Christian Christmas Nativity SceneOne of my priests friends had the un-enviable job of overseeing issues around priests and personnel and conflicts among the brothers. At one point, during a particularly stressful time, he said a simple line that, unfortunately, has stayed with me: “This job kills all curiosity…!” In context, I completely understand what he was saying. He had to hear all about the poor decisions that my brother priests were sometimes want to make. And the petty squabbles. And the turf battles. And the violations of canon law. It fell to his desk to deal with the sinful side of the priesthood. In that context, “this job kills all curiosity” makes complete sense. But it is deadly, I think, for the spiritual life.

I was reminded of that at the wedding of my former campus minister these past two days – first the rehearsal, the brunch, and then the wedding and reception. There was a relative of the bride who had three small kids under the age of 6. They were close knit. Exploring everything. The crib scene; the three wise men; the camels; the Christmas tree. At the brunch – every nook and cranny of a small room; the wood pile; the groom’s cake; the buffet line – it all was examined. And then again at Maggiano’s – a Christmas tree, poinsettias, room décor – none of it escaped their gaze, none of it was outside the realm of exploration and wonder.

WONDER is what starts the journey of the Magi, isn’t? Whether 2000 years ago or now, when we believe that something NEW is happening, about to happen; when we are hopeful of the inbreaking of God into our world – filled with expectation – how can we not explore? (fav. book this past year – Bill Bryson’s “A short history of almost everything” which gives a crash course in the nature of space, time, geology, archeology, physics, etc. I find this world of ours sooo fascinating.)

There are two prerequisite of wonder, two traits that make wonder possible. The first is to believe that God is NOT DONE with me/us/this world of ours… It is the absolute trust on our parts that every moment holds a potential epiphany – a revelation of the faithfulness of God to us.

The second, I was taught again by those three girls. You have to be willing to be led by your curiosity, to explore where it takes you, to follow where it leads. Without that willing to go where curiosity leads, you’ll never be able to push through the tough times, and what sometimes appears to be ugly to find the presence of God.

Wise men still seek him… do we? This Epiphany, perhaps that is the only question worth looking at. Are you making the wise man’s journey? To that end, where are you at in those two poles:

Are you in the “This job kills all curiosity mode?” shut off, closed off, just coasting through life till its end?


Can you watch small kids play and be amazed and RECAPTURE that wonder that ALWAYS sets wise men and women on the journey?


Star of Wonder, Star of light…
guide us to thy perfect light.

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blessingsA few weeks ago, I got a new cPap machine. It is about the third of the size of my first one. And it is very light weight. and it comes with it’s own carrying case, easy to tote through airports. SOOO, for the first time in 12 years, I am actually going to be able to travel for a week’s vacation using ONLY a carry on –because my former one filled pretty much my entire carry on, with only room for one change of clothes! Doesn’t seem like much, BUT, I find myself now having to actually plan what I am carrying on with me for this trip. Before – not an issue, because there was ALWAYS room…

New years can kind of be like that, can’t they? We pause, don’t we, and look back and look forward. Many make resolutions that last (or don’t…) that are helpful to them moving forward. But I wonder if it might be profitable to look at “WHAT” we might be taking with us in our “life Carry On” from last year to this year. The events and memories of a year shape us and form us. But some of those events, we don’t need to pack with us, as they only take up space. Others are pretty important to make sure they are in our life. So three quick thoughts about what to pack/not pack in 2015. Perhaps they will spur your own prayer and reflection.

I suspect that we will need to pack SOMETHING from our experience of Ferguson into our lives this year. The temptation will be to want to pack ‘Back To Normal’ into our lives. And in terms of the day to day running of things – that would not be a bad thing. But what else? The TSA rules tell us you can take no water in your carryon. I wonder if we could symbolically pack ‘an empty water bottle to symbolize our thirst for justice. To symbolize the need for many to experience a system that is not a part of the problem, but a part of the answer. Pack a thirst for righteousness and justice for 2015…

It is easy to take unforgiveness in the suitcase of our lives. “They started it.” “Why should I let them off the hook for all the pain they cause me?” “If I forgive them, they’ll just do it again.” It is easy to find a hundred reasons NOT to forgive, to keep carrying the hurt without. 2015 would be a better year if we chose not to carry the wounds of 2014 with us. Whatever it was, leave it behind…

The third item to make sure we pack into our carry on/with luggage for this year, comes from our Scriptures today: they speak of blessing: the blessings we can be in one another’s life, and the blessings that God showers down upon us. I believe they highlight the two moments of blessing that are critical for us.

