Merry Christmas! May the celebration of the nativity of Christ bring you & your loved ones many blessings now and throughout the new year.
The short version of my preaching this Christmas is that I have been inspired by a parishioner’s approach to getting bogged down by the crazy of life, faith, and everything in between. Though particulars matter, very often they don’t matter at that moment, which he cuts to with a simple saying: ‘nevermind all that!’, before focusing on whatever is most important in the moment at hand.
It strikes me that Christmas may be a form of God doing the same for us. The particulars of salvation, the call to holiness, the weight of our sins and that of the glory that awaits us – all of these, though extremely important, are not the point. The point is this: God has come to us, to be in our midst, so that we might receive His friendship and – if we are willing – to offer Him ours.
There are plenty of related elements – some of which will rightly demand our attention in the near or far future – but for today, nevermind all that. The Word has been made flesh, God is with us, and He invites us to focus on Him, and what He is offering to us right now: a friendship that will buoy us up, provide for all our needs, and fulfill us. Start with that, and everything else will fall into place, with His gracious help.
This last Sunday, I kicked off a four week in-parish mission at my parish of Saint Mark in Shoreline. Over the last several months I have been discerning how the Lord is directing our community. Our staff has been brainstorming ideas and our pastoral council has been discussing priorities & plans. Things came to a head a few weeks ago when we reviewed our parish finances and came to the realization that in both finances and membership, our community is facing serious challenges – challenges that include a financial difference of $170,000 in giving between 2019 and now, a decline in membership, and a low engagement from those who are still on the rolls & in the pews.
It is my firm conviction that the final piece is key; our personal investment in the community will bear fruit in all other things. Thus, a parish mission to pray over three questions:
what does it mean to be a parish?
what does it mean to be a parishioner?
how is the Lord calling us to grow as both?
After preaching on all of this (a delicate dance between exhorting, warning, and animating – on Mother’s Day, no less 🙄), I had the blessing of meeting up with my priest support group this week. As I shared my own worries, frustrations, and hopes about this, they brought up a helpful counterpoint: what communities do I myself currently find life-giving, exciting, and animating?
What comes most immediately to mind is a group that I only recently discovered: Doxacon Seattle. By a happy set of circumstances and at their gracious invitation, I was privileged to present at their 2022 convention (this year’s theme was “Is This the Way? Duty and Morality”). I spent several nervous weeks preparing for the convention – it was not lost on me that the intersection of passionate Christians and passionate geeks could be a place where a misstep in theology OR fandom would be quickly jumped on!
I am happy to report that I managed to avoid any great ecumenical or geeky controversy. But what absolutely floored me was how much fun it was to gather with these folks! We spent nearly twelve glorious hours talking about everything we loved – television, movies, literature, podcasts, webcomics, history, whatever! – and ALL in the light of Christ. There were Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians joined in the conversations – and when one person was talking, several others were chatting across the Discord channels that had been set up.
It was wonderful. They have something special, in both mission & community, that is compelling, uplifting, and joyful. Not only do I still fondly recall that day, but it has sparked the beginnings of friendships for which I am already extraordinarily grateful. In fact, the night before I kicked off this parish mission, a group of us spent four hours (!) on a Zoom call talking about our faith, our various fandoms, and plans for how we might invite others to share in them. And to my great delight, a couple of my new friends showed up the next day at the vigil Mass the next day – and we spent another two hours talking after Mass!
It is one of my greatest sorrows that such community rarely, if ever, is to be found in the life of the Catholic Church. There are sometimes glimpses of lively and connected Christian community, but so very seldom to be found in a parish. I recall a classmate in seminary who said that we Catholics are sometimes referred to as “the chosen frozen” by other denominations, at least here in the United States. I wish it didn’t ring so true. And yet, I find that when I need meaningful friendships or personal support, the Catholic Church is not somewhere I can find either one.
So, what are we to do? There’s an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that has been sticking in my head: “Looking for Par’mach in All the Wrong Places“. It’s a bit of a fluff story among the heavy arcs DS9 was exploring at that point, though a well-placed bit of humor that rang true there and now: we sometimes miss what’s right in front of us for having focused so much on what we think we want.
