Thursday, December 11, 2014

Comfort Food

You know, whenever I’ve had a bad day or a bad week or I’ve screwed something up big time, I like to sit down to some comfort food. Do you have comfort food? For most of us, I think, it is something that we really love to eat. Maybe it’s a meal from your childhood that makes you think of simpler times. Maybe it’s curling up on the sofa in your pajamas with a half-gallon of Hagen Daz, watching the Hallmark Channel. For me, it’s comfort chicken. Chicken breasts cooked in gravy with mashed potatoes and corn. Anything with gravy can be considered comfort food. There’s something about our favorite foods that brings us comfort when we feel down or depressed. It’s like wrapping yourself up in a warm, cozy blanket.

This time of year can require a lot of comfort food. The days are getting shorter, it’s getting dark earlier and earlier, and that can be depressing. For some, the stress of the shopping and planning and entertaining can bring sadness, not joy.  For others, the loss of someone close to them can make this season dark, not bright. Even the weather, the cold and snow, can drive us into the comforting arms of someone we love.

The prophet Isaiah is told in our first reading to bring comfort to the people. But he does not tell them to eat something yummy. Instead, he tells them that God is aware of their plight and will deliver them from captivity. You see, the Hebrews had been conquered by the Babylonians in 588 BC. Those who were not murdered were exiled to Babylon. 

They were literally marched over the desert bound together, some even with hooks through them to keep them from running away. In Babylon they had no army, no power, no ability to revolt, no hope for escape, at least no hope of their own. Their only hope was that God would see their plight and deliver them from their slavery just as he had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt during the time of Moses. So, the people became far more fervent, far more committed to their faith. They took comfort in the stories of their past and heritage. They took comfort by keeping alive the traditions of their ancestors.

And God heard them and he promised them a Savior, a deliverer. They had to prepare for His coming, for He would come in a power and might the world had never experienced. Then Jerusalem, the city that had been destroyed, would not only be rebuilt but would be restored as the center of God's people.

"See, He comes,” the prophet says, "And like a shepherd he will feed his flock, gather his lambs in his arms, and lead the ewe lambs home with great care.” The Hebrews took comfort in that promise. Five to six hundred years after this prophecy, John the Baptist appeared with a mandate to give comfort to the people. As in the time of Babylon, a savior, a deliverer would come; only this deliverer would save the people from the power of sin. As in the time of Isaiah, the people had to prepare for the Savior. John the Baptist would preach a message of repentance. Sin had to be defeated within each person for evil to be defeated in the world. The people who heard John saw a man dressed like a prophet clothed in camel hair, eating insects and honey. They listened to his call for them to join him in preparing for the Kingdom of God. 

They listened to his telling them that the Savior was at hand. And so we return to those days before the public manifestation of Jesus, when the world was sitting on the edge of its chair, ready to leap with joy at the coming of the Lord. Comfort was coming then. Comfort is coming now. It is not found in ordinary food. Comfort is found in union with the Lord through the food of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the ultimate comfort food, isn’t it? Thirteen years ago on September 11th and 12th, people weren’t flocking to the malls or the car dealerships or restaurants for comfort. They weren’t looking for comfort in material things. They were flocking to the churches. They were hugging and consoling one another and gathering to eat the Bread of Life together.

People always seem to gather together at Mass whenever something bad happens in their lives. Illness or death or great loss requires comfort, and they find it here, in unity with us. It is the same hope and promise of Advent that draws us here together throughout the year. And it’s good that it does. This weekend we see an important aspect of turning to God, that is, recognizing not only that we need God, but that we need other people - and they need us. 

And as we prepare for Christmas, we do so not just to celebrate the birth of the Lord 2014 years ago but to celebrate his coming into each of our lives every day. And like the prophet Isaiah predicted, like the prophet John the Baptist demanded, we must fill in the valleys of our hearts, the gaps where we exclude the Lord, and level the mountains, the barriers of resistance we construct that block His Way. 

