Sermons on the Sunday Readings in the Catholic Lectionary 2014

In July of 2013 I began writing homilies based on the readings read in Catholic Churches all over the world. I did this because, frankly, I wasn't getting much out of the preaching I was hearing.

As I said at the time, when I was a priest this was the job I took most seriously. I saw this as the way I would reach the most parishioners. Unfortunately in the years since leaving active ministry I've found that preaching has become unimportant. I'm the first to say that I'm a tough audience but I don't expect brilliance every week. I do expect to see evidence of work and that preaching has been taken seriously.

It seems that I often hear reasons why the preacher didn't prepare ("This is going to be short because I'm tired") or the preacher retelling the gospel ("First Jesus does this, then the apostles do that") or random thoughts that the preacher thinks about when he sees these readings.

I find this tiresome, and frankly a waste of my time. A few years ago I started to half listen and half write the homily I wanted to hear. In the summer of 2013 I decided to write and post them.

At the suggestion of a friend of mine, I write them a week in advance. If you are part of a bible study, this allows you to bring this to the study.

Thank you for your time in reading these. If you wish, I can email the homily to you. Enjoy!

Links to the Readings

Christmas Season

January 5, 2014

January 12, 2014

January 19, 2014

Ordinary Time

January 26, 2014

February 2, 2014

February 9, 2014

February 16, 2014

February 23, 2014

March 2, 2014


March 5, 2014

March 9, 2014

March 16, 2014

March 23, 2014

March 30, 2014

April 6, 2014

April 13, 2014


April 20, 2014

April 27, 2014

May 4, 2014

May 11, 2014

May 18, 2014

May 25, 2014

June 1, 2014


June 8, 2014

Ordinary Time

June 15, 2014

June 22, 2014

June 29, 2014

July 6, 2014

July 13, 2014

July 20, 2014

July 27, 2014

August 3, 2014

August 10, 2014

August 17, 2014

August, 24, 2014

August 31, 2014

September 7, 2014

September 14, 2014

September 21, 2014

September 28, 2014

October 5, 2014

October 12, 2014

October 19, 2014

October 26, 2014

November 2, 2014

November 9, 2014

November 16, 2014

November 23, 2014


November 30, 2014

December 7, 2014

December 14, 2014

December 21, 2014


December 25, 2014

December 28, 2014
December 28, 2014: The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

Brief synopsis of the readings: This Sunday allows a few choices and I've chosen the reading from Genesis 15. God speaks to Abram and promises rewards to Abram. Abram asks how this is possible since he and Sarah have not been able to have children. God then promises that he and Sarah will have children and their descendants will number greater than the stars in the sky. Soon after that Sarah becomes pregnant. The Gosepl continues the account in Luke where the infant Jesus is presented in the temple, after which the family returns to Nazareth.

I have to say, and not everyone will agree with me, that this has been a good year for the Holy Family. Today, in 30 states, same sex couples are allowed to marry and build legal families.

OK, that's a little provocative, but it makes a point. When most of us think of "family" we tend to think of our family and see that as the norm. I was blessed to be raised by a mother and father (who are still deeply in love) and have a younger sister who I love (but once barely tolerated). Given that it's easy to see family as a father, mother, son, and daughter.

But my experience isn't everyone's. From my earliest days I saw that other families were different. Some had more children, some had several children of the same sex, and some (horror of horrors) were from "broken homes." While I had some idea that not all marriages last I was in 9th grade before I had a friend whose parents had divorced. I was puzzled to hear that his mother and father lived in two different houses and sometimes he lived in dad's home and sometimes in mom's home. It wasn't until high school that I learned of marriages that chose not to have children.

During all of this I never saw two things: interracial marriage and gay marriage. I've since learned that my home state (Virginia) outlawed marriage between heterosexuals of different races until the Supreme Court overruled them in 1967. The same marriage equality sought by homosexuals has also been long in arriving. Gay couples who wanted the marriage protections I take for granted was not easy, and many couples spent thousands of dollars for contracts to be written and signed.

The funny thing is that when I look at the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and Jesus) I'm amused at their status. Joseph and Mary weren't married, Mary was pregnant when they journeyed to Bethlehem (without a chaperone), and Matthew's Gospel tells us that they had to flee to Egypt shortly after Jesus was born.

This isn't part of today's readings but in Matthew we see that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had to flee to Egypt because Herod figured out that the Messiah was born. Out of fear over losing his position of power he decreed that all male children under the age of two be killed. The children who were murdered have been known since as the "Holy Innocents" because they did nothing to deserve this.

Herod's draconian decision is fuled by the same fear that has been a part of the marriage debate ever since. Because if family is our first experience of belonging, the idea of family is crucial to the image we have of ourselves and those around us. It makes sense that many of us will "circle the wagons" and wish to see family as something recognizable, something that looks like us.

We all want to belong, we all want to be part of something that gives us comfort and love, but what do we do when our framework is challenged by something we don't recognize? If the only understanding we have of family is what is right in front of us, if family means a man and a woman with biological children, what do we do with families that are different?

When I think of this, I think of my maternal grandfather (and namesake) because his life embodied for me both the good and the bad of our view of family. He was born in Boston in 1902, the youngest of (we think) 4 children to Irish immigrants. There is much we don't know because his father died when he was two years Old and we're not sure what happened to his mother. He and his siblings were placed in an orphanage. When he was six he was adopted by a childless couple. He was their only child and his stepfather died of the Spanish flu in 1918. He married as a young man and fathered a son and a daughter, but his wife died after only 5 years of marriage. A few years later he married my grandmother and my mother was born the next year. While he deeply loved all his children my grandmother never let her stepchildren forget that they were not her "real" children.

At the end of his life he was surrounded by his children and grandchildren but he never had a relationship with his parents or his siblings. His relationships with his two older children were also strained because for them home never felt completely safe. And this was a "traditional" family.

Would it have still been a family if one of his wives had come from a different race, or if he had a different sexual orientation? His family was more good than bad and he was certainly surrounded by love at the end. Though he was twice widowed he was never divorced and while some of his relationships were complicated, nobody was estranged.

I write this against the backdrop of our sanatized view of the Holy Family. There are those that maintain that the Biblical view of marriage consists of one man and one woman; in fact if the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that marriage is between one man and as many women as he can support. Even the Holy Family isn't traditional in the strictest sense. Mary and Joseph weren't married and Joseph wasn't his father.

On top of that they were refugees. Remember earlier I spoke about the account in Matthew of them fleeing to Egypt lest Jesus be put to death? They certainly did not live in a society that spoke to them of love and protection. So where did Jesus find that love and protection that we all need? He found it in his nontraditional family. In much the same way my grandfather did not find love and protection with his birth family, and likely not in the orphanage. But he did with his adoptive family. And while he provided the best he could for his own children, it was far from ideal. And yet all his children married and created families of their own.

When we look at the Holy Family we should notice two things: all our families bring joy and challenge, laughter and pain. But they should always be geared toward loved and protection. Finally we should notice that marriage is often as much about choice as it is about genetic relationships. Marriages that create safe environments are never evil, no matter what they look like.

Postscript: this is my final homily of 2014. Starting next week you can click on 2015 Homilies. See you next year.

December 25, 2014: Christmas: Mass at Midnight

Brief synopsis of the readings: If you go to mass on Christmas you can have any of four different readings. There is one set for the vigil (night before), one for mass during the night (this used to be called midnight mass but almost nobody celebrates it at midnight anymore), mass at dawn, or mass during the day. I've chosen mass at night. The first reading comes to us from Isaiah chapter 9 and proclaims light to those who have walked in darkness. Isaiah, speaking to God, announces that his people are free of the yoke that burdened them. This liberation has come about because a child is born who is named Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, and Prince of Peace. Luke's Gospel describes Jesus' birth; how Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. Finding no room at the inn they found shelter in a barn where Jesus was born, and mary placed him in a feeding trough. Nearby shepherds were tending their sheep when an angel appeared and told them that they will find a child lying in a feeding trough. This angel was joined by others who praised God.

