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Archive for the ‘Homilies’ Category

I was reflecting on the man who found a treasure and immediately bought the field where it lay.  His friends and neighbors probably warned him about all the disasters that could happen, about the risks he had foolishly taken—anything but simply celebrating with him and sharing his good fortune.  Or else they didn’t even notice.  He went to his neighbor and said, “I just bought a field . . .” and immediately his neighbor was droning on about all his problems with the crops and the insects and the family and the Romans.  Finding a friend later he says I’ve found an unbelievable treasure in my field.”  But instead of congratulating him, the friend says, “That’s nice but what if it belongs to someone else?  What if someone comes to claim it?  You better not let yourself enjoy it.  You better think about these questions.  I don’t want you to get hurt.”

And then there’s the man with his pearl.  He sells all he has and the pearl is his.  He gazes in sheer delight at its purity and lustrous beauty, its warmth and precious value.  He’s searched for this all his life.  He’s seen other people with fine pearls but one of his own had eluded him.  But now friends invite him over and they’re obsessed with string after string of gaudy fake pearls and he wonders if he’s overvalued his own?  And if not, could they ever comprehend anything so precious?  They seem content and yet he suspects they’re unhappy, insecure, defensive, immature.  He knows because he was like them once, weary of the search and settling for imitation.  What help is his pearl in a situation like this?  He finds himself withdrawing, staying away from them, unable to take part in their cheap entertainment, but not comfortable shutting himself away from others.  The treasure is not without its price!  He shows his family and they pretend to be interested, pleased, impressed, but all the time are they thinking, “Why couldn’t it be me?  I’d like a pearl like that too.”  It’s not that he doesn’t want to share, but a pearl can’t be split.

But perhaps one day a man is walking by the seashore, content with his life, secure in his treasure, and he meets another.  They talk of the beauty of the sea, the sunset, of evening star and velvet sky.  They talk of sadness and joy, of pain and of healing,  of anger and ecstasy.  One finally takes a deep breath and says, “I, uh, one day, I mean, I just sort of found this treasure . . .”  and the other says, “Then maybe you would know what it is to have a wondrous pearl.”  The first one breathes, “Yes!”  And a bond deeper than anything either of them has known is formed.  For the first time someone understands not only the treasure but the aloneness.  And in that understanding, there’s no more alone. And if they meet a woman with a dusty coin, a shepherd with a lost lamb, a farmer with a handful of mustard seeds, a farmer’s wife with a batch of bread raising, a woman with an alabaster jar of perfume, a young man weary of feeding pigs but confused by the lights and music of a dinner of fatted calf, a fisherman on the seashore with a catch of fish beyond imagining, they will join with all of them in celebrating the search, the discovery, the joy in the treasure.

The images in the scriptures are rich and multidimensional, because they tell the story of our relationship with a God who is always leading us in new directions and challenging us to grow. We need to cherish the gift of our faith and find like-minded souls who understand and can rejoice with us. This can sometimes be difficult. But the gifts we have are meant to be shared. Sometimes it means taking a chance, risking embarrassment, risking that someone won’t understand or will be offended. We need to be rooted first in our own appreciation of how much the gift means in our own lives. And we need to be sensitive to times when we really do need to protect the treasure we’ve discovered. Never let anyone devalue the gift in your own eyes. One of the blessings of the Internet is that we have a much wider pool in which to find people who share our our dreams, our vision, our faith. And we have new ways of sharing that faith and those dreams with others.

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The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Jesus, though divine, was born into a fallen human world and had lived a life of questioning and being questioned from the moment of his conception. His mother asked the angel, “How can this be?” As Jesus grew, he questioned the elders in the temple, he questioned his parents and they questioned him. John the Baptist questioned Jesus when he came to him for baptism. So it was probably no surprise that after forty days in the desert, he would be questioned once more.

Surely Satan’s questions were no more challenging than the questions he had been asking himself about his ministry, his mission, his message. The questions of the desert would prepare him for a public life of questioning in the marketplace, in the temple and finally on the cross. Jesus is able to respond to the questions of the Tempter because he knows the genuine love of God supported by a faith made strong in suffering, in need and in questioning.

