Third Sunday of Advent 2022
There’s the story of a Rector being called to another parish and,
on his last Sunday, saying farewell.
He was shaking the hand of an elderly member on her way out,
when she said, “Your successor won't be as good as you.”
“Nonsense,” said the Rector, in a flattered tone.
“No, really”, she said, “I've been here under four different Rectors,
and each new one has been worse than the last.”
For centuries, the third Sunday of Advent has been Gaudete Sunday.
“Gaudete” is the first word from the introit (opening/entrance verse) in Latin.
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice!
(Philippians, chapter 4, verse 4).
One rejoices, of course, not when someone is saying farewell.
The joyous focus of Advent, as you know, is Christ coming.
Three-fold coming, we could say:
Christ “born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
Christ present and transforming through Word and in Sacrament.
Christ to return in glory to be our merciful Judge on the last day.
And Advent has a fitting penitential character to it,
entails “cleaning house” to make room for Christ coming.
The color associated with “Gaudete” is rose.
Rose is violet, which suggests penance,
approaching white, which suggests luminous, transformative presence
suggesting the “already, not yet” of our bond with Christ.
For today’s celebration, like last Sunday, we have John the Baptist.
The Church can’t seem to get enough JB!
There is indeed no one like John the Baptist
to prepare the way of the Lord.
An extraordinary, moving, and, frankly, very odd character.
As the Reverend Fleming Rutledge says,
irreducibly strange, gaunt and unruly, lonely and refractory,
utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age.
Not an immediate asset at a dinner party!
Nonetheless: extraordinary and moving and invited and present at this party!
He is entirely about Christ.
Consumed with zeal for the Messiah which makes him odd, that is,
far from ordinary, out of sync with the popular preoccupations of the age.
He is simply the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
He seems to have no identity outside of Jesus.
Normally, humanly speaking, when we are totally relative to someone else,
it’s a problem.
With John, this is not unhealthy dependence or attachment disorder.
This is about purpose, awe, surrender and being an instrument of God.
And an amazing thing: John is “in the dark” while living all of this.
John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin.
Presumably aware of this, John’s focus, however,
is Jesus as the Messiah, his Messiah.
Hence, in John’s gospel, when Jesus finally appears to be baptized,
John needs a sign to recognize Jesus: the dove alighting.
I myself did not know him he declares twice (John 1:31,33).
And between this lack of knowledge, Jesus not visiting John in prison and,
from prison, here, John asking, via his disciple-messengers:
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?
we witness compelling poverty of spirit, John so very much in the dark.
Why is this? I surmise so that he be absolutely surrendered
and purely the voice of the Holy Spirit.
John’s joy lies in his being a unique instrument in the hand of God.
What is it to be an instrument of God?
It’s hard even to think in such terms.
We typically think in terms of what we do, in terms of productivity
and, on a good day, our efforts at inter-personal decency.
We don’t think in terms of God taking hold of us and working through us.
Too abstract. Too unproductive. Too mysterious.
Perhaps, John the Baptist can help us to understand this and, better,
to surrender to Jesus with awe and trust.
Our joy too lies in our being instruments in the hand of God.
God does not want simply to shower us with blessings
and we sit passively as though on Santa’s lap.
God wants to take loving hold of us, so much so that
we be transformed and He be able to love through us.
Indeed, at the end of the Mass, after having been fed, having been loved,
we are sent forth: instruments of light and goodness, in peace and hope,
rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.
Mother Teresa says,
I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God
who is sending a love letter to the world.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!
Coming Soon: Jesus!
First Sunday of Advent 2022
From the Latin: Ad “to” Venire “come”
Coming. Approaching. Arriving.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we continue to wake from the grogginess
of over-stuffed bellies, alerted, however, to what feels like the end times,
thanks to Black Friday: the shopocalypse.
Indeed, all the nations shall stream to it, where they will turn “plastic”
into bright promises, then to be wrapped, as they await the day.
The children “better watch out” for Santa will come in the night.
And, my goodness, their goodness, he will,
the bright promises will be exchanged
and the magical harmony for which we all so yearn will come.
This is the Christmas story being told during the holiday sales at Target.
And it can make for a lot of noise.
So sadly interchangeable have become
symbols of the Incarnation with symbols of secular Christmas
that it can be hard to discern the true reason for the season:
the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, come to us.
Thank goodness, thank God we have this gospel, the perfect foil, antidote,
opening in us a compelling, hopeful Advent space.
No candy canes or mistletoe!
Not even, in the realm of faith, Mary and her cooing newborn child.
Instead, the anticipated “threat” of Jesus kidnapping someone at work
and then “breaking” in and “stealing” stuff.
