Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be; and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘twil be in the valley of love and delight. . .
During these days of Advent – we are being called and invited to journey to Bethlehem joyful and triumphant!
But worry and fear our two things that can rob us of our sense of triumph and take away our sense of joy. . . and so can the desire to always want MORE!
Isaac was a simple man who lived all alone in a small cabin near a forest. He had a few animals and a small garden and was relatively content with his life. He liked taking long walks in the forest, spending afternoons fishing at a nearby lake, and spending the evenings tending his garden and the animals.
Although he was happy with his life, he often wished he had more things – like his neighbors did.
Perhaps a bigger house, nicer possessions, and the latest gadgets.
One day he was out digging a hole for a new fruit tree he wanted to plant – and dug up a chest. And when he opened it, lo and behold --- it was filled with silver and gold coins --- enough to build a few rooms onto his cabin, enough to buy nicer stuff, even enough to buy the biggest television on the market. And he still had lots of coins left over – which he hid in a box down in the basement.
After enjoying his bigger cabin and all his new possessions for a few weeks – Isaac noticed that his life had changed.
He no longer went for long walks in the forest, fearful that someone would break into his bigger cabin and rob him of his nicer stuff.
He forgot all about fishing, worrying now not so much about the catch of fish he could have – but the catch of things someone else could have ---- if they came across his cabin without him protecting it.
Isaac’s garden became overgrown with weeds and the animals were neglected all because he was afraid to be out of his cabin and then someone could rob him of his possessions.
Isaac even lost all kinds of sleep, fearful that every noise he heard was a thief coming in the night.
Isaac began to wonder how he could just get back to the life he had before he found the treasure in the field. His joyful life of taking long walks in the forest, spending afternoons fishing, and spending his evenings once again tending to his garden and the animals. . .
John the Baptist has a solution for Isaac – and for all of us willing to listen: SIMPLIFY your life and be GENEROUS with what you have.
--John told the crowds --- if you are blessed to have two cloaks, share with the person who has none. Those who have food should do likewise.
--And to tax collectors – John told them to quit taking more than the actual tax – just so they can skim off the top to fund their lavish lifestyles. In other words, don’t live beyond your means.
And to soldiers, John told them to be satisfied with what they are paid – and to stop thinking that having more will make things better.
SIMPLIFY your life: or as a popular phrase tells us – live simply so that others can simply live.
But our whole society works against us reordering and simplifying our lives. Ours is a very cluttered, and complicated world.
Advertisements-- no matter how they come: on television, radio, on-line, or on bill boards -- have one major goal --- to make us discontent, woefully dissatisfied with who we are and what we have.
So we will buy what they offer – and so buy is what we do. . . trying to buy happiness with things ---- instead of cultivating joy.
The watchword of our consumptive society is very loud and clear: MORE. Enough is never enough. As one bumper sticker I saw expressed it: “All I want is just a little more-- than I have right now.”
And so we acquire, and we keep, and we accumulate. . . which leaves us strained and fretful, and worn out -----and far from heeding the advice of John the Baptist. . .
One of the greatest causes of anxiety, negative thinking, and a sense lethargy – a lack of energy and enthusiasm and I will also add a lack of joy --------- is self-absorption.
Selfishness inclines people toward failure because it keeps them in a negative mental rut.
That’s the reason Dr. Karl Menninger responded the way he did when someone asked him, “what would you advise a person to do, if they felt like they were at the end of their ropes and ready to have a complete breakdown?”
Most people expected him to reply, “consult a psychiatrist,” since that was his profession.
But to their astonishment, Menninger replied:
“Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need, and do something to help that person.”
Irish journalist and writer, Kevin Myers, says:
“most people are too insecure to give anything away. Most people focus all their attention on themselves do so because they feel that they are missing something in their lives, so they’re trying to get more.”
Developing a giving spirit, as Dr. Menninger implies, helps a person to overcome some of those feelings of deficiency in a positive and healthy way. That’s why he says: “Generous people are rarely mentally ill people. Because a person is less likely to focus on themselves if they are trying to help someone else.”
The chief motive of a selfish, ungrateful person is to get. . . while the chief motive of the dedicated Christian is to give.
Getting. . . or giving? Which will it be for us?
It probably began like any other day. . .
There were prayers to be said. Chores to be done: bread to bake, clothes to clean or sew. Water to draw from the well.
We don’t know what the weather was like. Perhaps there was a storm which kept her indoors that day. Or the sun was warm and she wanted to get out for a walk.
But at some point – in an otherwise forgettable day in an ordinary town in an overlooked corner of a vast empire --- a Jewish girl name Mary made history. An otherwise forgettable day became unforgettable – and the world has never been the same since.
And Mary did it with just a few words: May it be done to me according to your word.
Put another way – Mary said YES.
And so here we are, 20 centuries or so later – remembering that moment, honoring the young woman who is at the center of it all ---- and celebrating God’s extravagant wisdom, generosity, and love.
And we do this because this moment in time did not just happen. This feast we celebrate, the Immaculate Conception – remembers a great mystery and a miracle: that God so loved the world that not only did he send us his son. . . but God also gave us Mary.
God planned for Mary to be the perfect vessel for Jesus – for Mary was conceived in her own mother’s womb as sinless and pure – untouched by what happened in the Garden of Eden.
