Sunday, January 31, 2016

Responding to the Word of God

January 31, 2016 ––4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 1:4-5,17-19 / Psalm 71 / 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13 / Luke 4:21–30
Responding to the Word of God

Can you imagine hearing the written Word of God being read by the living Word himself?

Picking up from last Sunday’s Gospel:

Jesus returned to Galilee [from his Temptation] in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all. 
He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up; and he went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written, 
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news.…
Rolling up the scroll he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
And all spoke highly of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth….

Again, can you imagine hearing the written Word of God being read by the living Word himself?

The Scriptures make big claims about God’s Word. A prominent one in the Old Testament is from from Isaiah: my word… that goes forth from my mouth, shall not return to me empty;  it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

In the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews says:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

We would be right to expect a power to be unleashed when the Scriptures are read. Again, what must have it been like to hear Jesus read Scripture?

Well, at first it seems just what we might expect: all spoke highly of him, and were amazed…. But Jesus knows their response is on the surface, and he challenges them on it.

That is the prophetic model recurring again and again in the Bible. In today’s Old Testament reading, God tells Jeremiah that he has been divinely appointed as a prophet, but his message––given with the authority and power of God––will be rejected.

Let’s bring this to today––right where we are. Every week the Scriptures are read here in church. The lector says, The Word of the Lord, and we respond, Thanks be to God. That’s like saying Amen, which essentially means “yes, I affirm that.” But our Amen can be on the surface, like it was that day Jesus read the Scriptures in Nazareth.

Both the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian were “outsiders”.  The hometown folks had an attitude: “we’re good enough and we don’t need change from the outside.” Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus contrasts his preaching with the wisdom of Solomon and the preaching of Jonah and then makes a similar point. The Queen of Sheba, a Gentile, heard Solomon and believed. The pagan people of Nineveh heard Jonah and repented. Then Jesus says of himself, something greater than Jonah is here (Luke 11:32). The very thing the Word of God comes to do is to change us. That is why Jesus becomes so confrontational in today’s text. God is always actively at work for our salvation and that means bringing even discomfort when we are holding on to things that hinder us. Our calling is to be holy!

But holiness is not easy in this world. When God’s Word is proclaimed there is a battle going on. Everything that occurs in this visible, physical world is directly connected to a wrestling match being waged in the invisible, spiritual world. C. S. Lewis once wrote: “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” This is especially true when God’s Word is going forth to challenge the powers of hell and to seek and save those who are wandering from God.

I have a challenge for all of us: When we come to church to receive God’s Word, or when we hear Scripture in any setting (our daily prayers, Gospel Reflections, Bible study, personal Bible reading), let’s remember, in the imagery of Jesus’ parable of the four soils, that there are “birds” who want to come and eat the seed before it can take root. There are “weeds” that, if not tended, will smother any good fruit. When we place ourselves before God’s Word, it is good to remember that “to be faithful to God requires a constant battle…. in one small thing after another, without giving in” (St Josemaria Escriva). God has made us so that our response to his Word affects the power it has in our lives.

In a world that usually has too much noise to hear God––a world that often dismisses or even ridicules the idea of God speaking his Word––please hear the message today: Listen…. not only with your ears and mind, but with your heart.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

St Thomas Aquinas

On this Memorial of St Thomas Aquinas:

From a conference by Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest (Collatio 6 super Credo in Deum)

The cross exemplifies every virtue

Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.
It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.
If you seek the example of love: Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends. Such a man was Christ on the cross. And if he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.
If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ's patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.
If you seek an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.
If you seek an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.
If you seek an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.

Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honors, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

What's Wrong? (and what I can do)

Sunday: January 10, 2106 –– Baptism of the Lord, Year C
Isaiah 40:1–5 / from Psalm 104 / Titus 2:11–14; 3:4–7 / Luke 3:15–16, 21–22
What's Wrong? (and what I can do)

Last week I had the luxury of a long morning prayer time at home. I was thinking about some hard things happening to people who are close to me; I was also aware of some particular horrible stories that had been in the news. I wept as images of hurting people flashed across the screen of my mind. There were the notorious examples: the family members of those killed by violence and the victims of child sexual abuse. Then there were the painful things that are all around us: the crushed wife longing for a genuine word of love from her husband…. the little child whose spirit progressively dies because of the hateful tone used by the parents….  the man who is withdrawn and often angry because all he remembers from his childhood is that he could do nothing right…. 

As I prayed that morning I cried out to the Lord, “Why is this world so hard and painful?” And immediately I knew that the real answer is imbedded in our Christian Faith: our world is broken; humans are not fully what they were created to be.

That is part of the essence of our Faith. It is because death entered the world through sin that we are are impacted by horrible things. It is because we are broken that we need to be healed. It is because we have so lost our way that we need to be saved. The death and resurrection of Jesus only makes sense when it is seen in the context of a broken world that needs salvation.

We often try to make peace with the world as it is––trying to “make the best of it” or “hope that things will soon be better”.  And usually, when we use “hope” that way, it is not connected with the Christian hope. Christian hope is based on the new heavens and new earth promised by our Lord. This present world of sin and death is destined to perish so that the fullness of life in the Kingdom of God is the total reality.

This is what baptism means. It calls us to a death. Jesus died and then rose again for us, but first Jesus was baptized for us. To take our sins upon himself and die our death, Jesus submitted to baptism to take the initial step of identifying with sinners. Then he took the path to the cross. When we follow Jesus in baptism, we are entering the door to death and resurrection.

We like the resurrection part. We want the gift of eternal life (as well we should). But we need to understand that resurrection can only come after death. If Jesus had not died, he could not have risen from the dead. Likewise we are called to die, because by ourselves our legacy is death. This is why baptism is the foundational identity for Christians. Hear what the Church says in the Catechism: “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that we too might walk in newness of life” (CCC #977). 

The antiphon to the Evening Prayer Canticle puts it this way: “Our Savior came to be baptized, so that through the cleansing waters of baptism he might restore the old man to new life, heal our sinful nature, and clothe us with unfailing holiness.”

Going back to my morning of prayer, I literally cried out to the Lord, “Why is this world so hard and painful?” The Lord gave an answer that brought me again to his cross. This world is full of hurt and pain because I am broken.

There is a story about G. K. Chesterton that, when The Times posed a question, “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response: “Dear Sirs: I am.” St. Josemaria Escriva confesses, “We are all equal, all of us are children of Adam and Eve, weak creatures with virtues and defects, and capable all of us, if Our Lord abandons us, of committing the worst crimes imaginable.” This is the true implication of the saying: Except for the grace of God, there go I.

Timothy Cardinal Dolan elaborated on this:

The premier answer to the question “What’s wrong with the world?” “what’s wrong with the church?” is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming…. none of these, as significant as they are. As Chesterton wrote, “The answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is just two words:’I am.’”

So Jesus was baptized for us. This is why we need to follow Jesus in baptism…. in death…. and into new life. Being baptized marks our highest calling. Nothing is greater than being identified with Jesus Christ. The question for us today is simply this: Am I living out of my Baptism? Are we following Jesus to the cross? Are we putting to death the self-pity, the self-protection, the self-promotion in our lives that so easily hurts others?

I have given this challenge before, but I offer it again today. Don’t be a “fossilized Christian”. Don’t let entering the church and making the sign of the cross with holy water be a mechanical gesture. Anticipate it. Let it every occasion be a time of renewing your commitment to Jesus: I belong to you, my Lord. I give myself to you fresh and new. Let the power of your baptismal waters again make me clean and totally yours.