We indeed turn toward the Second Coming of Christ, which the Church
suggests ought to have a much greater place on our holiday landscape:
try a few Second Coming ornaments on your tree this year!
Why the Second Coming?
Well, the Second Coming brings to completion,
and thus makes complete sense of, the First Coming.
Why did God become human? To take loving hold of us.
Why will God become human come again?
To take complete, definitive loving hold of us.
The two “Comings” are inseparable.
The First beckons the Second and so, on this first Sunday of Advent,
we cut to the chase.
Now, the challenging, tricky thing is that
we know little about the Second Coming, except that it will happen.
And, thus, in the midst of exhortations to wakefulness and readiness,
we find highlighted un-knowing.
This un-knowing is a blessing in disguise for us who think we need to know and humbles the know-it-all in us.
Admittedly unsettling, for we use our knowing--
and the accompanying certainty that we are right--
as a sort of loss-prevention program,
to protect ourselves from the unknown and the unexpected.
Maybe, Jesus is revealing, however, that being awake and ready
have little to do with knowing and such certainty.
Maybe, Jesus is revealing that being “snatched” and being “robbed”
are good things.
God become human, in Whom we live and move and have our being,
wants to save us from ourselves and our unhelpful, limiting certainties.
The “holy kidnapper-thief” wants to “steal” from us
that which can keep us from perfect communion with Him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and theologian
executed by the Nazis on April 8, 1945, says that
the celebration of Advent is really only possible when we know ourselves
to be poor and imperfect and look forward to something greater to come.
In this season of poorly bridled levels of consumption,
in which our credit card debts rise and our waistbands expand,
this is all good good news.
Thus, perhaps, instead of a list of things that we want Santa to bring,
a list of things that we want Christ to take: our preoccupation with stuff,
our self-centered fear, our resentments, our festivity excesses,
our indifference or our know-it-all-edness.
We look to the Second Coming, for we are made for the fullness of love.
Jesus is the reality of our lives.
His definitive Coming, His perfect, purifying embrace is thus central.
This gospel, then, inspires hope.
We know, in faith, that the Second Coming, will be really good.
We do not know, as this gospel tells us, when it will take place.
This un-knowing, however, frees us
to focus not on the event, but on the person of Jesus, the Christ,
which is how to be awake and ready.
Saint Teresa of Avila, Spanish reformer of the monastic life (d. 1582), says,
It is not so essential to think much as to love much.
Our degree of wakefulness and readiness for the Second Coming of Christ (and His daily coming) correspond to our degree of love.
Only love can meet Love.
Christ pours forth, in us, such divine love, for in the end,
only God can prepare us for God.
And so, during Advent, let us, as we do prepare for holiday celebrations,
acknowledge that a distracting saccharine emotionalism often clings to us,
as though eights maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, roasting chestnuts, candy canes and mistletoe will save us from the darkness of our lives.
These things are not bad, but they cannot and will not save us.
Jesus, Who comes and will come in glory, i.e. with the fulness of love, saves us.
Let us express our yearning for Him, often, wherever,
and, as Saint Paul exhorts, in today’s second reading,
“put on the armor of light and live honorably as in the day,”
knowing that He comes to us in a special way in Communion
and in myriad other ways, unexpectedly, more than we realize...
A Throne in my Brokenness
Christ the King 2022
The Church invites us to gaze upon Christ as our King, at the threshold of Advent.
Advent focuses us on the two comings of Christ:
in humble awe and gratitude of the First
and with expectant longing towards the Second.
Why this particular emphasis on Christ as King?
Perhaps because Christ is King from his birth and in His return?
The kingship of Jesus is difficult to grasp.
When we think kingship, or kingdom,
we typically think power, and understandably so.
We think of the kingdoms that we see,
of great rulers exercising power from without to maintain order.
And so, we might be inclined, perhaps secretly, to wish that Jesus, King,
would, with one power-ful, sweeping move, end all dis-order, all injustice:
from Isis to the Mexican cartel to those cruel to animals to those who litter.
Slow as I can be (!), just to begin to grasp Jesus’ kingship,
I needed an unexpected experience dropped into my lap:
the community of L’Arche, in Belgium, before I entered seminary.
L'Arche, French for the Ark—as in Noah,
creates homes in which mentally-challenged people
live with so-called “abled” people, who come to help
and actually discover their own brokenness and become involved in mutual care.
Jean Vanier, who founded the movement in 1964, writes,
We discover more and more that those rejected by society because of their weakness and their apparent uselessness are in fact a presence of God. If we welcome them, they lead us progressively out of the world of competition and the need to do great things toward a world of communion of hearts, a life that is simple and joyful where we do small things with love.
Jesus reigns from within, leading us toward communion of hearts,
toward a life that is simple and joyful where we do small things with big love.
