Happy New Year! Before you question my sanity - please remember that each year the Church begins a new liturgical year – on the first Sunday of Advent – so – Happy New Year!
Advent is the time of year the Church sets aside to allow us to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ – yes, at Christmas – but more importantly for us – Christ’s coming at the end of our earthly lives – or at the end of time - which ever comes first.
So at ever Mass we pray that “we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
So besides striving to be free from sin and safe from all distress – no small tasks to work on — What else should we be doing as we wait?
This Advent the four of us preachers: myself, and Deacons Jim, Larry, and Mike – want to suggest that what we should be doing as we wait during these days of Advent — is to grow in hope, in peace, in joy, and in love.
Traditionally that is the meaning behind the four Advent candles – so just as the light increases week by week as we light these candles – so might hope, peace, joy, and love – increase in our hearts and lives, in our communities and world — as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. . .
So on this first Sunday of Advent, three stories of HOPE in our Scripture readings. But we will only look at two for sake of brevity.
In the Gospel, Jesus says, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”
So what was it like in the days of Noah?? Not so good for the people who were supposed to be God’s chosen. . .
Great was the wickedness of the Israelites – and their hearts were set on evil. At the dawn of creation God expressed delight in what was created – and within a few generations was now expressing disappointment at what humankind had done with creation.
Rather than embracing their relationship with God, the Israelites were chasing after false gods and were in full rebellion against God.
It was as if the vast majority of the Israelites were sleeping – and therefore they failed to understand their impending doom. They were about to be swept away in God’s judgment without even comprehending how much they needed God.
Only one was alert and awake. Only one knew why the clouds were gathering in the sky. Only one was prepared for God’s coming in judgment – NOAH. NOAH remained faithful and NOAH had HOPE: remembering God the creator was in charge - and NOT the created.
Hope is a wonderful gift from God, a source of strength and courage in the face of life’s harshest trials.
When the flood waters rise - HOPE points to the clouds that will eventual part and let the sun shine again.
When we are overworked and exhausted, hope gives us fresh energy.
When we are discouraged, hope lifts our spirits.
When we are tempted to quit, hope keeps us going.
When we struggle with a crippling disease or a lingering illness, hope helps us persevere beyond the pain.
Put simply, when life hurts and dreams fade – nothing helps like hope.
There is the story from Isaiah, similar to the days of Noah – when people turn from God and go their own way – and then there is the 3rd story of St. Paul writing to the Romans.
Although Paul had not yet been to Rome – he knew there was division in the capital of the empire.
A few years before Paul wrote to them – the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome - which also included the Jewish-Christians as well.
So the Church in Rome then consisted only of Gentile Christians– that is non-Jewish Christians - who were not used to being in charge, or doing things their way- as Christianity was still seen as an off-shoot of Judaism.
So when the Jewish Christians were allowed to return a few years later – they encountered a very different Church - one where the once sacred Jewish ceremonies and rituals had given way to new ways of worshiping –
AND THIS CAUSED TENSIONS– which Paul wanted to address.
And then also Gentile and Jewish Chrsitians both were subject to the debauchery which surrounded them - which was just part and partial of the pagan Roman empire:
drunkenness, promiscuity, lust.
Paul hoped and prayed the Christians would stay alert and awake: – guarding against the darkness of the empire – and would choose to walk always in the light of Christ.
Paul wanted to encourage them – he wanted to be a good leader for them.
And one of the greatest gifts leaders can give to those around them is hope. Never underestimate its power.
Winston Churchill was once asked by a reporter what his country’s greatest weapon was against the Nazi regime. Without pausing for a moment he said: “It was what England’s greatest weapon has always been – hope.”
People will continue working, struggling and trying – if they have hope.
Hope lifts people’s morale, It improves their self-image. It re-energizes them. It raises their expectations.
It is the leader’s job – be that a pastor, a parent, a teacher, a boss – to hold hope high, to instill it in the people they lead.
Maintaining hope comes from seeing the potential in every situation and staying positive no matter what the circumstances.
So the first candle of Advent – signifies hope – something we all need and can grow in as we wait for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For I guarantee everyone of us will be put in situations in life when the flood waters of life rise, when darkness comes upon us, when we are tempted to give into the easier ways of the world rather than standing confidently in the light of Christ – when we wonder how we are going to go on – how we are going to endure.
May God grant us all hope in those dark hours. And may we have the consolation of those who have gone before us who allowed their souls to be anchored by hope.
Pope Francis said that Christians are called to be women and men of hope – united by the certainty of a God who does not give up.
During these waiting days of Advent, when the days grow shorter and the coldness sets in – may we always nurture the gift of HOPE God gives us. And may we strive to share the gift of HOPE with our families and communities so as make our world a better place.
Back when I was growing up in the Super 70s – my whole family would gather together on a Saturday evening, often with popcorn and sodas – to watch the Fab Four on CBS.
No, not the Beatles but:
All in the Family
Followed by the Mary Tyler Moore Show
Then Bob Newhart
And finally, Carol Burnett.
The actor Carroll O’Conner masterfully played the character of Archie Bunker on All in the Family.
Archie had an opinion about everything and everyone – including God.
