Sunday, January 25, 2015

Love Story

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle B

It’s one of those serendipities of the liturgical reading cycle that we hear today the story of the calling of the prophet Jonah and the first apostles, since yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my ordination. And while I am no way in the same league as a prophet or an apostle, it has caused me to reflect on my experiences the past eleven years and see some similarities.

I often wonder at the power of Jesus’ word and presence when people encountered him in their daily lives. How magnetic and disruptive his personality must have been. He had enormous influence in order to shake people from their former lives in such a short period of time. I guess that’s why we describe people with magnetic personalities as being charismatic today.

What was it about that moment in the apostles’ lives that caused them to leave their families and friends and their livelihoods in order to follow someone just because he called them to? We don’t know if the apostles had met or heard about Jesus before that day. Perhaps they knew him by reputation. Perhaps he had spoken to them before and it was finally time for them to act. Remember that Jesus himself had to be prodded into his public ministry by his own mother at the wedding feast at Cana. Maybe Jesus had been preparing Andrew, Peter, James and John for a while before calling them to leave that day.

Isn’t that more plausible? Isn’t that more in keeping with our own experiences? I know it is with mine. I don’t believe in love at first sight. Falling in love is a process, whether it is with God or with one another. There is an initial attraction, whether physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. Then there is a period of self-revelation with that person, where we get to know one another. With that slow revelation we come to understand what we’re all about, and the revelation gets deeper and more personal. Out of that understanding comes trust, and only with trust can love blossom.

I can see that happening with the apostles. They were men searching for something. Like most Jews of the first century, they were looking for a messiah. Actively looking. Maybe they had checked out other charismatic personalities who were wandering around Galilee. We know from the scriptures that there were many such messiahs popping up and disappearing around that time. Maybe they were disciples of John the Baptist. The gospel of John says they were. And we know that Jesus also followed John around the Jordan. Maybe the apostles had met and gotten to know Jesus there, in community with other searchers.

That’s what happened to me. I am a cradle to grave Catholic; some have called me TurboCatholic. And my love for Jesus did not come about from some earth shattering event or revelation, like with St. Paul. No, just as Peter was led to Jesus by his brother, I was led to Jesus by my dad. I gained knowledge of Jesus throughout my sixteen years in Catholic schools, but I didn’t fall in love with Jesus through study. I was attracted to the Jesus my father knew and loved. Dad never had a lot of book learning, he had a personal relationship with Jesus. And I wanted that same relationship.

You see, you can know everything about a person and not love them. A lot of folks go to bible studies and retreats and study everything they can find about Jesus, but never really fall in love with him. Unless you have a personal experience of the risen Lord, just as the apostles did, you can never truly grow to love him.

Now don’t get me wrong, the way to find Jesus, know him and then love him is often through bible study, retreats, and the sacraments, and that’s why we do them. But there will always come that moment when you have to make the decision to follow him. There will always come that time when you have to choose to switch your focus off your family and friends, your job and your interests and onto being a disciple. Some people will actually be called to leave all those things and enter a life of service as a priest, religious, activist or whatever. But most of us won’t. Most of us will just make the mental and spiritual switch. And I think that’s often harder to live than if we just left everything and entered a monastery.

Remember the story of the rich young man? He asked Jesus what he had to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus told him to obey the commandments, and the man said he always had. Then Jesus asked him to make that choice to switch his focus from his life of possessions and onto Jesus. And the man went away dejected because that was just too much to ask. He hadn’t had time to fall in love with Jesus yet. Perhaps later on he did, but we cannot know.

Whether it was spur of the moment or the result of time, at one point the apostles had to choose whether or not to follow Jesus. At a specific point in time Jesus called them to act. Preparation time was over. Time to get a move on.

As a deacon I’m often caught in the middle. I’m neither fish nor fowl. I am clergy but I exercise my ministry in the world and the marketplace. A priest is a priest, and maybe a son and a friend. I am husband and father, friend and brother, businessman and deacon. Like you, I struggle to keep my priorities straight. I have to constantly remind myself that a deacon is what I am, not what I do. I am supposed to be servant, and that service extends to my roles as husband and father, friend and brother and businessman. And my wife and children, friends and sister all know that I never live up to being servant, and never will.

