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When I encounter gospel readings on “alertness” or “wakefulness,” the Jesuit author Fr. Tony De Mello comes to my mind. Tony famously said there are three non-negotiable keys to spiritual development: The first key is awareness. The second key is awareness. You guessed it, the third key is awareness! If you are like me, you might object saying: “C’mon Tony, shouldn’t the Ten Commandments crack the top three? What about the Golden Rule, what about social justice? You have to be exaggerating.”

Fr. Tony’s focus on awareness gets some support from today’s gospel, and many like it. Jesus often calls us to a posture of alertness, watchfulness and wakefulness. Tonight we begin the season of Advent which inspires us to be awake and watchful for the coming of Christ. We do well to ask ourselves tonight is Fr. Tony exaggerating or is he on to something? What does spiritual wakefulness looks like in our lives this season? I suggest to you that given the events surrounding Ferguson this week, the answer to this question has never been more critical.

Learning to Observe

To get at the heart of this gospel, I think we need to cross examine the very basic stories we were told about ourselves. Most of us were taught that our most fundamental problem is that we thought or did bad things and needed forgiveness. So we lined up for confession with a list of misdeeds and mistakes. We did not go to confession and say “Forgive me Father for I am asleep to God. Forgive me for not being alert to the spiritual pulse in all creation.” No we were so focused on the story that we a little sinners needing a rescue that we neglected the most fundamental story of all – we are asleep. Fr. Tony says “Life is something that happens to us while we are busy doing something else.”

So what do we do to wake up? Fr. De Mello is not a big proponent of methods, however, he does keep coming back to a practice of observation as a tool for awareness. He says we awaken when do what uniquely makes us human – rise above ourselves and compassionately observe the thoughts, beliefs, voices and feelings that flow by. It helps to imagine our thoughts, feelings, compulsive acts etc., actually happening to someone else. My favorite image of this is that we are the unfathomable sky looking down at various clouds of thoughts and feelings we are having. We, in our essence, are the limitless sky, not our thoughts and feeling. For example, I need to learn to observe, without judgment, George being delighted or depressed as the case may be that fleeting moment. If I identify with the delight or depression, I am asleep.

A modern counterpart to Fr. Tony is the writer Eckhart Tolle, and the story of his conversion to wakefulness illustrates the power of observation. Eckhart was a young student on a metro bus one day and he sat within earshot of a woman who was keeping up an ongoing conversation with herself out loud. Her pitch would rise and fall as she had pleasant or painful thoughts. She seemed completely unaware of her surroundings. He felt sorry and embarrassed for the women, but then it hit him like a tons of bricks that he behaved the same way most of the time, only silently in his head! He relived hurts, debated issues, argued with people etc., generally clueless of what was happening around him. As he observed himself doing this, a small, incremental quieting occurred right away and he was on his way to transformation.

A Quantum Leap

If we look at wisdom from the world of science, Fr. Tony’s call to awareness looks smarter and smarter. The study of the smallest of things this past century, referred to as quantum mechanics, revealed some things about consciousness that sent the theologians back to their books. In what is now referred to as “The Most Beautiful Experiment” concerning waves and particles, scientists discovered that matter at the quantum level was affected by observation. Endpoints were not predetermined based on laws. Matter and energy that was observed behaved differently than when it was not observed! Isn’t it interesting that mystics like Fr. Tony have taught for centuries that real change in the human person always starts with observation, with awareness?

If all this sounds a bit self-absorbed, it really isn’t. In fact we are not much use to the world asleep! To love another begins with really seeing them in wakefulness, not seeing them as I need them to be. The world needs us to be operating out of our limitless sky within, seeing clearly, following the pulse of Love. In a homily last month Frank asked us to do this work of observation with racism. He asked us to observe the clouds that float by when we encounter a person of another race. Do we observe fear? Do we observe some presumed entitlement over this person? He said not to judge these feelings and thoughts about race. Until we observe it, we cannot deal with it.

We have witnessed this week in our City what happens when unobserved fear of blackness erupts through the crack of profound stress. We have witnessed unobserved anger resulting in further damage and division. As a culture we need to put the work of observation and awareness regarding race on the front burner.

Astronauts who have been to space universally report on an experience that has come to be called the “The Overview Effect” – what happens to them as they look down on this blue/green oval of teeming life in the midst of dark space. They say their hearts are forever changed by this overview of our fragile, unified world. They report perceived boundaries and conflicts diminish within them. As we do our work of observation within, may it be so with us. May we be changed forever by our spiritual work this Advent.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the First Sunday of Advent

Saturday Evening, November 29, 2014

Focus Text: Mark 13:33-37 (Be alert!)

Photo via nasa.gov

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Good evening brothers and sisters. It is good to remember those who are no longer physically present with us, but continue to live in on the many ways that they have touched our own lives. We can look at this beautiful altar our community has created, and know that we are accompanied by a much larger cloud of witnesses that we see sitting here today.