The miracle of creation brought us to another miracle of creation – the Annunciation we just heard in the Gospel of Luke.
But before going forward – let’s go back to that key phrase at the heart of this Gospel – which is also at the heart of this feast:
May it be done to me according to your word.
This is where everything began. Here is the complete and selfless desire to do the will of God – offered with humility and a sense of purpose.
And I have to ask myself – and you should ask yourself: can I say anything close to this? Can any of us be so bold and be so willing to surrender to God as eagerly and so completely as did Mary?
In an age when personal freedom is prized above all else, including the safety of others – when the culture tells us you don’t have to do anything that is uncomfortable or inconvenient to you --- this girl named Mary – says something most people living today would find altogether shocking.
To an angel of the Lord – and to the God who created her and sent the angel – Mary says: if you want it --- I will do it.
Her son would later put it another way in a prayer we pray most likely everyday: Thy will be done.
But Mary’s words carry the added weight of history being written. Think of what came about because of her YES:
Bethlehem. Egypt. Calvary. ….
Easter came about because of these words. Our salvation was made possible because of these words.
Because of that moment – we are here today – hearing God’s word proclaimed, receiving the Eucharist, worshipping God in faith and hope and love.
It all began with that one YES.
And yet this feast of the Immaculate Conception also reminds us it began even before that – when Mary, herself, first began.
What a wonder to ponder in this season of joy and hope of Advent:
The life and sacrifice of Mary serves as a model for each of us – and a bold challenge. Because the reality is: like Mary, each of us is called to be a vessel for Christ.
Each of us is called to bring Jesus into the world. To take him to others. To announce him. To sacrifice for him. To surrender to him. To love him. To live our lives in such a way that we can, as did Mary “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.
Know this: God had a plan for Mary before she was born – and God has a plan for everyone in this Church. God has a dream for each one of us ------- our job is to discover what that dream is and to cooperate with God to make that dream come true.
So today, overwhelmed once again by the humility and trust of Mary – her ability to say YES to what God had planned from the first moment of her immaculate conception --- we should carry these questions in our hearts:
--How can we be more like Mary?
--What is God asking of us?
--What is God’s dream for us?
--What particular gifts has God given to us? What plan does God want us to fulfill?
--How can we cooperate with God and make God’s dream for us come true?
I would hope we can begin to answer these questions by beginning as Mary did – with a response on an otherwise forgettable day in an ordinary town in an overlooked corner of a vast empire which change everything:
May it be done to me according to your word
Be not afraid, I go before you always. Come, follow me: and I will give you rest.
During these days of Advent – we are being called – we are being invited to journey to Bethlehem joyful and triumphant!
But there are many things that can rob us of our sense of triumph and take away our sense of joy: Worry and fear are two of these things.
The German word for worry means “to strangle.” And the Greek word means to “divide the mind.” Both are accurate. Worry is a noose around our necks and a distraction of the mind – neither of which is very conducive for joy.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus told us so many times in the Gospels: do not be afraid! Although as someone much brighter than I said:
Worries and tensions in one’s life are like birds – we can’t stop them from flying near us – but we can certainly stop them from making a nest in our minds and hearts. . .
Worry and fear our reactions --- to put them behind us we must chose to be bold and courageous.
How do we go about doing that???
And now you must forgive me for this very poor imitation of James Earl Jones, or someone else with a very deep voice, making an ancient version of a movie trailer – enticing us to read the Gospel of Luke:
In a world filled with fear and torn by strife and discord, comes a man – born to elderly parents who had given up all hope of having a child.
A man: whose father is told by the angel Gabriel that he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
A man who will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of parents toward their children--
and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous – to prepare a people fit for the Lord.
A man who will lose his life – as well as his head – for the sake of the kingdom of God.
And the man’s name is. . . . JOHN.
John the Baptist is a big guy in the Gospel of Luke – mentioned 23 times.
John – who is born six months before Jesus – and the first on the scene in Judea proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
What a message for the ears of those who are suffering and stewing in their faults and failings --- and what a message to the Jewish authorities who think they have control over who is in--- and who is out of favor with the lords of the Temple –
but not necessarily, to their surprise – out of favor with the lord of the Universe.
John is the ultimate and extreme warm up act – and spends his whole life pointing NOT to himself – but to Jesus.
To be effective in his ministry, John the Baptist – must be bold, and fearless, and courageous --- and without worry of the results or the repercussions that come from his message. John challenges us to discern what is of value so that we can proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.
I suspect that John knew well that worry and fear are two things that can so easily keep us, or anyone else, from being the bold witnesses of the Gospel that we are all called to be. . . being Debbie Downers and worry warts – instead of being JOYFUL and TRIUMPHANT.
So how do we make that choice of being joyful when there is so much strife and discord in the world around us – so much to fear and worry about?
I think one way, and perhaps the only way --- is to remember that we are not in this alone --- Yes, Jesus tells us many times in the Gospels to not be afraid. . .But Jesus also tells us:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened – and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me – for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves for my yoke is easy, and my burden light. [Matthew 11: 28-30]
We are not in this alone: we are to yoke ourselves to Christ – allow Jesus to will lead and guide us on our journey of life. For no matter what we face, or how far we stray: God will bring us back – borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones if we have Jesus at our side.