The infancy narratives around the birth of Jesus capture many beautiful verbal blessings; the announcement to Mary from the angel; Mary’s magnificat; the good news being shared by the shepherds; the angels singing “Glory to God…” And it says that “Mary kept all these things and treasured them in her heart. Perhaps that is the first work of blessing – we have to ponder our own moments and gifts and signs of favor, to carry them with us, to make sure we have time to treasure them because life is hard and busy and comes by and goes past way too quickly unless we do.

And once we ‘realize’, once we have that sense of God smiling down upon us, then it becomes easier, doesn’t it, to affirm others with our words, to be that blessing in their lives by our actions. I wonder if this year, we can recommit ourselves packing kindness coming from our lips into our carry on’s. It’s too easy for the hurtful words to come. But if we are intentional, God can use our words to heal, and build up, to be blessings for others.

So, concretely, I ask you to pull your cell phones out of your pockets and purses. We use these for texts and tweets and emails and facebooks and sometimes even for talking! I invite you to place your hand on phone…If you don’t have one, or don’t have it with you, hold it in your mind for a moment:

Oh, God, you have given us the amazing gift of speech. We can speak great love and compassion, kindness and healing. And also, great harm and hate
Our phones are one way we can communicate with even more people. Dear God, we set these aside for kindness. May hatred never flow through these, only encouragement … only goodness. We pray this blessing on our phones through Christ our Lord.

We carry a lot of things with us on the journey of life. As we sit at the dawn of a New Year, may God bless our words that we might speak blessing; that we might be blessing for this world …

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golferFor those who do not golf, there is a fine line in one of the basic mechanics of the golf swing (and probably the baseball swing as well, but I don’t play baseball) that will effect everything. It has to do with how tightly or loosely you grip the club. Too loose, and the club flies out of your hand. Too tight, and you lose both distance and accuracy as the plane of the swing is now controlled by the small muscles in your hands and not the big muscles of your hips and legs and back. Somewhere in between too tight and too loose is the ‘just right’ zone where you maximize club head speed and ball striking accuracy.

I suspect each parent with now grown children recognizes that same fine line they tried to walk in the rearing of their children. Hold on to them too loosely and they spin out of control – without boundaries or guidelines to tether them to both responsibility and possibility. Hold them too tightly, and they never learn the freedom to make mistakes and fail and fall and be hurt, and yet know it is within their power to pick themselves up and start anew.

The little we know of Jesus’ childhood come to us from Luke’s gospel – and even then, we only see two snapshots – today’s gospel and the gospel of the presentation in the temple when he was 12. What do they teach us about how the Holy Family navigated those waters?

From the first of these two stories we learn that the Holy Family did not hold Jesus too loosely. Thoughtful parents also tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of their children, with equal discipline and commitment as they care for the physical needs. We see Mary and Joseph named Jesus in accordance to the message of the angel. Before he could talk or walk, they brought him to the Temple. They brought him there because they knew to thank God for him, and to ask God for help raising him to adulthood. They knew one of their responsibilities and great joys was to raise children in the faith.

I had a conversation at a wedding reception last night with a couple who are realizing that it is time for them to come to a decision about church attendance, precisely because of their children. Unlike some parents who leave that decision to their kids, under the guise of ‘allowing them to make up their own mind”, they recognize it is part of the ‘not too loose’ grasp they need to have for their children. Just as they don’t leave choices on nutrition and bed times and playing in the middle of the street to the kids, they know that a solid witness in their own lives to matters of faith is crucial.

templeFrom the story of Jesus being left behind at the Temple at age 12, we learn that the Holy Family also did not hold him too tightly. We know the story. In their customary yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, (again, witness to not holding too loosely) Jesus is inadvertently left behind, because they trust him to be among the relatives and friends who were with them on the journey. Frantic hours are spent trying to find him. And, suddenly, like the mother of Kevin McCallister in the second Home Alone movie, they realize exactly where to look for him – in the temple. There they found him, confounding the religious teachers with his uncanny grasp of mature and complex religious matters. What a testament he was to the spiritual foundation that Mary and Joseph laid for him, but also what a testament to the unique relationship he had with his Heavenly Father.

