Report Cards and New Resolutions.

Well, we made it — our Church year is over! That was fast one, wasn’t it? You might not have even realized it, of course, with Thanksgiving and Black Friday this week. Yes, this is the last Sunday of the Church year. It’s sort of like our New Year’s Day. It’s a chance to look forward, of course, but also an opportunity to look back. A chance to consider some questions like… was it a pretty good year in matters of faith, or not so good? Were we good disciples, or mediocre ones? Did we stay on the good path, or did we stray all over the place?

Think about it. If you had to give yourself a report card measuring how well you followed Jesus this past year, what grade would you give yourself? And maybe more importantly, what New Year’s resolution are you going to make in order to keep those grades up?

That’s a tall order, I know. But seeing as our Gospel today — one of the few places in the New Testament where Jesus tells us how we’ll be “graded” – is about evaluating our experience, maybe we should give it a try.

I mean, we get “graded” all the time, don’t we? Like at our jobs. About how well we work with co-workers who don’t do their fair share. Company policies that make little sense. Customers who act rudely or who are completely unreasonable. Bad hours. Low pay. Managers who don’t understand. Everyone agrees to be evaluated – that’s how we get better. I bet there are many people here this morning who evaluate others!

Now, business wisdom tells us that when we look out over our works places, we just need to focus on what is most important. And what’s most important? Well, many would say that your primary responsibility is to do what you can to make your boss happy.”

Don’t worry about all the other stuff going on — the office politics, cliques and gossip. Simply try to do what your boss expects of you. And nine times out of ten, your evaluation will take care of itself.

And maybe that’s what the Solemnity of Christ the King is all about. A day on which we are reminded to focus on what is most important. Indeed, that’s why Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 as a response to growing secularism and nationalism in the aftermath of World War I. But it’s not the same as the work place. For Jesus is not just some kind of “boss”. He’s not someone that we have to serve grudgingly. He’s not someone that gets to tell us what to do because we have no other options for income. He’s definitely not someone we simply “work” for nine-to-five and then forget about until the next day.

No, this solemnity celebrates a king who doesn’t tower over us, but loves us. Who doesn’t control us, but invites us into a deeper relationship with him. Who doesn’t rule through intimidation or fear, but through compassion and mercy. Who doesn’t seek to exact revenge, but forgives and forgives and forgives again.

In other words, our primary response to that kind of love, to that type of leadership from our King, is to love others in the same way. Everything else will take care of itself. To treat the poor, the orphaned, the widows, and the foreigners in the same way we would want to be treated. The way that God treat us.

That’s contagious, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to do the same? So, let’s get back to the report cards. How did we do this past year, based on what St. Matthew just explained to us?

“I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

Or, another way to ask that today might be — how kind were we? How compassionate? Did we show mercy? Were we as forgiving as with people in our lives as they were with our lives? Were we as generous and as loving as we could have been, as much as we appreciate generosity?

Now, I have a confession to make. I did not make the honor roll. I think I need to hit the books (that is, learn to love) a little better. My sinfulness took me away from God this past year, and in order to do better, I’m going to need some help. Maybe you can relate?

But there is no need to travel far to find assistance on this. Remember our first reading from Ezekiel, when God says “I myself will look after and tend my sheep?” That’s the consolation I need. When we are lost – when we are not getting good grades – God will find us. God will give you the strength to get all your homework done. He’ll be with you through every test. You will be a straight A student.

See, Ezekiel went around trying to change people during the Babylonian exile. He makes it clear that Yahweh himself will from now on take over the shepherding of this people. Not a conquering power. Yahweh will seek out the lost and bring back the strayed, just like Israel’s return from exile and resettlement in the Holy Land.

“The injured I will bind up; the sick I will heal.”

By finding the lost, by healing the sick, by saving them from the darkness, the cloudiness, by giving them rest, by bringing low the proud and the foolish who appear to be winning… this King will take care of them.

Shouldn’t we trust God do to the same? Starting this Advent, with a clean slate, looking ahead to the next twelve months?

I think I just found my New Year’s Resolution.

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Bees Were Better

The University of Minnesota Press has published a fine collection of bee poems, If Bees are Few. Here’s one by one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye, who lives in San Antonio. Her most recent book is Famous from Wings Press.  —Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate 2004-2006.

Bees Were Better 

In college, people were always breaking up.
We broke up in parking lots,
beside fountains.
Two people broke up
across a table from me
at the library.
I could not sit at that table again
though I did not know them.
I studied bees, who were able
to convey messages through dancing
and could find their ways
home to their hives
even if someone put up a blockade of sheets
and boards and wire.
Bees had radar in their wings and brains
that humans could barely understand.
I wrote a paper proclaiming
their brilliance and superiority
and revised it at a small café
featuring wooden hive-shaped honey-dippers
in silver honeypots
at every table.

Finding your keys.

Have you ever considered that everyone (well, almost everyone!) has some sort of key chain?  In this time of division in our world, I’d like to think of all our keys as a sort of common bond we all share. Whether that be at home, at work, as school, our keys allow us to function in the world, to complete our story.  Maybe that’s why we feel so lost when we lose them.  We’re all united on that point!

And if you really think about it, you’ll discover that as you grow older, as you grow wiser, when you work harder, as you get better at your job, maybe even a little luckier in life, your key ring fills up. But that’s not random chance. Maybe you worked hard to secure the loan, getting the down payment, maybe your parents trusting you with the key to the house, maybe your family’s safety deposit box, maybe your resume.

But here’ the bottom line: At some point along the way, despite your shortcomings, someone judged that you were ready for a key.

Do you remember how that felt? For me, every time I’ve received a key, even with the burden of responsibility, I felt both chosen and excited.  Chosen to be a good steward, and excited about all the possibilities.

