Archives for the month of: December, 2013

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In 1964 Nelson Mandela was sent to prison for conspiring to fight the Apartheid government.  At some point in the next 27 years of captivity he “had a dream” of sorts.  When he was released it would have been entirely righteous of him to continue the violent struggle – nobody would have blamed him.  But somehow in prison he encountered unimaginable mystery that moved him to toward reconciliation, forgiveness and love.  There was no roadmap for what he proposed for his country.

In our gospel today Joseph encounters in Mary’s pregnancy an unimaginable mystery.  Nobody would have blamed him for exiting stage right.  The decision he faced had no precedent.  Yet he chooses to go with unimaginable mystery when it has no support in his pious and righteous world.  Matthew obviously feels Joseph’s example is key to the evolution of his own faith community and our own.  Let’s see if we can figure out why.

A Tough Decision

Imagine with me that we are a fly on the wall the day Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant.  Even though they are not yet living together they are legally married at this time.  This pregnancy has the potential to bring enormous embarrassment and loss of honor to both families.  Let’s imagine Joseph seeks out the village elder for some confidential advice on what to do.  The elder calmly tells Joseph he has three options.  Let’s listen in: “1) Joseph, the only way you can protect your reputation and that of your family is to publically accuse Mary of adultery and if she is convicted, which seems likely, she could be stoned or sent far away.  Problem solved.  2) You can quietly divorce Mary and hope nobody else brings charges.  The chance of rumor and loss of honor for you and your family would remain forever; or 3) marry her quickly and live with the risk of ridicule and further exposure forever as well as the risk that the real father will show up one day.”

Joseph is then confronted with an unimaginable mystery, a revelation in a dream that has absolutely no framework in his pious and righteous world.   He decides to Go With It.  Matthew’s community of Jewish believers living decades later could identify with Joseph: how do they integrate Jesus into their pious Jewish framework?  Embracing Jesus for them was risky at worst and awkward at best regarding their family and community.  Matthew’s message to them is don’t be afraid – Go With It.

Don’t we all face moments in life when mystery assaults our righteous and stable world?  We cannot evolve as individuals or as a human community unless we, like Joseph, take a risk and trust mystery.  Last century a few astrologists looked at new data that changed everything – they risked ridicule in concluding the universe is not static after all, it is not a giant clock operating under timeless rules.  Rather the universe is still expanding and creation is still happening.  A computer company risked its very existence on the unimaginable idea that merely touching a screen could run a computer.  Racial equality, gay rights, etc., were at one time unimaginable mysteries.  A community in the Catholic tradition where authority comes from the bottom up rather than the top down, and where women are equal, was once an unimaginable mystery.

How Many Edges?

Life offered Nelson Mandela and Joseph an edge to embrace and on which to evolve.  This text, this season, challenges us to find and embrace the edges in our lives so we too may evolve and create.  In a recent TED talk, the poet David Wyhte talks about a frontier where we embrace the edges in our lives.  He uses the following poem to frame the problem:

Why are you unhappy?

Why are you unhappy?

Because 98.98% of what you do,

And everything you say,

Is for yourself,

And there isn’t one.

His point is that we need to find the edge where we are in conversation with something other than ourselves!  In losing ourselves on the edge we, of course, find a new evolved self.

Life does not offer most of an edge that effects salvation history (like Joseph) or an edge that effects the destiny of a nation (like Mandela).  But life offers us edges every day.  Every time we readjust our lens and see the people in our life as unimaginable mystery, we are on an edge.  Every time we engage in conversation with full intention, we are on an edge.  Every time we love someone who cannot or will not love us back, we run into something other than ourselves.  Every time we forgive we extend an edge into the world.

I hope and pray that this text can be like Joseph’s dream for us – telling us not to be afraid and to choose unimaginable mystery, telling us to live in the frontier where we are on an edge in conversation with something other than ourselves, telling us to risk evolving into someone new.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

 

Homily – Evolving on the Edges

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 4th Sunday of Advent

Saturday Evening, December 21, 2013

Focus text: Matthew 1:18-24 (Joseph’s tough decision)

 

Photo by Ted Eytan on flickr.com

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In tonight’s gospel Matthew portrays Jesus reimagining the ancient hope of Israel.  What was once a hope based on “God will right all wrongs” has become a hope based on humans becoming more God-like in taking on the compassionate heart of God.  God is still the initiator.  But the human heart becomes the focus.

Who Is This Man Jesus?

John the Baptist wants to know if Jesus is “the One.”  The answer for Matthew is to contemplate Jesus’ merciful presence among the marginalized.  In an environment of crushing imperial oppression, we find a different way emerging in one man: liberating actions of mercy toward the “discarded” of society.  Matthew also contemplates Jesus taking on the power and self-interest of those who do the discarding.