Mary and Joseph did not hover over his every moment. They did not keep Jesus tied to their hip, always in their sight. They gradually gave him space to grow up, to mature, to ask questions, to spread his wings. This is not an easy gift for parents to give their children. We are frightened by the violence and suffering in the world, from which we rightly want to protect our children. But we harm them also when we try to bulldoze down every challenge in their path, and hover over them so closely that they fail to learn to stand and fall and get back up again.

I realize that many here are past the ‘active child rearing years’, at least as parents, and perhaps even as grandparents. Yet these two rules – not too tightly – not too loosely – also apply to all the relationships of we are a part. Do I give my spouse, my friend, my fiancé, my grown son, my aging parent that same set of both roots and wings critical to their growth even now? Take a lesson from the Holy Family these days or from the golf course. Either way, the message is the same – not too loose, not too tight… (take an imaginary golf swing…)

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emmanuelSome of us, as children, were told that the way a new baby comes into the world is that it is delivered by a stork. Perhaps you have seen the illustrations of a stork with a cleanly wrapped bundle to be delivered to your doorstep or through your chimney. One minute, there is no baby. The next minute, there is your baby, all clean, powder fresh and perfect. If I were going to have a baby [– and I am not] – that is how I would like the process to go. Nice, neat, clean, no discomfort, no effort, no pain. That would be such a nice deal, I suspect for many.

When it comes to God and us, I suspect most of us secretly wish for the stork approach to God – quick, painless, no work on our part. Today’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear that in spite of what most of our Christmas cards look like, God did not just deliver some little neatly wrapped bundle of joy. No, the whole process was messy, involved, and hard. To complicate the already difficult act of childbirth, Mary’s ‘normal’ pregnancy/delivery, was co-opted in the swirl of world events with the great Roman Census. On the road, strange city, no family midwife or doctor, Mary, saddle sore from the ride, finds herself giving birth in a stable. Joseph had to have been frantic, searching for any kind of room, until at last he was at least able to beg those humble lodgings from an overtaxed innkeeper. It was into that concrete messiness that God CHOSE to be birthed.

From the very beginning, God was trying to teach us that God is not SEPARATE from us, like a stork delivering some little completed package for us. No, God came into the messiness of it all, bearing new life, not from outside the process, but right in the middle of it all. And Jesus’ birth is a divine pledge, isn’t it – of God’s choice to be EMMANUEL – God with us, supporting, encouraging, helping in the painful process that births new life. That is how God ALWAYS loves us. God is not aloof … but is always in the mess with us.

I was reminded of that yesterday, when I went to take my mom to the doctor. Mom is 17 days shy of 90, and her short term memory is mostly gone. Which is painful for us, her children to see, but I suspect, even more painful for her. I promised I would call her in the morning but the phone line was constantly busy. I did catch her right as I left and told I’d be there in a half hour – get ready. I get to her apartment at Our Lady of Life, she opens the door, and there she is, stocking feed, hair disheveled and going in a hundred different directions. And then she has to brush her teeth, and as she turns, I see blood in her hair from where she had fallen, and some blood in the carpet. And so I am trying to make sure she is okay, and get her into shape, and get some stain remover from the carpet and make sure she’s not bleeding, and she’s trying to run a comb through her hair, and the clock is ticking for the appointment. Then she keeps looking for something she doesn’t quite remember what it is. I ‘find’ her lost glasses, in her purse, inside the glass case where she put them, and we head out. I am not sure what I was expecting, during the trip to the doctor, but that was not it. And yet…
… on the way home, as she forgot for the 10th time what she was talking about mid sentence, she paused and said: “Thanks for being so good to me, Billy. Thanks God for all my kids for being so good to me.” Wow, I thought – “Here’s 90 old mom, hair still matted with some of the blood from her fall; who was startled when I reminded her that Christmas was two days away – and on some level “Knows” that everything is falling apart – and yet can still voice her thanks to the God whom is the center of everything. Talk about finding God in the mess.

That is the pledge of Christmas. That in EVERY circumstance of life, God is EMMANUEL – God with us.