Any power in Jesus’ reign
(and there is power, for He is all-powerful)
is at the service of love.
Ah, the difference between power and authority…
In John’s gospel, chapter 18, verse 36, we hear Jesus say,
My kingdom is not from this world.
If my kingdom were from this world,
my followers would be fighting to keep me
from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.
Jesus’ kingdom is clearly not about power,
not political—as we tend to understand “political” nowadays.
Jesus impacts the body politic, the social sphere like none other,
but, notice: mocked and treated with derision, He does not save Himself.
Jesus does not engage His disciples in resistance or rebellion,
in fighting to keep Him from being handed over to the Jews.
Why? Well, the Kingdom must be more…
Now, you may be thinking, what about the “work of justice”?
Dr. Cornel West, formerly of Harvard, professor at Union Theological Seminary,
says that “justice is what love looks like in public”.
Well, what is justice? There are currently many notions circulating.
The Archbishop of Edinburgh, Scotland says that
“there still exists…an attitude towards justice
which can only be described as a ‘culture of vengeance’.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas (+1274) puts it very simply:
“the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own.”
The Kingdom of God does not disregard such justice, such fairness.
But the Kingdom of God is more than life on earth being fair for all.
The Kingdom of God, therefore, cannot be reduced to the “work of justice.”
Why? Two reasons:
what may seem or even be unfair for sake of a greater good.
Unfairly suspended to the wood of the Cross, deliberately helpless,
Jesus introduces one of the criminals at his side into Paradise, the great good.
Jesus unjustly suffers and dies to love us into the mystery of God.
The Righteous One (Acts 22:14), crowned with thorns, is victorious.
As Saint Paul says (I Corinthians 13: 7), love endures all things.
The “work of justice”, carefully discerned, can be a way of welcoming it,
or better, can be an expression of the King reigning in our hearts.
For, in the end, as suggested, the Kingdom of God is Jesus, King, reigning in our hearts,
moving us then to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
In Luke 17, verse 20, we hear Jesus say, the kingdom of God is within you.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa
(+394, Father of the Church) tells us that
Blessedness does not lie in knowing something about God,
but rather in possessing God within oneself.
When you pray, Thy kingdom come, you give Jesus permission
to reign in your heart, in your tired, perhaps broken heart.
And when you think that nothing is happening, that you are worth less,
that you will not find the energy or the hope necessary to go forward,
know that the kingdom, the King is within you, loving you into the mystery of God.
We have every reason to hope and not be discouraged,
for, as the prophet Daniel (7:14) says,
His kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Best Friends For Ever and Ever
All Saints Day
Today we celebrate All the Saints,
as our first reading says, those who
receive and possess the kingdom for ever and ever.
and, as our second reading says,
who enjoy the riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance,
Brother and Sisters, officially recognized by the Church for their holiness,
i.e., their overflowing love and their wisdom.
This beautiful church building (restoration needed!) represents some of them.
Our mural, drawn into the Ascension of the Lord,
the Queen of Saints, Mary, in the center,
with whom stands, left to right,
Saints Thomas of Canterbury, Agnes, Athanasius,
Alban, Margaret of Scotland, Vincent.
(You can read about them in your bulletin…!)
In our clerestory, above us,
seventy-seven saints (the number of perfection, by the way, which Jesus gives when asked about forgiveness, i.e., the exercise of overflowing love).
At the end of our worship, we will call upon them in a Litany of Saints.
We are indeed preceded, surrounded, accompanied and loved
by those fully transfigured by the Holy One.
“I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Thank you, Apostles’ Creed.
This celebration, as you may know, dates to the early Church.
The first Christians celebrated the anniversaries of martyrs,
i.e., those who gave everything for and to their Lord, sure saints.
And the list of holy ones grew, and Christians continued to honor them,
recognizing that grace is not a shroud over darkness but transformative.
In the 300s, St. John Chrysostom spoke of a feast day for “all the saints”.
In the 600s, the Pantheon in Rome was consecrated to Mary and the martyrs.
In the 700s, a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter
was consecrated to all the saints and the anniversary set for November 1.
In the 800s, that local celebration was extended to the entire Church.
And, ever since, we have been celebrating the Lord’s wonders in the saints.
This may sound abstract, irrelevant, even boring: pious persons on pedestals?
We struggle to grasp how Jesus might work through others
—especially if they’re dead.
“I believe in the Communion of Saints.”
These are friends, who are alive, BFFs, best friends for ever--and ever!
And, as I’ve said before, in the divine realm, three’s company.
The Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, about this holy company, says:
It is quite a thing, really. That we be connected to so many, to so much faith, so many stories, so much divine love. Especially in this day and age of alienation and trying to find community and belonging in smaller and smaller ways. I may think that the basis of me being connected to other people is in having political beliefs or denominational affiliation or neighborhood or musical taste or Facebook groups in common. But none of this is what connects me to the Body of Christ. What connects me to the Body of Christ is not my piety or good works or even theological beliefs. It’s God, a God who gathers up all of His children into the Church eternal.
Today’s gospel, the beatitudes, reveals the lives and hearts of the saints and,
in the form of a promise, reveals God’s desire that we be saints,
transformed in love and closer to Him and one another than we can imagine.
The beatitudes are not a pep-talk for the downtrodden
nor a list of conditions for blessing.
They reveal Jesus lavishly blessing the world around him,
reaching into the fragility of our lives to give healing grace.
And nothing in us is an obstacle to this gift—except willful refusal.
Jesus is among us, in us, proclaiming beatitude, sharing God’s happiness,
even if we are not expecting it or looking for it.
Blessed are you who are unsure and doubt, for you will be surprised.
Blessed are you who feel overwhelmed and unable to engage anything new,
or have the impression that you have nothing to offer,
for you will find light and freshness.
Blessed are you for whom death is not an abstraction,
who weep after all this time the death of your beloved,
who can’t fall apart because you have to keep it together for everyone else, who feel lonely, fragile, who struggle with anger,
for you will find rest for your souls.
Blessed are all you kids,
especially every kid who just wants to feel safe but does not,
for you are loved and safe in Jesus’ arms.
Blessed are you whom no one else seems to notice,
who struggle to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners,
for you are the apple of His eye.
This sacred beatitude meal is for us,
for which the only condition is hunger, willingness.
The Eucharist, Communion: the broken and risen body of Christ given.
In celebrating all the saints, we really and ultimately celebrate Him,
the Holy One Who makes us holy by giving us new life, His life,
setting us free from whatever seems to keep us from loving:
backache, headache, stomach-ache, heartache,
Who, with all the saints,
brings us out of error into truth, sin into righteousness, death into life.
Your Faith Has Saved You
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost year C
Try to place yourself in this scene.
Ten persons with leprosy are approaching.
A mix of fear and compassion? A touch of repulsion, if we’re honest?
This is Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem, to the Cross.
This episode, this encounter, if I may offer a lens from the outset,
announces the love poured forth at the Cross.
Ten pained, physically deformed persons are the first to greet Jesus
as he enters this village somewhere between Samaria and Galilee.
The hospitality committee!
Why do they keep a distance, however, as they call out?
Because persons with leprosy were ostracized--by Law.
After a long description in Leviticus 13 of “defiling skin diseases”,
the following is declared in verses 45 and 46:
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes
and let the hair of his head be dishevelled;
and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’
He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
Leprosy is contagious
--and was considered a manifestation of sin and divine malediction.
Thankfully, since then, our theology has been deepened, nuanced, refined!
They cry for mercy, not explicitly for healing,
suggesting no sense of entitlement.
They simply want relief—in whatever form this Master might give it.
An important disposition of heart in our relationship with God...
Jesus, of course, responds, but, surprisingly, does not come close.
He had previously come close and, without hesitation, touched a leper:
Why the distance here?!?
Who more than these persons yearn to be touched?
Who more than Jesus knows their need for touch?
Perhaps it is that each healing is unique, uniquely personal.
Apparently, here, no need for conversation or gesture.
To their cry of distress and trust in His mercy,
Jesus says: Go and show yourselves to the priests.
Not terribly reassuring nor seemingly merciful.
The priests are not exactly bastions of mercy.
Enforcers of the law that makes of these persons outcasts!
These persons will offer a compelling testimony.
But there is more, discovered in considering that Jesus gives an order:
Go…to the priests.
An order is an invitation to obedience.
Love for God always entails obedience.
Why? Because God is, shall we say, really big (!), i.e. really intelligent.
Obedience, which leads to following,
entails acquiescence of the mind to and trust of the heart in someone bigger.
In giving an order, Jesus invites a deeper opening of mind and heart.
Jesus invites profound cooperation
—which, by the way, expresses Jesus’ great trust in them.
They obey, and on the way, are healed.
That they be healed on the way, and not in the presence of the priests,
It seems to reveal that more important than their important testimony,
is the gift to them of deeper opening of mind and heart.
There is indeed more than health and dignity restored.
There is divine intimacy.
This is about conversion not simply about healing.
we only really see this in the person in whom we might least expect it.
—which testifies amazingly to the power and gratuitousness of divine love.
The ten lepers were “buddies” for a time.
After their healing, however, that which they have in common gone,
a previous social distinction re-emerges.
They are no longer ten leprous buddies, but nine Jews and one Samaritan.
The latter remains a social outcast—no longer because of his physical leprosy but because of his “spiritual leprosy”.
