Even before the White House announced stricter immigration policies Tuesday, there were signs of opposition. Addressing people “of all faiths and no faith,” San Diego’s Roman Catholic bishop on Saturday urged Americans to be “disruptors” and “rebuilders.” Donald Trump, Bishop Robert McElroy noted, had campaigned for the presidency as “the disruptor.”
On January 1, 1956, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the following sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The year 2016 has been hard to bear for many, for a number of reasons, and it seems that as the year comes to an end the atmosphere is tinged not with the anticipation of a new start but weariness and despair for the future. Dr. King was always insightful in observing tragedy and always preached against despair. Even on the night before his untimely death, when he appeared to somehow know that he was not going to be allowed to cross over Jordan with his people, he still spoke of a future where all men would indeed enjoy the blessings of the Promised Land. In this early sermon King identifies the foundation of his hope. Those of us who are anxious about the future, be it our personal future, that of our children or loved ones, or of our nation and world, can find comfort in these words.
our god is able
At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds. There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the God of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshipped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy and that in a world of recessions, stock market crashes, and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity. These transitory gods are not able to save us or bring happiness to the human heart.
Only God is able. It is faith in God that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, of the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Is someone here anxious because of bad health? Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.
-Christmas Touches the Whole of Creation –
“Somehow I realized that songs, music, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying “yes” to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying “yes” to a hope based on God’s initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work and not mine. Things will never look just right or feel just right. If they did, someone would be lying… But it is into this broken world that a child is born who is called Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, Savior.”
Reflection for Christmas Day, Henri Nouwen, Henri Nouwen Society 12/25/2016
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 NABRE
This passage is normally associated with Advent. Advent, if you are not familiar, is a time of waiting. The prophet can declare about the coming of Christ, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Is. 9:1 NABRE) All of creation had been waiting, waiting, since that disobedience that broke the love bond between God and his creatures and doomed humans to death. Waiting for the release that God promised to the wayward couple: that a savior was coming. A savior to make all things new. Advent recalls that time of waiting in darkness. And toward the end of Advent our attention is drawn to the evangelist Luke’s telling of the events that would lead to the blessed event of the coming of the light.
First, the birth of John, who would be called the Baptist, who Jesus tells us is Elijah returning to prepare the way. (Mal. 4:5-6) Then an angel appears to a maiden named Mary: a girl, probably a young teenager, who professes to be a virgin, and tells her that she is to give birth to the son of God, the son of the most High, the Holy One of Israel. Mary is stunned, but she offers herself completely to what she doesn’t understand.
This is a very familiar story. Most of us know it from early childhood. And because of this, I think, we have become under-awed at what is being portrayed. Because we are sure we comprehend the story, we stop mining it for its riches. It becomes rote, expected. I began to consider the passage more deeply when I committed to praying the Rosary daily. The Rosary is a devotion centered on Mary in which one recites a number of prayers, including the Hail Mary, a specific number of times while meditating on biblical or traditional events. The name of the prayer and its opening phrase come from this passage in Luke, “Hail Mary full of grace….” And, one of the themes of meditation in the Rosary cycle is the scene depicted in this passage: the Annunciation. In meditating on this passage and this event I came to realize that what the angel announces to Mary is also announced to me: that I am to give birth to the Christ.
I caution us here not to place too much emphasis on gender. Mary was a young woman who by her admission had not had relations with a man. The significance is not that having such relations would have defiled her, but that her virginity marked the pregnancy and birth as something that could only have been accomplished by God. Likewise, the Greek word that is normally translated “handmaid” is δούλη (doule) the feminine construction of δοῦλος (doulos), meaning slave. Mary acknowledged her complete surrender to God, and it was recorded using the feminine construction because she was a female. But the same word is used by men (like Paul in Ro. 1.1: Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, “Paulos doulos Christou Iesou”, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” The broader meaning here is that Mary is a slave (or servant) of God who is incapable of performing her appointed task without divine intervention. And so are we all.
I’m going to focus on two questions. How can we each give birth to the Christ? And what does it mean to give birth to the Christ?
It is a large question to ask what is the Christ? We could spend months surveying different aspects of what scholars refer to as Christology. We can think of Christ in terms of what he is: True God and True Man, One in being with the Father, a person of the Trinity. We could go on and on but I’m not sure it would lead us anywhere we want to go. For our purposes here we might say that Christ is God made Man to pay the price for the disobedience of our ancestors so that we can once again enjoy intimacy with God.