He once declared, “God don’t make no mistakes – that’s how he got to be God.”
Another religious Bunker-ism: The Lord might be out finding sheep - but they still end up as lambchops. . .
For those of you too young to remember Archie, he was once listed as number 1 on Bravo’s 100 Greatest TV Characters. Wikipedia says Bunker was characterized by his bigotry toward: “blacks, Hispanics, commies, gays, hippies, Jews, Asians, Catholics, women’s libbers and Polish-Americans.”
Archie was presented as a Christian, however, and often misquoted the Bible. He took pride in being religious, although he rarely attended church services.
Archie Bunker is an excellent reminder that way too many people have a theology rooted in ignorance or immersed in hatred. And the Bible, for them, is only an excuse to hold onto their bigotry or to justify their brand of politics.
And Archie is a humorous reminder that we must NOT remake God in our image, but allow the Spirit of God to remake US into the image of God.
So Archie could be the poster boy for today’s pseudo-Christianity, in which many substitute
“Popular Wisdom” - the kind you see on bumper stickers – for the teaching of Jesus.
Popular wisdom likes a Jesus who would confuse religion with a misguided patriotism that proclaims: America: right or wrong.
Who would describe the poor as lazy and interested only in a free ride.
Who would easily jump to conclusions about the guilt of others with phrases like “lock them up” – who would dare lump “God, guns, and country” in the same phrase.
Popular wisdom likes the plastic Jesus, the one whose being is portrayed in countless images as bland and melancholy, who understands and approves of our prejudices, our clinging to popular belief instead of JESUS’ actual teaching. And as one preacher recently put it – if you think this is hard to listen to – then just wait until you meet Jesus face to face. . .
Within the last few months, I have become a frequent reader of Tish Harrison Warren. She is a priest of the Anglican Church in North America and frequently writes columns in the New York Times.
Her God, she writes, “is not a culture warrior.”
“In the news and on social media” she writes, “God usually shows up when we are fighting about something. The subject of faith seems most often discussed in conversations about voting patterns and campaigning and promises kept or broken by politicians.
God appears in public discourse when a politician calls for Christian Nationalism.
Or when another paints ‘Jesus, Guns, and Babies’ on the side of a campaign bus.”
“This doesn’t sound much like Pope Francis,” Warren says, “who has said that instead of being a player in the culture wars, the Church should be a ‘field hospital’ where modern people, buffeted by the indifference or outright hostility of various ideologies, philosophies and politics are treated with the medicine of God’s love.”
I love it when our protestant brothers and sisters quote Pope Francis when so many in our own Church turn a deaf ear to him. . . Like the majority of our American Bishops who voted in a very anti-Francis bishop to be their leader for the next 3 years.
Funny how others – know Francis is on to something. . . something radical and new and holy and true. Something akin to what Jesus taught.
Warren believes that the way religion is used in the culture wars inevitably shapes, as a culture and as individuals, how we discuss faith. “And that,” she says, “inevitably shapes who we understand God to be.”
Instead, faith is about fundamental issues with which, acknowledged or not, every human being must deal.
Warren calls them “questions that haunt every human life: how does one know what is true and false, right or wrong? Is there a God? If there is, can we interact with him, her, or it? If so, how? Can God speak to us? Can we speak to God?
What are our obligations to God and to other human beings? How can we have joy? How can we live well? How can we be wise?”
People searching for God must not be distracted by popular wisdom or the hot-button issues foisted upon us by the culture wars.
The wisdom accumulated by the “great cloud of witnesses” the billions of people who have found God through the ages –
shows that the true God can be found by open-mindedness, prayer, silence, reflection, and study.
And it should go without saying – so probably needs to be said: the true God also decries both lies and violence.
Obviously, that’s not Archie Bunker’s god.
But it is our God, our king – who we find with outstretched arms on the cross.
Who, without judgment.
Without worrying about what anyone else will say or will think–
Turns to a thief hanging near him, and to any and all repentant sinners - and says: Today you will be with me in paradise.
I don’t know about you, but that is certainly the merciful God into whose arms I want to be embraced. . . In whose image and likeness we are all made. And who – I hope & pray – We can do our best to be like.
Throughout our reading of St. Luke’s Gospel this year – Luke has told us about Jesus making his way to Jerusalem. Along this journey, he has been teaching his followers what discipleship means and what they must do to carry on his life and ministry.
Jesus has told them along the way that he would suffer, die,and be raised from the dead IN Jerusalem. And now his feet are standing within the gates of Jesusalem: Jesus is teaching in the Temple just a few days before he will be put to death.
While many people welcomed Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem – others did not - like the Sadducees.
They are part of the wealthy aristocracy who cooperate with the occupying Romans.
They are the fundamentalists of their day who insist that the only authentic word of God comes from the Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament.
They are also the priests of the Temple - and they are the ones who stand to loose the most if any of what Jesus teaches comes about - and so they want to take one last stand to discredit him before the crowds who follow him.
So they try to trap him in his teaching about the resurrection of the dead. Knowing there is NO mention of the resurrection in the Torah,
they quote a marriage law found in the Book of Deuteronomy, part of the Torah – part of their most sacred texts.
The law they quote requires that if a man dies without a male heir – then his brother is to marry his widow and produce such an heir.
