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icebucket challengeIf you have been on any social media these days, chances are very good that you have heard this phrase, or a variation of it. “I challenge N. to either donate a $100 to ALS or to dump a bucket of ice on your head. You have 24 hours.” Former presidents have done so. Family members of victims have done so. Football teams and actors and a veritable host of famous people have taken the challenge. Even Kermit the Frog has done the ice bucket challenge. Most seem to do both a check and the ceremonial dumping of the ice on their heads. (The best one I have seen so far is of a guy who gets a whole concrete truck of water poured on him followed by a front-loader’s worth dumped on top.)

It has been an amazing boon to raising awareness of this horrendous disease, as well as raising funds for research. And there is a good Catholic option, by the way, to this – instead of sending money to the ALS society, you can send it to the John Paul II research facility which uses adult stem cells in their research for ALS instead of embryonic ones.**(See mailing address below homily)** Or you can donate directly to an affected person to help with their medical and treatment costs. In the short term – the ice bucket challenge is the hottest thing going. And it is the most hopeful thing my friends Dave and Ann have seen since Dave’s diagnosis a year and a half ago. But will it have a lasting effect on research? – that is the question. And will it truly raise awareness past just the few days and weeks that fads such as these run?

Jesus – aware that people are prone to ‘flash in the pan’ fads – to ideas that spring to life and then just as quickly fade away, begins to ask his disciples who the crowds say that he is. Is he just another person doing the ice bucket challenge of his day – the itinerant preacher gig, proclaiming good news one day and then gone the next, or is there something more, something else going on? What’s the buzz, what is the atmosphere around me and this little movement?” Because he knows he wants what he is doing to be something more than a fad, something more than a one-time gimmick and response, he makes a direct challenge to his disciples: “And you, who do YOU say I am?”

I suspect that the disciples knew by both the tone in his voice, and the place where he asked the question, that he was wanting more than a one-time-within-24-hours kind of response. You see, Caesarea Philippi was at a pagan cross roads. It was about a 2 and a half day hike from the shores of the sea of Galilee through some pretty inhospitable country. But the city built where the underground snow melt from far away Mount Hermon broke through the ground in lush springs, and to this day, it is the most important fresh water resource in the holy land. And because of this huge stone wall and immense cavern, the place was replete with temples and shrines and wall niches to almost every kind of deity and worship style and religious fad that existed. So much so, that the Jewish people (a mono-theistic religion) referred to that spot as the gates of the netherworld because of the many gods. Here in that spot – Jesus asks his disciples THE question. “Am I just “One of these gods, one of these fad religions, here today and gone tomorrow to you, OR… is there something more to me and to what I am going to demand of you than all this?

That was the ice bucket challenge of Jesus’ life, still rolling down the ages, addressed not just to his disciples with him, but to anyone whom would seek to follow him – WHO DO YOU SAY I AM? And unlike the ice bucket challenge, he is not interested in a 24 hour response time, but rather a 24/7 response.

But here is the other truth about Jesus’ challenge – it is one that is seldom spoken out loud, or delivered via a facebook message. Rather, it happens when:
• You are wounded by a boyfriend/girlfriend, or by a loved one, or a family member and you have the chance to ‘let them have it’ and the question is there: Who are you about to say I am in your response?
• You struggle with viewing images/movies that are less than dignified – and before you open the website or buy the ticket, the question is there: Who are you saying I am in this?
• You are approached for the 10th time this week by that same awkward kid down the hall, asking for help with math, and as you think about your response, there is the question: Who do you say I am
• In a positive way: When you decide to be a part of a peaceful prayer vigil at Michael Brown’s shooting site or donate to a Ferguson food pantry that is short on supplies because of the turmoil, you say who Jesus is.
• When you sacrifice your time to be with an elderly neighbor or to cut the grass of a friend who had knee surgery; you say to Jesus who he is…

I hope, for my friends Dave and Ann, that the Ice Bucket challenge makes a huge difference in the fight against ALS. But more so, I pray that you and I might give answer again and again by how WE LIVE to that most important challenge that Jesus gives to us: “Who DO YOU say I am…”

So, I’m calling all of you out, right here and right now, to take the “Jesus challenge.” Only, it is not a one-time challenge, and you don’t have 24 hours. Rather, you have between now and that moment when you come down to receive our Lord in communion to renew your commitment for 24/7 in every decision you make and every action you take… Who DO you say he is?