So maybe your life is like my day with mom yesterday. Or maybe it is the sadness of missing parent who just passed away. Maybe, like one of my students, you are praying that the family Christmas gathering does not turn into a shouting match again. Maybe like the people in Ferguson, you are trying to figure out how Christ, the Prince of Peace might help us find a way forward to a just and non-violent society where every life matters. Here God’s pledge to you this day: – I am with you in all these moments…
So too, in the blessing of family being together from out of town; – in the goodness of the welcome and greetings we receive from strangers, – in the charity of folks who give so generously this time of year; in a thousand ways, may we know, both in the good times and the bad, that God is with us

Do you pray to God as if God were the stork? As if everything would ‘miraculously be dropped into our laps just by our wishing it? Christmas reminds us that God is bigger than that, and has a better plan than that. Instead of dropping new life upon us from the outside, God chooses to redeem us from within. So in the mess and muck, the joy and laughter, the struggle and yearning of these days, let the Christ be born in you…
Merry Christmas!

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marqueeIt is an interesting week to be in the film making business. For the first time that I am aware of, a major film company, Sony, cancelled a debut of a new movie because of cyber attacks, hacking of company data and email threats of terror attacks on theaters carrying “The Interview” on Christmas Day. The show was supposed to be a comedy about a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader. Though it is too early to tell, I suspect this will have a ripple effect, making it more difficult for filmmakers to come up with funding and investors for movies that need to be told, but take up controversial or religiously charged topics

Interestingly enough, this 4th week of Advent, the church asks us to consider just that: would we be willing to invest in not just a movie, but in Christmas? Now, most of us are not media moguls, with the deep pockets needed to fund a movie. So imagine, if you will, the work it would take to fund a movie about Christmas to someone who knew nothing about the Christmas story and the events of the world’s salvation. Even before the cyber attacks – I think they would have a hard time rousing support for that project. They’d ask for a synopsis. You’d show them today’s gospel. They’d read it. “This is about the salvation of the world – hmm. They are doing it all wrong.” (The internet judgment for this story has a simpler way to say that: “FAIL”.) Can you imagine the questions they’d be asking about the project?

You are going to set this story of salvation WHERE? If you were planning the event that will bring salvation to everyone, you’d put it on the grandest stage, where it could get the most exposure. God begins this story of Jesus in a small country barely noticeable on the world stage, and in a tiny village in that country barely noticeable on the Israeli stage. Nazareth was not Jerusalem, much less Athens or Rome.

Wait – how old is the main character and who is she? What an unlikely character was Mary to play such a starring role in God’s great mysterious plan of salvation! Mary would likely have been around 13 or 14 years old when the angel appeared to her. So a Middle School or Junior High girl from a nobody family with no acting training is going to play the ‘Best Supporting Actress role?” And you think that is going to work?

Where are the special effects? Explosions? The light sabers? Instead of splitting open the heavens with the arrival of a conquering Messiah accompanied by a legion of angels, amazing pyrotechnics and explosions to alert everyone of the impending good news, you’re going to do what? You are going to send this savior into our history, just as every other human has come into the world since the birth of Adam and Eve’s children – as a small baby? That’s your premise – that’s your ‘go to’ story about salvation?

And let me get this straight: It all hinges on ONE word, and you are shooting this scene LIVE, NO SCRIPT? What will you do if she says no? Mary is presented with a daunting calling by the angel. Her world will be turned upside down, in order for our world to be turned right side up. After the angel’s announcement; after the prophecy and assurances that God would bless this child; after the reassuring sign of the pregnancy of her kinswoman, Elizabeth;—after all of this, the angel fell silent, and all heaven with him, waiting for the answer of a young teenage girl. What would she say? What if she says, “no”? It was a huge risk for Mary and an even larger investment for her. All she was and hoped for and planned in the movie of her life, would go out the proverbial window with that simple yes. So the angel waited… And God waited… And the world waited…

But here is the hard truth of the fourth Sunday of Advent. God, the casting director, is still waiting for us to invest in this movie. God still waits for us to make the commitment to that drama of salvation, not as it was played out 2000 years ago in that nowhere town by a unknown teen, through a one word answer, – but as it is played out in the community of Ferguson, the classrooms of our failing Normandy Schools, and the violence of the drug and gang torn streets of St. Louis. God still waits on us, as he waited on Mary’s yes.

