Homily – 4th Weekend of Advent

My friends, with this weekend, we are drawing ever closer to our celebration, in memory, of the greatest act of love ever—our God choosing to be one-with-us and the name for this gift is, Emmanuel!

Our Scriptures for this week, tell us in no uncertain terms, from the very beginning that this is not a static thing—God coming among us, but one that calls for a response from each one of us who say that we believe.

Isaiah instructs the Israelites to basically ask God for a sign to know that God indeed is involved in their lives—a sign that will give them hope to persevere even when they are put down by enemies, all around, as was the case at this time.

Whether the Israelites fear getting involved with God, we don’t know, but we see that they are reluctant to ask for the sign that will confirm that indeed, “God is with them!” Asking for a sign seems to indicate a willingness to do something and Isaiah’s irritation seems to be about that reluctance.  He almost seems to be saying, “Don’t complain if you aren’t willing to do anything!”

Perhaps we can understand their reluctance if we reflect on our own lives and our reluctance at times, to draw closer to God.  If we become involved with God, does it then mean that a response will be expected of us?  It would seem so.

Isaiah, in his frustration with the people says, “ I will give you a sign,” then,  so that you will see, will know, and will believe, how much our God does love you—“a young woman will be with child” [give birth and name the child, “God-with-us!”]

Matthew, in today’s gospel, through an angel to Joseph, says the child will be called Jesus, a name that means, “savior.”

If we do accept this testimony on faith, of those before us—of prophets, of Mary and Joseph, then Paul’s letter to the Romans says to us as it did to them, that we are to be “favored as apostles.”  And Paul clearly sees being an apostle as a good thing and spent his life after his conversion demonstrating it.  For him it included shipwrecks, imprisonment, misunderstandings, but also the sense, at the end of his life, that he had, “fought the good fight.”

At this time of year, as we ponder the story of Mary and Joseph and their “yeses” to God; we realize that their calls to be prophets; followers of a dream bigger than themselves, was also not without cost.  They are both wonderful models for us of people of faith and of people who responded in love to having first been loved by God.

And what about us?  Does our faith, our belief in Jesus call us to love, to action beyond ourselves?  Paul tells the Romans, and us by extension, that we are, “beloved of God and called [thus] to holiness.”

And what does holiness consist of?

  • Standing up for those on the margins of our society who can’t stand for themselves—doing what we can, realizing that but for the grace of God, that could be us?
  • Standing up for values that reflect the true spiritual natures a part of each of us—values like truth and justice in a society at present, in some sectors, that is pushing toward the lowest common denominator?
  • Being willing to stand alone, if need be, to speak truth to power wherever we find that power?
  • Being willing to reflect on our lives, searching for the answers to local, national and international problems that shine a light on, and uplift—in the end, the answers that are about goodness, kindness, truth, fair play, justice, and ultimately, love, regardless of any impediments that may stand in the way?

Yes, yes, yes and yes to all of the above!

Advent and Christmas time call each of us to truly be holy and holiness is not about following hollow rules and regulations devoid of love, but about the “messy stuff” of life—risking friendships and family relationships perhaps to finally, finally, at the end of the day, do the right thing!

That is why the Incarnation is such an awesome thing!  Our God, in human form, chose to come among us for no other reason than that we would finally understand that we are loved!  Think of people you have known in your life or have heard of whose lives didn’t go well for any number of reasons.  Many times the disconnections, the inability to live productively and become their best selves can be traced back to a lack of love at key times in life.

So friends, as we move through these last days of Advent-waiting, let us try and perhaps consider who those people are in our lives or maybe those who need some extra love at this time and then be the one who gives it! Maybe these people are those in our own families who we may have been separated from in the past over a misunderstanding—maybe even because of a down-right hurt inflicted upon us.

Maybe during this great season of love; we can attempt an act of love that may not be appreciated or acknowledged except by God, but we will know we have done the right thing because it was motivated by love.

Christmas time calls each of us to our best and this “best” is so needed today, in our world, here and now. It has been said, “When you are deciding what to do in a particular situation and you aren’t sure of the right way to go,  decide with your heart as the heart is much wiser than the head.”  Amen? Amen!