The Sadducees propose a somewhat ridiculous situation of a woman who married all seven of the men in one family and still died childless. Whose wife will she be if there is such a thing — as resurrection?
They think Jesus has only two options: to either dismiss the law of Moses – thereby showing he is not a faithful Jew – to to dismiss the idea of resurrection - which has been part of his teaching. . .
But Jesus responds that they do not understand the nature of resurrection and the new life that follows.
They are focussing on the reality of an earthly kingdom. But Jesus is referring to the reign of God – which will be ushered in by his own death and resurrection.
Resurrection is life transformed by the God of the living. As his closest followers will discover - life transformed is not the same life on earth – as they will fail to recognize him after his transformation from death, his resurrection, in the weeks to come – they will think he is a ghost, or the gardener – there will be something physically different about him – much like when he was transfigured before Peter, James, and John.
At the heart of our faith – is the Paschal Mystery: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we walk together to the New and Eternal Jerusalem, we are convinced that death is not the end. We do our best to trust in the promise of Jesus that if we die with him – we will rise with him.
But as much as we want to believe that – we do sometimes have a hard time explaining it in a clear and understandable way.
The Second Book of Maccabees provides an insight. It tells the story of a very difficult time for the people of Israel two centuries before the birth of Christ.
The Greeks had taken control of Israel – and decided to ban all religious practices – except their own.
The king at the time was Antiochus Epiphanes which in Greek means: Zeus Revealed. In other words, his name meant: just call me god!
At his command, the temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, and all other places of worship were destroyed. Those who refused to worship HIM were put to death.
So in today’s first reading, a faithful Jewish mother is arrested, along with her seven sons. They are given a choice – worship the king – the one with the big ego – or be killed.
Each of the brothers refuses to worship the king and chooses to die rather than abandon their trust in the one true God. Each of the brothers is murdered in a brutal way, along with their mother.
They choose death because of their firm belief that God would raise them up again. Their heroic actions are more eloquent than any theological or philosophical attempt to explain the mystery of life after death.
We may think that what happened to the mother and her sons is an isolated event that happened a long time ago.
But we have all heard of the anti-Jewish rhetoric that has been growing the last few years.
And according to the World Watch List released by the magazine Christianity Today:
Everyday, 13 Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith.
Everyday, 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked.
And everyday, 12 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned.
North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Nigeria, and India – being the countries most dangerous for Christians to live in.
Now we might think, well those numbers aren’t too high – but isn’t just one too high?
It is the firm belief in the resurrection which continues to give these Christians hope – and should give us hope - in whatever slight difficulties or hardships we need to endure, to remain faithful.
It is the firm belief in the Paschal Mystery which continues to give us hope: that light is stronger than darkness. That love is stronger than hate. And that life is certainly stronger than death.
It is the firm belief that: We shall rise again on the last day with the faithful rich and poor. Coming to the house of Lord Jesus, we will find an open door there, we will find an open door,
We picked up a good piece of wisdom about God in our first reading from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom:
“God loves all things that are / and loathes nothing which God has made.”
When I was a lot younger than I am now – there was a popular button that we all thought was cool to wear which simply said: “God loves me because God does not make junk.”
St. John, when he writes his first of three letters is a bit more blunt: God is Love.
And so when we try to talk about or describe God we often do so by just quoting St. John: God is LOVE. That’s who we say God is – God is love not as a sideline or in a complimentary way – but in God’s very essence –
God’s very being — it’s who God is: God is love and consequently God loves all things that are / and loathes nothing which God has made.
But saying that – and believing that —are two very different things.
Most of us, if asked what the hardest thing to believe regarding our faith, would probably answers the incarnation: how can Jesus be both God and man at the same time? Or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: still looks like bread and wine to me - how can it be the Body and Blood of Christ? Or possible Reconciliation: can’t I just confess my sins directly to God?
Yet - believing that God loves every single thing that God created – every rock, every star, every plant, every animal — and especially every person – I think can be one of the hardest things we will be asked to accept and embrace in our faith – it’s easy to say – but it isn’t so easy to believe – because then we have to have a profound respect and reverence for each and everything and each and everyone. . .
Much easier to believe that Jesus is both God and man – because that doesn’t impact our day to day to life as much as truly believing:
God loves all things that are / and loathes nothing which God has made.
Yet if we don’t believe this - and put it into practice by what we do every day – we might as well forget about believing everything else we are called to believe.
Because once we start saying that God loves some of us more than others – we have stopped allowing God to shape and guide our hearts – and have instead simply created a God we want – a God who is on OUR side, but not necessarily on the side of everyone else. THAT is not God who is love – it might be the god of ancient Greeks or Romans – but not certainly the God we are called to believe in.
And so belief in a God who loves all God has created is an essential, fundamental step of faith – the step right after accepting belief in God at all.
Once we believe in God we must do our best to have some idea of who God is, what God is like, and what God is NOT like. And for we Christians - for we who are disciples of Jesus – it starts with love.
God IS love - in the most complete, profound, and unconditional way.
But it doesn’t end there. . . Once we get to that point, once we start believing and accepting that God loves all of us equally – then guess what we need to do???