Will YOU invest in the story of Christmas this year?
Or, maybe the better question, because you are already here – HOW will you invest in the story of Christmas this year?

original beginning-

I have received (already) about 10 email promotions about the movie series A.D. – to be aired beginning this Easter. The movie will cover the first ten chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Got me to thinking about what goes into a good movie. You need plot – a story that must be told. Interesting characters to bring to life. Good actors to play the roles. A setting. A good visual location. A good beginning and a good ending. Lots of behind the scenes people to do sound and light and effects and the like. But most important, it needs to be bigger than life. Big enough to carry the story, the human drama, the mystery.

This 4th week of Advent, we are introduced to movie making process of the history of our salvation. The funny thing is this. If I was approached by the director to help finance their concept for this ‘movie’ – I think I would have a hard time plunking down any kind of cash to support the endeavor. It would be hard for me to invest in this movie/story. They are doing it all wrong. (the internet judgment for this story would be one word: “FAIL”.) I would have questions:

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clockWhat does this sound do to you? <<Ticking clock sound >>
• For some, that is the sound of emptiness, boredom. It brings to mind that feeling of the class or meeting that will never end. After sitting through as much as we think we could stand, we check and – only three minutes have passed! For some younger ones, it is the painful realization that Christmas is still ELEVEN MORE SLEEPS away. Time moves so-o-o slowly.
<<Ticking>> For others, this sound produces the opposite reaction: “Oh no – there’s not enough time. It’s all going too fast! Like a time-bomb ticking down, we feel, “Time’s a-wasting. So much to do … so little time”
<<Ticking>> For some, time moves much too slowly; for others much too quickly. But for fully-awake Christians in Advent, this is the sound of hope.
<<Ticking>> My brothers and sisters, that is an important Advent sound. For Advent is all about time. And Advent teaches us “Time is pregnant.” Time is pregnant. Time is pregnant with God.

We light our third Advent candle this weekend, and those candles are more than “counting down to Christmas”. They are a reminder that God has entered into time and transformed it. God is there to be birthed into EVERY MOMENT, for those who are awake. Each moment, whatever the circumstances, whatever we are doing, God is there to be birthed for those who are awake.

There are those who have discovered this, those who have learned to find the presence of God in time. Today’s scriptures give us three: Isaiah; Paul; John the Baptist. None of them had easy lives. As a matter of fact, they each knew great hardship and rejection. Yet, here we have: Isaiah saying: “God is the joy of my soul.” St. Paul telling us: “Rejoice always. In ALL CIRCUMSTANCES give thanks…” And John the Baptist trying to wake us up to the presence of Christ in time! “There IS one in your midst…” even now. Be aware of him.
In spite of the challenges – even heartaches – of their lives, these three are known for their hope; their joy; their urgency; their vitality: They came to see GOD IN TIME…
How do WE do that? I suspect for most of us, we spend a great deal of our time living in the past or the future. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app on our phones that would beep if it found us living in either of those times? — that would remind us to wake up to the NOW.
So how do we do that? How do we move from time as obstacle, or even as enemy, to time as pregnant with God?

The key discipline is mindfulness … awareness … learning to be awake to NOW. It is something we only get better at through practice. For me, a quick closing of my eyes, a deep breath, a pausing at the top of that breath, with a whispered prayer: Now, Lord, let me be aware of NOW. Let me become aware of what this moment holds.”

Each year, Advent comes with its invitation to be awake. Some here are living their 14th, 64th or 104th Advent. However many Advents any of us have had, it is time to wake up to THIS one… So what if – these next two weeks – every time we looked at a clock, or heard one tick, we tried to become aware of NOW?
• Brushing your teeth; paying a bill; waiting at a stoplight? Stop the mind for just a second and become aware of NOW.
• Writing thank you notes after a funeral; putting a textbook into a backpack; bundling the kids into the car? That moment is pregnant with God.
• Vacuuming the hallway; sending a text; putting on our socks: become mindful of that moment
Whatever we’ve got to do … as well as whatever we choose to do… Advent invites us to be awake as we do so.

<< Ticking Clock Sound through rest of homily>>
 Perhaps you can’t wait for something to be over, or to get here, and it seems that time will never end
 Perhaps, it all seems to be going by much too quickly.

