Sunday, November 29, 2015

Listening to God and Being Ready

November 29, 2105 –– First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33:14–16 / 1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:2 / Luke 21:25–28, 34–36
Listening to God and Being Ready

ISIS…. infiltration by Syrian refugees…. suicide bombers…. nations bristling in the Near East…. shootings in our streets…. children with shattered innocence…. economic uncertainty….

There is more than enough in our daily news to keep us in an unsettled frame of mind. Yet many people choose to keep themselves distracted by the many material trinkets and pleasures that our society so abundantly offers. Black Friday events seem to enthrall the culture about as much as Christmas itself. As we enter Advent, with the Church calling us to a hope and peace that can seem more fairy tale than reality, the world counters with surface celebrations and the enticement of more and bigger things.

Which voice are we going to listen to in these coming weeks: the threatening voices, the diversionary voices, or the voice of God that blows through the Scriptures and the Church?

On the surface, the voice of God is not always immediately appealing. Even when God promises great things, the fulfillment is often suspended. Over 2,500 years ago, with Jerusalem facing total destruction, Jeremiah affirmed the coming of God’s promise––of what is right and just. A bit over 500 years later the Promise––fully God and fully Man––did come into our world, and yet in another way Jesus himself only extended the longed-for hopes. The Gospel today seems to side with the threatening voices in today’s news. There are “downer” words we’d rather not hear: dismay…. people will die…. the heavens will be shaken….tribulations…. But do we see that those things are not the focus?

What are we looking for? Again, some voices are fixed on the gloom and doom. Other voices tell us to grab whatever pleasures we can while we can. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians focus on the core of Christian Faith; in summary he is saying Live in the love of God. Too often we look for something sensational. Paul simply says: conduct yourselves to please God.

How do we do that? C. S. Lewis seems to have something for almost any occasion. For decades following World War II our nation continued to fight what was called the Cold War––a tense time of mostly passive aggression between the two big nuclear superpowers of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The looming threat then was an atomic bomb attack. I remember elementary school exercises in which the students were to crawl under their desks in a act of seeking shelter. Many homes built bomb shelters in their back yards. The fear then was just as palatable as fears today. So Lewis wrote an essay addressing this situation that seemed to be holding so many Christians in hostage. He said:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. "How are we to live in an atomic age?" I am tempted to reply: "Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents."

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors––anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

"This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things - praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts - not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. (C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, in a 1948 essay entitled, “On Living in an Atomic Age”)

So I ask again, which voice are we going to listen to in these coming weeks: the threatening voices, the diversionary voices, or the voice of God that blows through the Scriptures and the Church? The voices of fear are tempting us to forget that God is in control and that his promises are sure. The diversionary voices are tempting us to believe that something other than God can give us security and peace and happiness. The Scriptures and the Church continue to remind us of what is right and good and true, and to encourage us to be faithful.

We are here gathered around the Word and the Altar. We are here to receive Jesus and in doing so to give witness that there is nothing greater. We are here to learn to love each other as God has loved us. And as we do these things (and keep on doing them), listen again to St Paul:

Finally, brothers and sisters, we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God––and as you are conducting yourselves––you do so even more.

This is how we are to enter Advent. This is how we are to prepare for the coming of our Lord. Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep listening to the Lord and his Church. Then we will be ready for anything.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

You Have To Serve Somebody

November 11, 2015 –– Solemnity of Christ the King
Conversion Series: You Have To Serve Somebody

"Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy." Thus begins C.S. Lewis' first Narnian story, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It is a fantasy story in which the four children climb into a big wooden wardrobe and find themselves transported to a land of talking animals and mythological creatures, but a land marred by the rule of the wicked white witch.

On this Christ the King Sunday it is also a story that gives us a picture of Jesus. Lucy was the first to enter Narnia. She returned telling the others of her adventure, but no one believed her. Later Edmund jumped into the wardrobe and he, too, passed into the magic of Narnia. It was then that Edmund met the witch for the first time. At first he was afraid, but this woman who called herself the Queen of Narnia soon had Edmund eating enchanted candy. His fear––and his will power––seemed to melt. She made him promise to get his brother and sisters and come to her castle.