If God loves everyone –doesn’t that mean that we are called to love everyone also? Isn’t that the expectation – the command – the invitation – to love the people God loves??
And this is exactly where we usually fall flat on our faces. . . we come up with all kinds of excuses – for why we don’t REALLY have to love absolutely everyone – certainly not those who hurt us, who don’t like us, who want to take advantage of us, who have no interest in loving us in return . . .
Of course this is nothing new. We just heard the story about Jesus befriending the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus.
The fact that Zaccaeus was a tax collector meant he worked for the Romans – and therefore would be despised by the average person in the street.
And when Jesus decided to dine with him – even the Jewish community was shocked and angered. How could he possible do that – is what most of them thought. . .
Well, because there never was, nor will there ever be – anyone who Jesus did not or will not love.
And God wants us to love the people God loves. God wants us to care about the people God cares about.
God wants us to show compassion to the people God shows compassion to – to forgive the ones God forgives.
Can we get on board with that? Can we truly love indiscriminately, unconditionally, and relentlessly? Or will we alway love in a qualified sort of way –one in which we love whom WE want, when WE want, and how WE want??
Jesus showed kindness to Zacchaeus, to a man others were unwilling to show kindness to – and Zacchaeus was never the same again.
And most likely those close to Zacchaeus – his family and tax collector friends – were never the same again.
And the people who simply heard what Jesus did were probably never the same again. Love can do that. It can have a ripple effect in ourselves and in the lives of those around us – and that little ripple has the power to change the world!
That’s the power of love – the power to transform absolutely everything.
So we need to stop trying to figure out who is “worthy” of our love – and just love. Because God loves all things that are / and loathes nothing which God has made. And we are called to be like God. And yes, maybe we never achieve perfection – but at least we try. Better to burn out trying – than to rust out by doing nothing!
Almost all of us, at some point, will be given bad news. Maybe some of you have already received it.
Not the loss of a job, or the failure of major test in school, or that a good friend is moving away. Although all of these can be bad news…
But I’m talking about the ultimate bad news – the day we are told by a doctor that we have an illness – that will certainly take our life.
That’s rough stuff - the kind of information we wish we did NOT have to hear. And there are all kinds of ways to react to this type of news: anger, sorrow, disappointment, resignation, even peace. We don’t all react to bad news in the same way.
I’ve heard enough people process things after they have received such news – to know most start looking at their past actions and attitudes - and they start assessing the type of person they have been over the course of their lives.
Surprisingly, things that seemed super important at the time – suddenly aren’t. And things (and especially people) we might have once neglected – suddenly ARE more important to us.
And for believers such as ourselves - one thing we are almost all hoping for at this trying time in our lives – is to be able to say with confidence: I have kept the faith.
When faced with the prospect of dying sooner, rather than later – most of us want to be able to think we have done a decent job – that we have, for the most part - lived a life that was pleasing to God – that we don’t have a long list of regrets, OR a long list of things we are ashamed of. We want God to look at us and see someone who has been a steadfast and sincere believer – to see a person who has kept the faith.
St. Paul clearly was facing this very sort of thing as he wrote to his disciple Timothy in his second letter to him.
Paul says matter-of-factly that his “departure is at hand.” He follows this statement with what he believes to be an honest assessment of his life - a kind of accounting of his spiritual journey. He tells Timothy:
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”
I hope all of us want to say those words – today, tomorrow, and at the end of our lives. But how can we know? On what can we base those words? What are the criteria? Is it just a wild guess? Or is there someway to tell?
I think it comes down to what we mean by keeping the faith.
For some it means publicly acknowledging certain belief statements - what we say in the creed and regarding other religious and moral matters.
Is saying the right things keeping the faith?
For others, it can mean fulfilling all the nuts and bolts of what the Church asks of us: attending Mass, supporting our parish, fasting and abstaining when the Church asks us to.
Is following the rules keeping the faith?
For some it may mean simply NOT outwardly denying belief in God or Jesus. Answering the often asked question - are you saved - with the words yes. I am a Catholic.
Is simply saying— we believe —when asked keeping the faith?
Although we want things very black and white - I think we know in our hearts that keeping the faith means a bit more. For one thing, faith is always connected to works - to the concrete ways we live out what we believe. So I think keeping the faith comes down to asking how much we have loved.
If we are NOT good, kind, loving, generous, compassionate and forgiving people – then what we say we believe —doesn’t really matter much.
And we all fall short of being those people God calls us to be – the kind of people we hope to be - and probably the people we really want to be.
All of this comes home to roost in the temple — with our two men and prayer.
In the story Jesus tells – he does not affirm the person who is convinced of his own goodness – the person who has probably said and done all the right things. . . The Pharisee.
Rather Jesus affirms the one who sincerely admits that he hasn’t always done right, the person who cries out to God with a sincere health, wanting and needing God’s mercy so that he can be a better person … The tax collector:
O God, be merciful to me a sinner
So what’s keeping the faith? Well, that’s always not so easy to say. But what it is NOT is much easier to say… It sure isn’t the person who says the right things – but bears no fruit.
May we always remember how much we need God. And may we be open to God’s great gift of mercy – allowing God’s love and forgiveness to transform us into the people we are called to be. That’s keeping the faith.