Each Sunday, after we say together the Our Father – asking God’s kingdom to come and God’s will be done in our lives – I say this prayer on behalf of us all:
Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, 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.
I don’t know about you – but I need that prayer – and I need to have faith enough to live that prayer.
I need, and I am going to be so bold as to assume that you also need --- to be delivered from all evil and kept safe from all distress – through the mercy and grace of God –
so that you and I can always leave this place and go out and be as bold as John the Baptist, joyful and triumphant --- in proclaiming the kingdom of God.
I need that prayer – because it is so easy to be fearful in our world that can be such a cold and cruel, divisive and self-centered --- place.
I need that prayer because in making decisions I’m often too worried about what other people are going to think or say – when I’m trying my best to put into practice the love, mercy and forgiveness of God – so that all may give glory and praise to God.
I need that prayer, and I am so bold as to assume that you need it to --- so that we can be free from worry and fear and all the other things that hold us back so that we can be filled with JOY – and allow the Lord to do great things – in us-- and through-- and with us.
My sisters and brothers – why should we be fearful – why should we have worries or doubts – why should we not feel triumphant ---
because we believe in a God that can command every lofty mountain to be made low – and the age-old depths and gorges to be filled to level ground – so that we, God’s chosen people --- so that we – can advance securely in the glory of God – so that we – can be led in joy by the light of God’s glory – with mercy and justice for our company.
So that we – can be joyful and triumphant when we leave this place – and allow others to see the salvation of God – working in us---- through us--- and with us.
Please join me in singing:
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the king of angels;
O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him: Christ, the Lord!
If you look in the index of songs of most hymnals, including our own, this familiar hymn is categorized as a Christmas song – NOT an Advent song. . .
But just to shake things up a bit – might I suggest that it really is an Advent song. . . after all we are called, we are invited, to come to Bethlehem –
to journey to meet the King of angels, God of God, light of light – our very God who is begotten – not created. Or so the verses of the song tell us.
And we are called, we are invited – to adore Him. And isn’t that what our whole lives as Christians is all about – to recognize and adore Christ not just in Bethlehem – but also in the day to day situations and people we encounter and meet on our journey of life?
And we are called, we are invited to come to Christ in two ways: joyful and triumphant – and therein lies a problem, I think, that we at least need to confront during our preparation period of Advent.
Because it seems to me that on most days, most of us are far from being joyful and come nowhere near being or feeling triumphant.
I think Pope Francis’ description of Catholics leaving Mass rings more true than we are willing to admit --- He said it’s as if we are leaving a funeral – rather than the foretaste of the great feast of heaven we have just received in the Word of God proclaimed – and the Body of Christ received.
Pope Francis says it’s as if we have gathered here and heard bad news – instead of GOOD NEWS. . . So the first obstacle to overcome this Advent – is how can we be more joyful?
And perhaps it is hard for us to be joyful – because we don’t very often feel too triumphant. . . and it’s not just that we all feel beaten up and at the point of being overwhelmed by the covid pandemic of the last couple of years ------------------- but haven’t we felt at our breaking point long before then?
Wearied from work, and responsibilities, and just life in general. . . Broken down by our faults and failings in relationships both with God and others – but also feeling the brokenness of our politics, our Church, and the constant demands placed upon us. . .
How many of us just feel worn out, with little energy, little tolerance, and little hope that things are going to get better ---
a weariness that can’t be shaken even by two cups of a double expresso mocha supreme???
Perhaps our lack of feeling triumphant is due to us trying to carry too many burdens on our own – but I am getting ahead of myself.
I think it is worth the investment of our time as well as our thoughts during this Advent season to simply ask how can we approach Bethlehem – approach Christmas, approach Christ throughout the year and throughout our lives with more joy and a sense of triumph??
Pope Francis has said that JOY is one of the four things by which every Christian should be known – the other three being love, harmony, and suffering.
The word JOY or REJOICE occurs 13 times in our Sunday readings during Advent – and several times in our prayers ---- more than any other word.
Obviously a call to be joyful is as resounding in the life of a Christian as Jesus’ call to be vigilant at all times and not to become drowsy or worn out by carousing and drunkenness or the anxieties of daily life. As resounding as John the Baptist’s call to repentance. . .
JOY: what is it, how do we get it – how do we live it in our lives? Let’s listen to a story.
A 92-year-old woman lost her husband after 70 years of marriage. On one particular day, she was moving into a nursing home – her new home after her husband’s death.
After waiting patiently for several hours in the lobby, she was told her room was ready.
She smiled sweetly. While gingerly maneuvering to her room with her walker, she was provided with a visual description of it including the curtains that had been hung on the window.
“I love it,” she said with enthusiasm.
“But Mrs. Jones, you haven’t even seen it yet,” her escort said.
“I don’t have to see it,” she said. “ Joy is something you decide on ahead of time. I have already decided to love it.”
“I make a decision every morning when I wake up,” she explained. “I have a choice: I can spend the day in bed recounting the difficulty I have with the parts of my body that no longer work --- or --- I can get out of bed and be thankful for the ones that do. “Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes are open, I’ll focus on the new day and all the joyful memories I have had – and all the ones yet to be had.”
