Dear Friends, below find a homily from Pastor Dick Dahl who stood in for me last Sunday as I was away completing our Christmas celebration with our immediate family. Our gratitude to Pastor Dick for covering for me and for this wonderful homily–and my apologies for my lateness in getting it out to you!–Pastor Kathy
On New Year’s eve I had the pleasure of being invited to dinner at the home of friends whom I know through the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship. After dinner we watched the movie “The Two Popes.” In it there are flashbacks to 1976 to 1983, when the Argentinian military dictatorship took thousands into custody, tortured, and who “disappeared,” never to be heard from again. During that time our present Pope Francis whose name was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was head of the Jesuits in Buenos Aires. To appease the generals, he told two of his priests to stop working with the poor in the slums but which they refused to do. By his censuring of them, they lost the protection of the Church and were taken into custody and tortured for many months. Bergoglio came to recognize his sin in not standing up for them. He was sent to live and serve among the poor in a small village. In a moving scene when he first arrived to celebrate Mass with them, he sat down in front of them and said, “I have nothing to tell you. I need to listen to what you have to teach me.” The Holy Spirit opened his understanding and his heart to a new awareness as he found Jesus in the poor and the outcasts of society.
In these first days of a New Year we see Jesus beginning something new–his public life, after three decades of living in obscurity. He entered the water of the Jordan with others to be baptized by John. Despite John’s protestations, Jesus did this to act out his identification with all who are sinners. He then went into the desert for forty days where the Spirit prepared him for his life especially in reaching out to the marginalized—lepers, the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame, prostitutes, tax collectors, even a Roman soldier whose daughter was dying.
It is no wonder that early Christians found the Servant songs in Isaiah, such as the one in our first reading today, to be describing Jesus:
“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I am pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out, nor shout, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”
We find a similar process of new understanding in chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles from which we heard a few verses in today’s second reading. It dramatically describes a member of the occupying Roman army whose name was
Cornelius. He was a centurion who commanded 100 archers in the Italica cohort. Despite this, he is described as a man who prayed constantly and gave alms generously to the Jewish people. The Spirit came to Cornelius in a vision and called him to send some of his men to Joppa, a city by the sea, more than a day’s journey away, to find a man named Simon Peter and to bring that man to him.
At at the same time the Spirit told Peter in a vision that the Centurion’s men were coming to get him and he was to go willingly with them. When the group finally arrived in Caesaria and came to Cornelius, the centurion fell down in reverence before Peter who immediately told him to get up–that he Peter is a human just like the centurion. Peter then described how God anointed Jesus with the Spirit and power, how Jesus went about doing good and healing the afflicted, how Jesus was put to death nailed to a tree but rose from death and was seen by witnesses who even ate and drank with him.
While Peter was speaking the Spirit fell on all who were listening. Peter was astounded that the gift of the Spirit had been poured on on these Gentiles. He exclaimed, “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”
So the readings today powerfully reveal the way God has continued through to bring about change and an ever more inclusive awareness of his presence in and love for all people. The Spirit came upon Jesus and prepared him for his ministry when Jesus emerged from the Jordan. Moved by the Spirit Jesus broke norms of rigidity and by his actions he showed God’s preference for the poor and outcasts. In the same way the Spirit led people in the early Christian community like Peter and Paul to see God in the lives of people different from them.
Bergoglio was also led by the Spirit to find Christ in the poor, the helpless, the outcasts the imprisoned. As Pope he is now teaching and urging us to do the same—to recognize Jesus in people different from us, to see beyond distinctions of status, culture, politics and religion. In his recent Christmas message Francis denounced rigidity in the Church. He warned that “rigidity” in living one’s faith is creating a “minefield” of hatred and misunderstanding in a world where Christianity is increasingly irrelevant. He declared, “Tradition is not static, it’s dynamic.”
The Spirit, promised to us by Jesus, enables us to be more open, to recognize him in those who look, think and act differently from what we are comfortable with. I think it is well summed up in a recent daily meditation sent by Father Richard Rohr in which he quotes the thoughts of his friend and colleague Brian McLaren who has spent the last two decades passionately advocating for “a new kind of Christianity.” Brian identifies shifts Christianity must make if it wants to serve as a universal path of spiritual transformation. The first shift is to become “decentralized and diverse.” Brian writes, “In other words, it will have the shape of a movement rather than an institution. It will be drawn together . . . by internal unity of way of life, mission, practices, and vision for the common good. . . .
“This, of course, was Jesus’ original approach. He never announced to his disciples: ‘Hey folks, we’re going to start a new, centralized, institutional religion and name it after me.’ Instead, he played the role of a nonviolent leader and launched his movement with the classic words of movement, “Follow me” He used his power to empower others. He did great things to inspire his followers to do even greater things Rather than demand uniformity, he reminded his disciples that he had “sheep of other folds” He recruited diverse disciples who learned…his core vision and way of life. Then he sent these disciples out as apostles to teach and multiply his vision and way of life among ‘all the nations’.”
So, as we proceed in this new year, with the hope it brings, I suggest that like Peter in his meeting with the centurion Cornelius, and Bergoglio’s immersion in the slums of the poor, that we seek to be open to the dynamic presence and enlightening action of the Spirit in our lives. Let us recognize the Jesus in people we consider outsiders, the ones we tend not to identify with, perhaps even people we may in all honesty not like. These are likely the ones we need to humbly approach as Bergoglio did, to learn from and pay attention to.
Along with a lesbian friend from the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, I host at Bethany, the Catholic Worker House, twice a month. In all honesty I usually do not look forward to going there for my 3:30 to 8 PM shifts. I go there because it is the place I believe I find Jesus as surely as I would in the tabernacle of a church.
This past week, one of the men who comes there daily for a meal is in his 70s and looks even older. He has been homeless since last summer and goes to the Warming Center to sleep. The Warming Center doesn’t open until 9 PM and Bethany House closes at 8 PM. So I have given him a ride to McDonalds downtown where for a dollar one can buy a cup of coffee and stay in a warm place for an hour. Several times I have given him the necessary dollar, but this past Wednesday he had some money. He was sharing the few dollars he had dollars with a couple others who also needed to go to McDonalds before the Warming Center opened. One was a woman in her early 40’s who had just been released from five months in jail and knew no one in Winona. The old man not only gave her a dollar, but when it looked like she had no gloves, offered her the warm pair he had. It turned out she did not need them, but I was struck by his generosity. I saw Jesus in him.
I’d like to close with a prayer for our community that Father Rohr has posted with his meditations this week:
O Great Love, thank you for living and loving in us and through us. May all that we do flow from our deep connection with you and all beings. Help us become a community that vulnerably shares each other’s burdens…. Listen to our hearts’ longings for the healing of our world.. . . Knowing you are hearing us better than we are speaking, we offer these prayers in all the holy names of God, Amen.