By the way, you may have noticed in our reading of St. Luke’s Gospel over the months – Luke is a get it done type of guy:
If there’s a man in a ditch - then stop and pull him out.
If your coin is lost - then search for it. If there’s a poor man on your door step – stop, take notice of him – and feed him!
If you want to see Jesus – then go out to see him - even if it means climbing a tree.
So I think his advice to us would be – quit worrying about he person you ought to be – make the changes – and be that person!
I may have shared this with you before – but my mother was seriously considering entering religious life as a sister – when her cousin set up a blind date with his friend - who then became my father.
Lucky for all of us my mother accepted the date.
My older brother met his wife when they were paired off in a wedding.
My older sister met her husband because they both worked in the same building. . .
It’s one of those questions I always ask couples when they come for marriage preparation: how did the two of you meet. . .
These days a lot of them will answer - we met on line. . .
My mother really was not that taken by my father on their first date – but my father was persistent in his pursuit. That’s a story I often hear from couples – that one or the other was not all that interested at first – but someone was persistent and eventually won the other over.
Sometimes good things just take time. . .
At some level, we know that already. If you’ve tried to learn how to play a musical instrument - you know that persistence is necessary - that’s why I don’t play the clarinet these days – because I wasn’t persistent in learning it.
And practicing an instrument cuts into one’s free time. But, it’s only by sticking with it that the breakthrough occurs - and one not only can play an instrument - but also become good at it.
Sometimes good things just take time.
Like learning a new sport. Adjusting to a new job. Beginning a new class. Or moving to a new school . . .
There are countless examples of things that have much better outcomes the more we stay with them, the more we try, the more we persevere, the more we don’t give up.
All three of our readings give us an example of this.
Our first, from the Book of Exodus - tells of Moses doing all he can to keep the staff of God raised as he watched the Israelites in battle.
He became tired. He was struggling to keep his arms up. Yet, with the help of Aaron and Hur – Moses kept at it - and so, the Israelites were victorious.
Now try not to attempt to figure out how this worked - that’s not really the point of the story. The point of the story is God can get people through any and all things – including going up against a much bigger and experienced army.
In St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy – we hear Paul encouraging Timothy in his faith – urging him:
“Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.”
And in St. Luke’s Gospel - we hear Jesus’ story of the persistent widow – she had no one else to watch out for her – so she had to convince an unjust judge to render a just decision on her behalf.
The judges decision was based on the fact that she just kept “bothering” him – so you have to hand it to her –she never gave up - and good things happened.
Sometimes good things just take time.
Believing this: that persistence pays off, is much easier to embrace when it comes to the concrete things of everyday life.
We’re persistent - and we get the spouse.
We’re persistent - and we get the degree.
We’re persistent: and we learn the instrument, we win the game, we adjust to the new school.
Put another way, when it comes to certain things in life, we can see the fruits clearly - see the results of our persistence - and this can encourage us even more.
But faith – persistence in faith is a bit different – because we don’t see as God sees. We don’t understand as God does. We don’t always see the whole picture. . .
And we don’t always know exactly “what caused what” – don’t always understand exactly how our persistence in our spiritual lives has actually made a difference in our lives – and in those around us.
So we pray, anyway. We give, anyway. We trust, anyway. We forgive, anyway. We hope, anyway. . . And we love, in spite of anything – we love with a deep sense that all of these things are the RIGHT thing to do – the best thing we can do - sometimes the only thing we can do – IF we want to remain faithful. . .
And most importantly, we don’t give up – whether we can clearly see the fruits or not – whether we know precisely what God is up to, or not – whether things turn out the way we want to, or not.
Those things ultimately aren’t important – but staying faithful is. Staying on the right path, narrow though it be - is important. And staying in conversation with our loving God, no matter what - is important.
And you know what? The amazing thing is – when we are faithful – good things will happen. Because sometimes good things just take time.
My name is LARRY.
Everyone used to call me Larry the laborer - because that’s what I was - a hard worker.
And like many men in my day - I did not have a profession or consistent job - I was a day laborer.
So if you needed grapes picked in your vineyard - you could hire me.
A new barn built? You could hire me.
Most of us just showed up in the town square at the crack of dawn and took whatever work came our way.
But one morning - I got up - and my wife noticed some white patches on my skin.
After a few days, I developed some sores. They both progressed and continued to get worse – until I was condemned as a leper.
And that’s what it was a condemnation – a lifetime – cut off from family, friends, work. . . and everything I was used to in my life.
Leprosy was a common disease in my day - you now know that it springs from bad hygiene - but what did we know in my day?
Just that those who had it were thought to be highly contagious – and so we had to stay away from other people because of the fear that the disease would spread.
And so we lepers had to go off by ourselves to live – in order to support one another - as no one else was willing to take care of us.
Even worse than the physical disease – was the thinking that this all was caused by our spiritual failings – our sinfulness.
No wonder we had to call out as others approached us – UNCLEAN! - or had to tie bells on are garments so they would ring as a warning for others not to come near us.
Now not only was I shunned and avoided because I was a leper – but I had a double condemnation – I was also from Samaria – I was a Samaritan. . .