Like Jesus, we must live both the struggle of the questions and the faith of the answers. Our temptations aren’t likely to come to us from a mysterious figure in a deserted place. But often they revolve around the same basic human drives: hunger, emotional security, safety, status, ambition.

Some lie awake too many nights wondering if they’ve made the right choices for their lives, their careers. Others question whether a successful position with a company engaged in questionable ethical practices is a compromise they’re willing to make. Many people fight against the demon of self-doubt and insecurity, afraid they don’t deserve more than the bad hand they’ve been dealt in life.

Sometimes the questions themselves are coming from God, asking us to make life-giving changes in our lives. It’s the easy answers that are the temptation, the decisions that seem to bring happiness and success but are really driving us further away from our center. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, if we reach for the first thing that promises us health and wealth, we might be in bigger trouble than we imagined.

The responses Jesus gives to his tempter are deeply rooted in the words of Scripture. He’s not rattling off memorized verses. He’s speaking out of a lived awareness of the power of the word of God.

Lent is the perfect time to deepen our own immersion in Scripture. The story of God’s undying care for the people he has chosen as his own can mirror the stories of our own lives. The Psalms are a good place to begin. Let the words wash over you. Let them speak to the situations and emotions of your daily life. The words of the Gospels challenge us to a life of Christ-like compassion. The prophets of the Old Testament remind us to put God first before anything else.

The Word has its own power to move us and inspire us and to remind us of God’s presence. It is this power that is, in the end, the answer.

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In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, 12-year-old Meg Murry sets off with her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and her best friend, Calvin O’Keefe, to find her father, who disappeared into space several years before. A trio of supernatural beings, manifested as eccentric old women known only as Mrs Who, Mrs Which and Mrs Whatsit, guide them on their quest, offering them gifts—graces—unique to each individuals gifts and strengths. Before the final and most difficult task, Mrs Who, who arranges her thoughts mostly in quotations, tells Meg, “What I have to give you this time you must try to understand not word by word but in a flash.” And she goes on to quote the marvelous passage from Paul that we hear in today’s second reading: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and the God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” Though Meg doesn’t realize it at the time, she discovers that this is a promise of great strength in time of need. In the end, love proves to be more powerful than anything her adversary wields.

We know all too well that the way of our world is too often the powerful crushing the weak and defenseless without giving it a thought. But in reflecting on Paul’s words, I’m reminded of several examples of celebrities who make a point of using their status to help the less fortunate. The Irish rock star Bono has traded on his fame to speak tirelessly to the most powerful leaders of the world, working to persuade them to hear the cries of the poorest of the poor in Africa. He said in one talk, “God is with the poor, my friends, and he is with us when we are with them.”

Legendary Green Bay Packer quarterback Bret Favre was honored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the many times he and other members of the team had met with seriously ill children. During the presentation, a little girl named Anna moved him to tears. He pointed out that it wasn’t anything extraordinary that made him support this cause, just the way he had been raised to care about those less fortunate.

Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert often spends time on his breaks and vacations supporting a wide variety of worthy causes. By using the draw of his popularity, he can generate more interest and donations for those in need. These are just a few examples of people who know that their fame and fortune is fleeting and that because they have been fortunate, they have a special responsibility to those who have been less fortunate.

We who have been blessed with so much are called upon to give to others. The God revealed in the Scriptures has always been on the side of the least, the lowly, the poor, the powerless. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us of this truth about his Father: Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These are the people who know the limits of their own strength. Above all they are people who know their need for God. Whatever earthly influence we may or may not have, blessed are we when we realize that the greatest thing we can do with what we have is to give is as generously as God’s grace has been given to us.

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A lot of mental and emotional interference takes place when we hear the readings for this feast. People tend to focus on the line from the Letter to Colossians about wives being subordinate to their husbands, or parents and children exchange looks at the line, “Children, obey your parents in everything.” Most of us don’t want to return to the “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” era’s way of defining family relationships, and it can be hard to see past the superficial interpretation we put on these readings.

