Christmas homily, 2016.

I was reminded of a story by Max Lucado as I sat down last week to pray about our Christmas readings. I’ve adapted it here.

Long ago, there was a tribe of people hiding out in a dark, cold cave.  They often found themselves huddled together against the chill of the outside world.  They cried out for help for a long time.  It was all they knew how to do. They had never known joy.

But then, one day, they heard someone entering the cave, but they could not see who it was. “I have heard your cries,” the voice announced. “I have felt your chill, and seen your darkness. I have come to help.”

The people in the cave grew quiet. They had never heard a voice as hopeful as this. But they were still suspicious. “How do we know you are telling the truth?”

Silence. The cave people peered through the darkness at the figure of the stranger. They realized he was building something.

“What are you doing?” one cried nervously.

The stranger didn’t answer.

“What are you making?” one shouted even louder.

The visitor stood tall now. “I have come to set you free.” With that he turned to the wood pile at his feet, lit a match, and dropped it.

The wood ignited, flames erupted, and light filled the darkness. But the cave people turned away in fear. “Put it out!” they cried. “Will this destroy us?”

“Just the opposite,” he answered.  “But you need to draw near to feel the heat and light.”

“Not I,” declared a voice.

“Nor I,” agreed a second.

“Only a fool would risk exposing his eyes to such light.”

The stranger stood next to the fire. “I know this is not what you are used to. Maybe it’s not how other cave dwellers live. But this will change your life forever.”

For a long time no one spoke. The people hovered in groups covering their eyes. The fire builder stood next to the fire, his lips moving in a silent prayer. Slowly, one of the cave people took the long walk toward the fire. “It’s so bright,” she proclaimed when she arrived. “I can see.”

The stranger said nothing.

“It so warm!” she extended her hands and smiled as her chill left her.

“Come, everyone! Feel the warmth,” she invited.

“Silence!” cried a voice from the distant darkness. “Dare you let this stranger lead us into a trap? He must leave us, and take this fire with him.”

She turned to the stranger. “Why won’t they come?”

“Some people chose the darkness, the cold. It’s all they know.”

“And so… will they always live in the dark?”

“I’m afraid so.” The woman, now warm… but not at peace, stood silent.

“You can return to your people,” he said softly.

She paused. “I cannot. I can’t bear the cold. But nor can I bear the thought of my people in darkness.”

The stranger thought for a moment, reached into the fire and removed a stick, still flaming. “Here, carry this to your people. Show them the light, and the warmth. Explain how it’s meant for everyone.” She took the light… and turned toward the shadows.

And that is how the flame sharing began.

Christmas is a time to remember our fire, our light, our warmth. The light that began not in a cave, but a manger.  To pause to consider the flame we carry within, and to ask ourselves how we have shared that which we have been given.

Christmas, in fact, is really a time we recall how God became one of us, to build a kingdom of hope, a kingdom free from suffering and fear. A kingdom of eternal joy.

It’s a time when we are reminded of the words of St. Luke,

“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you… who is Christ and Lord.” (Lk 2:10-11)

Wow. The Promise to David has been fulfilled in our hearing. Our salvation. I don’t know about you, but this is too big for only a one-day celebration. It’s bigger than Advent. It’s bigger than… just about anything. That is truly ‘joy to the world.’

And what that means is we are ‘on the hook’.

See, every day God is asking us to walk out of our “caves” – our fears, our anxieties, our burdens – and carry the fire of Christ to everyone in our lives – brothers, sisters, moms, dads, grandparents, friends, co-workers. Everyone in your life!

Every day God is grateful when we proclaim ‘peace on earth’, and practice good will to all men and women.  Is there no better message for our times?

Every day we are called to be humble and grateful for all our gifts. For the blessings of family and friends, good food and conversation. For life!

All of that is bigger than one day, isn’t?

So, today, let’s make a deal as a community of faith. Let’s agree to try to make every day Christmas Day.  Let’s follow the light and warmth, wherever it leads us. Let’s trust God, and not be afraid. Let’s celebrate new life, and new love. Let’s all trust that God will bless us, again and again, in 2017. Let us walk out of the shadows, and into the light.