Do you ever wonder what really happened? We Christians run the gamete when it comes to what we believe. There are those who hold the "You Are There" belief. There was a television show in the 1950s with that name. The show would stage world historical events and tell the viewers: "Everything is the same now except (pause) You Are There!" Others claim the nativity stories are complete fiction and we are fools for believing any of it.

What if you were there when Jesus of Nazareth was born? What would you see?

What if you learned that Jesus was not born on December 25th? Would you still believe?

What if you learned that Jesus was born in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem as Isaiah prophesized? Would you still believe?

What if you learned that Jesus was conceived not by the Holy Spirit but instead by a Roman soldier named Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera who had relations with Mary? Would you still believe? (This was a theory proposed by anti Christians in the 2nd century).

I think we all have images of how things happened, and may of them were embedded in our formative years from events that took place centuries after this event. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223, over 1000 years after Jesus' birth. In 1965 we all gathered around our television sets to see A Charlie Brown Christmas and were moved by Linus' recounting of the birth story from Luke's Gospel. These images are our best friends and worst enemies. They are our friends because they give us vivid portrayals of a crucial truth of our faith; they are our enemies because they tell us that if even the smallest detail is wrong, all of our faith is wrong. What if St. Francis or Linus got the details wrong?

Unfortunately, from time to time, this battle has flared up between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists. One side stridently holds that this story is 100% correct as reported and the other just as stridently responds that it is 100% fabricated. What do the rest of us do, those who hold fast to our faith yet wish to keep an open mind?

I taught 10th grad CCD (Sunday school) when I was in college in Boston. It was a working class neighborhood and these were tough kids. As I taught on this subject I (foolishly) told them that the presence of shepherds keeping watch over their sheep pointed to a likely spring, summer, or early fall birth. I further explained that December may have been chosen to coincide with the Roman feast of Saturnalia and early Christians chose December 25th to give the Roman oppressors the mistaken idea that the early Christians were celebrating the pagan feast. Frankly I didn't nuance it as much as I should have, but the kids went crazy. They were furious with me for even suggesting that Jesus wasn't born on December 25th. One of them insisted it was in the Bible, though he didn't take up my challenge to find the reference.

The point is we often find ourselves confused at perhaps frightened when long held images come under scrutiny. Last year I read a fascinating book called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The author suggests several problems with the idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and I find his argument compelling. But I never would have heard of the book except that he was interviewed on Fox News. The host found out that the author is Muslim and attacked him (and the book) on those grounds. In vain he tried to convince the host that he is a credentialed Biblical scholar but all she focused on was his being Muslim. She ended up created enough of a stir that his book became a best seller.

Truth is, I understand the fear that lay behind her attack. She, and many others, hold so tightly to these stories that any crack will shatter all of our faith. If Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, then he wasn't the Redeemer and we've chosen the wrong faith.

But I think that misses the point. The truth of the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, will ultimately not be found through archeology or science. It will not be found in anything exterior, but in our hearts. The change that Jesus proclaimed is not simply what happens to us after we die, it should inform how we live our lives in the present.

I'm not talking about "acting good so we'll get to Heaven," I think most of us got our fill of that as children. Instead I think it means that Jesus came crashing into our darkness to show us that only in His light can we find our way toward the kind of world God intended for us all along. I confess that I've always been amused at the "Not of This World" brand. NOTW, as its called, is a Christian company that sells clothing with different logos bearing that phrase. It describes a belief system that this world is ultimately unworthy and our task is to live in a way as to transform this earth for the Kingdom.

I disagree. Jesus did not come to us as a newborn to liberated us from an unjust and evil world. He came to us to give us the eyes and tools to transform this world into the Kingdom he proclaims.

We see signs of this all around us. In the 2000 years since this event we have come to see each other differently: slavery was once assumed, now it's much less common, and nearly universally condemned. For much of our history children were seen as possessions, now we value them as complete human beings in need of our protection. Women were seen as "the weaker sex" and while work is not complete on this, strides are made every day. People of color were seen as inferior. Again, we're not 100% done yet, but we have a President of African descent. Until recently only those with the "correct" sexual orientation were allowed to marry; now the walls of marriage inequality are crumbling around us.

This enlightenment also informs our science. Diseases like pneumonia were once terrifying and are now treatable in a matter of days. Parents one hundred years ago would shake in their boots at the mention of the word "polio." Now it is nearly eradicated. Cancer, though still a terrible disease, is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was.

And this "crashing into our darkness" is not reserved only for Christians, even though we are the ones who proclaim it. Much of our understanding of the world around us comes to us from the work of the secular Jew Albert Einstein and the atheist Stephen Hawking, as well as the Catholic Galileo. Our understanding of the need for nonviolence comes to us from the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi and the Baptist Martin Luther King.

Maybe our celebration of Christmas this year transforms our hearts in a way that helps to transform the world. Maybe this is the year we abandon the "you are there" view that served us so well for many years. Christmas 2014, I pray, will call us all to crash into each other's darkness and proclaim a Kingdom that we need not wait for Heaven to experience. Let's roll up our sleeves. And have a blessed Christmas.

December 21, 2014: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading King David settles back after conquering the last of his enemies and is anointed King of All Israel. He tells the prophet Nathan that while he (David) lives in a luxurious home the "ark of God" dwells in a tent. Nathan tells him to do whatever he wants. But that night God comes to Nathan and tells him to proclaim that God who chose David to rule will continue to bless David. Additionally, after David dies, an heir will be chosen and David's throne will stand firm forever. Luke's Gospel tells the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and announcing that she, though a virgin, will bear a child. That child will be named Jesus and will fulfill the prophecy promised to King David by ruling a kingdom that will have no end. Mary asks how this can happen as she is a virgin and Gabriel tells her that this conception will be done by the Holy Spirit. He reminds her of God's power by speaking of her relative Elizabeth who was 6 months pregnant even though she was previously unable to conceive. Mary responds by saying: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."

When Jews and Christians think about the Old Testament many see the first reading as the apex and summit of the power of Israel. If David was the greatest king of Israel this was his best moment: he has defeated the last of his enemies and has been anointed as king. Now it is time to rest, relax, and enjoy what he has accomplished. But there is one thing he has yet to do: decide what to do with the Ark of the Covenant.

The phrase "the Ark of the Covenant" evokes all sorts of images for us. The word "ark" obviously reminds us of Noah's Ark, the only safe place in a world gone deadly. In Genesis 7 we see that only those in the ark survive a flood that consumes all other life; only the ark will save you.

So too it was thought that the Ark of the Covenant was the only safe haven from death and destruction. Here the ark is not a ship but a container, an elaborately decorated box that held the tablets where God wrote the 10 Commandments. Just before this first reading David brings this Ark to Jerusalem. Later, after David's death, his successor Solomon orders the construction of a Temple that will house the Ark of the Covenant. The ark itself is placed in what is called the "Holy of Holies," a place where only a few chosen men can enter on a few chosen days.

This Temple becomes, because of its role in housing the ark, the focus of Jewish life. We Christians, thousands of years later, can easily underestimate the importance of the Temple. We have churches, basilicas, shrines, temples, and several other places of worship; we see these primarily as places we can gather and know that God is present because we gather there. Is God present when the church is empty? I don't think that's a question most of us have ever asked.

But for the Israelites who built the Temple that was an easy question: of course God is present. That's where he lives. That's what was behind David's conversation with Nathan. I have a good home but God should have a better home. After all God delivered us from slavery in Egypt, brought us to the promised land, and defeated our enemies. God should have the best home in the neighborhood.

And God did, at least for a few generations. The Temple was the place everyone gathered, where animal sacrafices were made to God, where ordinary Israelites came to pray and be with God. That Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Ark was lost and hasn't been seen since (apologies to Harrison Ford and his Raiders of the Lost Ark movies but Hollywood movies aren't always factual). When the Temple was rebuilt after exile there was still a Holy of Holies, but the floor was raised to indicate where the Ark used to be. By the time of Jesus only a few select men were allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and even then only on Yom Kippur. To everyone else and at every other time it was off limits to all of God' creations.