Mrs. Jones went on: “Life is like a bank account –you withdraw from what you’ve put in. My advice to you would be to deposit a lot of joy in the bank account of memories. At 92—I am still making deposits.”
I was in Price Chopper the other day and came across a display of a train engine pulling a car behind it. A sign said: CHOOSE JOY--- and the train car was filled with white wine on sale for $8.95!!!
The ad was spot on --- Joy is a choice --- it’s just that joy cannot be found in the choice of wine or any other THING we may have bought on Black Friday.
Mrs. Jones was more on the mark – every day is a gift – and we choose to be joyful with what we have – or we are disappointed in what we don’t have.
Joy is a choice --- it is choosing to activate the gift that is already within us – one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit which St. Paul gives us in the 5th Chapter of his letter to the Galatians:
Where he says the fruits of the Spirit are: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Now don’t you think if you had a few more of those things in your life – you could feel very triumphant??
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . .
Choose happiness --- would be a better ad for the wine and our other purchases – because happiness is based on external things ---- which can be very fleeting. . .
Joy, on the other hand, comes from within --- and is something that is more permanent – it is a choice to look at things in a different way – and to definitely appreciate the things we already have – rather than always wanting more.
Fear and worry are two things that can crush our sense of joy – and we will look at those next week – as we look at the bold proclamation of the Kingdom of God by John the Baptist. Until then, we will choose to adore Jesus in this Eucharist – and hopefully choose to leave this place a little joyful & enthusiastic. . . NOT as if we are leaving a funeral. . .
I said a couple of months ago –that I miss my parents. I certain all of us who have lost our parents, or anyone we have loved --- can say that: we miss them.
My mother died on April 24, 2018. I was privileged to be with her when she died. She was in and out of consciousness for the last several hours I and my nephew spent with her.
Around 4 in the morning, she woke up and said that she was thirsty and wanted some water. After I gave her a drink – she looked me in the eyes and said, “thank you.” And those are the last words my mother ever spoke on this earth –
And I was left to wonder if they were spoken to me for that simple glass of water -------- or addressed to God for the gift of her entire life. . .
So here was a woman who had spent several days in the hospital --- and was in a great amount of pain. And yet – she could still say thank you!
I could not help but ask myself – what would I say if I were in my mother’s place? My answer was that I would probably have tried to call a little attention to myself. I probably would say – I’m tired. I’m in pain. I’m dying. And then either leave me alone – or crawl up in the bed and give me a big hug.
But Mom? As she was near to breathing her last – she said thank you – with a grateful smile on her face.
To me that means that even those who have next to nothing – who are just holding on by a thread- either to their entire lives or just life for this day or this week --can still have gratitude. Although those of us who have so much – can easily take what we have forgranted.
How much my mother, and those like her in similar situations – were like our Pilgrim ancestors who took time to be grateful even though they had so many reasons to be ungrateful.
Their first Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth Colony in 1621 --- 400 years ago --- was not born of abundance.
They had suffered a terrible journey to this “new world.” They experienced the harshness of their first New England winter and had lost countless numbers of their fellow travelers due to weather and disease.
They were strangers in a strange land and the land did not yield an easy welcome. And yet they did not shy away of saying “thank you” – to each other, to their native American friends the Wampanoag tribe led by Massasoit --- and especially to their God.
That’s what today is all about. Saying “thank you.” Thank you not just for the good but for all aspects of life – the good and the bad. Thank you for each and every event, friendship and love of our existence. And thank you not just to each other and for our country – but thank you to God without whom there would be no blessings.
Back in his day, founding father and orator Ben Franklin spoke of the need for giving thanks and of gratitude in this way:
Who is rich? The one who is happy with what they have. A home. A spouse. Children – these are the great gifts of life.
Wealth is not theirs that have it – but the one that enjoys it. The one who is content has enough, and the one that complains has too much. Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it is. You are only poor when you want more than you have.
So enjoy the present hour, be mindful of the past, and neither fear nor dread--- the approaches of the future.
If you would have guests, be happy with them, and be happy yourself.
Nothing dries sooner than a tear. A long life may not be good enough, but a good life is long enough. Wish not so much to live long, as to live well.
Great beauty, great strength, and great riches are really and truly of no great use: a good heart stands above all.
Proportion your charity to the strength of your wealth, or God will proportion your wealthy to the weakness of your charity. To bear other people’s afflictions, everyone has courage and enough to spare.
People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages.
May we who celebrate this Eucharist of gratitude today and who will share the meal of Thanksgiving with others later ---
never fail to be aware of the countless blessings that enrich our lives and which we so often take for granted.
And no matter what our circumstances --- today may we be able to say those two simple words, often and loudly: THANK YOU!
Widows at the time of Jesus and long before --- were at the bottom of the barrel. Without any social safety net in a world where men earned the household income – and wives ran the home --- widows had no one to look after them, so were extremely vulnerable.
This would have been especially true of the widow in Zarephath in the first reading.
Her situation was even worse than normal – because she lived in an area where there had been a severe drought for years. In her world – everyone was having a hard time. . .
Into her life walks the prophet Elijah. The widow would have regarded him as an enemy – for he was the one who announced the drought as a punishment for the sins of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.
