will hand you over to the synagogues and to imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name" he was telling us something critical. There are times when we will be persecuted. Most of us reading this will not be arrested for our faith, but many of us will be ridiculed. I recently told a patient of mine that I was Catholic and she told me that she felt bad that I was following a religion that "strayed from God." She encouraged me to come back to Jesus and join her church.

And Jesus tells us not to live our lives in fear of this. I was a priest before the sex abuse scandal hit the front pages of the media, but I well remember taking precautions against false allegations. I made certain I was never alone in a room with another person, regardless if that person was an adult or a child. And that made sense. Nobody could falsely accuse me if I was never in a place to be accused.

But that well founded caution can take over our lives. We need to believe that we need not live in fear of accusation all the time. When we are accused, regardless the circumstances, we still live in the love of God. Perhaps without our awareness, we drift from our roles as disciples when our fear of persecution or ridicule changes our behavior or causes us to fear doing what we know we should do.

The readings this week and next call us to courage, to security, and to believe that no matter what happens, good will triumph over evil. The destruction of the Temple by the Romans was meant to destroy us but it didn't. Instead brave Jews and Christians (those who didn't follow Jesus and those who did) rose from the rubble of the Temple and kept the faith. For them apocalyptic literature gave them all they needed to keep the faith.

It should do that to us today.


November 6, 2016: The Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Yes, it's happened again. Our first reading comes from the Second Book of Maccabees, a book not accepted by non Catholics. The books of Maccabees record the events a few hundred years before Jesus when the Jews were occupied by the Greeks. The Greek did not respect Jewish customs and dietary restrictions. In this scene we see a mother and her seven sons arrested and forced to eat pork (which observant Jews see as unclean). One by one four of the brothers are tortured and killed for refusing. When the fourth brother was near death he said: "It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, but for you there will be no resurrection to life." Luke's Gospel speaks of a conversation between Jesus and Sadducees (scholars who did not believe in life after death). Trying to trap Jesus they asked about a woman who was widowed and remarried several times. They asked if there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be in Heaven. Jesus does not fall for the trap, teaching instead that while marriage exists in this life, it won't exist in Heaven.

Last week I explored the question of who is saved. This week's question centers on what the afterlife looks like.

It's a good question and it affects much of how we live our lives. Last week's question and this week's question have both been data mined in Scripture with a vigor that Wikileaks can only admire.

And it's a hard question. When God first spoke to Abraham, Abraham's understanding that he would father a "new nation" sounded so overwhelming about this life that eternal life didn't even enter his thoughts.

In the same way, when God promised Moses and his descendants a new land, there was no mention of what happens after we die.

The very concept that our lives survive longer than our earthly live never occurred to most of the people we admire from the Old Testament. After all, their lives were (to quote Thomas Hobbes) were "nasty, brutish, and short." Life expectancy was low and unless you were wealthy, it was full of hard work.

The first time we see much of anything in Scripture about life after death is Sheol, but that is seen as a place of darkness, and was later translated into the Greek word Hades.

Around the same time Judaism began to explore the belief in a Messiah who will restore all that has been loss (Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews do not). Throughout history, during times of strife and persecution, the belief that the Messiah would come and they would return to a golden age gave hope to the downtrodden. Eventually most Jews held to the belief that the Messiah would restore to life all those who had died before his coming.

As we can see from this Gospel, Messiah and resurrection became a cornerstone of Jesus' message. And here the Sadducees hoped to trap him by asking about marriage. It was part of Moses' law that if a married man died without a child, and if he had a (presumably nonmarried) brother, the brother was tasked to marry the widow to keep the name going. They hoped to trap Jesus into giving an answer that would offend someone.

Instead Jesus tells them that the afterlife is beyond what we can imagine. Since the primary purpose of marriage in Jesus' time was to create a new generation of people, and since people in Heaven live forever, there is no need for this.

Since then all Christians believe in the resurrection, but we've struggled with (looping back to last week) who gets to Heaven.

By the Middle Ages most Christians believed that the salvation that Jesus promised was reserved for only a few. Heaven existed, but the bar was set so high that most of the people you knew would not reach it. Most were not worthy of salvation.

And by the first half of the 20th Century many of us were convinced that God demanded that salvation be denied to good people who missed church or used birth control. Today a few Catholics continue to believe this.

As I spoken about several times, there continues to be a population who believe salvation is reserved only for Christians. But this number continues to decrease.

I find it interesting that our understanding of salvation has become better and more inclusive. First we believed there was no such thing as Heaven. Then we believed that there was a place but it wasn't very good. Then most believed that the Messiah would come and restore us. Then we believed that there is a Heaven but it's only there for a few, or for those who obeyed random laws. Or only for Christians.

But today a growing number of us believe Jesus promise of salvation has thrown open the doors of salvation to anyone who wants to be there. But can that really be? I think so.

We can look at our history, or any history, as either regressive or progressive. Either we are getting worse, or we are getting better.

Many people look back on the first generation of Christians as the ideal and our history consists of straying off the path with the need to "start over." Countless communities of Christians with names like "New Canaan" or "New Jerusalem" were founded on the well meaning belief that if they can only go back to their Christian origins they all would be well. They've all failed.

Instead I propose that we are getting better in our understanding of what we call salvation history and our role as disciples. We are, simply put, growing in our understanding of God's generosity and what that calls us to. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

The institution of slavery was a given during Jesus' time. In the United States for over 200 years countless devout Christians owned slaves and found ways to justify themselves. But other Christians read the same Scriptures and called out the slaveowners. It was a long and painful process, but now we would be hard pressed to find a Christian who finds slavery defensible.

Women in the time of Jesus had few rights and were easy to victimize. Again, despite efforts to misuse Scripture to continue discriminating, we've been able to women as valuable in their own right (OK, the ongoing discrimination of women in the Catholic priesthood endures, so we're not done yet).

But I point out that if we believe what we say we believe that God loves us all, it calls us to do the same. Knowing that Heaven awaits us allows us the courage of the brothers in Maccabees, and it allows us to imagine a Heaven so far beyond our imagination that even our cornerstone institutions don't make sense.

October 30, 2016: The Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes (again) from a book that appears only in Catholic Bibles (the book of Wisdom, sometimes called the Wisdom of Solomon). The author is speaking to God about God's power and mercy: "Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence." Furthermore, "You spare all things because all things are yours, Lord, lover of life, you whose imperishable spirit is in all." Finally, "Little by little, therefore, you correct those who offend, you admonish and remind them of how they have sinned, so that they may abstain from evil and trust in you, Lord." Luke's Gospel tells the story of Zaccheaus, a senior tax collector and wealthy man. He wanted to see Jesus and climbed a tree for a better view. Jesus, looking up, said: "Zaccheaus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today." Those gathered complained that Jesus was going to a sinner's home. Protesting this, Zaccheaus announced that he would give half of his property to the poor and if he cheated anyone he would repay it four times. Jesus replied: "Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man has come to seek out and save what was lost."

So what must we do to be saved? No question in the history of Christianity has sucked up more oxygen than this. This question has also caused the largest schisms in our history. Different people point to different Bible passages as the single answer. We have to believe, we have to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and savior. We have to feed the hungry because "whenever you did this to the least of my people, you did it to me."

But unfortunately we set this up to make salvation exclusionary. If you are feeding the poor when you should have been accepting Jesus Christ, you're out. If you profess belief in Jesus Christ but ignore the suffering of others, your beliefs get you nowhere. And what if you believe you have to be born again if you were born into a place of faith and never left?

But what if the question of salvation is greater and more generous than that? Three weeks ago I offered the theory that Jesus healed all 10 lepers even though only one recognized him. I suggested that salvation is broader than "just us." And I think the book of Wisdom also points to this.

Wisdom was written not long before the birth of Jesus at a time of conflict. The Jews were dominated by the Romans and were influenced by Greek philosophy. Some thought they should adopt the customs of their conquerers while others feared they would lose their identity. They author of Wisdom was clear that, if they were to survive, they had to remember that God and God alone brought them from Egypt and ruled over them. Parts of Wisdom are harsh but here we find kinder words. The author speaks of God loving "all that exists." God corrects those who sin that they may return.

Parents understand all too well that discipline is both difficult and necessary, and they bring different understandings to it. Far and away the best understanding I've heard about disciplining children is this: "I love you too much to allow you to behave like this." Discipline, in this situation, is not revenge for bad behavior, and it doesn't see the child as a bad person or unworthy of love. Instead, here discipline takes the long view and says this: you are a good person and I will always love you beyond your understanding. And because of this love I want only the best for you.

So if we see parents in this light, why can't we seem to see God in this same light? Even the question of what must we do to be saved belies a belief that God isn't a loving parent as much as dispassionate judge who decides who is saved and who is condemned. Catholics of my generation and older remember being told that missing mass (church), even once, without a good reason constitutes a mortal sin. Dying with an unconfessed mortal sin on your soul meant that a loving God would refuse you salvation.

Not to put all the blame on Catholics, many Protestants continue to hold that those who do not hold a personal belief that Jesus died to save us are also refused salvation. Albert Einstein, Mahatma Ghandi, and Carl Sagan are just out of luck because they chose poorly.

I don't believe this and I offer Zacchaeus as exhibit A. By any measure he was doing well in his society. I've spoken of this in previous homilies, but tax collectors were Jews who "sold out" to the Romans by taking money from their fellow Jews and enriching both themselves and the Roman empire. We learn first about Zaccheaus that he was a senior tax collector and a wealthy man. This would have made him especially popular with the Romans and especially hated among the Jews.

And we have no understanding of his curiosity in seeing Jesus. We see him as a good guy because of how this ends, but at the beginning he may have had no interest other than "who is this guy?" He may have even shown interest in Jesus to make certain Jesus and his disciples wouldn't interfere with his wealth.

But there was something about Zaccheaus that sparked Jesus' interest, something that caused Jesus to invite himself to Zaccheaus' home.

Then, and only then, do we hear from Zaccheaus. Whether or not he expected to be in the spotlight, he reacted to the murmurs from the crowd and he didn't like it. And that caused him to say something extraordinary: "I'll give half my property to the poor and if (if?) I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount." I think it's fair to say that he didn't get to be a senior tax collector by giving away money: this was clearly not something he had been doing all along.

And based on this Jesus tells him that "salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost."

Zaccheaus doesn't profess belief in Jesus and we have no idea whether or not he actually kept these promises. Yet he gets a blank check.

And yes, in fairness he repents and that is a constant theme in what we think of as salvation. But I also like to think that when Jesus talks about salvation, he's a little like Oprah Winfrey: "You get saved, and you get saved, and you back there? You get saved too."

OK, maybe that's a little over the line, but what if salvation is reserved for anyone who wants it? If we were all given a free pass, would we spend the rest of our lives cheating other people, laughing at people who profess faith? Or would we go in the other direction? I like to think that a deep awareness of our salvation, of God's love and devotion to us, would take us in the other direction. It would allow us to be kind. It would allow us to not feel like we need to be "better" than others to compete for finite places in Heaven. If Zachheaus, the senior tax collector and a wealthy man, has a place, so do we.

Perhaps the answer to the question of what must we do to be saved is this: Yes.

October 23, 2016: The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with Sirach, one of the books included in Catholic bibles but not in Protestant or Jewish scripture. Sirach speaks about God as a God of justice who knows no favorites. That said, God hears the cry of the poor and oppressed: "The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal." In Luke's Gospel Jesus speaks of two men who entered the temple to pray. One was a pharisee, a man of great learning and respect; the other was a tax collector, a man seen as a sinner beneath contempt. While the pharisee prayed in triumphant terms, thanking God for making him better than others, the tax collector throws himself on God's mercy and admits to his being a sinner. Jesus then states: "I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

God is not fair. That's right, you read this correctly. God is not fair: it says so right there in the first reading. "The Lord is a God of justice." It does not say that the Lord is a God of fairness.

You see, there really is a difference. When we deal with each other in fairness we essentially treat everyone the same, but when we deal with each other in justice we treat everyone differently. When we deal in justice we give what the other person needs.

Parents know this. They (hopefully) recognize that different children have different needs. I once had a coworker who had a son and a daughter. His son was headstrong and had a thick skin. Left to his own devices he would play baseball all day and would never get within a mile of a book. He was certainly smart enough to do better in school than he did but he just didn't see any value in studying. Vague promises from parents and teachers that he was being taught lessons that he would need later in life fell on deaf ears. My coworker recognized that his son needed almost constant reminders to read and study but that with enough "encouragement" his son would do what he needed to do. His daughter, on the other hand, loved being in school. She constantly got good grades and her friends were also top achievers. But she was also a "daddy's girl" and lived and died on my coworker's approval. He learned through hard experience that even the mildest criticism or correction lead immediately to tears for the rest of the day. He had two children whom he loved with his whole heart, but he knew that in disciplining his children he couldn't be fair. The few times his son commented, "You don't yell at her like that" he needed to explain that if he yelled at her she would dissolve into tears while if he spoke softly to him, he'd flunk out of school.

Let me give another example. During the 1960s the Green Bay Packers (an American football team) was coached by Vince Lombardi and among football fans Lombardi is a coaching legend. In his first 7 years the Packers were the best team in football for 5 of them (including the first 2 Super Bowls). Vince led with a strong work ethic but he also knew how to successfully coach his players. Paul Hornung (running back) was a tough cookie and responded best to strong criticism. Lombardi knew he could be as harsh as he needed to be and Hornung would take it in stride. But the quarterback Bart Starr looked on Lombardi as almost a father figure. Lombardi knew that any criticism of Starr needed to happen in private. Public criticism from Lombardi deeply wounded Starr. Lombardi was just and not fair.

I say this because I think we all want to be dealt with fairly by God, and we're not. I think when we see refugees from Syria, or Afghanistan, or Somalia we cringe over their lot in life. And I believe many of us feel some level of "survivor's guilt." Why them and not me? I was born into a loving middle class family. I grew up at a time when I was not called to take up arms and defend by country. My health, at least to this point, has been good.

And two weeks ago I was called to the bedside of a child, not even a teenager, who was dying on my hospice. This past week a 41 year old husband and father of two from my church died of cancer.

We all recognize that these horrible events were not caused by anything they did. We don't know why they drew those particular cards, but nobody has ever said to me "this isn't just." Instead we say "this isn't fair" and they are right.

So instead of wondering why life isn't fair, perhaps we should look to how we can make everyone's life just. If you've been reading this for a while you know that I place heavy emphasis on our role in "salvation history." In other words I reflect deeply on our role in participating in God's desire for justice, that all of us receive the justice we deserve.

And I think this "sets the table" for what we read in Luke's Gospel. Jesus' time, like ours, creates strong societal divisions. Some people, some jobs, some neighborhoods are valued while others aren't. And in Jesus' time the pharisees claimed an important place. They were the "best of the best." They were blessed. They held positions of honor because they were learned in Scripture and spent their days reading, studying and debating God's word. Today we recognize them as the authors of the Talmud, Jewish wisdom literature.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were despised. They were fellow Jews yet agents of the Romans, they were tasked with the role of collecting money from the working class. And if that weren't enough, there is good reason to believe that their pay came from their ability to overcharge and keep the difference.

If you were a pharisee and entered the temple with a tax collector, you could hardly be blamed for looking down your nose on him. And indeed that's exactly what the pharisee did. He didn't look on his good fortune with gratitude, but with entitlement. His words dripped with arrogance: "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector."

Meanwhile the tax collector, probably recognizing the contempt others felt toward him, said this: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner."

We know nothing of the background of these two men, but I think it's safe to assume that they came from different backgrounds. The pharisee likely came from a family of some means who were able to send him to school to learn about the Torah; they sat in temple in a place of honor and everyone knew him. The tax collector likely had to scramble for a living, having no opportunity to attend schools to be a pharisee. While nearly everyone of that time aspired to be a pharisee, nobody aspired to be a tax collector.

And this is where Jesus comes in. He has no respect for the events that made the pharisee a pharisee. And (we can read this in the Gospel) Jesus had no patience for his self serving and self congratulatory prayer. Instead he recognized and praised the tax collector's need for mercy.

For those of us who have been blessed, for those of us can be forgiven for believing our good fortune is the result of our hard work, should pay extra attention to these readings. Because God does

The pharisee could have been the hero by praying the same prayer as the tax collector. No matter who we are, no matter what we've been given, no matter what position we enjoy in our society, we are still in need of God's mercy.

Why are some of us given the lion's share of the world's fairness while others aren't? We don't know, and perhaps it's none of our business. But these readings call us, indeed demand of us, that those of us who benefit from "fairness equation" work even harder to make the world just. Sirach tells us that God is just. If we believe we are created in the image of God, doesn't that call us to be just also?

October 16, 2016: The Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with Exodus. After leaving Egypt, Moses and the Israelites came upon Amalek, near Mt. Sinai, who waged war against Israel. As the forces fought each other Moses stood on top of a hill; as long as Moses kept his hands raised up Israel was winning. But when his hands grew tired and he let them rest, the Israelites began to lose. When Moses was given a rock to rest on, and when Aaron and Hur supported his hands, "Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of his sword. In the Gospel Luke recounts the story of a widow who approached an unjust judge ("who neither feared God nor respected any human being") asking for justice against another. The judge cared nothing for this woman but eventually decided in her favor "lest she finally come and strike me." Jesus then told his disciples that since justice was given by an unjust judge to this woman, how much more will God "then secure the rights of his chosen ones." He ends this Gospel with these words: "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Perhaps I've noticed something that nobody else has noticed, or perhaps I'm just seeing that doesn't exist, but I'm thinking that unnamed women occupy an important place in the Gospels. We can look at the 21st Chapter of Luke and the 12th Chapter of Mark to learn of the "widow's mite." They describe a poor woman who gives a small offering while others give greater amounts. Jesus tells his disciples that her generosity pleases God greatly because she gives out of her need.

Many of us admire women, and I'm far from the only man who has "married up." But this woman in Luke's Gospel gains our admiration not for her intellect but for her determination. She was virtually powerless in the face of the judge. I've spoken about this before but women of Jesus' time exercised power almost exclusively through the men in their lives. Wives, sisters and daughters of powerful men held power. Wives, sisters, and daughters of poor men held little power.

But women who were not wives, or sisters, or daughters of anyone (because they had died) exercised almost no power. The idea that this powerless widow claimed the power to approach a judge again and again demanding justice should make us proud.

She should make us proud because she demanded justice above the probable advice of everyone around her. I'm fairly certain they advised her to keep quiet and cut her losses. We assume she had a case but we don't know that. All we know from this reading is that she believed she had a case. We can only hope she was right.

So what do you when your desire for justice is denied? Clearly this woman doesn't feel that her voice has been heard. She could have given up, she could have walked away, and she had good reasons for despair. But instead she kept presenting her case, regardless of cost.

I think this calls us to a larger question: What do we do when our well reasoned prayer isn't answered? What happens when "Plan A" doesn't work?

In this we harken back to the first reading from Exodus. Here we find the Israelites, lead my Moses, under attack from the Amalekites. Moses took his place on top of a hill and raised his arms and he expected he would win the battle quickly. He didn't. As the battle went on Moses grew weary and couldn't continue to stand with his arms raised. OK, what is Plan B when Plan A doesn't work? I give credit to Moses and his people who figured out that they needed to give Moses a rock to sit on and they needed to hold up his arms. They recognized that only by banding together would they win.

And only by banding together can we find justice for this widow. She could have easily decided that God had abandoned her. She could have decided that God favored the judge. She could have decided she did not deserve justice. She could have decided that she asked for "yes" and God decided "no."

But she didn't, and the Gospel begins with a fascinating statement: "Jesus told his disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart." I believe these words may carry more weight and importance today than it did when Jesus taught them.

We are a people who expect a return on our investments. We expect to get paid for our work, we expect praise for our generosity, and we expect our prayers to be answered. We think ourselves good people with reasonable requests: why wouldn't our prayers be answered?

And furthermore we expect our prayers to be answered on our timeline. I haven't been able to trace the source, but I have vivid memories of some saint from long ago praying: "God give me patience and give it to me now."

I theorized that this statement carries more weight today than it did in Jesus' time. Back then his disciples (and, let's face it, everyone) understood that they lived in a world much beyond their control. They had virtually no ability to treat diseases, consuming enough food to live was much more difficult, and they were completely at the mercy of the current climate.

But today we've made incredible strides in all of these areas. That's wonderful in that our lives have become much richer (to say nothing of longer) but it has also led us down the path of hubris, of believing that we can answer our own prayers. Of believing that we have mastered our universe to the point where prayer has taken a smaller place in our lives.

But prayer continues to demand a central part of our lives because, for all we've accomplished, we're still not in charge of what happens to us. It's too easy to see prayer as "just another tool" in our quest for what we want or need. If we see prayer that way, it will never work, it will never be the tool we need.

When Jesus tells us to pray continually and not lose heart I think it tells us not to score our prayers but to pray regardless of what happens. As I said earlier this nameless widow kept pressing her case regardless of her place, but also regardless of the results. When she didn't get the justice she demanded right away she kept at it. Perhaps she did it out of desperation, but I like to think she kept at it simply because it was the right thing to do.

And the same for us. We all have things we want or need that we don't have. And we have been praying for them. But if God hasn't given us what we want or need it's not because we're not good enough and it's not because we haven't prayed long enough or well enough. Prayer is an end, not a means. We should pray continually because it deepens our relationship with God.

And God has promised, again and again, that our needs will be provided. So perhaps Moses teaches us that the death of "plan A" doesn't mean God has abandon us and the widow teaches us that we should pray without condition and without expectation.

October 9, 2016: The Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We read from the 2nd Book of Kings about Naaman. At Elisha's command he plunged into the Jordan River seven times. When he did he was cured of his leprosy and his skin "became again like the flesh of a little child." Naaman (who was a pagan) then professed belief in God and offered a gift to Elisha but Elisha refused. Naaman then promised not to sacrifice anything "to any other god except the Lord." Luke's Gospel also speaks about leprosy. As Jesus entered a village ten lepers called to him from a distance: "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" Jesus then instructed them to "show yourselves to the priests." On their way they were healed. One of the ten returned, glorifying God and fell at the feet of Jesus. Noting that this man was a Samaritan (and an enemy to the Jews), Jesus asked him why none of the others returned. Then he told the man to "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you."

Last week I confessed that the Gospel troubled me because I thought we misunderstood the point. Alas, I find this Gospel difficult for the same reason. When I was a small child I was told Luke wrote about thank you notes and gratitude. Jesus healed all ten, but only one thought to return and thank him. The other nine were ungrateful and unworthy of Jesus' healing. The warning was clear: If don't write thank you notes to your grandparents for the money they send you for your birthday, they will stop being generous.

And, by extension, if you're not sufficiently grateful to God for giving you life things will not go well. Perhaps in this life, or perhaps in the next. I think we can all agree that this was a pretty heavy burden to put on a child. But I'm most troubled by the idea that children from previous generations become parents themselves and don't reexamine these readings.

We all know that over the course of our lives we develop. We all agree that we develop and change physically, and we all agree that we develop emotionally. But the idea of developing spiritually gives us pause and many of us believe we should read these readings through the eyes we had as children.

But I think we should give ourselves more credit. I think these readings are not about thank you notes or even gratitude (blessed as they are). Instead I read 2nd Kings and Luke as signs of God's inclusion of everyone, not just those who know him.

We probably should start by talking about leprosy. There is a disease today that we call Hanson's Disease and it's easily treated; it's caused by a bacteria and we treat it with antibiotics. But before we learned how to cure it, it caused great fear. It was often contagious and devastating when left untreated. But leprosy in the Bible may have included not only leprosy but any chronic skin condition, like psoriasis. Some sufferers were excluded from society (like those in the Gospel) while others were not (like Naaman). Once afflicted, a person who believed himself to be healed needed to be certified as healed to rejoin society: that's why Jesus instructed the ten to show themselves to the priest.

The first reading also requires some context. Naaman was an army commander and answered to the king of Aram; he was not an Israelite and did not worship God. But Aram sent him to the King of Israel for a cure. He was not able to cure Naaman but the prophet Elisha was. That's where our reading begins. So grateful was Naaman that he promised to worship God and God alone.

Unlike Naaman, who first approached the king, the ten lepers knew exactly who to ask for healing. They called to Jesus from a distance because their disease prohibited them from getting too close. We can only imagine their reaction when, on their way to the priests, they saw that they were cured.

And finally we need to give some context to the role of healing in the Bible. We have the luxury of taking for granted that we can heal most diseases, but that was far from the case in these readings. And because of that Jesus is able to use healing as a metaphor for salvation. As a matter of fact, in John's Gospel miracles are called "signs." Today we believe that antibiotics and other medications cure everyone equally but back then it was believed that disease was a sign of God's displeasure and healing was a sign of God's mercy.

I find it interesting, and important, that Naaham was not someone who was interested in worshipping God, and was not asked to. But when he was healed by God he came to believe.

And when the 10 lepers find themselves healed only one acknowledged Jesus (and he was a Samaritan at that!). But I believe this teaches us something crucial in our world today: while we all believe that we are saved by the resurrection and redemption of Jesus, it's not reserved only for those who recognize it. In other words, not reserved for only Christians.

When the other 9 did not return, Jesus did not withhold or take back healing. They were healed even if they did not recognize how their experience played into the salvation history of everyone.

Should that cause us jealousy or a belief that they get the same benefit without doing the work? I hope not. I think that would make us petty.

Devoting our lives to Christ certainly calls us to believe and act differently but I think if we see this as a burden we need to pray for spiritual growth. The leper who returned to give thanks to Jesus was not burdened by this insight, but was instead enriched. He was able to live with a sense of joy and satisfaction because he knew the source of his healing and that this source would be with him for all eternity. The other nine may have thought they caught a break or somehow deserved healing, but they could never be entirely assured of their future.

These readings find great importance today as religion is often used as a triumphant sense of "us" (who are saved) and "them" (who are not). The reality of Naaman's healing took nothing away from the "chosenness" of chosen ones. The healing of the 9 takes nothing away from the healing of the 1.

In the final analysis, I think we live our best lives when we believe that while Christ is necessary for our salvation, his salvation extends to all those who recognize, and all those who don't.

October 2, 2016: The Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. He begins the reading by complaining bitterly that the Lord does not listen to him: I cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? The Lord responds by instructing him to write "down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily." Further, "the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late." In Luke's Gospel we read about the apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus responded by telling them that if they had the faith of a mustard seed they would have the power to uproot a mulberry tree. Furthermore, he tells them that a servant who finished his field work would not be invited to a place at the master's table. Instead the master wouldn't be grateful for the servant's work because they servants only did what they were obliged to do.

Can I make an admission to you? I know preachers aren't supposed to say this, but I really don't like this Gospel. It's not what it says, but how we interpret it.

If you came here this week hoping to be uplift by today's readings, you may be thinking that you'd be better off spending your morning sleeping in or reading the newspaper at Starbucks. Hopefully by the end of this homily you'll rethink and see the value in these readings.

We don't know much about Habakkuk but I think we can all can sympathize. We can all, I believe, exquisitely describe those things we want God to fix: our bad habits, our families, our political process, whatever. And we all feel the impatience when God doesn't act on our timetable or share our agenda. If only God shared our awareness and path to true universal happiness.

Unfortunately our path between Habakkuk and Luke's Gospel leads has often led us to the belief that we don't have what we want because our faith isn't strong enough. It's this misinterpretation that causes me to groan when I see this Gospel coming.

And while I'm hesitant to run afoul of beliefs we were told as children and have believed for decades, let me try. I recognize how many of us have ingrained this belief into our very souls. Many years ago I was visiting my parents and attended daily mass with my father. I don't remember the readings but I do remember the priest saying: "If your prayers are not being answered maybe you should look at your life." I'm not articulate enough to describe my anger at this, thinking about my fellow parishioners who were there praying for loved ones with cancer or children with addictions. Or even those of us who were praying for world peace and an end to conflict in our families. Simply put, this priest blamed us for our troubles by telling us we weren't good enough and if we had enough faith, all would be good.

And when Jesus tells us that if our faith was as large as a mustard seed we would be able to do great things, we've misunderstood this to believe that if we can't do great things our faith must not be as great as a mustard seed. And many of us, who don't grow mustard, were told that mustard seeds are the smallest of all seeds and they become the greatest of shrubs (in fairness we're told this in the 13th chapter of Matthew's Gospel).

But you see, mustard seeds are not exceptionally small, and they grow to become great shrubs, not trees. For generations we've been putting ourselves down by believing we don't stack up to even the smallest of seeds and therefore have no chance to do great things. The disconnect between our prayers and our reality lies solely in our weakness.

But here's the thing with mustard seeds, that Jesus' listeners would know: they don't grow into great and tall trees, they spread laterally like shrubs. When I lived in the American south there was a plant called kudzu (you can look it up). It's not native to the United States but was introduced in the 1800s as a way to stop erosion. Once planted it spread like crazy, overtaking and overwhelming other plants. It's become a metaphor for out of control growth.

And, in a funny sort of way, I think this is what Jesus had in mind when he spoke to his apostles. I don't think he was shaming them for having so little faith, but was instead encouraging them to become a fast moving shrub that spread in all directions.