**
John Paul II Medical Research Institute
540 E. Jefferson St., Suite 202
Iowa City, IA 52245

**

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crayonsWhat could we learn from a box of crayons? Depending on how long you’ve had you box, you will notice that some of them might still be sharp while some are pretty used up; and a few are broken. There are all different colors, some of which have pretty unusual names, like apricot and orchid and periwinkle. All these differences, but they all have to live in the same box. As different as they are, they all have to live in the same box.

So do we. We are so different – at least externally – on so many levels. Yet, as different as we are, we, too, all have to live in the same box. Certainly the tensions and violence in Ferguson these days have made painfully clear the challenges of doing so. But the challenges in Ferguson right now, are not new.

700 years before Christ, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the dream that was in the heart of God that ALL God’s children would come together as one; holy and happy on God’s holy mountain. That the prophet proclaims such a dream tells us it was not yet happening.

Nor was it happening by the time Jesus walked the earth. In today’s gospel we see that the challenge was still just as real. The disciples were trying to keep a woman away from Jesus because: well, first she was a woman. Secondly, she was a foreigner. Finally, she was a persistent complainer, making her need known early and often.

It is important to remember that these disciples had been walking with Jesus for a while. They saw how inclusive his life was. They saw that the preached – and lived- in a way that again and again welcomed the outcast and the outsiders INSIDE his box of crayons. Jesus saw – and proclaimed – that we are one. If it was still that hard for those disciples – who walked with Jesus himself – how real the challenge will also be for us.

It IS hard for us. Yet that does NOT free us from the responsibility of the work of inclusion; the work of justice, the work of bringing people together into the one box of crayons God created for us.

I learned this profoundly on the eve of the feast of the Assumption, summer of 1981. I was standing on top of a small hill, overlooking the soccer field of Ballyoran school in Portadown, Northern Ireland. I was with a group of volunteers during the high point of ‘the troubles’ – trying to make a difference. To ‘honor’ Mary, ostensibly, the Catholics have their bonfires, a response to the Protestant bonfires of July. They start out peacefully enough, but like what we are seeing in Ferguson, they become a flashpoint for all the frustrations to come out as the evening wears on. So the volunteers stay indoors – remaining neutral, having a sing a long, playing games and just interacting. At one point, I stepped outside to clear my head from the smoker’s haze.

teargasI became aware of a presence…a local walking the grounds to make sure we were safe. So we starting talking. Mid-sentence, he stopped, said “Achh!” (and something else I won’t repeat here) “It’s started.” “What?” “The riots. There – the sound of a plastic bullet being fired. And another and another.” With a sickening feeling in my heart, I realized that less than a ¼ mile from where I stood, a riot was going on. Here – it’s about 4 miles as the crow flies – and riots are going on. Just then, the door opened behind me, and I heard them singing. And the song that they were singing was “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It froze me to the spot. Before me just beyond the top of the low income Catholic housing project, were people from one country, two political/religious/social realities who could not seem to find a way out of the spiral of violence. Behind me, were students representing 6 countries, 4 different religions and an agnostic or two thrown in for good measure, who found a way to love each other with all our differences. And as clear as day, it was as if a voice spoke in my head. “Both of these worlds were created by the choices that people make. Bill Kempf, which world will you create with your life?

That, I think, is the challenge of these days for us as believers. How do we see in such a way as to create the “Puff the Magic Dragon” world? How do we teach ourselves to see what Jesus saw across the board? How do we make sure that we remember that people whose gender attraction, whose religion, politics, skin color, country of origin are different than ours – are precious to God. How do we recognize that we are all called because of our faith in God to create that kind of world?

I don’t claim to have that figured out, but I suspect a lot will be in baby steps: the jokes that I choose not to pass on or forward that demean people; the choice to absorb some pain from people’s treatment of me, instead of transmitting it; the decision to be involved in writing to and working with our politicians to create a less heavy handed way to respond. What I do know it begins with a choice. A choice about what kind of world we will create, what kind of life we will lead to make that happen.