The light we celebrate today. The light of Christ our Lord.

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Election Homily (2016)

Lost in all the wonderful news about the Chicago Cubs these days was this story from the Wall Street Journal: “An overwhelming majority of voters are disgusted with the state of American politics. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen by a majority of voters as unlikely to bring the country back together after this bitter election season. Eight in 10 voters say the campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited.”

I have to admit I am one of those people who can’t wait until Tuesday. As a person of faith, I’m not sure why or how this election has become so sad. But I’d like to think we can do something about it.

Journalists David Brooks and E.J. Dionne recently offered a pretty good analysis of what’s going on. They noted that when religious voices leave the public square, we are all worse off for it. There is so little conversation about the virtues of sacrifice and suffering, or what sin is, redemption in this election, in this society. And maybe that’s why we feel so empty. There’s no sustained talk about God. No theology. The other side is just bad and wrong. No dialogue, no listening, no trying to see another point of view.

E.J. Dione made a point that throughout the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, Martin Luther King spoke in terms of praying for conversion of hearts, offering forgiveness to his oppressors, of the value of redemptive suffering.

David Brooks said this: “There is no uplift in this race. There is an entire absence in both campaigns of any effort to appeal to the higher angels of our nature. There is an assumption in both campaigns that we are self-seeking creatures rather than loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, cooperating creatures. There is a presumption in both candidates that the lowest motivations are the most real. At some point, there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored worldview which emphasizes love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.”

We know all about that vocabulary. For we, as a faith community, believe in love, friendship, solidarity, the value of community. Look at the Gospel today.  Sadducees are fixated on dying; Jesus is focused on living in solidarity. The Sadducees deny there is resurrection; Jesus will bring millions together by rising from the dead. The Sadducees are trapped by affairs of this life; Jesus speaks of “the children of God … who will rise.”

We know in our hearts that this type of election discourse is not what Jesus’ taught, or what our church teaches. That winning an election – presidency, congress, senate, or alderman – is not more important than treating your political opponent with respect and dignity. That negative ads, name-calling, and hatred are not of the good spirit.  For we believe we are all created – Democrats, Republicans and Independents — in the image and likeness of God. We are all brothers and sisters. That should always be our starting point.

Bruce Springsteen, who was raised a Catholic in the 50’s but – like some people we may know — left the faith later in life, knows well the language of our faith.  He has said that once a Catholic, you are always a Catholic. It’s how you think and speak. And for him, it’s the language – sin, grace, redemption, suffering, sorrow, salvation – that best describes what it means to be human.  We can hear it in his songs.

That language is how we make sense of the world as well. And my big insight these last few weeks was that I’m not hearing it enough. Perhaps you feel the same.

Imagine, then, if we all decide to be a voice of hope, to speak the language that is missing in our society these days.  That we are going to gently let others know that it’s OK to say that our faith is important to us. That we believe in grace, in forgiveness – and we can talk about it — even in a landscape that appears to have forgotten about religion, decency or morality. That after the elections on Tuesday, we can be a voice of healing on Wednesday — at school, at work, at the gym. Let’s tell everyone again about the Year of Mercy, and what it really means in our world.

On Tuesday your vote is important, but that shouldn’t determine your happiness. Vote with your conscience, but act like a disciple. We chose a president every four years, but we gather here once a week. We need to be reminded of that.

So, let us feel confident today – with the help of the Holy Spirit — to go forth and be the voice of God in a society which so desperately needs to hear about peace and hope.

Amen.

 

David Brooks & E. J. Dionne (COMPLETE EPISODE with Krista Tippett)

This is a strange, tumultuous political moment. With columnists David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, we step back from the immediate political gamesmanship. We take public theology as a lens on the challenge and promise we will all be living as citizens, whoever our next president might be. This public conversation was convened by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, the day before the second presidential debate on that campus.