Because by doing this, by spreading in all directions, we find ourselves. Instead of preparing and purifying ourselves so that we may spread our faith, we should rather spread our faith so that we can purify ourselves.

With appropriate apologies to the brave men and women who (without regard to their personal safety) taught me in school, I have learned my best lessons not in the classroom but outside of it. And while there was content in the classroom, the world outside of the classroom gave me context. At the risk of running afield of the readings, when the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, Jesus told them to be like a mustard seed. But instead of shaming them to have the faith to move a mulberry tree, he was telling them to spread and find their faith in their travels.

I had no illusions, when I completed my education, that I was exactly what the Kingdom of God had been waiting for all these years. I prayed I was given enough to start the conversation with the people I met, and in truth I was. My understanding of Scripture (including these readings) gave me tools to enrich the faith journeys of those I met. But to a much larger degree they gave the me the tools to understand how these Scriptures inform the realities we all live with. I've learned how little to value interpretations that leave us feeling guilty and paralyzed, and how much to value our ability to preach the salvation message of Jesus. I've learned that we disciples spread the Word laterally and not by height.

And for what it's worth, whenever I've spoken with missionaries, those who have gone outside of comfort zones to meet strangers, they have always told me about those they have met. Instead of bragging about their faith when they embarked, they humbly described their faith when they returned.

Do we increase our faith when we reach outside ourselves and our comfort zone? Do we move beyond the complaints and pain of Habakkuk when we raise our eyes out of our own misery to heal the misery of others? I hope we do.

So let us be mustard and kudzu. Let us find our healing in relationships with people who don't know us and don't know that together we hold the key to healing the world.

September 25, 2016: The Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading continues from Amos. Amos continues to call out those who lie "on ivory beds and sprawling in their divans, they dine on lambs from the flock, and stall-fattened veal." He further states: "That is why they will be the first to be exiled." Luke's Gospel tells the story of a rich man "who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day. And at his gate there lay a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man's table. Dogs even came and licked his sores." Both died and while Lazarus "was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried." But unlike Lazarus, the rich man experienced torment in Hades. He desperately begged Abraham to send Lazarus "to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames." Abraham responded by telling the rich man that his request was impossible as "between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours." The rich man then begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers and warn them to avoid this torment. But Abraham refused, telling him that if "they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead."

Last week I spoke at length about Amos as the prophet of social justice. Today's readings continue the same theme but I wish to drill down and concentrate on one aspect of today's readings. When we acknowledge our good fortune we can respond with either entitlement or gratitude.

I argued on behalf of gratitude over entitlement because that's our call as Christians. Today I wish to show how entitlement not only places us further away from God, but it also places us further from each other.

This runs against most of our narratives: we don't know the name of the rich man but we do know the name of the poor man (Lazarus). Perhaps the only person who knew the name of the rich man was Lazarus himself. In any case, the rich man clearly had the better life. Purple linen was incredibly expensive and reseved only for the wealthiest and at a time when starvation was common, only a few had enough food to pass along scraps. Clearly this rich man enjoyed not only the best that his society had to offer, he had the luxury of not seeing those who didn't. He knew nothing of Lazarus.

But Lazarus certainly knew all about the rich man. He begged out of desperation and his desperate condition showed how little he meant to the rich man. As many of you know, I work for hospice. People in the last stages of their lives often can't eat or get the nutrition they need. We often worry about skin breakdown (bedsores) because they are bedbound and their skin can't heal because of their lack of nutrition. When Lazarus is "covered with sores" I can't help but imagine that his sores come at least partly as the result of malnutrition.

And if that weren't enough to be starving, Lazarus was also invisible. The rich man likely didn't give any thought to the scraps from his table and even had he been aware of his existence, he may not have fed Lazarus. I know somebody who was homeless in his late teens. He has since gotten back on his feet but I'll never forget one part of his story. For his own safety he lived on the streets within small groups to protect themselves. For food they would dig through the dumpsters behind a supermarket, looking for food that had passed their expiration dates. But when the store manager found out about this he instructed his workers to pour bleach on the food to prevent anyone from eating it. When asked why he did that he responded that he was afraid that if one of the homeless men got sick they would sue the supermarket.

I think we all thought that was preposterous. More likely the manager found the existence of the homeless distasteful and hoped that by ruining the food he could make the homeless disappear. Fortunately this story is a few decades old and many stores now donate to food shelters.

But this desire to make the poor invisible continues to point an accusing finger at the rest of us. I live in a nice neighborhood and every two weeks we put bins on the curb filled with recyclable bottles, cans, newspapers, etc. Last month I saw a man fishing through these bins in the hopes of getting bottles and cans he can redeem for cash. I didn't think anything of it until I heard word was getting around the neighborhood and his description was being given to the police. I believe the problem isn't that he is "stealing bottles and cans" but that his very existence makes us uncomfortable.

I know this is troubling; yet if that weren't enough, the most troubling part of today's Gospel comes toward the end. Luke tells us in graphic that while Lazarus' death brings him to the bosom of Abraham while the rich man is taken to a place of torment.

And even now, even now, the rich man still will not directly address Lazarus. In the midst of his torment when a drop of water on the tip of Lazarus' finger will quench his suffering, the rich man then addresses Abraham. Rather than humble himself to show his need for relief from a man whose identity he may have known, he instead addressed Abraham. Even in his torment he felt he needed to address someone of like status.

And then, and then, the rich man shows compassion to someone else. But instead of thinking about Lazarus or the rest of the poor, he instead pleads on behalf of his brothers.

So what do we do about this? Clearly this question has walked with us throughout our history. Eight hundred years ago a man named Francis suggested that we become like Lazarus and beg for our needs. And while I have great respect for St. Francis and all he has done, I find that belief unsustainable. I chuckle when I remember the first time I saw a Franciscan wearing his brown robe and white rope around his waist. And the cell phone attached to the rope.

At the end of the day I don't know if this calls us to change what we do as much as it calls us to change how we feel. We are certainly called to feed Lazarus, but we are also called to recognize Lazarus and acknowledge him. I remember talking with a friend a few years ago. He isn't much for New Year's Resolutions but he told me this: "I commonly see people standing on the island at intersections with cardboard signs asking for money. Sometimes I can give something and sometimes I can't. But I pledged that even when I couldn't give them money or food, I could at least promise to pray for them. I have to say that my acknowledgement and promise immediately registers with them and they thank me. A few have even promised to pray for me."

At the beginning of this homily I spoke about the difference between entitlement and gratitude. My friend has pledged gratitude and that gratitude has moved him to see what was previously invisible. He likes to think that if he's ever in the place of the rich man, Lazarus will intervene with Abraham. And that's how the Kingdom of God is built: when we all know each other's names.

September 18, 2016: The Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Old Testament prophet Amos. It's an angry passage, aimed at those "who trample on the needy and try to suppress the poor people of the country." He criticizes those who use the calendar to make themselves wealthier and those who overtly cheat the poor. "Never will I forget a single thing you have done." In Luke's Gospel Jesus speaks a puzzling parable. He tells the story of a rich man who learns that one of his stewards has been cheating him. He demands that this steward give an accounting. Fearing he would be fired, the steward then negotiated with his master's debtors for better terms. When the master learned this, instead of firing the steward he praised him. Jesus then told his disciples that "no servant can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn. You cannot be the slave of both God and of money."

When we think about Old Testament prophets, most of us can name Isaiah and Jeremiah and a few can name Ezekiel. But there are a host of other prophets whose names are more obscure, and Amos is one of them. It's a short book, only 6 chapters long, but we shouldn't confuse brevity with importance. A prophet speaks in the name of God and I'm hard pressed to find a prophet whose message translates better across the centuries than Amos.

He speaks to the basic issues of economic justice. His time, like ours, and (let's face it) every generation since has struggled with the reality of economic inequality. And Amos demands an answer to a fundamental question: how do you react to your good fortune? Do you decide that your wealth is a direct result of your own hard work and good choices, or do you recognize that you've been blessed?

Our history as followers of God gives us, at best, a checkered history. Ordinary people in the Middle Ages starved while their rulers, within walking distance, feasted. Full disclosure, part of the reason for this lies in the rudimentary abilities to grow crops and hunt animals. And that time also recognizes inventions that made the Renaissance possible. But there is no way to avoid the fact that rulers justified their status by claiming that God chose them to rule and they cared deeply for those who were starving. I don't think anyone today honestly believes them.

And while we do look on our history with horror, I'm not convinced we've made much progress in the last 500 years. We habitants of planet Earth recognize that our population continues to grow but we can't use this as an excuse. We can't claim that we have more people than resources because it simply isn't true. We can't write off starvation in the belief that there isn't enough food to feed all of us: we know that isn't true.

In reality parts of our world crave necessary calories while a small percentage of us join gyms to burn calories (to prevent type 2 diabetes). And so, for those of us who were blessed from birth to never have to worry about nutriton, what do we do? I believe we can respond with one of two responses: entitlement or gratitude.

We sometimes joke about someone who comes into a baseball game as a pinch runner on 3rd base and convinces himself, though nobody else, that he hit a triple. He wants everyone to think he earned something he was given. We are all given things, and they helped us become who we are. I was given parents who were given a high school education. They gave my sister and me the opportunity for college and graduate school; we both have Masters degrees. We worked hard, no doubt, but we are who we are because others worked hard for us. I pray we are appropriately grateful to our parents and their hard work and high school diplomas but also to our grandparents for their hard work and grade school diplomas. I remember well having a conversation with my father when my nephew (and his grandson) completed 3rd grade. He told me that his father (and my grandfather) only made it to 3rd grade before he had to quit school and work to support his family. We both paused a minute to imagine how a man with a 3rd grade education married, fathered seven children, and became a man we both loved and admired. And we both recognized that we reached these heights because we stood on the shoulders of those who came before us.

But, alas, this isn't a universal experience. Here in the United States we currently have a candidate running for President who claims to be a "self made man" who started his career with a "small loan" of $1 million from his father.

And while we can be critical of those who claim a divine right to their wealth, and no responsibility to others, there is another group that troubles me more. The spiritual descendant of the king who believes God chose him for wealth lies in the Christian preacher who does the same thing. Our Sunday morning airwaves bombard us messages from TV evangelists that convince us our wealth, if not man made, is God ordained. It's sometimes called the "prosperity Gospel" and it's exactly what Amos warns against.

They insist that their (and our) blessings/gifts/wealth result from God's choosing to give them to us. When asked if we are responsible to ensure that others have enough, their answer is that God chose not to bless them. Or they answer that the poor will benefit from the fruits of our wealth without our having to concern ourselves with them.

God, speaking through Amos, offers no patience. We are commanded to respond to our good fortune, regardless of how it arrived, with gratitude. We are not called to respond with a sense of entitlement.

I'm certain that I'm not alone in using this example, but earlier this month we celebrated the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta. She was not blessed with wealth but she was blessed with the ability to communicate profound truths in simple ways. My best example: "I know God will not give me more than I can handle, but I wish he didn't trust me so much." She could have used this gift and stayed in her birthplace of Albania. Perhaps she could have found some level of respect and local notariaty. Or once she entered the Sisters of Loreta, she could have stayed and rose within the ranks of her order. She could have felt entitled.

But she responded to her gift with gratitude and a determination to use that gift to reach out to the poorest of the poor. Her results are global. In addition to the countless people she directly helped in Calcutta, she softened the hearts of many of us who look on the poor in a new way. Years ago I met a man from a wealthy parish who met St. Teresa. He was so impressed with her that he took $100 from his wallet and asked her to use it in service to the poor. But instead of taking his money she pressed the bill back into his hand and tasked him with finding a poor person himself. She recognized that by empowering this man to directly help a poor person, both would be transformed.

OK, here's the normal caveat: we're not all called to spend our lives with the poorest of the poor. But we are called to recognize that however lucky, or blessed, and hard working we are, we are called to economic justice. We are called, in how we think, how we act, how we pray, and how we vote, to include those who don't have enough.

Amos will thank you.

September 11, 2016: The Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin this week's readings with Exodus. Shortly after their escape from Egypt the Israelites were in the desert, and Moses was on Mt. Sinai. God had already given Moses the 10 Commandments. Here God instructed Moses to leave Mt. Sinai and return to his people because they have begun to worship a golden calf. God tells Moses: "I can see how headstrong these people are! Leave me, now, my wrath shall blaze out against them and devour them; of you, however, I will make a great nation." But Moses plead on behalf of the people: "Lord, why should your wrath blaze out against this people of yours whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with arm outstretched and mighty hand? Remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, your servants to whom by your own self you swore and made this promise: I will make your offspring as many as the stars of heaven, and all this land which I promised I will give to your descendants, and it shall be their heritage for ever." God listened to Moses and did not destroy his people. In Luke's Gospel we find Jesus the center of attention from tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes criticized him for associating with these people. Jesus responds by telling a parable about a shepherd with 100 sheep. If one wanders off, he said, the shepherd would leave the 99 to seek out and return the one. He then tells them that "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over 99 virtuous men [and women] who have no need of repentance." Finally, he tells the famous parable of the prodigal son. A man had two sons. The younger asked his father for his inheritance in advance, and the father gave the son half his land. The son then sold the land, took the money and ran. He then let the good times roll until the money ran out. Broke, he then took a job feeding pigs (who are considered unclean by Jews). But he was still hungry and recognized that he would live better as one of his father's servants. But when he came home, hoping his father would hire him, his father expressed joy that "this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found." He called for a feast. But the father's older son grew angry at this because the prodigal was being rewarded while he was taken for granted. The father replied that "you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found."

I have to confess something here: there are times when I'll look at the readings and search to find something to preach about. It's sometimes called "writer's block" but I like to call it "writer's panic." That's not the case here. Both readings provide enough material for at least a half a dozen homilies, and I found my greatest challenge in paring down the readings to one, cogent message.

Our first reading from Exodus requires some context. I think most of us know the highlights of the timeline: the slaves in Egypt are freed when God kills the firstborn of the Egyptians (including Pharaoh's son). But Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his troops to recapture them; God then parts the sea to allow the slaves to escape and drowns their pursuers. Not long after that, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and received the 10 Commandments.

And with apologies to Charleston Heston and Hollywood, it was much more complex than that. The dialogue between God and Moses was much longer than giving him the 10 Commandments, and it ended when God noticed that these newly freed slaves (who will found the people we now know as the Jews) had already violated the Commandment that they worship God and God alone. In his anger, God essentially told Moses that he will keep Moses and kill everyone else. To me this sounds a great deal like God's plan to save Noah and his family and kill everyone else: another chance to "start over" with one faithful person.

But then it moved in another direction and I have to give props to Moses. His relationship with his fellow Jews caused him no end of frustration, and the news that they had already already abandoned all he had worked for should have made him livid. After all, God told him he would found a great nation. And let's face it: it didn't take long after the parting of the sea for them to complain to Moses that he kidnapped them from a good life only to die in the desert. It's good that I wasn't Moses because I would have quickly returned them to slavery while waiting for God to provide me with another "chosen people" who would give me that great nation.

We revere Moses for many reasons, but I think this is Moses' best moment. Instead of listening to God and coming out ahead, he instead challenged God. Moses reminded God of his previous promises and held God accountable to them. I can't imagine Moses' courage: it occurred to me that God could have grown angry enough to include Moses with the rest of them and start entirely over. Moses reminded God of the promise to make Abraham the father "of a great nation." And he reminded God that his promise came without conditions.

Given how poorly these newly freed people acted, I'm not certain investing in them made a whole lot of sense. If it only took this time to worship other gods, what will it be like when they are finally in the Promised Land? If these people forgot what God did for them in the desert, what will they do when they are comfortable and prosperous? How can we even imagine they would remain faithful when they could easily look on their success as "self made." Bottom line, these people are bad investments. But once challenged by Moses, God wasn't looking at the bottom line. Instead he looked with love and we are here today only because of that.

It's the same way in the Gospel. A shepherd who cares about the bottom line isn't going to leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to find one who is lost. He will instead cut his losses and concentrate on the sheep who don't wander. And not to belabor this point, any shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the one will soon have no sheep at all.

We find similarity in the man with two sons. It bears noting that the younger son would have gotten his inheritance when his father died. He essentially told his father he didn't want to wait until he died, he wanted his share now. Perhaps the father agreed hoping that his son would take his share of the land and till it himself. Maybe he was so hurt by his son that he just did what was asked. But when this son then sold off the land and hit the road, the father would have been justified in writing him off. This son came back hoping to be hired as a servant, unsure if even that was possible. The father could have locked the door and invested only in the son who remained faithful.

But, and I believe this reaches to the heart of these readings, the love of God does not focus on the bottom line or worry about long term investing. As the father in the Gospel learned, nobody can hurt us like family can, but we are never absolved of our duty to love. That doesn't mean there aren't limits to what we can endure, and we aren't called to endlessly put ourselves in a position to be hurt.

But we do need to focus on what it means to love even those who hurt us. I'm grateful for Moses' advocacy and God's mercy at the base of Mt. Sinai. And I suspect that had God "started over" again with a new group, that group would have disappointed him too. God's faithfulness to us, whether he was the God of Mt. Sinai, the Good Shepherd, or the Loving Father, informs all of us in our relationships.

Let's choose love.

September 4, 2016: The Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: I swear I'm not doing this on purpose, but once again our first reading comes from the book of Wisdom, a book that Catholics accept but Jews and Protestants don't. It consists of a discussion of how we cannot imagine what God intends. "[T]he deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans For the corruptible body burdens the soul." The writer then admits that nobody knows God's counsel "except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?" Our Gospel continues in Luke. Jesus, addressing the crowds, speaks in stern words. "If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." Jesus then speaks to them about someone who wishes to construct a tower: he should first figure out how much it will cost to make sure he can afford it. Because if he doesn't he runs the risk of beginning a building project that will stop halfway for lack of funds, and he will be ridiculed. In the same way, a king will not go into battle without knowing he has enough troops, but will instead negotiate for a peaceful end. Jesus finishes with this line: "In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce his possessions cannot be my disciple."

We all know that the word "Gospel" means "Good News" but there are times when it's hard to believe that what we've just read is good. Sometimes good news is good because it makes us feel good. But sometimes good news is good because it calls us to a direction that differs from what we think, or what is easy.

Our first reading appears to run in the face of what we've imagined ourselves as reasonable people. I remember well, as a philosophy student at Boston College, taking a course in Logic. It was taught by a Jesuit priest who told us that faith can be approached by reason, and human reason at that. We constructed syllogisms, argued from premises to conclusions, and convinced ourselves that we could make anyone agree with us if they could only follow our reasoning. We were ready to be turned onto a world that only needed our brilliant logic to understand that we were right.

And that would have been fine if it had worked. I took this course in the fall of 1980. My Jesuit professor now looks down on us from Heaven and while I still respect him I can't help but chuckle. His logic was good, even excellent, but in no way did it even approach God. Our best attempt to find universal truth through our ability to understand all of creation causes God more amusement than pride.

And with apologies to the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, not everything good comes from Greece. I admire our philosophical ancestors, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Without knowing about God and Jesus they recognized the existence of a reality beyond our sight. But while we should respect their genius we also need to recognize what the author of Wisdom tells us: our ability to reason begins the conversation. It does not end it.

As those who believe in God we need to recognize that our logic, no matter how clever, does not hold a candle to God's wisdom. Understand that it does not mean we should abandon logic and follow blindly what others tell us. It means we should place logic where it belongs: it is part of our understanding of what governs our lives. It's far from the whole.

And what I learned from studying both theology and philosophy is this: As faithful disciples of Jesus Christ we should push our reason and intellect as far as we can, and take seriously what truths have been revealed to us. I'm reminded of St. Anselm (1033-1109): For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand.

For much of our history we've looked askance at those who used logic at the expense of faith, and there's reason for that. We all know people who loudly proclaim themselves atheists because they have explored the logic of faith and found it wanting. But I also think there is a danger is going too far the other way. Those who choose the faith they've been taught with no examination can be led in bad and even dangerous directions.

Many of us find ourselves listening to family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. who tell us that the gates of Hell welcome otherwise good people who accept evolution, birth control, or modern medecine. They tell us it doesn't matter whether we feed the hungry or welcome the stranger. We are left with the choice of blindly believing what defies simple logic or paying with our souls.

I think that's the starting point of today's Gospel. Jesus' community was much more "tribal" than ours. In other words, the people you knew as children are likely still in your life as adults; your children know their children and your peers in old age have known you forever. There was no need for Facebook back then.

And a Jew of that time didn't spend much time thinking about belief. What you were told as a child still held up in old age. You don't work on the Sabbath, you don't eat pork, and you await the Messiah.

But Jesus knew he was going to mess that up. While he was an observant Jew, he proclaimed a message that made no sense to most people: I am the Messiah. As he gathered disciples and travelled around it's nearly impossible to know what they thought. But I think it's entirely possible that many of them thought everyone in Israel would have the same response to Jesus and follow him. It made perfect, logical sense: we've been waiting all our lives for the Messiah. Now, in the middle of Roman occupation, here he is. What could be easier?

Well, we all know it was a difficult message. Jesus wasn't proclaiming himself something logical. He wasn't just the Messiah, he was something much, much more: he was the Redeemer. He knew that his existence went far beyond human logic and not everyone was going to be on board.

When Jesus told his disciples that they had to hate their "father, mother, wife, children, brother, sisters, yes and his own life" he isn't thinking of it in our modern understanding of being estranged. We all know families where one member (or several) no longer maintain contact and nobody knows how to contact them. This isn't that.

Instead Jesus is foreshadowing a time where acceptance of him will cause families to disagree in a way that rarely happened before. And more than a disagreement, it will shake friendships and families to their core. Once Jesus appeared, there was no going back.

But does this mean in a conflict you should love God and hate your neighbor? Again, I don't think so. But I do think it means that you should choose to follow God over following your neighbor.

I spoke earlier about how well meaning loved ones can insist we believe in things that simply aren't true. But it can get worse. What if your cousin demanded that you join his cult? What if he told you that your salvation hung in the balance? What if this cult was anti Semitic or White Supremacist? What do you do?

I think these readings tell us to recognize that God is greater than our best logic, but it also doesn't call us to blindly follow, no matter how much we love our cousin. We shouldn't hate our cousin, but we should hate what he advocates. And if it means we can no longer have a relationship with someone we love, well, that's the price we have to pay.

Because in the end, we love God above all.

August 28, 2016: The Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Yes, we're doing it again. Our first reading comes from the Old Testament book of Sirach, a book that only Catholics recognize. Sirach's book gives advice to his son. Here he encourages his son to be gentle in business: "The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favor with the Lord." Additionally, there "is no cure for the proud man's malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him." Luke's Gospel describes a scene where Jesus dines at the home of a Pharisee. "They watched him closely." Recognizing this, Jesus tells them a parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honor. A more distinguished person than you may have been invited, and the person who invited you both may come and say 'Give up your place to this man.'" Humiliated, the man then needs to occupy a lesser place. Instead, Jesus suggests that if you are invited, you should occupy the least place, for the host may approach you and ask you to occupy a place of honor. Jesus then suggests that if you are planning a feast you should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. The fact that they cannot repay you elevates you in the eyes of God.

I'm probably not alone in this, but for as long as I can remember this Gospel made sense to me. We are social animals and from our earliest memories we've been concerned with our social status, and being embarrassed or humiliated in front of others horrifies us. And let's face it: we all remember experiences where our desire for increased social standing backfired and no amount of time or place can erase that memory. High school lunch tables became battlefields of status and social standing often rose or fell on who we were dating. When I was sixteen I was on a high school ski trip in Vermont and I saw a buffet line in the ski lodge. I didn't see a cash register but I was hungry and the food looked good and I assumed it was for all of us. It wasn't. Halfway through the line I was told that this food was only for the ski instructors and I didn't belong. Humiliated, I gave my half filled plate to someone else and crawled back to my group.

But I don't think this is what Jesus had in mind when he told this parable. Much as we love Jesus, and much as we look to him to give value and purpose to our life, I don't think Jesus saw his role as an advisor on how to avoid embarrassment: he wasn't the redeeming "Dear Abby." Instead, I think Jesus wants us to learn how to see the world differently. I think Jesus calls us to rethink our desires, ambitions, and understanding of how the world works and how our lives fit into it.

And I think these readings resonate in our time more than almost any other.

In the second decade of the twenty first century, self promotion and the need for advanced social standing has reached nearly epic and sacramental proportions. Reality programs call us to win and state that "I'm not here to make friends." Incessant polls tell us that our opinion matters while (at the same time) they tell us that we are "in or out." We find increasing pressure to be part of what everyone else is thinking.

And if that weren't bad enough, the idea of humility, of sharing credit and doing something that makes another look good, makes us suckers. We have to constantly "look out for number 1."

And for those of us who spent high school praying adulthood would spare us from a lifetime of this, well, I have bad news.

But I also have good news. While left our own devices we create a world of winners and losers, Jesus gives us another plan. Instead of concerning ourselves with our own status, what would happen if we concerned ourselves with promoting the status of others? What would that world look like? I think it would look pretty good.

Imagine ourselves back in high school and we belong at the mid level lunch table. We're not with the football players and cheerleaders, but we're also not at the table designated for the poor and the outcasts. Instead of planning strategy to move up to the "cool kids" table, what would happen if we invited one of the outcasts to join us? What if we elevated the status of another? Would that diminish us, or make our table more desirable?

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that this Gospel calls us to a radically different way to view the world and our place in it. Last century a philosopher and author named Ayn Rand wrote about objectivism. She claimed that we all do better when each of us pursues only our own interests; anything we provide to others only allows them to become weak and lazy. Here in the United States, the Speaker of the Houses of Representatives (Paul Ryan) points to her writings as critical to his beliefs.

But I hold that in the final word, ambition is finite. Going back to the Gospel, the person who claims a place of honor competes for a limited position. If several people vie for the same seat only one will be successful and all the others will slink back to a lesser seat.

But while ambition is finite, generosity is not. Generosity is unlimited. If we strive to promote the standing of others there is no limit, no glass ceiling. Much like the humble guest at the wedding, our status improves because of our generosity.

But how do we do that today? Let's face it: most wedding receptions assign us tables and that eliminates the competition we see. But let's look more globally. Do we have a new neighbor? Reach out. We all remember moving to a new area and the anxiety of worrying whether we'll be welcome. Do we work in an office where someone doesn't appear to "click" with us? Maybe that person is too shy or scared to advance himself.

My work as a chaplain in health care gives me a strong understanding of how a hierarchy can work. The doctors are on top, followed by the nurses, then the chaplains and social workers, followed by the home health aids (or nursing assistants). I truly hate certain nursing homes because the nurses are downright dismissive of or rude to the home health aids. There have been times when I've advocated for or befriended the home health aids and I can't tell you how much those experiences have benefitted me. And it's happened on several levels: as a group they've expressed their gratitude to me. But they've also trusted me enough to tell me about spiritual pain in patients who wouldn't have told me (I joke with them that people are generally more honest when they're naked). And they've trusted me enough to tell me about their own pain and joy; I've seen them become more effective in their work because they looked up to someone who lifted them up.

And it's a funny thing: Ambition makes one person the winner and the other the loser. Generosity makes both winners.

August 21, 2016: The Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We read, from Isaiah, that the Lord will gather nations of every language and send some of the survivors to other nations where they will proclaim glory to them. All nations will come to Jerusalem. Luke's Gospel sees someone approaching Jesus and asking him: "Sir, will there be only a few saved?" Jesus tells him to try to enter the narrow door "because I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed." Jesus then tells those gathered a parable. A master locks the door for the night, but someone knocks on the door. The master tells them to go away for they are strangers. They protest that the "once ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets." But the master dismissed them: "Away from me, all you wicked men!" Jesus then said: "Yes, there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last."

If I were a religious leader who wanted to scare my congregation into doing whatever I tell them, I would make liberal use of today's Gospel. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what has happened over the years. And at first blush it seems to fit: Someone asked Jesus if only a few are saved and Jesus uses the image of a narrow door. Out of ignorance or the desire for power, pastors and other teachers delve into the world of physics and proclaim that because the door is narrow, only a few are able to get through and the rest are crowded out. But this misses the mark. These readings are about inclusion, not exclusion.

Let's begin with Isaiah. He was an epic writer; as a matter of fact there were 2 and perhaps 3 writers of this book. He chronicles the decline of the Kingdom of Israel, their conquest and exile by the Babylonians, and their restoration when the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians. Here, in the 66th and last chapter of the book, God promises to gather together all those who are scattered. Everyone will be welcomed back, not only those that others feel are worthy.

We see echoes of that in the restoration of the State of Israel in 1948. Rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, Jews from all over the world were granted automatic right to immigrate and become citizens of Israel. Are you a Holocaust survivor? We have a place for you. Are you a Jew whose ancestors came to the United States in the 1700s and missed the horrors of the death camps? Doesn't matter, we have a place for you too. Are you a Jew who stopped keeping kosher as a teenager and haven't seen the inside of a synagogue in decades? No worries, you are welcome. All are welcome.