Inviting Others to Do the Same

This is a fulfillment of ancient texts (like tonight’s first reading from Isaiah) that we have previously interpreted as God coming in on the proverbial white charger and “cleaning up Dodge.”  But the way this is done is by one man acting differently and inviting others into the same Way of living. 

A friend of mine wrote me a card saying, “Think of all the people that you have influenced for good in your life and then think of all the people who have been influenced by those people.”  That is a powerful thought.  Well, think of all the people Jesus inspired in the first century and the millions who have been inspired ever since. 

What Am I Invited Into?

It’s not a complicated message.  I am called to open myself up to the precious nature of everyone around me, especially those whom society discards.  I am called to see the false structures of domination.  They are real in the sense that some powerful people can greatly affect me; but these structures are not real in the sense that they really do not have a right to define someone and relegate her to a lower level. 

Jesus reflects on John the Baptist and asks people essentially, “What did you expect to see, signs of power?”  What you saw was someone pointing to a different way, which has nothing to do with power in the usual sense.  He was pointing to the power of love—embracing every precious person, not dominating but serving.  This is not riding in on a charger; this is allowing the God who is within you to flow to the person you are engaging with. 

The Christ, The One, Is Still Among Us Dreaming

The early Christians believed that when they gathered for this meal (the Eucharist), that this Jesus is somehow mystically present.  That he is empowering us to step up our loving, week after week.  And over the generations more and more people are inspired to love a little more, to dominate a little less, and to widen the circle of their embrace.  The image from Holy Saturday night when the light of Christ is slowly spread candle to candle until it lights the Church, was a dream that God placed in the heart of Jesus.  A dream that we believe he is still dreaming tonight in our presence.

Third Sunday of Advent
Sts. Clare & Francis Community
December 15, 2013
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Diganta Talukdar on flickr.com

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Matthew trumpets at the beginning of his gospel that this story is about the margins of society.  (This is a kind of overture for his whole gospel, which we will be looking at for the next year.)  Pope Francis used that word on the feast of St. Francis this year urging the people of Assisi, Francis’ home town, to “proclaim the Gospel to the margins of society.”  What are Mathew and Francis both talking about when they use that word margins

The Margins and the Center

Sociologists speak of the center of a culture; that’s where the people who are “in” reside and function.  The social structures are basically working for those at the center.  Then sociologists speak about the margins of society, where the people “on the outs” hang out and try to survive against the grain.  The social structures are basically not working for those on the margins.  It is often a suffocating, oppressive existence.

The women on the TV series Mad Men, who escape with each other to the bathroom during a business dinner with their power-brokering husbands, are living (suffocating) on the margins of a patriarchal society.  In the bathroom they can breathe a little easier and have a different kind of conversation; but they have to do it in the bathroom.  So, note, the real “living room” for them is the bathroom.  That’s a good description of “the margins,” when your living room is a bathroom.  What this tells us is that suffocating people on the margins sometimes find a way to breathe, but it is often the least desirable place.

That reminds me of a shocking experience I had of the geography of racism in St. Louis in my naiveté a number of years ago.  I had to make arrangements to pick up a portable toilette for a church picnic.  I drove to the place in St. Louis County where a company had all their portable toilettes drained and stored.  I guess I expected it to be in a heavy industrial neighborhood.  It was right next door to a poor, black neighborhood.  I assumed the houses were older than this company.  At what point, I wondered, did it become acceptable to put that field of hundreds of empty toilets adjacent to a neighborhood where people were living and raising their families?  What kind of powerlessness would lead people to assume they could not resist this juxtaposition?  Or did they resist to no avail against the powerful Center.  Or did white families flee when the portable potties arrived, leaving perhaps the only available housing for poor blacks families?  It was clear that I grew up in the center; what I was looking at was the margins. 

There are socio-economic margins and there are religious margins.  John the Baptist was a prophet who was suffocating in the religious atmosphere of his day.  At the center where all the power and privilege was, John didn’t fit.  He set up shop “down by the riverside,” far away from the temple, where repentance was supposed to be happening; but John didn’t see much evidence of it.  John wanted to keep it real; he didn’t see people turning toward God in the temple; he simply saw a religious system.  So he went to the a place where he could catch his breath.  And he invited others to do the same. 

Some Are Stuck on the Margins/Some Have a Choice

So notice that some people are so disempowered by a society that they cannot leave the margins, namely the ones who are considered “trash” by society.  Others are able to go freely back and forth between the margins and the center.  Why would people who could thrive in the center, want to go to the margins?  One reason would be that like John, they realize that in the center one could thrive materially and in many ways enjoy a feeling of being better than others; but they would not necessarily be thriving in the deepest sense.  Matthew sees this clearly and invites disciples of his day and ours to step back from the center and ask if there is a better way to construct a society.  These disciples in Matthew’s day set up—very intentionally—life on the margins.  They set up a church, where life is imagined and lived differently.  It is away from the crushing oppression of life in the center.  Yet these disciples may mingle in the center for the sake of making a living and for the sake of making a difference.  These disciples also very intentionally reach out to those who cannot leave their marginality.  The Church, like the Master before them, goes out to the margins.  In fact it is in connecting with those whom the center believes are “trash” that life begins to happen. 