I don’t know about you, but I really didn’t grow up celebrating the solemnity of All Souls. However, there is something really beautiful and important that I learned from my Mexican friends about honoring and celebrating the Day of the Dead. For Mexican Catholics, el dia de los muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is an incredibly important holiday marked with rich tradition and ritual. I had the opportunity a little over a month ago to spend some time in Mexico. My first two days there I was staying with a friend whose grandfather had recently passed away. And the family shared with me about how they would return to the cemetary for the celebration of the day of the dead, and the whole cemetary would be filled with families. They bring the favorite foods and drinks of their loved ones and share stories and memories. There is special pan de muertos, “bread of the dead,” and flowers that mark the graves, and inside the homes there are beautiful elaborate altars remembering their loved ones. They get that the person buried there in the cemetary, is not really dead, but continues to live on in each of their lives. Our loved ones who have passed away have left their immortal mark on the world, in the lives of all those they have known.

In the first reading we hear that “they seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead.” Yet our own hope, like in the book of Widsom, is full of immortality, because we too know that just like all those who have gone before us, we will continue to live on long after our mortal bodies pass away. Life after death is not just in some other cosmic reality, but right here on earth, we continue to live on through all those who’s lives we’ve touched. I wear a locket today of my Grandma and Grandpa Lay who’ve both passed away, but continue to live on in my love of telling stories, in the green glass mixing bowl of my grandma and the chocolate chip cookie dough it holds, in card games, in fishing poles and the great outdoors, and in the love that they imbedded on my heart.   I had 14 years with my Grandma and 23 with my Grandpa. But there are others, like an Anglican woman priest in El Salvador who I knew maybe only an hour, or a day, but impacted my life in a way that brought me to where I am today. We might never know the impact that we have in any given moment, with any given word or action, but I can assure you that it does have an immortal impact. In every moment, each one of us is not only shaping the present, but also the future.

Perhaps you have seen the movie the Butterfly Affect with Ashton Kutcher? It gets at this point that just changing one thing, one small word or action, completely changes everything else that happens after that. In the movie, the main character realizes he has the power to go back to different points in his life, and change just one small action. He does this in the hope of creating better lives for all those he loves, but each time he wakes back up, after making a change, to a completely different reality. Sometimes the reality is better or worse for him, or better or worse for a friend. The point is that we can’t see the future, or anticipate the affect of our actions, but each day, what we do and say, or don’t do and don’t say, matters, and has a lasting impact on the future.

It has an impact, because we do not live in an isolated environment. Our bodies, our lives, and all that surrounds us, is made up of the same stuff that has been around since the beginning of the universe. And to get us where we are today, death has been a necessary part of bringing new life into the world. Elizabeth Johnson in her book, “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Life” states that ‘To be created is to be finite and mortal.” She talks about how creation is constantly repeating the circle of life, death, and new life, and as this cycle repeats the Spirit of God is present through it all, and has in fact lived through it all in the person of Jesus. We are a people who believe in immortality, in life after death, because we are a people who know that the Divine love and creative energy of God is so intimately connected to all of creation, that there truly is nothing that can separate us: neither life nor death. We live and move and have our being in the Spirit that has been moving life along since the beginning of time. But we also have freedom. And we can choose to what extent we follow that spirit. We can participate in moving creation forward, in seeking greater connection amongst ongoing diversification, or we can hinder it, or make life all together extinct.

Today is the Feast of All Saints, an important cloud of witnesses in our Catholic tradition who have had their own lasting impact in the world and in the Church. We are where we are, and we are who we are, because of the Saints and Souls that have gone before us. We remember our name sakes: St Clare and St. Francis, and the impact that they had in the world. They too were on the evolutionary edge, rejecting the norms and expectations of society, of their families, and working to build a renewed Church that recognized our interconnectedness. Their legacy of peace, communion, interconnectedness, simplicty, has lived on and inspired many more throughout the ages. What will our legacy be here at Sts. Clare & Francis? How will we be remembered and shape the future yet to come? How will we help ensure that the Spirit of God continues her work in creation, pushing us forward deeper into the realization of the beloved community of God?

We honor and give thanks to all those who have gone before us, and who accompany us on our journey. We remember our loved ones in the sharing of food, drink, and traditions, just as remember Christ present with us in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. And we open our minds and our hearts to the reality that what we do in this moment, and every moment, matters and is shaping the future of the world to come. Will we help bring harmony or discord? Will we be moved to action from a place of generosity and abundance, or self-interest and scarcity? We have but a breif moment in these mortal bodies of ours. What will you do with your brief moment?

I would like to end by invoking the names of those whose bodies have been laid to rest, but whose presence is still very much alive and well in our community. There is a powerful tradition that I learned from my Latino brothers and sisters to do this. After each name is spoken, please respond together “Presente!” which is the Spanish for Present, recognizing how that person is still present with us today.

November 1st, 2014

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

Readings:

1st Reading: Wis 3:1-9

2nd Reading: Rom 6:3-9

Gospel: John 6:37-40

Homily by Jennifer Reyes Lay

Photo by Eric S. on flickr.com

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Lord, when did we see you?

When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill, in prison?

Kristie Lenzen, Suzanne Schloeman, and I are reading Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacColloch, a noted Oxford historian, not a Catholic. The book is 1159 pages, a doorstop, covering that much history at a dead gallop. However, MacColloch comes to a halt when he writes about “the sayings of Jesus” — the Beatitudes or passages such as today’s text. He seems startled by what he recognizes as a “code of life” for the followers of Jesus.