<> One interesting piece of information about the evolution of crayons. It seems that the people of the Crayola company had to learn just that. When I was young, (back in the 1800’s) my box of crayons had a tan-colored crayon that was named ‘flesh’. I wonder how many children looked at that and wondered: “Why do they call that “Flesh”? The people from the Crayola company changed. They realized that human flesh takes on all different hues, and whatever our differences, all people smile in the same language. And if the people from corporate America can learn that, the we, looking at the world with our eyes of faith, can’t we learn to acknowledge that we are indeed, brothers and sisters in Christ.

We could actually learn a lot from a box of crayons. With all the different colors and names, as different as they are, they all have to live in the same box. So do we. So do we…

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hands upIt has become a kind of national symbol, hasn’t it – this symbol of marching and protesting with hands held high. ( |0| =”Hands up – don’t shoot” ) It is in honor of Michael Brown, the youth that was slain just a week ago. According to most of the un-official reports – that was his posture when he was shot – hands in the air – no weapons here. Hands in the air – I am not armed. Hands in the air – I am not a threat. Maybe we will never know exactly how it all went down that Saturday night – hands in the air or running away or what. But it is true to say that this image (hands in the air) has been adopted as a symbol of protest, hasn’t it. Protest for all the racial divisions in our world. Protest for all the victims of violence at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us. Protest for all that is wrong and unfair and unjust in our world. And there is a lot that is wrong, and unfair and unjust in our world.

But I wonder, on this feast of the Assumption, if we, as a faith community, might co-opt that gesture to tell another truth, to tell another story, to unpack a deeper insight into life. And that would be this: What happens when we turn THIS gesture ( |0| ) to THIS gesture – ( \o/ =  “Hands up in prayer and surrender”). It is a lot bit different, isn’t it? hands

This -( |0| ) is a bit defiant, isn’t it. Almost like saying: get away from me. Or come no closer. Or, it is like saying: “you are not going to move me.” ( |0| ) This says there is something between you and me, something that you should not cross, that you dare not step over. And this can be a kind of invisible barrier – like when we see those mime’s in their invisible boxes. (do the mime of the invisible box routine…) You can’t get in, I can’t get out…

But, when we turn it just so ( \o/ ), doesn’t that tell a completely different story. Doesn’t this ( \o/ ) say: “I need help/others?” Doesn’t it communicate very subtly: You are welcome here? Doesn’t it say that “We are all in this together?” And, when we use it in reference to God when we pray, doesn’t it say: I surrender all into your hands? Isn’t this ( \o/ ) the gesture that we know best in Mary, whose feast we celebrate today?

Many of the statues you will see of Mary is a kind of reverse – ( /0\ – rotate elbows until the arms are straight, hands pointing to the floor) Mary’s arms reaching out to us, her hands open to us – to pour out her love, the be the conduit of Jesus’ grace for us – to make sure that we feel loved and blessed and graced by her Son. This ( /0\ ) , when prayed by Mary, says to God – I am your servant. It says: “pour out your love upon me.” It says: “I trust you with all I am and all I hope to be.” It is that attitude that the church celebrates on the feast of the Assumption – that trust that God will then take ALL we are (body and blood, soul and divinity) into the life of heaven. And where Mary has been taken in grace, we hope to follow.

I suspect it may take a long time before ( |0| ) becomes ( \o/ ) on the streets of Ferguson. And it will take a long time to heal the wounds that the death of Michael Brown have left in our neighborhood. But here is what I would like YOU to do. Everytime you see this ( |0| ) in the news, on facebook, on You-tube, in the paper as you read the stories and remember the events of these days: Breathe a prayer, that by YOUR example and YOUR sacrifice and YOUR love, through the intercession of Mary, this  ( |0| ) may become ( \o/ ).

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faithThe storm was upon them. The Sea of Galilee could be notoriously tricky during a storm – especially a storm at night. It is not like they had gps to keep them on course. They could only use their instincts and the wind direction to keep them orientated. And these boats, sturdy as they were, were not unsinkable.

You can imagine the scene. Lightning and thunder and wind driven rain lashing upon them. Fishing tackle, usually innocuous, now becomes a deadly hazard. And then, in the middle of their tense exhaustion, an apparition. Something – no – someone walking ON the WATER. It had to terrify them. The invitation – “Lord if it really is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” “Come”.

