C: 3rd Sunday of Advent

Love Drives Out Anxiety

December 14, 2003

Luke 3:10-18

Paul says in today’s second reading, “Don’t worry about anything.” Well, how realistic is that? Don’t we have a lot of things to worry about? All indicators show anxiety is on the increase in America. Prozac and other related drugs are the most prescribed medicine on the market. Surveys show that Americans, rather than becoming more secure and confident, are becoming more worried and anxious. Studies also show that most of that anxiety does not make sense. One report claims that 40% of things that people worry about never happen;   30% have already happened; 12% of the people worry about what other people might say; 10% worry about possibly getting sick without any reason to do so. Therefore only 8% of anxiety can be traced to some real and present trouble. How do we then explain that 92% of anxiety seems to be free-floating and not connected to any objective, present reality?

Gerald May, a famous American psychologist, has an explanation. He believes that the cause for most of the anxiety in our country does not result from any exterior factors in our environment, but rather from forces within ourselves. Analyzing numerous patients who came to him with anxiety, May concluded that when you look beneath the worry what you find is fear. Now that makes sense. If you are fearful about something, it is going to cause anxiety. But May also says that if you look underneath that fear, what you discover is hurt. People who are hurt have their confidence shaken, their security challenged, and so they become afraid. Taking another step deeper, May concludes that underneath that hurt what we discover is love. It is the desire to love and be loved that opens us to hurt. In other words Mays suggests that what on the surface appears as anxiety is actually being caused by a trouble in our ability to give and receive love. If we have difficulty in loving and being loved, that causes hurt, which causes fear, which surfaces in anxiety.

Well, if this is true, then what are we to do about it? After all, if the basic problem is one of love, we cannot force people to love us. We cannot always go out and find someone to reciprocate our love. That is true. But the one thing that we can always do is to choose to act in love. We can always give ourselves in love to others. John the Baptist seems to know this in today’s gospel. Because when people come to him and say, “What should we do?” his answer is to give, to share, to treat people with fairness and generosity. John the Baptist is telling us that when we give to others, we give to ourselves as well, and we facilitate God’s kingdom.

Now this insight puts a whole different slant on what we mean by generosity. Most of the time when we choose to give to the poor, feed the hungry or visit the sick, we do so because we believe they need it. Of course they do. But we often forget that those choices of loving are actions that we need as well. When we give ourselves to others in love, that has the power to heal our hurt, to reduce our fear, to lessen our anxiety. To put it in another way, it is hard to be preoccupied with our own anxiety when we are giving ourselves in love of others.

There are many opportunities for this kind of loving, particularly in this season. There are people in our families who need our attention. There are opportunities to serve in a hunger center, to participate in a Christmas project, to buy charity calendars, to contribute to innumerable institutions who would put our generosity to good use. But as you decide what to give and to whom, remember that the love which is given not only benefits the receiver but the giver as well. When we act in love, we heal our hurt, we lessen our fear, we reduce our anxiety.

So if you find yourself worried and are unsure what is causing it, the gospel tells us not to obsess about our anxiety, but instead reach out to others in love. Because that love can ground us and strengthen us. That love can allow us to follow the advice of Paul and not worry about anything. Of course, if you prefer, you could address your anxiety by using Prozac or seeing a therapist. Such choices can at times be appropriate. But you should not forget that love is cheaper and often more effective.

Asking the Question

December 17, 2006

Luke 3:10-18

Questions are sometimes more important than answers. We often use questions to find answers. We ask a question when we are looking for some information. Therefore when we find that information, we sometimes imagine that question is no longer necessary, that it can be discarded and set aside. But that is not always the case.

Look at today’s gospel. There are plenty of questions. All kinds of people come up to John the Baptist and they ask the same question: what should we do? Because of all of these questions, on first hearing we imagine that the focus of the gospel is going to be on John’s answers. But the answers that John gives are disappointing, even comical, in their simplicity. He tells people to do what they certainly knew they needed to do already. He tells the crowds that they should share their clothes and food with the poor. He tells tax collectors they should not cheat their clients. He tells soldiers not to abuse their power. John’s answers are neither new nor penetrating. He basically tells them to do what any decent person would already be doing.