As Samaritan, he is an outcast.
However, Jesus reveals that, in Him, these distinctions
don’t really mean anything: “neither Jew or Greek (or Samaritan!)…”
This one, “furthest” in a sense, enters most intimately into relationship.
Now, Jesus gives one “condition” for healing and conversion,
a condition not determined by our social distinctions.
A prerequisite to and already an expression of love.
The “outcast” seems to have been the most willing
and receives the gift most deeply.
Jesus closes the encounter by saying,
“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Jesus is the one who makes well, but there is always willing cooperation.
Saint Augustine (+430) tells us,
“God who created you without you, will not save you without you.”Even though a gift, by faith, we willingly cooperate.
Let us “get up and go”,
knowing that, as we journey by Jesus, with Jesus and in Jesus,
“if we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”
(second reading: II Timothy 2:13)
You belong to Him and He holds you tightly.
We have no reason to fear and every reason to hope.
Jesus Meets Us Right Where We Are
Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels 2022
An encounter of mercy, the type of encounter for which we all long…
Philip says to Nathanael, his brother or like unto a brother,
We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,
Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.
Nathanael responds, Can anything good come from Nazareth?
The question was an honest one, “no deceit”, not one riddled with cynicism.
Jesus’ name and lineage are consistent with the prophecies.
The place, however? Nazareth? The prophet Micah says,
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are not the least among the princes of Judah:
for out of you a ruler will come forth, who will rule my people Israel.
Philip, far from discouraged, but rather moved by Nathanael’s question,
invites Nathanael to experience: Come and see.
As if to say, also, Jesus is amazing beyond words.
In his question and in his going to Jesus, as Saint John Chrysostom
(+407, early Church Father, Archbishop of Constantinople—now Istanbul),
suggests, Nathanael showed his strong desire for Christ’s coming.
Jesus likes honest seeking!
Then, Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, and said of him,
‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’
In their encounter, Christ draws Nathanael to the faith, not by miracles,
but by making known things which are hidden.
A three-fold revelation:
When you were sitting under the fig tree, i.e., under the shadow of sin,
before you were called to grace, I saw you, with the eye of mercy.
A revelation that converts Nathanael’s heart, leading him to words of praise:
Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!
ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
Jesus intends, always, further to share Himself, God, including by the angels.
Bless the Lord, you angels of his, you mighty ones who do his bidding.
(today’s Psalm 103:20).
Speaking of angels, on this feast of Saint Michael, the Archangel, and All Angels,
(celebrated since the early Church)
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, French monk, theologian, poet, died in 1153, says:
We should show our affection for the angels, for one day they will be our co-heirs just as here below they are our guardians and trustees appointed and set over us by the Father.
How easily we forget these invisible companions…
Jesus meets us right where we are.
An encounter of mercy, the type of encounter for which we all long…
How we long for Jesus to know and hold our tired, perhaps broken, or happy hearts.
How we long for Jesus to see our complex past.
How we long for Jesus to promise that He will reveal more of Himself to us,
further opening the treasures of His love to us.
In a few moments, Jesus will meet Elizabeth Askonas anew, right where she is,
unaware of what is happening, with her heart open, however,
not by deliberate choice, but by virtue of her childhood.
The parents and godparents choose for her.
That is how the mystical Body of Christ, the Church works.
Her Baptism testifies to the unconditional nature of encounter with Christ.
Jesus doesn’t come only when we choose him as our personal Lord and Savior.
He comes before we choose, in response to the many cries of our heart.
An choosing Him is a gift of grace,
that opens the door more widely and deepens the intimacy.
Jesus always takes the initiative:
You did not choose me but I chose you. (John 15:16)
Not that we loved God but that he loved us. (I John 4:10)
An encounter of mercy, the type of encounter for which we all long…
Jesus Loving His Broken Church
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross
September 11, 2022
The official name, in some circles, for today’s feast:
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
Its sounds very, well, exalted, removed, perhaps vague,
to disappear from your mental landscape a few bites into brunch.
Let’s be honest!
This feast has its origin in Jerusalem
and is connected with the finding of what is believed to be the True Cross
by the mother of Emperor Constantine, Saint Helena, in 320.
For our celebration, we try to see with eyes of faith.
We go from the many symbols,
to an acknowledgment of the exteriorly terrifying event of the Crucifixion
(which we obviously did not witness!)
to Jesus pouring forth His love,
in an incredible, incredibly humbling gift of Himself.
This love, divine love, is eternal and, therefore, is still poured forth.
Herein lies the mystery of the Cross.
From symbol to event to mystery.
I, when lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Saint Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who died in Auschwitz,
offering his life in the stead of a married man with children, says
The Cross is the school of love.