I love Oreo cookies; I twist each chocolate cookie in opposite directions, hoping to have frosting on both cookies. I love Fig Newtons. I look forward to the apple pie my son-in-law will bring on Thanksgiving. It’s the center, the part that gets my senses that matters.

Yes, we are Christians by our sacraments of initiation and in our Catholic Christian worship, but the life lived is also what identifies us as Christians.

Sr. Helen Prejean serves in prison ministry, fights for the repeal of the death penalty. The movie, Dead Man Walking, was one of her life experiences. She hears about the case, goes to see the inmate on death row, befriends him, prays with him, walks with him as far as allowed as he walks to his execution. She says: “I must study my actions closely to know what I believe.” That works in reverse, too. If you want to know what I believe, just look at my actions. Today’s text tells us act on what we see.

C.S. Lewis claims: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” When you see your neighbor with your senses and your heart, you encounter the holy.

A friend of mine taught me to see with the eyes of my heart. I was signing in as volunteer chaplain at Doorways, a residential care facility for the homeless living with AIDs. A man in a wheelchair races in my direction. I move aside to the other wall; the wheelchair crashes a against that wall, bounces off, and continues racing toward me, doing a skating stop exactly at my shoe. I respond “hello,” but he waives frantically for me to come with him. So I follow the speeding wheelchair down the hall to the activity room. He proceeds to do large ovals at break-neck speed, then reverses the ovals, then figure eights. Other residents join me, they are stomping and clapping. The wheelchair starts line dancing. Finally the wheelchair comes to a stop, and the driver takes a bow. The residents tell me that I have met Danny. Indeed, I had.

One cold day, a car from a shelter brought Danny to Doorways. He wore a thin T-shirt, pants with no belt, worn shoes with no socks, empty pockets. Danny cannot hear, has estimated 5% vision called shadow vision, voice of guttural sounds only, wheelchair bound. He understood that he was living among the unloved, the unlovable. Danny spent every day at Doorways acknowledging the value of his brothers and sisters there.

He discovered a basket kept full of candy on a table outside the activity director’s office. He would put it in his lap, crash in and out of every office, and rush up to anyone he could find in the hall, giving away the candy. Yes, it was readily available for all, but he had something he could give away. The staff tried to train Danny to sit in the same place every meal; they would bring his plate with carefully cut-up food and his own large spoon. He would have none of that. Danny sat at a different table every meal, taking the knife, fork, spoon from that place setting, and crash around the room giving them away. When his meal and spoon came, he would make his sounds, nod his head “yes” and pick up his spoon. The residents loved it. The administrators demanded that he keep two outfits and one pair of pajamas. Staff took care of his laundry. If Danny found a third tee-shirt, a third pair of pants, he’d give one away. Six socks? He’d give away two, not matching of course.

When someone was coming toward him, he could tell if there was a cane, crutches, a wheelchair, and he would rush up, join the person with his half spin, wheel along side, waving one fist forward in the air, encouraging the person. At kareoke sessions, he kept one hand on the speaker, and performed his version of conducting music with the other. He could spot someone sitting still, point at that person, and wave his other arm for that person to participate. At liturgy, Danny sat next to the “boom box” with his hand on it. He made his sounds when he could tell we were singing, and when we weren’t he put his hand out repeatedly for the Eucharist. When I did place the Holy Eucharist in Danny’s hand, he put his other hand on top, hugging the Holy Eucharist, then he bowed and put his hands to his cheek. One more hug in his hands, and he would consume the Holy Eucharist. Now I understood Danny.

Christ within him is why Danny valued his life and why he loved and served his brothers and sisters. Danny taught me to see Christ in my neighbor with the eyes of the heart.

What do these three people have in common? Sr. Helen Prejean, C. S. Lewis, Danny, They are urban mystics. Whoever coined that term, thank you. It is perfect for describing people who are in the thick of busy lives, seeing Christ in others, responding to them, realizing the presence of God in every human being. This is their code of life.

We all are created in the same design, for the same purpose. What a wonderful life we have, in the authentic use of the word: wonder full. How exciting. Let us give thanks.

Amen.

Kay Schmitt

Feast of Christ the King, 2014

Photo by Sooz on flickr.com

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We have all read that Love is patient and kind, Love is not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on getting its own way. Love hopes all things (1 Cor. 13). So explain to me how love of God and love of neighbor can ever be expressed as a commandment? I can command a child to eat their peas, but I cannot command the child to love me or anyone else.

So how do we make sense of this impossible sounding, greatest commandment to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves? It must be that the love is there already within us, often hidden. It must be like commanding a bird to fly, a fish to swim or a child to play. It must be already there.

Tell a Bird to Fly

At the very core of our tradition is this person who is fully human and fully God. You cannot separate the two. Jesus came to tell us we also have the divine embedded in us, which Thomas Merton called the “diamond of pure light.” Thus, there is part of each of us that, this very day, this very hour, loves God with our whole heart, our whole mind and our whole soul. There is a part of you that follows the Golden Rule and loves your neighbor as yourself. This is not something awarded to us for behaving correctly, for studying about God, for believing correctly. This not something awarded after a lifetime of faith. It is not something that can be removed. It is who we truly are.