And now, enter Jesus. When asked about salvation, the person was acting out of fear. The promise of salvation certainly sounded appealing, but am I included? Jesus advised him to try his best to enter by the narrow door.

Narrow doors can't handle the traffic that wide doors can, but narrow doors are often overlooked. During the time of Jesus, when cities were surrounded by walls, it mattered which door you entered. Wealthy, important people entered through the main gate while unimportant people entered through lesser gates.

And Jesus concludes this Gospel with what we can fairly call his Mission Statement: "There are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last." I'm reminded of an old Catholic joke:

One day Jesus is walking through Heaven and sees that there are several people who he knows don't belong. Angered by this, he tracks down Peter and demands to know why they are there. He accuses Peter of not doing his job as gatekeeper to Heaven. Shaking his head, Peter says: "Don't blame me. I'm in charge of the front door, but the people I turn away go around to the back door and your mother lets them in."
Jesus then illustrates his point with a parable.

And in fairness it's a harsh parable. The person who knocks on the Master's door fully expecting special treatment is horrified when he is denied entry. But I don't believe that this is about physics (only a few will be saved) but about hubris (don't think your power, wealth, or social standing makes you better). Perhaps the people who don't go through the narrow door do so because they think the narrow door is beneath them and they should be able to enter through the main door. In other words, God does not block their salvation, but their own hubris does. The idea of entering with "the great unwashed" offended them to the point that they refused. And to their horror, all their pounding on the main door gets them nowhere because the path to salvation leads only through the narrow door.

And with that I think it calls us to look again at those we think of as last, as those deserving of the narrow door.

Some of you know this, but last week a dear friend of mine died suddenly. Henry was a priest here in San Diego, but he was much more. He was born in a poor neighborhood, the second of six children. He dropped out of high school and appeared to be headed nowhere. But one day someone encouraged him to work as an orderly in a local hospital. He immediately fell in love with the work; his coworkers saw his potential and encouraged him to finish high school, and he did. They encouraged him to go to college and he was able to get a scholarship. From there he began to discern his vocation to become a Catholic priest. The seminary recognized his intelligence and potential and sent him to Rome for further education.

As a priest he had every opportunity to forget where he came from and begin to climb the ladder of ambition. Instead, in no small part because of these readings, he returned home and ministered to those who ministered to him. He recognized that he was once "the last" who became "the first." He spent his life as a priest, a police chaplain, and a hospice chaplain (where I was blessed to be his mentor) turning the least into the first. His success exceeded everyone's expectations. He touched so many people that I had to arrive 45 minutes before his funeral to be assured of a seat.

Like Mary, I believe Henry finds himself at the narrow door of Heaven welcoming those who the rich and powerful discounted and dismissed. To be fair, I think he also welcomes the rich and powerful who recognize that their salvation depends on their willingness to enter through the narrow door.

As for me, I plan to enter through the narrow door and be welcomed by Jesus, Mary, and Henry.

August 14, 2016: The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin today from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. His prophesies have sufficiently angered the princes that they demand his death. He is accused of demoralizing the city with his words. "[H]e is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin." Not wanting to stand up to them, King Zedekiah told them: "He is in your power." They then threw Jeremiah into and empty cistern that had no food or water. But a court official, Ebed-melech the Cushite, appealed to the king, telling him that Jeremiah would die of famine "for there is no more food in the city." At the king's order Jeremiah is rescued from the cistern. In Luke's Gospel Jesus proclaims this message: "I have come to set the earth on fire." He goes on to explain that he has not come to bring peace on earth but instead will divide people, even down to the household level.

So what do we do with anger? Clearly anger claims center stage in these readings and we can be excused if we find these readings uncomfortable. You see, we live in a world that does not know what to do with anger, and (if we're going to be honest) we'd be thrilled to live in a world where nobody chose to, or needed to, express anger.

From our earliest days since we were born we've had to deal with need. Babies cry because they are hungry, thirsty, or need to be changed. We speak of the "terrible twos" because they have learned the word "no" and (more to the point) they can articulate anger when their needs are not met.

Many of us were told in the next few years that anger was wrong. Expressing anger at parents, teachers, babysitters, or other adults constituted a sin. Anger at God moved to a new level, mortal sin. We were told this because anger was seen as a form of ingratitude or betrayal. Our anger was thinly veiled ignorance and ingratitude of all that we were given.

And with all due respect to my parents, teachers, babysitters, and other adults, it's more complicated than that. Sometimes we express anger because justice demands it.

As children we expressed anger when our needs were not met. And those needs were simple: we're hungry, or thirsty, or not included. As adolescents we got pretty good at taking care of hunger or thirst, but loneliness and exclusion took on new importance. As adults we've never completely grown out of exclusion, but it's (hopefully) taken second place to our recognition that success and failure often depended on variables beyond our control.

The fact that some are "to the manor born" while others are born into poverty should concern us, especially those of us who follow Jesus. If we Christians believe nothing else, we should belive this: Everyone born of this earth should be given all he (or she) needs to survive and thrive.

But our history shows us, again and again, that we need to return to these readings to believe this. We have seen, in the last century, the blossoming of what is often called the "prosperity gospel," the belief that wealth results from God's blessing. They don't emphasize much the need to share wealth those less fortunate because God could bless them also, and doesn't. On the other hand I return often the words of the American comedian and talk show host, Stephen Colbert: If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.

And while Jeremiah's calling out of the wicked isn't necessarily economic (we see more of that in the prophet Amos) it's nonetheless about wickedness. We're reading about these events thousands of years afterward and it's easy to sanitize these events. It's easy and sometimes fashionable to admire these prophets but it's more complicated that this. It's often said that prophets are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Every place and every generation gives us prophets and they often don't overlap with diplomats.

Jeremiah was one of those people. He wanted his people to follow God's laws but he recognized that they didn't. Given that he warned them that their lives would do badly in exile. At first they ignored him and then they sought revenge. Our passage today begins with them wanting to kill Jeremiah and they convinced the king to let them do it. It was only through the intervention of the court official Ebed Melech that Jeremiah didn't die in the cistern.

Why couldn't Jeremiah just keep quiet? If he knew the depth of anger he would create with his words, why bother? I believe that a prophet is a different type of person. He or she is someone who hates wickedness, can't just "go along" and has little concern for the price he or she will have to pay. If we think hard enough, I believe we can identify a coworker, neighbor, or family member who fits this description. They refuse to go along with a bad idea because the boss loves it, or they stand up to the neighborhood bully and calls him out. A word of advice: if you encounter someone who angers you for not being "part of the team" while at the same time you secretly wish more people agreed with him, he's probably a prophet.

We don't often think of Jesus as a prophet, but he really is. Just as the passage of time can whitewash Jeremiah's words, so too can we see Jesus as too tame. If we put Jesus in the small box of a "wise teacher" we need only look at this reading from Luke. He was right: his words did divide families then. Imagine you're a good Jew, and your brother comes home and tells you that he has met the Messiah and wants to follow him. You disagree.

You both believe you are following the same God and each of you doubt the faith of the other. You both believe you are the voice of reason but neither of you can convince the other. What do you do?

Well, the first thing you need to do is understand that you two may never agree. I confess I've never liked the word tolerance because I've always thought it carried with it a sense of smugness ("God and I know I'm right and I'm big enough to know this"). But tolerance is a necessary step to what I think we're called to: a recognition of the fact that we are all doing the best we can. We best hear Jeremiah and follow Jesus when we listen with our hearts and souls instead of our ambitions and fears.

August 7, 2016: The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Wisdom, comes from a book that Catholics recognize but Jews and Protestants don't. It's fairly congratulatory: while this is not obvious from this reading alone, it describes the scene in Exodus where God has told the Israelites (or the "Chosen People") that they will be liberated because the firstborn of their foes (the Egyptians) will suffer the deaths of their firstborn. The author celebrates because they were rewarded while their adversaries were punished. Luke's Gospel consists of a long speech from Jesus (that is abridged in some readings). Jesus' words start with a warning that they should sell what they have because their true treasure consists of God's love. He then speaks of a servant who is placed in charge while the master travels. The servant does not know when his master returns. If the servant knew the hour his master returns he will prepare. Hearing this reading, Peter asks Jesus if this reading was meant for everyone or just those gathered. Harshly, Jesus tells him a parable about a servant who decides that that the servant uses his time in charge. This servant promotes himself to master and treats the other servants poorly. But when his master returns without warning, his servant is called to account. Jesus concludes this parable by announcing that those who are trusted with much responsibility will be expected to act with great love.

I've often wondered what the Israelite slaves thought as they finished their first passover. They knew that by that same time the next night the firstborn of the Egyptians would be dead and they would be on their way to freedom.

Were they elated? Were they already making plans for the rest of their lives in the Promised Land? Or did they look at their own firstborn and feel some survivor's guilt?

As a brief refresher (for those who haven't seen the Charlton Heston film The Ten Commandments in a while), the Israelite slaves were told to slaughter and eat a lamb. They were then to smear the lamb's blood on their doorpost; that was the signal for the Angel of Death to "pass over" their home. Homes without the blood would suffer the death of their firstborn son.

There is a legend that as the Angel of Death passed over the slaves' homes he whispered "Someday I will be back." I find that legend compelling because while we don't think about it, it's true. Someday the Angel will come for all of us.

OK, I promise this won't be one of those "fire and brimstone" homilies we all heard as children. Those sermons did nothing but create fear. They told us that God would judge our entire life based the one last (unconfessed) stupid thing we did.

And most people reacted in one of two ways: the first group became overly scrupulous, living in a perpetual state of fear. They are so afraid of doing something wrong that they do nothing at all. I once read about a rabbi who encouraged the members of his synagogue enjoy the sabbath, to spend time with family and neighbors. But he found that some members were so concerned about inadvertently breaking a rule that they spent the entire day on edge and fearful. That fear ran their lives.

But I think most of us go the other way and "play the odds," and I think that was the point of Jesus' parable. As is often the case we know nothing of the master or the servant. But we do know that when the master leaves he left one of his servants in charge, and it goes badly from there. We don't know why this servant decided to abuse his master's trust: perhaps his master was an evil man and thought it was "his turn." Perhaps he used this opportunity to settle old scores. Or maybe he thought this would be his only chance at being master and he was going to get everything he could out of it. He certainly didn't subscribe to the idea of "servant leadership."

But his decision to "play the odds" also likely gave him a small, constant sense of fear, even if it was the low hum in the background. And this against the backdrop of Jesus saying (once again: "Fear not"). Because while he could wake each morning with a strong belief that his master won't return that day, he could never be completely certain. And he was probably more fearful at night (the 2nd and 3rd watch). That fear, however low, was always with him.

And that's too bad, and it's a feeling many of us know well. We live in a world that finds safety and even profit in creating fear. Particularly those of us who live in the 1st world; we are bombarded by messages that we won't have enough and that "those people" are taking what we deserve. In 2001 we moved into our present home. I don't know how many previous occupants lived here but I saw yard signs from four different alarm companies. Fast food commercials rain down on us with the message that hunger is to be avoided at all cost (even though most of us will never experience true hunger).

I like to think that the servant in the parable did see this as his only chance at power and it caused him to misuse it. Ironically if he had used his authority responsibly, he likely would have been given more responsibility.

We all have things we fear we won't have enough. Sometimes it's resources, but oftentimes it's experiences. There's even an acronym for this: FOMO (fear of missing out). We won't be able to eat at the cool kids' table, we'll miss a trip that everyone else will talk about for a long time. Or we won't get that promotion unless we cut a few corners and make ourselves look more deserving than we are.

These are all fool's pursuits. We live our best selves when we honestly believe that whatever we have will be enough. We won't always get everything we want, and the liberated slaves in our first reading endured 40 years in the desert before they entered the promised land.

Jesus tells us again and again not to fear, and it's always followed by a promise ("for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom"). During the course of the 40 years in the desert, many fearful things happened. During our lifetime many fearful things have happened and will happen. But when we drive the fear out with faith, we live better. We live as disciples.

July 31, 2016: The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, takes a different tone than much of Scripture. Its author tells us that "all is vanity." A man who spends his life in wise labor, skill, and success, must leave all he has done to someone else. What does he gain from all this? In Luke's Gospel Jesus is asked to settle a dispute between two brothers. Jesus refuses, and warns them against greed "for a man's life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs." Jesus then tells them a parable about a wealthy man who harvested more food than he could store. To fix this dilemma he orders the building of larger storage buildings: then he will be satisfied. But seeing this, God calls him a fool, for his soul will be in demand (ie, he will die). All his riches will not help him as he stored up treasure for himself instead of making himself rich in the sight of God.

There is much to these readings, but unfortunately most of the sermons I've heard over the years have reduced Luke to "don't get greedy or you'll be sent to hell." Truthfully, I think most preachers ignore Ecclesiastes because they don't fully understand it.

And I get that. Most of us know about this book only from the song Turn, Turn, Turn written by Pete Seger in the 1950s and recorded by The Byrds in 1965 (you can look it up). But much of the book reads, frankly, like someone who is done with life and doesn't fully understand its purpose.

Many of us know about the rabbi and author Harold Kushner for his landmark book When Bad Things Happen to Good People he based it on the Old Testament Book of Job. He's written several books since (and I enthusiastically recommend them all), but I wish to concentrate on his book When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough which he based on Ecclesiastes.

Rabbi Kushner speaks of a belief among some that Old Testament King Solomon (son of King David) wrote three books in the Old Testament: Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Song of Songs speaks of the love between a husband and wife and Soloman wrote that as love poetry when he was a young man. In middle age Solomon wrote Proverbs to impart wisdom to young people on how to negotiate the world. And as an old man he wrote Ecclesiastes when he fell into cynicism and despair over the fact that his life was coming to an end.

Most scholars don't think this is true, but there something to the cynicism and despair of the writer. Because on some level it's true: what good does it do to spend your life making good choices and doing the right thing when, at the end of you life, you face the same fate as the wicked? Both of you are going to die. When we were in college my friend Jim wrote to me during exam week and quoted Ecclesiastes: "As to more than these, my son, beware. Of the making of many books there is no end, and in much study there is weariness for the flesh." It spoke to me.

And I think that many of us find consolation and even wisdom here. From our earliest memories we try to do the right thing, to make good choices, to be men and women worthy of respect. But we also recognize that again and again we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Several years ago I met a man, who I'll call Ken, near the end of his life. He was a good man who loved God, his family, and his country. He worked hard to make good choices in his personal and professional career. But he worked here in the United States for a Savings and Loan. In the 1980s he found himself in the middle of a scandal where some S&L's were found to be cheating people to pad the bank accounts of a few executives. He wasn't one of those people but he was painted by the same brush and he lost nearly all of his retirement. He spent several days being grilled and accused by government regulators who wer convinced he was just another crook. He was devastated and hearing his story 20 years later I could hear his pain and it brought me to tears.

As he told me this story he recognized that much of the social status he had taken for granted was gone. No longer could he count on the adulation of his peers or the respect of his neighbors. Automatic upgrades from coach to first class became a blessed memory and countless people he counted as friends abandoned him. The things he valued for much of his life were gone.

But, to his credit, he adapted. He began to value the respect of those who knew he did nothing wrong. He stopped caring about those who liked him for his status and kept caring about those who liked him for his moral compass. For those (like me) who didn't meet him until decades after the crisis, his choices spoke to how little he cared about the S&L crisis and how much he cared about those who chose the right path.

And that has informed our understanding of Luke's Gospel. The man who approached Jesus clearly was a man of some wealth because he spoke of his inheritance: we know nothing about him except that his father had enough wealth to pass to his sons. They were both blessed.

But while they don't recognize their blessing, Jesus does. First Jesus refuses to get caught up in their dispute, and then tells them a parable that I can only hope embarrassed them.

If you are blessed, if you are given more than you need, what should you do with the surplus?

If the author of Ecclesiastes wonders why he should work hard to provide assets for others, the two brothers in Luke fight over how to divide the assets given them by someone else. It's not hard to imagine that the author of Ecclesiastes gave birth to these brothers in Luke. The father of these two men must have despaired of how they honored him (or didn't) by their behavior.

As often happens Jesus refuses to get ensnared in the dispute at hand, but Jesus' concern was not how the father's wealth would be divided between the brothers, but how it would be divided between everyone.

I hope these readings don't shame modern day accountants or those who are saving for retirement. It doesn't. The parable assumes the wealthy man has more than he will ever need. Why did he amass wealth beyond what he would ever need? We don't know.

But we can look to today for some clues. Here in the United States we are engaged in a spirited debate about wealth inequality (or "class warfare," depending on your perspective). But nobody doubts there are a few who now possess much more than they will ever be able to consume. They love to look at numbers that make them "the wealthiest" only for bragging rights. Perhaps the wealthy man belonged to that group.

Or perhaps not. Maybe he was simply a man who had been blessed and feared that if he gave too much of it away, something would happen down the road that would cause him to regret his generosity.

And frankly that fear feeds a cottage industry for many of us. We need to grab as much as we can as fast as we can in case something happens. Because life expectancy has dramatically increased in the last 100 years we now face the fear that we will "outlive our money" and die poor.

I don't wish to ignore this fear, but I want to put it in its place. The fear that we might not have enough should inform but not overwhelm our actions. Years ago I heard something that sticks with me. Someone, in a committee meeting, asked where they should store their surplus food. Another in the same meeting responded by suggesting they store the surplus in the stomachs of the hungry.

In our lives we will all face the dilemma of the author of Ecclesiastes. And in honesty we will all ask Jesus to settle a dispute in our favor. But I hope we will face inevitable suffering with the courage and imagination I found in Ken.

Because years after his death I, along with all those who knew him, continue to honor him not for his wealth here in earth, but for his wealth in the eyes of God.

July 24, 2016: The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We read from Genesis about the destruction of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah (though the actual destruction happened in the next chapter and is not included in this reading). God and Abraham dialogue about an outcry for their destruction. God appears determined to destroy them for their wickedness but Abraham begins to question God. First he asks God if he will spare the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah if there are 50 righteous people (among all the wicked) and God agrees to spare them for the sake of the 50. Abraham then asks if God will spare these cities if there are 45, and then 40, and then 30, and then 20, and then 10. The reading ends there. God promises to spare the cities if there are only 10 who are righteous. Luke's Gospel begins with Jesus' disciples asking him how to pray. Jesus answers them by reciting the prayer was all know as the "Our Father" or the "Lord's Prayer." Then he told them a parable: imagine yourself going to a friend's house in the middle of the night asking to borrow some food for guests who have arrived. The friend at first refuses, but relents only because you are so persistent. Jesus then expands this parable to tell his disciples that God will always give them what they need and finishes with this quotation: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"

What do you think about when you hear the phrase "Sodom and Gomorrah?" I think most of us can identify these two cities in the Book of Genesis that God destroyed for their wickedness. Additionally many view their destruction as punishment for homosexual behavior (gay men and women have often been labeled "sodomites" and sodomy laws in our history have normally criminalized homosexuality). As a matter of fact, in 1965, the Christian evangelist Billy Graham's wife Ruth commented: "If God doesn't soon bring judgment upon America, he'll have to go back and apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah."

This won't surprise anyone who knows me, but I'm going to take this in the opposite direction. Sodom and Gomorrah may popularly occupy a place that speaks of God's anger and justice, but I believe these readings speak to us of God's mercy.

The relationship between God and Abraham continues to fascinate me only because it must have taken Abraham most of his life to figure it out. Abraham (called "Abram" when he was first called) lived a life that he expected to be predictable. But he and his wife (who were not able to have children) were called to leave their home and travel to a new land and parent a new nation. We have it easy because we can draw a line between Abraham (and Sarah) and ourselves, regardless if we are Jews, or Christians, or Muslims.

As God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, we can easily (and perhaps too easily) view it through the lens of wickedness and sin, but I don't think Abraham did. I think Abraham, who was still struggling to understand the concept of one God rather than several gods, worked hard to understand God's mind and God's will.

Because Abraham's world did not turn on individual judgement but on corporate judgement. Five hundred years after Martin Luther's claim about a "personal relationship with the Lord" we have often forgotten that the people of Genesis accepted the fact that judgement was not individual but corporate.

Many of you know that I'm a history buff and I read a scary number of books, particularly about the Middle Ages. Back then, if you were an ordinary farmer who was ruled by a local king, you would likely be pressed into military services for part of your life. If, during the course of battle, you were captured you may have been claimed as a slave. It didn't matter what you thought about your king, or whether or not you were a good person. You could easily be sold as a slave and spend the rest of your life living where you don't want, doing what you don't want, with no hope for a better future. You're a slave even though you did nothing to deserve it.

But Abraham, for reasons we can't fully understand, chose a different path. He looked at Sodom and Gomorrah not as "wicked cities" that God should judge, but as cities populated by people. Some of them were wicked, and some of them were not. And so he asks the question: how wicked does a city have to be to deserve destruction?

How wicked does a city have to be for everyone to be destroyed? Of course, the great unanswered question is why God didn't only take the wicked among them, and that question is left unanswered.

Abraham doesn't ask about God's justice, but instead asks about God's mercy. It's assumed that not everyone in the city is wicked and I think most contemporaries thought nothing of God destroying both cities and everyone in them. I love Abraham because he had the courage to ask God about the limits of God's mercy and keeps asking. Only because he keeps "pushing the envelope" do we begin to understand the how much God loves us.

God's love only continues in Luke's Gospel. For many of us the Lord's Prayer is as familiar to us as any prayer: we learned this prayer first. Unfortunately it makes it too easy to pray it without really listening to it, but it follows a pattern. It begins with an acknowledgement of God's power and our need to trust in that power. We then ask for what we need (including forgiveness) and promise to try to live in a way that honors God.

And while we pray this prayer often we always fall short. We promise to love God, recognize our dependance, forgive others, and ask that we be protected.

But Jesus doesn't stop there. He goes on to speak about how God's mercy can dwarf ours. We try, with our friends, our spouses, and (especially) our children, to be our best. And we fail. Sometimes our actions are driven by our impatience, our prejudices, or our weariness and we hurt those we love. And (let's face it) sometimes we feel guilt that causes us to give our children what they want instead of what they need.

But God, who knows us best, will always give us what we need, even when it's not what we want.But we can't forget that God's love is embedded in mercy, and we are called to do the same.

And hopefully we can look at Sodom and Gomorrah with more mercy and less judgement.

July 17, 2016: The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Abraham and Sarah occupy center stage in the first reading. Here the Lord appeared to Abraham as three men. Following the custom of the time, Abraham offered them hospitality and they accepted. Abraham offered them food and water (and relief for their feet) and then directed Sarah to bake bread for them and when she presented herself they told her that by the time they returned she would have a son. Luke's Gospel recounts the encounter between Jesus and Martha and Mary (who were sisters). While Mary listened to Jesus' words Martha was distracted by serving the guests. Martha complained to Jesus that she was stuck with all the work while her sister Mary was listening to Jesus. Jesus answered her by saying: "Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part."

The Catholic Lectionary connects the first reading and the Gospel and most of the time the connection is clear. I have to confess that I read these readings several times in search of the connection between the three men who spoke to Abraham (who promised Sarah and him a child) and the dialogue in Luke's Gospel between Jesus and Martha.

Normally I see these readings through the eyes of my own experience. At a point in my reflection I recognized that these readings make sense not through my lens as a man, but through the lens of a woman.

I'm embarrassed to say how long this took me. I doubt that the (celibate male) priests had this in mind when they chose these readings, but they make sense through a feminine lens. When I changed my focus, the readings fell into place in a way I wouldn't have guessed.

The reading from Genesis calls us to explore the agonizing and lingering pain of infertility. When God called Abram from Ur to travel to a new land Abram was promised he and his wife Sarai (who would change their names to Abraham and Sarah) would have children. Three chapters earlier God promised them they would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. But by the time of this reading they had given up on children and their grief can only call us to imagine how betrayed they must have felt. If the God who promised them children betrayed them here, what other promises would be broken?

And we know that the pain of infertility creates spiritual pain that spans years, decades, centuries, and millennia. From our very beginning as people we've seen our roles in terms of producing the next generation. Time and again when I've spoken with people at the end of their lives and asked about what gives them the most pride, nearly all speak of their children. And while infertility devastates both member of the couple, it's not seen as equal. Before we could perform tests that tells us "which one can't" (and, honestly, oftentimes since) most of us assumed it was the woman. Nobody describes a man as being barren, only women.

The reading from Genesis begins with Abraham sitting in the shade, the only reasonable respite from the pounding sun. It's an odd beginning of the reading as it describes God appearing to Abraham when he (Abraham) looked up and saw three men standing before him. My best guess is this: the author of this story wanted us to understand that Abraham viewed these men as being sent by God. In any case Abraham ran toward them and said: "Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree. Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way."

This requires a little context. At that time, in that place, hospitality was a requirement. It was a hard land and travelers depended on strangers for their survival. The three men were likely not surprised by Abraham's offer.

But Abraham must have been astonished when they asked about his wife. They not only knew he had a wife, but they knew her name, and they asked to see her. I find it crucial that when they promised a child to them, they insisted that both husband and wife be present. At that time, in that place, these three nameless men could have easily seen Abraham as the only person important enough to receive this good news but they didn't. It was important that both Abraham and Sarah receive their good news.

And since we know the "rest of the story" we know that Sarah will indeed bear a child, Isaac, and he will marry and father children, and ... every Jew, Christian, and Muslim born since then will claim Abraham and Sarah as common ancestors.

But given this, how do we view today's Gospel? Well, we can look at the three men, chosen by God to speak to Abraham, who insisted that Sarah be part of the conversation and see how the voice of women are included. They knew that the birth of Isaac was not the result of Abraham or Sarah, but the union of both of them.

I believe that just as these three men gave Sarah a voice, so does Jesus allow Martha' voice in this Gospel (despite her own objections). Many of us look at this Gospel and wonder if the dishes ever got done, but the relationship between Martha and Mary informs our understanding of women even to this day.

I really don't think this Gospel is about chores, or even about the balance between "work and contemplation" as I was told as a child. I believe this is about the role of women in Christianity. Just as women have been valued in their ability to bear children, they've also been valued in their ability to "keep house." As a married man, I have to (painfully) ask this: how many times have we attended a dinner party where the men finished the meal and repaired to the living room while the women did the dishes? How many times have we assumed that "the women" were fine not being part of our conversations, and that God blesses our prejudices?

Maybe Martha doesn't think Mary "knows her place" because she (Martha) is stuck with the dishes. Perhaps she doesn't "know her place" because Mary has the audacity to listen to what Jesus has to teach. The dishes will wait, but Jesus' message is time sensitive.

Regardless, Jesus tells Mary that she has "chosen the better part" not because she has left the dishes for tomorrow but because she has claimed her place as a disciple of Jesus.

As I write this we are 2,100 years removed from this reading. We've made incredible progress: women now have rights that would have been unimaginable then. But when it comes to the mutual role we have with each other in creating the next generation of disciples, I pray we listen to the lessons of these readings.

We are all Abraham. We are all Sarah. We are all Martha. We are all Mary. And (most importantly) we are all the three men sent by God to change how we view our roles. And we are all Jesus showing how Mary chose the better part.

July 10, 2016: The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Book of Deuteronomy (the last of the first five books of the Bible, often called the Torah or the Pentateuch). Moses, speaking before the Israelites will cross into the Promised Land without him, proclaims that God's commandments are accessible because they are not far away, but is "in your mouth and in your heart for your observance." Luke's Gospel begins with a lawyer asking Jesus what it takes to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." The man then asks: "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers him with the now famous parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable a man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jerico but was beaten and robbed. Lying half dead, a priest and a Levite passed him by. But a Samaritan found him, bandaged his wounds, and carried him to an inn. This Samaritan gave the innkeeper money to care for this man and left. He told the innkeeper he would return, and if the man needed additional funds, he would pay for that also. Jesus then asked the lawyer who was truly the man's neighbor to which the lawyer answered: "The one who took pity on him." Jesus approved of this answer and told him: "Go and do the same."

Today's homily marks a few anniversaries, and I hope you'll be patient with my gratitude. It was this reading, in 1992, that began my career as a homilist. I was then a seminarian and was asked to preach for the first time at Sunday mass at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska. It went well, and as I sat down after preaching the pastor, Fr. Michael Martin, leaned over and said: "That was really good." Some of you may know this, but as of this weekend I've been writing and publishing my homilies since 2013. Because the Catholic lectionary runs on a 3 year cycle, everything from this day forward can be accessed previously. That said, I promise not to rerun old homilies just for convenience (with the exception of Ash Wednesday, which I think is timeless).

As I said, our first reading comes from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. Much of this book consists of speeches from Moses as he bids farewell to his community. He knows their future will not include him and he prays that they will continue to be worthy of God's promises for them. He tells them here to listen only to the voice of God and nothing else. We will do better to listen to that message.

By the time of Jesus, Moses' words were in peril. The community that Moses blessed did not take long to split. They fell into two communities, the North and the South, Samaritans and Israelites. The Jews that we now recognize centered their faith on Jerusalem but those in the North did not. Many were conquered by the Babylonians and are lost to history, but some did not and their temple was in Mount Gerazim, not Mount Zion.