But when we are awake Christians, this is the best sound in the world. For one of the gifts Advent teaches us: time is pregnant. THIS MOMENT HOLDS GOD…
<< Clock louder for ten seconds, then slowly fades away >>

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greetings“Sup?” “’Lo!” “G’Day, mate.” “Oi!” How’s it going?” “What are you doing?” There are a lot of variations on “Hello” aren’t there. At UMSL isn’t it this: (walk by, head down, ever so slight ‘nod’ –NO EYE CONTACT! – keep walking…) One of my favorite greetings – comes from Fr. Gary Braun –“Could I love you any more – it’s so good to see you.” What is not to like in that greeting – I feel so welcomed and so ‘met’…

There is something in a greeting, isn’t there, that tells us about the relationship between us. If it is the formal, everyone at the same time: “Good Morning, Fr. Bill, God Bless you!” that I sometimes get when I walk into the kindergarten classroom, then I know that they are involved in a project, and need to come back. If it is a scattered chorus of “Fr. Bill”, then I can interact with impunity. Greetings tell us something about the nature of the relationship.

So, when the angel greets Mary, not with the expected “Shalom!” – “Peace” that would have been the common greeting in Israel, but with something quite different, you already know that something is up. And what is that greeting? “Kekairitomene” – Hail, full of grace, we translate it. But more accurately, that root word is “kaire” which means REJOICE. Fr. Pat Gaffney translates that entire word then in this way: Rejoice, you who are SO loved by God.

Rejoice – not the usual start to any kind of greeting. People would look at you funny if that is how you greeted them each day. (especially on a Monday morning – who wants to rejoice on a Monday morning.) Yet, Mary would have known, as familiar as she was with the scriptures, that “Rejoice” is the word used in the prophecies about “Daughter Zion” from Zephaniah, Zechariah and Joel. Each of those prophetic messages beginning with the word ‘rejoice’ was announcing the coming of the Messiah. So in that first word of greeting Mary would have known that SOMETHING extraordinary was up already. Rejoice, because YOU are a part of God’s saving story.

But it is not just the word “Kaire” we hear, but kekairitomene – you who are SO loved by God. And that is the heart of what we believe this feast is about. By a particular grace, the God for whom NOTHING is impossible, allowed Mary to share ahead of time in the redemption of Jesus on the cross. For isn’t that what salvation really is – not a matter of earning, but of receiving. That is how Mary is Immaculate – she shared ahead of time in the salvation Jesus would win for us all.

And Mary’s response is really the response each of us is called to live” “Let me be loved like that. Let me be loved like that.”

So there are two applications about how we might live this feast today.

1) Watch how you greet one another this day. Can you create something that lets the other know they matter? That THEY are so loved by God?

2) Is there a memory you can kind of climb into – about a time when you knew that same truth? Is there someone in your life who helps you to know that truth about you? Back in the day, my best friend Mary Morton and I both struggled with believing in our own goodness. We knew it in our heads, but our hearts were much slower to learn. So, we would end a lot of our conversations, on the phone or in person, with “Repeat after me: I – am – loved – UNCONDITIONALLY.” And though it was hard sometimes to say that, and even harder at times to believe that, the very act of saying it, helped to create that truth within me.

“Yo!” “Sup?” “What’s shaking?” – we know those greetings so well we scarcely pay attention to them. Kekairitomene – it’s a bit of a mouthful. But, who would we be if we trusted that those words to Mary, are also the words addressed to us? Imagine today, in every greeting, God saying to you, in the words of my friend, Fr. Gary: “Could I love you any more?”

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listenI have a confession to make. I am not a huge fan of Al Sharpton. I do not know him personally, only his public persona as expressed on radio and TV interviews. So when I heard that he was going to speak in the aftermath of the Grand Jury decision, I thought to myself, somewhat cynically, “Oh, this is not going to be helpful.” My fear was that he would stir the flames even more. Yet, as much as I was not a fan, I knew I needed to listen to what he said – if for nothing else, then to know what was ‘out there’ in the discussions about our community. But deeper down, I also knew I need to listen because you never know where and how and by whom the truth will be given to you.

A while back, a student met one of my staff for an evaluation about a position at the center. During that meeting, the staff member said some rather challenging things to them, and was not quite sure how it was received. A few days later, that person came to me and recounted this about that conversation: “I have never felt so unconditionally loved and yet absolutely challenged at the same time in my life.” What a grace it was for her to be able to say that. And, how rare it is for anyone to be able to say that. Many people would have heard the conversation as a critique and tuned out or turned off. The person chose to TRULY LISTEN for the truth that was there…

Who helps you hear the truth about your life? Do you have someone who can speak to you, not just what you want to hear, what you are comfortable hearing about, what you look forward to hearing about, but also those truths that can be difficult to hear? And, do you train yourself to truly listen, to truly see yourself/the situation as the other sees it? That is the difficult work of our lives, isn’t it? And the difficult work left in our communities, post Ferguson. How do we listen for the truth?