 

 

Homily – Gaudete Sunday–3rd Sunday of Advent

My friends, this is Gaudete Sunday, or in more common language, “Joy Sunday.”  Ever since the Second Vatican Council, when some “windows were opened,” and our liturgical practices were updated, the Season of Advent became more about “hope” as we awaited the coming, in memory, of course, of Jesus, our brother, into our lives.

In the past, before Vatican II, the seasons of Advent and Lent were traditionally known as seasons of penitence.  With the Council and Advent becoming more about hope, and rightly so, this change was signified by the use of blue vestments as a way to distinguish it from the theme of penitence traditional for the season of Lent and identified by the color, purple.

The idea of hope in the Incarnation became the dominant theme for Advent. The color blue was one that signified royalty, creation and was, in some part, in deference to Mary and what her presence in Salvation History truly meant.

The Catholic church has always been rich, in its rituals, signifying a deeper meaning for us to reflect on:  purple signifies penitence—but also, royalty, green indicates hope, red is used for martyrs and the coming of the Spirit, white and gold for joy and new life, and blue—a special time of joy and hope. With Vatican II, black was left by the wayside, as it signified death and was used for funerals—only now the focus was placed on new life, so white became the color for funerals.

A curious thing happened during the long papacy of John Paul II.  Everyone knew that he was against the changes of Vatican II,   or became aware of it during his 28-year reign, because he systematically “walked back” the changes, “closing [most] windows” to the fresh air of change, established during this sea-change Council.

Recently I read an explanation of the Advent colors wherein the source explained that either purple or blue were acceptable choices.  Another piece stated that the Advent wreath had no connection to liturgical colors of the Church, represented in the vestments of the priest and for Advent, it is purple.

Now, I am here to say that this is simply wrong! As I said earlier, the Catholic church has always been significant in its rituals, showing us as followers the way to go and it does matter that everything for each season has a common theme.  Most true liturgists and celebrants know this, so to say that a parish can choose between purple or blue for the Advent wreath when clearly the vestment worn in many churches today is purple, putting aside the vision of Vatican II, makes no liturgical, ritual sense.

Now, if you are thinking that I am perhaps protesting too much, I would have to disagree.  Advent is meant to give us hope, not throw us into a time of penitence lamenting on how terrible we are.  Let’s remember and our Church fathers should too, that our loving God incarnated among us out of sheer love—no other reason, and that is a cause to rejoice, not beat our breasts! Thus, “blue” depicts this much better than does purple.

And just a word on the place of Mary in the Advent Season—something most men in leadership of the Church won’t mention, because as we know, to them, women, as a group, are not held in high esteem.  It is so much easier to relegate Mary to the shadows, and by connection, all women, then to uplift them as the strong, dedicated, visionary, and yes, “called” people that they are.  And blue is a much better color to indicate this awareness.

We should not lose our focus—the Church gives us these distinctive, definitive colors to help us keep our focus in each liturgical season of the Church Year.  That focus should not be set aside over issues of power and control, a main theme of the papacy of John Paul II.

So, an action item for those of you who attend a traditional Catholic parish alongside ours, is if you see the color purple used during Advent, ask the pastor to explain “why” to your satisfaction.

My friends, on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, when we are encouraged to “ramp up” the joy, in this season of joy and hope, signified by the white candle; what do the prophets have to say?

Isaiah, preaching to the Israelite people, who are feeling that if they ever needed a “messiah,” it is now, encourages them with the words, “God is coming!” He continues with the words, “Courage, do not be afraid!”

Understandably, the people would have asked, “How will we know this?”  “When you see that the eyes of the blind are opened, the ears of the deaf are cleared, the lame leap like the deer and the mute sing for joy”—the time is near, Isaiah says.

Our brother in the faith, John the Baptist—in prison, experiencing true humanity, begins to despair and sends word to Jesus whom he earlier, in fact, proclaimed to be, the Messiah, asking if indeed, he truly is!  Jesus the prophet can do nothing more effective than remind John of Isaiah’s words:  the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the Good News preached to them!  Joy and gladness are the operative words for this season—without a doubt, and blue is the color for that!