Competing descendants to Moses had, by the time of Jesus, formed into rival camps who hated each other. Both claimed to be the "chosen people" and the fact that Jesus chose our camp should not give us bragging rights.

In reality God calls us to love everyone and it's a call we continue to ignore. While I love this reading I'm aware that the term "Samaritan" has been sanitized. We live in the 21st Century after these events and when we think of "Samaritan" we assume the word "good" proceeds it. Laws that protect us from liability when we assist strangers are called "Good Samaritan Laws." Those who drive recreational vehicles are invited to join the "Good Sam's Club." But it wasn't always that way. Jesus' listeners heard the word "Samaritan" like many today hear the word "Muslim."

When we hear "Muslim" many of us think "someone who we don't know who wants to kill us." For many of us, their skin is darker than ours. In other words we've become conditioned to see the world through lenses of "people who look like us" and "people who can't be trusted." And, without seeing this too much through the lens of current political races, we are often encouraged to retreat into exactly those fears.

And if last week's readings call us to see what strangers offer us, today's call us to explore how we treat them. I'm reminded of an elderly priest I met many years ago. Fr. Ed Peters attended college at the University of Texas in Austin and joined the Paulist Fathers in 1918 (he was ordained in 1924). When he travelled by train to Washington D.C. he and a friend encountered someone we would now call African American. They asked him for directions and this man pointed them in the right direction. Ed's friend commented to him: "Did you hear that fellow? He talked just like a white man!" Ed and his friend likely had no idea that Washington D.C. at the time was essentially a segregated city and this man who helped them probably led a life marked by discrimination where he was denied the ability to vote or live where he chose. They only knew that someone who didn't look like them spoke like them and I hope it changed how they viewed him.

Fr. Ed and his friend looked at this man and didn't know what to think of him. But the man in the Gospel who was beaten had the opposite experience: he and the listeners of this parable looked at someone and thought they knew exactly what to think of him. The priest and the Levite were supposed to see this man as one of their own and help him. We don't know why they didn't, and that's probably grist for another homily.

But the Samaritan didn't do what was expected of him. Jesus' parables often turn things upside down, and this is one of them. When the man was beaten and left at the side of the road he was supposed to be ignored by his enemies and helped by his friends.

But if we see this reading through the eyes of the man who was beaten and robbed, none of this matters. However he thought of priests, Levites, or Samaritans, he had to know that the hero of his story was the one who was supposed to hate him. We can only hope that this robbery victim spent the rest of his life telling his friends and family that they should love Samaritans for what this one person did. Additionally, I like to think the innkeeper also told this story.

Most of us don't have the opportunity to reach out to and welcome Samaritans (though there remains a small group in Israel), but that misses the point. All of us know that we live alongside people who we are supposed to hate and/or distrust because they make us uncomfortable. And we do. Sometimes we distrust others because their skin looks different from ours. Sometimes they profess a faith that doesn't agree with ours. Sometimes they love someone we don't accept because our belief tells us that God doesn't pair people of different races or the same sex.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a dear friend of my father in law's. He told me about a recent trip to another town. He had a rental car but lacked a good map or functional GPS. Hot and frustrated, he went into a convenience store to get something to drink. The man behind the counter not only gave him directions, but also helped him with his cell phone. He downloaded a program for him that would make it much easier for him to navigate the city. At the end of the story, this friend told me: "And I have to tell you, he was Muslim. I've had a hard time with Muslims, but this man was so kind to me. I just don't know."

Yes, he does know. He knows that he can no longer safely hid behind an easy prejudice because his experience has informed him of the message of this Gospel. His world has become more complicated, but also more authentic.

At the end of the day, if Jesus tells us anything, he tells us that God does not respect our prejudices. We live in a world of Jews and Samaritans. Africans, Europeans, Asians, Americans. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists.

But all of us, all of us, are called to see each other as children of God, as those we are called to love, and those we are called to reach out to. We may never be called to come to the rescue of someone who was beaten and left at the side of the road: parables like this often point to extreme examples.

But we can start where we are. Maybe we can hold open a door for someone or call out someone who tells an off color joke.

But we are all called to do something.

July 3, 2016: The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We read from the last chapter of the book of Isaiah about the "vindication of Zion." The reader is instructed to "[R]ejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her." God then promises to "send flowing peace, like a river." Luke's Gospel continues last week's reading: Jesus appointed seventy two disciples to travel in advance of him. He gave them strict instructions that they were not to carry provisions, that they were to ask for lodging, and accept whatever hospitality is offered. In the longer version of the Gospel the disciples returned rejoicing that they were successful beyond their hopes. Jesus then admonished them not to rejoice in their power but instead rejoice that their names are written in heaven.

For our entire history as disciples of Jesus we have been a faith that yearns for the horizon. From Jesus' call after his resurrection to "go to all nations" to missionary work in our own day, we have answered the call to carry the good news of salvation everywhere we go.

As I spoke about last week, Jesus and his disciples are journeying toward Jerusalem for the last time and it appeared that the disciples still weren't getting it. And yet here everything falls into place, with seemingly little preparation.

I find it significant that Jesus starts them off with a warning that he is sending them out "like lambs among wolves" and virtually without provisions. No purse, no haversack, no sandals (!).

And 2,000 years later I don't think we're called to the same thing, but I have to admit to some amusement at seeing how we provision our trips. Modern safaris normally include so much gear that we are forced to hire people to carry our stuff (Americans of my generation remember the late comedian George Carlin doing an entire routine called "a place for my stuff"). And here in the United States the RV (recreational vehicle) industry convinces us we need a camper big enough to block out the sun.

And in fairness the idea of travel back then was different, and certainly more frightening (as we will see next week with the parable of the Good Samaritan). But here we see the upside of travel: meeting new people, learning new traditions, and having new experiences. The jubilation the disciples reported was not only that they found people who were open to their evangelization but that they broadened and enriched their lives through those meetings.

I know I'm stretching things a little, and that the Gospel doesn't explicitly state that the disciples deepened their lives, but it's an inevitable part of travel.

Truthfully I spent the week looking at this reading and recognizing that I cannot read this apart from the global immigration situation where we find ourselves.

Because while we have always been a people fascinated with the horizon, this hasn't been a universal experience. We've always had among us those who fear those we don't know, and it even has a name: xenophobia (fear of the stranger).

I write this in the shadow of "Brexit," the decision by 52% of the voters in Great Britain to leave the European Union. Immigration and the fear that they would be overrun by refugees informed much of the vote. Here in the United States a major candidate for President promises to build a wall between us and Mexico.

So who's right here? I've spoken countless times that our choices need to be informed by our moral compass and not by our own selfish benefit. In the days leading up to the vote in Great Britain I heard an interview with a man who lived in England for most of his life. He retired to Spain where his pension could give him a higher standard of living, and because both England and Spain were members of the European Union, he would receive additional benefits (candidly my memory fails me on the details). He explained that he was planning to vote for Britain to remain in the EU because it works out better for him. But, he admitted, if he still lived in Britain he would vote to leave because he thinks it's too easy for foreigners to come to Britain and threaten his way of life.

Now please understand, I'm not saying how Christians should vote on this issue and his faith was not discussed in the story. But I am deeply troubled that his vote on this issue would change depending on where he lived. A true moral compass certainly has room for "how this affects me" but it cannot ignore how it affects others, particularly the poor and marginalized. In 1968 Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) coined the phrase "preferential option for the poor." He wrote that when called to make a choice, we need to explore how it will affect the poor. I define it this way: having the ability to choose means that we have a certain amount of power, and it calls us to advocate on behalf of those who don't.

Preferential option for the poor speaks to the simple truth that all of us should have enough of the things we need, but I think it also speaks to something deeper. Those who we advocate for have something to teach us and we live our best lives when we reach beyond our comfort zone and interact with strangers.

Many years ago I met a man who worshipped at a wealthy Catholic church outside Boston. He told me that years before Mother Theresa (1910-1997) spoke at his parish. He was so moved by her words that he came up and attempted to give her $100 to help the poor. She refused and told him that he should find someone who was in need. We both got a chuckle at the image of him with a $100 bill in his hand and command from Mother Theresa. But her genius was this: the poor person would benefit from the $100 that he would never miss, but both of them would benefit from the encounter.

It's becoming fashionable these days to see strangers as "someone who will take something from me," whether it's money or opportunity or "our way of life." But today's Gospel tells us that the jubilation experienced by the 72 resulted directly from their encounter.

I hope I'm not walking too far into the weeds of the theology of the Trinity, but generations of Christians wrestled with the role of the Holy Spirit. Our ancestors spent centuries arguing the finer points but in 1274 the Catholic Church declared that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son: The Spirit comes to us from between the Father and Son, and continues to occupy the space between us today.

But if we take this to heart, the Holy Spirit exists only when we encounter each other and never when we isolate ourselves out of fear or prejudice.

The returning 72 celebrated their experience only because they moved outside their comfort zones, encountered people they didn't know, and allowed room for the Holy Spirit.

June 26, 2016: The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading, from the first book of Kings, the Lord instructed Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elijah found Elisha plowing a field but when Elisha learned of his future he asked this: "Let me kiss my father and mother, then I will follow you." Elijah then answered: "Go, go back; for have I done anything to you?" Elisha then slaughtered two oxen, cooked them, and gave them to his men to eat. He then rose and followed Elijah. Our Gospel from Luke also concerns parents. As Jesus continued to approach Jerusalem he and the disciples passed a Samaritan village. Because Jesus and his disciples were heading to Jerusalem, the Samaritans refused to greet them. James and John then asked Jesus if they should seek revenge but Jesus rebuked them and they continued their journey. He approached someone with the offer to become a disciple but this person responded: "I will follow you sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my family at home [other versions translate this to "my father and mother']." Jesus responded: "Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

I have to confess that I'm always a little worried when I read about how some people are "not fit for the kingdom of God," and this is one of those times. On it's face this unnamed potential disciple asked for something simple: let me say goodbye to my family and then I will join you.

And I worry not because of what the text says but the reaction we take from it: what if I'm not fit for the Kingdom of God? What if I've laid my hand on the plough and was caught looking back? Does it really mean that this one act will deny me the Kingdom?

And does it mean that once I decide to follow Jesus, I can't even tell my family that I'm going? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Several commentaries I researched hold that "saying goodbye" meant waiting until the person's parents had died. This was not a delay of an hour, but perhaps a delay of years.

I don't think I'm reading too much into this but I sense a certain level of urgency in Jesus' words. His journey to Jerusalem ends with his death and resurrection, and also his ascension into Heaven. And while we rightly focus on the salvation this brings us, there is also an element of Jesus' "passing the torch" to his disciples.

That may inform Jesus' rebuke of his disciples when they sought revenge against the Samaritans. The Samaritans and the Jews never liked each other (for several reasons) and their rebuke of the disciples should have come as no surprise. And so when the disciples offered to "put the hurt on them" Jesus may well have recognized how far he still had to go with them. They still hadn't gotten the word that the Kingdom of God was about mercy and inclusion, not revenge and power.

Today we also live with urgency, but I maintain it's a different urgency. From nearly the time of Jesus the belief that "the world is going to end in your lifetime and perhaps by the end of this day" called centuries of disciples to both hope and anxiety. The promise of Jesus' return, over time, morphed into the belief that random events took on grave importance because "you never know when it's going to happen." One of my seminary classmates owned a shirt that proclaimed: "Jesus is Coming: Look Busy."

But we live in the 21st Century after the promise of our salvation. The idea of holding our breath because the world might end today is both silly and counterproductive. Instead let us look at urgency through different eyes.

In the ordinary course of our day most of us encounter dozens, or even hundreds, of people. Most encounters are simple and don't demand much of us: the checker at the grocery store asks "how are you" and we answer "fine." The pedestrian at a stop sign waves to thank us for letting him or her cross and we wave back. We greet the receptionist at our office with "good morning" and it is returned.

But today's urgency comes to us when we are faced with an encounter that calls us to more. Maybe it's something simple when we open a door for a young mother or father who is pushing a stroller through a door. Maybe it's when we're on a plane next to a single parent whose child won't stop crying and we provide comfort and support to the parent.

This urgency is not informed by "things are going to end soon and this is my last chance to show my worthiness" but instead by "this may be my only chance to impact the life of this random person and make his or her life better."

The call to discipleship, the call to understand that we don't control the circumstances of our ability to serve God, should humble us. We best serve God by seeing urgency as a response to humility, to knowing that we serve a God who calls us to serve without explaining God's reasoning. We don't set our schedule or determine our agenda with the understanding that we are the final word.

Truthfully, as disciples, God call us to see every encounter as something holy. I'm certain I'm not alone when I say that I've been reminded of conversations or encounters that I barely remember but are seared into the memories of someone else. I'm grateful when those encounters were good, and embarrassed when they weren't.

Many years ago I was blessed by an encounter from my time as a seminarian. I spent time with the youth group of a Catholic parish and befriended a 10th grader I'm going to call Brian. We were both bicyclists (though he was much stronger than me). We spent hours riding together and talking about bicycles and life in general. We didn't talk much about faith or religion only because it didn't come up. At the end of my year there he pulled me aside and told me this: "I attended the youth group only because my parents made me. Truthfully I was an atheist when I met you. But spending this year with you has convinced me that God exists. If you are going to devote your life to faith, I believe I can too."

I tell this story not to brag. I spent most of that year embarrassed by how much he smoked me on hills but I enjoyed his company. I had no idea he didn't belive in God and still can't imagine the impact I had as we rode together. But I look back on this with a sense of urgency.

I was blessed by my encounter with Brian because he was able to communicate his gratitude from his experience with me. Because of his confession I carry with me a profound encounter of him. But as a disciple of Jesus I'm also aware of all those we encountered without that experience.

Urgency, in the final analysis, isn't about predicting the future. Urgency demands that we be ready at all times for what comes. And as disciples of Jesus Christ it calls us to be ready to respond to what faces us.

Maybe it calls us to respond in ways that we understand and easily respond to. But maybe it calls us to respond in ways that bewilder or confuse us. Elisha (in the first reading) is minding his own business, plowing the fields, when he is called to follow Elijah. The unnamed disciple in Luke's Gospel wants to follow Jesus, but only on his timeline.

The popular bumper stickers "Practice Random Acts of Kindness" informs these readings. I'm not normally a fan of bumper stickers, but I find great wisdom in this one. Random acts are not random to God, only to us.

Discipleship does not call us to abandon our families but it does call us to reorder our priorities. We rightly make and keep schedules because it's our starting point but discipleship calls us to understand that God does not respect our schedules. We will, in our ordinary lives, find ourselves in situations that demand we understand that the Kingdom of God may go in a direction we did not choose.

We may be called to love a Samaritan. We may be called to love a Muslim. We may be called to support a coworker or neighbor who "everyone knows" is against us.

Regardless these readings demand that we understand that discipleship and our role as disciples differently. The "call and response" of discipleship ends, not with us, but with God. God calls and we respond.

Even if it's a response we didn't plan.

June 19, 2016: The Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading (from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah) speaks from a time when they have returned from their exile in Babylon. God promises to "pour out a spirit of kindness and prayer." The people will mourn for the one they have pierced. "When that day comes, a fountain will be opened for the House of David and the citizens of Jerusalem, for sin and impurity." Luke's Gospel describes a scene where Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say he is. They respond by stating that some say he is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the ancient prophets. Jesus then asks them who they say he is. Peter responds by calling him "The Christ of God." Instead of being pleased with this, Jesus gave strict orders that they tell no one of this. He then told them that the Son of Man was "destined to to suffer grievously to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day."

There are times when I read Bible passages through the eyes of the 21st Century and think that while these readings make perfect sense to me, they must have puzzled or confounded those who heard these words in the First Century. And to be fair, scripture is replete with instances where ancient customs or practices confound us (I'm thinking about references to sheep herding and travelling great distances while wearing sandals).

Today's Gospel speaks to my point. Jesus begins by asking his disciples a simple question: Who do the crowds think I am? Honestly, I look at this question and think it's a trap: Jesus wants them to answer the question incorrectly so that he can tell them who he is.

This may not be true now, but I was in high school in the 1970s and we were well conditioned to this type of "set up" question. You may have memories of your own but they were well used devices: you were asked a seemingly simple question but when giving the simple answer you were told (in front of everyone else) that you were wrong. I remember well a scene when I was in 10th grade and went to a meeting of the debate team. The coach asked me why I thought I should be on the debate team; foolishly I thought she would be pleased by my interest. I stumbled through several answers that she ignored and finally I said that I liked to argue. She jumped on my answer to announce to me (and the rest of the group) that debate wasn't about arguing at all and I gave the wrong answer. As you can imagine I left the meeting and never returned.

Given this I feel some empathy for Jesus' disciples. I'm not certain they felt as set up as I did but they did stumble through a few answers. Clearly they didn't give Jesus the answer he wanted and so he changed the question: Who do you think that I am?

And then Peter gives the answer that we all hope we would have given in that situation: You are the Christ of God. Most of us know that "christ" means "the anointed one" and Peter gives a clear indication of what we know to be true: Jesus is the Son of God.

But instead of praising Peter for giving the right answer, Jesus scolded them. He then told them not to tell this to anyone.

Reading this 2,000 years later it's easy to think ourselves better than Peter and the rest of the disciples but perhaps that misses the point. It's taken several years (and a fair amount of counseling) to understand that the debate coach didn't answer my question with an eye toward humiliating me but rather to make a point: she wanted us to come to a different understanding and I happened to be the convenient target.

We can see the arc of Jesus' ministry through easy eyes: he was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, gathered a group of disciples, taught and preached, and was killed only to rise from the dead and redeem us. And since the Gospels were written 40 years after these events, Luke had much the same advantage.

But his disciples didn't have the luxury of hindsight. No matter how much they loved Jesus, no matter how much they believed his message, and no matter how much we revere them, they didn't know how their story was going to end.

So what did they think? We have no way to know the answer to that question, but it's worth knowing that Jesus felt the need to tell them that it wouldn't always go well. I believe that Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit to tell Jesus that he viewed Jesus as the "Christ of God."

I've spoken about this several times before but if you're attached to someone on the way up, your stock is going up too. A disciple of the Christ of God virtually guarantees a good future.

Here in the United States we're in the middle of a Presidential campaign that confounds nearly all expectations. Without wishing to wade into the weeds of this campaign, I'm interested to note that several "second tier" politicians have needed to chose their path forward. And I think it's fair to say that some of them have taken their eyes off their moral compass hoping for a path to greater things.

Much like the disciples they find themselves attempting not only to understand what they've heard but to predict their future based on confusing information.

Unlike the disciples they base their decisions on their ambitions instead of a a respect for their moral compass. They are choosing their career over their legacy.

I know how cynical this will sound, but we are replete with politicians who base their decisions, ambitions, and futures on their predictions of the future success of their mentors. Will he (or she) survive this challenge and will I benefit from my support? Or will he (or she) go down and I'll benefit from jumping ship?

But the confusing response of Jesus' scolding of Peter didn't cause them to see Jesus in a different light, and more to the point they didn't abandon Jesus. Whatever feelings they may have experienced and however hurt Peter may have felt, they continued to follow Jesus.

I'm pretty certain they had no idea what Jesus meant when he told them that the "Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised." Further they must have been completely bewildered when he spoke about how they must "pick up their cross" and follow him.

You see, nothing in their lives as Jews spoke to a need to be killed and the idea of picking up a cross was anathema. They had no context to understand how someone could die and come back to life simply because it had never happened.

And while "the cross" today signifies sacrifice and redemption, back then it was awful: "the cross" was a method of execution the Romans devised to make death painful, humiliating, and agonizingly long. And while Jesus died on the cross in a speedy three hours, some who were crucified took several days to die.

And so hearing this, why on earth did the disciples continue to follow him? Nobody in his right mind would go all in with someone who would be crucified by the Romans. Were the disciples out of their mind?

Yes. Yes they were. On a basic level the best part of Jesus' merry band of disciples have their best moments here. They likely had no idea what Jesus was talking about and part of their decision consisted of ignoring what they didn't understand.

But I like to think that part of their decision to continue to follow Jesus had nothing to do with ambition or the desire to gain adulation and respect. I like to think that their decision to continue to follow Jesus spoke loudly about their moral compass. Even hearing about having to carry their crosses did not dissuade them, and while they didn't always live their best lives, they are who they are to us because of their willingness to trade ambition for discipleship.

Does that ever happen with us? Of course it does. As I spoke about in the context of politics, we are constantly seduced to make decisions in terms of ambition. Will this coworker benefit me? Will this politician get me what I want? Will my nasty and immoral neighbor introduce me to people who can make me richer?

Or do we, instead, trade understanding and ambition for loyalty and love? I'm writing this in the hours after the horrific murders at the gay bar in Orlando and I can't keep my mind off the reaction we see. Do we morph this into anti Muslim hate speech for our own benefit or do we weep for the LGBT community that has been decimated?

I pray that when we encounter experiences that confuse, bewilder, and frighten us, we don't answer with our fear or ask how we can profit from it. I pray that we can live with our confusion and answer with compassion, and look to our moral compass for direction.

June 12, 2016: The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The relationship between King David and Nathan the prophet informs our first reading. Nathan scolds David because, after all God has given him, David sins gravely. Nathan tells him: "You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, taken his wife for your own, and killed him with the sword of the Ammonites." Chastened, David replies: "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan then tells David that God forgives him and will not take his life. Luke's Gospel describes a scene where a Pharisee invites Jesus to a meal. Once taking his place, a woman (who had a bad name) entered. She brought an alabaster jar of ointment with which she anointed his feet. Weeping, she kissed his feet and dried her tears with her hair. The Pharisee, recognizing the woman, called out Jesus and proclaimed that if Jesus were truly a prophet he would know this woman's reputation. Jesus then told a parable about a man who was owed debts by two people. One owed him 500 denari and the other owed him 50. When he forgave both debts, which debtor will love him more? Simon (Peter) suggested the one with the greater debt would love him more. Jesus agreed and told the woman her sins were forgiven and proof of this was shown in her desire to serve Jesus. This caused some consternation as some at the table asked: "Who is this man, that he even forgives sins?" Jesus concludes this reading by telling the woman that her faith has saved her.

Sometimes when I read the readings from the Catholic lectionary I have to scratch my head over how they chose which stories (and which versus) to tell. Our first reading from the Second Book of Samuel makes almost no sense without some context. It begins with the 7th verse of the 12th chapter but we need to read from the beginning of the 11th chapter to fully understand the depths of David's sin.

Here David is the King of Israel. His reign over Israel is generally considered the apex, the high point, of Jewish history. Years ago I watched a movie about Jews in the famous Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943: prisoners with smuggled guns fought back against their oppressors and one of them (knowing the uprising was ultimately doomed) proclaimed: "I feel the blood of King David in my veins!"

But David, along with all of us before and after, was a flawed character. This reading describes perhaps his lowest point. Israel was fighting against the Ammonites, and one of his soldiers was a man named Uriah. While Uriah was in battle, David saw Uriah's wife Bathsheba and was attracted to her. David called for her and demanded intercourse with her.

Today if we are horrified by this demand that's a good thing. We put great stock in the phrase "consentual sex" but frankly that's a fairly modern term. Today we believe that either partner in an intimate relationship can decline intimacy and the other partner commits a crime by ignoring that refusal.

But that hasn't been true for much our history. Thomas Jefferson, the third American President, had a long term relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemming. He kept it secret at the time because of criticism because it was an interracial relationship, but today we see it at forcible rape because a slave could not refuse her master. Sex is consensual only if both parties have the power to say no.

Bathsheba was in the same situation. King David did not need to ask for Bathsheba's consent: as king his power over her was absolute. He didn't need to ask her consent anymore than he needed to ask the consent of the knife he used to cut his food.

I know this shocks us today, and that's a good thing, because our understanding of the relationship of the equality between men and women takes center stage in this reading.

You see, David found himself trapped by his own actions. His desire for a one night stand with Bathsheba resulted in her pregnancy. Even the mighty King David recognized that this sin would not play well with his people. Unfortunately he doubled down on his desperate situation. First he called her husband Uriah home in the hopes that he would have sex with her and everyone would assume this child would be seen as Uriah's.

It didn't work. Uriah, feeling guilty that he was called home from the front lines, slept outside his home and everyone knew that he did not sleep with Bathsheba. David grew more desperate: he recognized that the clock was ticking and abandoned the plan to claim that Uriah fathered the (soon to be born) child.

Instead he made a desperate and awful decision. He ordered that once back in battle, Uriah's troops would pull back, expose Uriah to enemy fire and ensure his death. Alas, that plan worked.

Except that it didn't. God saw what happened and took the side of the powerless. We call Nathan a prophet because he spoke for God, and Nathan was not diplomatic. His call to proclaim God's truth was not supposed to be diplomatic. God recognized that David sinned both in his decision to impregnate Bathsheba and his decision to cause the death of Uriah to cover up his first sin.

Finally we find ourselves at the beginning of our first reading. Nathan confronted David in his sin, and to his credit, David admitted his guilt.

As Christians we often speak of God's ability to forgive even our worst sin. It's hard to imagine a sin greater than David's. As a matter of fact, the United States Code of Military Conduct specifically prohibits any sexual conduct between members of the military and the spouses of other members.

And yet God forgives David. God's forgiveness does not come without a price (and the child born of this affair died at seven days old). And while we rightly mourn for the child who died prematurely, we need to put him or her in God's care and recognize that David is not evaluated only on his worst decision.

This message continues to the Gospel. We know nothing about the woman in this story except she was seen badly by those gathered. Perhaps her desire to find a husband called her to make bad decisions. Perhaps today we would see her as a victim of human trafficking. In any case her desperation called her to see Jesus as her best hope for a fulfilled life. There is much we don't know.

What we do know is this: she knew that Jesus was dining with a Pharisee. And having little to lose she entered the Pharisee's home without an invitation and approached Jesus.

And she was all in. She broke the rules and and once there she broke open a container of oil, rubbed it on Jesus' feet, mixed with her tears. She then dried his feet with her hair.

And here we see the divergence: the Pharisee looked at the woman's sins and Jesus looked at her love. He stated clearly that she could only have done this out of love. She wasn't even looking for forgiveness.

But forgiven she was. And that commands the heart of these readings.

I'm hoping many of you remember this, but in late 1998 President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about a legal but inappropriate relationship with an intern, Monica Lewinski. There was a great deal of conversation in this country about how we had "lost a sense of sin" and that anything was permissible. At the time I disagreed. I felt (and still feel) that we have never lost a sense of sin, but instead we have lost a sense of forgiveness of our sins. Caught in his indiscretion, he feared that the word "adulterer" and "sex maniac" would completely describe him, pushing out President, father, husband, and friend. Because he didn't think there was a path back to wholeness he lied and hoped he would get away with it. But like David, he didn't.

For if humility reminds us that we cannot be seen exclusively by our best moments, forgiveness demands that we not be judged by our worst moments. The ability, indeed the command, to forgive ourselves and others provides us with the only path to wholeness and true discipleship.

As with so many of Jesus' encounters we are called not to see as the Pharisee saw but as Jesus saw. While the Pharisee looked back on the nameless woman's life with an inventory of her sins, Jesus looked forward to her life of love.

As a postscript I hope she was able to forgive herself. Forgiving ourselves is often the hardest job we face.

June 5, 2016: The Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading (from the first book of Kings) describes a scene where the prophet Elijah is staying with a widow. The widow's son fell sick and died. Desperate with grief she said to Elijah: "What quarrel have you with me, man of God? Have you come here to bring my sins home to me and to kill my son?" Elijah then took the boy's body and prayed to God to return the boy's soul to him. God heard Elijah's prayer and returned the boy to life. Overjoyed the woman said to Elijah: "Now I know you are a man of God and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth itself." Luke's Gospel tells the story of Jesus journeying to the town of Nain. As he approached the town, the body of a man was being carried out; he was the only son of a widow. Moved by the situation Jesus commanded the man to get up. The man came back to life and joined his mother. Everyone who saw this "was filled with awe and praised God."

I know this will sound crazy, but I think many of us focus on the wrong part of these readings and that fact marks much of the progress we have made since these readings were written.

Both readings focus on the mercy of God, the important places of Elijah and Jesus in our salvation history and I think we see that correctly. But when we hear of the death of these sons of widows we immediately imagine the grief of losing a child.

And let's face it: the death of a child (of any age) constitutes a parent's worst nightmare. We find death painful but most of us expect that we will bury our parents and know that we may or may not survive our spouse. But there is no understanding the death of a child. Ten years ago I presided at the funeral of a 15 day old infant and to this day it was the saddest experience of my eighteen years as a hospice chaplain.

But these readings are not about grief, or at least not as the primary focus. The widows here, on top of the grief, faced the distinct possibility of starvation.

Women, in those days, were not easily able to make a living; they experienced what we today call "food insecurity. They were dependent first on their fathers, then their husbands, and finally their sons for even their basic needs. These two women lost their lifelines when their sons died, and while there was always the possibility of charity (or perhaps remarriage), they could no longer be confident in their ability to live. They had virtually no ability to earn their own living and nobody was obligated to support them.