So what was the hardest step for Simon Peter?

A part of me thinks the first one might have been the easiest. “Get me out of this boat.” Masts swinging, waves crashing over the bows, sails and ropes and gear all around – get me out of here. We know that, don’t we? Sometimes life gets so bad that we simply have to escape, we have to ‘get out of there’ – whether it is an abusive relationship, a sinful habit, an addiction that has finally become unmanageable.

The second step – a bit easier for Peter and us – “Hey, look at me, I’m walking on water!” Amazing that I can do this, when I never thought I could. I think of my friends Ann and Dave – as they learn to manage the disease. I think of so many of you in the midst of Chemo and radiation treatment or physical therapy – the hair is gone, you might be using a cane, but look at you, you are walking! And the spirit is unbowed… You CAN do this.

But, somewhere between step two and step three, when Simon realizes how turbulent the wind, and how wild and difficult the sea is; when he realizes that he is sinking – comes the most difficult step, for Simon and for us. The most difficult part of walking on water is THE CHOICE to KEEP WALKING and KEEP HANGING on in FAITH. That is the most difficult step for each of us, when we are beset with difficulties and trials – that choice to keep walking in faith.

Note what Simon cries out at that moment: “Lord, Save Me.” Most us know how to cry out: ‘Rescue me!” We know how to say: Get me out of this mess, this craziness, this difficulty and struggle. Let the storm be over, the suffering be at an end, the weary battle with cancer or addiction be done. I want it to stop. This, we all know how to pray.

It is a very different thing to cry out “Save me.” Save me – let your redemptive, salvific plan of love be at the center of my life. That is the most difficult step for any of us in the walk of faith. That is the step that Jesus makes in the garden when he says: “Not my will, but yours, be done.” That is the step that Simon makes when he reaches out, not to the boat behind him, but the Lord before him.

And that is the choice that is before each one of us in our walk of faith. We can rail at the unfairness of life, the cancer, the disease, the addiction, the poverty that grips us. We can be paralyzed by fear and stay stuck in the boat of our cancer treatments, addictions, habits of sin. OR, we can, with Simon Peter, make that most difficult step to keep walking in faith, following our savior, come what may.

The fact that you are here, says, at least on one level, that you have already gotten out of the boat. You have heard the Lord’s invitation to “Come.” Will you make that most difficult of all choices, the decision to keep on walking in faith, eyes upon the Lord, and his love alone to sustain you?

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grandmotherWhat do we know about St. Ann? Other than being married to Joachim and being the grandmother of Jesus, not much, at least as history records. We only hear her name from the Protoevangelium of James, written around the year 150. Yet, as the ages rolled down, Anne became the patroness of unmarried women, (as she was wed very late in life); of housewives, of women in labor, of grandmothers, horseback riders, cabinet-makers, and the Mi’kmaq people of Canada. St Anne (as the French spell it) is also said to be a protector from storms. And here at St. Ann, we are aware of St. Ann oil and Ann’s role as an intercessor for healing. This is the ‘knowing’ of St. Ann that floated down to us through the tradition of the church.

But is this ALL we can know about St. Ann for our benefit? I think not. When you think about Ann from the perspective that she was the grandmother of the Lord, then suddenly, a few things become potentially clearer, don’t they, because many/most of us have had the experience of grandparents. So I asked some of the kids at Christian Family Camp this morning what they learned from their grandparents that they did not learn from their parents. My niece Katherine gave my favorite answer: “I learned from them that my dad is crazy.” (My other niece nodded her head in agreement. She could have asked her uncle and found the same truth.) Another shared: “I learned how delicious chocolate mint ice cream is.” A final one, when about to head off to college said: “What my grandpa shared with me about college was so much more helpful than my parents. All I got from them was a list of “no’s”. From Grandpa, I got wisdom.”

Wisdom. Truth telling. And a love that is extravagant in the form of chocolate mint ice cream. Those are wonderful images to pray about when we think of St. Ann.