So it does not appear that the emphasis of this gospel passage is on the answers. This opens the possibility that the real point of the passage is the question, that this gospel is calling us to ask the question, “Lord, what should I do?” It suggests that asking the question might be more important than knowing the answer. How is this possible? It is possible because that question, “Lord, what should I do?” is a question for which 95% of the time we already know the answer. We know what are supposed to do. We are supposed to be more patient with our spouse, more affirming of our children, more just in our dealing with others, less judgmental, more thankful for our blessings. We know all the answers. Yet the gospel suggests it is still important for us to find some quiet moment and sincerely ask the Lord, “What should I do?” Because in asking that question, two things happen. We are able to identify a particular action, and we are able to personalize it.

When we take a few moments and sincerely ask, “Lord, what should I do?” that question helps us to identify a specific action. Our minds are filled with things that we are supposed to do. But when we take a few moments and sincerely ask the question, nine times out of ten, one specific thing will rise to the surface. That one thing becomes the action that God is asking us to do today. It might be something at work or at home or at school, but whatever that action is, we can know that it is God’s will for us today.

The question identifies the action. It also personalizes it. Because when an action flows from prayer, it becomes a part of our personal relationship with God. For example, if we are moved to give some of resources to the poor, if that action flows from prayer, it is not an action resulting from a command or obligation. It is a response to a personal request from Christ. When we pick up the phone to talk to our Aunt Louise in an attempt to make peace with her, if that action comes from prayer, we do not act because two thousand years ago Jesus taught us that we should be reconciled to one another, but because today Jesus has asked us, “Make peace with Aunt Louise.” When we ask the question, the actions that flow from it are more significant and powerful because we see them as a response to a personal request from the Lord.

So the gospel today is not really about the answers, but about the question. It invites us to ask, “Lord, what should I do?” If we really take the time to pose that question, the answer might surprise us. But it is more likely that it will not. It will probably be something that we already know we should do. But asking the question will identify it and will give us strength and energy to do it, because it comes out of a dialogue with the Lord who loves us.

But none of this will happen unless we ask the question. So let’s ask the question, and let’s do it now. In every liturgy after the homily there is a moment of silence. I would suggest that each person here this morning should use that silence to ask the question. Close your eyes. Remember that God is here. In the presence of the Lord, set aside all the things we need to do in the next few days, and ask the question, “Lord, what should I do? What do you ask me to do today?”

Welcoming the Messiah Now

December 13, 2009

Luke 3:10 – 18

There was a great monastery that had fallen on hard times. In the past it had been populated by hundreds of devoted monks who were praying, working the fields and serving the poor. But now for a variety of reasons, the population of the monastery had dwindled until all that were left were the Abbott and three monks. And they were all in their 70’s, so clearly the life of this monastery was about to come to an end. In the woods next to the monastery there was a small hut in which an old rabbi lived. He was known for his wisdom and spent his days as a hermit. The Abbott thought there was nothing to lose in visiting the rabbi. Perhaps he would have some word of advice that could save the monastery. The rabbi welcomed the Abbott warmly and listened to his story. Then the rabbi said, “I know only one thing about your monastery: God has revealed to me that the Messiah is one of you.”

The Abbott returned to the monastery and told the other monks what the rabbi had said. They were filled with wonder. The Messiah is one of us, one of us here in the monastery? Immediately they began to debate who the Messiah could be: It must be the Abbott. He’s our leader, and he has wisdom and strength. Surely, he is the Messiah. But then again, there is Brother Thomas. He is a holy man, and we often see the love on God in him. It probably is not Brother Elrod. He is old and cranky. But when we have to make a decision, he’s usually right. In fact he is almost always right. Maybe he’s the Messiah. The only monk left was Brother Phillip, and at first no one thought he was the Messiah because he was passive and even lazy. But then they realized that whenever there was a need, he was suddenly there to help. So try as they might, the monks could not figure out who the Messiah would be. Therefore, they determined to wait until the Messiah was revealed.

But as they waited, they changed. Because they were sure that the Messiah was one of them, they began to treat one another with more and more respect. They found themselves laughing more often, beginning the day with a certain joyous expectation that perhaps today might be the day that the Messiah was revealed. The people who lived in the village close to the monastery noticed the change in the monks when they interacted with them. People started to come for Mass at the monastery and began seeking out the monks for spiritual direction. The word spread among their family and friends. Soon the young people in the town began to consider joining the monastery. In a few years, that monastery was as alive and thriving as ever.

In today’s gospel John the Baptist tells us that the Messiah is coming and that we should be ready. I think the gospel is asking us to take John’s word seriously and believe that the Messiah is on the way. If you were to do this, there could be changes in your life. Perhaps after you came home from Mass this morning, you might sit down and consider, “Maybe my wife is the Messiah. I better consider her ideas and feeling more carefully then I have done in the past. Maybe the person who works next to me is the Messiah? I think I am going to ask tomorrow about that problem in the family and spend a little bit of time listening. Could it be that crazy Uncle Louie is the Messiah? I better be more patient when he comes around at Christmas time and drinks too much punch. Maybe that woman behind the cash register at Heinen’s is the Messiah? I think I better approach her with a smile and treat her as a real person and not just someone doing a task for me.