I don't wish to dispel the power of charity and the demand that we care for "the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien" (ie, those who can't support themselves) goes back to Moses. But they were always dependent not only on the generosity of those who could help, they soon learned that they couldn't depend on those who couldn't help. I'm certain I'm not the only one who receives large and unwieldy piles of mail asking for my help with various causes. And it's not that (most of them) aren't worthy charities, it's just too much. If I gave to everyone who asked, I'd need to start my own charity to pay my own bills. The play "Fiddler on the Roof" gives us a funny scene where a beggar asked someone for some help. The man gave him some money but the beggar complained that this amount was half of last week's amount. The man explained that he had a bad week to which the beggar replied: "So you had a bad week. Why should I suffer?

But slowly, and primarily in the last century, we've recognized that individual acts of charity, noble as they may be, don't go far enough. We began to recognize that our shared values called us to action. At least in the developed world we recognized that those who had nobody to care for them needed to be cared for by all of us.

Here in the United States, as late as the 1930s, those too old to work depended on savings or their children. But as we began to live longer and the the elderly population without resources grew, we developed two programs: pensions and Social Security. They were both collective funds that relied on a combination of saving and taxing those who still work. Social Security is a government program, but large companies also recognized that setting up pensions would provide a healthy retirement for those whose loyalty they wished to reward.

Now I don't think those behind Social Security and pensions (and similar programs in other nations) happened at meetings where someone looked directly at these readings. But I do believe that these and other like readings call us to collective responsibility. Democracies, in the final word, operate on the collective beliefs and values of all its citizens. There is no way around this eternal truth: nations who answer to one dictator, or a small circle of rulers, invariably serve the needs and desires of the powerful at the expense of the population

But nations where the leaders serve the entire population recognize their responsibility to serve everyone, and particularly those in the most need.

Today, as a citizen of the United States, I celebrate not only Social Security and pensions: I also celebrate other programs. We have Medicare (health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor), food stamps (coupons that allow the poor to purchase food), WIC (nutrition for infants and their mothers), free school lunches in schools, and dozens of other programs.

But I celebrate with a few caveats: first, I recognize that these programs, these shared values, are often under fire. Many who claim our same values and religious beliefs see those in need as suffering from self inflicted wounds or are just plain lazy. These folk argue that our charity only makes it easier for people to stay lazy. It's an unfortunate truth and I pray they never find out firsthand how wrong they are.

And second while I gratefully pay taxes for these programs (and say a silent prayer whenever I see the difference in my paycheck) I also recognize that these programs don't complete my responsibility. The widow, orphan, and resident alien may receive adequate nutrition through my taxes, but I'm still called to provide love and a commitment to help them. No program is 100% efficient and neither is any program 100% effective. These readings call us to vigilance in ensuring nobody faces true food insecurity.

But I'm cheered to know that while nobody who collects a pension or Social Security will grow rich, neither will they likely starve. And this reality that our actions will prevent their starvation makes us the Elijah and Jesus of our readings.

May 29, 2016: The Body and Blood of Christ

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We can tell that we're out of Easter season because the first reading comes not from the Acts of the Apostles but from Genesis. Here Melchizedek (the King of Salem) brought out and blessed bread and wine. Luke's Gospel recounts the miracle where Jesus fed the crowd with two loaves of bread and five fish.

The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (known in Latin as "Corpus Christi") commands an important place in the lives of Catholics, and varying degrees of importance in other Christian religions. I pray my words will find value for Catholics and non Catholics alike.

The first thing I notice about this is the name of the feast: the Catholic calendar is replete with feast days. In addition to feasts that celebrate saints (St. Patrick on March 17th, St. Francis on October 4th, etc), there are other feasts. On February 22nd we commemorate the "Chair of Peter," known in Latin as "Cathedra Petri." Trust me, there are several others.

My point is this: Most Catholic feasts were translated from Latin to English in the 1960s. Nobody celebrates "Cathedra Petri" anymore. But the translation of "Corpus Christi" is "The Body and Blood of Christ" while most of us still call it Corpus Christi.

Why is this? Perhaps it's because "Corpus Christi" is shorter than "The Body and Blood of Christ" but perhaps it's more. There is something mystical about Latin, almost as if it is a "secret language." Fifty years past the Second Vatican Council there are still Catholics who miss hearing the mass in Latin. For many, Latin is "God's language."

And there's something mystical about food. With the exception of air nothing is more pressing on our existence than food and water. From the time of Moses we've always recognized that God not only created us, but sustains us, whether it be manna from Heaven in Exodus or Jesus' own body and blood in the Gospels.

But curiously today's Gospel doesn't depict the scene of the Last Supper where Jesus takes the unleavened bread and pronounces the words: "This is my body." Instead we read in Luke's Gospel how Jesus and his disciples fed a crowd of thousands.

I don't think this is an accident. Corpus Christi can easily be seen as only a "Catholic feast" as Catholics have a different understanding of Eucharist from most other Christians. But Corpus Christi is a feast not only about receiving Communion at Catholic Mass, it's about food and how it sustains us.

I spoke about our need for air, and it's real. Most of us will start dying if we go without air (oxygen) for more than 5 or 10 minutes. We can go longer without food (despite what the advertising world tells us) but not forever. This isn't an exact science but most of us won't survive more than a week without water; our survivability without food depends on how much we have stored in our body but even today we won't survive more than a few weeks without food.

I say "how much we have stored in our body" because the last few hundred years have allowed us a luxury that was almost unheard of for most of human history. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing that nobody who reads this lives with a reasonable fear of starvation. As a matter of fact many of us struggle not with consuming enough calories but with decreasing or burning off enough calories to remain healthy. Our disease is not poverty but obesity.

I do genealogy as a hobby and that means I spend an embarrassing amount of time poring over public records. About six years ago I came across the death certificate of Joseph Arthur Calixte Lizotte, my 7th cousin twice removed. He was born in Greenville, New Hampshire on May 16, 1914 and died on September 23, 1915. According to his death certificate his causes of death was cholera (which he suffered for 3 days) and malnutrition (which he suffered from birth).

My distant cousin lived only four months and seven days but I wonder what he would think about the feast of Corpus Christi. He was the eighth of fourteen children and twelve of the fourteen lived into adulthood. Given all that faced them, his parents and siblings were lucky.

But his death points to an uncomfortable reality. Air (oxygen) commands our most basic need for life but, let's face it, it's everywhere. We measure air pressure as a way to predict the weather but unless we choose to climb Mt. Everest we're not likely to be in a place where we have to be deliberate about how we consume air.

But while God has chosen to spread air evenly, food and water are uneven. Some parts of our world provide generous amounts of fresh water while we classify others as deserts. Growing crops comes easy to some parts of our world and not in others.

What do we do with that? We've spent most of our history as humans seeing the uneven distribution as a given. From the beginning of our time on earth we have sought out food and water and directed our lives in that direction. But we now live in the second decade of the twenty first Century since the birth of Jesus and we've learned enough about our planet to drive the consumption of calories instead of being subject to the variables of weather, disease, or luck.

And I think this new reality calls us to rethink how we commemorate the feast of Corpus Christi. Previous generations looked on this feast as "food for Heaven" and it was certainly true those who didn't have enough to eat were comforted by the belief that Eucharist, this "food from Heaven," would make their earthly sufferings acceptable because it would lead them to eternal paradise.

That image worked well when we all spent our lives in search of enough food, but now we need to look at the reality that some of us have too much while many have too little and we have the power to change that.

If you've been reading/hearing me for any length of time you know I'm not a fundamentalist. The Scripture we read today was written thousands of years ago and I believe Scripture speaks to us not only in the historical record but also to our experience today. And while our circumstances differ from Luke's audience, our values persevere. And the value of shared resources calls us to look at food, at the Body of Christ, as Corpus Christi, with modern eyes.

Simply put, uneven distribution of food and water is no longer a given. The loaves and fishes in Luke that were distributed to a crowd of thousands in Jesus' time can now be distributed worldwide if we choose to do so.

I write/speak often of how God loves us enough to write us into the plan of salvation and make us not only recipients but also participants. Just as God distributed air (oxygen) evenly throughout the world so we all can breathe and have enough, we are now given the ability to distribute food and water evenly so that all may eat and drink and have enough.

I'm not naive enough to believe that accepting this responsibility will be easy or popular. The fear of not having enough food, no matter how remote, calls the "lesser angels of our nature" to hoard the calories that cause us type two diabetes when those same calories could end the malnutrition of another who may live not far from us.

Corpus Christi begins with a miracle where Jesus promises us his own body and blood. But if we continue to think of Eucharist as simply "magic bread" we miss the dreams he has for us. We have been given a gift that we are called to spread. Maybe it calls us to give our "doggie bag" to a homeless person we meet on our way home. Maybe it calls us to volunteer at a food bank. Maybe it calls us to vote for a candidate who shares our values that poverty and hunger are not self inflicted wounds or the logical result of laziness.

No matter what, we have to believe that we live Corpus Christi when we imagine a world where food and water are as evenly distributed as air and oxygen.

May 22, 2016: The Most Holy Trinity

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: As of last Monday we are officially out of the season of Easter and back into Ordinary Time. And our first reading returns to the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). We read in the book of Proverbs that its author was created "when [God's] purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works." This author explains that he (and we) were in God's mind before the world where we live was even created. In John's Gospel Jesus tells his apostles that he has much more to tell them, but it's too much for them now. Instead he will send them the "Spirit of truth" who will tell them of the things to come. Finally he says: "Everything the Father has in mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine."

The Feast of the Holy Trinity doesn't often concern most of us, but let me ask a provocative question: if polled, would the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all vote for the same candidate for President of the United States?

Provocative yes, but also fascinating. Most, but not all Christians grew up with a belief that God exists in three persons and they are somehow in relationship with each other, but the Trinity is a mystery that doesn't often occupy our mind.

But it wasn't always that way. We Christians were born out of Judaism and they taught explicitly that God was one person with one will and one plan. This came in response to the previous belief that there were several gods in competition or cooperation with each other. Jews worked hard to understand that the buck stops in one place with one God.

Given that, what do we do with the passage in Matthew where Jesus' disciples were called to baptize all peoples in "the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"? And further, what do we do with the beginning of John's Gospel where we are told that the "Word" was with God, and was God from the beginning? These debates formed much of the growth of the first few centuries of the Christian church.

In fairness, some Christian churches walked away from the whole thing and declared that there really is only one God and God is not part of the Trinity (the most notable are the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Scientists). But when asked, most of us have struggled with what the Trinity means, and more to the point, what it means in our lives.

Clearly this isn't simply an intellectual doctrine. If it were, we wouldn't spend any time with it. The history of the first 4 Centuries of the Christian Church boiled over with debates over this doctrine, and St. Patrick (in the 5th Century) is revered for using the three leaf clover to explain this to the people of Ireland (ie, it is the existence of these leaves that makes the clover).

And I have to confess that most of us don't think of the three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as equals. Instead I think we normally think of the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit as being "less than" the Father. And there were certainly those in the early Church who argued that. Most Christians feel this was settled in the Council of Nicea in 325 when the Trinity was declared homoousios (of one substance). Many of us recite the Nicean Creed every week where the Son and Holy Spirit are "consubstantial" (one in being) with the Father.

Fair enough, but what does that mean for us? I go back to my original question: if the Father, Son, and Spirit were registered voters in the United States, would they all vote for the same Presidentail candidate?

Other than being a provokative question, it also appears silly to many people. Of course they would and furthermore they would vote for the candidate I plan to vote for.

You see, too often when we think about the relationships in our lives we tend to think of them as sharing much with us, and most of them do. Most married couples share beliefs and values, and tend to enjoy the same activities. It's no coincidence that most of us met our spouses participating in some activity, whether it's jogging, golf, or giving blood. Our courtship often centered around these activities and allowed us to grow into a marriage. Children of that marriage often continue those same activities.

But our understanding of each other as being different persons in committed relationships by design much go much deeper. No couple I know introduce their spouses as a golf parter or a member of their bowling team. At some point we move beyond what we do and see each other in terms of who we are.

But too often we look at all of our relationships not simply in terms of who we are to each other, but who the person is in terms of what I expect. A couple who disagrees over who to vote for in an election doesn't concern me nearly as much as a couple who can't find a measure of mutual respect and love because they disagree.

Many years ago I had an experience in my first year of seminary. There were six of us who all felt called to religious life and living in the same community. Alas, there was one person who I clashed with. Both of us shared the same belief that the formation team had gravely erred in allowing the other to even enter the seminary. I experienced a particularly difficult meeting with one of the directors. I told him that perhaps the best this other man and I could do was "peaceful coexistence." I referred to a belief of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) who led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. Speaking in the context of the Cold War with the United States he described a situation where two parties may not enjoy living together but have no choice. Khrushchev used the analogy of the farmer who depends on his cow for his livelihood but has no money for a barn. Therefore he and the cow have to live in the sam home. He does not like this because the cow is dirty and smells bad but he has no choice.

As you might imagine, this did not go well for me. My director, patiently and through grit teeth, explained that the two of us cannot live in community without a healthy and mature respect for each other's gifts and talents. We were not called to be best friends, but we were called to live together in a way that brings out the best in each other.

It is certainly true that our opinions often originate in our values but that's not always true. I'm dismayed by much of the discourse I hear these days, and much of it comes from the belief that if two people disagree they come from different values, and it means that one person is right (moral) and the other is wrong (immoral).

In other words, in any disagreement I can't be right unless you are wrong. Our discussion then devolves not into "tell me more about what you think" but "how can I convince you that you're wrong."

Last week I spoke about how different languages open us to more nuance and better understanding. This week I hold that we can learn our best lessons from those who come at an issue from a different origin.

The call of the Holy Trinity asks us to come together over love more than agreement. It calls us not simply to acknowledge differences or even be comfortable with them, but to celebrate them. If one parent values hard work and the other values family, can they raise children? Of course they can both value work and family, and both are good, but between them they can both support and raise their children. Their children lose out if the breadwinner and the nurturer both argue that the other isn't "pulling his weight." The children win if each recognizes, reveres, and loves the values of the other.

We don't think much of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, but I think we should. The love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit calls us all to love one another in a way that allows us to be who we are and allows us to love those who share different values.

Oh yes, and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would all vote the same way as me.

May 15, 2016: Pentecost Sunday

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we return to nearly the beginning of Acts: the second chapter begins with the apostles gathered in one room when a strong wind filled the house. Tongues of fire appeared and settled on their heads and they began to speak in foreign languages. Others, known for their devotion, assembled, and were astonished to find that not only were several languages being spoken, but that everyone heard them in his own tongue. John's Gospel gives us Jesus meeting with his disciples after his resurrection. He breathes on them and told them that they had the power to forgive sins.

Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. The word "pentecost" comes from the Greek word for "fiftieth" and it's been 50 days since Easter. But it means a great deal more than that and to fully understand, we need to go back a week.

Our first reading comes to us from the 2nd chapter of Acts of the Apostles and we've been reading from Acts since Easter. Though last week I preached on the sixth week of Easter, it was also the commemoration of the Ascension of Jesus (where he left us to ascend into Heaven).

When Jesus left his disciples, two men in white robes told them this: "Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven." For many believers this means that Jesus will return to earth and judge who is worthy of salvation.

But what if it's not? Perhaps this means that Jesus won't return in human form but instead will return in the power and authority given to all of us. Certainly that appears to be true in Jesus' last words in John's Gospel. Previous to this, only God could forgive sins, and Jesus created a scandal when he claimed for himself the power to forgive sins in the 9th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. But here he claims authority to forgive sins is not reserved for himself, but to all those who believe in him (ok, I recognize that many of us were taught that this gave only priests the power to forgive sins in confession, but I'm speaking more broadly here).

I've spoken about this before but I think we can't emphasize this enough: Jesus came not simply to proclaim a new religion or a new god, but to proclaim an epic shift in how we believe.

The epic shift in Judaism, the change given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, centered on the place of God. Previously people worshipped a number of gods who competed for power and our job was to worship the right god. God tells Moses that there are no other gods and worshipping other gods was meaningless and unfaithful. It was a tough pill to swallow but by the time of Jesus they were comfortable with that reality.

The epic shift in Christianity centers on a God that is not only singular but global. The fact is that different languages constitute the heart of our first reading and we need to see it as more than a miracle (though it was).

Many of us, throughout history, have looked at language in political terms, going back to the Tower of Babel in the 11th chapter of Genesis. By the time of Jesus, several languages were spoken and/or written. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, though the books of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples. The New Testament was written in Greek and the Romans spoke Latin.

But the writer of Acts goes well beyond this: while all who spoke were Galileans (who presumably spoke Aramaic), the listeners heard and understood them in the languages of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cretans, and Arabs. And they were all understood.

I believe that this was intentional: the disciples were being told that their role was not to proclaim salvation only to those nearby who spoke languages they understood. Instead they were told to go everywhere and preach to everyone.

Since that time missionaries have gone to "the ends of the earth" and today there is virtually nowhere in the world where the message of Jesus has not been proclaimed.

And so do we say "Mission Accomplished?" Alas, no.

To this day language has become a political tool, and different languages often divide us in direct contrast to what we're told in Acts.

I live in San Diego, California, United States. While most of us speak English, we can also hear Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, Laotian, and several others. This doesn't include dialogues of these languages.

And my corner of the world was indigenous until Spanish conquest in the 1500s and became part of Mexico in 1821. We became part of the United States in 1846. At no time in the last 500 years have we spoken one language but there is great political pressure for everyone to "speak American." Multi lingual signs anger many people and give them the belief that "they" are not part of "us."

But we become Catholic (universal) when we reach out beyond our comfort zone (or language). In 1887 a Polish ophthalmologist advanced a language he called Esperanto to (in a sense) reverse the Tower of Babel. It didn't work.

I've spoken about this before but it bears repeating: each language enriches our understanding. Every language provides us words that don't translate well because they encapsulate nuances that other languages miss. For example the Hebrew word "shalom" means welcome but it also speaks to right relationship with God. Shalom is both a greeting and a hope. Saying "shalom" to another means not only "welcome" but "I hope that you are in good standing with God." Hawai'ians use the word "aloha" as a greeting, a blessing, and an expression of love. The Greek words for love encompass "eros" (the love between intimate partners), philia (also called "loyalty," the love between best friends), and agape (unconditional love, the love that cannot be broken).

Our languages should celebrate not only our diversity but our celebration of each other. Pentecost demands that as we reach out to each other we are called to build bridges and not walls. It demands that we move from "just us" to "justice."

The call of Pentecost challenged the first disciples to move into areas beyond their comfort zone. It called them to be "strangers in a strange land" and they did. Because of their courage and because they took this call seriously, we who did not descend from the Middle East now celebrate our discipleship in Jesus.

But the call of Pentecost did not expire. We live with the same call. We are challenged to continue to proclaim the love/shalom/aloha/agape to all that we meet. Even to those who share our belief in Jesus.

And especially to those who we don't understand.

May 8, 2016: The Seventh Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We read first from the end of the 7th Chapter of Acts. Here Stephen, one of the apostles, proclaims to the Jews gathered that he has seen the "Son of Man." Enraged, the Jews gathered stoned him to death; all the while Stephen proclaimed God's glory. John's Gospel continues Jesus' words at the Last Supper. Though addressing God, Jesus is also speaking to those gathered. He is laying out a plan for his disciples, and their disciples, and their to proclaim salvation to the entire world.

I know the story of Stephen, the first martyr, is a compelling story and I'll get there but I want to begin with John's Gospel.

The Last Supper is a long scene. Chapter 13 details Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples; chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17 (of which we've been reading) constitute his instructions to his disciples. Some of is consists of dialogue, and much of it (including today's Gospel) take the form of a prayer to God.

And while prayer always addresses God, it also addresses those gathered. As many of you know I make my living as a hospice chaplain and I have the enviable position of getting paid to pray. I find that a prayer that articulates the joys, fears and desires of my patients and loved ones give great comfort. And here Jesus' prayers certainly speak to the hopes of his disciples, but I think it goes beyond that.

For if the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus' inaugural address for his earthly ministry, this speech is his inaugural address for eternity. I believe Jesus here is outlining a two step plan for the salvation of the world: First, God is in you and will give you the strength, courage, and wisdom to proclaim the salvation of the world. And second, your job for the rest of your lives is to travel the world, proclaiming a message that will transform human history from simply being of this world to an eternal world to come.

I may be wrong about this (and I'm open to feedback, as long as it's kind), but I don't see this happening before in human history. During pagan times people were often forced to worship the particular god of the their earthly ruler but were free to worship whatever other gods they chose. Judaism moved beyond this to proclaim that there is only one God who must be worshipped exclusively. But, as we've talked about before, there was no idea of expanding beyond those God chose to be Jews.

But Jesus' message was revolutionary and it's little wonder not everyone signed on. As a matter of fact it's surprising that Jesus' message caught fire so deeply and quickly. His message of "you life matters in this life, but also in the next one" resonated but it also entered something new into human history: martyrdom.

Before Stephen there were a few examples of someone dying for their faith and we Christians can't claim exclusive ownership of martyrdom. In the 2 Books of Maccabees (books that Catholics see as Scriptural but Jews and Protestants do no) we find Jews who were murdered for refusing to eat food they considered unclean. Also, there is reason to believe some prophets from earlier days were killed for what they said.

But that's really it. Those who showed exceptional bravery and were killed in battle may have been revered, but they really didn't die for their faith. They were fighting for their own gain or in the service of a king, but they certainly did not choose death.

The martyrdom of Stephan advances the idea that someone can die in a way that brings others to faithfulness. Our reading comprises only the last 5 versus of a long chapter and a long speech by Stephen. Simply put, he was asking for it. He began by reciting Jewish history (a history that his listeners knew well) but gives it a fatal twist at the end. He essentially told them that their history from Abraham to the present must include Jesus and tells them by not believing in Jesus they are not staying true to God. He calls them "uncircumcised in heart and ears." This is really a throw down: I spoke about this last week, but circumcision really speaks to the core of what it means to be a Jew. He is calling them heretics. It's little wonder they rose up against him and killed him.

So what of us today? Clearly there is almost no chance we will be called to martyrdom (and truth be told I have no desire for that). But it does call us to live differently just as it did the first disciples, even for those of us who live in predominately Christian areas.

Last month a candidate for President was asked for his favorite verse from the Bible and he answered: "An eye for an eye." He's correct that the verse is found in the Bible (Exodus 21:23) but as Christians we are called to better. We are called to Jesus words: "You have heard 'an eye for an eye' but I tell you not to resist an evil person." He goes on to talk about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.

It's easy to dismiss this candiate with the idea that he simply doesn't know what he's saying. But while true, it's more than that. We all live in conversations where nasty gossip is traded like currency and suffering that we can alleviate is seen as self inflicted. Every day we see instances where faith is used as a club instead of an invitation and the Kingdom that Jesus set in motion will happen without us.

But it won't. If that were true Jesus would have told the disciples to hang out and wait. He told us to love our enemies not so that we may be judged worthy but so they would be transformed into disciples.

Stephen, and countless martyrs after him, knew that if they lived their best life and died faithfully, others would be attracted. Sadly as Christians, this group also includes Jews who refused to trade their beliefs for their lives during inquisitions. Regardless we are called to faith. And so while we almost certainly will not pay with our lives, let us pay with our prayers and actions.

May 1, 2016: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: As this is Easter we continue our journey through Acts. Here some Jews (who believed Jesus was the Messiah) told Gentiles who believed in Jesus that they had to be circumcised to be included. Paul and Barnabas objected to this and decided to travel to Jerusalem to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders. Once there they elected delegates to send to Antioch.

April 24, 2016: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Last week we saw the Acts of the Apostles move from Peter and the original followers of Jesus to Paul and Barnabas. This week we continue to witness the travels of Paul and Barnabas. They travelled through several areas (Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia, and Antoich). At the end of the reading they proclaimed that they "opened the door of faith to the pagans." John's Gospel describes the scene at the Last Supper directly after Jesus called out Judas. Jesus knew who was going to betray him and dismissed him (knowing Judas would come back with those who would arrest Jesus). Jesus then told those gathered that God will be glorified, and that God will glorify him. But he also tells them that he will not be with them much longer. He then commands them to love one another and that by loving one another, others will recognize them as Jesus' disciples.

These readings are what I often call the "and then..." readings. These are readings where something happens to cause their characters to come to a different understanding of themselves by the end of the reading. These readings change their lives in ways that none of them expected.

OK, you have to know I'm going to do this: Most of the year I begin with the first reading and move into the Gospel, but since the Gospel/Acts chronology is reversed (that is, the events in the Gospel happen before the events in the first reading), I'm going to begin with the Gospel.

All four Gospels describe the Last Supper, but John's Gospel describes the same events through a different lens. In the other Gospels, the interaction between Jesus and Judas is really run by Judas. Here Jesus calls Judas out by name and Judas storms out. We can only imagine the reactions of the other apostles but the word "bewilderment" must take an important place.

And Jesus' words after this must have compounded their bewilderment. This is where the "and then..." begins. We honestly don't know what the remaining apostles were expecting, but it's fair to say that nobody expected Judas' expulsion. We know that they recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Did they expect that he would raise an army to defeat the Romans and return them to the days of King David? Did they expect that God would intervene and lead them into a new promised land?

We don't know but it's a fair bet that they never expected that Judas would return with Roman soldiers who would arrest and kill Jesus.

And yet, we know this will happen. And we know that it had to happen. Only by Jesus dying and rising from the dead do we all have a path to eternal life. Only by descending to the lowest can we rise to the highest.

And so when Judas stormed off Jesus did not attempt to comfort the remaining apostles. Instead he gave them a command: love one another as I have loved you. If we can see the betrayal of Jesus by Judas as the ultimate act of hate and fear, Jesus leads in the other direction. He commands them to love, and he goes further.

He tells them that only by loving one another will they be successful. Only by loving one another will they be recognized by those who never knew Jesus. Only by loving one another will they be able to reach the whole world by communicating a message that attracts others. And only by loving one another can we recognize the song made famous by Vacation Bible School: They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

And this is where we bring in the first reading. Last week I spoke about how the earliest followers of Jesus limited their ministry to other Jews, and how that didn't work. I also spoke about how Paul and Barnabas then decided that if they weren't successful with the Jews they would move to the rest of the world and carry their message to the Gentiles. This wasn't just an easy or practical decision. Paul and those who travelled with him were conditioned to look on the Gentiles with derision. They were not supposed to eat with them or even have much contact. They were not the chosen ones. For Paul and Barnabas to see them as part of the salvation plan of Jesus called them to move beyond the world they expected.

And yet today we see a continuation of their journey: Paul and Barnabas moved onto "Plan B," and they found success. Because of this large numbers of Gentiles found themselves attracted by Jesus' message and became followers and this morphed into the worldwide Christianity that we recognize today.

And so what of us? We all dream of "Plan A." If we are truly honest, we often believe that we can convince God to follow our Plan A. But if Jesus didn't call out Judas, if Jesus hadn't been betrayed, executed, and resurrected, we wouldn't be who we are. Instead we would be a subset of Judaism, a small group who looked on Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, a man who lived a full life and died of natural causes in old age. We would have lasted a few decades after Jesus and just disappeared.

More to the point, that Jesus would not have appeared to Paul. We would not know about the "road to Damascus" and Paul would have spent his life as a Pharisee, persecuting the followers of Jesus.

I write this because all of us (all of us) recognize times when we've had the "and then..." moments. We've decided that we know what God wants us to do and what will happen. We bask in the certainty that the world will follow our directions and all will be well.

Except that it doesn't. We've seen how our lives to veer into "and so..." moments that make our lives complicated and oftentimes painful. That perfect job goes away, that perfect person refuses our proposal, that best friend betrays us.

And only in the years or decades in hindsight do we understand that our nightmare becomes the ground that spouts our greatest joy.

These readings call us not only to recognize this with past tragedies, but with current ones. So many of us live and die on the last thing that did or didn't go our way, but we shouldn't. If these readings teach us anything it should teach us this: While God doesn't show us why things happen to us, God's love does show us that at the end of the day we will end up as Jesus did. We will end up with an empty tomb. Those who survive us should not look for the dead among the living because we will all live forever.

And our eternal life has several "and then..." moments.

April 17, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to soldier our way through Acts. Here Paul and Barnabas travel to the city of Antioch to proclaim Jesus' resurrection. After Sabbath worship Paul and Barnabas encouraged those gathered to "remain faithful to the grace of God." The next Sabbath they gathered again, only this time they were met with Jews who contradicted their message. In response Paul and Barnabas told them that since they rejected the Word of God, they (Paul and Barnabas) had no choice but to bring their message to the pagans. Paul and Barnabas were then expelled from the city; they shook the dust from their feet and left the city. John's Gospel gives us Jesus using the imagery of himself as shepherd. Jesus tells those gathered that his sheep follow him. They will never be lost and none will be stolen. "The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father."