Jesus Christ gave his life for our salvation. He suffered death for us. He rose from the dead for us. He initiated it by being baptized for you and me. Christian Baptism marks who we are. When we truly live in baptismal grace, the equation can shift: What’s right with the world? In Jesus Christ, I am. This is what Jesus offers all of us in baptism.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Our Heart’s Desire

January 3, 2016 –– Epiphany
Isaiah 60: 1–6 / Ephesians 3:2–3a; 5–6 / Matthew 2:1–12
Our Heart’s Desire

Time and money. Both consciously and implicitly these are two things we most value. We also model other values with time and money. We give time and money to whatever we make our highest priorities. Do you really want to know where your heart is? Take an honest look where you direct your time and money. This can be especially revealing with what we call our “discretionary spending”––whatever gets our money once the essential bills are paid (and all of us might need a reality check on what we think is “essential”).

What does this have to do with the Epiphany? Think about the “wise men”, these magi from the east who traveled so far to find and worship the Baby Jesus. They left all that was familiar. They exchanged the safety of home for travel that was often dangerous and certainly difficult over a great distance. We do not know if their gifts were a portion of their wealth or if those gifts represented a huge sacrifice or even a consolidation of all their material possessions; whichever, the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were significant.

It’s also significant that these magi set out not knowing exactly where they were going or what they would find. They had a desire for something beyond what was familiar and safe and comfortable. They were willing to risk. They were committed to seeking their heart’s desire. This should remind us of something the Scriptures say again and again: 

Moses told Israel: ….seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul (Deuteronomy 4:29).

Isaiah reiterated: Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near (Isaiah 55:6-7).

God spoke through Jeremiah: You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13).

The writer to the Hebrews tells us: And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6).

Our Lord promised: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

The magi made it a priority to seek God. They were able to discern, with the help of a grace that calls the whole world to believe, that God was doing something big as his Son was being born in Bethlehem. They acted on that discernment––and then took the next step, and the next….

The magi were willing to expend those two commodities that we value the most, time and money, in their search for God. They showed the proper integration of faith and works; they believed God enough to seek him, and they acted on their belief when they spent time to find the Baby and gave of their wealth to bring gifts of worship.

On this Epiphany Sunday the light of God’s Son still shines into our world. The invitation to seek God is still offered and the promise holds: he rewards those who seek him.

How do we know if we are seeking God? Here are two clues: What are we doing with our time? How are we spending our money?

There is no guarantee of abundant grace in our lives if we are only giving God, at best, our leftovers. St John Vianney said, “….the merit of true faith consists in this: that we sacrifice all that which we love best to obey the voice of grace which calls to us.”

That is what the magi did. They were truly “wise” men in the full scriptural meaning of the word. Let’s be like them. Let’s be people who seek God. Let’s be people who give our time and possessions for what matters most. When our heart’s desire is for God, we will show it with the things that matter the most.

Friday, December 25, 2015



Christmas is a time when the whole world seems to reach out in hope. Whether people are truly Christian believers or not, there is a heightened sense of longing for the world to be more than it is––even a sense of expectancy that maybe it can be. 

"Silent night, holy night..." Those are words that express what it is we are looking for.  And it's no wonder we feel the need for such. . . our lives are so contrasting.  

Our culture has almost forgotten what silence is. It seems we are always in the middle of noise or hurry or crowds. The roads are jammed with impatient people––I know because I'm one of them. We're always in a hurry, trying to pack ten hours into an eight hour day.  It takes effort to get away from noise; there is always a radio or a television playing; even on the phone we are subjected to someone else's taste in music. Many people cannot jog or mow the lawn without a headset over their ears. And those are the sounds we invite. 

Perhaps we seek those sounds to drown out other sounds that we do not want to hear––the cries of other people or the clanging emptiness of our own hearts. We push away the sounds of threatening voices. Silence would be nice, but in the end it's too threatening. 

But if silence is something we have forgotten, holiness is something most of the world has never known. Holiness is threatening. I think it must be one of the things we try to escape through our noise. 