Today’s scriptures give us two additional insights about the role that St. Ann can play in our lives – legacy, and gratitude. Sirach tells us:
Their wealth remains in their families,
their heritage with their descendants.
Through God’s covenant their family endures,
and their offspring for their sake.
Jesus does not appear in a vacuum, but comes from parents and grandparents and a whole family tree of people who pass on all that is of value and love from generation to generation. So we see in Jesus’ piety, a glimpse of Mary’s holiness. And we see in Mary’s holiness that Godliness of Ann and Joachim. And though we can trace that holiness backwards, what would it be for us to think about the legacy that WE are creating in our children and grandchildren? Do they see in our constancy to Sunday mass people who strive to honor God by giving him the first day of the week? Do they see any evidence of a prayer life? Do they see us doing the works of Justice, transforming this world by our actions and deeds?  What will your children’s children know of God because of you?

In the gospel we hear Jesus praising his followers – and inviting them to an awareness of the graces bestowed upon them: “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” St. Ann was privileged to see the dawn of salvation in the birth of her grandson. Yet, you and I have also seen much of grace and love and beauty. And I find, in the hustle and bustle of life that I don’t take the time I would like just to be aware of the blessings. The feast of St. Ann is an invitation to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

So if you have a grandkid – take them out for chocolate mint ice cream. (If you don’t have one, then invite a friend to go for some.) Share on that outing, some of your favorite stories that taught you about life and love. And pass on to them the faith legacy that Ann gave to Mary – a life of gratitude and love for all your eyes have seen and known…

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frisbeeSometimes it does not take much to go from rocky ground to fertile soil – to go from being barren and resistant to grace/love, to being a complete vessel of that very love and grace. As you know, many years ago, Fr. Hanneke and I met with Fr. Vic about our concerns with his drinking and our demand that he seek treatment. Of course, according to him, “he did not have a problem.” It was a cold few days in the rectory. He was seriously contemplating leaving the priesthood. But, in his own telling of the story to you, do you remember what changed for him? Do you remember what was the catalyst that moved him from being rocky ground to fertile soil? A tossed Frisbee. One poorly tossed Frisbee, and rocky ground became fertile soil.

Perhaps you remember the story as Fr. Vic shared it upon his return. At the fish fry on the day after we confronted him, Bummer Barry brought a ton of Frisbee’s to the event. Why, I’ll never know. As Fr. Vic was walking from the garage to the Parish Center kitchen, one of the rugrats had grown very frustrated with his inability to throw a Frisbee. The errant throw landed at Vic’s feet. “Aargh, it never goes where I want it to. Fr. Vic, can you help me?” Vic, growing up in the 70’s, lived, in his own words, with one attached to his hand. And so he showed the kid how to grip it and how to toss it, and when the kid tried, the Frisbee went exactly where he had thrown it. He looked at Fr. Vic and said simply: “Gee, Fr. Vic, you’re great.” In that moment, the walls of resistance came tumbling down, and the rocky ground became fertile soil. He said of that moment later: “I knew I had to go for him and for all the people who look to me for guidance and love.” And if God can accomplish that movement of grace by a frisbee – imagine what he can do when we give him our lives.

In God’s timing and providence, it does not take much to change rocky ground to fertile soil. I remember a college student telling me how much she had struggled all her life to believe that she was loveable and worthwhile. She was not endowed with the looks of a model. But on retreat, as part of a prayer experience, someone whispered to her quietly: “You are so beautiful.” And the stony, rocky ground of her heart, so carefully protected and barricade from just about everything, became fertile soil. “I don’t know what was different about that time, because I had heard the message before. But, somehow, that time, it got through, and I have believed that ever since.” Sometimes it only takes a whisper to change rocky ground into fertile soil.

In today’s gospel, Jesus does not promise that all the sowing will bear fruit. But if these two simple examples ring as true in your life as they ring in mine, then sow extravagantly. Because we dare not chance that the message won’t get through. In a thousand ways we must tell our children we love them; our neighbors that they matter; our community that together we are sent to bring the kingdom. Sow extravagantly in your words and deeds, for you’ll never know if what God has put into your heart to say and do is exactly what the person before you needs to hear at exactly the right time.

Practically, pick ONE area this week to sow some seeds – take the kids to a ball game, go to dinner and movie with the spouse, a visit to a shut in, make a holy hour with God – it matters not. But sow extravagantly.