But even this foreigner – this non-Jew was able to put into practice the principle that underlies all the Jewish laws – and what the observance of the law should lead to – love of neighbor – as she practices hospitality by offering Elijah a cup of water.
Amazingly she trusts Elijah’s word that God would provide for her and her son when she makes a small cake out of the little oil and water she has left.
This widow puts herself into the flow of God’s giving by giving the little she has. And God rewards her trust by providing food for her and her son for an entire year: God is generous to those who are generous.
Centuries later, Jesus encounters another vulnerable widow at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Like the widow of Zarephath, she too is at the bottom of the barrel.
Our Gospel begins with Jesus criticizing the learned theologians of the day, the Scribes – who are at the top of the barrel. They enjoy the benefits of their positions:
long robes, seats of honor in the synagogue, and always a place at the head table at banquets and other gatherings.
These scribes are the ones in Jewish society who served as trustees for impoverished widows – who, much like the Roman tax collectors – always took more than enough for themselves to keep up their lavish lifestyles – they took advantage of those they were supposed to be taking care of.
In contrast to these well-to-do folks ---- Jesus points out the poor widow who puts two small coins in the Temple treasury.
Unlike larger and more valuable coins that would have made a lot of noise going down the trumpet shaped collection tubes --- so designed so that the bigger the donation, the louder the noise – hence more eyes turning to observe the giver -----
like a slot machine pay out in a casino with jealous eyes turning to see the winner ---- the widow’s small coins would not have been noticed.
But just as Jesus paid attention to the blind Bartimeaus in the noisy crowd of Jericho – Jesus paid attention to this woman giving her donation. A donation from what little she had --- trusting that God will be generous to those who are generous.
These two widows can teach us a lot – if we are willing to pay attention to them.
When we forget that all we have comes from God and we become too comfortable and accustomed to relying on our own resources – we have a tendency to fill our lives with more stuff – all the while taking the stuff we already had – for granted.
These two widows teach us that it is only when we have hit the bottom of the barrel – or can imagine ourselves at the bottom --- that we can begin to trust that God will provide for all we need.
Those who adopt the attitude of the widows can actually grow in trusting that God will provide. We call those who do this – good stewards: those who receive God’s gifts gratefully, cherish and tend them in a responsible and accountable manner, shares them in justice and love with others – and returns them with increase to the Lord.
Good stewards understand that God is generous to those who are generous – they know what the widows came to know --- that God gives back more than we can ever give.
Good stewards set aside their first and generous time for personal prayer – especially the importance of attending Mass when we give thanks to God for all God has given.
Good stewards set aside a first portion of their busy schedule to give time in humble service to others--- beginning with their families & friends.
Good stewards sacrifice a first portion of their financial treasure to God – instead of just tossing whatever is left into the collection basket.
Jesus is in Jerusalem: a city of passion, of death, and of resurrection.
He notices this widow in the Temple just days before he is stripped of everything and gives his life completely for us on the cross. The widow points to what Jesus will do: he will contribute all that he has for our salvation. His trust in God will be returned when he is raised from the dead and shares the power of the resurrection with those who are willing to die to themselves – to give everything they have for the sake of the kingdom.
In the garden of Gethsemene, Jesus had his moment of doubt: if it is possible, let this cup pass from me he says – but not my will but God’s will be done ---
And anyone who takes the first steps in embracing stewardship as a way of life, also have their doubts – the fear that they will not have enough.
But those who take that first step – begin to experience the reality that they receive much more back than they ever give.
We pray for the grace and the courage to embrace the faith of these two widows – and of Jesus – and be willing to give our gifts of time, talent, and treasure – for the sake of the kingdom of God.
For God is generous to those who are generous.
So for the members of our young church preparing for their first reconciliation and Eucharist --- may you come to see that in these Sacraments – God always gives us back much more than we offer:
In reconciliation – we turn our sins over to God – and receive from God abundant forgiveness and mercy.
In the Eucharist – we give to God our gifts – and receive from God the gift of Christ’s own body – which allows us to become more like Christ.
We thank your parents for brining you to this point in your life of faith – and we congratulate you for taking this next step in your commitment to following Christ.
Last week, once the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, received his sight – Jesus told him to go his way, his faith had cured him.
But Bartimaeus chose not to go his own way – but to follow Jesus on HIS way – the way that led to Jerusalem: the city of passion, death, and resurrection.
Starting with today’s Gospel – Jesus is now in Jerusalem – and the last few weeks of his life are filled with confrontation and controversy – although the readings we have on Sundays as we finish out St. Mark’s Gospel – really don’t reflect all the turmoil Jesus faces in the Holy City.
We do get a taste of intended controversy in today’s Gospel when Jesus is in the entry court of the Jewish Temple--- when a scribe, someone who knew the 614 laws of Israel well – asks Jesus what he thinks is the greatest of all these commandments.
Now for each of these commandments, scribes and Pharisees would develop ways to interpret each of them. For example, there were 39 different categories of work that must be avoided just to properly observe the 3rd commandment --- to keep holy the Sabbath.
Despite the well intentioned efforts of the scribes and Pharisees to help people follow the law, law-abiding Jews, or those who tried to be – were crushed under the burden of laws and their interpretations. And Jesus knew this.