The first reading shows us what happens if we separate God from the human. I grew up with lots of brothers and sisters and our greatest leverage with each other was to tattle to my father when he got home. This is essentially the spiritual imagination of the folks in the first reading. God is out there somewhere. Those who make enough noise, particularly for a righteous reason, can get God’s attention. Woe to you if God does not like what God sees or hears about you.

If part of us loves God with our whole heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves then you might expect diverse religious folks to encounter it and share similar news. Karen Armstrong has written a book called “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” in which she finds the Golden Rule in EVERY major religion, even those with lots of gods. In fact, she credits Confucius as the first to write down the central rule to love our neighbor as ourselves hundreds of years before Jesus.

This makes total sense to me if God is embedded in everyone. Everyone has the diamond of pure light. No exceptions. It seems everyone who seeks consciousness and awareness of the inner life, regardless of tradition or culture, comes to the same conclusion that compassion is the bottom line.

If part of us already loves God and neighbor you might expect this insight to pop up now and again in the culture. In our culture the musicians sometimes “get it” before the churches. A few years ago there was a wildly popular country music song entitled “I Am Already There” about a working father calling home from a lonely hotel room to his wife and kids. He tells his wife a refrain that has echoed spiritual truth for many:

I’m already there. Don’t make a sound.

I’m the beat in your heart,

I’m the moonlight shining down.

I’m the whisper in the wind,

And I will be there to the end.

Can you feel the love that we share?

Oh, I’m already there.

Oh, I am already there.

Millions of people had clicked on to these lyrics before me. We seem to know in some deep place that this is what Love is like, this is what God is like.

Barriers to Flight 

If the love of God and neighbor is already there, like wings on a bird, why is there not more flying going on? The myths from a simpler age speak to this quandary. The ancient myths often spoke of a “treasure” hidden in the woods or the mountains guarded by a monster or a wild animal of some kind. The hero would need to defeat or avoid the monster to release the magic of the treasure.

Today we would use more psychological language to describe the “monster.” Albert Haase in his book on the false-self, cleverly summarizes what is guarding our treasure as the “Empty Ps” – Power, Prestige, Position, Popularity, Productivity, Possessions. All these things, not evil in themselves, seek separation and are frightened of the treasure available within. These things need to be confronted and put in their proper place if we are to fly.

In a moment we will be considering bread and wine that will become for us the body and blood of Jesus. We cannot separate the presence of God from the presence of the food and drink. They are inseparable. If we can believe in this union in such simple elements, why is it so hard for us to believe in this union in the mystery of our own humanness? We come back to this table over and over to remind ourselves God is already there, inseparable from us, longing for us to fly.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Saturday Evening, October 25, 2014

Focus text: Matthew 22:34-40 (The Greatest Commandment)

Photo by Susanne Nilsson on flickr.com

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As we pause to consider this odd parable of Jesus about inviting guests to a wedding feast, it is tempting to start humming our theme song here “All Are Welcome” and call it a day. The King started out inviting just the special people to the wedding of his son. This did not work out so well, it even got violent. Eventually the King says “all are welcome” and the rich and the poor and everyone in between ends up at the feast. This is what the Kingdom of God is like. The end. Have a nice day.

The only problem with this is that by now the disciples and us have heard many times that the Kingdom of God is not out there somewhere, it is within us. That means this parable is happening within each of us. It slowly begins to occur to us “all are welcome” is not so comfortable in our inner worlds filled with voices, memories, wounds, biases and compulsions. Tonight we are challenged to do inner work by wondering who is invited our own inner dinner table and who is not.

Avoid Nothing

There are lots of ways to find out who is missing from your inner table. Forming a committed relationship will reveal some things. Stress will reveal inner voices you are not aware of. If you want to be intentional about it, counseling can be helpful. There are also tools to discover what we are avoiding. If you have not done so already, the next time you see a book club or a workshop on the Enneagram, join up. It is a spiritual direction tool designed to expose what we seek to avoid.

The spiritual writer Andrew Cohen coined the phrase “Face Everything – Avoid Nothing” as a critical step in our evolution as spiritual beings. If we are not aware of the wounds, the compulsions, the instincts within we will misinterpret life at best and be held captive at worst. He says:

Most of us cling to a self-image that resists extremes – always in denial of our darkness and ever fearful of the overwhelming brightness of our unexplored heights. The heroic practice to Face Everything – Avoid Nothing enables us to face these extremes. Why? Because you want to evolve more than you want to hold onto any particular image of yourself.

I love this quote. I love how he names this journey as courageous. I love how he names that the brightness of our unexplored heights can be just as scary as our shadows.

I have recurrent back pain, and a few years ago I was hurting and not getting answers anywhere. I tried a therapy that focuses on the energy pulses that travel the spine. I would lie very still and the therapist tried to sense where blockages were located. The therapist said that sometimes during therapy the patients would get images from their subconscious that could be instructive. She was not kidding.

During these sessions I became introduced with the Little General within who was always fearful and always wanting control. I came to realize the pain in my joints and muscles was almost matched by the psychic pain of the Little General who felt out of control regarding the back problem! Little General will always need to be invited to my inner dinner table. I ignore him at my peril.