How does a human being give birth to such a thing? As I was translating from the Greek I was struck by how fantastic and improbable it all seems. Imagine yourself as a little girl suddenly in the presence of an angel of God (a presence that fosters terror in other biblical accounts). He is telling her unbelievable, crazy things: favor with God, the Holy Spirit, the birth of the son of the Most High, a kingdom that will last forever. Who can believe it? But when you sort it all out you come to answer the question how can you give birth to such a thing? You can’t. If it is to be done, it must all be done by God. Mary’s part was to surrender and accept. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Thy will, not mine, be done.
We can also think of Christ in terms of what he does. He fulfills the prophecies surrounding the biblical theme of the Day of the Lord, the salvation of all nations, the final judgment, and the end times. He occupies at once the three traditional positions of authority in tribal Israel: Priest, Prophet, and King. As priest he mediates through the sacrifice of himself the relationship between God and his creatures. As Prophet he speaks the words of God with the authority of God. His teachings reframe the Mosaic Law around God’s intent for the Law: to create a holy people. As King he fulfills the prophecy of one of the House of David who is to rule Israel forever. I think the most essential characteristic of the Christ is that he gives himself completely for others with no expectation of reciprocation. He does not love mankind because of who men are but in spite of it. And his supreme act of obedience is the complete emptying of himself in love for the salvation of the world. In his self-giving sacrifice on the cross he demonstrates both God’s essential character as one who pours out love indiscriminately, lavishly, and the intended character of the people of God, the character that was broken by disobedience. Because in reality they are the same. Humans were created in the image of God and that means one should be able to see God’s image in his people. That is the meaning of the Christ event: Emmanuel, God with us.
When Mary conceded to allow the Holy Spirit work in her so that she could bring forth Christ to the world, she probably had only vague notions about what the “Holy One” was to be. She certainly could not have thought that she had the ability on her own to nurture a child who had such high expectations. In the same way, when the Spirit works in us and plants the seed of faith, all that is required from us is humble assent. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Like Mary, we are spectacularly unfit for the task of bearing the Christ, and yet that is the way God has chosen to work in the world.
This past year our weakness and stubbornness, our rebellious nature, and our evil, destructive tendencies have been abundantly evident. Many are pondering the advent of a new time of darkness.
Sir Edward Grey was the British Foreign Minister from 1905 to 1916. Grey recalled in his book Twenty-five Years that on the eve of World War I, in the midst of the crisis that would propel the world to unspeakable horror war, he was in his office visiting with a friend:
A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below… My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words, “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”
To many it feels like the lamps are going out all over the world. But Christmas reminds us that the light of the world is always with us. And this passage from the Christmas story reminds us that we are called to make that light visible. May we always strive to allow Christ to shine brightly in the world through our own sacrificial acts of love. Merry Christmas.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
2ND WEEK IN ADVENT, YEAR I
Jesus said to his disciples:
“What is your opinion?
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.”
Friends, today’s Gospel passage recounts the story of the shepherd finding his lost sheep. Let’s look at that lost sheep. A sheep is something more than a lost coin, which is to say, it has mobility, sense, appetites, and so on. Many years ago, when I was on retreat at the Abbey of Tamie in the Alps, I heard the desperate bleating of a sheep who had fallen into a pit. All night he cried, knowing that he was in trouble and hoping that someone would come to save him.
There are souls who are like the lost sheep. Spiritually compromised, unable fundamentally to help themselves, they are at least aware that they are in a mess. They are like people who commence the AA process by admitting that they have hit bottom and are out of control. They bleat, they cry for help.
And God finds them—and when he finds them, he carries them back, for they are unable to move on their own.
Bishop Brom’s Word on Fire Daily Gospel Reflection
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Php 4:4–9.)
As I considered passages that might be appropriate for Thanksgiving I ran across Paul’s exhortations to the Christians at Philippi near the end of his letter to the church there.
Those Christians would have been familiar with negativity and anxiety. Scholars have estimated that the Christian church at Philippi was probably about 2% of the population. Very few of the local elites would have been included, and the greater part of the church membership would have been at the lower echelons of a status driven society, consisting mostly of poor Greeks and slaves. Philippi was a Roman colony, awash in the paganism of the Roman Empire, a promiscuous and idol worshipping culture similar to our own. In this letter Paul calls upon the Christians to live in a way that challenges the culture, which he acknowledges they are doing. But obviously, a minority challenge from the lowest level of society to the prevailing darkness would have produced anxiety in the community.
