Sunday, February 19, 2017

Do Good Today

Tissot's Sermon of the Beatitudes
Jesus in today’s Gospel asks us to love our enemies.  The real challenge is to love people we struggle with.  Jesus instills within us a vision that sees beyond appearances and recognizes the spark of the divine in every human being, no matter how “bad” or “unlovable” or "disagreeable" they can seem.  In the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, the word for love is agape: not a romantic or emotional love for a special Valentine, but an unconditional love for our fellow human beings.

You don’t have to like someone to love him/her. Jesus asks us that, no matter how much someone hurts or upsets us, we will never let bitterness close our hearts to them.  Agape recognizes the humanity we share with all people.

Jesus makes some radical demands upon us: if someone slaps you on one side of the face, offer the other; give to everyone who asks.

Who can possibly “give to everyone who asks?”  Are these teachings simply another example of middle eastern hyperbole/exaggeration? A few people, e. g., Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day, have tried to take these teachings literally. But for most people, they’re not very practical. And so the question remains: how understand these ethical teachings?

First, we have to remember that Jesus connects our love of God with our love for one another. The judgment scene of Matthew 25 says this loudly and clearly: when I was hungry, when I was thirsty, etc. We can’t say we love God and yet neglect our needy fellow human beings.  Second, these radical ethical teachings have to be linked to the mission of Jesus who proclaims that the kingdom of God is in our midst.  Yes, but the kingdom is not completely or fully here.  You and I are living in-between the historical coming of Jesus and the final coming of Jesus.  And so we live in the tension between.

Jesus indicates the goal or thrust of our ethical behavior, but this goal may not always be achievable.   For example, "giving to everyone who asks" is not always possible, yet it does indicate the thrust or direction of our lives:  be generous with what we have.  To the person who strikes you on one side of the face, Jesus says, offer the other as well.  But sometimes we have to stand up against wrongs, e .g., the evil of Nazism.  We may have to take someone’s life in self-defense.  But the teaching of Jesus indicates that we should try as often as possible to be peacemakers, healers, bridge builders, reconcilers.

And so these radical ethical teachings create tension between the present and final stages of the kingdom of God.  The genuine disciple of Jesus lives in this tension by seizing the many opportunities to do good today.
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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Confidence and Character

I’m pleased to let you know that a collection of my homilies has been published by WestBow Press. The book, titled A Spirituality for Sunday People, can be ordered in print or as an ebook, from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com and of course WestBowPress.com

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus employed four antitheses (“you have heard... but I say”) to emphasize the importance of attitude over legality. And Jesus used a bit of middle eastern hyperbole to make his point. Our attitudes create our behaviors. For example: “you have heard that it was said, you shall not murder; but I say to you: you shall not be angry.” Why? Because a bad attitude, anger or resentment, can seethe into bad behavior, verbal or even worse, physical abuse. Discipleship with Jesus calls for a change of heart, a change of attitude, thinking and feeling positively, not negatively.
Jesus in a Storm at Sea by Rembrandt

Jesus is our true wisdom. He is our exemplar, our guide about how to live.

But who is Jesus.  He is one with God, a God-man. God became one of us so that we could become like God. He experienced hunger, joy, friendship, disappointment, loneliness and death.  He was a rabbi, a teacher, a prophet, a wonder worker, eventually crucified but then raised up and transfigured into a new kind of spiritual embodiment. And the risen Christ is alive in our midst. And we too are alive with God's life and favor.

Jesus is indeed our guide, our leader. He communicated purpose through words, signs and wonders in a way that galvanized, energized and excited people. He generated trust among his disciples which was the glue that bound them together in commitments. He inspired hope in the crowds, with a clear vision of the future, life in relationship with God forever.  Finally, Jesus converted purpose and vision into action through his death and resurrection.

Matthew 23:10 advises, in so many words there is only one master, one messiah, one life-leader: Jesus Christ. This Jesus calls each one of us to be leaders in our own situations. Yes, to be called by God to influence others, that's what leadership is all about, is an enormous privilege, but it carries with it great responsibility.

We have to possess two things: confidence and character. Not only confidence in ourselves but first and foremost confidence in God. He is our shield, our strength and our guide.

We have to be men and women of character. If you look at the leadership failures in this country in the last 100 years, I will guess you will find 99 percent were failures in character. Leadership involves ethics, right and wrong, a sense of responsibility, a value system, integrity. And that is why character counts. 

The quality of our life and our soul’s destiny will be measured by our character.