You see, truth does not always come packaged easily. Today’s gospel finds it packaged in camel’s hair, wild locusts and honey; far from the city, in the middle of the hot, dusty wilderness. On external appearances, John would not have been one you would expect to hear the truth from. He did not fit the mold of a prophet or ‘professional holy man.’ Yet we are told that “all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him.” John must have had a way of letting people know that they were both unconditionally loved and absolutely challenged, all in the same breath. Even Herod, who eventually had him put to death, could not dismiss him lightly. There was something about John that called to everyone he met and both affirmed and challenged them. Thad that call, that invitation still floats down to us in our time. “Ready the way, make straight the paths!”

SOOO, how and through whom have YOU heard the call this Advent to ready the way? Even more basic to that: are you even expecting that invitation to come?

I wonder what it would be like for each of us to try a few things to ‘stretch us’ this advent. What if, when we were reading the paper, we forced ourselves to ‘not skip’ the stories whose headlines make us want to keep turning the page? What if we pledged to listen to the Colbert Report for those who struggle with the ‘left’ or the Rush Limbaugh show for those who struggle with the right? What if we had the courage to truly listen, as did that college student, when people said things that were challenging to us? Make a choice to get out of you comfort zone this Advent in the “input’ you bring to your head and heart this week.

And, on a deeper level, just as John called the people to look at the truth of their lives by how he lived his, what is the quality of your witness to the truth these days? Do people feel challenged by how YOU live as they felt challenged by John? You see, you and I may be the only people that some folk trust enough to know they are both loved unconditionally and challenged absolutely. Do they know more of the truth because of you?

I may not ever be a fan of Al Sharpton, but I am glad that I made myself listen that day, because I heard and understood a perspective that I never would have otherwise. This advent, may we all keep our ears open, for we never know through whom God will reveal his truth in our lives…

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Hands of Homeless Man with Change in CupThere are different kinds of watchfulness, aren’t there?

• There is the watchfulness of a child for the arrival of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. It’s that wide eyed, on tip toes, openness and excitement to the possibilities of something good.
• There is the watchfulness of a security guard making his night rounds – especially after he has heard an unfamiliar noise.
• There is the watchfulness of a family around the deathbed of a loved one at the end of a long illness.
• There is the watchfulness of a college student for the due date of the paper/project.
• There is the watchfulness of a lover for the sound of her/his beloved at the door.
• There is the watchfulness of an expectant mother awaiting the beginning of labor pains.
We ‘watch’ with all kinds of different ‘eyes and ears and hearts’ – depending on the situation in our lives. What kind of ‘watchfulness’ are you into these days?

In the gospel, Jesus seems to be calling us to be aware that God is breaking into the world NOW, inviting us to see the extraordinary hidden in the midst of the ordinary. He does not seem to be warning us that the end of the world is coming, or that our own end is coming, although both are surely going to end someday. “It is like a man who went on a journey,” he tells us. Travel was not as predictable in terms of starting and ending as our days. You never knew just when the master would return. That was just a fact of traveling. So this passage is not a call to dread and fear about the future, as much as calling us to be more aware of, and more actively alive in the present. We are not called to quake at the thought of the coming of God, but to be found steady and prepared, serving at our post when He comes. “Watch! Be Awake!” we are told.

So if you could condense that kind of waiting, the watchfulness of advent down to two words; wouldn’t they be these two? “What if?” ”What if…”

Now I am not talking about the guilty “What if I would have done that better or differently,” but rather “the leaning forward, edge of the seat, on tip toes, filled with possibility” – expectation of something good and life changing about to happen.

So, What if Jesus was wanting to speak to DIRECTLY to you/me in just ONE encounter of each day of Advent? What if we EXPECTED Jesus to deliver us one message each day – maybe in a conversation, maybe in an insight, maybe through something we saw in the papers or heard in the news – would You/I hear it? Would we be present enough to that moment to let it change us?