You see how this plays out, but I assure you it is not a game. We believe that Christ is coming at the end of time and that we want to welcome him. But we also believe that Christ is already present in each one of us. So if we want to welcome him then, we better start by welcoming him now. If we began to think in this way, our lives would change. We would treat people differently. If that attitude became contagious–as it did for the monks in the monastery–we could change our world. Then more and more people would be acting with greater love, justice, and respect. This is what God calls us to do, to build God’s kingdom. We could fulfill our mission and serve our God simply by welcoming each other as the Messiah.

Tragedy in Connecticut

December 16, 2012

Luke 3: 10-18

I am not a parent. So I know that I will never fully feel the shock and the fear that parents have been feeling this week throughout our country in light of the tragic events that unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Brutal violence. Innocent deaths. Unspeakable loss. And beneath our confusion and sadness there is a persistent voice that will not be silent. The voice that keeps whispering, “If it happened at Sandy Hook, it can happen anywhere. It can happen here.” As that voice sinks in, as our fear grows, we all want someone to do something. We want our politicians to do something. We want the police to do something. We want those who run our schools to do something: something to stop the violence; something to protect our children.

But we are not united on what that something is. In light of what happened in Connecticut this week, we have been reminded again that there is too much violence in our culture. We truly need a national dialogue about how to bring that violence down. It must be an honest dialogue, because we will not agree all on what should be done. Some will say there are too many guns. Others will say that we need earlier and more effective detection and counseling for people with emotional stress. Others will insist we increase the security in our schools. Still others will plead to reduce the violence in our entertainment.

There is truth in all of these opinions. That is why we as a country need to talk about them. But we all know, before we start, that we are not going to find one factor that will eliminate the violence or our fear. If there are initiatives to be put into place, we as individuals will not be able to implement them. So that leaves us here this morning with the question that the crowds posed to John the Baptist, “What should we do?”

Now the context of the gospel makes it clear that when we ask this question, “What should we do?” we are not asking it as politicians or professional educators or even as citizens. We are meant to ask that question as believers, as followers of Christ. What should we do as Christians in light of what unfolded in Connecticut this week? It is a very important question. At the heart of our faith, at the center of what we believe, is the conviction that God is saving the world through Jesus Christ. If God is saving the world through Jesus Christ, then God is saving the world through us because we are Christ’s body, Christ’s presence in the world. That means that God has a role for each person in this church today, however small that role might be, to attack the evil and the violence that expressed itself so brutally this week.

So here is what I would like you to do. This week, I would like you to take a few minutes and have a talk with God. I would like you to ask God, “What should I do?” Not what should I do to eliminate the violence from Sandy Hook. That is beyond our control. But what should I do in light of the violence at Sandy Hook to reduce violence in my own life and in the lives of those around me. I am convinced that if you ask God that question, there will be an answer.

God might call you to become involved politically in establishing some new law. God might simply ask you to spend some time with your children discussing the world that we live in with all of its beauty and all of its danger. God might call you to be a voice of reason and compassion when you talk with your family, co-workers, or friends about the events that played out this week. God might ask you to stand with the kid at school who endures violence through bullying. God might ask you to be a gentle presence to someone who is grieving or a generous person to someone who is in need. God might simply ask you to be sure that your children and grandchildren know this week how much you love them.

I do not know what God will ask you to do. But I do know this: what happened this week in Connecticut was not God’s will. Our God remains committed to the destruction of evil and violence. God will fight that fight through us. When the power of evil and violence becomes most clear, it is then that Christians must be their best. So ask God, “What should I do?” And when God answers, have the courage to do it.

Boundaries, Security, and Generosity

December 13, 2015

Luke 3:10-18

“What are we to do?” This is the question that the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers asked John the Baptist in today’s gospel. The question is not only appropriate to John’s time. It has relevance to our own lives. When we are faced with problems, it is often not clear how we should proceed, what we should do. This is true both in our families and in our country. As the holidays approach we may have problems in our family: a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, someone who is angry and uses abusive language, someone who bears a grudge against another family member. As we look forward to holiday gatherings, it is very possible that these issues can disrupt our celebration. What are we to do? Our country is engaged in a lively debate over security as a result of the shootings in San Bernardino. We all want our homes and our cities to be secure. Some are saying that we should increase gun regulation. Others suggest a tightening to our immigration policy. What should we do?