I've spoken about this before, but it's clear to me that when John wrote his Gospel he didn't have a 21st Century audience in mind. In his day (and in his place) people knew a great deal about sheep. Most of us, not so much. And while we don't need to know everything about herding sheep, we do need to know a few things.

First, and I say this with all due respect, sheep are not the brightest of God's creations. Their wool gives us excellent sweaters and slacks and they taste delicious, but herding them is hard work. They have a tendency to wander off which is good news for wolves but bad news for the sheep. It's also bad news for the shepherd who spends all day every day keeping them from wandering off.

That's what makes John's Gospel so astounding. Jesus is portrayed as the shepherd, and yes, it means we are the sheep. But Jesus doesn't lose anyone. Not one. Even the best earthly shepherd loses a few, whether it be to predators, disease, or other shepherds. He is one good shepherd.

I'm puzzled, though, in the first reading from Acts, where Jesus appears to be losing all sorts of people. There is an undercurrent in Acts where the apostles, successful as they were, weren't as successful as they expected. Coming off the unimaginable high of seeing the resurrected Jesus they were given marching orders: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

But not everybody got the memo, and it became clear that certain of the Jews refused to believe in Jesus. The earliest apostles expected a clear path forward: We've all been waiting our lives for the Messiah. Well, the Messiah was Jesus. As a matter of fact, Matthew wrote his entire Gospel with an eye toward Jews who didn't believe Jesus was the Messiah. We can even read the frustration in Paul and Barnabas: "We had to proclaim the word of God to you first, but since you have rejected it, since you do not think yourselves worthy of eternal life, we must turn to the pagans." This was good news for the pagans, and all of us who did not descend from that community in Israel is grateful for their refusal.

And so there were clearly sheep who wandered off. But how do we justify this with John's proclamation that Jesus the Shepherd has a perfect record?

Let's face it: for most of our history as Christians we have gone all in with this reading from Acts and ignored the reading from John. We've scorned the Jews who didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and this has informed 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. As a matter of fact, until 50 years ago the Good Friday liturgy spoke of the "perfidious (faithless) Jews."

So what do we do with this first reading? If we believe what Jesus is telling us, nobody is lost. Nobody has the power to "steal us from God." The imagery of the reading doesn't make the sheep smarter or more faithful: it makes the shepherd more competent and inclusive.

I believe these readings tell us that no matter what we do, God loves us. We can see this statement as a cliche, but I ask that we don't. God's love is greater than the power of evil, and it's also greater than our power to wander. Much like the prodigal son, no matter what we do, God welcomes us. He welcomes us home and welcomes us into his Kingdom.

Does this mean that even Jews, and other non Christians are included? I know I'm going against centuries of belief, but I think it does. I see God not so much as the ultimate source of justice as the ultimate source of mercy (though clearly God is both).

Our limited understanding forces us to see justice and mercy as competitors, but while this may be our lot, it's not God's. And God calls us not to settle for our understanding but to aspire to his. This week we learned that Pope Francis asks us to look on Catholics in "irregular marriages" as deserving of mercy. Previously those Catholics who "married outside the church" (for whatever reason) did not "qualify" to receive Eucharist. Without changing the rules, Pope Francis instead asks us to look on those (us) not as those who "didn't do what they (us) were supposed to do" but instead on those who are included in God's love.

But if this is true, if everyone is included in God's Kingdom, why be Christian? It's not as cynical a question as you might think. If everyone is saved, why choose anything? Ultimately I believe that while God is greater than any one faith, we are not. Some of us choose to be Jews, some Christians, some Hindus, some agnostics. If we follow the "better angels of our nature, we all do pretty much the same things: we feed the hungry, we welcome the stranger, and we try to make our world a little better than we found it. Whether we call it "corporal works or mercy" or "karma" or "mitzvah" we're all doing the same thing.

Does that mean it doesn't matter what we believe? Quite the opposite. It means everything matters in what we believe. It means that we choose a path to the Kingdom, knowing that any path that begins compassion ends in salvation.

It means we need to live compassion with everyone and love them, even if we choose different paths to the Kingdom.

April 10, 2016: The Third Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: You probably know this, but for much of the the Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles, the chronicle of the earliest days of the Christian Church. Here the Sanhedrin (the Jewish government) demanded that the apostles stop teaching about Jesus' resurrection. Peter responded by telling them that he will choose God's demand over the demand of the Sanhedrin. John's Gospel describes several scenes with the resurrected Jesus and his apostles. Several apostles (who made their living catching fish) spent the night catching nothing; at dawn they recognized Jesus onshore and when Jesus told them to cast their nets on the right (starboard) side of the boat they caught their fill. Peter recognized Jesus and brought the boat back to shore. They ate breakfast and Jesus asked Peter this question: "Do you love me?" Three times Jesus asked Peter and three times Peter answered that he did. Each time Jesus demanded: "Feed my lambs." Finally Jesus tells Peter that his life will no longer be his own, but that will follow Jesus.

Much as I love the season of Easter, there are some things that drive me crazy. We Catholics know that the first reading often comes from the Old Testament but not always. During Easter we read from the Acts of the Apostles. The Second Reading (that I don't include in this blog) mostly comes from the letters of Paul. And we read the Gospel from only four sources: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

And so Easter brings us readings out of order. John's Gospel tells us about the interval between Jesus' resurrection and ascension. But the first reading describes Peter and the rest of the apostles standing up to the authorities. How can this happen?

I believe the heart of our understanding comes not from the first reading or the Gospel, but from the scene where Peter denies Jesus. We read this from Holy Week where Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Offended, Peter swore this would not happen, but it did. After Jesus' arrest, Peter was recognized as one of Jesus' disciples by several people. As the charges grew Peter grew increasingly profane in his denial of his relationship with Jesus.

So where does Peter go from here? Clearly if Jesus was not the Messiah the apostles go on with their lives and regret their support for this fraud. They likely would have drifted away from each other and tried to forget this part of their lives.

But Jesus was not a fraud and Peter needed, on some level, to have a conversation about his triple denial. Peter needed forgiveness and reconciliation. Today's Gospel gives us several scenes but I wish to focus only on the interaction between Jesus and Peter.

Jesus predicted that Peter would deny their relationship three times before dawn and he did. When Peter recognized his sin, he ran. I don't blame him: I would have done the same thing. And when Peter saw that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead he must have experienced a series of emotions.

Perhaps the initial emotion, after disbelief, was joy. His friend and teacher, his mentor and leader, was back from the dead. But I have to believe that his next emotion, milliseconds later, was fear. What if Jesus' response to Peter was anger? What if Jesus' last memory of Peter was Peter's denial of Jesus? What if Jesus' response to Peter was, worse than anger, disappointment?

Instead Jesus asked Peter a question that nobody else would have asked: "Do you love me?" Humiliated and horrified, Peter said this: "Of course I love you." But Jesus demanded that Peter answer him three times the same way. And Peter did.

The crux of these readings depends on Peter's decision to accept the forgiveness given him.

Virtually all of us can easily recall the foolishest/stupidest/meanest thing we've ever done. It may well have ended a job or a friendship or a marriage. Or maybe not: perhaps our gravest sin occupies nothing other than the space in our brain. Likely it didn't but we live with that reget all the same. And, for a variety of reasons, many of us don't have the opportunity to be forgiven.

Here Peter catches a break on many levels, and ultimately so do we. Because, even though Peter had to put in some work answering Jesus' question(s), he gave the right answer.

And more to the point, Peter accepted the forgiveness he was offered. When Jesus asked: "Do you love me," Peter could have given a number of answers. He surely loved Jesus but it would have been easy for Peter to discount the question and instead profess that he was not worthy of Jesus' love.

Now truth be told, none of us are worthy of Jesus' love, but that's not the point. The point is this: Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead so that we can live forever and not be defined by our worst moments.

But while we seemingly have no trouble believing that we are granted eternal life, we have great trouble believing we are forgiven. And there is good reason for that: our ability to forgive each other is limited. If someone wounds us, over and over, our desire (and ability) to forgive eventually runs out. Sometimes it runs out quickly, sometimes it takes us a long time. We even have a name for someone who forgives too much: an enabler.

So we incorrectly decide that God's desire or capacity to forgive is also finite. The hubris in this statement speaks clearly but it causes real damage: we lose out on who we can be by deciding God won't (or shouldn't) forgive us. When we do this we don't limit God's love or forgiveness, but our ability to do great things.

Peter did great things. But he was able to do this only when he truly believed Jesus forgave him. And Jesus clearly forgave him when he said to him (3 times) to "feed my sheep." This told Peter that there was a path forward for him. Because of this he and the rest of the apostles were able to stand up to the Sanhedrin, the smartest and most powerful guys in the room, and refuse to be silent.

They laid the foundation for the church that continues to feed us to this day and they did it only because they honestly, truly, completely believed that they were forgiven for their worst sin.

And what of us? Do we live our best selves or do we continue to live in the shame and regret of our worst sin? As a hospice chaplain I am blessed to walk with people in the last chapter of their lives and that perspective gives me a tremendous opportunity. Most people come to the end of their lives with a reasonable understanding. They know they have had good days and bad days, but on the whole they look back on their lives with the belief that they did the best they could. They look on their future with hope and mercy.

But sometimes I meet someone who is hesitant to share his or her story. Eventually I find out the secret they don't want me to know: their story includes an unmarried pregnancy or a time when they didn't speak up at a meeting that could have avoided great harm. Or it was a horrible moment with their spouse or children. Or they regret how they treated a parent who faced their same last chapter and they took the easy way out.

Whatever the event, they tell me how their regret limited their lives. They tell me that no matter what they did, the memory of their regret makes them feel like they aren't worthy of doing great things. It made them not reach or accept what they could do.

The Peter we read in Acts of the Apostles would never have been the St. Peter we see as the first Pope unless he fully accepted that Jesus forgave him. Only because of this was Peter able to lead the early church.

And it's the same with us. Whether we call it "poor self esteem" or our inability to forgive ourselves, we need to recognize that this limits us to be our best selves. And it limits our ability to best serve each other. Despite our limited ability to love, serve, and forgive, God's ability does not limit. Discipleship calls us to stretch our ability to love, serve, and forgive. By doing this, and only by doing this, we can build the Kingdom of God on earth.

April 3, 2016: The Second Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes to us from nearly the beginning of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It was written by the Gospel writer Luke, and is essentially the 2nd volume of a 2 volume set. Here we view the earliest days of the community of those who saw the resurrected Jesus. They met in the Portico of Solomon (in the Temple) and their popularity grew. Even people who didn't live in Jerusalem brought the sick to them for healing. In John's Gospel, Jesus appeared to the apostles and showed him the wounds from his crucifixion. He also gave them the power to forgive sins. But one of their number, Thomas, was not present. Later, when he was told of this he refused to believe them. Thomas told them that he would not believe it until he saw the wounds for himself. The next week they were gathered again (with Thomas present) and Jesus once again appeared. This time he invited Thomas to inspect his wounds and Thomas replied: "My Lord and my God!"

I think we've all experienced the death of a loved one and prayed that it was all a mistake. We've all hoped that our loved one would come through the door and tell us this awful thing didn't happen. And for those who watch soap operas (or daytime dramas), it's a fairly common occurence.

But it doesn't happen and when we lose a loved one we begin the long, hard work of grieving. We move on with our life without this person and adjust our path. And while our beliefs tell us that we will be reunited in Heaven, we will not see our loved one for the rest of our lives here.

Given this, I can only imagine the reaction of the apostles when Jesus suddenly appeared to them, bypassing the locked door. I touched on this last week, but from where we sit it's perhaps a too easy to accept Jesus' resurrection because we've known about it all our lives.

But, and this bears some thought: what if you did see your loved one three days after you watched him die? And more than that, not only is he back alive, but so are all your dreams. These apostles, these merry brand of rag tag men and women, pinned all their hopes on this Jesus of Nazareth. He proclaimed a new Kingdom of God and they were going to be his inner circle. They were salivating at the idea that the rest of their lives they would be known as Jesus' top advisors.

And then he was gone.

And then he was back. I say this not just because he is my namesake, but for Heaven's sake cut a little slack to Thomas. Nearly delirious with grief I can well understand how he dared not hope that what they said was true. I can understand how he didn't want another climb and freefall of that roller coaster.

And Jesus is back from the dead. So now what do the apostles do? So now what do we do? In some ways that's the question we continue to unpack even 2000 years later. But I also think this is where we look in wrong place.

Most, if not all of us, read these readings from Acts of the Apostles with some nostalgia. If only we could live like they lived, if only people looked at us like they looked at Peter and the rest of the gang. In coming weeks we'll see how selfless and successful they were, how bold and brave they were. If only...

And taking nothing away from the fact that they were selfless and successful and bold and brave, we also need to keep them in the context of their time. Because if we don't, if we hold them up as the summit and pinnacle of what our community should look like, we continue to fall short and feel inadequate. And this inadequacy can morph into paralysis or worse.

Countless times in our history individuals or groups large and small have made this announcement: "We have strayed from/drifted from/betrayed the Kingdom Jesus gave us. We will read again the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and do exactly what they did. We (and only we) will be rewarded by God for finally getting it right.

Right. Reformation holds a critical place in our lives as Christians and we look at Lent as a way of "getting back on track." But we have to remember that this community in Acts was far from perfect.

They accepted the institution of slavery. While Jesus' treatment of women pushed the envelope, nobody back then would have thought of women as equal to men. They were all Jews, and the first true conflicts of this community centered on their relationship with non-Jews and other strangers. We can only imagine how they would have reacted to people of different skin color or different sexual orientations.

My point is this: We should look at this community not as the summit, but as the launching pad. Scripture gives us confusing clues over what we need to do to be saved, but it is clear about how we are called to treat each other.

We are called to love one another. We are not called to judge one other. We are not called to decide who is saved and who isn't. We are not called to divide ourselves into groups or hierarchies (inevitably placing ourselves at the top).

And yet we can look on our history and see that progress has happened only in fits and starts. I know many of you read this from countries other than the United States, but please humor me here. My best illustration comes from the history I know best.

Let's begin with slavery: Turning prisoners of war into lifelong slaves goes back as far as we can remember. In the United States people from Africa were kidnapped and transported to the "new world" began in the early 1600s and almost everyone accepted this. But some read Scripture and felt that enslaving people (and their descendents) was morally bankrupt. The abolitionist movement clearly sprouted out of Christian beliefs. It grew slowly but it did grow, and by 1808 it was illegal to import new slaves. In 1865 slavery became illegal. It took a long time, but it was clear that loving one another did not include enslaving them.

As I said, Jesus' treatment of women surprised people of his time. From Mary Magdalene to the woman caught in adultery, to the woman at the well, Jesus reached out to women in ways he wasn't supposed to. That said, our current treatment of women as equals continues to catch up. In the United States womens' right to vote won't celebrate a century until 2020. Women in their 50s and 60s tell stories of job discrimination and objectification. And I don't want to spend much time on this, but we have a Presidential candidate whose treatment of women embarrasses all of us. From the 1960s until today and beyond, many of us (men) read Scripture and recognize that men and women are (equally) halves of the same whole. We stopped talking about Eve "seducing" Adam into sin and read again how Jesus treated women.

Finally this is the part of the homily that may cause the most controversy: how do we love those of other sexual orientations? Over the last 2000 years we have learned much about how we treat people we don't recognize or whose experience we don't share. We have, nearly always, come to this understanding only after being challenged by people who love us.

If we believe in a salvation history that progresses our understanding of what it means to love one another, can we ignore those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender? Can we look on the LGBT community with love even if we are heterosexual? I hope we can.

I have to confess little understanding for the phrase "love the sinner and hate the sin" when I don't believe that they are in sin (anymore than the rest of us). I know a scary number of gay couples whose marriage mirrors my straight marriage. They love one another and work each day to continue their lives together. Some have children and some don't. But at the end of their lives they want only this: that their lives matter and we will all be joined in Paradise after we die.

I call on all of us to look on Acts of the Apostles not as the summit but as the starting line. It calls us to look not on their acts, but ours. It calls us to see Jesus' call to love that concentrates not on our results but on our desire to love.

Most of all it calls us to never be comfortable. Throughout our lives we will be called to interact with those who make us uncomfortable. We can react with fear or we can react with love.

If the resurrection of Jesus calls us to anything, it calls us to choose love over fear. Let us do that.

March 27, 2016: Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the first years after Jesus when the Apostles begin to come together as the Church we now recognize. Here Peter addressed and spoke about the life of Jesus. Peter explained how Jesus came out of Galilee, was baptized by John, cured people in need of healing, and was crucified. But after three days he was raised from the dead and has been appointed by God to judge everyone, alive and dead. John's Gospel describes how Mary Magdala came to Jesus' tomb but found it empty. Thinking the grave had been robbed, she found Simon Peter. Peter, along with the other followers, reached the tomb and finally understood that Jesus had been risen from the dead.

Palm Sunday and the days leading to Easter fill us with action. Jesus entered Jerusalem to great fanfare, celebrated Passover (that we call the Last Supper), was arrested, bounced between Herod and Pilate, and on the day after Passover was crucified.

Well, that's not exactly true: in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover. But in John's Gospel the Last Supper is the night before Passover: here Jesus is portrayed as the lamb sacrificed for Passover (and therefore deliverance and salvation).

In any case today's Gospel strikes us as ... quiet. The focal point in our salvation history, the epicenter of our understanding of who we are, comes to us as an empty tomb. Our salvation begins as emptiness.

There are other clues to this emptiness. The 2nd reading on Palm Sunday describes how Jesus "emptied himself" and took the form of a slave. Also, in Paul's Second Letter to Timothy (sometimes called "Paul's Last Will and Testament") he describes himself as "being poured out like a libation."

This "emptying out" speaks to the heart of Jesus' message: we do not achieve what God wants for us by building ourselves up. Our salvation rests not on the mountaintop or by winning a competition, but by embracing the emptiness of the tomb. Again and again we find ourselves in a world where power and cleverness are adored and humility is derided. Despite everything the world would tell us, the empty tomb leads us to glory.

If there is anything as amazing as that scene, perhaps we find a close second in the first reading. Here Peter speaks eloquently of Jesus' life, death and resurrection and how is marks our salvation. During the season of Easter we'll read a great deal of the Acts of the Apostles and it's easy (perhaps too easy) to think that it was a smooth transition from the Gospel to the first reading.

It wasn't. Mary Magdalene's first reaction was to believe Jesus' body had been stolen: she didn't recognize that this was what Jesus was talking about all along. And while it's easy for us to "connect the dots" we need to understand that news that cataclysmic can't be understood instantly.

And it is, perhaps, part of our story. When we hear something we don't understand, instead of asking for clarification, we assume we're not smart enough to understand. When I was an altar boy our church was led by a pastor with many gifts. Alas, speaking clearly through a microphone was not one of them. Additionally, his theology was deeply steeped in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and when he preached he was hard to follow. I remember hearing several people who commented that he must be really intelligent "because I can't understand what he is saying." Years later, as a seminarian, I lived with this priest. And while I found him to be a good and humble priest I had no trouble understanding his beliefs and preaching.

And that makes me wonder why his disciples didn't ask for clarification when he predicted his death and resurrection. Perhaps, since the Gospels were written decades after the fact, Jesus' words speak louder in the words of the Gospels than they did from the mouth of Jesus. Or perhaps the Passion wouldn't have the impact if his followers had surrounded his tomb with champagne and expectations.

And so, let's get to the heart of this Easter. Last week I asked why Jesus had to die, and this week we ask how his resurrection leads us to salvation and how we claim that. I speak a great deal with my patients about "what awaits them on the other side." Nearly without fail they hope to see those who have died and hope to be joined by those who survive them. Salvation, for them, means that death is not the end of things, but is a transition into something infinitely better and permanent. They believe that Easter gives us the gift of eternal life in a place without the pain or suffering we've all experienced here.

But some struggle with the question of exactly who is saved. Jesus does talk about this several times but give us no clear path. And the worry goes beyond "Am I saved?" to "Are all those I loved saved? And if not, how can Heaven be paradise for me if someone I love is excluded?"

Many Catholics grew up hearing that salvation was difficult: that salvation could be denied if you ate a hamburger on Ash Wednesday or missed mass with no good reason. I don't think many of us still believe that, but that fear still lingers. Am I good enough? Have I done enough? Have I avoided enough? How do I know? And even this aside nearly every Catholic I know is familiar with the last half of the 25th Chapter of Matthew's Gospel ("for I was hungry and you fed me"). Here salvation appears steeped in what we do or don't do.

Beginning 500 years ago Martin Luther began to teach that salvation isn't dependent on our actions. He found that this belief in "salvation through works" led to all sorts of problems. Wealthy people could donate money to build churches, or even leave money to the church after their death so that priests would pray for them.

Luther rebelled against this. Instead of being saved through a "to do" list, salvation finds its place in belief: if we believe that Jesus is our savior, we're in. And for many during that time it was a freeing belief. Christians of his time would likely never meet a non Christian; certainly there were Jews in Europe (and Luther condemned them) but they lived apart and contact with them would be minimal, if at all.

But as we've progressed, the idea that a public confession of belief in Jesus determines our salvation should concern us. Does this mean that Albert Einstein and Mahatma Ghandi are doomed? If someone is faithful to his family but professes faith in someone other than Jesus, is that person denied salvation?

I've found myself struggling with this, but perhaps we need to look at Jesus' promise of salvation for the whole world through new eyes. Perhaps salvation isn't achieved through works, or through faith, but through consent.

The idea of "standing in judgement" presupposes that the decision about our future does not rest in our hands. But what if it does? What if God invites us into paradise and it's ours to accept or not with no other conditions? What if Jesus tells us that when he died and rose from the dead to save the entire world, he meant it?

If that's true (and I hope it is), it means great things for us. It means we don't have to be "good enough" but means we don't need to hold correct beliefs. It means that a Hindu or a Muslim or an atheist will join us.

Last December Pope Francis announced a "Year of Mercy." It certainly calls us to renewed understanding of how we treat each other, but I like to think it also calls us to see God's mercy in the salvation of all.

And in the final analysis, if we believe in the unconditional love of God, shouldn't we believe that unconditional love is also universal love, and includes all of us? I hope so.

March 20, 2016: Palm Sunday

You can find the readings here.

Brief synopsis of the readings: The Palm Sunday readings are unique in their makeup. Palm Sunday mass begins with the reading from Luke's Gospel where Jesus entered Jerusalem in advance of Passover. Before entering the city Jesus told his disciples to find a colt (donkey) and bring it to him. Jesus then entered Jerusalem on the donkey while his followers laid down their cloaks in front of him. The pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke them, but Jesus responded by telling them that if he did, the rocks themselves would cry out. The "first" reading them comes from Isaiah and describes a God who gives him "a well trained tongue." This allowed Isaiah to give "his back to those who beat [him]" and give his "back to those who beat [him] and [his] cheeks to those who plucked [his] beard." Finally, today's Gospel continues from Luke and describes the last supper. Jesus broke the bread and blessed the wine and told them that this was his body and blood. Jesus then told them that his betrayer was among them. As they argued about who was the greatest, Jesus called out Peter and told him that he (Peter) would deny him three times. Then Jesus and his disciples went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus went off to pray by himself. He prayed that his cup would be taken from him, but "not my will but yours be done." After praying he returned to find his disciples had fallen asleep. As he was rebuking them a crowd came up led by Judas (one of his followers). Jesus was arrested and brought to the high priest. While there three people recognized Peter as a disciple of Jesus, and he heatedly denied all of them (fulfilling Jesus' prediction). The high priests determined that Jesus should be brought before the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate. Pilate wanted nothing to do with this, but out of fear he condemned Jesus to be crucified for attempting to overthrow Roman rule. On his orders Jesus was executed.

Most people who attend mass on Palm Sunday will hear an abbreviated homily because the readings are so long. Brevity has a point as the readings are long. But these readings are so filled with details, that it's hard to get a handle on what to focus on.

So let's start here: the last two Sundays have spoken about God's mercy. The father in the Prodigal Son story, and Jesus in the woman found in adultery, both opened up and expanded the law to encompass mercy. Both Gospels gave the pharisees (and us) a new understanding of justice that focused on the person instead of the law.

Neither of them condoned the actions of the prodigal son or the woman caught in adultery but neither did they define them entirely by their actions. Their humanity was defined as being greater than their worst actions.

I think there's a part of us who read these Gospels and hoped against hope that the pharisees would see Jesus with new eyes and their hearts would melt. Yeah, not so much.

The Palm Sunday readings ratchet up the story to nearly unimaginable levels. Instead of hearing Jesus' teachings with a new heart, they grew even colder. Instead of reforming their views and seeing the world with new eyes, they grew more afraid. They attempted to trap Jesus in the law, and when that didn't work they grew more determined to enforce the law.

And at some point they decided Jesus needed to die. The harshness of these events should not lead us to believe that execution was common in this era of Judaism: it was not. But Jesus made them so afraid they convinced the Roman Empire to fear him also.

But why did Jesus have to die? What lesson did he wish to teach us that was so important that necessitated Good Friday? Religions throughout history have taught us new understandings, new ways of looking at the world. But these changed and challenged us only to see ourselves through new eyes. None of them changed the world, only ourselves and our understanding. The message of Jesus calls us to much, much more. Had Jesus simply taught new messages and gave us new understandings, had he wished only to open our eyes, his message wouldn't crash into our worlds as it does. Jesus didn't simply change our understanding or our lives, he changed the very relationship between us and God. The death and resurrection of Jesus didn't just change us or even our world, it changed the the course of all that exists.

You see, the death of Jesus, his crucifixion, was not an inevitable result of God's plan. God did not invent crucifixion, we did. The first murder we read about in the Bible, when Cain murdered Able, was a human invention.

The death of Jesus crashes into our world not from God's script but our own. Jesus' death grows out of our ambition, our jealousy, our fear, our need to control. When God's plan for us diverged from ours, we chose ours, and we thought ourselves strong enough to kill God.

But we weren't. God's plan was greater than our plan, but God's plan was also greater than our ability to destroy God's plan. God's love steamrollered over our hate, and it continues to do this today.

Palm Sunday provides us with the story where we hear the hoofbeats of our own destruction. This entry into Jerusalem, this Last Supper, this journey into the Garden of Gethsemane, reminds us of our power to destroy. We know nearly nothing of Jesus' thoughts during this time, only that he anguished and begged God to be freed of it. But we can imagine the thoughts of his disciples. They didn't recognize the gravity enough to even stay awake during Jesus's anguish.

As a disciple from my earliest days I've often wondered if Jesus looked over his disciples and wanted a "do over." We make a big deal of the "call of the disciples" and we tend to think of them as good draft choices. But they weren't. They weren't the wealthiest, or the smartest, or the most popular. Indeed they may have chosen to follow Jesus because they had the least to lose. Perhaps they were the poorest, the least intellectual, and the least popular.

And they certainly didn't rise to the occasion. At the Last Supper, one of them ran off to betray Jesus. Later, when Jesus went off to pray, his disciples fell asleep. After his arrest Peter claims never to have known Jesus. The details go on and on.

But at the end, God gives us so much better than we gave. God didn't give us a new revelation or a new way of seeing the world. God didn't give us new map or a new direction. God gave us Jesus. And when we killed him, God didn't walk away from us. God showed us that the death of Jesus isn't the end of the road.

Far from the end of the road, our worst human event becomes the seeds of our salvation.

So who is saved by Jesus? Was Peter, who denied Jesus three times? We now think of him as holding the "keys to the Kingdom." The disciples who abandoned Jesus? We think of them as saints. How about the pharisees and those who tried to trap Jesus? Nothing in our teaching excludes them.

When Jesus died and rose from the dead, his resurrection shows us that our resurrection reaches beyond our ability to cause havoc. When we killed Jesus we gave him our best shot, we reached the limits of our sin.

But Jesus wasn't overpowered or outsmarted, he was just getting started. He rose from the dead not to settle scores, or get even. He rose from the dead to allow us to move beyond the fear and anger that caused his death. He rose from the dead to bring us to his level, despite our attempts to drag him down to ours.

Next week we will celebrate Easter. Lent will end and we will celebrate the Sonrise that will never end. Many of us will once again be able to enjoy the candy, soda, or alcohol we gave up for Lent. And as we do this, let us continue to celebrate the new life we are given.

March 13, 2016: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading from Isaiah we find the Lord reminding the people of their escape from Egypt ("who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostate together, never to rise, snuffed out and quenched like a wick."). Now the Lord announces this: "Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland." John's Gospel tells the story of the "woman caught in adultery." Jesus came upon a mob who intended to stone a woman to death for the crime of adultery (interesting point: no mention is made of the man caught in adultery). According to the law she was guilty of a capital offense, and the crowd asked Jesus what he thought they should do. After bending down and writing something on the ground he told them: "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." One by one they dropped their stones and left. This left Jesus alone with the woman. He asked her if there was anyone left to condemn her and she responded that there was not. Jesus then told her that he did not condemn her either. He told her to go but not to sin anymore.