We tend to be either cynical and dismissive of this feast or we over-idealize the idea of family. People with unpleasant memories of an abusive or dysfunctional childhood resent the notion that all families should be just like Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Paul tells the Colossians to forgive one another, but we know that some people might not yet be at a point in their healing where forgiveness is possible.
When we hear the phrase Holy Family, too often we think of something that’s “holy card” perfect, instead of the deeply sacred, graced-by-God reality of Mary, Joseph and Jesus—but also of our own families, whether those of blood or those intimate communities that sustain us as adults. The scripture readings for the feast keep us grounded in an awareness that God knows that family life is both essential and complex, but always very real.

The Gospel recounts the story of Jospeh being told in a dream to take his wife and infant child to Egypt to save the boy from Herod’s massacre. What Matthew summarizes in a few terse lines after the fact, and with a good dose of Scripture fulfillment built in must have been terrifying for the young family. It brings to mind scenes from the news media of families of refugees fleeing war, genocide and famine.
When we hear of the messages Joseph receives in his dreams, again we imagine the serene scenes portrayed by artists, with the words of the angel twining into Joseph’s ear as he sleeps. But I suspect it has more in common with the young father tossing and turning during the night, caught in the stressful tension between work responsibilities, the insistent nighttime needs of a growing infant in the next room, and the juggling of too many things.

Family responsibilities ebb and flow at different times of our lives. Young family have the concerns of infants and children and all that entails. Parents of teenagers know all too well the particular challenges that brings. But the responsibility of caring for our elders is also a very real part of many people’s lives. At times the two coincide creating what’s become known as the sandwich generation.

One of the most touching lines in the reading from Sirach is, “My son, take care of your father when he he is old;… Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him.” Several friends are among the countless people caring for parents suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. It’s an almost overwhelming responsibility and through even the most difficult times, it’s obvious that they’re doing it because of the great love they have for their parents.

We need to celebrate this feast not as some seemingly unattainable goal for mere humans, but as a sign of the obstacles that we can overcome if we truly place ourselves in the arms of a loving God who is Father and Mother to us all, and in whose sight we are all part of a holy and sacred family.

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A farmer plants seeds deep in the earth. He knows from experience that they will produce plants. Does he ever doubt in the cold winter, looking at the barren fields? Even in the spring, waiting for the first green shoots to poke through the ground? We can’t see the growth taking place beneath the surface of our lives. Patience and trust are so desperately needed.

We wait for so many things. Waiting itself creates tension. Sometimes we think we can’t wait a moment longer, especially when that waiting is so heavy with uncertainty. We like to be active. We like to prepare. But sometimes we need to let ourselves be prepared, as soil is prepared for the seeds as seeds are prepared for the planting. Advent is a time of waiting. A time of preparation, yes, but while we must prepare, we must also be prepared to wait.

The letter from James counsels patience: “See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil.” In this time of activity, of a too often commercialized rush, it is good to remember the natural cycle of the earth, the growth that takes place only in its own time. We can help it along, we can plant and nurture the seed, but in the end we can only be patient while the growth happens. We must take time to reflect, to believe in the promise of new life taking place. We must prepare, but we must also be prepared to wait, to hope, to trust.

We begin Advent with a rush of visions and good intentions. We hear the call to conversion and growth. We begin our preparations for the coming of Christ into our lives. But the reality is that we’re also caught up in preparations for holiday celebrations. We’re beginning to wear a bit thin. Our bodies are tired, our nerves frayed, our emotions stretched beyond their everyday endurance. We’re excited yet apprehensive. We anticipate but we also doubt. Suddenly we wonder if we’ve done everything we should.

The Scriptures for this third Sunday of Advent speak to this feeling of exhaustion and doubt. We hear of John the Baptist, imprisoned for his efforts at preaching conversion and the kingdom. In his disillusionment he begins to doubt whether Jesus was the Messiah at all. Jesus responds by assuring him that the signs of compassion and healing indeed herald the kingdom of the prophets. And he praises John for his role as forerunner. Like the desert of Isaiah’s vision, John’s desolation now blooms with hope. A word from the Lord can refresh tired bodies and weary spirits.