We must build a highway for Christ into our hearts. Jesus Christ is a reality, not an ideal. He is coming into our lives, if we let Him. We have to prepare for Him. Christmas is the celebration of love. It is a celebration of the Love that God the Father has for us to send us His Son. It is the celebration of the love we have for each other, manifested externally in gifts, but only as reflections of the love within each of us. For a gift given out of necessity is not a gift of love, it is just an obligation of a season. God the Father gave us a gift of love. We need to return this gift to Him by giving our deep love to each other. 

That means we need to fill in those holes where we allow ourselves to be empty, where we refuse love. For some of us, those holes are canyons. Our refusal to forgive those who have hurt us has created a hole in our hearts that has hampered the coming of the Lord into our lives. We have to level the mountains and hills we have constructed as barriers to love. Our selfishness, our using other people for our own happiness, our dependency on externals for happiness, our seeking happiness in hedonism and in materialism have all become mountains and hills, barriers to love. We cannot and must not allow this to continue. We can fill in the canyons. We can forgive. We can level the mountains. We can remove the barriers to the spiritual. We can be people ready to receive our King, our Savior, our Deliverer. 

C.S. Lewis observed, "every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before." It is up to us to decide whether that change is positive or negative. Lewis also said, “Though God made us without our consent, He will not save us without our permission. It is us up to us individually and collectively to turn towards the light or stay in the darkness. Darkness brings fear and anxiety. Light brings us comfort.
The spiritual impact of this drama of light is brought into the Church during Advent. Our hymns turn to images of light. The darker it gets, the more candles we light on the Advent wreath. In the darkest days of December, our Advent wreath is at its brightest. As Scripture says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it … The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world An old prayer says, Within our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.

And then, on December 24th, in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year, the liturgy of Christmas begins: Christ is born and on December 25th a new light shines. From then on, the days get longer. It is good and natural that we gather together with family and friends, and our faith community, during Advent and Christmastime to offer and receive comfort and joy. Life can seem overwhelmingly negative sometimes. Life can drain the hope from our hearts. But the message of Jesus has always been one of hope. Hope for me, hope for you, hope for all of humanity. And I find that comforting beyond measure.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch the Hallmark Channel.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Jesus Doesn't Want a Throne!

Feast of Christ the King

Cycle A

A couple of years ago, I was standing in my booth at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, watching the crowds walk by. Beside me was a beautiful presider’s chair I had made for a wonderful old church in San Diego. I was showing it as an example of my work, and I was very proud of it. It was solid mahogany with turned legs and carvings and emerald green marble inlays. A chair fit for a king.

Suddenly, a priest went by, practically running down the aisle, probably late for a seminar. As he passed my booth, he checked his stride, took a look at my chair, and began shouting, “Jesus doesn’t want a throne! Jesus doesn’t want a throne!” Then he hurried on his way.

Well, I was incensed. I didn’t know this guy and he didn’t know me. He had no idea why I had designed the chair the way I did nor which church it was designed for. Who was he to just shout out judgment on my work? It was embarrassing. He was saying that my understanding of Jesus was all wrong and his was right. He was denigrating my work to all around. I think he was a Jesuit.

His image of Jesus was different from mine. He saw that chair as a seat of judgment and control, and he preferred an image of Jesus as someone kinder and gentler. After I got control of my emotions, I thought, “Why wouldn’t Jesus like a chair like this? He’s my king, after all.” Jesus has been glorified and sits at the right hand of the Father. Why wouldn’t he sit on a throne?

We see both of those images of Jesus in today’s readings. We begin with the image of the good shepherd, kind and forgiving. We end with image of the King judging between the sheep and the goats. And you know, both are right. We do have a king that is kind and compassionate and forgiving. But we also have the Lord of justice who judges us according to our actions.