Again, like last week, the connection between the first reading and the Gospel is not obvious. Isaiah speaks of the Lord reminding the people (who are returning from exile in Babylon) that they were not abandoned, as they feared. Instead God explicitly reminded them that far from being abandoned, were saved from slavery. And not only were they allowed to escape but when it seemed they were trapped by a body of water, God parted the sea. This allowed them to walk on dry land, but the water would then drown their pursuers.

Ironically we see that water contains the power of both life and death. We see in the "parting of the sea" that too much water can drown us. For the Egyptian army water was lethal. But once the escaped slaves crossed the seabed, their next danger was the lack of water. They spent the next forty years wandering in the desert where the search for water made the difference between life and death but only because they needed water.

But God, who parted the waters to save them, then provided water to sustain them. God ensured that no matter what, they would survive because God protected them.

So what does this have to do with the Gospel reading? Good question.

Today's Gospel is often called "the woman caught in adultery." I have to confess that I read this from the perspective of a joke I heard from one of my seminary professors:

Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees who present a woman who was accused of adultery. He tells the crowd: "Let the one among who is without sin cast the first stone." Suddenly the crowd parts and a short, middle aged woman picks up a rock and nails the adulteress. Jesus then slumps his shoulders and says: "Cut it out mom, I'm trying to make a point."
The joke is funny but it makes a good point: when Jesus asked the crowd his question about who has the right to throw the first stone, Jesus did have the right to throw it (and for Catholics, Mary did also since we believe that Mary was conceived without sin).

But he didn't. The belief that Jesus was "like us in all things but sin" informs this reading. Instead of throwing a stone, he picked up a stick and wrote something in the sand. It was the only thing we know Jesus wrote, but we don't know what it was. But it made the difference in how the Gospel scene played out. Those who held the stones in their hands were the scribes and Pharisees, the best educated men in Jewish society. We can only imagine the zeal they felt in the righteousness of stoning this woman to death, but their zeal compounded when they stumbled upon Jesus and believed they found a way to trap Jesus.

The Pharisees and scribes, from the very beginning, found Jesus an annoyance. He kept messing up their authority by challenging their belief that they owned the understanding of God's Law. No one argued their understanding but they confused understanding with love.

They thought they had him: they challenged him to choose between what they knew (the law of Moses) with what Jesus taught (love). You see, Both Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 demand that both parties in adultery be stoned to death. Nobody denies that adultery is a bad thing, and those who choose to step outside their marriage create havoc for their selves, their spouses, and their families.

But Jesus recognized that this woman, like the rest of us, is not defined by her worst mistake. Jesus recognized that we are not condemned to live our lives in payment for the worst decision we've ever made.

We don't know anything about this woman (or the man caught in the adultery) but we do know that adultery was a much larger sin than we see it today. We live in the the second decade of the twenty first century where sexual relations among consenting adults are seen as mutual. We view any sexual relationship between consentual adults as a "victimless crime."

But this parable takes place in a different place. The marriage between a man and a woman clearly favored the man. If a married woman entered into a sexual relationship with another man, she is considered "damaged goods." We should see this as progress in our understanding of the mutuality between men and women, but this understanding comes to us only with the gift of time.

This parable, difficult as it is to understand, is not about the mutuality of marriage, or the stability of the family, but of mercy. Nobody, including even Jesus, looked on this scene and concluded this woman's choice was good. Instead Jesus looked on this woman with justice imbued with love. He didn't make excuses what she did, but instead recognized that this choice did not inform all, or even the biggest part, of her life.

Perhaps she was coerced, perhaps she was lonely, or perhaps she was depressed with her current marriage. In any case her poor choice was not outside God's mercy. We can only image the terror she felt when she believed that her poor choice brought her to the last few minutes of her life. We can only imagine how she felt when she viewed the crowd with rocks in their hands and anger in their eyes. And we can only imagine how she felt as she knew that the murder in their eyes looked to Moses and God for their justification.

And enter Jesus. Was he going to be on the side of Moses and the law or the side of this sinful woman? That was how the Pharisees and the scribes set it up. But, as many times, they were no match for Jesus. He didn't take sides. He didn't turn this event into winners and losers. He chose a form of mercy that included justice, and a form of justice that included mercy.

We don't know what he wrote in the sand (and here we find the only occasion where Jesus actually wrote something). But whatever he wrote caused the crowd to drop the stones in their hands.

And while we don't know what Jesus wrote, many of us suggest that he wrote down a list of sins. He wrote down "cheat" and the cheaters dropped their stones. He wrote down "liar" and the liars dropped their stones. He wrote down "gossip" and the gossipers dropped their stones. He wrote down "thief" and the thieves dropped their stones. And ironically, he wrote down "adulterer" and the adulterers dropped their stones

Many things unite us as people but sin is one of them. On some level we attempt to rank sins so that ours are at the bottom and others are at the top. This gives us the false belief that we are better because the sins of others are greater than ours.

And let's face it: for much of our history we've pointed to sexual sins as the gravest. On some level it makes some sense: the ability to create life may well be the closest we get to the God's power as the source of life.

When God gave us the ability to create life through sexual contact, God gave us our best gift. If a sacrament crashes the divine and the human into a relationship, nothing comes closer to that than the conception of a new human.

The woman (and her partner) caught in adultery misused love. Like water, we depend on love for life. We create life with people we love. But love, like water, can give us life or take it away. As adults we can look back on our life and see that our best and our worst moments came from our need for love.

The day we married our spouses, the day we first held our children, were the days when we loved at our best. But those days when we tried to use another's love for us to manipulate behavior, those days when we threatened to withhold love from someone to get something we wanted, those were the days we misused love.

Our desire to love and be loved is as essential as our need for water. Again and again God teaches us higher needs by explaining basic needs.

God gives us the power to use water for good, and also to use love for good. But more importantly, God allows us to have a path back to wholeness when we misuse love. Unlike the Egyptians who were drowned, we have a path back when our use of love is mistaken.

Let us use love only in the best way we can, but understand that our failure is not the end of the road.

March 6, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading from Joshua we find the Israelites at the end of their journey in the wilderness. At long last they can celebrate Passover by eating "the produce of that country" and no longer needed the manna that God rained down for them. Luke's Gospel tells the now famous parable of the Prodigal Son. Here the younger of two sons cashes out his share of his father's estate and leaves. Believing that his fortune will care for him, he burns through his entire estate. Destitute, he gains employment feeding corn husks to unclean pigs. Recognizing he has made a mess of his life he returns to his father and begs to be employed as one of his servants. Instead his father declares a feast because his son "who was lost is now found." The father's older son is enraged at this and his father attempts to tell him that the prodigal son, who was once dead, is now alive.

Our readings for this week trouble me for two separate and different reasons.

Here is the first: The authors of the lectionary made a point of connecting the first reading and the Gospel. Most of the time the connection is obvious but every now and then the connection is elusive. Today it's elusive.

Here is the second: Both readings are iconic. While many Jews and Christians may not recognize this reading from Joshua, almost everyone knows that the entry into the Promised Land marked a critical point in our history as God's disciples. Luke's parable of the Prodigal Son, possibly the most well known of Jesus' parables, has become almost marginal by its repetition. We can look at it with new eyes only with great difficulty.

But I do think I can find an interesting and original thread here. Joshua speaks of how this band of ex-slaves, this band of Abraham's children, this band of wanderers, are finally gaining some traction. When they were slaves they depended on their masters for food (life). After their Exodus they depended on their daily portion of manna for food (life). Now, as they recognize that their journey is soon to end, they can harvest "on what the land of Canaan yielded."

I like to think that they needed to understand where the harvest originated. They could have recognized that God created the harvest or they could have believed that they grew the harvest themselves and are now independent of God.

This speaks to a critical point in our history: did God liberate the children of Abraham and bring them into the Promised Land and end God's role in our lives, or did God liberate the children of Abraham and bring them into the Promised Land and then promise to be with them until the end of time?

This is not a simple question. Again and again we have learned that we can't understand God's plan for us. To quote St. Anselm, we are not called to understand so we may believe, we are called to believe so that we may understand.

Nearly all of us who read this in the second decade of the twenty first century believe that God crashed into our lives from the beginning and continues to involve himself today. We pray out of a belief that our prayers matter and our prayers affect how God acts. But these ex-slaves could easily have believed that God's job was done once they entered the Promised Land and that they were on their own after that.

With that understanding, we can look at the Gospel with new eyes. Clearly the younger (prodigal) son is not anyone's hero. He knows that once his father dies he will split his father's estate with his older brother. But he doesn't want to wait that long. He told his father he wanted his share now. I can only imagine the pain his father felt in hearing this, and his pain was compounded when his son sold half his (current) estate to the highest bidder. His father was then condemned to watch a stranger till the land he hoped his son would own. Meanwhile his son took the money and ran.

Nearly any of us could have predicted how this story went. The prodigal son took his share of his inheritance and convinced himself that he earned it, even though he didn't. Coming as no surprise, he spent his "inheritance" on poor choices and soon burned through half his father's estate and all he had.

And then he found himself in an untenable position: Knowing he needed to find an income stream he searched for a job. His search did not go well and he was hired to feed the animals on someone's farm. But here was the problem: Jews were prohibited from having any contact with swine (pigs) because they were unclean and yet his employer commanded him to feed them corn husks. And so he found himself at a crossroad: Does he continue to do what he needs to do to survive or does he recognize the mess he's made of his life? Does he stay where he is or does he swallow his pride and ask his father for forgiveness?

This parable commands our attention because the prodigal son chose the path that God and Jesus warned us against. We love this parable because it speaks to our deepest fear, and at the same time our greatest hope. We want to be known for our best choices and not our worst. But even when the prodigal son chooses the worst path, his father chooses a redemptive path. He finds good news even in our worst choices.

According to the norms of the time, the son was supposed to prostate himself in front of his father and beg forgiveness, and his father was under no obligation to forgive. Instead his father, on seeing him in the distance, raced toward him and embraced him.

And he fed him. The father commanded a feast to celebrate the return of his lost son. And his son, finally, recognized that this feast was given, not earned. This reminds me of an anecdote I read years ago in the magazine Readers' Digest: an adult son, who recently graduated from college and moved into his own apartment, visited his mother. He complained about the difficulty of managing a budget and paying the bills. But when his mother commiserated, he replied: "But how do you know? You live at home."

Most of us live in a place where we think we earn enough money to purchase what we need. That's not a bad thing but at the same time we need to understand that, at the end of the day, we depend on God for all that we have. For those of us with jobs, we are employed because of gifts and talents that we were given. We may have worked at what we were given (both in school and in "on the job training"), but that doesn't negate the fact that none of us are "self made."

The reading from Joshua, and the parable of the prodigal son both remind us that our success calls us to gratitude and not pride. These readings remind us we are who we are, and we have who we have because God continues to crash into our lives.

We live in a time and a place where we are coached to brag about our accomplishments. But we also live in a relationship that calls us to recognize God's role in our success. We're nearly halfway through Lent and let's take this time to recognize our gratitude for what we have.

February 28, 2016: The Third Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Moses, the primary person of the book of Exodus, began his public life in this reading. While he shepherded the flock of his father-in-law, an angel comes to him and lighted a bush. But Moses noticed that while the bush burned, the fire did not consume it. Puzzled, he approached the bush. God then commanded him to remove his shoes as he approached "holy ground." Overwhelmed, Moses covered his face out of fear but God gave him an incredible job: he is to liberate slaves held in Egypt. Moses then asked God for his name, knowing that in a world that worships many gods, he will be asked for his name. God then tells him: "I Am Who I Am." God then reminded Moses that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Luke's Gospel we find some who approached Jesus with a story about some Galileans who were sacrificed by Pilate and their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus grew angry and told them that those who were sacrificed were no greater sinners than any other Galileans. Further he tells them that unless they repent all will perish as they did. Jesus then told a parable about a fig tree. This tree produced no fruit and the owner demanded that it be cut down. The man in charge of the vineyard begged the owner to allow him one more year to care for the tree and provide nutrition. After that, if the fig tree continues to provide no fruit, the owner can cut it down.

Last week I spoke about the iconic place Moses holds in our history and also in our imagination. Many of us well remember the movie The Ten Commandments, where Charleton Heston played Moses. Both God and Moses were played as larger than life, and while God is certainly larger than life, I'm not certain Moses is.

We know the backstory of Moses: he was born at a time when Pharaoh, fearing being overrun by the descendants of Joseph, demanded that all newborn boys be killed. But Moses avoided this fate (much as Jesus would after his birth) and through a series of events is raised in Pharaoh's court. As an adult he fled Egypt for Midian where he married and tended the flocks of his father in law Jethro.

And then one day God crashed back into his life through the now famous burning bush. God commanded Moses to leave his simple life and enter into a new life, a life like no other. God commanded Moses to return to Egypt and liberate his people from slavery to freedom. The idea of only one god was still fairly new and took some getting used to. We may puzzle over Moses' question of asking God's name but there was some practicality to it. The Egyptians worshipped many gods and they all had names. Moses needed an answer to the question: "What is this god's name?" But God doesn't say "I am God" but instead "I Am Who I Am."

This is a bit of an aside but we normally translate this as "God" or "Lord" and in some Jewish circles they don't write these words. "God" is often written as "G-d." This may strike some of us as strange, but does make some sense. My biological father's name is Donald, but I have never called him Don or Donald. He is dad. In the same way, many Jews feel that calling God by name is disrespectful. Moses may have been called God by name, but he would never address God by that same name.

Hearing Bible stories as children I think many of us looked on Moses' role with some envy: he was kind of a super hero to us and it would have been cool to have been Moses. But now I'm not certain. He certainly lived a storied life: born into slavery, barely escaping death, being raised in the royal court, and escaping. But at the beginning of this reading we see him living a life of comfort if not excitement. I can only imagine the fear of hearing God's call: leave the life you know and return to the placed of slavery. Once there confront Pharaoh and liberate the slaves where you will wander in the wilderness. Oh, and by the way, you will not live to see the Promised Land.

If this sounds like a hard life, it is. This critical chapter in our salvation history could have gone much easier. God could have softened Pharaoh's heart to free the slaves, God could have empowered the slaves to overtake the Egyptians and reverse the balance of power. God could have transported the slaves to the Promised Land without having to escape slavery or created a plague that killed off the Egyptians.

But that wasn't the path God chose. Why not? We don't know, but I have a theory. From the beginning God has chosen to involve and empower us in the salvation history that is our destiny. God chose us not only to be the recipient of the Kingdom but also participants. Genesis tells us that we were created in God's image and I believe that's more important than we think. Being created in God's image is not simply a physical thing (even though I'm an old guy with a white beard): We are created in God's image in that we have the capacity to love, to choose life, to work for the benefit of all. In short God made us in his image so that we would not be simple beneficiaries to our salvation, but also partners.

Please understand that this is not a salvo into the "salvation through works vs. salvation through faith." We all know that no salvation happens without God's intervention. Instead I hold that God gives us the tools to cooperate in our own salvation.

I also believe this carries us to today's Gospel. Luke's Gospel describes two events we see nowhere else in Scripture, and nowhere else in any other source: The Roman Pontius Pilate killed Galileans and desecrated their blood with the blood of pagan sacrifices, and the eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell. Many find this reading troubling because Jesus then warns them that they are no better than those who were killed. It can be read as a warning to "shape up or else."

Or, it's more subtle than that. Jesus' words can also remind us that when bad things happen to other people, it's not an implicit way of saying we are blessed because it didn't happen to us. No matter who we are and no matter what happens to us (good or bad) we are all called to participate in the building of the same Kingdom.

Lent calls us to repentance and perhaps we overthink it. Repentance calls us to remind ourselves on a daily basis that our lives work best when we stay on the path that God calls us to.

Just as God worked the liberation of the Israelits through Moses, God works our salvation through Jesus. God could have declared the "end of time" and saved us all but God didn't. We could have been created in Heaven and ignored the whole "earthly thing." But we read too much into this if we interpret this reading (as many of us were taught) that God places us here and watches us to decide if we are "worthy" of salvation.

Instead, Jesus told those gathered that they could not be completely safe from disaster or massacre (no matter how good we are). But that by continuing repentance, by participating in God's salvation plan, we can become the fig tree that bears fruit.

February 21, 2016: The Second Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from Genesis where Lord takes Abram (later Abraham) outside and tells him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. The Lord reminds Abram that he took him away from the land of Ur and granted him the land that we today call Israel. Abram then sacrificed a cow and a goat to seal the covenant. Luke's Gospel describes a scene that we often call the Transfiguration. Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John up mountain to pray. Once there Jesus' disciples saw Jesus speaking to Moses and Elijah. Peter then suggested that they commemorate this even with tents to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Then a cloud appeared over them and a voice from the cloud announced: "This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him." Moses and Elijah then disappeared. The disciples then fell silent and told no one what they had seen.

If you took a poll of the five religious figures that command the most importance, Abraham would likely win. Christians would put Jesus at the top of the list, Mohammad would command the Muslims, and Moses would win the Jewish vote. But when totaled, Abraham would likely win because he would enjoy votes from all three faiths. Today Jews, Christians, that Jesus and Muslims constitute more than half of the world's population and we all look to this event with great importance.

I think most of us grew up hearing about Abraham and thinking that he was an anomaly. Most people spent their entire lives in one place, doing the same thing. You were born into a family and did what they did, year after year, decade after decade, and generation after generation. But the truth was a bit more complex: they were nomads and were not as tied to the land as we might think.

We know from other passages that Abraham was a shepherd. Shepherds were nomads out of necessity: they were constantly in search of grazing pastures and water for their herds and on some level they were constantly competing with other shepherds for these resources. Sometimes they cooperated and negotiated with others, and sometimes they used force. But it was always between the shepherds.

Things change here. God's relationship with Abraham raised the relationship between divine and human to a new level. The first several chapters of Genesis shows God intervening into our history (the Tower of Babel, Noah's Ark, etc.) but here God not only reaches out to Abraham, but God also promises to be involved in the lives of Abraham and all his descendants. This may have felt like an empty promise as Abraham and his wife Sarah were elderly and didn't have children but it wasn't. This reading begins with God taking Abraham outside and promising his descendants will be as great as the stars in the sky.

Truth be told we now believe our universe contains 10 billion galaxies and each galaxy holds 100 billion stars: either this was hyperbole or we need to get started finding other planets to occupy. In any case Sarah shortly gives birth to Isaac who grows up to father Jacob, etc. Jews and Christians come from that line. Abraham also fathered Ishmael and we generally assume Ishmael's descendants eventually formed Islam.

God's decision to enter more closely into human history continues to evolve in Luke's Gospel. As I was growing up and hearing this reading I confess to a little confusion. I knew that Judaism prohibited graven images and there were not drawings or painting of their leaders; I couldn't figure out how Peter, James, and John recognized Moses or Elijah because they had never seen pictures of them. Perhaps seeing them speaking with Jesus enlivened their hearts if not their eyes. Regardless they recognized that they were in the presence of a landmark in human history.

Clearly God chose this event and these historical figures to impress upon the disciples that Jesus belonged in strong company. But why these figures? There were scores of important people in the Old Testament. Why these two?

Perhaps this speaks to a progression. We can look in what we call "salvation history" and see how each of the three persons, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, played an important and crucial role in making us who we are.

As we read from the first reading Abraham began the first permanent covenant between God and us. We revere Moses because he continued this covenant by liberating our ancestors from slavery and led them into the land we still refer to as the "Holy Land." Elijah isn't as well known but he holds an important place also. He was a prophet, and at the end of his earthly life he is taken (body and soul) into Heaven in the 2nd chapter of 2nd Kings. To this day many Jews keep an open chair at all circumcisions, believing he is present.

And so in today's Gospel we can draw a bright line through all three that ends with Jesus. As Abraham began the covenant with the People of God, Jesus fulfills it. As Moses liberated his people from slavery to the promised land, Jesus liberates us from our sins into forgiveness and salvation. As Elijah was taken from us to Heaven, Jesus' resurrection carries all of us to salvation.

The season of Lent chronicles the journey to Easter. We commemorate Lent each year because we need to remember that we are not defined by what we do or who we are, but instead by who loves us and who crashes into our lives out of profound love of us.

Finally, I confess to some amusement at the disciples' reaction to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Their first reaction was something I think many of us would share: let's make a monument. These days we surround ourselves with monuments to commemorate events from the past. But Jesus discouraged them from doing this because he didn't want them to commemorate the event but instead to look forward. Jesus understood something that Peter, James, and John didn't. Jesus understood that the Transfiguration should not be a memory but should instead be a call to continue a relationship. Just as Abraham began the covenant of the chosen, just as Moses liberated those chosen, just as Elijah spoke to the chosen by his elevation to Heaven, we are all chosen, liberated, and saved through Jesus.

Let us continue our Lenten journey with this understanding.

February 14, 2016: The First Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. It's the 5th book of the Bible and was classically (but not factually) written by Moses. In any case Moses is addressing the community and tells reminds them that they were once slaves in Egypt and delivered them to the land where they now live, "the land of milk and honey." In Luke's Gospel, Jesus travels into the wilderness. He ate nothing during this time and was hungry. The devil tried several times to tempt him but was unsuccessful and left him.

Regardless of who wrote the book of Deuteronomy, it's clear that Moses has a message: don't ever forget where you came from. His audience was well aware of the difficult path they trod but over the arc of time we can read this without fully understanding the context. Moses didn't go into great detail about the pain they experienced in slavery because his audience didn't need to, but we need to be reminded. From the perspective of 2016 we can read this and not fully understand that the passage from slave to "the land of milk and honey" was fraught with pain and sacrifice. Moses, and much of the Old Testament, reminds us that we are who we are only because God has chosen us. Without that, we would not be chosen, be blessed, and be worthy of salvation.

Simply put, the land of milk and honey did not come easy. God could have chosen to transport this band of Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land but he didn't. We don't know why, but I like to think they valued the land in part because they had to work hard to get there.

Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981 and was a beloved journalist for an entire generation of Americans. Long after he retired he wrote his memoire A Reporter's Life. In one chapter he described experiencing the Great Depression and World War II and his determination to raise his children in a world that was better than the one that raised him. By the 1960s he and his wife were raising three teenagers who were vocal in their opposition to the war in Vietnam. One night at dinner it came to a head in a shouting match as his daughters told him that the government was lying about Vietnam and couldn't be trusted. Walter's reaction was more bewilderment than anger. He saw the government in a much more positive light because he saw role the government played in lifting people out of poverty in the 1930s and defeat Hitler in the 1940s. His children were born later and grew up without that experience. He found their distrust of government to be a lack of gratitude. He felt it was easy for them to criticize the government because their life was easier than his and their need for government intervention wasn't as acute. Sacrifices made were made before they were born.

In the same way I think it's easy to overlook the sacrifice of Jesus in today's Gospel. Luke's Gospel is best understood as Jesus' "march toward the cross." Today's reading brings us a critical juncture in this march: at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry he went on what we would today call a retreat. When most of us think about a retreat we think about a weekend, or at most a week, and most of us think about going to a place of more simplicity and less noise. We don't often think about fasting (as a matter of fact most places I've gone to on retreat served excellent food).

But Jesus ate nothing. Speaking only for myself I find that hard to imagine. Without revealing my current BMI (body mass index) I'll say that I live in a place where I'm bombarded by commercials that tell me that it takes a 1500 calorie bacon double cheeseburger to satisfy my hunger for lunch. Eating nothing for 40 days sounds impossible.

And yet Luke is pretty clear about this. It's not hard to imagine that Jesus would have experienced some weakness at the end of this. And that's when temptation enters the room.

I've spoken about this before, but there are times when temptation into bad things doesn't really challenge us. But during times of suffering temptation can take on new power. The idea of ending the suffering can make us do things we wouldn't ordinarily do. That's what the devil was hoping for. The devil or Satan claims some space in Scripture and a much bigger role since then. We don't know much but here the devil's role is clear: make Jesus take the easy way out. He promised Jesus food, and then a Kingdom that required Jesus only one thing: worship the devil instead of God.

I don't need to explain what would have happened had Jesus succumbed. A Kingdom where Jesus worships the devil instead of God is not a Kingdom any of us want. But he didn't. He found a way to persevere through the hunger and the dream of an easy Kingdom and dismiss the devil.

And so we find ourselves at the beginning of Lent. Many of us carry childhood memories of giving up candy, or soda, or whatever under the promise that it will make things better. Denying ourselves something we like will make the joy of Easter better because we can eat candy or drink soda with abandon.

I get that, but perhaps Lent should be a little more complex for us. Lent, I believe, should make us more aware of not only who we are, but where we have come from. For many of us the idea of giving up something makes some sense. But for others Lent may call us in another direction. Maybe it calls us to an increased awareness of our reasons to be grateful, and we can achieve this through increased prayer or reading. Or we can pledge to do something that will make the world a little better: pick up a piece of trash each day, or greet a person each day with kindness. I'll leave this to your imagination.

Regardless of what we do for Lent, I encourage us to pay attention to the call of the Ash Wednesday reading. We should do what we do not so that others will know who we are, but so that we will know who we are.

Regardless of what we do, Easter is six weeks in our future. Let us think of that day when we will celebrate Jesus' resurrection and our salvation and think about where we want to be then. And let us start now.

February 10, 2016: Ash Wednesday

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the prophet Joel. We don't know much about the author, but his meaning is clear. He is calling the people to repentance, to return to the Lord, and to listen to his comands. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus pointedly tells his disciples not to do good things (e.g. fasting, giving to the poor) so that other people will think well of you. He suggest that if only God sees your piety or generosity, He will reward you. If you do it only for your glory, God will not be impressed.

Before I begin the homily I have to make a confession: if you've been reading this for more than a year you may recognize this homily. The readings every year are the same and last year I decided to rerun my Ash Wednesday homily from 2014. No one objected and I've take then opportunity to do it again. If you're new to this blog it's new to you and if you're one of the original readers, you'll read it again. Then again, perhaps there's some value to that. We're all a year older and have added a year's experience to our lives. So enjoy!

I have to confess that Ash Wednesday has always amused me a little. When I was growing up there were feasts during the year, like the Feast of the Assumption that were holy days of obligation. Even though they were weekdays where we all went to school or work, we were expected to go to church. Attendance was always mixed at best, particularly if the holy day was Thursday and we needed to finish mass to make way for the weekly bingo. But Ash Wednesday, which has never been a holy day, was always packed. I used to work at a church that was near several office buildings; we had to have 2 midday masses: 11:15 and 1230 to accommodate all the people who wanted to go to mass for the lunch hour.

It was also the day we could find out who else was Catholic. The ashes that were placed in the sign of the cross on our foreheads were a giveaway, and I've always suspected that was one of the reasons for the large attendance. Once, in college, I went to mass on Ash Wednesday and then to dinner at McDonalds (did I mention I was in college and had no money?). There I ran into someone I knew well but didn't know was Catholic. We shared filet o fish sandwiches and laughed over the fact that McDonalds didn't understand why so many of us with smudges were ordering fish. It was kind of a fun bond. From that day we always knew that if we saw someone else with the "mark of a Catholic" we shared a common belief system.

That public display was nice, but does that negate the Gospel where Jesus says to do these things anonymously? If I'm doing this to show others what I believe in the hope that they will respect me, what does that do for my spiritual health? How does that draw me closer to God?

That, perhaps, is the hardest part of these two readings. Joel tells us to "proclaim a solemn assembly" while Matthew tells us to go quietly to our room and not make much noise. In an ironic twist, it is perhaps a mark of the success of Jesus' teachings that this is even an issue. Jesus' teachings that we should be humble and make sure that God alone knows of our piety is not a universal value. In the pagan world it was (and in some places still is) a value to draw attention to ourselves. They puff themselves up and exaggerate their importance because their reputation among their peers (or underlings) is of grave importance.

This isn't true just among ancient pagans: look at pop culture to see how many hopefuls crave the admiration of others and look to those groups for their own sense of worth. If we take this Gospel seriously we should hope for the respect of our peers over the adulation of strangers. And the fact that we can be concerned over how our humility and desire for repentance appears is a mark that we are on the right path.

Now I'd be remiss if I didn't also speak of Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Season of Lent. Many of us remember being asked as children (and being evaluated on our answer) what we were "giving up for Lent." Invariably we were asked to give up something we liked and this lack would bring us closer to God. Over the years I've done by share of this; giving up everything from candy to soda to alcohol. But I also think we can look beyond giving up something we enjoy. If the purpose of Lent is to help us renew our relationship with God and not be distracted by worldly things, can we do something else? I've heard some suggestions that intrigue me. Years ago I read about someone who was committed to picking up a piece of trash every day. He reasoned that while it wouldn't make much difference in the gross tonnage of trash in the world, it would make him more aware of the world around him. I also spoke with someone who pledged not to look away when he saw people holding signs and asking for money on traffic islands. He told me he wasn't always able to help everyone but the least he could do is acknowledge the holiness of the other person.

But however we commemorate Ash Wednesday and Lent of 2014, let us remind ourselves that we are committed to a sense of constant renewal to ourselves, each other, and God. Hopefully when we celebrate Easter next month we can look back on this time with appropriate humility.