Saint Augustine, Bishop in Northern Africa, died in 430,
reads divine love in the event as related through Scripture and Tradition:
He bows His head, as if to kiss you.
His heart is made bare, open, as it were, in love to you.
His arms are extended that He may embrace you.
The Cross is the unexpected vehicle for God drawing all people to Himself,
for divine love poured forth.
The Cross is unexpected because it is at the intersection
of betrayal, hatred, sadness, exhaustion and rejection that Jesus loves us.
Who does this?!?
The Cross is so unexpected that, as Saint Paul tells us, it is
a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (I Corinthians 1:23).
Because divine love poured forth, however, the Cross can change
our sufferings into expressions of love for God and mercy for our neighbor.
I, when lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
We gather not simply to remember or “find ourselves in God’s story”
but to experience.
We always come to church to experience.
We gather as Christ’s disciples
to say “yes” to this attraction that is God’s initiative,
to experience the divine love still poured forth.
This love is why there is still a Christian Church, after all these years.
She is not exactly unified, but She is still here!
We Christians even have sometimes done our best to terminate Her:
sectarianism, indifference to grace and one another, scandals…
Divine love shall not be nullified, however,
by our inability to live up to life abundant in Christ.
It is not always easy to believe and, truth be told,
the temptation to jump ship can be strong at times.
We do often pine for a perfect Church, for “spiritual not religious”.
Queen Elizabeth II said on Christmas in 2011, at age 85:
Although we are capable of great acts of kindness,
history teaches us that we need saving from ourselves ...
God sent into the world a unique person,
neither a philosopher nor a general ...
but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
Let us put our trust in Christ Crucified, our Saviour Who forgives,
Who is not discouraged by our messes, Who keeps showing up despite us,
Who says that, where two or more are gathered, who can get things wrong,
are reticent to get involved, who even triangulate or gossip about each other,
He is there.
If we wish to be together, as called, as joined by divine love,
the “religious” and its messiness are inevitable.
The “spiritual”, the perfect Church, is present, deep inside us,
where Christ freely dwells.
Against the Church, as Jesus promises, “the gates of hell shall not prevail.”
Jesus is here with a power not our own, the power of His Cross,
the power of reconciliation for people who keep others at a distance
because of language, political affiliation, skin color, disability, history,
people who thus do not deserve such presence and power.
Jesus is here abidingly in the bread and wine, the Eucharist,
here in the stranger sitting 10 feet behind you,
here, loving His broken Church into everlasting life.
And, we rejoice.
Fall into Love’s Embrace
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2022
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself,
cannot be my disciple.
Am I to conclude that when I was 12-years-old
and I told my parents that I hated them,
it was actually one of my better moments,
I was unknowingly at the threshold of truer Christian discipleship?
Hate — such an ugly word, because such an ugly attitude of heart.
Once again, what is Jesus saying?!?
No more Mr. Nice Guy?
Is this simply a rare glimpse of Jesus’ darker side?
If so, at this point, there may be a few other religions looking rather attractive!
How does one reconcile such hate with I John 4:8: “God is love”?
And with subsequent Christian insights, based on this revelation,
like that of Brother Roger Schutte, who died in 2005,
founder of the beautiful ecumenical monastic Community of Taizé, France
who says, Our hope is in God,
a God who simply loves and can do nothing else,
a God who never stops seeking us.
Let’s take a closer look, always leaning on such theological patrimony.
The discourse does open and close with strong, very unsettling statements.
These statements, in turn,
frame two examples that Jesus gives of “prudential planning”
What is discipleship?
There are two obvious aspects to discipleship:
In other words, true discipleship is always loving.
Jesus says in John’s gospel 15:15,
I no longer call you servants; I call you friends,
for I have told you everything I have heard from the Father.
Paraphrased: “I give you all that is in my heart”.
With these two parables about prudence,
i.e. about discerning right means to a specific end,
Jesus invites us to discern right means to the end that is loving discipleship.
And so, I can ask myself:
what human means do I have at my disposal
to live in communion with Christ and follow him?
My network? My bank account? My degree? My cleverness? My stamina?
My social media savvy? My well-tuned public persona? My decent track record?
How about my sense of right and wrong or my creative intuitions?
Strictly speaking, I am at a loss regarding how
to live in communion with Christ and follow him.
Jesus here is, really, provoking, by means of extreme statements,
the discovery that we cannot be disciples of our own means and doing.
Jesus clearly articulates this earlier in the same John 15, verse 5:
Apart from me you can do nothing.
Jesus, of course, is not talking about the many human things that we can do—like make French toast, spend money, raise kids, or even manage a business.
Jesus is talking about relationship and discipleship with Him.
Jesus makes of us disciples.
As God says through the prophet Isaiah, chapter 55:9,
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways.