The idea of us constructing a place worthy of God may strike us a puzzling but this is an idea we've been advancing since the tower of Babel, where they felt they could built a tower that would reach to God. Even to this day in suble ways we think we can create a world that will be worthy of God. We can't. God didn't create everything so that God could be impressed with what we've done, God created everything so that we could be astounded with what God has done.

This is no more true than Luke's Gospel. When Nathan spoke of David's heir I'm sure many saw that as a responsibility to continue David's line. Frankly, it didn't work. David's descendants made a mess of things that led to exile and nearly to an end of their existence as God's people. By the time of Jesus' birth the descendants of David were desperate: they were occupied by pagans who barely tolerated their beliefs and expected thier Jewish identity. Within a few generations they wouldn't be anything except ordinary Roman citizens. The promises made to Nathan seemed almost completely out of reach.

But they weren't out of reach to God. In God's desire to restore and redeem Israel He could have chosen anyone. Instead He chose someone none of us would have: a poor young woman engaged to one of the countless descendants of David. I'm fairly certain that nearly all of the wealthy and powerful Jews at the time could have traced their lineage back to David. Any one of them could have provided a palace for Jesus' birth, servants to cater to his every need, and scholars who could have taught him even the most obscure interpretations of the Torah. And yet it was to Mary that Gabriel came. We can ask the questions of why her, why then, why there, but ultimately we're not given the answers.

But we are given the person. We know very little about Mary, particularly given how much we honor and revere her. But we do know that, for whatever reason, she was chosen. She was given the job that no temple could fulfill: she was chosen to contain the eternal Holy of Holies. This Holy of Holies, this Ark of the Covenant, this last refuge against death and destruction, is finally something not made by us but conceived by God.

From the days I started studying the Bible I've been fascinated that in this Gospel Gabriel comes to Mary and prophesizes Jesus' birth but never asks her if she is willing. To use a modern phrase Gabriel never got Mary's consent. He told her what was going to happen and answered her concerns but never gave her the option to refuse. Perhaps this was an editor's decision: there was no reason to include this as Mary clearly consented. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe Mary consented not because of what was asked but instead consented because of who was asking. Mary, in a moment of true transcendence, receives a glimpse of what is to come and understands that she has a part to play in a much larger story. She consented because she is someone who couldn't not consent.

The first reading is about David's agenda, noble as it is. He wants to build something worthy of God and, truth be told, nothing in that reading tells us if God consents to it. But the Gospel fills in the empty blanks when Mary, whose consent was not explicitly given, gives us God's agenda. The new Temple will not be fancy, made of bricks and mortar. The new Holy of Holies will not contain commandments. The new Holy of Holies, the new Temple, the new Ark of the Covenant, will be Jesus. The endurance of bricks and mortar, of gold, will be replaced by God who becomes human. While bricks and mortar can collapse and gold can be stolen, nothing can prevent Jesus from redeeming us. Truly, finally, the prophecy of Nathan is fulfilled, but in a way nobody expected.

As we begin to close on Christmas and wonder how we'll get everything done, and (truth be told) secretly wish we had more time before it comes, let us recognize that our faith tells us we can't wait for Jesus. The children around us are perhaps our best representation of Gabriel because they can't wait either.

December 14, 2014: The Third Sunday of Advent

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading continues from Isaiah, but closer to the end of the book. Here the prophet rejoices that God has anointed him to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. He will announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication from God. John's Gospel continues the story of John the Baptist. Here priests and Levites approach him and ask who he is. John tells them he is not the Christ (the anointed one); they then ask him if he is Elijah or a prophet and John tells them he is not. Puzzled they ask him who he is. John quotes Isaiah and tells them he is the "voice of one crying out in the desert" who tells them to "make straight the way of the Lord." Then the pharisees, who were also sent, ask him: "Why do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?" John tells them that he baptizes with water but there is one coming after him who is so great that he (John) is not worthy to untie his sandal strap.

When I was a child my parents and teachers spent countless hours reminding me how much I had been given (with the implied question of how I intended to repay it). A little later, long about the time I was being confirmed (early adolescence for most of us) they began to talk about the gifts, or talents, we had been given from God. Frankly this second part didn't make much sense to me until I was a young adult and found that there were things that came easier to me, and easier to others. I found that I was good at history but not science; I could remember jokes but couldn't sink a freethrow to save my life.

I also found I could listen and empathize and that led my understanding of gifts to an entirely new level. I'm still unwrapping these gifts decades later but I find my greatest joy in the gifts that serve others.

A few passages from Scripture remind me of this. I'm thinking particularly of Solomon's request in 1 Kings chapter 3 that God grant him wisdom, and of this reading from Isaiah. Here Isaiah expresses the gratitude that I think my parents and teachers were looking for but he does not express gratitude for himself. He is not grateful that God has granted him great wealth or the adoration of the people. He doesn't rejoice in being the fastest runner or the People Magazine's Handsomest Man of 515 BCE.

Instead Isaiah gives thanks that God has chosen him to bring good news to the poor and downtrodden. I think it is a mark of maturity in us when our gratitude moves from what we are given for ourselves to what we are given in service to others. To be fair much of the role of Old Testament prophets consisted of giving bad news: your sinful ways will cost you, your oppressive treatment of the poor will not go unnoticed, your selfishness will cost you all you have. To now be able to proclaim healing to the brokenhearted and release to the prisoners is a much for fulfilling message.

But that also speaks well of Isaiah. Prophets spoke because they could not remain silent. There is a rich passage in chapter 20 of the prophet Jeremiah where he essentially begs God to release him from his role as prophet. When the prophets speak they do so because they know they cannot not speak. They know who they are as one of God's people and they know what they must do, not matter the consequences.

I think that leads naturally for me to the Gospel passage about our friend John the Baptist. A little clarity: there are several Johns in the New Testament and we need to parse them out. John the Baptist is Jesus' cousin and was executed by Herod before Jesus was crucified. John the beloved disciple appears several times in the Gospel of John. And finally there is John the author of the Gospel of John. While there is rich debate over whether the beloved disciple is the author of the Gospel, it's certain that John the Baptist is an entirely different person.

But if there is one thing we can say about John the Baptist it is this: he knew who he was and he knew who he wasn't. I touched on this last week and don't wish to sound redundant, but it bears repeating. We revere John because he rejoiced in being the messenger and knew he wasn't the message.

Neither I nor the Gospels often present the religious leaders of the time in a good light, but I appreciate what they are doing here. At the time of the Gospels there were numerous people who claimed to be the messiah, and frankly our history overflows with these false messiahs ever since. The latest voice in this chorus is easy to ignore, but it appears that John was attracting enough of a following to catch the attention of the religious leaders of his day. The Jews of the time sent first the priests, then the Levites (one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and were tasked with caring for the Holy of Holies in the Temple), and they were both sent by the Pharisees.

They asked the obvious question: Who are you? Interestingly John begins by telling him who he is not: "I am not the Christ." I give these guys credit for trying to understand who he is. "Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet?" In other words are you Elijah, the prophet who was taken to Heaven in a chariot of fire in 2 Kings chapter 2? Or are you Moses coming to free us as you freed the slaves from Egypt?

They are doing what all of us do: they are using what they know to understand what they are experiencing. Since Elijah did not die but was taken to Heaven many felt that he would return to proclaim the return of the Messiah. And just as Moses liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt he could return to liberate the Jews from the Romans. John answers no to both of these and when asked why he baptizes with water he ignores that question and speaks of one greater than him who is to follow. Had John been a fraud he could easily have answered yes to either of these questions. He could have told them that he was the one they had been waiting for and they should follow him. Instead he pointed outside himself to another.

If you've ever had the occasion to watch the sun rise on the ocean you can find a powerful image here. Having had the advantage of growing up on the East Coast I can tell you that the morning sky slowly turns from black to deep blue to lighter blue. If there are wisps of clouds on the horizon there is a point where they turn brilliant orange and then yellow. They fascinate me to watch because I know that while I cannot yet see the sun, they can. And I feel blessed that I can see the clouds that see the sun. I think of John as being one of those clouds. He was content to not be the sun because he knew who he was as one of the clouds and that was enough for him.