Practicing Everything Belongs

We see a great example of practicing “facing everything” in the writings of the Desert Fathers in the first few centuries of the Christian faith. Folks seeking spiritual guidance would travel to monastic communities in the desert. In their writings the Desert Fathers would lament that people usually came to them to find God, to talk about God, to debate about God. The monastics would always try to turn the conversation to be about them. They would say in essence: “God is just fine, how about you? What is happening inside you?” They understood that if we do not get to know the community inside, we will undoubtedly think one of those unknown voices is God’s voice!

The good news today is that we can practice Face Everything – Avoid Nothing anytime we want. Richard Rohr wrote a book called “Everything Belongs” that explores how meditation teaches us this. When we quiet ourselves to be conscious of God’s presence things start to happen – our foot hurts, the dog barks, your difficult neighbor comes to mind, you think about tomorrow’s dinner party, you suddenly feel anxious etc. etc. We are taught in meditation to face everything and cling to nothing. Let thoughts and feelings come, let them go, in non-judgmental compassion for ourselves. Even if you are like me and you always get the thought during meditation about how bad you are at meditation – let the thought come, let it go. Face everything – avoid nothing.

Is working toward an open inner table good news for you? It is scary. But I think the stakes are high. I wonder how open our outer table can really be if everything inside is not welcome to the inner table? I wonder how many times in my life I thought the voice of the Little General was the voice of God?

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Saturday Evening, October 11, 2014

Focus Text: Mathew 22:1-10

Photo by mendhak on flickr.com

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Before I started reading the mystical tradition of our faith I had no idea what “emptiness” meant – the notion that we must past through emptiness to encounter God. Emptiness seemed like an odd virtue to me. I prefer a full gas tank, a full bank account and a full tummy. I want to be “full of the Spirit.” I like to see myself as someone who considers the glass half full rather than half empty. I admired busy people. Many people told be growing up that empty time was an occasion for sin!

Today’s famous second reading suggests I had a lot to learn. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn about Jesus: “Although Jesus was in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, He EMPTIED himself, taking the form of a slave, be born in human likeness…” While in human form Jesus “empties” again, suffering a slave’s death. This emptying is a pattern Jesus chose and calls us to follow. Tonight we try to get our heads around emptiness as a pathway for love and spiritual growth.

Flowers in the Desert

What do we mean by emptiness? In the biblical tradition the desert is a symbol for emptiness. God seems more palpable, more immediate, in the desert. Bushes are burning in the desert, manna falls from the sky, water comes out of a rock, the Torah is given there. Interesting people like John the Baptist hang out in the desert.

The spiritual richness of the desert makes sense because our ego has very little to hang on to there. The desert does not care what we do for a living and our money does no good. There is nobody to perform for. There is not a wine list there or other things to dull our senses. The masks we wear so effortlessly most of the time become heavy and start to itch in the emptiness of the desert.

I am so biased against emptiness, that it is only in hindsight that I can see its transcendent power. My first experience of emptiness was in my last year of college when I went off to London for a semester. My girlfriend (now my wife) had dumped me and I left behind a very close knit youth group. I did not know a soul at school in London and it was hard for me to connect in the five months I was there. I went from being extremely busy and very well connected to be very alone. It was very difficult, but it was a powerful time for me. I got the first hint that maybe I could be alone, that I was not alone.

Death is the Teacher of Life

I bet everyone here has a story of how empty moments in life changed you. It could have been an illness, a lost job, a lost relationship, an addiction…. something that makes us ungrasp and fall inward wondering if there is anything there. When we find out there is Someone there, we see for ourselves why emptiness is a divine path.

When it comes to emptiness I am convinced life is sometimes a better teacher than religion. I keep returning to a book called “The Grace of Dying” written by a hospice nurse who accompanied hundreds of people through death. She talks about the denial and anger that are usually present. She then describes a “nearing death experience” where an emptying often leads to transcendence. It occurs whether the patient is religious or not or whether they are looking for it or not. The patient tends to relax and withdraw. There is a silence and peace. Witnesses routinely speak of a discernible radiance and the patients often use transcendent language – like a veil is being lifted.

The author concludes that the nearing death experience is virtually identical with the experience of contemplation! Emptiness and transcendence go hand in hand in life as in death. Like Jesus we can choose emptiness with intention by nurturing contemplative practices that works for us. This is hard work. In our plugged in world there is no assistance is exercising our contemplative muscles.

Religion often does not help us find emptiness. For years I used religion to avoid emptiness. I filled myself up with the right beliefs, the right morality, the right liturgical events. I used my religion as another decoration on my constructed self. I am not over this tendency, however, it excites me to now see religious practice as training in emptiness, whether it be lost in the music, in the quiet after communion, in the quiet safety of a small group, in some form of meditation. We listen well when we are “empty” of our own ideas and agendas. Let’s be a faith community that treasures emptiness so we can bring transcendence and awareness to the circumstances of life in which we find ourselves.

Is this little hymn of the early church good news for you tonight? Perhaps this Eucharist can help us see the emptiness life brings us in a new light – as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Perhaps we can be inspired to act with intention to find empty space in our day and in our walk together. Let’s be a people who ungrasp, fall inward, and discover there is Someone there.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community
Liturgy for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Saturday evening, September 27, 2014
Focus text – Second reading, Philippians 2:1-11

Photo by Alexander Steinhof on flickr.com

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Forgiveness is important because inclusion is important.  Without forgiveness we tend to exclude, which means we are working at cross purposes to the God who is within us.  God is always trying to include, always looking for the creative way forward that keeps the community whole.

