Preparing for his coming

After two months of Gospel readings about the day of judgment at the end of time we are given in the readings today a picture of who it is that will judge us in the General Judgment. We had story after of story of a day of reckoning, and there was Gehenna and locked doors and wailing and grinding of teeth. Those readings did not seem to suggest that the Day of Judgment is going to be a good day. Yet this is the day we Christians look forward to expectantly. Why is that? That day will be great because we know who will judge us on that day.

Our judge is a loving judge, one who tells the prophet Isaiah to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” to tell her that “her guilt is expiated.” Jesus Christ, who will sit in judgment is Jesus Christ who died on the Cross to expiate our sins, our guilt. Our judge that day is also our Redeemer.

The day of judgment will be a day, as the Psalm sings today, when “kindness and truth shall meet” and where “justice and peace shall kiss.” Our God of Justice will acknowledge on that day the times we were kind and gentle with others. He will recognize on that day the times we stood firm for the unchanging Truth, which is God. He will commend us on that day for our willingness to stand for justice against the great and small tyrannies in our lives, and when we were the peace that stilled the stormy seas, the peace that surpasses our understanding.

Advent is the season of preparation for the Lord’s coming. On one level, we are preparing for that day that marks the end of time when, as St. Peter writes, “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.” On another level, we are preparing for the way of the Lord, like John the Baptist a voice crying out in the desert. The reading from Isaiah describes this Lord for whom we wait: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom.”

That sounds like a Lord worth waiting for. Even an impatient fellow like me can wait for a Lord who “leads his sheep with care.” St. Peter reminds us that we cannot time the Lord’s arrival, for “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.” In his letter, St. Peter gives us a plan of action for this period of preparation before the Lord arrives.

According to the Apostle, we should be the kind of people who are “conducting ourselves in holiness and devotion.” The season of Advent is a time when we can recommit to that kind of life. That kind of life is hard to choose when all around us the world is getting and spending in the Christmas Shopping Season. It takes work to avoid the many mall criers calling us to consume things that will ultimately not satisfy us, but here in this place God is calling us to consume Him, and in so doing be consumed by Him and swept up into his embrace of love and peace where kindness and truth shall meet.

Here at the parish, we have many opportunities for prayerful preparation for the Incarnation, that enfleshment of God we are waiting for in this season of Advent. You may have noticed our Mass is more subdued, as we do not sing the Gloria during Advent, and we don’t use incense as much, or maybe just don’t use as much incense.

Next week we will have a great sequence of beautiful liturgies and services to support our community in its preparation for the coming of our Lord. I invite you to come next Sunday evening and let our choirs sing praise to God along with Bible readings that foretell of the Messiah in our annual Lessons and Carols service.

Next Monday, we will have many priests here for our Advent night of Confession and Reconciliation. Talk to these gentle priests and be reconciled with God, washed clean of your sins and become as pure as the lambs that wait in the manger for Jesus.

And then we will have two days to absorb the wisdom and devotion of a great priest, our very own Monsignor Lopez, as he leads our Advent parish mission.

All of these events are opportunities for us to receive great gifts of peace and wisdom. Perhaps we should use this coming week to take action and prepare ourselves for those events next week.

To prepare for Lessons and Carols this week, try to listen to something other than the secular Christmas tunes that are on every radio station and Spotify playlist.

To prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation, perhaps we should spend time in prayerful reflection of the choices we made that pulled us away from God. If you’re like me and your mind sometimes goes blank when you walk into the confessional, maybe you can write your stuff on a small scrap of paper and then afterward tear it into tiny pieces and throw it in the trashcan as a sign of accepting God’s absolution.

To prepare for Monsignor Lopez, try to be a bit more like him. When you say your prayers, don’t rush through them. Remain in silence for a minute after you’ve said your prayers. Simply share a warm smile and a kind word with the next person you meet.

Advent is a time of prayerful preparation for the coming of our God. We await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Let’s use the days ahead so we can be with him at the Incarnation, found without spot or blemish, and at peace.

 

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The Coming Day of Judgment

You may have noticed the serious tone of the gospels we have been reading for about a month. We had the unfaithful stewards, who neglected their duties and tried to get the master’s vineyard for their own. And there was a day of judgment in that story. And we had the story of the wedding feast, which all the society guests ignored and some of the newly invited did not take seriously. And there was a day of judgment in that story. We had the story of the Roman coin – a warning that what is important in this world is not what is really important on the day of judgment. We were given a summary of the whole law and prophets – love God with all that we have, and love our neighbor, for that is the standard on the day of judgment. We heard a warning to the religious leaders that what they practice rather than what they preach will be how they will be judged on the day of judgment. We heard last week that those who wait expectantly will spend their time preparing for the return of the Bridegroom, which is the day of judgment. And today, we have the parable of the talents, which ends with a day of judgment.

