I. There were times in our lives, especially in our adolescent years and later, when we led our parents to some places they’d never have chosen or anticipated. But they went, they always went, because we were theirs.
In late August, my dad moved out of his apartment, then into assisted living, and now into a nursing home. His mind isn’t as clear as it was even a month ago, and his body has become more fragile, too. Now he’s taking me to places I’d never have chosen or anticipated. But there’s no question that I’ll go, I’ll always go, because I am his.
II. The wreath, the candles, the purple and blue, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We’ve seen it and done it all before, right? Same old, same old. NO. The truth is, we’ve never been here before. Advent isn’t the remembrance or resuscitation of Christ’s long ago coming, or some religious exercise to get us in the mood for Christmas. Every Advent, this Advent, is meant to be an excursion to a place we haven’t yet gone, an opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ in a way we haven’t imagined or dared. It won’t be, it can’t be, the same old thing.
III. Today’s scriptures announce that it’s time to pay attention—to be alert, to be watchful—not only for the end of time, but to where and how Christ is revealing himself today. Christ is coming all the time, arriving in every moment. In this new year, he may be leading us to places we haven’t chosen or anticipated, to a place we haven’t yet imagined or dared.
Given the state of our world, the state of our country, the state of our community, just where is Christ leading us? Where are we being called —both personally and collectively—on behalf of immigrants and refugees, especially those in our own Ascension community? Where are we being called to in matters concerning racial equity? What about the poor, the elderly, the hungry, the young? What is Christ calling us to say or do or be in our families? For my part, I don’t know what he’s calling me to do, but I know he’s calling me to something, to something more—and frankly, I’m a little nervous about it. I rely on a refrain I learned in treatment, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”
Pay attention, be alert, be watchful. The migrant Christ is on the move, breaking through, willing us to go where he goes. And go we must, because we are his.
I. It was a beautiful thing to celebrate Thanksgiving at Ascension. On both Wednesday and Thursday I witnessed parishioners spending part of their holiday spending themselves to feed the hungry and the poor, preparing and delivering some 1,400 Thanksgiving dinners. The goal, of course, is meeting a basic human need in a simple act of charity. But in this interaction, something much more happens: one gets a glimpse of Christ—in the giver, yes, but more vividly in the receiver.
II. In today’s reading from the critical twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, which Pope Francis calls the protocol by which we will be judged, Jesus directly identifies himself with the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized. Jesus tells us that if we’re looking for him, that’s where he’ll be: his identity with the poor and powerless is total. He is an uncommon king, much more the good and true shepherd who smells like his sheep. And so, the Christian has a singular way of viewing the poor and those on the margins, seeing them through a uniquely Christian lens. To tolerate the inequities and injustices among refugees and immigrants, the hungry and poor, the displaced and marginalized—to see them and do nothing—is to see Jesus himself and not be moved; it’s to see the suffering Christ and not care.
III. One preacher says that we who proclaim Matthew 25 must be seared by it. Here at Ascension, we have a unique opportunity to not only proclaim Matthew 25, but to live it. Here we hear Jesus’ call to encounter and embrace him embodied in all our brothers and sisters. Here we confront matters that affect immigrants and others who suffer racism, others who are marginalized, uncomfortable though it might be. But as Blessed Oscar Romero says,
A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?
“In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” (St. John of the Cross.) In the end, we will be judged on whether or not we’ve met others’ most basic human need. We will be judged on love alone.
I. From the third-century Desert Fathers comes the story of a young monk who came to the elder Abba Joseph and said,
“Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and quiet; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my mind of evil thoughts and my heart of evil intents. Now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven. His fingers ignited, like ten flames. He said, “Why not become fire?”
II. The talents—the weights of gold coins—that the master gave to his servants added up to a fantastic sum—one and two and five million dollars: a fortune. What so peeved the master about the servant who buried his million was not that he didn’t turn a profit, but that he had apparently learned nothing. The master trusted them with eight million dollars, a huge risk. He expected them to continue his work, to carry on his enterprise, by taking bold risks themselves.
III. Like the young monk, we ourselves may go along, keeping the rule, saying our prayers, doing what’s required of us. While God has handed us a fortune, blessing our lives in a million ways, our spiritual and evangelical lives may be a timid, tepid response, marked by safety and security, rather than boldness and courage. That, I fear, is where I find myself—too often, even today.
In his exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes,
How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction! Yet I realize that no words of encouragement will be enough unless the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts.
God dared to put his divine Spirit into us. We can be risk-taking Christians because we have a risk-taking God. As Jesus spent his life, so are we meant to spend ours: continuing his work, carrying on his enterprise, taking bold risks, letting the Gospel loose into the world.
Why not become fire?