We could just live easily in a cushy “center-existence,” getting fat off of profits from our stock in, for instance, fast-food companies that increase their profits by paying low wages and/or no benefits to their workers.  And why would we expect those companies to do any different.  Making money is the ultimate goal for any public corporation.  They are generally not penalized for trashing people in the process.  Making money is not our ultimate goal.  The goal of the children of God is that every human person thrives.

This is how our faith, our oneness with God, is lived in such a way that love of God becomes love of neighbor.  Who am I trashing?  And why am I not connecting?

Second Sunday of Advent
Sts. Clare & Francis Community
December 8, 2013
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-9
Matthew 3:1-12
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by cuppyyuppycake on flickr.com

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Perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century was Karl Rahner. While his writing style was heady and dense, his most famous sound bite was anything but. He made a prediction about the role of mysticism in the future church: “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.” These word seem prophetic today as more and more people report  “nothing at all” in reference to religion.

The gospel today beckons us to channel our inner mystic this Advent season. Some are uncomfortable self-identifying as mystics, presuming mystics have a different mode of spirituality. Here we say “all are welcome” and “all are mystics.”  In this and similar gospel texts we see that God comes and goes in our consciousness as God wills – the only variable is whether we are ready for the experience. Some are prepared and some are not.

This evening I am going to borrow heavily from Thomas Merton and explore with you a method of preparation for mysticism, a spiritual posture to encounter an unpredictable God. 

Connect the Dots 

I suspect most of us were taught that “being prepared” meant getting the sacraments and paying attention to what people in spiritual authority were saying and doing. Merton says preparation for transcendence involves meditating on and connecting the dots on our own spontaneous contemplative experiences: those moments when we intersect with the infinite, feel a deep connection with Love, or become aware of the utter holiness of the present moment. Many report such contemplative experiences early in life and these experiences are a rock on which a spiritual journey is built. 

Spontaneous contemplative experiences come in all shapes and sizes. Richard Rohr says they tend to come in uncontrolled places like births, AA meetings, cancer wards and hospice care. They happen walking in the woods, watching a movie, experiencing art, in meditation. They happen in vulnerable moments with others. Merton said they happened for him watching children at play.

Moments of spontaneous contemplation can also happen in church settings. I will never forget going to a youth meeting in college and heard a women give a sermon for the first time and her text was the Prodigal Son. I was astounded by the God she described and felt plastered to my seat. A door deep inside me cracked open that day.

What is your story of mystical experience? If your pattern of mystical experiences is nature, head for the woods! If your pattern is human connection, make small group faith sharing a big priority. Think about it and connect the dots and be prepared for what is next.

The Ache of Advent

If we connect the dots of our spontaneous contemplative experiences we arrive at the essential mystical insight: we become aware that most of the time we are not aware of the diamond of light within us. We become aware of an unfulfilled longing and waiting because we trust in the connections we have experienced and recognize their absence.

A Merton expert, James Finley, illustrates this mystical ache by telling this story: A woman drives to work each day on a winding road that passes a small, wooded lake. Most of the time she does not even see the lake while lost in daily thoughts. One day, coming home on a misty day with fog hanging, she is startled as she drives by the lake by a flock of geese descending through the fog and landing on the water. She pulls over to watch and a second wave of geese, and then a third majestically descends. The beauty and serenity of the moment captures her and she experiences a deep and rich connection to God as she is lost in the richness of that present moment.

After a few minutes she starts driving again. As she gets to the driveway a bike is in the way. She groans and moves the bike. She looks at the mailbox hoping a bill isn’t there. It’s there. As she unlocks the door a phone rings inside and when she rushes in she bumps her shin against the coffee table. As she grabs the phone it goes silent. As she stands there out of breath, her heart pounding and mad at the world, she remembers the graced moment of connection with the infinite she experienced not 10 minutes before. She smiles at herself. 

This is the smile of a mystic. Mystics know there is a home base even though it is not felt most of the time. It is like a river of life flowing nearby. Sometimes it comes to us like a flood, sometimes we are minding our own business and we stumble in the water, sometimes we prepare for the swim and the water is actually there. By studying our connections to the river we are ready with a raft when it comes by.

I know of no higher calling for a community like this than to help each find home base and help each other find our own mystical story. We gather tonight and every week for this noble purpose. Let’s spend time this season connecting the dots in our experience. Let’s be ready for what is next.

 

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the First Sunday of Advent Saturday Evening,

November 30, 2013

Focus text: Mt 24:37-44 (be ready for the Son of Man)

Photo by Vicki Mundoo on flickr.com

 

Note: The references to Thomas Merton and the story were adapted from James Finley’s CD Presentation, “Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere.”