I've spoken well of the priests and Levites because I read their actions as those who honestly wish to know who John is. But perhaps there is more to their actions. I do find it interesting that the Pharisees didn't go themselves but sent others. It may be that they were looking for a way to unmask and disgrace John; after all, when the Messiah did some they would gain liberation but lose their place of power. Everyone had a different idea of what a post-Messiah world would look like but clearly the intellectual leaders of the day would lose their advantage and they had a stake in always waiting for the Messiah they hoped would not come in their lifetime.

In any case they ask their questions with intellect and learning while John answers them with love. He tells them not to look at him but to look for the one who is to follow, one who is so great that John is not fit to untie his sandal strap. John is content to be the fire colored clouds on the horizon.

I find this description of John fascinating. Like Isaiah in the first reading he rejoices that he has been called to bring good news; I think he knows that he does not come by this gift out of any particular virtue or because he was Jesus' cousin. Jesus likely had many cousins. But for whatever reason he was chosen to be that "voice in the wilderness" he did it well. And he did not claim to be anyone he is not.

We read about discipleship in virtually every one of the Gospel stories but I think it begins here: when we recognize that we are called to reflect the sun and be the light others cannot yet see.

December 7, 2014: The Second Sunday of Advent

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading from the prophet Isaiah speaks words of comfort to Israel. God promises that the time of her service has ended and her sin has been atoned for. Out of the wilderness a path will be made where God will gather and feed his flock. Mark's Gospel begins with the quotation from this passage of Isaiah and intoduces John the Baptist who proclaims a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. He fortells someone who will follow who is much greater; while he (John) baptizes with water, the one who follows will baptize with the Holy Spirit

Of all the words I enjoy speaking, "console" belongs in the top 10. That word opens the 40th chapter of Isaiah and our first reading (other translations use the word "comfort" but for our purposes there's no real difference). The words console and comfort find their meaning at the end of (or instead of) suffering. They tell us to stop crying, or gritting our teeth, or being strong in the face of adversity. They tell us that the end of our ordeal is at hand.

In my work as a hospice chaplain I like these words and use them often. It may sound counter intuitive but when someone comes to hospice it often marks the end of horrendous experiences of chemotherapy and radiation, suffering through side effects, midnight trips to the emergency room, seemingly hours on hold waiting for the on call medical professional to pick up. I find myself in the position to "console" them that they need not fear these nightmares because we can palliate them at home. The relief in their eyes and voices is palpable. They certainly understand that hospice does not cure all suffering, and that their disease is terminal. But they know that they are not alone and that whatever happens, they have already faced the worst of it.

So too with Isaiah's listeners. They have been through exile from their home, oppression by strangers, and destruction of their Temple. They, too, seek the consolation of the end of their suffering. And they are promised this, and it happens. They are returned to their home and build a Second Temple.

As we approach Christmas we can easily read these words only in the context of Advent, but that devalues the experience of our Israelite forebearers. True, they built a Second Temple, but that was destroyed by the Romans, but they still don't have a Third Temple. Even now, in 2014, they have a homeland and a place of their own, but Israel lives with the reality that guns are pointed at them from seemingly every direction. Clearly their story is not finished as this cannot be all that God intends for us.

Yet it's easy to read Isaiah this way. You sinned, you were punished, and you are restored to what you were. You can return from your exile, build a new temple, choose a new king, and get on with your life.

But God dreams bigger than this, and this is where John the Baptist fits in. Here we see the first notes of a symphony that God has written for us and for our future. We are not promised a restoration of the best days of our lives, we are promised much, much more.

Like most characters in the New Testament we don't know much about John. It's assumed that his mother (Elizabeth) and Jesus' mother (Mary) are cousins. If they are first cousins that makes Jesus and John second cousins. I know this means something to 21st Century genealogists (like me) but it's enough to know that they were related. We don't know much about the contact they had or if they knew each other as children, or even what they thought of each other. Frankly, I'd like to know more, but the Gospel writers didn't think that was as important as I do.

Regardless, John knew something big was going to happen. He would be easy to dismiss today as a "crazy person," a "whack job" or a "borderline personality," but he was onto something. We don't know what he gave up to go into the wilderness but he went there to proclaim something extraordinary. There is speculation that he belonged to groups like the Essenes who lived apart from the rest of the community to await the Messiah but we don't really know, and frankly that isn't so important.

More important is the fact that John knew his place. To use modern parlance, he was Jesus' "wingman." It's at least a strong possibility that John journeyed into the desert to search for or wait for the Messiah. Many believed that a Messiah would save the Israelites from Roman domination and many of the Essenes believed the Messiah would come from their ranks. But in a transformation that is more mystery than anything else, John began to proclaim that the Messiah is coming. We don't know if John believed that the Messiah was a contemporary or when he understood that it was his cousin Jesus. But we do know that he collected a following who heard his words and did what he told.

When Isaiah speaks of "a voice [who] cries out in the wilderness" he speaks of a person of great courage, and John (as the wingman) fulfilled that role well. All of our images of the wilderness in Scripture convey a place of fear and confusion, a place where nobody is safe. A voice that rises above this fear to proclaim safety is a voice of courage. John has that courage. And while most of us like the image of a wingman I think most of us imagine having a wingman instead of being one. John was in the perfect position to proclaim all sorts of things about himself but doesn't. He recognizes that no matter how much attention and adulation he receives, he is not the one.

Instead he pointed elsewhere. He pointed to something that was beyond even the dreams of those who listened to him. Those who awaited a Messiah were, frankly, looking for someone who would defeat the Romans and restore their Kingdom. Instead John points to God who became human, died for our sins and granted us eternal salvation. A Christ who blew away even our most impressive fantasies.

This season of Advent, of awaiting our salvation, continues to be a mystery to us. We want an end to suffering, and instead we are given salvation. We want to be on the winning side of history and instead we are given eternity. We want relief from pain and are given joyful forever.

The voice who cries out in the wilderness cries out in the pain of our lives, and the lives of those around us.

November 30, 2014: The First Sunday of Advent

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, questions why we stray from the Lord. Isaiah speaks of all the things God does for us, and yet we stray. The prophet then asks that God return us to him, and ends with the image of God being the potter and we are the clay, the work of God's hands. In Mark's gospel Jesus counsels his disciples to stay vigilant. He compares this to a master who leaves his home to travel a great distance. The servants are warned to stay awake as the master must not find them asleep when he returns.

The season of Advent begins today, and as I've spoken many times, it's a time of waitng and anticipation. Much like Mary spent 9 months waiting for Jesus' arrival, we spend these next 4 1/2 weeks waiting to celebrate Christmas. I'm going to avoid the normal screed on how we don't like to wait; not because it's not true, but because it's a cliche. We all understand that we've abandoned email in favor of instant messaging because even email is too slow.

But I am curious about the first reading from Isaiah. On one hand it makes some sense: we hear about a God in all his awesomeness, a God who is hands down greater than any lesser god (even though we know these lesser gods don't exist). This is the proclamation of the Redeemer to come. But it also has an apocalyptic power to it. Here we recognize not only our capacity to walk away from the best deal in town, but we can't return on our own. A note of explanation: apocalyptic literature speaks of a time when we can no longer win the battle ourselves and depend on God winning the battle for us. It's most obvious in the Book of Revelation, but is found in other places also.

Here we see the prophet plead with God not to be there when we return (because we likely won't of our own accord), but to bring us back. It's as if Isaiah recognizes just how broken we are, and how much we are in need of God's help. I think there is great truth in this, and I share the embarrassment many of us feel toward this. We are good at many things, but we are especially good at hubris. We like to think of ourselves as independent, self sufficient, and self made. Isaiah speaks the words we only speak when we've reached our lowest: pull me up because I can't do it myself. Truth be told I've never been a big fan of the Footsteps parable (even though we have it on the wall of our guest room) but there is truth there. If you're not familiar let me give you the quick and dirty version: the writer dreams that he is walking on a beach and looks back, realizing that his life is marked by two sets of footprints. One set is his, and one set is God's. But he is disturbed to see that the hardest and most painful chapters of his life are marked by only one set of footprints. Disturbed by this he asks God why he was abandoned in his worst moments. God expresses his love and tells the man that the single set of footprints are God's because the man was being carried through those times in God's arms.