This is the Feast of Christ the King. Yet, what a strange king we have. Kings have thrones. Jesus had a cross. Kings have crowns of gold. Jesus had a crown of thorns. Kings have a court of attendants to wait upon them. Jesus’ friends all ran away. Kings have rings of gold on their fingers. Jesus had nails driven into his hands. Kings receive accolades. Jesus was mocked by everyone, even by the guy hanging on the cross next to him.

We don’t do kings well in America. In fact, we fought a long war of independence to get rid of the yoke of kings. We chafe against anyone and anything that curtails our freedoms. Maybe that’s the type of king that priest was thinking about.

Jesus is a different kind of king. He doesn’t take away our freedom, he gives it back to us. By humbling himself on that cross, Jesus showed us what real freedom is. Freedom in the kingdom of God is freedom from sin, freedom from the shackles of our own selfish humanity, freedom from death.

People in Jesus’ day understood what it meant to have a king. Everything they owned could be forfeit at his command. Their very lives were in his hands. At his whim they could be put to death. Signs of the emperor’s influence were everywhere, from the heavy taxes he levied against them to his ever-present legions of troops. To them, the emperor was the center of their lives, whether they liked it or not.

The disciples were confused when Jesus told them this parable, because that was the image of the king they held. Plus, they had the Jewish law, and they thought they would be judged according to it. Over 600 rules and regulations that covered all aspects of their lives, from who they associated with to what they ate and how they cleansed themselves. Now, here was Jesus telling them that it’s more basic than that. We will be judged not on how closely we follow the law, but on how well we treat one another.

There’s the famous story told of St. Martin of Tours, who lived in the 4th century. When Martin, a young Roman soldier and seeker of the Christian faith, met an unclothed man begging for alms in the freezing cold, he stopped and cut his coat in two and gave half to the stranger. That night he dreamt he saw the heavenly court with Jesus robed in a torn cloak. One of the angels present asked, "Master, why do you wear that battered cloak?" Jesus replied, "My servant Martin gave it to me." Martin had a wake-up call. Half measures won’t cut it.

All our king asks of us is what he asked of himself. The king of judgment judges us on how selfless we are. The scary part of this final exam is that not only will we be judged by what we do, we will also be judged on what we fail to do. Whether we know it’s wrong or not. The evildoers in today’s parable are judged on what they didn’t do, even though they had no idea they were supposed to do it. The real sin of the condemned was not that they failed to do anything for those in need, but they didn’t even notice them at all.

Lack of knowledge of the law is no excuse. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a Christian or not. God seems to think that we all know what we’re supposed to do, deep down, even if no one spells it out for us. There’s something deep inside us that tells us how we should act.

Maybe it’s because we have all been on the receiving end of compassion or the lack of it. We always look at this parable from the point of view of the person who is called to be compassionate. What about those who receive compassion? How have you been shown compassion this past year?

When have you been naked? Nakedness is not just a lack of clothing. When have you felt exposed to the world, when you had nowhere to hide, nowhere to run to? Was it a divorce, when you felt that all your family’s trials and faults were on display to all your friends? Was it the death of someone close to you, when you felt you couldn’t turn to anyone for solace, because no one could really understand what you were going through?

When were you hungry? We are surrounded by great plenty here, but hunger is not just for food. In our wedding rite we have a special prayer of the faithful. In it we pray for the hungry poor and the hungry rich. When have you hungered for spiritual sustenance and found none? When have you hungered for a loving touch, or a kind word, or anything that would help you get through the day, and found none?

Are you suffering? Many of you have suffered greatly this past year from serious diseases. The prayer list for the sick in the bulletin grows longer every week. Do you feel there’s no hope, no end in sight to your suffering? Are you frustrated by the doctors’ inability to find a cure? Do you feel abandoned by your friends, damaged goods, because they no longer come to see you?

What is your prison? Is it alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or pornography, or depression, or an abusive relationship? What is keeping you from being free?