It’s the same for all of us. Being chosen like that gives us the strength to become a fine homeowner. A great wife or husband. A great driver. A hard-working student who earned that locker. In a way, that fuels our identity to places we could not have imagined.

Like in our 1st reading today from Isaiah.  God is basically saying “Eli-a-kim, you thought you would remain a simple servant, but I have chosen you for greater things. I’m giving you the keys to this earthly kingdom. You will be the father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. You can do this.”

Same with Peter in our Gospel. Jesus is saying, “You thought you were simply going to follow me around as a faithful disciple, but I have chosen you for greater things. Here are the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”

Here’s my point: neither Eli-a-kim or Peter asked to be chosen. Scripture tells us there were times neither one acted like mature, responsible people, fit to be chosen. Just like us. Sinners in need of forgiveness.

But Jesus did chose Peter – impulsive, cowardly, unorganized, confused – as the “rock” our Church is built on. Metaphorically, Peter’s key chain just got a lot heavier.

Well, that’s all fine and well, you might ask. But what have I been given? Did Jesus leave me any keys?

Here’s the good news. He did. We have been given the keys to our salvation. Through the Sacraments.  Through the Eucharist.  Through Sacred Scripture. Through the Magisterium. And just as important, through everyone sitting around you. We can do nothing alone. We belong to a faith community – our source of grace and peace. Our keys. Nothing like the keys of St. Peter – or, his successor, Pope Francis – but an important set of keys nonetheless.

Through our faith, God is telling us we are ready. We are responsible enough to go forth and spread the good news. It’s why we come here – to celebrate the fact our Heavenly Father has chosen us, and to look ahead at what we can do together.

To feel confident and chosen to stand up to hatred, white supremacy, sexism. To work for immigration reform. To make our marriages work. To get through that job loss, that medical diagnosis, that first step to admit you need help with that addiction.  To do something for our brothers and sisters in Houston and southeast Texas as they continue to suffer the effects of the devastating flood.

God believes in you. Rejoice and be glad – we’ve been given the keys we need to build the kingdom of God.  That’s one thing we have in common this morning in this most fractured world – and it may well be the most important thing for us today.

Our opening Collect today sums it all up perfectly, I think. Perhaps we could sit with these words of our Liturgy in the days ahead, discerning our Catholic responsibilities, turning the keys that set us free.

O God, who cause the minds of the faithful to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command and to desire what you promise,
and that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

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Icehouses

A long time ago, before we had refrigerators, people used icehouses to preserve their food. They had thick walls, no windows, and tightly fitted doors. In winter, when the streams and lakes were frozen, workers cut out large blocks of ice and hauled them to the icehouses, and then covered everything with sawdust. Usually, that ice would last well into the summer, keeping everything inside cold. Mainly meat and dairy, as well as lots of other important things, piled one on top of the other.

Once, a man lost an expensive watch in an icehouse. He searched all morning, carefully sifting through the sawdust, shifting through all the items on the shelves, but he could not find it. Others searched as well, but they couldn’t find it either.

Later, a young boy heard about what had happened and slipped into the icehouse by himself. About 5 minutes later, he emerged with the watch.

Amazed, the man asked how he found it.  “Well, I closed the door,” the boy replied, “…lay down in the sawdust, and I didn’t move. Everything was cold, black, quiet… and that’s when I heard the watch ticking.”

I need to keep that story in mind. Too often, I’m moving around the shelves of my life, returning e-mails, writing, running errands, trying to figure out money problems, not being present. Way too busy to hear a watch ticking. Way too busy to hear the poor, the immigrant, the sick, the lonely, the abandoned, the broken. I can’t hear Jesus, the most important voice, the most important ticking.

You know, there are only three times that we hear God the Father speak in the New Testament — Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan, the Last Supper, and here at the Transfiguration.  And I never really paid attention to this one phrase — when God speaks specifically to Peter, James and John, proclaimed both in the Gospel and the 2nd reading today — “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!”

God is asking Jesus’ three closest companions –  Peter, James and John – to listen to His son. The same three who will follow Him to Calvary. Even though I thought they were listening, He’s asking them to lie still in the sawdust and shelves. Not to tell people about what they have seen, but stop, pray, and consider the glory of God.

It’s as if God is saying that it’s only through listening that we’ll see our lives infused with this incredible Divine presence. That God’s grace surrounds us, always waiting to transfigure our day. Our brokenness, our problems, our discouragements — all put in perspective when we hear God calling out to us “You are my beloved son — You are my beloved daughter.”

We can transfigure our lives by laying still and listening for God. There’s so much good in the world – so many watches ticking out there – we just need to go find them.  Maybe that means deleting an app or two, and adding one that lifts our hearts to God. Or not chasing a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram link.  Or pausing during your summer vacation to thank God for just how blessed you have been.  Or even as you wait in the doctor’s office to hear if you need surgery or not.

It’s as if this Feast of the Transfiguration is asking us to catch our breath for a moment, as Peter, James and John did. Let’s find God in the cold and darkness. Let’s hear the good news.  Let’s leave the judging, the busyness, the planning for just a moment, and find God again in our busy lives. Let that be the Spirit that drives us to feed the hungry, fight injustice, stand with the immigrants, work for health care. To be compassionate to all those suffering.

It’s as if we are being challenged in our readings today to lie still and hear the ticking of God’s heart.  Maybe that’s your prayer after Communion in a moment, your quiet place where the Holy Spirit will say to you on this Feast day — “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

You can do this. We can do this.

We can all find our loving God, hidden in the cold, the darkness, the silence of our lives, if we just lie still and listen.

Enemies

by Wendell Berry

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.