In late November, as the world turns its eyes to the Malls of America in the Christmas Shopping Season, the Christian church turns its eyes to the bitter truth that one day we are all going to die and each and every one of us will face a day of judgment. In next week’s readings, we will get a sense of what the day of judgment will be like, but today we are focusing on what we should do with our lives so we will be judged by God as one of his children on the day of judgment.

What should our lives be? Our lives of faith should be active rather than passive. We are the Church Militant, which means we are working together for something and we are under attack. Like the people in the parable, we have been given gifts. God wants us to use them to glorify him.

Those of us who live secular lives – me as a permanent deacon and you as the laity – are the principal messengers of the Gospel. You and I are the servants in the Gospel story today. Some of us were given many talents – wealth, energy, perseverance – and some not so many. Whatever God gave us, we must share. We must take the risk involved in the Christian life: to love your God with all that you have, to love your neighbor, to give of yourself to the point of sacrifice. This story is not about producing a return on God’s investment; it is about daring to use the gifts we have been given.

Like the people in this parable, we are asked to take risk as disciples of Christ. Risk means accepting consequences – some we expect and some unforeseen. If we stand for God, if we fight for Christ as the Church Militant, we can expect opposition. We don’t know the details of how we might be opposed, but discipleship is costly. We need to have the courage to withstand the opposition and remain true to the Christian faith. This can entail suffering. Suffering is not pain. Pain is pain. Suffering is what makes the pain an offering to God. It gives purpose to pain. It ennobles pain.

But we want to run from pain. We want to inoculate ourselves against pain. We want to anesthetize ourselves when we encounter pain. Jesus wants us to put on the garment of Christ and find joy in our pain. Joy, not happiness. Joy is the constant assurance that there is purpose to our lives and our existence, that we can choose good over evil, and that good ultimately triumphs over evil.

During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lists eight blessings, which we know as the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes involve risk taking, so let’s look at how they demand we take risk as disciples of Christ.

Blessed are the meek. Being meek involves the risk of people thinking you are weak. Meekness is humility, and that is the willingness to let others be praised, to let others be consulted, to allow yourself to be ridiculed or wronged. It is the willingness to let others increase so that we may decrease.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Being a peacemaker involves the risk of not having the last word. It is embracing the truth that the three little words “I love you” are better than the three little words “I am right.” It is trusting in God’s providence even when your group or your manager is making a poor decision. It is trusting in Divine providence when someone is spreading lies about you, and the Devil is tempting you to respond in kind.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Being poor in spirit involves the risk of looking like a loser in the eyes of the world. I have a very affluent friend who a few years ago traded in his big Audi sedan and bought a Volkswagen because he liked the idea of a clean diesel that had plenty of turbo power. One of his clients asked if his business was okay because he assumed that if you’re not driving an $80,000 car, your business is probably failing. I’m happy to say my friend has a strong enough sense of himself that he laughed it off, but you can see that the willingness to be unattached to the money you make is often misunderstood by many of your neighbors.

Even being willing to hear the truth is a risk. We want to hear that whatever it is we are doing is great and we should keep it up. But that’s not usually the case. Christ meets us where he finds us, but he offers something better than more of the same. Christians stumble their way to Heaven. Stumbling is falling and getting back up. There is risk in choosing to get back up knowing you’ll probably fall again.

If we will risk getting up when we stumble, if we will risk living as sojourners in a strange land, if we will risk taking the Gospel seriously, we won’t risk our eternal souls. The day of judgment approaches. Let’s be prepared for it.

 

 

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Whose Image is on the coin? On you?

In the Old Testament reading, we meet Cyrus the Great, who was king of the Persian empire. Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells Cyrus that all his power came from the God of the Israelites even though Cyrus did not acknowledge the Lord.

In the Gospel reading, we hear of a challenge presented to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees show up often in the Gospels as entrenched Jewish leaders who see in Jesus of Nazareth a threat to their arrangement with the Roman Empire. The Herodians were similar to the Pharisees in their willingness to accommodate the secular powers as they practiced their religious faith.

Both Cyrus and Caesar were great kings. Both ruled great empires. They controlled large armies, and they had such authority they issued the currency used by their subjects. Each in his own time knew he had great power. But did they know where their power came from? Not Cyrus, according to Isaiah, who says Cyrus did not know God. Certainly not Caesar, who insisted he should be worshipped as a god.