We are each called to do a specific task fully and justly. We are not all called to be saviors. We might follow John’s example: “I am baptizing you in water but there is one to come who is mightier than I. I am not fit to loosen his sandal strap.” John’s role is that of prophet and forerunner. He accepts his role and makes no grandiose claims of messiahship. Had he set himself up in rivalry with the one messiah, he would have been blown away as so much chaff. Instead he was a grain of wheat contributing his part to the Bread of Life.

The Lord is near to us, he is Emmanuel, “God with us,” and this gives us the integrity we need to live the promise according to our means. The spirit of the Lord will lead us in the ways of the kingdom in good time, in God’s time.

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“The night is advanced; the day is at hand”—a paradoxical thought at the beginning of Advent, coming as it does in the winter of the year when the days are ever shorter, the nights longer, darker, colder. This very discrepancy jolts us into awareness. It is easy to be wrapped up in our own comfort at this time of year. In our attempts to escape the grey skies that threaten snow, the starkness of black branches of winter trees against cold skies, we build fires in the fireplace or turn up the furnace. We have festive meals. We shop and decorate and bake for Christmas celebrations.

But Advent calls us to an awareness of something beyond the comfort and cheer of Christmas traditions, calls us into the winter of the year to see the beauty of waiting—darkness waiting for light, emptiness waiting for fullness, cold waiting for warmth, hearts waiting for love.

The Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent warns us not to be lulled to sleep by daily routines and the holiday flurry of activity. Jesus condemns the people of Noah’s time not for their activities, but for their indifference to the realities of life in their midst. Too often we like to pretend there’s nothing beyond the next festivity. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves not for a whirl of Christmas parties but for the Lord who is continually breaking into our lives.

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Our Gospel today is difficult. Often it’s read almost as a blueprint for the end of the world, a fortune-teller’s description of what will happen before the last days. Books like the Left Behind series spin this out into an elaborate fantasy of good and evil. Even more disturbing are those voices on talk radio and elsewhere that encourage war, especially in the Middle East, because they think that it will hasten the Rapture that they believe is coming before the end.

Every natural disaster brings speculation in some quarters that the events of the evening news are beginning to sound like a catalogue of the events of which Jesus speaks in this Gospel. The Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina were believed by some to be God’s judgment on a sinful people.

But in Jesus day, and long before it, wars were a commonplace result of human greed and aggression. Earth-quakes, famines and plagues were part of a natural world that was imperfectly understood and beyond human control. Ironically in our own day some pf the droughts and famines that plague our world are as much a result of  human behavior as war.

It’s a mistake to read this Gospel as Jesus predicting a particular sequence of events that will occur before the end. He’s saying that people will always interpret such things in this way. But he dismisses it here as he does elsewhere in the Gospels. His followers are not to focus on the end of time in fear and trembling. Nor are they to look to another’s tragedy as a vindication of their own virtue or another’s vice.

Jesus pulls the attention of the disciples back from these global, even cosmic events, and says, “Your own life and what you will face because of your faith in me is more than enough for you to be concerned about.” His words are both caution and comfort: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance, you will secure your lives.”

Don’t fuss about the future seems to be the message here. Rather, we are to conduct ourselves in our daily lives with a simple but absolute trust in God’s providence. As though to illustrate this daily routine, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians admonishes those in the community who were so sure that the end was imminent that they were basically sitting around gossiping all day. As Paul puts it, “not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”

We do this when we get too caught up in the news of the day, forgetting that the 24-hour news cycle thrives on fear, uncertainty and doubt. We do it when we focus only on what other people are doing. Often we don’t know—or ignore—all the facts of an issue and make quick judgments based on long-standing prejudice.

Too often minding other people’s business is a good way to avoid taking a hard look at our own lives. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Keep quiet and eat your own food.” If this brings to mind dinner table squabbles, school cafeterias, workplace lunchrooms or luncheons at private clubs, perhaps these are good places to start taking the advice of both Paul and Jesus. Instead of participating in the “ain’t it awful” chorus around us, we might try being attentive to the ways in which we can bring our own attitudes more in line with the mind of Christ. If we focus on bringing God’s goodness and healing to others, we will, in our own small way, begin to change the world.

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