Holiness reminds us that things could (and should) be different. Holiness shines a burning light on things like revenge and lust and jealousy and greed––the things that are so common in our world, and even in our individual lives. We do not like the threats of terrorism and war, the reports of homes breaking up, the driving urge to do whatever it takes to get bigger and better things than the guy next door, but we like even less dealing with whatever it is in us that causes those things to happen.  And so we run from holiness. 

Yet the hunger for the silent and the holy will not go away. Our souls need the silence; our very existence needs the holiness. When the promise comes close, we respond––if only for a moment. Could it be? Can we really have that in this world? 

Christmas tells us yes. God knew we needed the silence and the holiness, so he sent his Son––as a baby. A baby has a way of slowing things down. A baby motivates us to cut some of the noise. A baby lets us see innocence in a fresh way, which isn't a bad way to understand holiness. If the characteristics of the cradle could stay with us, the silence and holiness and peace that the world needs just might make it. 

But Jesus did not stay a baby––and Christmas comes and goes. Jesus grew into a man who showed the world how badly we need the silence and the holiness; and the world goes on, coming close to it once each year, yet not able to embrace fully all it means that God sent his Son in the silence and in holiness so we could know what it is to be silent and holy in our own hearts. 

How about you this evening? Is this "silent night, holy night" a mere exercise in fantasy?  Is it a time only to come close to what God wants for us––to what he has given us in his Son––only to go back into the world of clatter and moral chaos when the candles are out and the carols are over? 

Silent night, holy night is not merely a mood. It is not just a nice story to make us sentimental once a year. Silent night, holy night is a promise. It's a promise from God that it really can be that way in the life of each person who lets the Baby of Bethlehem come inside to grow up into all the fulness of Christ. 

Are you hungry for quietness down in your very soul? Is your life crying out for something clean and good? Then on this silent night, holy night, let God do in you what he did on that night so long ago. Let your heart be a manger, and let the one be born in you who came to save his people from their sins.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

When God Comes

December 20, 2015 –– 4th Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:1–4a / Hebrews 10:5–10 / Luke 1:39–45

God was sending his Word into the world. It might seem the best way to get everyone’s attention would be through the Emperor––or at least the Governor. Even a governor had the power of life and death in his hands. But God didn't send his message through them. Maybe a religious leader would be best. Shouldn’t God work through the high priest? Well, he didn’t, but our temptation is so often to do the opposite of what God does: to look to those who are on top, not at those who are on the bottom; to those who are prosperous, not to those who are in need. Today’s Scriptures remind us that when we’re looking for the biggest and the best and the most, God still comes––but we can miss it. God is incredible at using what we call “insignificant”.

God’s Word came through Mary. If we really think about it, God often frustrates our expectations. Even though Mary is connected to the house of David, she is living in Nazareth and not Bethlehem (and neither of them were “significant”). Even though Mary is engaged to Joseph, she is not yet married and, being a godly woman, had no out-of-bounds sexual relations. Yet the angel says she is going to bear a son. Mary is astounded: How will this be, since I am a virgin? But God always acts consistent with his character: he chooses a pure vessel, for the child to be born will be called holy––the Son of God.

But even though Mary is a pure vessel, she is a “nobody” in her world. On top of that, Mary’s situation was not “pure” in public opinion; she was suspected of adultery, and Jesus probably grew up with his questionable birth in the minds of his hometown neighbors.

From our way of thinking, God does wild and crazy things. He encouraged Mary through Elizabeth––this relative who was an old woman well past child-bearing age, whose unexpected pregnancy was possibly an embarrassment. (It was certainly an inconvenient interruption in Zechariah’s life, at least initially.) This is because God so often does almost nothing according to expectation…. except to prepare us to expect the unexpected. The angel tells Mary nothing will be impossible with God. So when Mary travels to see Elizabeth, and the developing child in Elizabeth senses the newly conceived embryo within Mary, an inspiration of the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and she exclaims the words we have come to call the Magnificat––an extended celebration of the way God turns the world upside down:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
  he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
  and the rich he has sent away empty.

