I. My father died 20 days ago. I’ve been flooded with memories of him—from my young and innocent days, to my not-so-young or -innocent adulthood. He was happy in the good times, and faithful to his family in the hard times: through sickness and addictions, divorce, disappointments, and death. Despite all these struggles and more, my dad, for as long as I can remember, would often declare that if he were to die that day, he would have had a good life.
II. Jesus struggled. We hear today that the Spirit “drove” him into the desert where he encountered temptations, wild beasts, and Satan. This kind of suffering is nothing we desire or seek out. We don’t look for opportunities to struggle: one must be thrust into it, plunged into it. While God doesn’t cause our suffering, the Spirit can make use of these challenges—because it is at our limits, at our weakest, where we meet the power and promise of God. There we learn, finally, that nothing separates us from the love of God, that God will not let us go. Life is always working to bring us to an awareness and acceptance of our poverty, the essential condition of our being able to receive God. Jesus knew that. It was in the midst of his temptations and struggles that the angels ministered to him.
III. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas maintains that suffering is not a problem in need of a solution, but rather, a challenge requiring a response. In other words, in the face of pain, we don’t need an explanation, but love. Jesus didn’t solve the mystery of suffering, but initiated a “community of care,” a community in which the suffering and non-suffering are bound to each other, a community that absorbs suffering and sustains the sufferer, and enables faithful living despite pain and evil. The ministry of bringing new life to the sick and fallen, of being a “community of care,” is entrusted to us, embodied in us, realized through us. I have experienced this “community of care” firsthand as you have reached out to console me on the death of my father.
There are two kinds of people in a faith community: those who suffer, and those who console. Depending on the day, we’re one or the other. Which are you today?
h/t: David Lose
I. In an Ascension third-grade classroom last week, we talked about what the name “Jesus” means, and how the meaning of one’s name can be revealing. “Jesus” means “God saves.” Sarah and Abraham gave their son the name “Isaac.” He was a surprise since Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 100. Sarah wondered, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still [to have a son]?”
But the Lord said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really bear a child, old as I am?’ Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do? At the appointed time, about this time next year, I will return to you, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah lied, saying, “I did not laugh,” because she was afraid. But he said, “Yes, you did.”
Isaac: It means, “laughter.”
II. Not in her wildest dreams did Sarah expect to have a baby. Not in his wildest nightmares could Abraham have foreseen the torture of surrendering his son. That wasn’t the future he expected for himself and his wife and the son who was named “laughter,” the boy of his dreams. Isn’t it telling that we name the young people who came to this country with their immigrant parents, “Dreamers”? As they grew, they believed that they would be granted a path to citizenship, even if it took a long time. Not in their dreams or nightmares would they have expected that things would turn out as they have, that they would once again have to live in the shadows and fear that their families will be torn apart.
III. But God has the last word. Although Abraham relinquished his hold on his lone heir, he was granted heirs as “countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”
We may be asked to relinquish our planned future, but only to be offered another possible future. This is not mere wishful thinking, but deep and proven faith. Peter, James, and John were made more able to head back down to the valley after their exhilarating mountaintop experience. They caught a glimpse of the Risen Lord and that was enough to see them through the suffering and struggle that they would soon experience. Jesus came to show us that all suffering ends in new life, all dying ends in resurrection. There isn’t just a chance that God will intervene in our future: we count on it.
May Dreamers, and all of us who dream, continue to dream as we catch a glimpse of the Risen Lord. That Lord is embodied in us who bring to birth God’s reign of love and justice here and now. We are the true and risen Body of Christ. After all, “If God is for us,” St. Paul says today, “who can be against us?”
h/t: Diane Bergant
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says to his daughter,
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
I. What’s it like to be a leper? Jesus knew. The Greek verb used in today’s Gospel to describe his emotion—splanchnizomai—is politely translated, “moved with pity.” Splanchna are intestines, innards, guts. Jesus knew the leper’s pain viscerally: he felt it in his gut. And he paid a price for that. After he reaches out and touches the leper, Jesus has to leave town: his plans are changed, his life disrupted. He had to hide out in the desert. In effect, he trades places with the leper, climbs inside of his diseased skin, becoming an outcast himself. Jesus doesn’t merely lend a helping hand, but joins in suffering with another. For the Christian and the Christian community, compassion—that is, literally, “suffering with”—is an opportunity to be drawn deeper into communion with others.
II. In his exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis calls for a Church that heals by direct personal contact. He writes,
[Jesus] hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness.
When we do so, the Pope writes (in a phrase that I love), “our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”
III. In two weeks, we are having a parish meeting where we will together discern our pastoral priorities for the next few months. The values that guide our planning presume that we, as a multicultural parish, have the unique opportunity, the call, to confront and work actively to eradicate the plague of racism, and to stand with, and stand up for, our immigrant brothers and sisters.
If we let go of our privilege based on the color of our skin and our social standing, our lives will become complicated. If we stand with the immigrant, there will be consequences. If we are bound to the poor, we will pay a price. We’ll feel another’s pain in our very gut. And we’ll “experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”
I. Back at St. Philip’s Grade School, I regularly got C’s in Art class. Seems I wasn’t very good at creating something out of nothing. That’s what God displays in today’s gospel: the art of making something out of nothing. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, while the four fishermen who dropped everything to follow Jesus are praiseworthy, the real story is about the miracle that Jesus works: he creates faith where there was none, and makes disciples where, just a moment before, there were none. Jesus shows up, they take one look at him, and the rest is history. So compelling is Jesus’ voice, his call, that they don’t fix on what they’re leaving, but on whom they’re joining: not on what is lost, but what is found. In their turning to follow, their lives begin to flow in the same direction as God’s, their wills spill into His. They become other Christs: a miracle.