All the readings today show us that God has dominion over all nations.  His message is for all nations: for Cyrus, king of Persia in the OT reading; for all nations in the Psalm; for Greeks in Thessalonika in the Epistle; for Romans and Herodians in the Gospel.

The message to Cyrus says directly that the Jewish God is the only true universal God. In the Gospel story, Jesus makes the same statement but does so indirectly. When challenged about the payment of taxes, Jesus focused their attention on whose coin was used for payment. The coin said Caesar, which Jesus reminds all of us means everything else belongs to God.

Jesus asks the scribes whose image is on the coin. Caesar’s image is on the money. But he is asking us whose image is on you? Imago Dei. You and I are made in God’s image. His Mark is on us. What does that mean?

In his homily last Sunday, Fr. Rey told us the wedding garment in last week’s Gospel story is the white garment of Christ we received in our Baptism. We should be wearing it at the wedding banquet in Heaven.

At our birth, we are made in God’s image. We are grafted back into his family through our baptism. And we are heading to the nuptial banquet in Heaven like the bride going to the bridegroom.

We are marked by God, we are clothed by God, we belong to God. He is calling us. Can we hear him? Can we respond to him?

Or do we get distracted by the coins in our pocket. Are we like Cyrus, king of all he sees but not seeing the One who made him. Are we like Caesar, thinking ourselves gods and minting our own coinage to represent real power but not seeing our Redeemer?

Do we – like the Herodians – compromise our religion to fit in with the spirit of the times? Do we become complacent and indifferent like those invited to the wedding feast in last week’s Gospel?

Is Jesus a threat to our arrangement with secular leaders, like the Pharisees collecting taxes for the Roman Empire? Do we make Jesus fit into our world, or will we reshape our world to follow him?

God still has dominion even though Cyrus and the Persian empire is long gone. God still has the power to create life even though the Roman empire is dead, dead, dead. Our personal empires won’t last either. Only God lasts. So, pay Caesar his taxes. But serve God alone.

 

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The parable of the laborers

Last week’s reading from the Gospel was about the mercy of the king, and this week’s seems to be about justice. Last week, the debtor who received mercy from the king could not extend mercy to somebody in his debt. This week, the laborers agree on a just wage with the landowner at the start of the day, but they cry injustice at the end of the day when they see what others are paid. Continue reading

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Tweeting the Parable of the Laborers

The defining characteristic of the social media tool Twitter is the 140 character length limitation. Twitter started on cell phones, and the old messaging systems would only accept 140 characters. Most of what we like and don’t like about Twitter is due to this size constraint.

The 4pm Saturday Vigil Mass is very much like Twitter: everyone from the Archbishop on down knows it cannot last more than 38 minutes. There is no way a Deacon is going to get away with preaching for 9 or 10 minutes. So, this homily is a series of tweets.

  1. Last week’s gospel was about Mercy; this one is about Justice.
  2. What do those words mean?
    1. Justice is giving you what you deserve.
    2. Mercy is NOT giving you what you deserve.
    3. Justice is you getting what you deserve. Mercy is you NOT getting you what you deserve.
  3. Isaiah reminds us in the reading today God’s thoughts are not our thoughts but are much higher than ours.
  4. Why are our thoughts not his?
    1. We don’t know everything, and we don’t love everyone. God Does.
    2. We are not free of our passions and emotions. We sin. God Doesn’t.
  5. We are not equipped to administer true justice. Only God can do it right.
  1. Why don’t we get Mercy and Justice? Because of Pride and Envy.
    1. Pride: I am the center of the universe and know what is best in every situation.
    2. Bob Marley on Pride: When you point your finger, three are pointing back at you.
    3. Envy: I am sad that somebody else is being blessed.
    4. The laborers hired early were sad the late hires got well paid.
  2. Counter Pride with Humility.
    1. Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking less about yourself.
  3. Counter Envy with Gratitude.
    1. Count your own blessings first, then you won’t mind counting another’s blessings.
  4. Mother Teresa’s Humility List
    1. Speak as little as possible about yourself.
    2. Give in, in discussions, even when you are right.
    3. Do not dwell on the faults of others.

Mother Teresa is a saint. She’s in heaven. She’s a good one to emulate.

St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

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Dads, let your kids see you pray

The father of the groom of a couple I’m preparing for Holy Matrimony told me a story from William F. Buckley:

When asked where he got his strong Catholic faith, Buckley said his Mother was always making them learn this and that but what he really remembered was the time he was making his customary trip to his parents’ bedroom to kiss his father good night only to see his father on his knees in prayer.