As someone who seeks to live “in Christ,” I identify with the plight of the Philippians. I have long felt that, far from being a Christian nation, the culture of the United States more resembles the paganism of the Hellenistic world. For me, this was made abundantly clear in the political process we had to endure this past several months. I allowed myself to become emotionally involved in the event, forgetting, as Paul reminds us, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20)
I think I am not the only one who has been adversely affected by the negativity of the season. I sense there is an air of bitterness and anxiety that was not resolved by the outcome of the election. Angry words are being exchanged, along with accusations and even acts of violence. The election didn’t solve anything. It seems to have deepened the divide.
So Paul’s advice to the Christians at Philippi is relevant to our own situation. He begins by essentially commanding the Philippians to rejoice. He emphasizes the command by repeating it. “I say again, rejoice!” This is not a passive admonition to “don’t worry, be happy.” The verbs in this passage are imperative.
How can Paul seriously expect worried people to respond positively to a command to rejoice? He can because he is not suggesting simply that one will oneself into joy (“lighten up!”). He is issuing a call to action. “Make your kindness known to all,” he tells them. And not to leave them scratching their heads, he follows this call to action with specific instructions.
The first thing they must do is to pray with thanksgiving. He actually prefaces the call to prayer by reminding them that “the Lord is near.” Some interpret this as a reminder of the Parousia, the second coming, but in the context of this call to prayer it more likely points out that Jesus has promised to be with us always (Mt. 28:20). So they (and we) have every reason to be grateful. We can pray with thanksgiving because we know the Lord is near, that he hears us. Our trust in the nearness of Christ in our afflictions and anxieties, if it is real, allows us to live with a peace that surpasses all understanding.
I think that last phrase deserves a little attention, because we are apt to think that Paul is writing in hyperbole. We are used to this, surrounded as we are with overblown descriptions of everything from laundry soap to toothpaste, and so we might dismiss it, as we do most advertising. But Paul didn’t live in a culture soaked in advertising, and when he writes that something surpasses all understanding, he means it. How can one understand a people who live in spiritual peace in the midst of troubled times? Are they daft? Paul assures us later in the letter that he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Php. 4:11 NIV)
How? Paul instructs the Philippians to two counter-cultural actions. The first is to focus their attention on the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or gracious, in short anything that speaks of the sovereignty of God in a fallen world. It is true that the world is fallen and because of that we are beset by corruption in everything, but at the same time God’s signature is still to be found: in nature, in our loving relations with those close to us, in acts of love and heroism and charity great and small. Paul here suggests that we can train our minds to notice these things first and above all. In other words, to notice God first and above all. That alone is enough to overcome the darkness of the world.
But he goes on. Paul instructs the Philippians to “keep on doing what you have learned and received and seen in me.” To know exactly what Paul means by that we have to look further back in the letter where he writes,
If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:1-11 NABRE)
A central theme of all of Paul’s writing is the idea of being “in Christ.” Being in Christ means the abandonment of what he calls the flesh, meaning things of secular life, and adopting the Spirit, which is that our motivation becomes entirely identified with God’s will. And what is God’s will? Is it that we satisfy our worldly desires? Is it that we triumph in politics, accumulate worldly treasures and honors, vanquish those who persecute us? No. It is that we pour ourselves out completely in our service to those around us. Even those who don’t like us, who we may not like very much. Jesus blessed and forgave those who were nailing him to the cross, and then he gave up everything for a world that despised him. That is God’s nature. And if we are in Christ, it is that nature we are being conformed to.
It may seem overwhelming. But we are not alone. The Lord is near. That is the source of our thanksgiving. That allows us to act with charity even in the midst of persecution. That is what gives a sure hope in the future. And that is where we experience the God of Peace.
On the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing I delivered a sermon from the Book of Matthew at Rock Presbyterian Church in San Diego. I wanted to assure my listeners that God was not only there with them in their suffering, but has promised to wipe the tears from their eyes. It might be helpful now given the events of the last week.
We need to think — with our heart and our mind — of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger of the two brothers, who squandered his part of his inheritance by living a dissolute life, was forced to be a swineherd in order to survive. When he realized his mistake, he returned to his father’s home to ask if he could, at the very least, live among the servants. His father was waiting for him, he had been staring out at the horizon waiting for his son’s return, and he approached his son even before the man could say anything; before he even confessed his sins, the man’s father hugged him. This is the love of God. This is his overabundant mercy. There is one thing to meditate on — the attitude of the older son, the one who stayed home and worked with the father, the one who was always well behaved. When he speaks, he is really the only one to say something truthful: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf” (Luke 15:29-30). He speaks the truth, but at the same time he disqualifies himself. – Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, 44-45