 And how have you reacted when you did receive compassion? How did you feel when you found that many people you didn’t even know had been praying for you? Were you able to recognize the little ways that people touched your life for the good? Have you been able to look back upon your suffering this year and found some redeeming value to it? Sometimes the way we react to others’ giving to us determines the way that we heal. Have we allowed others to do for us?

So, it goes round and round. We are called to be compassionate, and we are called to receive compassion. We are called to see to the needs of those around us, and to have our own needs fulfilled by others. That’s the way God set it up. We can’t do it by ourselves. We’re all in this together. It’s pure genius. God knew that we’d screw things up when he gave us free will; he knew we’d hurt each other. He knew we’d be selfish, so he showed us the way to selflessness. St. Paul tells us that just as through a selfish man all died, through a selfless man all have been given eternal life. It was through the selfless death of Jesus Christ that death has been conquered forever.

That’s the message we’re left with on this last Sunday of the year. That whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do unto Jesus. Because Jesus did the same for us. I think that’s something that priest in Anaheim and I can agree on.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

You're Welcome

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle A

The idea of welcoming has taken center stage at the Extraordinary Synod of the Family the past two weeks. And as usual the headlines have been sensational. Fill in the blank for the special interest group who is dissatisfied. This cardinal said something this group thought was unwelcoming. That bishop said something that group thought was welcoming, and so forth. The word of the day seems to be welcome.

I think we are all looking for welcome from our church. We all have our issues and problems and are broken by our sins. Why do some feel so excluded? What does it mean to be welcoming? I think it means different things to different people. To some it means live and let live. To others it means hate the sin but love the sinner. Many people want the church to change to meet their lifestyle choices, rather than them changing their lives to conform to the gospel. Some people have a political agenda. Some people are just plain mean.

Today we hear from the book of Exodus the call to hospitality. Do not oppress the alien among you, for you were once aliens yourself. Hospitality – welcoming the stranger – is a core virtue for Middle Eastern societies even today. Even before they were the chosen people, the Hebrews were wandering Bedouins. When they wandered around the desert, they relied upon the hospitality of other Bedouins sometimes for their very survival. And so being hospitable was a matter of life or death, and elaborate rituals sprung up around the welcoming of strangers.

Welcome strangers when their lives depend on it so that strangers will welcome you when your life depends on it. Isn’t that what loving you neighbor as yourself is all about? Don’t our lives depend upon it?

Every time I hold a class preparing parents for the baptism of their children, I try to get them to understand the awesomeness of their decision and exactly what they are committing to do. I’d say that most of them have been away from the Church for some time, but something about the responsibility of becoming a parent has made them come back to have their children baptized. We talk a lot about what it means to be a Catholic and what their rights and responsibilities are as a Catholic.

Many of them are surprised that they have rights as a baptized person. All they’d ever thought about was their responsibilities; the rules they have to follow. But one of the key rights we discuss is their right to feel welcome in the church. Usually they say that welcoming means being non-judgmental. They want to feel at home in the church itself. They want to walk in, even if they haven’t been in church for a long time, and feel that they have a place there.

And we don’t talk about why they haven’t been to Mass. We talk about how the baptism of their children is a new beginning, not just for their sons and daughters but for their entire families. We don’t get into any issues or misunderstandings they may have, that’s for later. We just ask them to come and see and be open to the gospel. The Mass is not the time or place to have a discussion with someone about their lifestyle choices. But we don’t sweep those issues under the rug. We talk about them in a different venue.

We try to welcome people like Jesus welcomed them. For Jesus, there was always an action and a reaction. He welcomed tax collectors and sinners into his company of disciples, but he then called them to reform their lives. He knew that by welcoming them he was not necessarily condoning their former lives. He was more concerned with what they were going to do from that point on.

“Come and see,” he says. Come join my disciples. And when you do come and see it is our job to give you the entire picture. And it is your job to seriously consider the gospel and then decide whether or not you can accept it and live it. The same Jesus who said I have not come to condemn you is the same Jesus who said “Will you also leave?” Remember that in John’s gospel all but 12 rejected Jesus’ message. Jesus didn’t water down the gospel just to pacify them. He called them to make a choice. He calls us to the same choice.