He did that for me on Thanksgiving day. Just before the “Holy, Holy” one of our usual folks came in, sat for a moment, and then began to ‘make their rounds’, asking for whatever they ask for. (Usually, money for coffer, I think.) And I found myself getting angry, because I only see them while I am in the middle of saying mass, and never get the chance to “invite them not to disturb people at prayer.” As those thoughts were floating in my head, and the protective ‘frustration’ was starting to rise, and my ‘righteous anger’ was hitting its peak (all in the space of about 45 seconds) Jesus spoke directly to me in the next words of the Eucharistic prayer I was praying. “In your compassion, O merciful Father, gather to yourself ALL your children, scattered throughout the world.” … Dang, I was so busted. Because one of those children I was praying about was right in front of me, there in the back of church. And I heard the invitation of what I was praying: What if I really believed those words I was saying… Do I really try to love them with the compassion of God? …I knew the answer in my heart of hearts. Sigh…

There are other ‘What if’s” of Advent, more practical and more about actions than about attitudes.

What if each time we heard an ambulance/fire engine/police car drive by, we would stop, would REALLY stop – and say a pray for the person being attended to, the structure burning, the first responders involved.

What if each time we shopped, we bought an extra can or two to help those in need?

What if…

Advent is a time to practice active waiting, to prepare for the coming our God. Let those two words guide you. What if… What if…

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peaceIs the Turkey thawing out slowly in the ‘fridge’? Do I have enough yams for the sweet potato lovers in the family? Will anybody really go down in the basement this year or can I skip cleaning it this holiday? Those are some of the usual suspects of things undone that can pre-occupy our thoughts this Thanksgiving week. When was the last time I checked the level of the transmission fluid in the family car? How about those air filters on the furnace? Are the fire extinguishers in the house up to date? Those are some of the un-usual suspects of things undone that can lead to trouble. And then, there are these: Have I clothed the naked, have I fed the hungry, visited those in prison, or cared for the sick? According to our Lord, those are THE ONES that can lead us to everlasting trouble.

What is undone in your/our world today?

For the St. Louis/Ferguson community, I suspect it is the things that are “UNDONE” that will be at the heart of whatever protest appears. The Michael Brown shooting was a terrible, but perhaps preventable tragedy on BOTH sides. But what has followed, is less about Michael Brown and more about what has been undone. We have not loved our neighbor as our selves. We have stayed silent as our Normandy education system slid further and further away from helping people out of poverty. We have not ended the addictions that fuel the drug battles that ended with two more dead on the streets Friday night. We continue to let the racial and economic divide between the haves and have not’s influence policy and laws and actions. We have left many, many things undone.

In today’s gospel, both the righteous and the unrighteous are surprised by the sentence that the King passes upon them. It was you that we loved or didn’t love? Though we can reflect on both groups, perhaps in light of whatever the events the coming days will send our way, we might do some fruitful praying around “what has been left undone.”

The second group is not judged for committing the seven deadly sins, or for endangering or rioting or theft. The only thing the King says as he judges them is that they failed to act in love, withholding love when they could have extended it; failing to notice or to care in the face of human need. In our time, what was undone for decades, both systemically and individually, has left us in quite a mess.

And here is perhaps a hard truth about things left undone. It does not matter “WHO” didn’t do them, they are still undone. (It doesn’t matter who didn’t replace the fire extinguisher when you need to use it and it doesn’t work.) Things left undone leave NO ONE off the hook. Not the protestors, violent or non-violent, nor the police officers, good or bad, nor the citizens of Ferguson, nor the people of our beloved St. Ann community, nor myself. What is left undone in our communities is a task for all of us. It is a task for us all.

How many acts of injustice have gone unchecked in our society, like weeds growing amuck in an untended garden, simply because good people failed to care, or to risk getting involved? This past Wednesday, the state of Missouri killed its 9th inmate to prove that killing is wrong. The Affordable Care Act, according to the website “Priests for Life”, uses tax payer monies to fund abortions. Our welfare system works against the family unit and often discourages people from seeking gainful employment and careers. Again and again, we are undone by those things we have left undone.

As we acknowledge our Savior to be our King, we are invited to do a little reflecting this weekend. Let me share with you one of the confession prayers in the Anglican Book of Common prayer. It is a slight variation from our own penitential rite, but hopefully different enough for us to really ‘hear’ today’s gospel message:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

If we are all honest, there is MUCH that we have left undone. As we honor Christ the King this week, make a decision to do at least ONE of those undone things for the least of our brothers and sisters in Ferguson. Cross it off the list. Get it done. Get it done…

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