Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Leave Aside Your Nets For a While

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

A fishing net is a pretty nifty little tool, and it’s been around forever.  You just throw this thing over the side of the boat and wait – presto, when you haul it back in, you’re in for a treat… maybe.  Or maybe not.

Life is kind of like that, isn’t it?  Each of us is given this web of gifts and experiences.. .and we work diligently throughout life with the help of parents, mentors and friends to weave them together into a kind of net.   And each day we heave this mesh of gifts and experience into the mysterious waters of life, waiting to see what we will end up with – hoping that we will get what we need or want.  But we can never be sure, can we?

It’s a pretty anxious life, being a fisherman, especially when your life, and the lives of those you love depend on bringing in a catch.  And so it’s no surprise that so many spend hours worrying and working tirelessly to make sure that their nets are in good order.  From the earliest years we instruct our children on how to build a net that will get as many fish as possible – starting with good grades, we urge them to develop the traits that will make them successful.

Yet so much is outside of our control – the dark waters of life have a mind of their own and it is impossible to see into their depths with any accuracy.  We can only hope that we’re in the right place with a large enough net.

Then there is the constant reality of storms that seem to come out of nowhere with such fury – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a crisis in the family.  We scan the horizon, trying to be vigilant, hoping that we won’t be caught out at sea and suddenly lose everything.  The dark waters of life are fraught with unseen dangers and we have all seen what happens to those who do not navigate them with care.

In our time, don’t these waters of life seem have grown more dangerous, expanding into a massive sea?  Small ponds no longer seem to exist.  We have all been immersed into the massive ocean of a global economy where the fish are bigger, but the storms are bigger too.  And we do our best to navigate increasingly dark and mysterious depths of this great sea of modern life, but we can’t help but be more anxious, more nervous about the future than ever.

And then today in our gospel we hear a voice, strong and confident from the shore, from the seaward road that Isaiah speaks of in our first reading – in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.  It is a voice that has not stopped ringing out for the last 2000 years, piercing the darkness like a light as from a lighthouse in the midst of a gloomy sea.  It is a strange voice, barely audible above the roar of the waves.  “What are you doing out there?  Come, follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”

What does that even mean, telling us all to come to shore?  Telling us to leave the concern for our nets behind.  Is he crazy?  Doesn’t he care for our survival?

But then he asks us:  “What assurance do you have that all of your efforts and labors will gain you anything?  Do you really think that you are immune to the storms of life?  You are not made to merely cling to survival, to be constantly on edge, worrying about life.  You don’t need to live like this.  Leave aside your nets for a while.  The net is not the proper tool for the kind of fishing that you need to be doing.  Stop trying to drag everything you can from life into your little boat.  You will find no happiness in these waters,
no peace.”

What Jesus tells us again and again is that true security, true happiness is found not by weaving our gifts and time and energy into a net in order to get what we can from life, but when we freely give what we have received to others.  This love of others is the art of fishing for men – the art of giving of our lives to one another.

One of the greatest tricks of the evil one is to convince us that this kind of fishing, the love of God and neighbor, makes us less secure, makes it harder to survive.  That we will only be secure if we weave our time and energy into some kind of safety net honed to get what we can from life for ourselves and those we care about.

But what is more secure: an expensive alarm system in the right neighborhood, or neighbors on all sides who know you and care about you?

What is more secure, all the right pedigree, degrees and promotions, or long-lasting and trustworthy friendships that are life-giving and meaningful?

What is more secure, a retirement account that is well funded, or relationships with children and grandchildren who are close to you and love you?

What is more secure: professional counselors and doctors who are sometimes able to treat your ailments, or a relationship with a loving God who you know and trust will guide you through anything?

And during a storm, a net is useless.  It means absolutely nothing.  You can have the largest, toughest, most sophisticated net in the world.  It will only drag you under during a storm.  And as far as fish – well who wants to spend the latter part of their lives with a stockpile of fish.  Fish don’t keep very well – just like the blessings that we receive in life.  They are better enjoyed fresh.