So instead of answering the scribe with just one particular law that was most important – Jesus answers by telling him what underlies all the laws – and what the observance of the laws should lead to: the love of God and love of neighbor.
The law was not to be kept for the sake of the law itself – although sadly that is how many Jews, especially the scribes and the Pharisees lived their lives – just keeping the law.
But Jesus is posing the bigger question of what good is the law and keeping it even to perfection – if it doesn’t lead us closer to God and one another.
And we might think right here, right now – ho hum ---- we’ve heard this all before. And just go on living our lives as we’ve always lived them.
Or we may think this is all pretty simple – and it is--- when we hear it in here ----------- but when we are told: Go, the Mass is ended ------------ and we have to leave this place and go out and live our lives according to this Gospel challenge – then things aren’t so simple any more.
Yes, when we go out and try to put these words of Jesus into practice – that’s when things get a little sticky –
When we try to choose to ease pain, instead of cause it.
Try our best to lift people up instead of put them down.
When we reach out a helping hand instead of withdrawing in fear.
When we strive for reconciliation instead of continuing conflict and division.
When we try our best to remember it’s not all about me but about us – as we strive to achieve the common good instead of just what’s good for me.
When we try to open our eyes to the needs of our brothers and sisters and strive to comfort those who labor and are burdened.
That’s when things get a little sticky – when things aren’t so simple anymore.
To even have a chance of trying to serve others after the example of Christ and at his command --- we must constantly develop our relationship with God, ask God for the grace, the help, that we all need – in order to be those living witnesses of truth and freedom, and of justice and peace.
It would do us good to remember the advice Bartimaeus gave us last week:
-to never listen to the crowd who often times try to talk us out of pursuing our hopes and dreams – such as making the kingdom of God more present by our words and actions.
-to remember that if we’re feeling lonely or afraid, thinking that no one cares about us or even sees us – especially the difference we are trying to make in the world – to know that Jesus is aware of us – and eager to have personal contact with us in the silence of our hearts.
And in the silence of our hearts, in prayer – to ask Jesus for what we need, not for what we want.
And what we need is the grace to do our best to continue the mission of Jesus Christ: by loving God and loving our neighbor.
And then also we might want to remember this piece of advice which C.S. Lewis gives in his book, Mere Christianity: “Do not waste your time bothering whether you LOVE your neighbor – just act as if you do. As soon as you do this, we find one of the great secrets of life. When you are behaving as if you loved someone – you will presently come to love them. If you do a good deed for someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking them less.”
Or a Jesus might have put if: always let love overcome hatred. And then, we will not be far from the kingdom of God.
My name – is Bartimaeus: a blind beggar who lived in Jericho. . . And I spent most of my days just feeling sorry for myself. . . I was good at throwing pity parties.
Ironic – since my name means “son of Timaeus” which in turn means “respected one.” But there were few in town who had any respect for me.
Because in my day – if you suffered in some physical way – blindness, deafness, leprosy, were maimed or crippled in some way --- it was thought it was due to some sin you committed – or some sin your parents had committed before you were born-- as moral faults and failings were supposedly passed down from one generation to the next.
So there I was – going nowhere. Hoping that someone would throw a few coins my way – which is why I had my one possession – my cloak – spread out over my legs and onto the ground to catch those precious alms. . .
On one somewhat normal day in our somewhat normal town – I heard a commotion. “It’s Jesus of Nazareth” the crowd cried out. . .
Jesus of Nazareth I thought – I had heard about him – he’s the one who cures sick people, cares for those who are poor, and weeps with those who are sad. --- and so I decided to take a chance and to beg for more than just alms on this somewhat normal day.
So I cried out at the top of my lungs: “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”
I found out later that I was the only one who ever called Jesus Son of David in all of St. Mark’s account of his life. Everyone else referred to him as the Son of God. . . or as the Messiah, or as Jesus of Nazareth.
But after begging many a day outside the synagogue and hearing the Scriptures proclaimed – I knew that the Messiah was to come from the house and lineage of the great King David.
So when I cried out, the crowd immediately tried to shut me up. Let me give a piece of advice – never listen to the crowd, as nothing good can come from that. . .
They wanted me to be quiet because they thought I was unworthy of Jesus’s attention – sinner that I supposedly was.
I wonder if they thought any different of me once Jesus did give me his attention. . . because when I cried out all the louder – Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me --- Jesus invited me to come to him.
Imagine, in that crowd – all those important people pushing and shoving around him – asking him for this and that ---
Jesus became aware of me – no one important, no one of status --- just a broken man who was eager for personal contact with the one everyone was calling the Messiah.
“Take courage; get up – Jesus is calling you,” they said – not too enthusiastically, but almost in contempt as they held on to their opinion of me.
And my response was not just an exultant physical leap toward Jesus – but also a leap of faith.
Because I threw my cloak to the ground – my last and only possession that for me, a beggar – served as my coat, my sleeping bag, and a collecting rug for the few coins tossed my way – my whole livelihood!
Because nothing else now mattered to me – not even that dusty bit of turf I sat on day after day -- that, like any beggar, I would have protectively guarded on any other day. But not that day – because nothing mattered anymore – Jesus had called me!