Mom is important to a child’s faith formation, but Dad seems to be the key to a boy’s faith retention.

Let your children see that you love Jesus, fathers. Let them see that you trust him. Go to church with your sons before you go to the golf course with them. The faith you teach them by example will be your most important legacy.

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I AM – the North Star

In the days before Google Maps, kids would learn how to navigate using the stars. You had to find the North Pole Star, and from that you could figure out which direction was the one you wanted to go.

The neat thing about the North Star was that it never moved. But, of course, you did not know where north was to find it. So you learned how to identify the Big Dipper that could be used to find the North star.

Of all the stars in the sky, the only one that did not move with the rotation of the earth around the sun was the North star.

God is a bit like the North star. We don’t always find him directly, and we rely on helpers just as we use the Big Dipper to find the North star. God never moves, again, like the North star. He just is. In fact, when Moses was meeting him at the top of Mt. Sinai and asked what should I tell the folks down at the foot of the mountain is your name? And God said, “Tell them I AM sent you.” God just is. Because of his permanence, we can always turn to him and he will be there. Just like the North star.

But the true God is not the flashy, “look at me” God, just as the North Star is not the star that catches your eye when you look up during the night. There are so many gods out there asking us to serve them, just as there are so many stars in the sky besides the North star. Even people not interested in the night sky can find Orion with his belt, and he is frankly more interesting and attractive than the North star. Like Orion in the sky capturing our attention when we look up, false gods like money and power sometimes capture our attention when we look for God.

The problem with stars is they are far away. And they seem to disappear when it is not night. So we find other things to use as our guideposts. Sometimes we feel God is far away, or we feel he has disappeared, and we find other beings or other things to serve in His place.

When Jesus asks Peter and the disciples “Who do the people say that I am?” he is asking if they can find the North star among the millions of stars in the sky. And it turns out many do not. The people think they are seeing another prophet – one that is up there with the great prophets like Moses or Elijah – but they don’t see Jesus for what he truly is and who he truly is.

But Peter does. This seems remarkable, given what the Scriptures tell us about Peter. Those familiar with the full story of Peter in the Bible know he is no hero, no voice of steady and unwavering fidelity to his Lord and Master, the rabbi Jeshua from Nazareth. He has moments of faith: he hops out of the boat and walks on water, but then his faith slips and he starts to sink. During the trial before the high priest, Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. At the darkest time when Jesus is dying on the cross, Peter is nowhere to be found. The Gospels paint a picture of an unreliable weakling, yet this is the man to whom Jesus promised the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is no rock on which to build the church. And history has shown many times that Peter’s successors are not often any better than Peter.

So why is Peter Peter? Why is this unreliable man the Rock?
Because he knows who God is. He knows God is not merely a great teacher, like the prophets from of old. He is not merely a great law-giver, like Moses coming down from the mountain.

God does not want you and me to “do this” or “don’t do that.” He wants you and me to love him, and adore him, and worship him. He wants us to acknowledge him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not only with our lips, but with our whole lives.

That’s what Peter did. Once he received the fullness of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he discovered the strength that comes from God alone, and he was no longer relying on his human strength. He could go and lead the church of Rome – a country bumpkin from nowheresville in the nothing province of Palestine coming to lead the sophisticated patricians of the imperial capital. He could go to his death as a Christian “pagan” refusing to worship the emperor like everybody else. Because he knew that God alone is God. He knew what God meant when he told Moses, tell them “I AM” sent you.

This Gospel story reminds us that a critical part of our lives as Christians is seeing God as he is and for what he is. He is, as the Psalm today says, “exalted.” But he is not remote like stars in the sky. The Psalm says he “is exalted, yet the lowly he sees.”

God is exalted because he completely other – he is being itself, the eternal presence – he is pure spirit, not bound by matter at all – he is all-knowing, the creator of everything.

This exalted presence, creator of heaven and earth, is eternally seeking intimacy with his greatest creation – us – and he wants to call us friend rather than slave or servant. He offers us mercy when we are weak, just as he helped Peter when he was drowning. As St. Paul tells Timothy, we can deny him but he never abandons us. He forgave Peter when he denied him three times. God is eternally faithful. He is a permanent fixture, like the North star in the night sky, there even if we do not see him.

Peter was weak. Yet God chose him to lead the Church. God made Peter’s weakness into strength. He did not resent Peter’s weakness. He doesn’t resent our weakness. He loved Peter from weakness into strength.
He will do that for each of us, if we will see him for what he is.
He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

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