So follow the example of Peter and Andrew in our gospel today, and leave your nets aside more often.  That’s not to say that our fishing days are over, but we will not be able to adequately love those around us if all of our gifts and time and energy are wound up together in a fishing net.  And this means that each of us must consciously work to unravel the nets, work to place more of our time and energy and gifts directly at the service of those closest to us.

We must teach our children what real fishing looks like – teach them the joy of serving others, the joy of being an engaged husband or wife, of being a close family, of life-giving friendships, of being a good neighbor, an active parishioner, an involved member of the community.  If our children learn these fishing skills they will be able to weather whatever storms this dark sea of life throws at them.

We don’t need nearly as many fish as we might think we do, and remember that Jesus is the great multiplier of loves and fish.  Come to the shore more often, spend time in prayer, involved in the parish, with your wives and husbands, your children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents, parishioners, neighbors and friends.  Sacrifice for them, give your time and energy to them.  Become a fisher of men.  And then your days at sea won’t be as anxious, your net won’t feel so heavy, the catch won’t seem so light - because you will already have everything you need.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

It Is Too Little To Be A Servant

Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

"It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."

Too little.

The summer before I entered the seminary I had two paths before me: seminary and a life of public ministry, or a pottery wheel and a quiet life making bowls and plates.

I have always been more comfortable as the artist, the gardener, the designer, the architect, the stage manager, the one who can quietly go about his or her work for the glory of God and leave the politics and the power struggles to others.  Who can get to the end of the day and see the work that has been accomplished and then go home.

And yet I kept on feeling this tug toward the priesthood.  And it was not something that was comfortable to think about.  Working with inanimate objects was so much more appealing, so much less intimidating than getting involved in the spiritual realm and all the intricate inner workings of people.  Yet eventually I realized that it was too little to be a servant, as we hear in the second reading today – that I was being pulled into the light whether I wanted to be or not.

Now – you might think that this is a story that just belongs to those who have been called to the priesthood or religious life.  Or maybe some would say that this is a story that belongs to those who have been given authority over others in life: politicians, CEOs, commanders, teachers – that these positions of authority are those that are called to leave the task of being a servant behind and become a light for the nations.

I think that’s what people thought before Christ.  That there were the bright lights, the people who shined the way, and then there were those who followed, the servants.

But Christ revealed something new.  He brought Isaiah's prophecy to fulfillment.  It is too little, he said.  It is too little for you to be my servant.  I will make you a light to the nations for the salvation of the world.

He is speaking to all of you.  To all of you who have been baptized, who have been anointed priest, prophet, and king.  And that is what I finally realized when I was discerning the priesthood.  I realized that I could not escape the light – that I could not serve in the darkness.  That it was my baptism that was calling me out of the shadows, not my vocation to be a priest.  And that no matter what I did: whether I was a celibate priest, a married father, a single man, whether I was a potter, a teacher, a lawyer, the president, or a priest, I was called to be a light to the nations.

And the same goes for all of you.  It is not always easy news, that it is too little for us to be servants.  To be the light of Christ we must die to ourselves and rise to new life in him.  We must be converted, changed, altered, so that we can say with St. Paul “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  That is the universal aspiration of the Christian.  To become like John the Baptist: a man whose existence was to point only to Christ.  And even more.  Because in Baptism we were called not just to point to him – but to become a part of him:  to become his body in the world.  St. Augustine said to those receiving the Eucharist: receive what you are, become what you receive.

It is too little to be a servant.  We must work as Christ in the world, allowing him to work through us, to shine his divine light through us, to carry out his salvation through us.

We are called to go grocery shopping as Christ, to visit our elderly parents as Christ, to change diapers as Christ, to pump gas as Christ, to sell merchandise or answer email or run meetings or arrest criminals or put out fires or build homes or collect the trash or wait on tables as Christ.  Not as servants, but as a light to the nations, as the body of Christ alive in the world.

What is it like to no longer be yourself but to be Christ?  I don’t know – I’m still working on it.  I hear it is full of peace.  I hear that it is full of joy.  I hear that there are great things that happen, that are beyond our imaginings – when we stop trying to serve, and allow ourselves to be transformed into vessels of the light of Christ.  I hear that we lose nothing of ourselves, and that we gain everything in return.