I. They said that the world was going to end on September 23. Then it was October 15. Then October 31. Now it’s November 19. Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster, was one of those who had issued multiple failed predictions of the end of the world. He said this led to some tough times. Conan O’Brien noted that friends tried to console Mr. Camping, calling and telling him, “Hey, it’s not the end of the world.”
Mr. Camping conceded that, through it all, he finally learned to walk more humbly before God: remembering that God is in charge. Never too late to learn that lesson.
II. These are tough times for many. In the face of doomsday predictions, the Christian doesn’t cross his fingers and wish for something, then wait until it happens. Since the incarnation of God in Jesus, God has come to the world once and forever. God’s coming is not a one-time “rapture.” Rather, God regularly penetrates space and time; God’s presence and participation in our histories is constant.
Christian hope, born of the Resurrection, is something other than wishful thinking. More than confidence in our future, Christian hope is confidence in God’s future. When we come to the end of our potential, what we can do, or can’t imagine any good that can come of what we’ve been dealt, hope in what’s possible for God—hope in God’s future—takes over. Christian hope doesn’t believe there’s a chance that God will intervene, but expects it, counts on it. It keeps our torches lit.
III. So, for those distressed at the state of affairs in our country and world, with crises and conflicts and clashes; with the threats of arrests and deportation and the undoing of families; and in the face of our weakened bodies and tired spirits, we do not retreat from faith and its practice, “as those who have no hope,” St. Paul says. Rather, we stride more deeply and resolutely into our life with Jesus Christ—our only hope. Consequently, our ultimate encounter with Christ will be the joyful meeting of familiar friends, longtime companions.
“Therefore,” St. Paul says today, “encourage one another with these words.”
I. My heart was pounding yesterday morning as I arrived at the Basilica of Saint Mary for the Confirmation of some young people from Ascension. My exaggerated heart rate was the result of racing back from the Cathedral of Saint Paul where I thought the ceremony was taking place. During the Mass, I couldn’t help but wonder what the confirmation candidates were feeling. Were they excited or utterly disinterested? What were they thinking about the Mass, the Church, its members and its leaders? Do they, like Jesus in today’s gospel, find their religious teachers hypocritical, proud, and arrogant? Do they even listen to them? Pope Paul VI once said that people will not listen to teachers unless they’re also witnesses. People feel, he says, (quote), “an instinctive revulsion for everything that appears as pretense, façade or compromise.”
II In contrast to those qualities, lining every hallway in Ascension school are white cards that describe Christian character traits: kindness, optimism, respect, and the like. Each week our school community focuses on one of the traits, and tries to live it. When I asked the scholars at our All Saints Day Mass what the first thing a visitor might see upon walking into the school, one student mentioned those white cards. Another went one better. She said that the first thing a visitor might see is, “Kids being nice to each other.” Practicing what we preach.
III How does Ascension exercise religious leadership in this place in this time? How is Ascension called to lead on the North Side? How are we called to lead in support of immigrants and immigration reform? How am I called to lead? If we are to be credible, Pope Francis regularly reminds leaders and teachers to be shepherds living with the smell of their sheep. He says,
When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a [poor] neighborhood and quite another to go there, live there, and understand the problem from the inside and study it… One cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty.
“If you want to know what a person believes, watch their feet, not their mouths.” How does one stop talking and start leading?
h/t: Kathryn Mathews
I. “What to wear?” I worry over that every day. If you Google, “what to wear,” you get 396,000,000 responses. The poor slob in today’s gospel who got booted from the banquet should have consulted the “What to Wear to a Wedding” website. Had he done so, he would have discovered that it wasn’t a matter of what one wears, but who one wears. No, not Gucci, or Pucci, or Prada. The Ultimate Host expects that his guests be clothed in Christ.
II. Today’s Gospel story is marked by urgency: the food’s hot and it won’t wait. The time to put on Christ is now. In a Christian community, it’s expected that all of us wear Christ all the time. It should be as obvious as wearing this white thing. It’s called an “alb,” from the Latin word, “albus,” meaning “white.” I wear this alb every time we get together, as did the early Christians, making it apparent that they were “putting on” Christ, as if He were their very skin.
In this parish, wearing Christ means that everyone will find a lavish welcome at the table, that all will receive and all will give. It’s an urgent matter: if we can’t count on always and forever finding Christ here, then, pray God, where?
III. The feast that God offers is not only some churchy thing that only takes place in a limited sacred space, or some fantastic reality that’s awaiting us in the beyond. Jesus saw all of life as God’s joyful hospitality, God’s love and generosity spilling over, the world charged with the grandeur of God, every breath a mouthful of grace. It’s an invite too good to pass up. Those in today’s parable who had the gall to refuse had their town burned down: “Zero Tolerance” for party poopers.