And James, in his usual, simple way says that, “We must be patient,” that our models must be the prophets.

So, to conclude my friends—Advent, this whole season, calls us to hope, in big ways, and this Sunday—rightly so, allows us to begin being joyful, in earnest.  We ask the question too, along with John—as we experience our own depressed and sad times, wondering when the blind might see, the deaf might hear and new life come to us all, in our country, in our world.

And the answer, Jesus has already given and we my friends—must hear it—“Blessed [are] the ones who find no stumbling block in me!”

Jesus makes a point of praising John the Baptist in today’s gospel proclaiming that, “no person, born of woman is greater than John!” And having said that, he continued—“yet, the least born into this kindom is greater than he!”

What can we make of that? Only one thing—our God holds us, each of us, in great esteem and knows what we are capable of! This is something we can’t take lightly.

And this is why I come down hard on our Church fathers for “muddying the waters” as far as practice and ritual are concerned, taking from themselves and us clear signs about what our faith is all about simply to protect their power and perhaps, “the way it was.”

When we allow the waters to be muddied with themes during Advent pushing us toward Jesus’ inevitable crucifixion “due to our sinfulness” instead of concentrating on his human fragility in becoming one of us in poverty—challenging all of us to be aware of such inequality in our midst; we do the faithful a disservice.

When we fail to see that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were immigrants in a foreign land as so many are in our country today, not making the connection between the two, we do the faithful a disservice.

When we fail to see that Mary has been relegated to the shadows as a pure virgin, instead of as an unwed mother as the people of her time no doubt saw her and fail to make the connection to the second-class status of all women in our world today, we do the faithful a disservice.

When we fail to understand that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were most probably dark-skinned humans in the time and place that they lived and not make the connection to the evil of white supremacy in our world, we do the faithful a disservice.

If we do not make these connections then the awesomeness of the Incarnation loses its true meaning! Our Church and world are longing, I feel, to hear the silent voices of Church leaders on any number of issues, and instead, we get muddied theology and ritual that has little to do with the world in which we live.  As we said last week, “lamb and lion stuff!”  Amen? Amen!

Homily – 2nd Sunday of Advent

Friends, with this 2nd Sunday of Advent, we, as followers of our brother, Jesus, are called in rich and profound ways “to prepare the way for our God,” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth whose coming into our existence, we remember in a special way at Christmas.  It is worth the effort, if we do nothing else during these four weeks of preparation, to spend some time reflecting on this one historic, theological fact—that our God thought enough of us to come and live our life so that we would know how much his Abba—read, “Loving Parent” loves each of us!

From the cries of John the Baptist, “to make straight all paths,” leading to God, to requests from Paul that we all, “live in perfect harmony, with one heart and one voice,” to Isaiah’s detailed recitation of what our human existence could look like if we did live in accordance with God’s ways—“the wolf dwelling with the lamb, the calf and young lion grazing together, with a little child guiding them,” we have ample reason to pursue such a course.

When we see the representation on Christmas cards of such a time of peace, the lamb and the lion grazing together, we smile and usually think, “Well, that’s nice and sweet, but it will never happen!”

The psalm response today, “Justice will flower in their days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more,” is again the same type of thought.

So, is all of this a pipe dream or is there truly any possibility of such justice, such peace, such goodness in our world?

And my friends, all I can say is that it’s like trying to “see God” in our world; we have to be more attentive, look deeper, ponder more, have eyes and ears open to all that is around us, in people, in people’s lives, to see that there is great reason to hope in this Season of Hope.

Our God, in Jesus, came to renew our hope and let us know that peace upon this earth is possible, if we all work together, to make it so!  Let me just share some things that I have seen recently, and others that I am aware of that give me great hope that our world, and specifically, our country is striving after the pipe dream of justice and peace for all.