I can really relate to poor Jonah in today’s first reading. We get the middle of the story here, but need to know the beginning and the end. Jonah was called by God to be a prophet, and he really didn’t want to. In fact, he told God no and then ran away and hid. You see, God wanted Jonah to go to the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh, and tell them that God was going to destroy them all in three days. That’s all. He didn’t have to preach to them or try to convert them. All he had to do was tell them they were going to all be killed. And Jonah didn’t think that was fair. And he was scared.

The Assyrians were one of the most barbarous and brutal civilizations the world has ever known. The Assyrian empire had conquered virtually all the Middle East, and they treated the conquered people horribly. They wiped out the Northern kingdom of Israel and carried thousands of people off to slavery. It’s understandable that Jonah hated the Assyrians and feared what they would do to him if he was caught yelling in the streets.

Jonah didn’t want to warn the Assyrians. He wanted them to all die. And he didn’t want to die trying. So he ran away from his calling. You know the story. He was swallowed by the big fish, was belched up on the beach, and finally got to walking through Ninevah with his message of destruction. And you know what? They all repented. They all gave up their evil ways and God chose not to destroy them. And this made Jonah even angrier, so angry that he asked God to kill him there and then. God’s sense of justice just didn’t make sense, and it just wasn’t fair.

Now, I don’t ever want God to destroy my enemies, but maybe he could chastise them a little sometimes. Like Jonah, there are some people I don’t think deserve mercy. They’ve hurt me and they deserve to be hurt in return. There have been many times when I have wanted to or tried to run away. Sometimes I just don’t want to go do that hospital visit or make that phone call to the chronic complainer. Sometimes I see the evil and indifference in the world and just want to give up a losing battle. Sometimes I am so frustrated that people just don’t get it.

And that’s when I have to stop, take a deep breath, and try to remember why I’m doing this in the first place. I have to remember who I’m doing this for. I have to strip away all the rules and regulations, pressures and responsibilities, and focus on my love for Jesus. More so, I need to focus on his love for me. I need to experience Jesus in my life personally. I have to feel Jesus. I have to have an emotional response. I have to remember all the times I have experienced the loving hand of God in my life and in the lives of those I serve.

And I have to pray.

I have witnessed some amazing things, some deeply personal conversions in peoples’ lives, the past eleven years. I have to remember them and let them humble me. And it is humbling to see how God’s ways are not my ways, his idea of justice is not the same as mine, and his mercy always triumphs over judgment. Because if God can relent in punishing the Assyrians, if Jesus can forgive the betrayal of his closest friends, then what does God have in store for you and me, servants just trying to get along in the world?


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Jacquie Miller Funeral Homily

For in fire gold is tested, and worthy women in the crucible of humiliation.

Such a beautiful metaphor, and one so appropriate for Jacquie’s life and death. Because Jacquie was pure gold. She had a tough time these last few years. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease, robbing us of our memories along with our life. It’s sad to think that in the end Jacquie could not remember all her loved ones who surrounded her. But she knew we were there, and she knew we all loved her. And like a little child, all Jacquie was left with in the end was her most basic emotion. Love. I think that’s what Jesus means when he tells us that unless we become like little children we will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. For the Alzheimer’s patient is left with what’s truly important, like a child.

They say that when a person has Alzheimer’s their true personality comes out. Grumpy people become grumpier. Happy people are happier. That was true with Jacquie. Even when she was in great pain after her fall last year, the worst she could say was “Darn it, please don’t do that!” She carried on a happy conversation with everyone she came in contact with, even if she didn’t make much sense. And when I went to see her the morning she died, she was lying there with such a serene smile on her face. It was like she had a happy secret. And she did.