This season of Advent, this time of waiting, can be seen as a time where we may feel some abandonment. It reminds us of the world before our redemption and it comes (at least north of the equator) when the night creeps more and more into our day.

That said, the Gospel appears a little jarring. Jesus tells us a parable about a master who is going on a long trip for an undetermined amount of time but will return without warning. Again this is one of those times where I'm grateful that I'm not a fundamentalist. These poor servants have to spend the entire time awake, and this is in the days before Red Bull.

But it does set up a dichotomy. How are the servants supposed to run the place in his absence? Do they continue to do the right thing, or take advantage of the situation? Again, in my ongoing attempt to avoid cliches, I will (hopefully) not turn this into another one of those "just wait until your father gets home."

That said I suspect it's a universal temptation to go at least a little wild in the hopes that you can clean up before anyone is the wiser. Many of us baby boomers read the Dr. Seuss book The Cat in the Hat where children are left to themselves on a rainy day. The Cat in the Hat arrives and serves up all sorts of mischief and makes a mess of the house. But when the parent approaches, the Cat introduces a contraption that cleans up the mess before anyone finds out. That appears to be the fantasy of the "live it up" crowd and I'm a little surprised no Christian organization has attempted to have the book banned. And Jesus is pretty explicit that the master will return before you have a chance to clean things up.

The other group choses the better, if more boring, way. Jesus encourages the servants to go on just as the master would have wanted it. That way they need not worry about when the master returns because anytime is a good time for that.

So is this Gospel reading just another example of the smart thing to do? It is, but on another level it's not. Choosing the second way speaks not only to maturity, but also to the goal of discipleship. I think sometimes we look temptingly on the idea that "we can get away with something." I'm a big fan of the 1991 move City Slickers and think this explains a great deal about male spirituality. A group of friends in the cusp of 40 go on vacation to herd cattle and explore their lives. The most immature of the group, Ed, is fascinated that his friend Mitch has no desire to cheat on his wife. Ed asks him if the most beautiful woman in the universe came out of a space ship asked for sex, and then returned to the spaceship going away forever. Would Mitch agree to cheat on his wife, knowing nobody would ever know. Mitch replies that he wouldn't because he would know and it was still cheating.

Sometimes sin looks more tempting to us that it really is. Ed believes that cheating is OK if there's no opportunity to get caught. You have sex with a space alien, you make a mess of the house, you abuse your master's trust. As long as you get away with it, it's OK.

But discipleship calls us deeper. It calls us to recognize that even if you are one of the servants who is making a mess of things, you spend your entire time looking behind you, hoping you'll pull it off. And fearing that you won't. Any enjoyment you gain by sleeping in, cutting corners, or abusing the other servants, weighs against the fear that you aren't as clever as you think and your life may take a bad turn.

But if you've learned anything from the master you've learned that there is a way the place runs smoothly and that's the calmer, better role. This way it almost doesn't matter when the master returns because you have nothing to fear. By operating in the master's place you've learned how it should be run.

And so as we await the birth of our Redeemer, let us look in the season of Advent as a time of renewal, of being the light that we anticipate. Of being the one who lives without fear.

November 23, 2014: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Brief synopsis of the readings: Today is the celebration of the Christ the King (or, the long version: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe). The first reading comes from the prophet Ezekiel; here God portrays himself as a good shepherd who will protect his flock and care for them. At the end of the reading God proclaims: "I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats." The Gospel from Matthew is familiar to many. Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming into his glory and separating everyone as a shepherd separates the sheep and goats. He tells the sheep that eternal reward awaits them because they fed him (the Son of Man) when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, etc. When the sheep ask him when this happened, he tells them that whenever they did this for anyone (the least of my people) they did it for him. To the goats he tells them to be gone from his sight into eternal fire. When he was hungry or thirsty or a stranger they did nothing for him. They ask him when that happened and the Son of Man responds that whenever they neglected anyone (again, the least of my people) they neglected him.

Today marks the last Sunday in Ordinary Time. Next week begins the season of Advent, the preparation for Christmas, and the beginning of the liturgical year. For those interested in these sort of things, next Sunday we switch from the readings in Year A to Year B. Yeah, it's a liturgical nerd thing.

That said I've always been a little puzzled by the need to have a feast to celebrate Christ the King. Jesus comes with a myriad of titles (Christ being one of them, meaning "the anointed") and I'm not entirely certain why we need to grant him the title of king. From our earliest days as humans there have been leaders and followers (and perhaps earlier: we can see hierarchies in primate communities). The man in charge is the king and the woman in charge is the queen. The idea of Jesus Christ being a king almost seems redundant.

Truth be told we have, at best, mixed feelings about kings and queen. As Americans, King George III conveys images of tyranny while his great great great grandson, George VI (from the movie The King's Speech) is adored as a courageous man who overcame a stammer and led England to victory in World War II. When we think of King Wenceslaus we immediately think of the word "good" even if that's all we know of him from the Christmas hymn while we vilify King Nebuchadnezzar who sent the Jews into exile.

But I think Ezekiel is on to something. He writes during much of the most interesting years in Jewish history (shortly before the Babylonian exile) and warns against complacency. King David ruled during the high point in Israelite history, and while he was at best a flawed ruler, things were good. After his death the kingdom became divided and not all of his successors were trustworthy or faithful leaders. Still it was easy to pledge obedience to an earthly ruler and believe he would keep things good.

Except they didn't, and this reading is set when things were really, really bad. And so (sorry for the cliche) what's a guy to do? Back the king who defeated your king? Or recognize that earthly kings are often more earthly than kings?

The heart of the first reading is this: don't go "all in" with earthly kings. Recognize that only God is God and only God will lead you exactly where you need to go. This led the remnant of Israelites to keep the faith and keep their identity so that when King Cyrus defeated King Nebuchadnezzar they were able to return home. The only king we can truly trust is God.

OK, so what should God do? How should God lead? I think that's what brings us to the Gospel reading.

Earthly kings, no matter how noble, always seem to enjoy their place. Whether they think they are kings by divine providence, superior intellect, or superhuman strength, none of them appear particularly humble. However they gained power they seem eager to use it to prove that the rest of us don't stack up. I'm a pretty good student of history but I can't remember a time when a king starved while his subjects had enough.

Christ the King is the counterpoint, and the lesson for all of us. Whenever Jesus uses the title "Son of Man" he indicates something to come, a foreshadow to the future. While it gives migraines to us who scramble to make our language and prayer inclusive, "Son of Man" points to something essential about the Kingdom. Here Jesus wants us to know that whatever hierarchies we have built here, whatever excuses we use to include some and exclude others, they have no place in the Kingdom of God.

The core of our belief in the incarnation rests here: Jesus is not telling us how to treat each other, he is telling us how to treat God. The belief that we are created in the Image of God goes back to Genesis but finds its fulfillment here. Not only does it mean that we are great but that God is least.

Think of the implications: we claim as disciples that we give ourselves 100% to God (or at least strive to), that we love, honor, and respect God. But look at the opportunity this gives us. We can feed God. We can clothe God. We can swallow our fears and visit God in prison. If God dwells in the least of us we can start there.

Or we can walk away. We can decide that if God is hungry or naked or alone that it's God's fault and we owe him nothing. We can decide that prison is a scary place (and it is) and succumb to that fear, or feel that the imprisoned don't deserve our visit. Even worse we decide that God needs "tough love" and helping God only makes God more dependent. We can settle into a smug satisfaction that our unwillingness to do anything is, ultimately, the kindest thing we can do.

This passage from Matthew has inspired countless among us to abandon that complacency and paralysis. The phrase "Matthew 25" has called us out when we've attempted the anemic "I don't want to get involved" or "Let him pull himself up by his bootstraps." Here in San Diego the local chapter of Catholic Charities holds a dinner each year called "Matthew 25" where they honor men and women who have reached out to the poor and marginalized (full disclosure: my father-in-law Deacon Al Graff was a recipient in 2009).