  • On a very personal note, I know our community has Eric and Pat on their hearts and in their petitions to our God these days as Eric is struggling day to day for his life.
  • We have a group of faith-filled folks who meet here in Winona each week to write Congress people and others in positions of power, asking, begging, imploring them to act on their principles and do what is needed for the good of all in our country. I like the fact too that they write notes of thanks in response to work well done in that regard.
  • Our wonderful city of Winona has been working diligently this past year through an interfaith circle of churches, ours included, to address the issue of homelessness here, making great strides through much community support to double the capacity of our Warming Center, giving overnight shelter to the homeless during the coldest months, November through March, along with several other entities looking at ways, “to fill in the gaps,” so to speak, in coverage, for those in need. In addition, these groups are looking at the possibility of more year-round assistance to the homeless—all reasons to hope.
  • And with regard to gratitude; I have great hope as well with the process going on in Washington at this time. From a purely, ethical, Christian, and moral stance—wrong is wrong and at some point people must decide that they will move beyond politics and personal gain to do the right thing.  So, no matter the end result and whether it is politically good or not for those bringing the action, it is the right thing to do because evil triumphs when good people remain silent!  I see this very much as a step toward the “lamb lying down with the lion.”

You may have to think about that a bit—but what we are talking about here is once again, being our best selves, reaching for that pipe dream, that we may never see in our life time, but knowing that we did our part just the same to make it so.

These are the kinds of small things that former president, Jimmy Carter was speaking of in the Sunday school class we were privileged to attend. No one thing will be enough, but all the small things, like “paying forward” a kindness for a good turn, just being more aware of all the ways that people suffer in this world and doing our small part—“lamb and lion” stuff, friends.

So, as we are pummeled through the busyness of this season, try to carve out a few minutes each day, light a candle, sit in quiet—to wonder, to reflect, to be grateful for all that life has given us thus far—for all that we are capable yet of doing! Amen? Amen!

Homily – 1st Sunday of Advent

With this Sunday, my friends, we begin the holy season of Advent—a time traditionally, for waiting and quiet waiting at that—smack dab in the middle of lots of rushing—here and there, impatient for what comes next.

The Church is wise in giving us these four weeks, encouraging us to slow down, a bit at least, in all our preparations for the season of Christmas.  The wisdom in slowing down is about preparing properly, setting the expected joy of Christmas aside for a time, so as to be fully aware of its true meaning—a season of love, pure and simple.

We might compare this time of Advent waiting to preparing for guests to come to our home—we diligently get everything ready; clean the house, plan and prepare special foods so that all is in readiness for the big day to welcome our guests. The same is true in preparing for Jesus to come as I have shared other years in the piece, “The Basement of my Heart.”  Jesus is always there—with us, waiting for us to be in touch.

The readings for this 1st Sunday of Advent speak to being “on a journey”—Jesus coming to us, but just as important is, us going to Jesus—it is a two-way street!   The more each of us tries to know our God, coming to see that we are mightily loved; we realize that we need, as in any human relationship, to respond to the love first bestowed on us by God.

This past week we were given a wonderful example of the kind of love our God has for us in the person of the late, Fred Rogers, as depicted by actor, Tom Hanks, in the new movie, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”  Some of you grew up watching, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and others, like myself, watched it with your kids.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was always a very peaceful “place” to go each day—to slow down, to listen, as Mister Rogers did so well, to each and every guest he had on his show, as well as, to learn many new things that he exposed us to.  He helped his viewers often to deal with hard issues that life sometimes gives us, and to celebrate the good times.

One thing Mister Rogers’ viewers always knew was that he liked us, “just the way we are!”  There is no better statement than this to describe the over-the-top love of God for each of us than the above statement, “I like you just the way you are!”—there is nothing special we have to do to make us likeable—WE JUST ARE!—in God’s eyes!

On our recent trip to Plains, Georgia, we had the great privilege of taking in one of former President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school classes.  Part of his teaching was to encourage us, in our quest to better our world, knowing that we can’t fix everything, to, in the next month, do just one good thing for someone else—perhaps someone that we don’t know.  The idea was that reaching out to another, perhaps someone that we don’t even like, is the first step toward being more at peace within ourselves and our world.