This is one of the most basic things about what happens when God comes. Our own expectations need to be released so we can focus on one thing: an openness for God to be God.

God wants to come to each one of us, and yet his coming is not always obvious. The Chinese bamboo tree does absolutely nothing––or so it seems––for the first four years. Then suddenly, sometime during the fifth year, it shoots up ninety feet in sixty days. Would you say that bamboo tree grew in six weeks, or five years? Our relationship with God can be like the Chinese bamboo tree. Sometimes we put forth effort…. we invite God to come in fresh ways…. we pray more and do other spiritual disciplines we’ve been taught, and nothing seems to happen. But when we learn to enter the spirit of Advent––the seeking, the repenting, the waiting….little things that our culture disdains––then there will be those moments when God’s presence breaks through the fog that enshrouds this world.

We need God to come. We need God to do what we cannot do. We need to accept humbly that by ourselves we are mostly helpless and hopeless, but believe that nothing will be impossible with God. God loves to come to unlikely people. Like Mary, we need to have open hands and humble hearts when God comes. This is how God works again and again. It happened in Bethlehem, a little insignificant village. It happened in Elizabeth, an old woman who everyone thought was well beyond any productive years. It happened through Mary, a poor yet pure virgin girl who could believe and trust and surrender.

And so God comes. “He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that…. proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God” (Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI).

We are invited to believe that God comes in what we tend to think as the insignificant––even the disdainful. And because God is God, he comes the way he wants to––not the way we would choose. A shattering phone call…. a disturbing email…. an overwhelming interference with our plans…. these kinds of things may be the first stage of God coming in an incredible way.

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem has only one entrance, and you cannot pass through it without bending down. This door is supposed to remind pilgrims that in order to penetrate the deep meaning of Christmas it is necessary to humble oneself and become little. Can we dare to be “little” enough to recognize God’s coming? Don’t let what the world thinks is impressive distort your expectations of God. Look for God to come in ways are often dismissed and overlooked. Be open for God to be God. What “insignificant” (or even “awful”) thing in your life is God wanting to explode into power and glory (even it’s only in your soul)?! This is a great week to give God your “littleness.”

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

God is always at work for our salvation!

Wednesday: December 9, 2015 –– 2nd Week in Advent 
Isaiah 40:25–31 / Psalm 103 / Matthew 11:28–30
God is always at work for our salvation!

All three readings today point to one incredible truth: God is always at work for our salvation!

The essence of Christian Faith is believing this, but…. “believing” is a loaded word.

Many “say” they believe, but show no evidence of realizing their sins as the psalmist does. I cannot imagine the psalmist writing these words and then being casual about sins in his life.

Many “say” they believe, but show no evidence of the rest of spirit that Jesus promises in the Gospel. We want to think that a strong faith will give us temporal “relief” from our unpleasant circumstances. This is neither what Jesus taught nor modeled.

Many “say” they believe, but show no evidence of the daily strength described by Isaiah. Again, our tendency is to focus on our physical circumstances. We too easily lose sight of the ultimate (and most important) issue: God is always at work for our salvation!

When we feel any desire for God there is an implicit reality that Christian Faith assures. It is the message of today’s Psalm: God welcomes us because he takes care of our sins. God is always at work for our salvation!

When we feel tired and overwhelmed, we can trust God for the ability to take the next step––to do the next thing. We are not alone. Jesus is our teammate in the “yoke” that we are to bear, and he personally fashions that yoke for each of us according to our need––even if our temporal circumstances seem too hard and we do not understand. God is always at work for our salvation!

We can dare to trust that we can be so renewed in spirit––sometimes consciously so that we feel able to run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint. We are invited to the Church’s gift of Reconciliation. We are invited to come to the Table and eat and be replenished. We are invited each day to take into our minds and hearts the Scriptures. Every day we are called to the reality of holiness. God is always at work for our salvation!

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