Which surely informs Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian
killed in the Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945:
Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend;
it must transcend all comprehension.
Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension.
In this gospel, Jesus reveals the absoluteness of His person and presence
and reveals the only way to enter into relationship with Him
and thus to be a true disciple:
who died from tuberculosis at age 24 in 1897, says,
Love consumes us only in the measure of our self-surrender.
This is a question not of will-power but of willingness.
And this, as suggested, is a gift.
Jesus touches us from start to finish, on the front end and the back end.
In allowing Christ free reign, we are drawn into the mystery of the Cross, “God so loving the world” (John 3:16).
This is the deeper reality of discipleship.
Christian discipleship is not behavioral imitation of Jesus from afar.
Jesus says—with no warm and fuzzy in sight!--
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”, “Carry the cross” of course, means
to accept daily hardship as part of our journey in Christ’s footsteps.
But, more deeply, Jesus is referring to His Cross
(which we will celebrate in a special way next Sunday, the feast of…),
the mystery of Him pouring Himself forth in love, loving through death.
To “carry the cross” is willingly to be drawn into this mystery.
This will imply accepting hardship.
But, more importantly, it means letting Jesus visit and love me in my hardship
and then lead me to love there where I never thought it possible.
Let us willingly yield and fall into Love’s embrace...
“Lord, Teach Us to Pray!”
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
In this exchange with Jesus, the disciples’ request, in a sense, nails it.
A request that most of us have, and either are afraid or simply don’t think to make
or whose response seems dissatisfying or altogether not granted.
Well, look no further, wait no longer.
The disciples have been observing Jesus pray,
i.e., “practice” His intimacy with the Father, and they want to know how to do it.
Now, the disciples are observant Jews, and so do pray.
But there must have been something qualitatively compelling about Jesus’ prayer.
When I try to pray, what on earth (what in heaven) am I doing? Seriously.
How are we to pray? Kneeling, standing, waving our arms?
Are we better slumped in a pew or lying down? Aloud or silently? How?!?
Jesus responds to the request with a version
of the prayer we traditionally call the “Our Father”, the Lord’s Prayer.
(Luke includes 5 petitions, as distinguished from Matthew
who includes 7 petitions, which is what we typically pray).
Now, Saint Paul, in the second reading, reveals truths that shed light on prayer:
you have received Christ Jesus the Lord…live your lives in him,
rooted in him…established in the faith…abounding in thanksgiving.
Prayer is about receiving Christ, living in Christ, rooting ourselves in Christ, believing in Christ, believing Christ, thanking Christ.
And we pray, knowing, as Jesus says in the second part of this gospel,
Recall the words of Saint Paul in Romans 8:26, We do not know how to pray…
but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
We don’t know how to pray and Jesus gives us this “model” prayer,
which reveals focus and order in prayer.
Jesus does not simply give us words to say.
Matthew Henry, to quote again, 17th-century English Presbyterian minister,
says that the two versions of this Prayer suggest
that it was not the design of Christ that we should be tied up to these very words.
Jesus does not give us a religious formula or technique.
Strictly speaking, Jesus does not teach the disciples how to pray.
Jesus teaches them (and us) who to pray and what to pray.
Jesus teaches where, to Whom, we direct our minds and hearts, in faith, hope, love.
St. John Damascene (Syrian monk +750, December 4 feast on the Church calendar)
says that prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God.
(Defide orth. 3,24:PG 94,1089C).
There is nothing formulaic about the raising of one's mind and heart to God.
Prayer is essentially a great expression of, call it, divine desire.
Let us then just begin to peel back a few layers of this unique prayer.
Father: the Source of us and of all that exists, Whom we cannot adequately name.
“Father” precisely signifies transcendent Source; it does not signify maleness
If we bear this in mind, we will not be tempted to side-step it!
“Hallowed by your name”
We are not trying to flatter God or wish God well.
In the Bible, the name signifies the person.
Thus: Hallowed be You, holy are You, God.
As the theologian who shaped Richard Hooker,
a founder of Anglican theological thought, Thomas Aquinas says
“By holy we signify the purity of divine goodness.”
(cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, Q. 36, art. 1, resp. 1)
Thus: Hallowed, only good is your name, only good You are.
“Your kingdom come”
We are not primarily asking God to bring about a certain way of life on earth.
This petition can be restated:
“You, King, reign in us; fill us with your love and light.”
St. Cyprian (Bishop, North Africa, +258) says,
The Kingdom of God means Christ Himself. (De Dom., orat. 13: PL 4, 528A)
Then, after these petitions, desiring union with God, the indwelling of Christ,
we petition with respect to ourselves.
Petitioning for ourselves is not trying to twist God’s arm—which He doesn’t have!
“Give us each day our daily bread.”