You see, we’ll seldom know, this side of eternity, exactly what we said or did that changed rocky ground into fertile soil. But it happens all the time, because God is so extravagant and the seed of his love is so powerful. Be sowers, therefore, of God’s love this week.

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How busy is your life?

Published on 06. Jul, 2014 by in Sunday Homilies

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welcomehome“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” I suspect that many people know this experience: the busy parents chauffeuring kids to various sporting practices and games to the corporate executive traveling with the demands of their career, to the elderly grandparent giving their children a bit of a break by babysitting so they can have an evening out. It is easy to get caught up in the barrenness of a busy life.

But here is what is surprising about the quote. Somehow, you would suspect that this would be a somewhat modern day quote, befitting the hectic pace of our times. You’d be wrong. The author of the quote was Socrates – who died 399 B.C. Here was a man who spent more than his fair share of time thinking and reflecting. And a man who learned all about the dangers of restlessness that comes from filling every moment of every day with some kind of activity. Beware of that, he cautions. There is a restlessness that comes from being too busy, too full of activities, even if they are fun activities, even if they are good things to be involved in. Sometimes our business is a way to hide our emptiness. If we never have time to stop and think, we don’t have to face the fact that we are so lonely and so disconnected. “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

Jesus knew that same reality – in the people of his generation, as well as in his own busy life. He himself was always a man on the go, constantly meeting people, healing, teaching, traveling – it would have been easy for Jesus himself to fall prey to that busy kind of life. There is a way, he tells his disciples, not to get caught in that trap. There’s a great freedom I know, an easy burden, a light yoke – this kingdom way of living. Because it comes from a rested, restful soul. It comes from a place of freedom and not a place of “have to…” Take MY YOKE upon you and learn from me. There is a path to take that will keep you refreshed from within, that will be like a fountain spilling over inside of you.

Yet, as often as I have prayed that line and thought that line and reflected on that line, here is what I missed. I, in my busy-life-mindset, jumped right to the conclusion: take my yoke upon you; learn from me. “I can DO that. I got the doing of stuff down. And already I am in the doing world. But there is a necessary pre-step, a necessary condition that allows the path of kingdom living to become an easy yoke. “COME TO ME!” Without that step, every yoke we take, even if done in love, becomes an experience of barren business.

So, I have been struggling to find an image that will last, a way of thinking about this first part of kingdom living that will keep me focused on the essential point of Jesus’ teaching. And God was very good at providing it. Friday night, when I came home from fireworks, I was flipping channels on the TV – and caught the end of the Tom Cruise remake of War of the Worlds. Here is the image that I want you to have in your head about this invitation – to COME TO ME!

There is a scene, after all the action is over, when Tom is carrying his physically and emotionally exhausted child down the empty street to the Brownstone where his ex-wife lives. The door opens and mom appears on the steps. Dad sets his daughter down, and without a word, without an invitation, she simply RUNS pell-mell down the street, oblivious to anything but THROWING herself into her mother’s arms. The camera angle shifts, and now you see the silhouette of a teen framed in the door, the son, whom Tom was sure was dead. And even though he is much older than his little sister, also quickly makes his way down the steps to his dad, and after a moment of just looking in his eyes, also throws his arms around his father in this huge bear hug.

THAT IS WHAT JESUS wants us to know when we are trapped in the barrenness of a busy life. It is what has been revealed to the little ones – that we simply come and throw all our burdens, all our pain, all the weary emptiness and struggles of our lives into the amazing bear hug of grace and love with our Lord.

What a difference it would make, if we learned to approach our God with our burdens and weariness with that same childlike abandon…

P.S. – (at end of mass) If you want another image of the “Come to ME” part of today’s gospel – then do a web search and type in: “Soldier homecomings”. Click a link, almost any link, and image the homecoming you see there as what God wants you to do daily…

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Peter and PaulThere are times when I feel out of my league. When the technology committee convenes, I can follow the big picture ideas and streams of thought. But when they start talking jargon and the nitty gritty, I KNOW that I am not smart enough in this area to add anything, other than to help keep the conversation moving forward. I suspect we all have areas of our lives like that. We don’t know the field, didn’t keep up with the reading on the subject, or perhaps, simply are not good at something (like math.). That is one level of being inadequate. And that has more to do with what we know or don’t know.