The Backstory

In the first reading from Genesis, we have an addendum to the classic story of Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt because they were jealous of him.  As bad as your family might be, I suspect that has not happened to many of you.  (Unfortunately though, families do still sell their members into slavery.)  You remember the story.  Joseph ends up eventually in charge of all the food stores of Egypt.  When his brothers come begging to the Pharaoh’s administration for food, Joseph does not reveal his identity.  Instead he questions the brothers about the family and demands to see their youngest brother, his only full brother, and the one who is taking care of Jacob, the very old father.  Judah is afraid that he will keep Benjamin as a slave and that that news will kill Jacob.  So Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin.  This conversation about family, about another suffering the same fate, about the father being despondent to the point of death moves Joseph to tears.  He embraces them and they cry on each other’s necks, we’re told.  Joseph forgives them; but note that it is a forgiveness that comes out of a desire to be family again.  Forgiveness is a tool of inclusion.

Family Dynamics Sometimes Shift

But alas forgiveness is not a simple matter in family situations.  Sometimes we forgive, and then something challenges that and we feel like taking it back.  Our story from Genesis tonight has the story of Joseph and his brothers above as the background.  Eventually Jacob, their father, dies.  The brothers, just like “modern families,” worry that the death of the father will open up an old wound and Joseph will now exact his revenge on his brothers—revenge he would perhaps not have had the courage to exact while his father was alive.  These things happen in families!  But Joseph is a good man and does not do that.  He chooses to forgive and keep the family intact.

The Not-Like-God King

In the gospel for tonight Matthew continues this theme of forgiveness being a tool of inclusion.   The story is about a king.  This king is not like God, except in one respect which we learn at the end of the story.  This king is not like God because he forgives only once and then when he does forgive he takes back the forgiveness that he has given.  Forgiveness was perhaps not something that flowed from his heart, but was a useful tool for running his operations.  The bad king in the story never interrupts the system of domination and exploitation.  He maintains his power.  Most of the wealth of the system moves from the producers to him.  When he forgives this servant of his (think of a high ministerial position in a kingdom), he gets to appear magnanimous in front of everyone, to have his honor preserved by the groveling (as opposed to rebellious) servant, and he keeps a talented worker.  So forgiveness “works” for the king.  The so-called “forgiven” official then goes back to “his people” and looks humiliated for not producing; so he beats up on them as a way to show that he is still in power over them.  Of course they can play the game too, so they go collectively to the king and say, “Get rid of this guy; he’s too severe.”  So now the king is willing to let him go because he can’t justify losing all those producers.  So much for the “forgiveness.”  These things happen in power structures.  It may have happened to you at work.  If you are really open to spiritual growth, you may have noticed how these dynamics show up in your own heart…which brings us to the point.

True Forgiveness Comes “From the Heart”

Forgiveness, the way the Teacher is teaching tonight, is a matter of the heart (vs. 34).  It promotes inclusion.  It sustains families and communities, like Sts. Clare & Francis.  It is not optional.  That is the only thing the real King is “unforgiving” about.  Jesus warns that there are consequences to our not forgiving after we have been forgiven.  We will never see the Kingdom.  Not because the King is actually unforgiving, but because we cannot live in the love of the real kingdom unless our hearts know how to forgive.  We just have to live isolated.  And that is not anyone’s vision of heaven.  Forgiveness may be hard sometimes, but it is the key to the kingdom, the key to community.

My Availability for Communion Depends on Forgiveness

Forgiveness is tricky business.  We live in a world where people hurt each other.  We have to be able to create boundaries for our own and our loved ones’ health and safety.  We also live in an imperfect world where the “forgiveness game” is played in a way that is nowhere near what Jesus is talking about.  So while we live with appropriate boundaries, we (in the real Kingdom) are always called to walk around available for communion.  Without forgiveness as a daily practice, that simply won’t happen.  I invite you to gather around the table of communion tonight; and when we are holding hands around that table I invite you to recommit yourselves to “forgive those who trespass against us.”  That is who we are called to be.  Amen?

25th Sunday of the Year

Sts. Clare & Francis

Saturday, September 20, 2014
Genesis 50:15-21 (focus text)
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35 (focus text)
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Amy Bundy on flickr.com

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The last several months on the world stage have been difficult. I sense a common theme of separateness through the various hotspots around the globe: Sunnis and Shia around the Arab world are saying to each other “I am not like you.” Jews and Palestinians are saying they have nothing in common. Ukrainians are now saying to each other “I am separate from you.” In our own backyard a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri has been filmed calling black fellow citizens “(expletive) animals.”

While these are extreme cases, I bet most of us can sense an instinct towards separateness within ourselves. As such, today’s Gospel may come as a shock. Jesus sees the world differently than we do. He says “whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” More alarming he adds “whoever welcomes me, welcomes the One who sent me.” What? Jesus’ world seems way, way more connected than ours. How does this work?

The Connected One

If we look around the gospels we see Jesus statement is not just pretty poetry. Jesus says essentially the same thing at least four more times in Matthew’s Gospel alone. In fact, the climax of the Gospel, the vast judgment scene, Jesus doubles down on this connection saying “when I was hungry you fed ME….when I was naked you clothed ME… for whatever you did for the least of these my sisters and brothers you did to ME.” (Matthew 25).