We perhaps ask at least three things of God:
“Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
Wait a minute!
Our being forgiven follows our forgiveness of others?!? Are you kidding me?!
Well, remember that prayer is a great expression of divine desire.
We ask forgiveness with hearts willing to forgive.
And with such hearts, as Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber phrases it, we pray, “Lord,
Forgive us when we hate what you love. Forgive us when we would rather anesthetize ourselves than feel anything. Forgive us for how much we resent in others the same things we hate in ourselves. Forgive us for the terrible things we think about our own bodies. And, this one is hard, please forgive us for thinking we know the hearts of our enemies.
“Do not bring us to the time of trial.”
In Matthew 24, Jesus speaks of great trial or tribulation before His Second Coming.
Now, God does not subject anyone to any trial, although He surely allows trial.
So, we’re not saying to God, “No bad moods, and so no trial!”
We are asking to be spared the trial, any trial, and, if not spared, most importantly,
to remain focused on Him, and remain loving in the midst of trial.
Prayer is not putting a quarter into a vending machine called God.
Prayer is not romantic.
Prayer is not primarily about me, yet it engages me more than any other act,
grabbing hold of the guts of my life,
with its contradictions, its pain, it weariness, its beauty.
Prayer, really, is made possible by the Holy Spirit.
Every time we receive the Eucharist, we receive a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Thank you, Jesus.
Third Sunday after Pentecost
This gospel is not an easy read.
It’s not far-fetched to read Jesus whiney, Jesus insensitive, Jesus rude.
So, let’s embrace the uneasiness and read.
Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”.
This recalls the Prophet Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, a prefiguration of Jesus, who, in his suffering, says, “I have set my face like flint.” (Isaiah 50:7)
In commenting on this passage, Saint Bede (depicted in our clerestory!),
English Benedictine monk, who died in 735, says
“Jesus, going voluntarily to be crucified, sought with steadfast face, that is,
with resolute and undaunted mind, the spot where He was to be crucified.”
Jesus is on mission possible, mission certain, that no one will thwart,
in the light of which only can we understand these interactions.
In Jerusalem He will lay down His life, a self-offering
of immeasurable love into which we are drawn, by which we are saved.
There is an urgency and a gravity that informs and colors everything.
Two disciples, “messengers”, James and John, go ahead.
When, for the inhospitality, they want to destroy the village people,
Jesus rightly rebukes them.
Jesus’ subsequent encounters, however, are disturbing.
To the person who eagerly wants to follow him,
Jesus responds, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
To the person who movingly wants to bury his father and
then follow him, Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
To the person who touchingly wants first to say farewell to those at home and then follow him, Jesus responds, “No one who puts a hand
to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
My interpretive presumption, when Jesus seems to be harsh,
is that he knows his interlocutor, he knows the person he is engaging,
and that he/she can hear the demands of divine love in full, strong terms.
Not that divine love invites or warrants harshness
or negligence of duty towards family!
But being truly loving is more than being nice.
And the love that Jesus communicates directly from the heart of God,
so to be received as given, demands that we place no conditions. Unconditional love must be met with unconditional love.
This seems to be the point.
If so, Jesus surely invites us this morning to look into our hearts,
to see if there may be a few “Yes, but”….
An invitation to honesty, an invitation, however, that we need not fear.
As our reading from Galatians suggests,
we already belong to Christ and He has set us free
by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit Whom He has given to us.
Jesus has us covered from pre-start to finish. We must simply be willing.
If we forget this,
we may conclude that the Christian life is not for us.
Or we may settle for our own small version of it: just being nice.
There really is, however, no small version of it.
The Christian life is a relationship with Christ, a total life
and He wants all of me—good and bad.
The surrender of ‘all’ to Jesus, thankfully, is not something I do on my own.
If it were, I would conclude that the Christian life is not for me
and walk right out those doors.
St. Jeanne de Chantal (there is a parish named after her in Bethesda, MD)
was a French baroness, widowed in 1601 at age 28, with four children.
Imagine. And no cell phone to navigate her distress.
Her husband’s accidental death led her to consecrate her life to Christ, anew.
She eventually founded an order of nuns, the Congregation of the Visitation. She says, “Keep your eyes on God and leave the doing to Him.
That is all the doing you have to worry about.”
Saint Dominic Savio was from northern Italy, born in 1842.
At age four, his parents would already find him praying in solitude.
He contracted a lung disease as an adolescent.
On his deathbed, his final words were,
“Goodbye, Dad, goodbye ... Oh, what wonderful things I see...”
He was fourteen, the only adolescent declared a saint
not for having been a martyr, but for having simply lived a holy life.
He too acknowledges that this total relationship is God’s doing.
He says, “Ask Jesus to make you a saint. After all, only He can do that.”