The Jews called us “half-breeds” because we worshiped in our own temple – not the big one in Jerusalem. They despised us and so they would always take a longer route – to and from Jerusalem –
by crossing the Jordan River rather than to travel through Samaria. . . they wanted no contact with us.
But, misery loves company – the lepers I hung out with did not care how I worshiped or where I cam from - we were just happy to have one another. . .
Larry the leper they now called me – lonely, isolated, feared, despised and basically forgotten. Sounds idyllic – right? Right – No one wanted to live as we had to do. . .
Then, one day – this man called Jesus came along - the one who the Jews thought was the Messiah they had longed awaited.
I knew he was different – he was a Jew actually traveling in Samaria!!
The Jews I was with called out to him: Master, have pity on us – so I joined in with their cries. . .
MASTER - they called him - a title that occurs only in the story St. Luke tells about Jesus – and then only used by his disciples. . .
Did these other nine truly believe in him??
I had nothing better to believe in – the hopeless will grab on to any hope – so I creed out, too: Master – have pity on me!
This Jesus told us to go show ourselves to the priests – for they were the ones who determined who had leprosy
and who was considered clean and pure. They controlled one’s condemnation or freedom. . . no wonder they became so powerful. . .
And as we walked – all of us noticed that, even before getting too far down the road – WE WERE CLEANSED! All our sores were gone. Our skin was no longer white – we were all free from this burdened of leprosy and the isolation that came with it all of us had carried for years!
The others took off – not to the priests – but back to their families and friends. . . they could not wait to be re-united with them.
But for me, there was only one place I wanted to go: back to thank my healer.
And when I found him, Jesus asked: were not all 10 made clean?
The other nine – where are they? No one returned – except this foreigner??
By calling me a foreigner – by recognizing that I was not “one of them” – this Jesus showed that the boundary between who might be saved: a leper or clean
A Samaritan or Jew – those boundaries had been breeched. . . the walls of separation had fallen.
My return, and Jesus’ words – allowed him to show that no one:
Not a leper.
Not a Samaritan or anyone else – slave or free, man or woman, Jew or Gentile, sinner or saint — No one is beyond God’s mercy and love. Anyone can experience God’s gift of salvation!
On the road to Jerusalem– on the road between Samaria and Galilee – there is only the kingdom of God – in which salvation is available to all who call out for mercy – and respond to God’s call with thankfulness and praise.
That’s my story: Larry the leper who is now Larry the liberated. But what’s your story?
How are you wounded – and in need of God’s mercy?
How are you lonely, isolated, feared, despised or forgotten?? Or who in your life is experiencing these things and needs to be set free?
What barriers do you throw up between yourself and others that need to be breeched by the love and compassion of God?
Who have you isolated from your life – from your family – from your community — from your Church — and need to invite Jesus into those situations to bring about wholeness and healing??
And then – how do you give thanks and keep an attitude of gratitude in your everyday life?
Start noticing the big and small ways that God breaks into your life with blessings – all the many ways God is trying to show love for you – but sometimes we are just to busy to notice – like my other nine friends who were healed. . . Begin to recognize those blessings – and give thanks to God. Now and always. AMEN!
In St. Luke’s Gospel - which we have been reading since last December – we hear many stories or parables about people who are neglected, forgotten, ignored, or lost in some way.
St. Luke writes about women, beggars, lepers, upset workers, widows, tax collectors, and the poor – which indicates Jesus, and Luke’s, compassion and empathy for common people.
People were important to Luke – because people were important to Christ – and so people should be important to us.
We used a short version of the Gospel today. The longer version contains two more parables about the lost familiar to us:
A shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in order to find one lost sheep — and the story of two lost sons – one who left home to squander his inheritance – one who stayed home but felt neglected — both of whom – still loved dearly by their father.
I chose to focus on the middle of the three parables – one that is often neglected in favor of the other two.
All three of these stories are about lost things that are found – and even though we are not sheep or a coin – these two stories are also about people who stray and need to be found.
As Pope Francis said of this trio of stories: “God is not a good loser, and this is why, in order not to lose anything –
God goes out and searches – God searches for all those who are far away – strained in their relationships with God and others – like a sheep, like a coin, like a son.”
So picture a woman – living in a small house, one of several on a crowded village street.
A kindly lady who gets by on very little. Her days consist in sewing and knitting, cooking and gardening, cleaning and conversations with neighbors.
Though she is far from rich, she does have some money – ten silver coins that are of great value to her.
But one day she discovers that one is gone!
According to the original Greek, the coins were drachmas – each equivalent to a Roman silver denarius – which represents about a day’s wages. So let’s say in today’s money she had $1,000 and now found $100 missing.
Add to this that in the Middle Eastern culture in which this woman lived – money was not a common commodity among ordinary folks in rural villages – this woman – like most in her town - would have been to a large extent - self-sufficient: making her own cloth, growing her own food, milking her own goat - and getting by the best she could.
Cash and coinage would be a rare thing - hence the lost coin is of far greater value in her home than it would be in ours -
having more value than the day’s labor it represents monetarily.
In any case, we can see that one missing coin amon ten would be a terrible loss for her. We can imagine her heart skipping a beat as she gasps with shock as she discovers her loss.