But there is this other level, isn’t there – of the times when we feel like WHO we are is not enough, and will never be enough. Perhaps you know that when you leave the hospital bed or nursing home or stop by a family member’s house just after the hospice care nurse left. What could I possible say to make this situation better? How can I ‘fix’ the unfixable? I felt that this past Tuesday after lunch with my friend with ALS and his wife. Somehow you feel that you not only have nothing to give, but that who you are is not nearly enough either. Do you know that experience?

It would have been easy for Peter and John in the first reading to succumb to that. They are fishermen, a long way from home, and from their livelihood. Their ‘bank’ in terms of resources available to them is back in Galilee and they are in Jerusalem. And they are ‘accosted’ by a beggar at the gate. Not much in their pockets to give. And you know how some beggars can be – with those piercing eyes and guilt inducing glance – “DO SOMETHING to help! Anything to help! Please!” In my prayer image of the scene, he skewers them with this glance.

Watch what happens next. Neither Peter nor John shrink away from that moment and its opportunity. They are aware, perhaps painfully, of what they don’t have. Silver nor Gold – the stuff which ‘gets things done’ in the world of both those days and our day. They are out of their league in terms of making a long term difference in the life of that beggar financially. Just as we are completely not up to the task of ending hunger or disease, etc. in our time. Yet, instead of succumbing to that feeling that ‘who I am is not enough’ – they charge right into that man’s life. Not – “I got nothing for you,” but rather: “Here is what I have to give you.” And they trust that their love for Jesus will be enough in this man’s life.

Paul would have had even MORE reasons to think that who he is would never be enough. He describes himself as a “persecutor of the church BEYOND MEASURE”, and “a zealot beyond his own contemporaries.” And yet, there came that moment on the Damascus road where all of that comes crumbling down. Everything that he had defined his sense of self by – his zealousness, his religiosity, even his persecution of the way – none of it is enough. Who he thought himself and created himself to be – Paul the Jewish Pharisee and Zealot –was so, so wrong. But, like Peter and James, rather than be paralyzed into inaction, what do we hear him doing? Recreating his entire identity in the one place where he does matter. “When God, who FROM MY MOTHER’S WOMB had set me apart…was pleased to reveal his Son to me…” then who he was was enough. ONLY from that place, from his identity in Jesus – does he know that what he is is ALWAYS enough.

As the church celebrates these two pivotal Saints who stand as the pillars of our faith, let me suggest just one way of praying and reflecting this week. Namely this – Finish the statement that Paul lived with his life and that Peter and John voiced in the first reading from Acts. “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you.” What IS it that you have to give away? What is it that you give to God, to your neighbor, your spouse, your friend in need. And, like Peter and Paul, stay with that uncomfortable question until the only answer that rings true is the only answer that matters: What I have to give, is my Lord’s love of me, in me, for you….

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breadUnless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it bears much fruit…

You probably have heard these words a hundred times, a thousand times in the course of your life time. I came across this poem in the blog: “A Concord Pastor Comments – On Spirituality, Worship and Prayer in the Roman Catholic Tradition” which opened up a bit more of the mystery of today’s feast. I share it with you now in the hopes that it might do the same for you.

You have to listen with all of you
to hear the white-green shoot
pushing, rubbing, scraping up through
cool, moist earth: wheat being born.

It’s a comforting sound when, finally,
you hear it and you know the growing sound
isn’t in the field
but in your fragile frailty,
in you…

Then fear comes over you:
you will be torn inside, again, until it hurts
and this may be the time
when growing leaves behind
the one you think you are,
harvesting the one you were made to be…

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it bears much fruit…

You don’t have to listen so closely
to hear the wind shuffle its way
through fields of wheat
so you have to look very carefully
to see it’s not the wind after all, but simply
wheat brushing against wheat,
wheat supporting wheat,
wheat enjoying wheat,
wheat embracing wheat.

The rustling becomes a symphony
of meeting, knowing, touching, growing:
wheat reaching out to wheat
not with fear, not with flushed face,
but only with the need to touch
and the sound of reaching
is strong, enveloping, alive!