Here’s the link:  http://bit.ly/2ex4ud0

Our plans are not God’s plans.

Today I want to talk to you about how God’s plans are not your plans… they are even better. That no matter how much preparation, good efforts and high hopes you have in life, God has even greater plans… greater than you ever could have ever imagined.

Let me explain….

How many of you have either had an addition put on your house, or you know someone who has put an addition on their house? I know many people, and have heard many other stories, of people who have decided to add an addition on their house, and things ended up taking far longer and far more expensive, than they had originally planned. When they are 75% percent of the way through, they usually throw up their hands in exasperation and say “If I knew it was going to cost this much time and money, I never would have done this!”

As any engineer or contractor will tell you, once you start tearing down walls or digging underground, you don’t know what you’ll find, or how long it will take to fix!

Our spiritual life is like that.  When we say “yes” to something, we agree to take on everything that comes with it. I can’t imagine the two examples Jesus uses the Gospel – building a tower and organizing an army – to go exactly as planned. Likewise, whether we are asked to be the president of a committee, a Girl Scout leader, or most importantly being a good Christian… there are often more responsibilities than we bargained for.

The first time someone ever asked me to speak in public I had a panic attack. It was years ago, at my older sister’s wedding. I couldn’t believe how people could stand up and talk in front of people. In church! I said “yes” to that, never realizing that was such an important step on my journey to be here, today. God went to work on my life.

It’s sort of like what C.S. Lewis describes so well in Mere Christianity:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. And God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He starts by fixing the gutters, and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But then He starts tearing walls down in wats that don’t seem to make any sense…. He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – adding a new wing, putting on an extra floor, building towers, making courtyards. You thought you were living in a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

We might enjoy our “a decent little cottage”, but God has bigger plans for us. God wants to live in your spectacular mansion, the one He is working on right now.

You might thing that someone like Mother Teresa, who is begin canonized in Rome today, understood this immediately. But she did not. She voluntarily lived a life of poverty in one of the worst places on earth. She heard Christ’s voice say to her in a prayerful vision – “Come, be my light”…. show the world what poverty and abandonment look like. How could she have known the struggles that lie ahead? Likewise, how could she have imagined the glory? Maybe that’s why our first reading from the Book of Wisdom begins “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?”

She did what God asked her to do, never realizing the impact her life would have. She never tried to be a saint. That was God’s plan.

What do you think are God’s plans for your life?

You know, almost everyone I know who gets an addition always ends up saying the same thing. After the contractors and the builders have gone, after all the blood, sweat and tears, when you go visit their home, it looks wonderful, doesn’t it?  It looks even better than what the owners could have imagined. They all say “It was worth it.”

So, too, with God and our lives. So, too, with our decent little cottage.

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Michelle and Charlie. August 20th, 2016.

Aren’t weddings wonderful? Think about all the hard work that’s been done to get us to this moment, and how much fun the reception will be. Times like these are great opportunities to pause for a moment and reflect on what this day is all about, don’t you think? And not just for Charlie and Michelle.

I’m reminded of the story about the middle-aged man who had a doctor’s appointment. He was getting agitated because the doctor was running late. Noticing that the man was getting agitated, the doctor asked him if he had another appointment. The man replied that his wife was waiting at home for him. The doctor asked, “Surely she won’t be angry if you’re a few minutes late.”  The man replied “You’re right. She’ll be fine. We had lunch together.”

The doctor nodded and said, “I thought so. Just give her a quick call and tell her your doctor was busy.”  “I could do that.” The man replied, “But you see, she’s in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. She wouldn’t remember I called. She doesn’t know where she is most of the time.”  The doctor said, “Does she have a caretaker?” “Oh, yes. I’ve provided the best.” Well, if she’s doing well now where she is, I think she’ll be fine until you get there.”

The man replied, “You don’t understand. I’m not rushing home to make sure she’s OK. I’m rushing back home because I love her, and I want to spend time with her.”

St Ignatius of Loyola said “Love always shows itself more in deeds than in words”. The husband in this story doesn’t want to talk to his wife about love. He just wants to love her. And it’s those actions that move our heart, fill us with joy, gives us hope.