Many times, we think we don’t like someone, but the truth is, we don’t really know them.  This is where listening comes in.  Mister Rogers’ hallmark quality was his ability to listen to others and in order to truly listen to another; one has to slow the pace of life, down.  Tom Hanks said in an interview that this was the hardest part about his playing, “Mister Rogers”—slowing down.

So, we might do that one good thing that President Carter suggested that could change our world and see the movie; It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, if we haven’t already.  Do it, my friends, not only for yourself, but for others too, because seeing in will make you a better person in the world in which you live! And of course, the disclaimer is that this movie is for adults, not children.

Each year when Advent comes around, it is an invitation for us to check in with ourselves—discover what is most important in our lives and what perhaps, we can let go of.  What is it that I am perhaps doing, that if I didn’t do, might make my life better? What, perhaps, would make my life better, if I tried to do it?  Now, I am purposely not suggesting any one thing in either the positive or negative category, as I think each of us is aware of those things either needed or not needed in our lives.

The prophets of old, and Isaiah is no exception to this rule in today’s first reading, were challenging the people to cease their warring with each other and be people of peace—there will be a time, Isaiah says, when “one nation will not raise a sword against another.”  This time presumably would be when the Messiah comes, yet we know that there was much war and conflict when Jesus lived.

I would think that part of the sadness of Jesus’ earthly life was his realization that “making war”—being in conflict with others, somehow, seemed the “easier,” if you will, option—to “making peace.”

And what of today—is this still true?” I was curious when thinking about war and peace, of how many nations are at war, in some form or fashion today.  The Institute for Economic Peace, an international group that tracks this kind of thing, says that of 162 nations they have looked at in our world, only 11 are not involved in conflict of one kind or another!—only 11!  Their measure for determining conflict in any place is if there are 25 or more deaths a year because of a particular conflict.  If we can train for war, why not train for peace?

“Come, let us climb to the mountain of God,” the prophet says, and wisdom tells us that this is much more than a physical climb—it is about looking at ourselves and what part we play in bringing peace to our own individual lives.  Sometimes this can be very daunting because the crowd often times chooses the easier option—that of “making war,” in big and little ways.  It takes a good bit of strength to be the alternate voice, the one that perhaps speaks for justice.

This past week, I read of one of the original, “Philadelphia 11,” as they were called in 1974, making up the first women to be ordained within the Episcopal Church, who has now died.  They, like the first Roman Catholic women ordained in 2002, went against the powers of their time to follow a call greater than the Church law that said this couldn’t happen.  The powers-that-control within the Episcopal church, unlike the Roman Catholics, agreed, one year later in 1975, that, “yes,” women should be ordained.  Yet, even to this day, Episcopalian women priests still struggle to get pastorates within the larger, more visible parishes.

And at this time of year, four weeks before the remembrance of our God’s greatest act of love, care and understanding of our human condition, our need to be whole, to be included—each and every one, in sending Jesus to be, one-with-us and show us the way;  this same lack of vision is still the case within the Catholic church.

Has the prophets’ call that we should, “walk in the light of God” ceased to be of importance any more, or is all of this ritual each year, just something we do, but don’t really take seriously? A good question perhaps and as we ponder it, the prophets continue to call, “the night is far spent—the day draws near—put on the armor of light.” Paul pleads to the Roman converts of his time, and to us through the ages, “it is now the hour for you to be awake from your sleep.”  Matthew, in today’s gospel, continues, “Stay awake,” and [be prepared.]

So my friends, how do we find our way, our direction in all of this?  I have always found that going to the Scriptures and really hearing the messages contained there is a wonderful place to look, again and again and again, especially if following Jesus is our intent, each year, each Advent—that we begin once again today and in each season of our Church Year.

We can’t just read the words contained there, but must make them truly part of our lives.  And that is why the examples of Fred Rogers, Jimmy Carter, the Philadelphia 11, the Danube 7 and many others who have done just that, are so compelling—we need to know that such goodness, courage and wisdom is possible and I believe that Advent is a great time to study peace, not war, truth, justice, and love and not their opposites. Now is the time my friends!  Amen? Amen!