If we honestly believe this, it should affect every aspect of our lives. It should impact how we vote. It should impact where we invest our assets. It should impact where we spend our money. And it should impact how we see each other. Many years ago I was blessed to hear a Baptist preacher on this topic. He was speaking to a Catholic audience and talked about Mother Theresa (or, as I like to call her, St. Theresa of Calcutta). He talked about the joy she felt in her life and said this (from my memory): "Do you think she wakes up every morning and says 'Oh God, another day on the streets of Calcutta. I'll bet they forgot to make the coffee,' or does she start each day saying 'Every time I look into the eyes of the poor I see the face of Jesus looking back at me and therein lies my joy'?"

We should find our joy there too. I will be the first to say that we should find our joy in the eyes of those we love and those who love us. But that's easy. Earlier today I presided at the Celebration of Life of someone who brought me great joy (and hopefully I brought her great joy too). But Matthew 25 calls us to find joy in the eyes of those who don't find joy in our eyes. Matthew 25 calls us to find joy in the hungry, the naked, the destitute, and the imprisoned. Matthew 25 calls us to find joy in the eyes of those who hold signs at intersections, who often have the phrase "God bless you" somewhere on the sign.

This is a hard reading and none of us gets it right all the time. But if Christ the King is about anything, it's about the belief that all of us are created in God's image and we need to treat each other that way.

And so as we close this liturgical year let us look to Advent and then Christmas as an opportunity to renew our faith in the eyes of everyone who looks back at us.

November 16, 2014: The Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament book of Proverbs and appears to be giving advice to a young man on what to seek in a wife. The writer states that a good wife is hardworking, generous, and full of wisdom. Matthew's Gospel recounts a parable where Jesus speaks of a master who leaves town. He leaves three servants with various amounts of currency (called talents). On his return he finds that two of the servants invested well and doubled their wealth. The master was pleased and rewarded them. The third servant, however, feared his master and buried his share and returned it to his master. The master became angry and took away his share, giving it to the first servant. He finishes by saying: "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but from the man who has not, even what he has will be taken away. As for this good for nothing servant, throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth."

Our first reading comes from Proverbs, and we don't hear much of this book in the Sunday readings. I think it is partly because much of Proverbs consist of couplets of advice without much holding them together. This chapter is the last one of the book; the previous chapter speaks of the need for wisdom in the face of many temptations.

And yet books like Proverbs prevail. In the Old Testament we speak of them as wisdom literature; today we might call it a self-help book. Nearly any bookstore will devote at least one isle to self help. This magic isle will provide us recipes to success, happiness, wealth, love, respect and long life if we only purchase the book and follow the instructions.

All cynicism aside there is truth here, at least in the concept. To varying degrees we all get off track and wisdom literature/self help reminds us that we do well when we make good, if not tempting, decisions.

Perhaps this is nowhere more true than in the search for a spouse. I think I join most Catholics in rejoicing over the news coming these days from Rome. Pope Francis has been clear that we need to rethink our views of divorced Catholics (and homosexuals, but that's gratitude for another day). We live in a time and a place where finding the criteria for a life partner is not easy. We celebrate youth and attractiveness, neither of which will last over the course of our lives. We need only a brief look at fashion magazines these days to see what women are supposed to be and what men are supposed to want. There is always a tug on my heart when I hear the Harry Chapin song A Better Place to Be. A waitress in a diner hears the tale of woe from a night watchman who she finds attractive. Her response to his story is this: "I wish that I were beautiful or that you were halfway blind. I wish I weren't so goddamn fat. I wish that you were mine."

The background of this reading challenges us to see the choice of a life partner as one of investment. Obviously there needs to be attraction and emotion, admiration and pleasure. But it also needs more. My friend Carol once told me that you shouldn't marry someone unless that person is willing to hold the bucket while you are sick to your stomach. She feels (and I agree) that anyone who shows that level of commitment will keep that long after the looks and youth are gone.

The concept of investment appears to continue in the Gospel. I have to confess that this reading has never been my favorite, if only because it's easy to misuse it. I'm guessing that I'm not the only one who was told that this reading was about grades and studying and the first two servants doubled their investment by studying and getting good grades while the third servant didn't. And even if it wasn't explicitly about grades, much was made that the currency was translated as "talents." Many of us were told that God had given us certain gifts (or talents) and was grading us on how much success we were finding in how we used them.

I know this was never the intent but the result for many of us was fear. What if God blessed us with a gift we didn't like? What if I have a talent for math but want to be a history teacher? Or, more to the point, what if I have a talent for math but don't work as hard as I'm supposed to? Does that make me the wicked and lazy servant? And how do I know how much is enough?

Oh, and while I'm on the subject, does Jesus really want to cast the master as a metaphor for God? If so, how do we provide a context for the "wicked and lazy" servant who says to the master: "Sir, I have heard that you were a hard man, reaping where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered; so I was afraid, and I went off and hid your talent in the ground."

Finally we live in a time and a place where investment matters. I live in San Diego and we had a virtual bloodbath in the last decade when local politicians were accused of mismanaging the investments of city pensions. All of us invest in companies, causes, and people who promise to work hard to give us a good return, but in reality they are making decisions and holding their collective breaths. Did you invest in Google in 2004? Good for you. Or did you invest in Enron? Sorry pal, you're screwed.

I don't think we can look at these readings without taking ourselves out of 2014. If the writer of Proverbs tells us that a lifelong spouse is one who is hardworking, generous, and full of wisdom, so should be all of our choices. I think the final word on the Gospel is that we should not let fear make our decisions. We don't know anything about the master except that two of the three servants felt free to invest and the other was paralyzed by fear.

Perhaps this Gospel would be easier to understand if there was a servant who told the master that he invested the talents poorly and lost it all. But we are not given the master's reaction. I hope the master would tell that servant that his courage and willingness spoke well of him, but clearly the third servant didn't think so. His fear was that losing the investment would be worse than hiding it and so he hid it.

OK, there is a soft spot in my heart for the third servant and perhaps there is in your heart too. But for all its irony, maybe the message is to move beyond our fears and invest boldly and wisely.

I hope so.

November 9, 2014: Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilicia in Rome

Brief Synopsis of the Readings: In the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel he speaks of an angel who came to him. This angel brought him to the entrance of the temple where he saw water flowing from the temple. This water flows toward the east toward the south where it empties into the sea. The sea is salt but this water makes if fresh, allowing fresh fruit to grow. In John's Gospel Jesus comes to Jerusalem shortly before Passover. There he sees the temple area (outside the temple) filled with money changers. He grew angry and overturned tables, shouting that they were turning his Father's House into a marketplace. When confronted he told the religious leaders that if the temple is destroyed he will rebuild it in 3 days. John then explains that Jesus is talking about his body as the temple.

Many years ago when I was a seminarian I took a class on how to preach. I was a student at Catholic University but had the ability to take courses at other schools of theology in the area and I decided to step out of my comfort zone and took this preaching class at Wesley Theological Seminary, a Methodist seminary across town.

It was an incredible course and I learned a great deal about the craft of preaching but I startled several of my classmates with my first sermon. We could choose any reading or readings from scripture and I chose a seemingly obscure reading from the Old Testament book of Numbers. I explained that in my tradition the readings are assigned each week: we don't choose them. I decided to preach on the readings of the Sunday previous to my assignment.

As a general rule I like this method because it rules out the possibility that I will always choose the readings I like or am comfortable with. That said this weekend's readings drove me crazy. Maybe this is one weekend where I wish I could have chosen the readings.

Last week we celebrated All Souls and read those readings instead of the normal ones for that Sunday. This week we're doing it again, reading the readings from the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. (I'll explain more about that in a minute.) I've sometimes puzzled over the choice of readings but never more than today. It appears our readings are random choices that center on buildings. That said, let's see where these readings take us.