Has she mislaid it - or dropped it? Has someone come in and taken it? It was enough to send her into a panic. Where could the coin be??
A typical house had a few slits for windows or no windows at all – so there was little light in the house. To search for the lost coin required more light. Oil for a lamp was not cheap – and so she normally saves the lamp for night – but she must find that coin. . .
So with the lamp lit – the search is on. Out comes the broom, and she carefully begins a methodical and thorough search.
Across the packed-earth floor and under the reed mats and pottery vessels – she searches. But nothing shows up.
Again - she goes back over the same area but from a different angle, the light from the lamp casting different shadows.
Just as she is about to end the second search without any success – she sees a small glimmer.
There it is! The coin is found! Quickly she picks it up and blows away the dust. Yes! She exclaims. “There you are! I thought you were gone, never to be found.”
She rushes out of her house calling to her neighbors: “Come, rejoice and celebrate with me! The coin I lost has been found!”
You can imagine the shared joy of her friends – thankful she’s no longer at wit’s end and that she still has all her valuable coins. Inner calm returns. Life is once again normal and peaceful.
It’s a simple, straight-forward occurrence told in just three verses. . . but what’s in it for us?
All three parables in Luke’s 15th chapter - the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son - all concern the restoration of lost relationships: and ultimately how God seeks out people who were lost to Him and bringing them back into a loving relationship with Him.
That’s certainly the point - and we must all realize our need to be found by God. Because all of us are lost in someway.
But a more important point – is that God desires us to be like HIM: to see the importance of relationships with other people and striving to reconcile and restore relationships that are broken.
So who are the lost sheep, the lost coins, the lost children in our lives –who need to be found?
God is not a good loser - and neither should we. Even though God has 99 of the lost sheep – 9 of the lost coins – and still one son at home–
God wants them all – all 100, all 10, both the older and younger son. . . And God desires us to be like him!
It’s God’s plan – and must become our plan – to gather all the lost outcasts and join them together in the larger body that God is building: the kingdom of justice and peace.
That’s the challenge before us – to help build the kingdom of the lost and forsaken – the kingdom for beggars and lepers and women and orphans and all those who are on the margins.
So the ultimate question of the day: will we let ourselves be found – and then go out and find those who are still lost – and bring them to the kingdom – the banquet table of the saint as well as the sinner?
For God rejoices when the lost is found - every wayward soul come to holy ground. Like the silver drachma when it rolls around. God rejoices when the lost is found.
Many of us have heard the phrase – but few of us probably know it was Spanish philosopher Gerorge Santayana who said: “Those who do not learn history — are doomed to repeat it.”
Since I was already making enough mistakes on my own during my teenage years – that gave me a good reason for learning history: so I could learn from other people’s mistakes before I made them on my own.
And then when I got to high school and my American History teacher, Mr. Sims, taught me that history is more than dates and places and events – but great stories – I was hooked on history.
Yes, history is all about great stories - of people, places and things – Like this one about Napoleon:
In the year 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte captured the city of Rome and took Pope Pius VI prisoner.
Napoleon thought he could intimidate the Pope and force him to become his puppet - because the Church had considerable political power at that time.
But Pope Pius refused to cooperate with Napoleon. So in a fit of anger, Napoleon shouted at the Pope: “if you do not do as I command, I will destroy the Church.”
The Pope replied - you can’t do that. And Napoleon said - just watch me - within a year the Catholic Church will be no more.
To which Pope Pius calmly replied: “If we, who are the Church, have in 1800 years, failed to destroy the Church by our sins – I doubt very much if you will succeed.”
Well, as we know by our presence here – the Church still exists - whereas Napoleon has passed on– as just another person in the pages of history.
One of the dangers of becoming mighty and powerful is that one also becomes proud and arrogant.
Power and might can become seen as a RIGHT – that is used to push and to pull in order to get what is wanted.
And usually the casualties are the lowly and the powerless and those who cannot defend themselves. They get swept aside to make way for those who think they are powerful and mighty.
But our first reading from Sirach told us: the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly – and then you will find favor with the Lord; for great though the power of God is – the Lord accepts the homage of the humble.
And then in the Gospel, Jesus told a parable when he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor. . .
The parable highlights the fact that our human desires go for the first place and not the last; our desire is for the lofty - not the lowly - we want the most - and not the least.
But the Lord looks on the lowly and God accepts the homage of the humble — and God fills the hungry with good things.
Yes, there is something that the lowly and humble can teach us about the ways of God – because it is to the lowly and humble that God showers down blessings.
It is also through the lowly and humble that God shows power and might – as this story may help us grasp. . .
A small mouse crept up to a sleeping lion that had just finished his meal. The mouse longed to have some of the scraps of the leftover meal.
“Since he’s sleeping,” thought the mouse, “he will never suspect I’m here.”
With that, the little mouse sneaked up and tried to pull off a scrap for its meal.
The lion awoke and quickly caught the mouse between its claws.
“Please,” said the mouse, “let me go and I promise I’ll come back and help you someday.”
The lion just laughed. “You are so small,” he said, “what could you ever do to help me?”
The lion laughed so hard he had to hold his belly at which point he let go of the mouse and the mouse ran away fast and far away.