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it bears much fruit…

Grinding grains of wheat: harsh,
breaking, crushing sounds,
a not soft noise – hard.
And now you don’t want to hear
wheat being crushed:
it just doesn’t look like wheat anymore
and maybe the explosion in you
wasn’t a matter of life but…

water is cool
and now it is all around you:
bubbling and swirling
in flour ground of wheat
and now you’re not surprised to know
you’re listening to blood filling your veins,
flowing all through you: life.

And just before the fire consumed us, too,
we found bread: one beautiful brown loaf
of wheat, wind, water
all rising to life in bread.

Then came One
who broke himself like a loaf
and we heard
in the cracking and tearing of the crust
the Word of life grown, ground and given
for those who share
in the breaking of the bread.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it bears much fruit…

P.S. (after communion) – just one more image about this feast, from a science fiction book called Children of the Mind:

How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all -
when we thought that we were only made of dust…

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father of bride 2It is “wedding season” for us priestly types, and perhaps, for many of you, as sons, daughters, neighbors and friend’s children are making the trip to the altar. In my nearly 30 year of witnessing them, I have become convinced that weddings have an ability to give us an experience of and glimpse into the nature of God. In particular, there are usually three moments that stand out for me, and perhaps stand out for you, at every wedding I have been a part of. Interestingly enough, the correlate to the Trinitarian greeting that we use from St. Paul so often at the beginning of each mass.

The first moment: I always enjoy looking at the groom’s face while everyone else is fixed upon the bride walking down the aisle. There is this curious mixture of desire, of amazement, of joy and wonder at how beautiful his beloved looks on that day. And though I can’t know what is in their heads, I can’t help but wonder if and hope that, at some moment during that walk, they think: “What did I ever do to deserve this grace?” What did I ever do to have someone give their love and their life to me? What did I ever do to be able to find my life precisely as I give it away to them in turn? And in that moment, I think, they know “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace equals divine favor; it is that unmerited gift, that undeserved but freely given relationship that Jesus makes possible for us with God. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is made visible in the eyes of a groom watching his bride walk down the aisle, in the eyes of the bride as she kisses her father ‘goodbye’ and takes her grooms arms and turns and faces the altar.

The second moment – I’ve just alluded to: It is that moment when the father gives away the bride. It is a long walk, I think, for the dad down that aisle, and perhaps too short of one at the same time. Pride, joy, a tinge of sorrow, a lot of letting go – all of those emotions – are nestled in the bend of his elbow where his daughter’s hand rests. And as often as not, you see a father’s hand resting over his daughters – in that last bit of ‘protection’, that last walk of letting go. And you know in the tears they try to hide, a heart that bursts in love in the giving away. It’s the day they’ve always wanted for their daughter, but it is bittersweet– for they know not what the future will hold for their beloved. There is a huge surrendering there, a huge act of trust and letting go. “The Love of God” becomes so visible, so real in that timeless moment. If you take a picture of that moment, you see the echo of what St. John spoke of so eloquently: For God so loved the world, that he gave his ONLY son, so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. In every giving away in love, every surrender made to a bigger story, every sacrifice made for others, you and I touch the love of God.

Finally, I’m pretty convinced that couples don’t really realize that ‘it’ has happened – that they are really married – until just before the end of the ceremony. They’ve said the vows, exchanged the rings, had the nuptial blessing prayed over them, received the Lord in the Eucharist, visited Mary, and heard the final blessing. And then there is that small moment, almost invisible, where the couple is turned toward each other, and introduced formally for the first time. And whether it is a quick kiss, a kind of shrug of their arms enfolded in each other, or a clasping of the hands together – their bodies cement that moment when they realize: “It is us now.” The two of us traveling together, down whatever paths and whatever roads God has in store for us. There’s a quiet confidence in that moment, a thrill of the journey ahead, and a kind of ‘we can do this TOGETHER’ realization that comes upon them. It is the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” moment. That ‘fellowship’ is the Spirit’s gift to them/us. It is the love of the Father poured into the Son and the Son given back to the Father that creates the home called Spirit. It is that fellowship of the Spirit that helps them create a home together.

Weddings can reveal to us a lot about the Trinitarian nature of God. But they are not the only places where God is revealed. This week pay attention to those moments when you know “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” In each of those moments- breathe in that life that God is sharing with you, and breathe out your response of gratitude and love.

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