What does that mean for me and my parish, practically speaking? I’m not entirely sure yet, but it seems to me that something of Doxacon needs to come to our community! Oh, I know that many (maybe most) of my parishioners are not sci-fi or fantasy geeks and I know that literally bringing a convention to the parish isn’t the answer. But bringing what they have – forming groups small & large centered around what excites us – seems to be a crucial part of the answer to the questions we’re pondering during our parish mission.
That’s the kind of community I know I long for! And from my experiences with Christian geeks from around the Pacific Northwest & beyond – Catholic and otherwise – I’m confident that I’m not alone. It is Christ that animates and excites us in the context of fandoms & ministry alike. If we are to be enlivened as His Body, Sunday Masses are not the end, but rather the beginning of forming truly intimate and joyful communities.
(For those interested – here is a draft version of the homily that I recorded for my staff & pastoral council to help give me input. The actual homily was edited only slightly for time…..this version is just over 25 minutes long!). Alternatively, you can download it to play on your device by clicking this link.
“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
One of the great blessings of Sacred Scripture, the celebration of liturgies, and the cycle of the liturgical year is that the same reading or celebration may convey a new message or unveil a different facet. This year, what stands out to me this Palm Sunday are Jesus’ words to the man only known as the good thief.
There are two people to whom Jesus speaks where an imminent foretelling is offered. The first is Peter, who in his eagerness and pride, assures Him – wrongly – that he is prepared to suffer & die for the Lord. Jesus rebukes that pride even as He shares that He has prayed for Peter and that after his conversion, he must strengthen his brothers. Peter recalls these words at the very moment they are fulfilled, realizes his great failure, and weeps bitterly.
The man on cross is at a different point. He is suffering and dying with Jesus, though not by his own choice. Unlike Peter, this criminal knows that he is not a heroic figure – he goes so far as to rebuke the other criminal, who has demanded that Jesus demonstrate His power by coming down from the cross and taking them with Him. The good thief stands in contrast to that man, and to Peter: “the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes”. Like Peter, he cries out – but with a simple petition: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
Jesus’ immediate response is one of mercy and assurance: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Even on the cross, after having been abandoned by His friends, betrayed by one of His Apostles, condemned & convicted by His own people, and tortured beyond all reason, Jesus focuses His attention and affection on this anonymous, guilty sinner. And He assures him of an eternal reward that he neither expected nor asked for!
For anyone who has ever felt unlovable, unforgiveable, forsaken, or alone, this brief interaction between the Lord and the good thief should shine out – a glorious beacon of hope. This gift is not solely for him; it is a gift offered to all of us! Peter would discover this a few short days later when he receives a similar reassurance….and that despite his inability to match the agape (unconditional) love of Christ, offering instead phileo (brotherly) love. It would only be towards the end of his live that Peter would finally willingly suffer with Christ, sharing in the same fate of both his savior and the good thief.
Wherever we are on our own journey of relationship with Christ, we are invited today – and throughout this Holy Week – to draw near to the cross. Perhaps we have run away from the Lord in the past, maybe we’ve even abandoned, denied, or betrayed Him. In the good thief we are reminded that it is not too late to ask for – and receive – the mercy and salvation that Jesus so desperately desires to share with us.
Before I was ordained, one of my on-again, off-again past-times was computer tech support. Often under the guise of a ‘small problem’, I would get that familiar call: “my computer is [insert malfunction here], would you take a look at it?”. Before I would come over, I quickly learned to request that the owner reboot their computer – the all-purpose on-off maneuver. The majority of the time, that simply act would clear whatever error was occurring.
In the ordinary course of Lent each year, I find that I have to reboot my Lenten practices at least once….but usually several times. Sometimes the ‘small problem’ that I could easily identify was just that. A fresh start after accidentally eating meat on a Friday, watching the television I had given up, or otherwise mis-stepping in a little way was easily remedied by recommitting myself to prayer and discipline.
Other times, I found that that ‘small problem’ opened the door to deeper needs that lay hidden or even ignored in my heart and in my spiritual life. It isn’t always pleasant to have wounds or nerves exposed, but the invitation is always to a great conversion, to a more intimate relationship with Jesus.