“He who loves his life will lose it, he who hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

In our second reading St. Paul reminds us that we who are the Church of God have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and are called to be holy with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is too little to be a servant.  We are called to be saints.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Not A History Lesson, or a Magic Moment, or a Happy Thought...

Homily for the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, 2014

I have a priest friend who is currently in the Holy Land with a group of pilgrims and has been posting pictures of his trip.  One of the recent pictures was of him at the traditional place along the Jordan River where Christ was baptized by John.

My friend was not wearing swimming trunks. That is a dirty little river.  And it has been that way for thousands of years.  You might remember the story of Namaan the leper – how he came to Elisha to be cleansed and how when Elisha told him to go and wash in the Jordan seven times he was insulted? It’s the same today.  It is not a place to find clean water.

So what drew my friend and his fellow pilgrims to the Jordan River was clearly not that it is a majestic or beautiful river, a natural wonder.  Nor, however, were they visiting the Jordan with a mere historical interest, the way that they would visit a museum or an archeological site.  Did they visit because it is a magical place where they could receive miracles or special powers?  No.  That would be a kind of superstition, and not in keeping with our faith.  Some might say that in going they were keeping Jesus alive in their hearts by remembering him, or telling the story so that they could be inspired by God’s goodness and power.  But what a washed out understanding of what a Christian experiences when he or she encounters the place where Christ was baptized!

No, Christians go to the Jordan still today because it represents something precious for every one of us who has been baptized.

When we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul has taught us that we died to ourselves and we rose to new life in Christ.  We were made members of his body.  We became the adopted sons and daughters of God.  And so what happened in the Jordan to Jesus when he went to be Baptized by John is not something that we look upon from the outside – as mere onlookers.  When we were baptized, when Christ made us his brothers and sisters by adoption, everything that happened to him, all the words of the Father that were addressed to him also were addressed to us.

When the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ in the waters of the Jordan, he descended upon us to offer us his gifts.  And likewise, the voice of the Father speaks to us, addresses us with the same words that he addressed to Jesus when he came out of those waters: “This is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”

In recalling the baptism of Christ, we recall that by his grace, through his sacrifice on the cross, we too are heirs with him to heaven, that we are also those who find favor with God.  This is one of the great themes of Christmas.  Remember the songs of the angels on Christmas night?  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Because we have died with Christ and risen with him, we share in the same favor, the same peace, the same love that he has with the Father in the Holy Spirit.  When we are baptized and when we live in the grace of our baptism, the life of our baptism, we live nothing other than the life of Christ.  Christ lives in us, and we live in him.  And so God loves us and favors us the same way that he loves and favors his son, the same way that the loves and favors his very self.  In other words, we are drawn up into God, who is love.

So today is personal for each of us.  And even though we cannot go to the Jordan river today, each of us should think of ourselves united with Christ in the Jordan, in that place.  It may seem audacious, and it is.  In fact it is fool-hardy, as St. Paul said – to be alive in Christ, to have God as our Father.  To think of ourselves, raised up by God’s mercy out of the dirty water of our sinfulness and weakness united to Christ, members of his body.  To look up – to see the Spirit come to rest upon us with his gifts.  To hear the voice that comes out of the clouds and speaks to us: “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter, with whom I am pleased.”

Not mere history lessons, or magic moment, or happy thoughts.  This is what we are made for: the peace and joy that comes from being pleasing to God, from giving glory to God, from being favored by him.  And this is the gift we are given in baptism - that we are given when we live in union with Christ.  Through him, with him, and in him, we receive the love and life and peace and joy that he receives and lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Christ enters into the waters of our lives and the heavens break open above us, bathing us in the splendor of God’s never-failing love.

Remember Christ’s final instructions to his disciples in St. John’s Gospel: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.”

May each of us today, then, recommit ourselves to living our baptism, to living in Christ, to keeping his commandments so that we too can share with him in the Father’s favor and give glory to his name.