 

 

Homily – Last Sunday of the Church Year–Feast of Jesus, Our Brother and Friend

“A strong nation, like a strong person, can afford to be gentle, firm, thoughtful and restrained. It, [they] can afford to extend a helping hand to others.  It’s a weak nation, like a weak person, that must behave with bluster and boasting and rashness and other kinds of insecurity.”

The above words come from our 39th president, Jimmy Carter and by the picture that accompanies them on Face Book, these are words that he perhaps said many years ago when he was, in fact, president. They are interesting words to consider on this Sunday that uplifts the “kingship” of Jesus, our brother and model for human living.

It is good to consider in this light whether Jesus ever claimed this title for himself and the answer is, “No!”  The title of “king” is something from the earliest days after Jesus’ death, which we, his followers claimed for him.  Even during his earthly life time, his followers had the wrong idea about the meaning of his coming.  They wanted a “Messiah” who would best their enemy, the Romans and because of that notion, they often missed his words and actions which were more about love and turning the other cheek.

Former President Carter’s words reflect a leader who understands that to lead, truly lead, is a multi-faceted task and that strength is shown with a combination of gentleness, firmness, thoughtfulness and restraint.  This, my friends, is wisdom.  I believe we could say that Jesus’ leadership was about all of these traits too with the addition of mercy, kindness, justice, and of course, love.

So why then, the Church hierarchical’s insistence on “kingship” for Jesus, our brother? The source of this feast is fairly new in the time frame of our lives, dating back to only, 1925, when Pope Pius XI established it, declaring that, “People had thrust Jesus and his holy law out of their lives.”  His contention was that Jesus’ laws for life should play a role in public affairs and politics and unless they did, we could never hope for, “peace among nations.”

Now this in itself might be a good reason to establish such a feast day when many “in the known and accepted world” of the time were considered Christian and other faiths, while there, were not given the importance that they are today.

Today, with a much broader view of what constitutes faith and religious practice, celebrating a feast that speaks of “kingship” in a world that does not deal with kings per se, except perhaps, “wannabes” in certain places, seems, out of place.

Would we not do better to uplift the traits that Jesus actually modeled in his own life among us on this day, as we bring to a close one Church Year and move into the next, than to give him titles that he never claimed nor wanted for himself?

But in all fairness to those kings who ruled well over their people in past times, we might say, that a true king was one who cared about the people and knew that “service” was the true mission of a good king.

I can only imagine that Jesus didn’t choose “kingship” for himself because he realized the tendency among humans to misconstrue the true meaning of king as servant, for power, and power over, and he simply was never about that.

In the first reading today from Samuel, the prophet reminds David that his role as ruler of Israel is “to shepherd” his people and David, beginning his life as a shepherd, would understand the meaning.  Jesus, in his earthly life among us was crucified primarily because he tried “to shepherd” all the people—those in high positions, but more so, those in low positions, calling all to justice, to being their best selves.

When you are a person in power, with power over others, there is always the possibility of abusing that power.  Those in power when Jesus lived physically upon the earth didn’t want to be told by an itinerant preacher that their leadership was a gift from God to serve their people rather than themselves.  And the same phenomenon seems to be going on in Washington these days as far as “leadership” goes—serving the rule of party—self, rather than the rule of law, what is just and right.

Probably a truer statement was never made concerning the true meaning of leadership and what this call is all about than Jesus’ action on the cross recounted in today’s gospel.  We read that the crowds were tormenting him, “You saved others, why can’t you save yourself, if you are the Messiah?”  The position of being called to serve others, as messiah, as priest, as president is never, ever about how it can help those people as individuals, but about a larger calling of service for others and Jesus knew this.

Again, this is interesting to consider as we remembered this last week the assassination 56 years ago of our 35th president, John F. Kennedy. While not a perfect president or individual, as president he never sold out his country for personal gain.

So, with all of this in mind, friends, I come back to my premise in the early paragraphs of this homily—that we dispense with a title Jesus never claimed for himself giving him instead one that speaks more clearly of the impact that he had upon his world, that of brother, that of friend, of one who knew the life we lead as human beings and chose to journey with us as “friend” showing us as succinctly as possible how much we are loved by God. Amen? Amen!