You know, it wasn’t just the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus welcomed and called to him. It was also good, church going folks like you and me. Just as the apostles sometimes had an “us-vs-them” mentality, seeing themselves as the righteous but the outsiders as sinners who had to reform, we do the same thing. We’re the good folks who have to welcome the bad folks, so that they can become like us. But we’re all sinners, we all have our own issues and problems, and we all have to welcome one another.

I think we all want the church to welcome our ideas and positions, but are we welcoming to the church as we try live the life of the gospel? We all want the church to change, but are we willing to change?

There is a story of a mystic, Maria Simma, who supposedly could communicate with the souls in purgatory. Sort of like in the movie The Sixth Sense. Typically she only listened to the souls when they came to her asking for prayers that they be released, but one day a woman came to the mystic asking her specifically about two people, a woman and a man from her town who had died several months earlier. Maria supposedly was able to contact these folks and reported back to the woman. She said that the woman had already been released into heaven but the man would have to stay in purgatory for a long, long time.

“How can that be?” the woman asked. “The woman was a notorious prostitute who committed suicide and the man was our parish priest, a very holy man! How could he still be in purgatory but the prostitute already be in heaven?” “Well,” the mystic answered, “the prostitute did kill herself by standing in front of an oncoming train, but her last words were ‘At least now, Lord, you won’t have to be disappointed in me any longer.’ But the parish priest refused her a Christian funeral and burial because of who she was and what she had done.”

This may be just a story, but I think you get the point. Mercy always triumphs over judgment. The Diocese of Springfield, Illinois released a study last month that tracked the main reasons people had left their parish and ultimately the Church. The number one reason given was something the priest or deacon had said or done  that offended the person.

I know that there have been times when I blew it. Technically I was right when I explained a certain teaching to someone with questions, but the way I said it or the venue I chose to say it in was wrong. Sometimes we are so busy we just fire off a curt response or comment without thinking about what the person is really asking or experiencing. That can come off as callous and unwelcoming. Sometimes we are just inflexible, self-righteous legalists, so sure in ourselves and our positions, and we drive people away. Most of the time we’re not even aware of what we’re doing. We just never see the folks again.

And oftentimes the teachings of the church seem unwelcoming because it’s not “anything goes”. The church does not change with the world; we are called to change the world. And just as Jesus did not accept every lifestyle as good -“Go and sin no more” - the church of Christ cannot either. But sometimes the way we say it is unthinking or highly theological or non-pastoral. That doesn’t mean the teaching is wrong, just our way of doing it may be. We can’t change the truth, but we can change our intent.

We need to be aware of our intent. Are we just being self-righteous or do we truly care about the person when we try to explain or correct? It is a struggle these days to balance welcoming. It takes effort and thoughtfulness and kindness. The message of the gospel is all inclusive and we’re all struggling to receive it and live it. All we are is one beggar helping another beggar to find bread.

And it takes time. When we welcome someone into our home, especially if it is a new guest, we usually spend a bit of time with them. We don’t leave them standing on the doorstep. We invite them in, take their coat, offer them something to eat and drink, and get to know them better. We engage in conversation, not condemnation. And we usually are on our best behavior. How easy it is to discount someone and their situation in the age of social media. How often do we lovingly take the time to truly welcome someone who is struggling?

But hospitality is not giving your guest the run of the house. The owner of the house opens the door but the visitor needs to respect the owner and the house. Making yourself at home does not mean you can trash the place. In that way both show hospitality.

Pope Francis was in the middle of the whirlwind surrounding the Synod on the Family. The core questions was always, “What will Francis do? What side will he come down on?” We he support our agenda or theirs?” Well, in true Francis style, he embraced and welcomed everyone as Jesus did. This is what he said.

 “And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wounds; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.”