Of course, all four go to Narnia. Peter and Susan go with Lucy, but Edmund runs away to find the Queen––only he finds out she really is a witch, and it is her intent to kill all of them. Meanwhile, Peter, Susan and Lucy find out about the real king of Narnia, Aslan (who is a lion), and they journey to meet him.

Eventually the three children are united with Aslan and his army. In turn, they rescue Edmund just as the witch was sharpening her knife to kill him. Yet Edmund was still in trouble. The witch came to Aslan under a flag of truce and said Edmund belonged to her. Edmund was a traitor; he had originally chosen to serve her side. The Deep Magic––laws which governed Narnia––gave the witch the right to a kill for any treason. So Aslan and the witch confer in secret, after which, incredibly, she renounces her claim on Edmund. Unknown to his army, Aslan had offered himself as Edmund's substitute. His death for Edmund's took place that very night. Then, even as the witch gloatingly promised to kill Edmund anyway, she plunged a big knife into the lion's heart.

But the witch did not know all the Deep Magic. There was an older law that, when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's place, Death itself would work backwards. Aslan came back to life stronger than ever. Edmund was saved.

Obviously, the close analogy of Lewis' story to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is no accident. And we need to hear this story over and over. Sometimes our understanding and appreciation of the gospel story can be refreshed when its essence comes through a new medium. That's why the Narnia stories can seem so real.

We live in a world that has been affected by a spirit of treachery. It is hard to see it because it seems natural. When we give in to greed or lust or anger or any kind of selfishness––when we make make any decision with disregard for what is pleasing to God––we are moving in a wrong direction.

Living according to our own selfish desires also shapes our identity. Each of us has a basic spiritual identity, and that identity depends on who we serve. Jesus said, No one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24). Think about Edmund. His treachery was not an isolated event in his life for which he could merely say, "Well, I made a little mistake. What say we forget it and start over?" His action identified him with the white witch. He quite suddenly found himself under her rule and on her side.

We can have a distorted understanding of freedom. God has indeed given us freedom to choose, but not one person is free from having a master. You have to serve somebody. There are two kingdoms at war in our world right now, and we are part of the battlefield. People who do not know that can think they are acting by themselves and for themselves, when in fact, everything that each one of us does (or even thinks) has a spiritual repercussion. When Edmund ate the enchanted candy he thought he was merely gratifying his sweet tooth. Actually, he was establishing his identity; he was placing himself under the control of the white witch.

The Christian Gospel is the Good News that Jesus died for each of us so we could be free from any claim darkness has on us. The prince of darkness has no right to claim us as subjects if we choose to identify with Jesus. We need to understand: we must choose one of two masters. God’s love does not mean we are set free of any and all masters. It means we are free to switch from self-serving and the realm of death to the Master whose name is Love. Opening your heart to Jesus means changing masters.

Have you chosen Jesus as your Master? I invite you to to believe what Jesus has done for you. I invite you to be a loyal servant to the true King of the universe whose name is Love. All the magic of Narnia is right here. It is here for each of us when Jesus is our King––our Lord and Master.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

ISIS and Refugees: Thinking Out Loud

Instead of being "devil's advocate", I hope this in some way is indeed an advocacy of what the Spirit would say to those who embrace the word "Christian". I understand the hesitancy.... even the fear of ISIS and the refugee situation, et al. I understand that many look at this FIRST from the perspective of being an "American." Yet deep in my spirit I hear One who said, "Do not fear the one able to kill the body...." and I can't escape the core fact that we follow One who chose to lay down his life rather than retaliate against the evil ones who abused him. And on top of that, Peter writes in his first letter that Christians are called to follow, in suffering, the One who went ahead of us in just that way. Perhaps if more "Christians" were giving themselves in total selflessness, the world would have a different model of "radical" to consider and a better option of something beyond this world worth living–and dying–for. Now, in saying this I readily confess that "I" do NOT want to suffer! "I" would prefer living in "American privilege" the rest of my days. But by the grace of our Lord, a deeper "I" desires to FIRST be a loyal follower of the One who called us by saying, "Take up your cross and follow me." It doesn't make good politics, but there is a glory (for those with eyes to see) that transcends this world that is passing away. Lord, have mercy on our world.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


November 8, 2105 –– 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Conversion Series: Soul-Hunger

The Lord has given our pastor a vision of renewed conversion for all of us in the parish in this sermon series. How often do we think about the incredible responsibility of being the “point-guard” for the many souls connected to this congregation? I thank God for the pastor he has given us, but it’s not all up to him. How often do each of us give explicit attention to our own souls?!