The words of John the Baptist in today’s gospel can help us both in our families and in our country. When John answers the people who come to him—asking them to share, be fair, and not accuse others—the common denominator in all his advice is generosity. John is asking his hearers to approach others with an open and giving spirit.     John’s advice is useful to us. As we recognize problems in our family over the holidays, we should face them with generosity, with an open and positive spirit, with a willing attitude that allows us to be patient and to promote peace and harmony. Generosity in our family does not mean that anything goes. We must be willing to set boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. It is right for us to draw a line in opposition to abusive language or actions. But once we set that boundary we should move forward with as much generosity as possible. The choice is not between boundaries and generosity. Both are necessary. And the boundaries we set will be more effective if they are joined to a generous spirit.

Generosity is also important to our country as we explore the threat of terrorism. It is right that we want our country to be safe. But it is important not to forget the generosity that welcomed our parents and our grandparents to this land. It is important not to set aside the American dream that promises livelihood and education to people regardless of their race, culture, or religion. It is not a choice between generosity and security. Both are necessary. As we work to make sure that our country is safe, we should not forget the generosity that is central to our American heritage.

What are we to do? We are to be people of generosity. We must be willing to set boundaries in our families and ensure security in our country. But we must commit ourselves to treat those around us with a generous spirit. If we do that, we will demonstrate that we understand the preaching of John the Baptist, and we will show ourselves to be disciples of Jesus whose birth we prepare to celebrate.

A Punch for the Holidays

December 16, 2018

Luke 3:10-18

Lucinda had only one day left to finish her Christmas shopping, and there were big sales at the mall. She decided to go. But it was brutal. All day long, people were shoving and elbowing and stepping ahead of her in line. During one ten-minute special (where you could get 10% off of an already 25% discount) a woman with red hair and a panicked look actually yanked a lace tablecloth out of Lucinda’s hands. Lucinda yanked it back. She grunted, “Mine.” The woman retreated. Lucinda had won. But by 4pm she was suffering seriously from by battle fatigue. So, she found an empty space at one of the mall restaurants and sat down. She flagged down a passing waitress and shouted, “Hot tea. Now.” The waitress pushed back, “I’m not your waitress. Wait your turn.” “But I’ve been waiting my turn all day long,” said Lucinda. “I need hot tea, now!” The waitress ignored her.

A few minutes later, a young man came to the table. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Rob, I’m your waiter. What can I get for you?” “Hot tea. Now,” snapped Lucinda. “Oh,’ said Rob, “Hot tea.” Then he took a step closer and bent towards her. In a confidential whisper he said, “Our best hot tea is a green tea with just a touch of spice. There is only one portion left, but I can get it for you if you want it.” Rob’s thoughtfulness stopped Lucinda cold, and she mumbled, “OK. Thank you.” She watched as Rob went off and noticed how he stopped to help the rude waitress who was struggling with her tray and made jokes with the other waiters back in the kitchen. When he returned to the table with her tea, he placed it in front of her. On the saucer next to the cup was a small sugar cookie with red and green sprinkles. Smiling, Rob said, “The cookie? That’s just a little punch for the holidays.”

Lucinda wanted hot tea. But what she got was a little punch of respect and peace. When Rob came to clear the table, she noticed that he had a silver ring on his right hand, made out of letters. What the letters spelled, was—JESUS.

We desperately need the presence of Jesus in our world, and that presence comes through us. When the people ask John the Baptist in today’s gospel what they are supposed to do, John does not impose any extreme or excessive demand. He simply asks them to be generous, to share what they have with those who have less, to share their food, their clothes, their time. We certainly follow John’s direction as followers of Jesus, especially this time of year. We bring food baskets to families in need. We sing Christmas carols to the elderly in nursing homes. We think of family members who are struggling. Now, cynics would criticize these efforts as ineffective and meaningless. They would point out that after the holidays, the poor still need food, the elderly are still in nursing homes, and there are still family members who struggle.

What they say is true for as far as it goes. But that does not mean that our small actions of generosity and kindness are wasted. When we pick up the phone to call a friend who has just lost a spouse, when we take a few minutes to tell our daughter how proud we are of her, when we treat a fellow shopper in the mall with respect, we are giving a little punch of goodness and peace to a world that truly needs it. And of course, we believe that what comes with that punch is JESUS.

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