We have another story, just like that one, starting today. Sure, the specifics are different, but the action is the same.

And maybe that’s why Michelle and Charlie chose these readings for us. They all talk about a love so powerful that people are willing to sacrifice everything for another person. What a wonderful road map for their marriage!

I mean, just look at the Beatitudes. Three of them ask us to bear a burden, a sacrifice. Being poor, being sad, being persecuted. Something we weren’t expecting.  And because we weren’t expecting them, we depend on love to get us through. It’s God blessing our reactions, our responses.

And in the other five – being meek, being a peacemaker, being merciful, fighting for what’s right, remaining clean of heart – those are things that we do. Things we do with our love. That’s when God blesses our pro-activity, our actions, as well.

In both instances, action is more important than words. And I’d like to suggest that they challenge to ask ourselves: how have I loved today? What actions have I done that show, and not tell, my love for God and creation?

Maybe it was choosing the perfect wedding gift. Or, you’ll be driving someone to the reception. Or, telling someone how lovely they look. Or maybe next weekend you’ll volunteer again at the soup kitchen, the nursing home, the homeless shelter.

In a way, these things we do are our answer to all the stories in the newspaper. Syria, ISIS, racism, the anger, the violence, the pain. Putting our love in action – no more evident than this public declaration of love — this is our antidote. These are the things that remind us that love is more powerful than hate.

In a moment, Charlie and Michelle will exchange their wedding vows. Like a white canvas before an artist, there will be so many different experiences, so many acts of love in their painting. But you know Michelle and Charlie will not be the only two people on that canvas. We will all be in the picture. Our Church will be in the picture. Christ will be in the picture. Our deeds, our presence, our support, will speak so much louder than best wishes or good intent. They need all of our actions to complete their masterpiece. All of our actions, together.

So, happy are those who rush home to their spouse from the doctor’s office. Happy are those who seek God in all things. Happy are those who are blessed to fall in love, and decide, together, to let their actions on August 20th, 2016 speak so much louder than their words.

 

 

 

“…No, I Tell You, But Rather Division.”

When was the last time you had an argument with your family? And — you don’t need to answer this, either — what were you arguing about?

The sad reality is that we fight the most with the people we love the most. And it’s usually over something we think is important. We want to get our point across. Money. Parents. Grand kids. Tuition. Doctors. Moving back home. Moving out. These things matter to us.

In the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Albus Dumbledore said this: “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.” And, as we know from our own experience, even our families.

Now, in case you haven’t seen the movies or read the books, Dumbledoor is the Hogwart’s headmaster. He’s a source of wisdom in the Harry Potter series. And while most of J.K. Rowling’s characters are caught up in the emotion of immediate things, Dumbledore sees life from a broader perspective. Being 150 years old will do that.

Likewise in today’s Gospel, Jesus sees the broader perspective. He not only acknowledges that disagreements happen, but He almost guarantees that we will fight about God, about religion, about the Church. The same way a respectful teenager will fight with their parents as they figure out what they believe in the world.

That’s an inconvenient truth we may know too well. That’s not always easy for us to hear.

As Martin Luther King Jr has said, “Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist.”  He knows what it means to be human. He knows the struggles, He knows the challenges, He knows how difficult it can be to hold on to what you believe in.

Now, you might ask, I thought Jesus was the ‘Prince of Peace’? I thought he was against fighting?

Well, He is. But the reality of the early Church was this: if you decided to tell your family you were thinking about becoming a Christian, it meant you were deciding to break the law. And, in the first 300 years of the Church, your whole family could get arrested, beaten, tortured — or even worse. Even if you weren’t a Christian, but your brother or sister was. Guilt by association.

You’d pay a price for your belief in God. But so would your family.

Jeremiah is taking a risk in our first reading. He’s telling the telling soldiers that the city of Jerusalem was doomed. God was punishing them. Resistance was futile. They might have a better shot at being allowed to repent if they just surrendered. Which all turned out to be true… And for his boldness, he was thrown into a cistern, a hole, the ancient form of solitary confinement.