II. Almost every activity of our lives is measured by how talented we are, whether we’re good enough, strong enough. But to be a disciple, to be another Christ, is not a matter of being strong enough, but weak enough: willing to accept our limitations and allow another to sustain and empower us, so that God’s grace can be seen in us, His movements manifest through us. We need to be weak enough to allow our wills to spill into the will of God. The Christians who fascinate us, those most effective “fishers of people”—Pope Francis, Blessed Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr.—are moved by a Spirit quite beyond their own.
III. We are here because, like those first four disciples, we have found Jesus and his message compelling. Imperfect though we may be, we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Cardinal Newman writes,
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me that He has not committed to another…I shall do good. I shall do His work…If I am in sickness, let my sickness serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him.
We might add, “If I am depressed, may my depression serve him; let my addiction, my cancer, my fear serve him; let my powerlessness serve him.” “I have my mission,” Newman says, “I have a part in a great work.”
h/t: Michael Buckley
I. Not everyone can be a star: when roles are cast for the annual school Christmas pageant, disappointment is inevitable. Such was once the case when two boys vied for the role of Joseph. The one who wasn’t chosen was left to play the innkeeper, the villain who leaves the Holy Family out in the cold. The kid was mad.
The night of the play, Mary and Joseph strode across the stage and knocked on the door of the inn. When the innkeeper answered, Joseph said, right on cue, “We’ve walked a long way. My wife is going to have a baby. We’d like a room for the night.” Joseph was, of course, prepared to hear that there was no room at the inn: that’s what they’d rehearsed. Instead, the innkeeper said, “C’mon in! We’ve been expecting you!” Joseph then decided he’d also go off script. He stuck his head in the doorway, looked around, and said, “No wife of mine is staying in a dump like this. Come on, Honey. We’re going to the barn!”
II. “Come on in. We’ve been expecting you.” What sweet words. Tonight, as Christians have done for nearly 2,000 years, we retell the ultimate immigration story: God in Jesus crossing the divide between heaven and earth. In a brilliant move, God pitches his tent among shepherds: the poor, the marginalized, the wandering. Jesus finds his place among those, like himself, for whom there seems to be no room, those who might be left out in the cold.
III. And there is another immigration story being told these days. So many of our immigrant brothers and sisters in this Ascension community live in uncommon fear. Instead of an immigration system that works, giving them a path to residency or citizenship, they suffer the threat of mass deportations, moms and dads taken away from their children, good and holy families being torn apart. Just as he did long ago, and always has done, Jesus finds his place among these, like himself, for whom there seems to be no room, those who might be left out in the cold: the poor, the marginalized, the wandering. Incarnate in them, Jesus approaches us again, looking for a home.
IV. With all the privilege I so easily presume, it is challenging to understand the depth of fear and consternation that our immigrant brothers and sisters experience. To find some measure of compassion, I need only pay attention to the wounded and wandering one in me, that part of me that is frightened and uncertain, dislocated and restless, never quite at home, left out in the cold: that tender soul that longs for mercy and understanding and refuge. That is how we begin to be in solidarity with our dear brothers and sisters.
V. In the face of whatever it is that worries and tries us, that frightens and grieves us, we find our hope here, as we retell, again and again, the ultimate immigration story. God’s choosing to share in human life at its inception means that there is no want, no need—nothing in our lives—unknown to God, no corner of our lives unvisited by God. As surely as God seeks a home in us, we find a home in him. “Come on in,” he says. “I’ve been expecting you.”
h/t: Daniel Groody
We’re right at the edge of Christmas; an opportunity to share one last pregnant, expectant moment with Mary, a moment to prepare for the next chapter in this enthralling story.
The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart, writes,
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.
This, then, is the fullness of time, the meaning of all this: Jesus born in us.
I. Extreme inequality in income and resources between the haves and have-nots. Wealthy elites fiercely guarding their stashes. Imperial powers throwing around their weight. No redress for the poor and working classes. A complacent, if not complicit, religious establishment. Is this first-century Israel or twenty-first-century America?
II. The Magnificat, which we sang a few moments ago, is not the gentle ballad you may think it to be. Don’t let the poetry and pretty music fool you. Mary’s Advent hymn is nothing less than revolutionary: a manifesto intended to upend an unacceptable status quo. Mary proclaims,
He has shown strength with his arm, scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary calls for the destruction of thrones, deposition of the world’s potentates, and a rearrangement of economic power. The Magnificat has been so potent, so threatening to the powers that be, that it was banned by dictators and juntas in Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, and Spain.
III. The prophetic words of Mary, of Isaiah, of John the Baptist, are not reminiscences of a time long ago and a place far away. Their vision for justice and righteousness—God’s vision—determines our mission in the here and now. In a day when meaningful political discourse is hard to come by, when talk is cheap and getting cheaper, our sacred talk must retain its meaning and value.
Our Advent scriptures are uncompromising. However we struggle with how to resolve the disparities between the rich and the poor, whether we engage in resolving the disparities is not optional. God clearly takes sides in this matter: God is on the side of the poor. And God wants us to be there, too.
God’s advent in Jesus Christ is intended to reform business-as-usual, politics-as-usual, Church-as-usual, life-as-usual. Because Jesus Christ was once promised to come and did, we confidently stake the success of our mission on the promise that he will come again. In the meantime, we not only bear that promise to the poor, we must be the promise.
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?