We have been reminded that our world is broken, and yet there is something deep within us that cries out for “better”. In our hearts we know there is more, and the deepest truth is that the God who created me wants more for my life, just as I do. The deepest desires of our human heart are for a true holiness––a life marked by God’s truth and beauty and love.

One of the ways God reaches out to us is to make us aware of the gap between where we are and where we long to be. Every dissatisfaction––even every tinge of guilt––is actually a stirring of God’s Spirit within saying that things can be better. Sometimes I am hit with a little vignette from my past. I will suddenly remember something stupid I did years ago, and I am internally embarrassed at myself. Or a particular sinful action or desire that once marked my life will pop into my mind, and I will groan that such a thing once had such a hold on me. Yet even as my soul blushes as I think of these things, I also find encouragement. I am encouraged when I realize that I do not want stupid and sinful things to mark my life, and I am encouraged when I realize that the Lord has worked his grace into me so that I am not the person I was ten, twenty, and forty years ago.

We need personal reflection time. Because God is always at work, always seeking our attention and our hearts, it is good to find time and space to hear him speak to us. One way we learn to hear God’s voice is through contact with other people who have already developed an ear for God’s Spirit. That is the way preaching is supposed to work; at its best, a sermon is listening to someone who has been listening to God. Or it is helpful to read the lives of people who have walked closely with the Lord. Good Catholic formation will include the lives of the saints. In my early formation there were people whose witness gave similar examples. Soon after a major conversion experience when I was fifteen years old I began to read biographies of great Christians. At age sixteen I underlined this observation (and it has stayed with me for almost fifty years):

The soul does not seem to mind what it is occupied with, but only cares that it be kept occupied. It is passive as to choice. I choose, my soul responds, with ringing laughter, emotion, or pure worship. It is a tool, not a craftsman, and must be controlled…. Discerner of my sittings down, my risings, wilt Thou hallow this soul of mine? The choice is mine, you say? Ah, yes, the choice is mine (Eliot, The Shadow of the Almighty, p97).

Then, in another entry, there is an extension of this thought that I also marked all those years ago:

I think the devil has made it his business to monopolize on three elements: noise, hurry, crowds. ….he will not allow quietness. Satan is quite aware of the power of silence. The voice of God, though persistent, is soft…. Let us resist the devil in this by avoiding as much noise as we can, purposefully seeking to spend time alone, facing ourselves….. (Eliot, The Shadow of the Almighty, p85).

This was written years before the day of cable sports networks, 24/7 news channels, and electronic pads. I fear that most people stay too distracted even to realize their soul is hungry. Our entertainment keeps us distracted.

Is it because we are afraid to face ourselves? If embarrassing and guilt-laden memories sometimes invade our thoughts spontaneously, why make time for even more of them? Well, first of all, I am not encouraging a life lived by looking constantly in the rear-view mirror. That kind of perspective is just another trick of the devil to discourage us. Yet we can benefit from sometimes looking back if we are willing to learn. It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Can we look back and see in our recurring embarrassments and frustrations, and even in our guilt, our underlying desire for what is right and true and good? And if so, can we dare to believe what St John Paul II told an audience of young people in the year 2000? “It is Jesus you seek when you dream of happiness.” Each dawn brings a new choice; each day new grace. If you’ve tried life according to your own plan, it is time now for you to fall on your knees and fully give your life to the Lord.

There is a consistent witness among Christians who have opened their hearts to intimacy with Jesus. The psalmist said it this way several thousand years ago, and it’s still true:

Hungry they were and thirsty;
their soul was fainting within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their need
and he rescued them from their distress
and he led them along the right way…
For he satisfies the thirsty soul;
he fills the hungry with good things (from Psa 107).

Every one of us is hungry in our souls. Every time we try to find happiness in amusements and every time we find ourselves stressed over the many things that seem to consume our days, we need to stop long enough to remember: God is calling me. Jesus wants me to love and trust him.

Prayer: You fill the hungry with good things, Lord God, and break the sinner’s chains. Hear your people who call to you in their need, and lead your Church from the shadows of death. Draw us into all it means to be your people and to live in your love, through Christ our Lord.

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