And so our prayer might be:

God, help me to lead a life of integrity, authenticity, humility and focus. Help me to have a similar concern for others as Jesus had for us. Help me to avoid passing superficial judgments on other people. Give me wisdom and sensitivity towards those who are struggling with life. Help me to fix my eyes on our true wisdom, Jesus Christ, and to become like Jesus for others, men and women of confidence and character.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Salt and Light

The Last Supper by Dali
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says we are to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” to others.

“Salt of the earth” usually means someone is dependable, one you can count on through “thick and thin.”   Or a sailor might say a captain’s speech is “salty,” that is, coarse, not politically correct.

Salt by itself doesn’t taste very good – it might even make you sick.  And looking directly at the sun or into a bright lightbulb can severely damage your eyes.

But when you add salt to food or shine light on an artwork, they can do wonders.  Salt can bring out the natural flavor in food, from filet mignon to popcorn.  Salt in our bodies enables our muscles to contract, our blood to circulate, our hearts to beat.  In short, salt enhances, purifies and preserves.

And light can transform a cold night into a warm day. Light enables us to study, to discover, to behold the beauty and the wonders of God’s universe.  Light warms, nurtures, sustains, reveals and cheers.

We are “salt” when we bring out the goodness in people.  We are “light” when we illumine the presence of God all around us.  To become “salt” is to bring out the “flavor” of God in everyone and everything; and to be “light” is to illumine the presence of God in the midst of everyday life.

How can we be “salt” that brings out the best in people; how can we be “light” that illumines the presence of God all around us.  By who we are and what we do with what we have!

Every one of us has gifts or talents that can bring out the best in other people.  You and I possess by virtue of baptism the power of God to believe, to hope and to love.  And within our society there are many splendid callings.  Whoever you are, you have a specific vocation—a calling--right now to bring out the best in other people.

 How? By asking the Spirit of God to work within us.  Oh, yes, personality can be a blessing.  But more importantly the Spirit of God works through us as we are.  The Spirit illumines our minds to know the way we should behave, and strengthens us to do so despite obstacles.  He gives us his gifts: wisdom to focus on what truly matters; understanding and knowledge, to enter into the mysteries of God; counsel to make good moral decisions; fortitude to stand up for what's right; piety to give God our praise and worship; and fear of the Lord: the healthy concern never to lose our friendship with God. The Spirit gives us these gifts so that we can be “salt” and “light.”

The gifts or talents we have are not for ourselves but for the common good, for the family, the workplace, the community. The gifts we have look beyond ourselves to our life with others. No Christian is an island.  The Spirit empowers us, as we are, to help others become more human, more godlike in their relationships with other people.

And each of us, with the gifts of the Spirit working within us, can be “salt” and “light.”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Gift of Life

The Beatitudes in Old Dutch: Ghent Museum of Fine Arts
Jesus in the beatitudes calls us to do “surprising” things: to live by spiritual rather than material values; to attach ourselves to the things of God.

What does that mean concretely?

If you do something for someone else for no other reason than to bring joy to people’s lives, if you put yourself second for the needs of another, do the “right” thing when conventional wisdom is to do the “smart” thing, forgive someone for wrongs done to you and move forward, stop and spend even just a moment thinking about all the good in your life and find yourself feeling a sense of gratitude, diffuse someone's anger, bridge a chasm between you and another, bring a positive perspective, endure a “funny look” from someone because you took a stand based on what was morally and ethically right: blessed are you.

In the blessings you give, you are blessed.

Every one of us is mortal.  Now, when was the last time you stopped to think about your life?  The fact of death should make us think about what we will do and how we will live.

Most people get no warning.  But if your doctor gives a time-frame, and you think about living and dying, you have the benefit of getting your affairs in order and the opportunity of bidding farewell to those you love. With that, we quickly sort out the important things from the not so important.

There's an ancient wisdom that says God sends each person into this life with a special message to deliver, with a special song to sing for others, with a special act of love to bestow.

Someone asked hospice nurses, “When people are dying, what do they talk about?”  The nurses said that people who are dying often speak to them about how they wish they had lived differently.  For example,

I wish I had spent more time with the people I love.
I wish I had made spirituality more of a priority.
I wish I hadn't spent so much time working.
I wish I had been a better spouse.
I wish I had discovered my purpose earlier.
I wish I had quit my job and found something I really enjoyed doing.
I wish I hadn't spent so much time chasing the wrong things.

These were the regrets of people finishing their time on this earth.  Each contains a powerful lesson for living.

The point is this:  It's healthy to think about mortality from time to time.  It puts things in perspective and reminds us what truly matters.  It may compel us to re-order our priorities and live a life of the beatitudes.  The goal is not gloom and doom, but rather to focus on our deeply held values, to celebrate the joy and purpose of the gift of life.  And that gift is important for people of all ages and stages to celebrate.