February 7, 2016: The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we return to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. After the death of King Uzziah, Isaiah is overwhelmed by seeing the Lord of Hosts and proclaims that he is doomed because of his unclean lips. But then an angel removes his sin and Isaiah, when asked "Whom shall I send," replied "Here I am. Send me!" Luke's Gospel describes Jesus teaching a crowd at the side of a lake. Nearby fishermen, including Simon Peter, came ashore and began washing their nets. Jesus tells them to go back onto the lake and put out their nets; Simon Peter protests by telling Jesus that they have been fishing all night with no results. But he obeys Jesus and they go back out. This time they catch so much fish that there is fear that their nets will tear, and once aboard, the volume of fish may sing the boat. Overwhelmed, Simon Peter tells Jesus: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Jesus responds by telling him that from now on he will be catching men [and presumably women]. Then the left everything and followed Jesus.

The prophet Isaiah holds an important place in the Old Testament. I've spoken about this before, but this book had at least 2 and possibly 3 authors (known as "1st Isaiah, 2nd Isaiah, and 3rd Isaiah"). Today's reading comes from 1st Isaiah, near the beginning of the book and it's a puzzling reading.

The idea of being a prophet may sound good to us today but it's only good through the comfortable distance of hundreds of years of history. A prophet's role is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That's not my line, I learned it in seminary and have always found it valuable. But the comfortable never want to feel afflicted and the life of a prophet is never easy.

Many of us like the idea of comforting the afflicted but the afflicted have little power to improve our lives. On the other hand the comfortable have nearly limitless abilities to attack us and make our lives miserable. Ask any whistleblower.

And yet after Isaiah encounters an angel who convinces him that his sins do not prevent him from being chosen, he embraces his role as a prophet and asks God to "[s]end me!"

So why did he volunteer? Didn't he know that this would greatly complicate his life? He probably did, but the encounter with the angel also likely gave him focus. I suspect that Isaiah eagerly embraced his role because he understood who he was and what gifts he was given and this gave him direction in his life.

I find this informative for all of us in our lives. We are all given gifts, we all live with things we are good at and things we are not good at. We spent much of our childhood, and let's face it: much of our adulthood, coming to an understanding of who we are and what we are good at. When I was in high school I couldn't get enough of history and I couldn't understand why anyone liked science. My wife is just the opposite: she loved to explore how elements related to each other in chemistry and couldn't understand why anyone was interested in stuff that happened a long time ago. Because of this I chose theology and she chose medicine.

Unfortunately we all have times when we try to be someone we're not, and it rarely goes well. Maybe it's because we want a gift we weren't given. In the 12th Chapter of First Corinthians, Paul clearly states that there are different gifts but the same Spirit. And while God doesn't rank gifts, we clearly do. In our current society we pay scary amounts of money to people who are gifted at picking stocks, and much less to those who are gifted at teaching our children.

When I was a seminarian I met Fr. Alvin Illig who was ordained seven years before I was born. He was both bright and ambitious and he had a clear idea of what he wanted when he was ordained: he wanted to be appointed to the New York City mission team. The order we belonged to (the Paulist Fathers) provided several ministries: parishes, college campus ministries, evangelization, teaching, and many others. But if you were a priest in the 1950s one assignment was reserved for the best. These priests were based in Manhattan and travelled to parishes in New England and the Mid Atlantic States giving parish missions. Their gifts were seen as better than other gifts and Fr. Alvin set his sights there.

Much to his disappointment he did not get that assignment. He eventually made his way to the world of Catholic publishing and he did incredible work. In the 1960s Catholic churches in the United States opened Catholic schools at a phenomenal rate and Fr. Alvin understood that they needed school libraries. He packaged the books a school would need and marketed them to these newly opened Catholic schools. It was genius: hundreds of Catholic schools were able to purchase a viable library and the publishing house found an income stream that allowed them to thrive.

When Fr. Alvin told me that story 30 years later there was still part of him that regretted not being part of the New York City mission team. But he was also aware that his gifts served him, his community, and the Kingdom of God better in the publishing world. While he and his peers valued the mission band better than publishing, he understood that he ended up where he needed to be.

And in discussing these gifts we need to give awareness to the strength of these gifts. In the Gospel we see exhausted and empty handed fishermen: they spent the entire night fishing with nothing to show for it. But when Jesus suggests they go back out, they did so mostly to humor them. The result so overwhelmed them that they grew afraid. Now, I've never heard this from the perspective of the fish, but it really wasn't about the fish at all. These poor fishermen would, in the course of time, grow into the first generation of the teachers of this new church. They were the first to grasp the baton of faith, and had they stumbled, none of us would know the name of Jesus.

Perhaps the message of these readings is twofold: we should not rank gifts according to our desires, and we should stand in awe of what we are capable of doing if we celebrate and use the gifs we are given.

January 31, 2016: The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The beginning of Jeremiah informs our first reading and it describes God's call to Jeremiah to be a prophet. Not included in this reading is the line where Jeremiah protests that he cannot be a prophet because he is too young. God responds by telling Jeremiah not to worry because he was chosen even before he was born. Jeremiah recognizes that prophets don't normally do well because they preach an unpopular message but God assures him not to worry: "They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am the with you to deliver you, says the Lord." Luke's Gospel describes Jesus speaking in the synagogue, proclaiming much the same message as last week. But here the response is much different: those gathered asked: "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" Jesus responds by telling them that "no prophet is accepted in his own native place." He continued to agitate them until, filled with fury, they drive him out of town.

Thirty six years ago I began discerning whether or not God was calling me to the priesthood. The single question of whether I was called to serve as a priest brought with it other questions, including the question of where I was called to serve. I could have chosen to be a priest who spent his life in a defined geographical area (and become a diocesan priest) or I could have chosen to join an order (like the Jesuits or Franciscans) and served in lands I had never seen before. I chose to join an order and pointed to this passage in Luke. I explained that people who knew me as a child would never accept me as a leader of worship. Full disclosure: my decision had more to do with my desire to see the world. But there was something to my decision and Jesus would have understood this as well as anyone else.

We all read this Gospel with our own eyes and I confess that I read this with great empathy for Jesus. Those of us who feel called respond with great excitement and can't wait to tell the people closest to us, those who made us who we are. In our enthusiasm we completely misunderstand how we are perceived and are often met with (like Jesus) "who are you to tell us anything?" Let's be frank: The phrase "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" means, "why should we listen to you when we knew you as a child and taught you what you know? You don't speak the truth to us, we speak the truth to you."

At the risk of reading too much into this Gospel I confess to thinking that Jesus felt betrayed by this response. And it spiralled out of control from there. Jesus told them that nobody from his own native place would be accepted. And he went further. He told them that while there were people in the Old Testament who benefitted from their prophets, there were many more people who did not benefit. Clearly Jesus, in his frustration, was telling his older relatives, his older neighbors, his teachers, that they were going to regret not listening to him.

And while I appreciate his frustration and anger I wish Jesus had spent more time reading the first reading from Jeremiah. We know very little of how Jesus came to an understanding of himself as the Messiah, the Redeemer but we can assume it wasn't as easy and simple as Scripture tells us.

The road for Jeremiah wasn't easy either. When God chose Jeremiah, God told him this: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you." Jeremiah protested that he was too young. God makes it clear that this wasn't a choice made in haste, and while he may find that some may wish to "crush" him, he (Jeremiah) has been made a "pillar of iron, a wall of brass."

The rest of Jeremiah's life shows that God never left Jeremiah and that Jeremiah faced crushing challenges. Likewise, the rest of the New Testament shows that God never left Jesus and that Jesus faced crushing challengers, including his passion, death, and resurrection.

So how do these readings inform us today? I think it informs us two ways.

First, and easiest, it tells us that just as God gave Jeremiah and Jesus a voice, so too have we been given a voice. I have to confess that I'm not a fan of most of the Sunday morning television preachers, but I do respect their message that tough times shouldn't prevent or stop us from being who we know we are called to be. By our baptism we are all called to discipleship but none of us are guaranteed an easy path. As we live our best selves, as we are called to the better angels of our nature, we live with the reality that we encounter those who find us stupid, silly, or as potential targets for abuse. They tempt us to join them in their greed and selfishness and our determination to continue as disciples requires us to sacrifice power, influence, and popularity. And perhaps more seductive, they call us to ignore our call because the message is outdated or just won't work. We are tempted to "be realistic" when we are called to be faithful. We are called to ignore injustice because we are not strong enough to be just in an unjust situation.

But these readings also call us to something else: it calls us not to be Jeremiah or Jesus, but to be the listeners of Jeremiah and Jesus and not go with the crowd. In our lives the people who speak the greatest truth to us are not necessarily the wealthiest, the most powerful, or the most popular. Truth comes from the strangest corners, and I appreciate that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit crash into our lives from places I don't expect.

Perhaps it's a former student and we are humbled to accept what he or she tells us. Perhaps it's someone we've discounted: a homeless person, someone with less education, or a child. Or maybe it's someone we've always seen with suspicion: an immigrant, someone with a different skin color, or a different sexual orientation. But justice does not respect rank or necessarily find its origin in power.

Whatever the case, I hope we can read these readings with an understanding that the original listeners didn't. Jeremiah's listeners didn't like his message and Jesus' listeners didn't like listening to Jesus. But their messages continue to this day because they were both called by God to proclaim.

As disciples we are called to speak our truth, but also listen to to the truth of those who God also calls.

January 24, 2016: The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah. It's often seen as a continuation of the previous Book of Ezra. Nehemiah speaks in Jerusalem to the Israelites who have recently returned from exile. They are tasked to rebuild the Temple, and in this reading all are gathered as Ezra the scribe gathers of "men, women, and children old enough to understand" to read the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The reading ends with this command: "Go, eat the fat, drink the sweet wine, and send a portion to the man who has nothing prepared ready. For this day is sacred our Lord. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold." In Luke's Gospel Jesus entered a synagogue in his hometown, unrolled a scroll from the prophet Isaiah quoted this: "The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me." Jesus then told those gathered that this "is being fulfilled today even as you listen."

I've always been amused and puzzled by the phase "those children old enough to understand." So what about those children were weren't old enough to understand? Clearly they weren't left alone and the reading tells us that everyone else was listening to Ezra.

I'm sure they were present also, but just didn't understand what was going on and so the phrase was more about understanding than geography. I can understand this. When my sister and I were infants and toddlers our parents tried several things that allowed them get to church while not dealing with a fussy or bored child. Sometimes they went to different masses. Sometimes they found someone who would care for us while they were allowed to worship together. Certainly we weren't among "those old enough to understand."

But from my earliest memory they took us to mass with them. Looking back the idea of those not "old enough to understand" engenders memories of my desperately trying to pass the time. None of the words coming through the microphone were meant for me and my wandering eye wasn't nearly sufficient to find anything worth looking at. Eventually, as my understanding grew, church (and especially Scripture) made more sense to me. And that understanding grew and changed as I grew and changed.

I like to think that the phrase "old enough to understand" is a process instead of a dividing line. Our lives continually tell us that our understanding of our role in the Kingdom of God evolves throughout our lives. A ten year old has a different understanding than an infant. A thirty year old has a different understanding than a ten year old. And a sixty year old has a different understanding than a thirty year old.

I say this with the understanding that we continue to attempt to determine a line between children and adults. But that line varies. By age 12 we pay adult prices at the theatre. On our 16th birthday we are old enough to drive, and we cast our first votes after our 18th birthday; we can also serve on juries and sign contracts. Finally, on our 21st birthday we can consume alcohol. This adulthood thing is, at best, a moving target.

This provides the context for our first reading. Ezra recounts what we now call our "salvation history." Our understanding grows as we grow, but something else is also happening. Events that dramatically change our history, that cause us to recognize God's role in our lives, fade over time. Within a few generations we think we are where we are because of our role and discount God's role. We see this in the current election cycle by presidential candidates who regard immigrants as problems while ignoring the fact that our ancestors were themselves immigrants.

Our history as Christians compels us to remember who we are and where we came from. Ezra recounts salvation history because, from time to time, we need to hear (and listen to) the events that made us who we are. We can't think we are "self made" if we know the stories and events that brought us here. That's why I think it was critical that Ezra publicly reread the Torah to all that were gathered (regardless of their level of understanding). Their return from exile may have been luck, but our salvation history tells us that God and not luck brought them back to Jerusalem. And it was especially not from their own deeds. We are who we are because God chose us.

And the Gospel tells us that Jesus is who he is because of the same reason. I can only imagine what it felt to have been in the synagogue. Jesus, a young man who grew up among them, the son of Joseph and Mary, unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and claims to be the one Isaiah is talking about.

Jews of the 19th and 20th century grew up speaking Yiddish and the word "chutzpah" translated into English as "having nerve." Clearly Jesus' words gave him chutzpah when he claimed to be the one Isaiah was speaking about.

But as Christians we believe he is right. Last week I spoke about how Jesus came to an understanding of his role in salvation history after scolding his mother, and this week we can see a view of Jesus where he understands his role. All of us spend our lives learning our role in salvation history. Many of us teach our children, some of us teach our students, and all of us affect the lives of the people we interact with. When Jesus tells us "The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me," he is not speaking only of himself. He is talking about all of us. We have all been anointed to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

Each week we come to mass and listen to the readings. Unlike Ezra we don't hear the entire Torah, but we hear pieces of our sacred readings, and we don't read them only to think well of those who have gone before us. We read them because we understand that these readings remind us of our place in salvation history and how we need to read their words and wisdom so that we can make moral and spiritual decisions today built on how God has intervened in our history in the past.

The last book of Scripture was written about 70 years after Jesus' resurrection and we have lived nineteen centuries of salvation history since. Volumes have been written by saints and ordinary Christians and we do read their accounts. But it's always beneficial to go back to our ancients texts to see how we began (like Ezra) and continue to find our place in salvation history (like Jesus).

January 17, 2016: The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The Prophet Isaiah writes our first reading and continues this theme of celebration. Zion (Israel) will be celebrated by other nations and "shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord." Israel will no longer been seen as forsaken or desolate, but instead God's delight and espoused. In John's Gospel we see the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, and his first sign (other Gospels call them miracles but John calls them signs). Jesus and Mary were at a wedding when the host ran out of wine. Mary pointed this out to Jesus who responded: "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" At Mary's instruction the servants bring six stone water jars (each holding 20 to 30 gallons). Jesus told them to fill the jars with water and gave a taste to the headwaiter. The headwaiter tasted the wine and expressed his surprise to the bridegroom: "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now."

Are you getting enough of Isaiah? It seems that between Advent and Christmas we read almost nothing else. To be fair the book of Isaiah was written by at least two and perhaps three different writers. Additionally the imagery in Isaiah enriches this chapter of the Israelites' history. Today's reading begins with the idea that Israel will be seen as a leader by other nations, a far cry from their recent history where they were in disarray and exile, and feared for their very existence. As I spoke about last week, the last will now become first.

Isaiah also turns to imagery of a bride. For those of us in happy marriages we will never forget the joy we found when the person we chose also chose us. Our spouse's choice of us makes us feel blessed, fortunate, and part of a larger plan. It makes us feel that our life is going on as it's supposed to.

Interestingly enough our Gospel takes place at a wedding. Weddings are wonderful experiences but they also cause great anxiety for the planners. Brides, grooms, their parents, wedding planners and officiants worry greatly about things they can't control. Will everyone be able to get there? What if it rains or snows? Is the caterer/photographer/wedding planner trustworthy? Will the guests who need to stay sober really stay sober or will they make an epic scene that everyone will remember?

Or what happens if you run out of wine? These days some weddings are dry (no alcohol), some have a no host bar (you pay for your drinks), or an open bar (the host pays for your drinks) and of the dozens of weddings I've attended this has never happened. But we can imagine the embarrassment of the host if that happened. Unlike today the host can't do a Costco run.

And here we find one of the most troubling passages in the New Testament. Mary recognizes the dilemma and also recognizes Jesus' power. But when she tells him about it, Jesus gives her an answer that nobody I know would have said to his mother: "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" I have a nearly limitless imagination but at no point in my life can I imagine a good outcome had I said this to my mother.

Several human experiences touch most of us, but I think I'm not going on a limb to say that we can all recall times when we've said or done something and immediately recognized the damage we've done. These events tend to be "growth opportunities" for us when we recognize that we can fix the damage we've done.

I think that this happens to Jesus. The two thousand years since the life of Jesus bursts open with debates about when he knew his role as the Messiah. As with all of us disciples we came to our role in God's Kingdom as a process, as our understanding of our place in the universe (and the mind of God).

I like to think that Jesus' rude response to Mary caused him to recognize that his role was greater than he thought. He suddenly understood that he was not at the wedding only as a guest but as the person who had the power to make things right. This first sign was not only a sign to us, his disciples, but also to Jesus.

I'm hoping I'm the only one who has had an experience like this. We are unnecessarily rude or we make a poor decision, and in that moment we recognize not only embarrassment but also a glimpse of exactly who we can be if we move beyond our old view of ourselves.

And Jesus did make things right. As a matter of fact he made things better than right. We don't know how many guests were present at the wedding, but we do know how much wine Jesus made. The servants gathered six jars and each jar held 20 to 30 gallons. When Jesus turned the water into wine he made between 120 to 180 gallons of wine. To translate this to today, a bottle of wine (750 mil) holds 25 ounces of wine. In other words, 120 gallons would fill a little more than 614 bottles of wine. And this is after the wedding guests plowed through all the good stuff.

Clearly Jesus provided more wine than was needed. But this wasn't just about the wedding, it was about the Kingdom of God. Not only was this wine of superior but there was an abundance of it.

The people who ridiculed Jesus during his life looked at his signs or miracles as merely "magician's tricks." But they weren't. Jesus' signs pointed to his Kingdom, whether he healed the sick, raised the dead, or turned water into wine. His signs pointed to a place where even an embarrassed bridegroom has more than he needs.

So where does that leave us? Well, we can't perform these signs or miracles. We can't turn water into wine anymore than we can turn turn five loaves and 2 fishes into an unlimited supply. But that doesn't mean we are entirely powerless.

We can save people from embarrassment. We can intervene in situations; perhaps here we are the person who slips out from the wedding and goes to Costco without any of guests know about it. Jesus' second sign came in the 4th chapter where Jesus healed the ill son of a royal official. Regardless of who this "royal official" was, he clearly was not one of Jesus' disciples. And yet Jesus saves his son. Perhaps this calls us to reach out beyond our inner circle. We know we can, we just have to want to.

As we begin our journey into 2016, let's look at those opportunities where our actions, our signs, can become miracles.

January 10, 2016: The Baptism of the Lord

Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah proclaims our first reading and it's hopeful. The Lord proclaims his servant "with whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased." This servant "shall bring forth justice to the nations." The Lord has called this servant "for a victory of justice," who will set "a covenant of the people, a light of the nations" who will open the eyes of the blind and set prisioners free. He will deliver those who live in darkness. The Gospel comes from Luke where John baptizes Jesus. When Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and a voice came from heaven proclaiming: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.

What does it mean for us to be chosen? Let's face it: it's a good feeling. Most of us can canvas our childhood and remember times when someone looked at us and said: "Yes, you're the person I want for this." Conversely we also remember the pain when sides were being chosen and we were "chosen last."

The idea of being left out when others are chosen brings universal feelings of dread and loneliness. None of us likes to feel inadequate or not good enough, but feelings of importance and inclusion can often cause us to be cruel to others. I think these feelings inform these readings.

In our interactions with each other we make choices all the time. We choose one job candidate over several others. We choose one life partner to the exclusion of everyone else. And it's necessary: we can't hire everyone who applies for a job and we can't be exclusive with more than one person. But we also trust that a large pools of employers and large pools of job applicants will sort itself out.

The choices we make in these interactions occur in a finite world and they make sense. But we live in a world of faith that's infinite where everyone can be chosen and we don't fully believe it.

And yet from almost our earliest days we've made choices over who we think are saved. We think we know enough of God's mind to know who God has chosen (and more to the point who God hasn't chosen). It's not that we think Heaven has a limited amount of real estate and only a certain percentage can live there. Instead we think we know God's criterion, God's threshold for who gets in and who doesn't.

Some faiths set the threshold on belief: Christians are in and Jews are out because it turns on an acknowledgement of Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. Catholics of previous generations learned that those who die without a mortal sin on their soul are in while those who died after missing mass are out. We even made a place for babies who died sinless but without baptism: Limbo.

It's actually become kind of a cottage industry. Fifteen years ago two men wrote a book series called Left Behind. It described a series of events where God decides to end the world, but first "raptures" (ie, removes) those deemed worthy and subjects the rest to a time of tribulation. These books made a great deal of money for the authors and fed into a popular belief that we know the limits of God's mercy and desire for the salvation of all.

But to those believers I point to the Gospel reading. Several things happen that appear puzzling. At first blush it's a simple story: Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. But, in a sense, why was Jesus baptized? And why was he baptized last, after "all the people"?

In nobody's universe does Jesus need to be baptized. Old time Catholics were told that baptism erases "original sin" and that erasure allows for entry into Heaven. So why did John baptize Jesus?

I grew up hearing this reading and thinking that Jesus did this so that we would all see baptism as universal. He was "pretending" to need baptism to tell us that we should all be baptized.

But what if that's wrong? What if the message of this wasn't that we should all be baptized but that all of us are chosen? What if it means that being chosen is about inclusion instead of who's in vs. who's out? What if we're all chosen and we're given different roles, and that all these roles are of equal value?

I like the fact that Jesus was baptized as an adult. Some look at this and decide that baptism should be an adult decision. As for me, I think it means that baptism doesn't remove anything (original sin) but adds something (a responsibility to build the Kingdom of God). But it also gives me an image of the universality of salvation.

The first reading from Isaiah clearly speaks of the servant that God loves. This servant will work for justice and as Christians we see this servant as a foreshadowing of Jesus. Clearly this servant is included, but that's not the important part.

The heart of these readings show Jesus as baptized, as included, and as part of God's plan. All these readings inform me that salvation isn't about those who are chosen and those who aren't. Jesus was baptized last to tell us that there is not "end of the line." We are all chosen. Or put another way, it shows clearly how the last shall be first.

The idea that baptism is necessary for salvation, that faith in Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior is necessary for salvation, that avoidance of mortal sin is necessary for salvation is not found in the Bible. The idea that Jesus' birth, baptism, life, death, and resurrection is necessary for salvation informs today's readings.

I like to think that we're all saved by baptism, and not just those who are baptized. The birth of baptism 2,000 years ago ushered in a new era through the person of Jesus Christ. It points not only to salvation but to our role in that. Baptism began the public ministry of Jesus so that we could begin the process of learning how to build the kingdom.

This Gospel comes to us from the 3rd chapter of Luke. In the 4th chapter Jesus begins to preach and teach. The rest of his public ministry of how, now that salvation is ours, we should love one another.

Next week we find ourselves back in Ordinary Time. Now that our salvation has been assured, let's make it Extra-Ordinary.

January 3, 2016: The Epiphany of the Lord

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from nearly the end of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, commands Jerusalem to arise and shine. Light has come even though night still covers the earth. The people are gathering and you will grow radiant. All will come bringing gold and incense and they will sing the praise of the Lord. Matthew's Gospel describes the scene where astrologers from the east arrive in Jerusalem. The ask for the location of the "newborn king of the Jews" as they have seen a star rising in the sky. King Herod was disturbed by this and asked his chief priests and scribes. They told him that the Messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem. He sent the astrologers to Bethlehem and asked them to report back to him after finding the Messiah so that he (Herod) could offer homage also. The astrologers travelled to Bethlehem and found Jesus, paid him homage and presented him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In a dream they were told to return by a different route and did not return to give a report to Herod.

I've spoken of this reading in several different places and I've normally preached a sermon of joy. I focused on the astrologers (who we've described as the "Three Wise Men") who presented gifts to the newborn Savior and how we continue in their tradition in the gifts we give each other for Christmas. I described how we give each other gifts because we recognize the Christ in each other.

That's all true, but there is a darker theme in these readings and while we don't like to recognize it, it's true nonetheless.

The darkness centers on King Herod. Herod was a Jew, but we know that his father was a convert to Judaism and Herod's "Jewish cred" was thin. Religions like Christianity and Islam seek to convert others to their religion, but Judaism does not. This may be hard for many of us to understand, but the fact that Herod was a recent convert made him suspicious to most Jews of the time. They weren't entirely convinced of his sincerity and honestly, his actions in this reading make their point.

You see, most Christians think of the Jews/Israelites who lived between the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of Jesus as poor desert dwellers. The truth is much, much more complicated. It's true that they conquered the land we now know as Israel and it's true that they were conquered by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans, but it doesn't mean they were all marginalized and poor.

In reality some of them were able to do well, and become quite wealthy and influential. The Herod we read in this Gospel was one of them. As a Jew he professed to await the Messiah, but in reality he was doing just fine and the arrival of the Messiah would have messed things up for him. He never would have admitted this but the arrival of the Messiah and promised liberation would have robbed him of his status and place in society.

This explains the attention he gave the astrologers. They were not a cause of joy for him, but instead a cause of fear. Herod feared that these astrologers foretold not the redemption of the Savior but the end of his cushy life. His power over the Jews depended on the continuing domination of the Romans and the absence of the Messiah. Only then was he able to rule.

And Herod was destroyed by a dream. The astrologers were warned not to return to Jerusalem but instead return by another route. Herod was robbed of the opportunity of killing Jesus.

And this informs us of the most horrible part of the story. At some point Herod figures out that he'd been duped by the astrologers and needed to do something to make sure this child didn't fulfill the prophecy that would end his luxury. The passages after this gospel describe how an angel appeared to Joseph and Mary and warn them to flee to Egypt because Jesus' life was in danger. But after they fled Herod demanded that all boys two years old or younger were to be killed.

We don't know how many male infants and toddlers were killed but we commemorate their memory each year on December 28th and call them the "Holy Innocents." And while the experience of the astrologers giving gifts to Jesus shows us how generosity can be contagious, so too can be sin.

Herod's fear of losing his position caused him to plan the death of Jesus, but when that didn't work he grew a great deal more evil. That happens sometimes: an employee steals a small amount of money from his employer and finds it unsatisfying so he steals more and more until he is caught. A politician accepts a bribe thinking "it will just be this one time" but gets addicted and can't explain his way out when the spotlight hits him.

Thinking his plan to kill Jesus just needs to be broader, Herod moves from murder to genocide and untold children are murdered.

And they were murdered for no reason. Herod's plan didn't work because Jesus was in Egypt and beyond Herod's reach. As a matter of fact, according to Matthew's Gospel, the Holy Family stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Full disclosure: Most sources believe that Herod died shortly after these events and there is reason to doubt that any boy was actually murdered but the point remains valid: Herod was an evil man who knew no limits in his ambition.

But here's the takeaway from this reading: even limitless evil does not work. Herod went to horrendous lengths to protect himself and it didn't work. But even a generation later, when Pontius Pilate was successful in killing Jesus, it still didn't work. Jesus' resurrection proves that no matter how powerful evil gets, it's still not powerful enough to defeat good. Herod was defeated by the astrologers' dream (to return by a different route), by Joseph's dream (to flee to Egypt), and finally by his own death.

We are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, not because of luck or power, but because God decided to go "all in" with us. Nobody knows the power of evil better than God because God knows the power of good better than we do.

I have to confess a certain amusement that the Holy Family escaped to Egypt for safety when their ancestor Moses fled Egypt as a place of enslavement. This tells me that there is no place on earth that is outside God's safety.

Thousands of years later we find ourselves in a world that puts great emphasis in limits and borders. None of us find the idea of escaping persecution hard to imagine. But its become a cottage industry here in the United States to believe that those who escape evil have only themselves to blame, as if they are escaping only to create evil in other places.

In reality the 21st Century refugees read today's Gospel with knowing nods. They flee not with an agenda toward their destinations but with grief toward their home. When they arrive they care only for the safety of themselves and their descendants and are willing to sacrifice their own lives to invest in their children.

If Herod horrifies us from 2000 years ago, we should also be horrified when people are forced to flee today and also find no room at the inn.

Links to the Homilies


January 3, 2016

January 10, 2016

Ordinary Time

January 17, 2016

January 24, 2016

January 31, 2016

February 7, 2016


February 10, 2016

February 14, 2016

February 21, 2016

February 28, 2016

March 6, 2016

March 13, 2016

March 20, 2016


March 27, 2016

April 3, 2016

April 10, 2016

April 17, 2016

April 24, 2016

May 1, 2016

May 8, 2016

May 15, 2016

May 22, 2016

May 29, 2016

Ordinary Time

June 5, 2016

June 12, 2016

June 19, 2016

June 26, 2016

July 3, 2016

July 10, 2016

July 17, 2016

July 24, 2016

July 31, 2016

August 7, 2016

August 14, 2016

August 21, 2016

August 28, 2016

September 4, 2016

September 11, 2016

September 18,2016

September 25, 2016

October 2, 2016

October 9, 2016

October 16, 2016

October 23, 2016

October 30, 2016

November 6, 2016

November 13, 2016

November 20, 2016


November 27, 2016

December 4, 2016

December 11, 2016

December 18, 2016


December 25, 2016