An increasingly popular theological term for the language Jesus is using is “non-dualism,” particularly among some Franciscan writers. (See below). Dualistic thinking separates things – physical vs. spiritual, heaven vs. hell, male vs. female, good vs. evil, saved vs. unsaved etc. When we reach the age of two we are all dualistic. Students of human development tell us that our tiny ego has to separate from the mother to be formed, just like a teenager needs to become a dualist in relation to family. The spiritual path is very much a return home, a journey back to connection and oneness. Perhaps this is why Jesus talks about dying to self so much. We have to “unlearn” this separation to grow spiritually.

Folks who study hundreds of years of contemplative experiences tell us these experiences are virtually never dualistic! Love loses itself in the other. Our contemplative experience confirms that Paul was absolutely right when he wrote to the Romans “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Try as we might, finite creatures like us cannot get outside an infinite God. If we are experiencing separateness from God, it is an illusion. I am in God, you are in God. Jesus was right; whatever happens to you in some way does happen to me.

Non-dualism In Everyday Life

I would like to offer you a meditation technique that puts us in a posture for non-dualism. Let’s quiet ourselves for a minute and become conscious of our breathing – in and out. As you breathe in I want you to imagine God saying to you “I love you, ____.” You fill in your name in the blank. As you breathe out you return that love to God. I recommend you use the word “Christ” saying on the exhale “I love you, Christ.” In our tradition the word “Christ” often refers to Jesus in all. As the writer to the Colossians says “Christ is before all things and in Christ all things hold together.” (Col 1:17). (Read that line a few times!).

This little meditation may help us glimpse Christ in all things, holding them together. It may be a flower, a bird, a person, a tree. Little by little we love Christ in the world and become awakened to the connection. By doing so, we chip away at the dualism that is all around us and in our faith tradition.

I am attracted to how non-dualism positions me toward the world. If Christ is holding everything together, everything is sacred. This corrects what most us learned about “original sin,” which is extremely dualistic. Sin becomes marring what is sacred. Polluting the world or my body is desecration. Warehousing people in jails is desecration. Racial profiling is desecration. The wars we reference tonight are desecrations of what is sacred. Our ministry is to step by step, little by little, call forth and restore the sacredness of people and things.

We do not need to know about Jesus to know that non-dualism is real. It is in our human DNA. At the beginning of the cold war President Kennedy went to Berlin which had been broken in two and isolated by the Russians. His speech captivated the world when he said in English and German “All people of goodwill are citizens of Berlin, I am a citizen of Berlin.” A similar feeling of connection arose around the world after 9/11. Friends and foes across the globe waved American flags and gathered at our embassies saying in various ways “today we are American, what happens to you happens to me.”

I hope Jesus’ words of radical connection are good news for you tonight. Perhaps you are experiencing separateness from God or others and the gospel brings hope. Perhaps your ongoing service to family or to clients could be encouraged by a reminder of how connected you are to those you serve. Regardless, let’s come around the table tonight breathing out the prayer “I love you, Christ” as Christ appears to us in many shapes and sizes around the table.

 

Amen

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community

Liturgy for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Saturday Evening, August 23, 2014

Focus text: Matthew 10:40-42

Photo by Guilherme Oliveira on flickr.com

 

For reading on non-dualism try, The Emergent Christ, by Ilia Delio.

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I love Jesus/Peter events. I think we all have some Peter traits that give us those “love Jesus, but not too prudent myself” moments.

Jesus came down from a mountain where he spent time alone in prayer. He sees the terrified disciples in a boat tossing around in a violent sea. When the disciples see Jesus walking toward them on the sea, they think it’s a ghost. Jesus assures them, “It is I, do not be afraid.” Peter challenges the ghost, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Naturally Peter gets out of the boat, takes a few steps, then either thinks he can do this on his own and therefore sinks, or that Jesus will not continue to take care of him, so his doubt sinks him. Peter calls for help; Jesus rescues him saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” They get in the boat together; the wind dies, and the text says the disciples realize that Jesus is the Son of God.

Jesus and Peter get into that fishing boat together. That boat is Peter’s life. By means of that fishing boat Peter sustains his life. Jesus accompanies Peter back into the life that Peter lives.

The Jesus who will know when our faith is weak, will offer his hand when we fail, if only we put out our hand, and then Jesus will accompany us in our very own lives.

In her book, THE EMERGENT CHRIST, Ilia Delio defines forgiveness as “an act of love that creates a new future.” I believe that is how Peter felt.

Oscar Romero was born in El Salvador in 1917, ordained in 1942. He served various communities during turbulent times of the ’60s and ’70s for the nation and for the Roman Catholic Church, a corrupt government, ruthless military, influence of the wealthy, and a cooperative Church. When Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he abandoned the hierarchy’s traditional role of defender of the status quo. The grace of God reached out to him, and Romero reached out to the poor, the victims of ruthless repression. The Lord accompanied him in his outspoken demand for reform. And, the Lord accompanied Romero into everlasting joy when he was shot while celebrating the Mass in the small chapel of the hospital where he lived.