And when I got to him, Jesus asked me one question – one important and life-changing question --- which I heard later he asked two of his disciples just a few days earlier:
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Again I was later told that my response as a marginalized outsider --- was very different than the response of his two insider disciples –
they wanted power and prestige. . . Me? Aware of my poverty and disability – I just wanted to see!
So I said to him --- image me, speaking to the Messiah! --- I said: master – which is Rabboni in Aramaic, used just one other time in all the Gospels by one of his closest followers: Mary Magdalene – who calls him Rabboni after his resurrection when they met outside the tomb in John’s Gospel –
Rabboni, Master, I say --- I want to see!
And Jesus, in his wisdom and insight --- knew I had the eyes of faith – for I had called hum both Son of David AND Rabboni ---- now Jesus gave me eyes to see the world ---- as he said to me: “Go your way: your faith has saved you.”
After all of these years of feeling sorry for myself, and scraping by on the few coins that were thrown my way – I could see --- and with my bright blue eyes fully functioning --- I could now go wherever I wanted to go ----------
but there was only one way I wanted to go: my choice was to follow Jesus on his way – the way that led to Jerusalem: a city of passion, death, and resurrection.
So I am Bartimaeus, now a seeing disciple from Jericho – and this is my story.
Now in addition to my advice to you of not listening to the crowd – never let anyone talk you out of pursuing your hopes and your dreams – I have these three other bits of advice:
--when you’re feeling lonely or afraid, thinking no one cares about you or even sees you – know that Jesus is always aware of you – and is eager to have personal contact with you in the silence of your heart.
--and in that silence of your heart, in prayer --- when Jesus asks you: what do you want me to do for you? Don’t chase after power and prestige—or all the other sparkly things the world tries to entice you with ---
But do look deep within yourself and answer that question from your heart: what is it you really need from Jesus: forgiveness, a sense of direction or purpose, affirmation, a need just to feel loved or accepted? Whatever it is – don’t be afraid to ask – but do make it a need, not a want. For when Jesus does ask: What do you want me to do for you – it’s an important and always a life-changing question.
And finally – when Jesus gives you the freedom of choice to go your way --- just as he did for me -- why not choose to follow Jesus on his way – the way that leads to Jerusalem – the city of passion, death, and resurrection.
If you do make this choice, your life will never be the same.
Today’s homily will be a bit different – as most of it will be kind of a guided meditation – although before we get to that, we need to come to understanding about the symbolism of the cup – an ordinary drinking cup or a glass – certainly a chalice – has been used as a symbol for one’s life in the Scriptures -- as in Psalms: “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.”
Or in Jesus’ words of Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup – let this moment of life -- pass from me – yet not as I will, but as you will.”
And also the cup has been symbolic in secular literature for one’s life – As in Ray Bradbury writing: “we are all cups – constantly and quietly being filled.” Or Julia Ward Howe: “Life is like a cup of tea – which needs to be stirred up from time to time – as all the sugar settles at the bottom.”
A cup ---is meant to be filled with something – and so a question that often comes along in the Gospels is--- are we filling our cups with the values of the kingdom of God – or the values of the world?
Sometimes are cups are so filled with the things of the world – the things of heaven cannot make their way inside. . . hence the image of emptying ourselves
-- as in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippines in which he says of Christ: “he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave. . .”
With this image or metaphor of a cup in mind – we begin our guided meditation – perhaps with eyes closed – or perhaps even better. . . with our eyes focused on the cross.
Hear, again, these words of the Prophet Isaiah – read to us not only today – but also during Holy Week:
The Lord was pleased to crush Christ in infirmity. Because of Christ’s affliction, he shall see the light in fullness of days.
Through Christ’s suffering, God’s servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall lay bare.
Yes, Jesus, as you hung on the cross, you carried our faults, failings, infirmities, and sins – to God—and crushed them – setting us free!
And now you ask us one question – one important and life-changing question:
Can you drink the cup that I drink?
And we should not be too quick with our answer. We should answer carefully – and prayerfully. . .
Either yes – or no -----
Can you drink the cup that I drink?
There might not be a more important or difficult question for us to answer. . .
And before we do --- we should consider some of the things we have heard over the last several months:
“Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person – but only the things that come out from within are what defile.”
Can you drink the cup that I drink? Are we ready to turn loose of evil thoughts, greed, malice and deceit? Rid ourselves of envy, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from within – and they defile us – and they make the inside of our cups, our lives -- unclean. . .
Jesus asks: Can you drink from the cup I drink?
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save their life will lose it. . .”
Are we willing to conform, as our opening prayer asked us to do: to conform our will to God’s and serve God with a sincere heart? Are we willing to lose our lives in the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God – or cling to our old, sinful ways?
Jesus asks: Can you drink the cup I drink?
“If anyone wishes to be first, they shall be the last of all and servant of all.”
Are we willing to embrace a life of humility which puts other people and their needs first – before our own –
willing to empty ourselves out for the sake of others and the kingdom of God --- or do we pray that this cup passes from us?
Jesus asks: Can you drink the cup I drink?
“If your hand causes you to sin – cut it off. Or if your foot causes you to sin – cut it off. And if your eye causes you to sin – pluck it out. . .”