I promised to explain about the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, and that requires a brief look back in history. If I asked most people where I could find the Pope's church, almost everyone would give the same answer: St. Peter's Basilica. That's a good answer but it's wrong. Technically the pope is the bishop of Rome and his church is the Lateran Basilica, about 3 miles away. This church dates back to the 300s and was built by Constantine, the first Roman Emperor who embraced Christianity. The current church was built in 1646.

OK, ready to dive into the readings? The first reading comes from the prophet Ezekiel, near the end of the book. Ezekiel is often difficult to read; much like the New Testament book of Revelation he often speaks of visions and uses coded language to bring consolation to people that fear they have been abandoned.

Here he speaks of consolation in speaking about the entrance to the Temple. I've spoken about his before, but to review, when the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt and settled in modern day Jerusalem they built a Temple where they could house the 10 Commandments and worship. It was built around 950 BCE. It was the only place where they could sacrifice animals and essentially the only place they could worship.

It was destroyed by the Babylonians around 580 BCE when they were driven into exile. It was feared that since they had no place to worship or sacrifice, they would soon lose their identity and be lost to history. When they were freed of their exile by Cyrus they returned to Jerusalem and built another (the Second Temple) which was completed in 515 BCE.

The Second Temple lasted until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. In 691 CE the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the same ground and current law in Israel prevents it from being demolished to build a Third Temple.

In a sense, Ezekiel speaks of a vision that we don't see. He prophesized about a Second Temple, and that did exist for about 600 years, but is gone now. Looking at this with 21st Century eyes we can easily see that any building, no matter how sturdy, is not invincible.

Maybe this is the crux of today's readings. When we think of buildings, especially large ones, we think of the peak of human possibility. By the time you read this, it's probable that One World Trade Center in New York will be open for business. The images of the falling towers from 9/11 are seared in the minds of all of us and the question "Where were you" is one we'll be able to answer on our deathbeds. We saw the best road to recovery lay in rebuilding; it is 1,776 feet tall so that nobody forget that we are a free nation that will not be bowed by terrorists.

But it’s a building. For all its symbolism (as important as that symbolism is), our greatest creation is not immune to disaster, natural or human. Sometime, hopefully far into the future, it will fall.

Perhaps this is the meaning Jesus wanted to give us. The Second Temple, as large and as opulent as it was, was only a building. It was certainly the center of worship, a gathering place for all Jews, a place where all were welcome to come and sacrifice. Over time they built in several customs for this. You could purchase an animal for sacrifice with wide varieties to serve both the poor and the wealthy (cattle for the wealthy, doves for the poor). Since Roman coins could not be used (they had the image of the Emperor on them), you could change them for Temple coins that bore no graven image. It was an easy and efficient way to conduct the necessary business.

Jesus comes to this scene, as he had done his entire life, but now wants a throw down. He upsets all of this, but the thing that really got him into trouble wasn't knocking over the tables, it was his claim to rebuild the Temple (himself) in three days. Since we live in the post Resurrection world we know that this means he will return after being dead for three days. But it was an act of real violence to say what he said. It's little wonder the Jewish leaders turned against him.

That said I think there are times when we think ourselves able to build the unbreakable Temple. The best we can do is pretty good, but not compared to what God can do. If we think of Jesus as the new Temple we do have a Temple that cannot be destroyed and that should give us some comfort. No matter what we do, for good or for evil, the nondestroyable Temple can comfort us. Much like the visions in Ezekiel, this Temple will last forever.

I'm writing this on Sunday, November 2nd. In a few days we Americans will go to the polls in another round of that "picking our leaders" thing. I encourage all of us to vote, but I'm also looking at these readings.

It's become almost fashionable to declare that our opponents' victories will spell doom for our country and our world. Several of my patients who guess incorrectly about my political leanings have gone on about that "terrorist in the White House" while friends of mine look at the other side and are convinced that Republican victories will bring about the slow and ugly destruction of all we know. Interestingly enough both sides think Jesus is on their side.

He's not. Jesus is on the side of eternal life, of the Temple that will not be destroyed. On the side of all of us who listen.

Oh, and please vote.

November 2, 2014: The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls)

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the book of Wisdom. This is one of the books that the Catholic Church recognizes as part of the Old Testament but Protestant and Jewish congregations do not. This is commonly read at funerals because it speaks of those who have died. The author contends that while they appear to be dead (to the foolish), they are indeed at peace. If they are seen as being punished, they were instead tested and found to be worthy. They will judge nations and rule over peoples and God will be their King forever. The Gospel comes from John where Jesus promises that all God has given to Jesus will be given to us. Everyone who believes in the Son will be given eternal life.

Welcome to All Souls' Day. November 2nd is a Catholic feast, the day after All Saints Day. This has always been puzzling to me, and I beg your indulgence as I explore these readings. I'm not entirely certain I'll be less puzzled by the end, and I pray I don't infect your certainty with my uncertainty.

I can't tell you how many Catholic funerals I've been to (in a variety of different roles) and most of them have used this first reading from Wisdom. I understand that it's a comforting reading: the loved one who we are burying isn't really dead, but lives on in paradise. And as Christians we hold this as one of our core beliefs: they are in Heaven, they no longer suffer from whatever ailment let to their demise, and we will see them again when we die. As a hospice chaplain I regularly talk about this with grieving families.

But the reality, at least for us, is that they are dead. They don't "seem" to be dead and we aren't foolish for thinking that they are. And yet we go to incredible lengths to pretend that they aren't. I'm reminded of a Garrison Keeler story of being a young child and attending the wake of an elderly relative. When shown the body his mother said to him: "Doesn't she look like she's asleep?" His response was that she didn't look asleep: she looked dead. One more example of when a child tells a truth that we adults are trying to avoid.

And to be fair, we want to avoid it. Many years ago my paternal grandmother died a few months short of her 101st birthday. She had a long life and a protracted death. While her final illness wasn't particularly painful, she spent many months bedbound and in need of exhaustive personal care. When she died we went for the viewing the night before it was a good opportunity to connect with family and friends. The next morning we gathered as a family before they closed the casket and we took her to the church for the funeral. Standing next to the casket my aunt said to me: "Don't you think she looks better this morning than she did last night?"

While I still chuckle at my aunt's hope, I do think it speaks to a greater truth and a reality we all have to live with: death means that at least for a period of time, we are here and they are there. It's been 26 years since my grandmother died and none of us have had the benefit of being with her, hearing her voice, or seeing her eyes. No amount of faith can take that away and nobody's belief, regardless of how strong, can make her physically present to us.

But this "in between time," after our loved ones have gone and before we join them, isn't a parched desert, an empty time. It is a time of memories, a time when we can move (haltingly and incrementally at times) beyond the agony of fresh grief to a recognition that we carry their love with us.

When I look at the Gospel that's what I see. We live in a world that fears death above all else, and I don't need to go into great detail to describe the things we do to stave off death. And while there is a part of us that eager to see our loved ones again I think that is often dwarfed by our fear of finding that death will not give us what we desire.

The fear of death is complex and multi faceted. Rabbi Harold Kushner, who I quote from time to time, thinks the fear of death is rooted in the fear that we will get to the end of our life and believe that we haven't fully lived. I agree with him on that: the people I minister to who have the easiest time letting go of this life are those who can easily articulate what they've done, who they've been, and how they think they will be remembered. Those who think themselves a failure, or at least those who aren't satisfied with what they've done, face death with more regrets. And those who focus on their failures instead of their victories often have the worst time of all.

But I think there is something else there also. Deep in all of us, I suspect, is a latent fear that either there isn't anything beyond this, or (worse) there is and we're not included. We've all had experiences in our lives of feeling excluded, left out, or not invited. And for many of us those experiences have been hellish. There have been times where we were not welcomed because of choices we've made or because of who we are. Regardless of the reason we've found our noses pressed against the glass of the place we so much want to be. What if that experience isn't just a school lunch table or a party, but all of eternity?

And without putting too fine a point on this I think there is much in our world today that enhances this. Out of an overblown fear of Ebola we find people demanding that we exclude anyone who we think may be at risk of giving it to us (even West Africans who have lived in the United States for years). The recent court fights over gay marriage point to an underlying prejudice that "those people" are excluded not only from marriage but from God's Kingdom itself because of who they are.