His faith almost cost him his life.

Just like Jeremiah, Jesus is telling us the truth about what will happen. There’s no sugar coating, no pulling any punches.

He knows people. He knows that when we get fired up about something, when we believe, we might make some people mad. You might start a fight. Like when you are opposed to a political policy or party, and get accused of being unpatriotic. Or if you challenge something in your workplace, you might be labeled uncooperative. Or if you disagree with your family or your friends, you might be ignored.

It’s like that with Christ. He’s reminding us today to consider what we are most passionate about. It’s as if He’s asking us the question: When was the last time we had an argument with someone about God? When were we willing to take a stand, even against those who perhaps we love so much?

So let us be encouraged by today’s readings. Jesus knows it’s only through your on-going strength, your courage, your persistence and your passionate arguments that the world will change. Your good efforts will be rewarded, even if you feel dejected, alone or frustrated.  Always remember how inspirational your life truly is.  No one ever promised you a rose garden following Jesus. Most especially Him!

Let me finish with a quote from Billy Graham, who perhaps gave us one of the best reasons why we need to keep up the good fight…

“We are the Bibles the world is reading; We are the creeds the world is needing; We are the sermons the world is heeding.”

A Christian response to our violent world. (July 17, 2016 Homily)

Once again, we come together after a week of horrible news. And, once again we are all asking ourselves one simple question: How can we make this stop? We know there is no simple answer, but we are looking for encouragement. We are looking for hope.

Like Abraham and Sarah. When strangers sent by God approach Abraham’s home, he doesn’t response with hate or violence to strangers. He welcomes them, offering them water to bathe their feet, food, a place to rest. One simple act which has great consequences, as soon after this God blesses Sarah with a child. As the book of Hebrews says, he was ‘entertaining angels’.

Did you know the cab drivers turned off their meters and gave everyone free cab rides around Nice the night of the tragedy? They didn’t know who they were driving, but they welcomed the stranger in a time of great need.

We need to hear these stories. They give us hope in humanity. The hatred and racism that fuels so much violence in our world comes about because some people  do not feel accepted. They don’t feel welcome. By doing small things with great loves, we can build a more loving, more accepting world. The Kingdom of God. We can’t stop someone who is psychologically unbalanced, but we can welcome the immigrant, the refugee, the person who is not like us.

Think of it this way: If we each lit a candle, soon we would have a great light. The light of Christ, a light to guide everyone through these most difficult times.

That’s the promise we know through one crucifixion, and one Resurrection. The Book of Revelation promises us that evil and hate will never be victorious over the goodness of God. That is our hope. That is our answer this week.

Like Martha and Mary. Let’s not argue this morning whether it’s better to run around the kitchen and serve Jesus or sit at his feet. Let’s take a step back and recognize they both welcomed Him into their home. They both offered hospitality, not hatred.

It’s probably good to keep in mind these days that if the news channels broadcast all the good news that happens in Orlando, in Dallas, in Baltimore, in San Bernadino,  they wouldn’t have enough reporters or broadcast space to get all that love on the air. They would need a 24/7 news station,  broadcasting all year, to show the kindness and good deeds that occur every day in those cities. And our city as well.

Last week, former President George Bush spoke at the Dallas Memorial for the slain police officers. I was deeply moved by his words, and I’d like to share them with you this morning.

“Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose. But Americans, I think, have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values.

We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals.

At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.

And it is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.

At our best, we honor the image of God we see in one another. We recognize that we are brothers and sisters, sharing the same brief moment on Earth and owing each other the loyalty of our shared humanity.

At our best, we know we have one country, one future, one destiny. We do not want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose.

The Apostle Paul said, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of strength and love and self-control.” Those are the best responses to fear in the life of our country…

Hospitality, not hatred. That’s what we can do. That’s the answer. And in knowing that the Lord is with us, may we go in peace this morning, glorifying the Lord with our lives.