Are we willing to cut those things out of our lives that keep us from following after Jesus so that we can think like God thinks – see what God sees, want what God wants – and love what God loves?
This is our cup: the calling we have received, the life God has chosen for us to live. . .
Jesus asks: Can you drink from the cup I drink?
If we ever find ourselves wondering what our faith “costs,” what discipleship “cost”--- Jesus lays it out pretty clearly. It costs everything. We just need to look at the cross to know. . .
There isn’t a cheaper price out there. There is no bargain basement when it comes to following Jesus – there is no easier way. . .
Do we want to give, but only in small doses? Not possible.
Do we want to love, but only when it’s convenient? It doesn’t work that way.
Do we want to forgive, but not for the really bad stuff others have done to us --- Not on the menu.
Jesus asks: Can you drink the cup I drink?
We can’t look for a lower price when it comes to discipleship. We have to pledge to embrace the highest possible price – the way of life that costs us the most, the only way of life truly worth living.
And to do it – we must confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for help –as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us --- and to always remember the wisdom of last Sunday’s Gospel: “For human beings, it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
And Jesus asks: can you drink the cup I drink?
May we carefully, and prayerfully, and whole-heartedly answer – YES!
For this is our cup – the calling we have received to follow after Christ – the life God has chosen for us to live. . .
And for our candidates for Confirmation – I know some of you are probably receiving this sacrament – because your parents want you to.
My hope is, that all of you will come to choose it because you want to receive it ---
And so it is a big step – it should be a life-changing step in your faith-life ---- and so we pray for you now and in the days to come – that you may be faithful in the decision you are making. . .
Last Sunday we heard Jesus say: “If anyone wishes to be first, they shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
And Deacon Jim challenged us all to be “little deacons” ready to do the grunt work of being servants to one another.
The Sunday before that, we heard Jesus say: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
And I challenged us to heed the advice of Jesus to Peter – to get behind him – to follow Jesus closely and learn from him.
And today we hear Jesus say: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna” – that is the abode of the damned in the afterlife --- what we refer to as-- hell.
Before we dismiss this just as an exaggeration of Jesus – or a ridiculous request --- we should first detect the pattern ---
Which is following after Jesus is costly – it’s not just something we can commit to and then go on living life as normal – there is sacrifice involved – so that we can be holy as God us holy --- but there is also greatness – eternal life spent in the presence Christ and all the saints
So yes, in a rather exaggerated way – more to shock us than scare us --- what Jesus is saying to us is if there IS ANYTHING standing in our way in making the sacrifices we all need to make in order to follow after him --- we must cut them out of our lives – rid ourselves of them in order to free us from those burdens we so often want to carry. . . so that we can better:
Think like God thinks – see what God sees, want what God wants--- and love as God loves. . .
Jesus specifically mentions our hands, our feet, and our eyes. And we should reflect on what each of these mean in hindering us in becoming holy, just as God is holy. . .
Sometimes our hands are used to grasp at things our egos want – but which might not be good for us – in-ordinate amounts of money, sex, power, or material possessions.
Stretching all the way back to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s sin was grasping at the forbidden fruit – grasping at a life that God had not intended for them.
So if our hand causes us to sin – cut it off:
We must be willing to sever our grasping at things which are sinful and toxic to us – for they are not the things God wants for us for a good and holy life.
Jesus mentions our feet. Do our feet carry us behind Christ --- so that we can follow after him & learn from him --- instead of thinking that we are the leader?
St. Thomas Aquinas once said that if you want to find JOY – then you have to walk in the path that leads to God alone.
But what do most of us do?? We walk down so many errant paths which instead of bringing us joy – takes it from us. So many of our paths keep us isolated from real life-giving relationships with God and with one another.
So if our foot causes us to sin – cut it off. We have to sever all the ways we can choose that lead us from a joy-filled life --- and choose the narrow path that God wants us on--- which leads to eternal life.
Finally, Jesus mentions the eye – the organ of vision.
Jesus tells us in St. Matthew’s Gospel that the eye is the lamp of the body -- that our eyes are the entrance to our hearts and minds – and as such – they provide a doorway to our very soul.
Our entire lives are filled with choices of either turning toward the things of heaven – or of turning away from them --- but as followers of Christ – we are called to see as God sees – not as human beings do.
So if our eyes cause us to sin – pluck them out – we have to be willing to NOT look for joy or fulfillment or meaning or value – in all the wrong places—like the glamour, illusion, sparkly, shiny things of this passing world and set our hearts on the things that are eternal. For where our treasure is – there our hearts will be. . .
If our hand causes us to sin – cut it off. If our foot causes us to sin – cut it off. If our eye causes us to sin – pluck it out.
Jesus is teaching us that we have to approach our life with him seriously – there will be sacrifices to be made – crosses to bear – and humility to be embraced.
So maybe this is not an easy Gospel to listen to – but it’s necessary if we want to experience the fullness of life Jesus wants for us.
So each and every day – if we want to humbly serve our God and others --- we simply need to ask God to send us the gifts of the Holy Spirit –so that we can have the grace we need to identify the tendencies, the habits, the vices that need to be turned over to God – so that God can free us from them – and set us on the way that leads to eternal life.