In her poem, “Good Times,” Lucille Clifton writes:
my mama has made bread
and grampaw has come
and everybody is drunk
and dancing in the kitchen
and singing in the kitchen
oh these is good times
oh children think about the
Dancing and singing here in the Eucharistic kitchen trains us to know the good times.
I. Whenever someone says, “Tell me about Ascension. What’s your parish like?” I don’t know where to start: you’re impossible to explain. We are a Spanish-speaking community, we are an English-speaking community. We have black and white and brown skin. We’re young and old, some wealthy, some who live in poverty. We’re immigrants from Africa and Asia and islands, and the children of European immigrants whose families have warmed this church for generations. And then there’s the rest of us and all the others. This is the vineyard of which you and I are the heirs, its stewards and trustees.
II. In an article titled, “Despite Our Differences, We Are One Holy, Catholic, Dysfunctional Family,” Brian Harper writes,
We live in an extraordinarily and boundlessly diverse world. If our faith is to have any significance, it must be reflective of that world…How will we possibly be able to encounter the complicated world lying beyond our cathedral walls if we cannot stomach the complexities within?
Beyond regularly congratulating ourselves on being so fashionably diverse, we must encounter and accompany one another at the cost of discomfort and pain, so that encounter and accompaniment makes a difference in our lives and in the world. Our complexities in here make us more able to encounter the complicated world out there.
III. Some months ago, a few of us gathered on Saturday mornings to pray for peace in our neighborhood and justice for our immigrant brothers and sisters. Every week, we prayed these words:
For our faith community, that we may celebrate and welcome the diverse faces of Christ in our worship, our ministries, and our leaders;
For the wisdom to receive the stories and experiences of those different from ourselves and to respond with respect;
For the courage to have difficult conversations about racism, and for a better appreciation of how our words and actions—or even our silence—can impact our communities.
Having been welcomed indiscriminately to the vineyard ourselves, let’s be benevolent stewards, dependable tenants, of the lush vine entrusted to our care.
I. Living in Rome and the Vatican for five years, I became familiar with something known in those cultures as bella figura: one makes the best possible impression by cutting a “beautiful figure”—a bella figura—with high fashion, flowery speech, and impressive titles. It’s about how one carries oneself in the world. It’s all about appearances. Better to cover up flaws and failures and hope you’re not found out, than reveal what’s really going on.
The answer to the riddle posed by Jesus today may seem obvious. Which son did what his father wanted? Well, the one who, despite what he said initially, ultimately did the right thing: he showed up. But, on the other hand, for those who value looking good above all else—bella figura—the better thing is to give the admirable answer: just say yes—even if you privately bear the weight of being a fraud.
II. In the ordination rite for a deacon, the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hands of the newly ordained and says,
Believe what you read,
Teach what you believe,
And practice what you teach.
We can profess and confess, and jabber about love and mercy and justice, but living it demands so much more. When truth is spoken plainly, it’s breathtaking; all the more when that truth is lived plainly. Personally, as one who professes, confesses, and jabbers about love and mercy and justice for a living, the stakes are high. If I don’t practice what I preach, I’m a liar and fraud.
III. So, as St. Paul urges us today, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus; have in you the same attitude. But, Paul goes on, Christ emptied himself, he was obedient to the point of death on a cross: Christ not only said, but did. Let’s us not only say, but do. Let’s move beyond words and appearances. Let’s cut a beautiful figure—a bella figura—by living the truth.
I. I once asked a class of ninth-graders to imagine that, if their lives were to span six days of creation, what would the six benchmarks, those six milestones be. There were some obvious answers: birth, starting school, 8th-grade graduation. But one teen mentioned that significant in the story of her creation was “family conflict.” I’m not sure she realized how mature a response that was: the recognition that pain and struggle were integral in shaping her to be who she is.
II. Isaiah reminds us today that God’s ways are not our ways. At this point in my life, I really don’t need to be reminded of that anymore. Quite contrary to my plans and expectations, the most formative events in my life have been both unforeseen and unwelcome: sickness, weakness, failure, and collapse. Such humbling occurrences are the primary portals for the penetration of God’s spirit and grace into our lives. God’s way is that want and need are the way to abundance; that weakness is the way to strength; that death is the way to life; and that the last will be first.
III. Jesus intended his parables to provoke and confound us. To the landowner’s question whether I am envious that others have more, and whether I resent his generosity, my answer is, “Yes” and “Yes.” And there it is: yet another opportunity to surrender to God’s way.
I. Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaks of “The Danger of a Single Story.” As I listened to a presentation of hers, I was both captivated and heartsick. She reminded me that, as impressionable young children, some of us heard and absorbed many single stories about certain kinds of people. From these stories, we concluded that black people were to be feared, their families were unstable, and they were always mad. Likewise, we learned that Mexicans were criminals who’d snuck across the border, who weren’t smart enough to speak English. We also heard single stories about American Indians, the divorced, the Irish, Protestants and Jews. Certain groups of people were outsiders not to be trusted and ought to be avoided. Now, as an adult, while I strive to be better educated, have a variety of relationships with all kinds of people, and hold various stories about others, I feel that I’m immune to the danger of those single stories, yet also know that some measure of unseemly racist residue remains in me.
La escritor nigeriana, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, habla del “peligro de una sola historia.” Al escuchar una presentación suya, me captivó y me angustié. Ella me hizo recordar que, como niños y jóvenes impresionables, escuchamos y absorbimos muchas historias singulares a cerca de ciertas personas. A partir de estas historias, estábamos enseñados que deberíamos temer a los negros, que sus familias eran inestables, y siempre estaban enojados. Asimismo, aprendimos que los mexicanos eran delincuentes por cruzar la frontera sin permiso y que no eran lo suficientemente inteligentes para aprender y hablar inglés. También oímos las historias singulares acerca de los indios americanos nativos, los divorciados, los irlandeses, protestantes y judíos. No hay que confiar en ciertos grupos de personas, y de los extranjeros, hay que evitarse. Ahora, como adulto, aunque me esfuerzo por ser mejor educado, y tengo una variedad de relaciones con todo tipo de personas, me lamento que hay rasgos de racismo y estas historias dañosas que todavía son parte de mi.
II. A signature theme for Pope Francis is his call for a “culture of encounter.” A culture of encounter reaches out, fosters dialogue and friendship outside our usual circles, among different cultures and ethnicities, and especially with the struggling, the alienated, and the poor. For him, encounter, or encuentro, isn’t just a meeting, but a communing: a meeting of minds and hearts that defies exclusion and isolation.
Algo muy importante para el Papa Francisco es promover una “cultura del encuentro”. Tal cultura es dinámica, fomentando el diálogo y la amistad entre diferentes culturas y grupos étnicos, y especialmente con los que luchan, los marginados y los pobres. Nos llama a irnos más allá, fuera de nuestros círculos habituales, para encontrarse A DIOS en el enriquecimiento que nos espera. Para el Papa, el encuentro no es sólo estar juntos en el mismo lugar, sino una comunión de mentes y corazones que niega la exclusión y el aislamiento.
III. Here at Ascension, we are challenged to embrace our life as a multicultural community. What an opportunity. What a blessing. What a challenge. Why do we bother with all the multicultural and bilingual complications? Diversity is a path to a larger goal, something that we might call a reconciling community. There are too many instances in our histories when we have hurt another, when we have offended another, when we have sinned against one another. If we are privileged to live in a reconciling community, that means we don’t have to rely solely on our own inner resources to forgive those hurts, offenses & sins. It is God’s unlimited power to forgive that flows through us.
In today’s Gospel, The servant who was forgiven by the king was asked to forgive his fellow servant a debt of only one six-hundred-thousandth of what he had been forgiven. With God’s help, we can manage that, right?
Aquí en Ascensión, trabajamos intencionalmente y duro para tratar de crear una comunidad multicultural. ¡Qué oportunidad! ¡Qué bendición! ¡Qué reto! ¿Por qué molestarnos con todos los detalles multiculturales y bilingües? Yo propongo que la diversidad es un camino hacia una meta más grande, algo que podríamos llamar una comunidad reconciliadora. Lamentablemente, hay demasiados veces en nuestras historias cuando hemos herido uno a otro, cuando hemos ofendido uno a otro, cuando hemos pecado uno contra el otro. Si tenemos el privilegio de vivir en una comunidad reconciliadora, significa que no tenemos que depender solamente de nuestros propios recursos interiores a perdonar las ofensas y pecados. Es el poder a perdonar ilimitado de Dios que fluye a través de nosotros como individuos y como comunidad.
Hoy en el evangelio, el rey que perdonó a su siervo mucho, espera que este mismo siervo actúe con compasión para perdonar a su compañero con una deuda mucho más pequeña. Con la ayuda de Dios, podemos hacer eso, ¿verdad?
San Pablo nos recuerda:
Dios… nos ha entregado el mensaje de la reconciliación. Nos presentamos, pues, como embajadores de Cristo, como si Dios mismo le exhortara por nuestra boca.
Podemos ser una comunidad reconciliadora. ¿Qué nos impide perdonar individualmente y como comunidad? ¡Somos llamados a ser embajadores de Cristo!
To quote the Apostle Paul:
[God] has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. This makes us ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you, in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God!
We can be a reconciling community. What gets in the way of our forgiving one another as individuals and as a community?
We are called to be ambassadors for Christ!