We witnessed Jacquie’s decline into Alzheimer’s and may have thought how meaningless, how tragic her life had become. But we believe that every life has meaning, no matter how long or short it is. Every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore is created with great dignity. That is why we honor each and every life. This afternoon we are gathered to celebrate the life of a woman who died of Alzheimer’s. This morning we celebrated the life of a little baby who died in the womb. What society may consider to be worthless, unproductive lives hold great value to us. What the world sees as humiliation we see as an example of what it means to live in the moment.

Jacquie had no choice but to live in the moment. And we should learn from that. All Jacquie had was her today. She had her present. She lost her memories, but that’s really all our pasts are. Our life is our present. Our life is this moment only. Like Jacquie we have no idea what’s going to happen next. All we can be sure of is this one moment. And this one. And this one. All our lives are just linked short moments of time. Always in the present.

Some people look at trying times as tests from God. Other people wonder how a loving God could allow good people to suffer so needlessly. God doesn’t work that way. Life is what it is, and we choose how we deal with the struggles in life. Becoming disciples of Jesus doesn’t mean that all our cares and troubles will fade away. We’re all going to find life burdensome at some time or other. That’s life. We can’t change it. And Jacquie’s strong faith didn’t change the circumstances of her life. Being disciples doesn’t mean we get a free pass. It just means that maybe we’ll be better able to handle life’s troubles if we live as Jesus did. Jacquie may not have been consciously aware of that, but the way she lived her life proved it out.

Christians have always believed that suffering has meaning, that when we offer up our suffering for someone else it has great power. Suffering is a fact of life, brought about by the tendency of humanity to turn from the will of God. God does not will us to suffer, he wants us to be like we were in the Garden of Eden, free from want and free from death. But God understands the reality of suffering, and he himself came to us to share in our suffering. God used death, the death of his Son, to destroy death for us all. God used the very thing that kept us from him to bring us to him.
Before her disease progressed, Jacquie and I would sit in her room and pray for people in the parish and in her family who were sick or in trouble. She never asked to pray for herself, only for others. We talked about offering up our sufferings for the benefit of others. She understood the power of her prayer. And she knew that there were people out there who were offering their suffering up for her. If we understand that reality, we shouldn’t shrink from suffering when it is thrust upon us. Instead, we can take something evil and turn it to the good.
And so this afternoon we celebrate the life of love and the life of faith that was Jacquie’s. We gather to tell stories, share remembrances, and take solace in each other and in the love that God has for us. The greatest sign of that love is Jesus’ promise that there is more to life than this world alone. The first words Jesus said to his disciples that first Easter were “Be not afraid”. He said them over and over again. Be not afraid. Because in the resurrection the promise of everlasting life has been fulfilled. We need never fear death again. Jesus’ death has conquered death, and his resurrection is our promise of eternal life.
And that promise is the reason we are gathered here today. The first disciples believed that Jesus was the Son of God because they witnessed him risen after death. And that was a wonderful thing. But there would be no Christianity today if it weren’t for those words he spoke to them in John’s gospel this afternoon, “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” Jesus didn’t just go to heaven and leave us here alone. He went to prepare heaven for us, so that we would be with him forever.
We have no idea what is in store for us. The most wonderful thing we could imagine wouldn’t be enough. Jacquie now knows the fulfillment of that promise. She now sees God as he is. Face to face. Her hope is now ours.








Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Christmas Spirit

The Christmas Spirit

An atheist group called American Atheists is using a fake "Dear Santa" letter in a billboard campaign in several Southern states, urging people to skip church this Christmas and stop listening to "fairy tales." The billboard - which is positioned near several churches - features a little girl's letter to St. Nick that reads "Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales."

The group claims the billboard targets closet atheists who are pressured to observe religious traditions.

I was struck by the irony that the group is using one obvious fairy tale, that of Santa Claus, to attack celebrating an actual event; the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It seems they don’t want to jettison Christmas altogether, just the God part. Santa is ok because he’s a harmless old elf who gives us gifts but expects nothing from us in return. But Jesus is just too dangerous to include. He must be reduced to a fairy tale. It’s fine and good to enjoy Christmas and have the “Christmas Spirit”, just don’t go overboard with the God stuff. Christmas is real. God is not.