The next day, two hunters came to the jungle. They went to the lion’s lair. They set a hugh rope snare. And when the lion came home that night, he stepped into the trap and was caught up in the ropes.
He tried with all his might but that just tightened the ropes – he could not get free. Frustrated he just roared and roared.
The mouse heard the roar and came to see what was going on.
Upon seeing the thick ropes that held the lion tight – he went to work nibbling at the rope until it broke.
The lion was freed and was able to shake off the ropes that held him tight. The lion now turned to his new best friend and said, “I was foolish to ridicule you for being so small. You not only helped me – you saved my life.”
Well, back to Napoleon. Toward the end of his life, he was exiled on the small rocky island of St. Helena. There, the former conqueror of Europe had time to reflect on his life – and even on the life of Christ.
After his reflections – He made the statement: “Other conquerors founded their empires by force. Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love and humility.”
Napoleon finally understood why he could not destroy the Church – his pride was no match for the love and humility of Christ– the foundation upon which the Church is built.
So as the Church, the members of the Body of Christ – we must remember what Sirach teaches us – be gentle in our living – and we will be better loved than a lavish giver.
For the power of love is seen in gentleness and humility. And to be gentle and humble is what the followers of Jesus Christ are called to be.
And it is only then – that the pride and arrogance of the world can be conquered.
All of us– either belong to, are related to, or are friends of — a family that is divided.
A divided family can come in many shapes and sizes: a husband and wife who are separated or divorced.
Children who no longer speak to their parents or vice-versa.
Brothers and sisters who no longer communicate with each other.
In-laws who don’t - or who are not allowed – to attend family functions.
Grandparents who have never seen, or rarely see – their grandchildren.
We have read about some divided families recently in the Gospel of Luke:
“Lord, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving.”
Or can’t you just hear the wife of the rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest: “how about adding on to the house— instead of building bigger barns??”
Oddly enough, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says that he has come to divide families: “A family of five will be divided: three against two and two against three. . .”
The same man which we call the Prince of Peace now tells us that he has come to bring division – not peace.
What’s Jesus talking about???
Is he really for divided families?
To understand the comments of Jesus, we have to put them in context.
In his day, Jesus found some aspects of Jewish faith lacking in compassion.
It was too legalistic and rigid. More concerned about the keeping of rules and regulations than about people - and meeting them where they are.
Jesus was claiming to be the compassionate Son of God - one who shows mercy and offers forgiveness. Who once said, “I desire mercy - and not sacrifice. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Eventually, many people came to follow him – many people who had previously been faithful members of the synagogue.
And those who began to follow Jesus, no doubt, caused disruption in their families.
Can’t you just hear a devout Jewish father saying to his son: “If you keep following after that Jesus – you will never set foot in this house again.”
Or a distraught Jewish mother saying to her daughter: “As long as you live in my house – you will do as I say – which is to go to the synagogue, not off to some hillside to listen to that man. . .”
Jesus’ “new way” as it was called in the years after his ascension – obviously must have split families: three against two and two against three.
So what Jesus is talking about – is that a person’s choices – based on values – can and will divide families: where your treasure is, there your heart shall be.
Not everyone in a family will treasure the same things – and so hearts will be in different places, focused on different things – and THIS can bring about division.
A person who chose the values of the kingdom Jesus was preaching was putting themselves at odds with traditional Jewish values – especially of the rule keeping type.
Division is a natural consequence when core-values contradict. This was true in Jesus’ day –and it is true in ours.
But just because we disagree – doesn’t mean we immediately move to shutting down communication – stop listening – stop talking – and cutting that person out of our lives - and dismissing them never to interact with them again:
Which seems to be the case in many families - certainly in our country - and even in our Church
Because if we really value these relationships – THEN WE NEVER GIVE UP ON EACH OTHER.
Jesus also told us: if you bring your gift to the altar and know that you are at odds with your brother or sister – go first to be reconciled – then bring your gift to the altar.
So we try our best to forgive and reconcile. We try to understand where the other person is coming from and why they value what they do.
We try to lift each other out of the muddy pit instead of shoving each other deeper by our anger, our misunderstanding, or our judgment.
Where your treasure is - there your heart shall be. . .
The fire that Jesus wishes to set ablaze in our hearts – in our lives – and in our world –
Is the fire of love, and mercy, and forgiveness, and reconciliation.
As Pope Francis recently told a group of Bishops from Malawi: [muh-la-wee]
“There is no aspect of family life – childhood and youth; friendship, engagement and marriage; spousal intimacy, fidelity and love; interpersonal relationships and support – which is excluded from the healing and strengthening touch of God’s love and forgiveness – communicated through the Gospels and taught by the Church.”
We are all in need of God’s healing touch - God’s understanding heart - God’s mercy reaching out to us. God has never given up on the people God has called - no matter how far they have strayed — and we are called to have the mind and heart of God. . .
And so we do pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit - as we partake of the one Bread of the Eucharist - we may be gathered into one Body of Christ who heals every division.
If our family truly is our treasure – then we will set our hearts on making our families the place where no matter what someone says or does – it is a place of compassion. And a place of challenge to become the people God is calling us to be.
Moments in time...