Other lives, our ordinary lives, also have the opportunities to respond to Jesus’ call for us to reach out and accompany others in ways the Lord provides for us. We just need to be willing. Notice this about the Peter and Oscar events: the Lord didn’t ask for their ability, the Lord asked for their availability.

Let’s consider the ordinary experience of a child’s birthday party.

Our precious little daughter Amy was not graceful or coordinated as a child. Her classmate Natalie invited all the girls in the class to her birthday parties, preschool, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, now it was time for her third grade party. Of course Amy went again, but this time Amy announced her arrival home by calling out, “Mommy, Daddy, I won, I won.” With her faux gold medal to prove it, she told us that she won the three legged race. Ummm, who would chose Amy for a partner? “Natalie’s grandpa asked me if he could be my partner,” she volunteered while I was wondering. She looked up and said to him, “Is that OK?” Without a word, he put his leg in the pillow slip, held it open for her, the whistle blew, and off they went to cross the finish line first. He was there every year, and that good man was not going to watch this little girl go home again without a first, second, or third place ribbon. He knew about winning and losing. You see, Natalie’s grandpa, as he was known to Natalie’s friends, was Stan Musial. As often as Stan Musial crossed home plate, he holds no statistic that matters as much in my heart as the time he carried a third grade girl over the finish line and into a whole new experience of self-esteem.

As we come to the Lord in tonight’s Eucharist, may we give thanks for those who have accompanied us to empowerment in our lives, and may we ask for the grace to accompany others as God calls us to do so.

Amen.

Kay Schmitt

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, A

Photo by Juan Salmoral on flickr.com

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I have just finished a book about nine working class college students from the State of Washington who won the Olympic gold medal for the rowing competition in 1936 in Berlin, Germany.  It is a classic sports book, and I was surprised by a mystical message in their story.  When the nine would talk about their experience years later, they minimized the glory and the global politics, but rather focused on fleeting moments they shared of grace where the nine felt like one person, rowing with such connection, such joy, that they felt in the presence of the divine.  This moment made everything else pale in comparison.  It was their pearl of great price.

Tonight the gospel beckons us to ask what experience is our pearl of great price?  Jesus offers two parables side by side designed to help us locate our treasure and commit to it.

Spontaneous and Habitual Contemplation

In the first parable about the treasure in the field there is no indication the person was looking for it.  He/She may have been a tenant farmer working the field, a hungry person looking for scraps of crops or someone out for a walk.  The point here is that the reign of God is sometimes like running into treasure unexpectedly.  It must be that there is treasure all over the place and sometime we see it through no effort or intention of our own! Thomas Merton’s calls these moments “spontaneous contemplative experiences.”  These are moments where we see clearly, where we see the love behind everything, where we see how connected everything really is.  They are a pure gift.

Once we have a gifted encounter with the infinite, we want to make a habit of it!  We begin the journey of the second parable where merchant actually knew what he was looking for, he knew there were pearls out there and he searched until he found them.  He had already lived the first parable so he knew it was out there.  This is where the Kingdom of God is like an activity that requires practice and intention.

Both the parables demand a strong commitment to secure the treasure and the pearl.  We need to buy the field!  A couple of weeks ago we looked at the indiscriminate nature of God giving us chance after chance after chance of encounter.  Buying the field means that we have faith in these encounters, that we study them together, that we treasure them as our teacher in the contemplative life.  Buying the field means we mark the spot so we can return.

Falling Into the Treasure

So how do we increase the odds of finding treasure?  We need to start by looking in the right place.  Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is within us.  We are not searching for something outside of ourselves, we are not waiting to be touched by someone far off.  The pearl of great price is within you, often lost in the weeds of ego, rules and wounds.  I love the image of “buying the field” within to give the treasure some room, to create a space within that we can find again.

How else can we increase the odds of encountering treasure within?  Do you know what it feels to be looking for something and feel that you are close?  Richard  Rohr’s says this journey to the treasure within has a definable feeling to it.  He says the spiritual journey is much more like letting go and falling inward rather than striving for something.  We miss the pearl so often because we hang on to concepts, beliefs, memories, worries, wounds and masks.  He says “There is a part of you that has always loved God and said YES to God.  It is the part of you that is Love and all you have to do is let go and fall into it.  It’s already there.”  The treasure and the pearl are already there.

Habits that find treasure within tend to foster this “falling.”  We fall by getting in the present moment, by merely observing, not clinging to, our thoughts and feelings, by anticipating surprise, by avoiding control and performance.  I know for some of you the habit is meditation, for others it is walking in nature, for others it is music, spiritual reading or intentional sharing with others.  There are lots of ways to practice falling.  Lucky for us we get to practice together.

Are these short, little stories good news for you tonight? Perhaps it would be good news for you to be like the boys in the boat and have faith in those spontaneous moments of connection and let them teach you.  Perhaps it would be good news for you to rekindle a habit where you practice the art of falling, falling into divine Love within.  Let’s practice letting go and falling a little tonight around this table of communion.

Amen

George von Stamwitz

The book referenced is “Boys In A Boat” by Daniel James Brown

Richard Rohr’s quote came from his Daily Meditation on July 22, 2014.

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community
Liturgy for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Saturday Evening, July 26, 2014
Focus text: Matthew 13:44-46 (“The Pearl of Great Price”)

Photo by The Happy Rower on flickr.com