While this attitude is the extreme, every year we see the true meaning of Christmas pushed farther and farther into the background. But, while we mention Christ less and less, we still see Christmas as the time of year when we are kinder, more compassionate, more generous, more aware of those in need. We call that the “Christmas Spirit”, and we see the inherent good in it. The “Christmas Spirit” has become something we put on like a new sweater every year, and we all wistfully sigh and wish that every day could be like Christmas day.

Are you one of those people who have to work at getting the “Christmas Spirit”? I am. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas until the tree and decorations are all up, carols are sung and listened to incessantly, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “White Christmas”, “A Christmas Carol”, and God forbid, “The Christmas Story”, have all been watched at least once, and of course, snow is on the ground. The busier life gets the more I use these signs of Christmas to get me in the mood. I seem to have to manufacture the “Christmas Spirit” with external signs.

Everyone, not just Christians, want the “Christmas Spirit”. Everyone wants a kinder, gentler, more compassionate world, and we want it more than once a year. We all know that things work better, relationships are closer, and life is more peaceful when we recognize and embrace the Spirit. We want the fruit of the Spirit but we won’t name the Spirit. We get almost there but can’t seem to make it all the way for fear of offending someone. It’s like we want to say it but can’t find the words. We acknowledge the gifts but not the giver.

The true “Christmas Spirit” is the Holy Spirit. The world will try to remove Christ from Christmas but it’s impossible to do so. All the wonderful fruit of the “Christmas Spirit” is actually the fruit of the Holy Spirit St. Paul talks about in his letter to the Galatians. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The fruit of the Holy Spirit is the result of the Holy Spirit's presence in the life of a person.

Once we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence in Christmas it will be easier to live the “Christmas Spirit” every day of the year. We must begin to see things differently, almost in reverse.

Do the gifts you receive give you the spirit or does the Spirit give you the gift?

Does the music you hear give you the spirit or does the Spirit cause a song of joy to well up within you?

Do the decorations give you the spirit or does the Spirit make you the sign of Christ’s presence to those around you?

Do the movies give you the spirit or does the Spirit inspire you to share the story of Jesus with the world?

The story of Christmas is not a fairy tale. It is the most powerful story in the history of the world. I can empathize with the atheists for not believing the story of Christmas, because it is almost too much to bear. How or why would God deem fit to become man, and such a lowly man at that? In order to believe in the story of Christmas you must hold a view of yourself that is often uncomfortable. You must believe that you are someone in need of redemption. You must be completely honest with yourself and humble yourself. But you also must see the extreme value in yourself, so much value that God himself chose to become man so that you could be redeemed.

Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City once said, “Every other religion has a founder that says: ‘I’ll show you the way to God.' Only Christianity of all the major world religions has a founder that says: ‘I am God, come to find you.’" What an awesome, humbling thought. God does not just sit up in heaven waiting for you to find him. He has not set creation up as some big test or board game, giving humanity a bunch of clues to follow in search of the true meaning in our lives. The God we believe in actually comes looking for us. He actually became one of us, entering history, living with us, rejoicing with us, suffering with us and dying for us. It is almost too much to comprehend. How could we be worthy of such a savior?

For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
from David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.

Is Christmas about love? Absolutely. Is Christmas about peace? Definitely. Is Christmas about kindness to our fellow human beings? Of course. But Christmas is so much more than those things. Christmas is about the incarnation. Christmas is all about God becoming man. Christmas is about Jesus. Without Jesus there would be no love. Without Jesus there will be no peace. Without Jesus there is no kindness. Whether you acknowledge it or not makes no difference to the reality of the kind of God we have. Those things will exist whether or not you believe in them. God will exist whether you name him or not.

Don’t struggle with it so much. Acknowledge the truth, name it and embrace it. That is the Holy Spirit working in your soul. That is God tirelessly seeking you out, wanting so much for you to love him, wanting so much to work in you and through you to bring the fruit of his Spirit to the world.

We are not celebrating a religious tradition tonight. We are celebrating the truth. And that’s no fairy tale.