It's hard to go beyond our fear but I think it's times like this that we need to take this Gospel seriously. Jesus is clear: "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me." In other words, nobody is excluded from the lunch table, the party, or the Kingdom.

I mentioned at the beginning that today we celebrate All Souls' Day; November 1st is the celebration of All Saints' Day. I don't know if this was a universal experience but for much of my life there has been a division between these two days. All Saints Day was reserved for the big guns: St. Francis, St. Paul, St. Catherine, and the rest. These were the folk that we all looked up to and tried to emulate.

All Souls' Day was for the rest of us. That was a celebration of everyone else in Heaven that we don't know about. Your grandmother, the pious monk in the 12th Century, the lonely but faithful nun. Not that I expect this will be listened to, but I'd like to see both days merged into All Saints Day. Because Jesus includes all of us in the Kingdom there should be no division between St. Paul and your pious grandmother.

If we think of All Souls' Day as the wedding feast, then we tend to think of All Saints' Day as celebrating those at the head table. A few decades ago I was in charge of a church religious education program in Virginia. The 8th graders celebrated the sacrament of Confirmation, and as part of that were encouraged to choose a saint's name as their Confirmation name. Most of the teenagers chose a well known saint (and in the interest of transparency I chose St. John the Baptist when I was confirmed). One of the teenage boys asked me if he could choose William, the name of his grandfather who died a few years earlier. When I asked him why he told me that his grandfather was a good and holy man and he hoped to be the kind of man his grandfather was. I didn't hesitate in telling him that he should choose St. William and that would give honor to his grandfather and direction for him. I also suggested he not be terribly public about it.

I think that Confirmation candidate was on to something: If those who have died are the ones who guide our life here and await our salvation one day, aren't they all one in God?

I'm open to a Kickstarter campaign to merge All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day.

October 26, 2014: The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from the Old Testament book of Exodus. Shortly after their escape from Egypt, God reminds Moses that they were once oppressed. Now that they have their freedom if they oppress others, God will hear their cry. This includes strangers, widows, or orphans. In Matthew's Gospel the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked which of the commandments was most important. Jesus tells them that they must "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: you must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets also."

It's easy to see the Exodus reading against the backdrop of what we see happening around us. I'm going to try not to make this homily a screed that either justifies or condemns what we are doing.

That said I think these passages from Exodus and Matthew do speak to us in dramatic voice today. When I was in seminary the rector (the head of the seminary) once spoke about how the voices of the powerful have seemed to change in the last few decades. While in the past the powerful would enjoy the power and authority they exercised among others, claiming they deserved it or were given it by God, we don't see it as much now.

Instead he spoke of the "culture of victimhood" where even those with the most (money, popularity, power) claim to be victims of others who honestly pose no threat to them. Wealthy CEO's who fear that any increase in taxes will destroy their hard work. Celebrities who are criticized for offensive statements decry criticism as an offense against their "1st Amendment Rights" (even though the 1st Amendment only prevents you getting arrested, not against criticism). The difficulty with this view is this: if everyone is the victim, everyone looks at the Exodus reading as one of the oppressed.

Certainly Moses and his merry band could have done that. This reading comes from the 22nd chapter and the escape from slavery comes from the 12th chapter. The Israelites could well imagine that the Egyptians were still coming for them. But God knew differently and used this time to begin to build the type of society they will experience when they finally get to the promised land. When we think of commandments we normally think of the 10 Commandments but God's commands were much longer and broader. Scholars of these first 5 books of the Bible have counted 613 commandments, governing everything from what to eat to what to wear.

If you’re a slave there is only one commandment: obey your master. It's a miserable way to live, and slaves often endure starvation, torture, sexual enslavement, and the like. But outside of surviving and doing what you're told, it's not complicated. And anyone who escapes the world of slavery and begins the long climb to independence soon learns that this newfound freedom comes with responsibilities. Perhaps that partly explains the allure of eternal victimhood: all the trappings with none of the responsibility.

But that's a false view of ourselves and each other. We are together and it matters how we treat each other. In his book The Covenant James Michener speaks of a group of settlers in South Africa called the Boers. For whatever reason they shunned cities and preferred to settle in the countryside, and they wanted to live so far from their nearest neighbors that they couldn't see the smoke from the neighbor's chimney.

That's not really possible, or even desirable for us. We often think of ourselves as living in a "global village" and we all deal with each other, friend or enemy alike. We have rules, we have commandments, because everyone deserves protection. God makes it clear in this reading that even those on the bottom must be treated with basic respect and dignity. God makes it clear that just as he heard the cry of the poor in Egypt, He will also hear the cry of the poor in Israel. Just as he dealt harshly with Pharaoh, He will also deal harshly with the rulers of Israel. These rules about the exercise of power must have seen strange to that band of stragglers in the desert but God knew they would one day be a great nation.

If Moses speaks of how we are to treat those with no power, Jesus doubles down. He tells us that we must love our neighbor as much as ourselves. I have to put in a caveat: this was written long before anyone understood concepts of self esteem and self loathing. It was assumed that we love ourselves and nobody understood what we now call the disease of depression.

In the Gospel the Pharisees are once again trying to trip up Jesus. In the passage before this reading the Sadducees had tried to trip up Jesus to no avail (the Pharisees and Sadducees were both groups of highly educated men during Jesus' time. They were rivals who disagreed on the issue of life after death). Here the Pharisees ask Jesus which of the 613 commandments was the most important. They hoped that Jesus would choose one of them and face the ire of those who would choose another. Instead Jesus encapsulates all of the commandments into two: love God and love your neighbor.

Now here's the trouble with neighbors: we don't choose them (and to be fair they don't choose us). However we define neighbors, they are people who share a building, a neighborhood, a city, a nation, or a globe with us. We have no control if our neighbor is Gandhi or a lunatic who thinks that his success is predicated on practice sessions at 2AM.

Can we truly love our neighbor? What if our neighbors are a gay couple who make us uncomfortable? Or two young men who look Muslim and speak something that sounds like Arabic? Or a family who just returned from Liberia and we think we heard one of them cough (you just can't be careful enough about Ebola)? What if we read this reading about love of neighbor and think we have an exception?

Well, we don't. We obviously have a right to be safe, but I think the things that make us hate our neighbors isn't so much hate but fear. The same fear that entices us to victimhood also entices us to hate our neighbor.

As I write this the 24 hour news channels are making themselves wealthy (wealthier) by supersizing our fear of Ebola. As I said I don't want to turn this into a screed, but it's hard to ignore. It's a nasty virus and if you live in Sierra Leone or Liberia you have reason to fear. But if you live in the United States you have nothing to fear. And yet we fear.

A cruise ship carried an employee of a lab at Texas Presbyterian Hospital and the nation of Belize refused to allow the ship to dock. A woman who drove cross country through Texas arrived in San Diego and demanded she be tested for Ebola. Politicians are tripping over themselves to call for a travel ban on anyone coming from "those countries."

What would Jesus say? First I hope he would call everyone to calm down and listen to the voices of reason, not the shrillest voices. But I also think he would call us to care about our neighbors who are in danger and put them first. I think he would tell us that if we focused our resources on stopping the virus instead of drawing lines between us, we would truly understand his message.

I think he would tell us (once again) to "fear not" not because there is no threat but because love happens only when we overcome our fears. We are called to love our neighbor as much as ourselves because that is the only path to the kingdom. The minute we start ranking love we draw lines and make distinctions. These distinctions lead to us vs. them and drive us apart.

The stranger, widow, and orphan are today the sick, the victimized, and the silenced. We must be their voices.

October 19, 2014: The Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to read from the prophet Isaiah. Here God speaks to his anointed, Cyrus. God speaks of taking Cyrus by the hand to force open gateways. God tells Cyrus that even though he does not know God he will be armed so that all may know that there is nothing apart from God. In Matthew's Gospel the Pharisees plot to trap Jesus. They ask him if it is permissible to pay taxes to Rome. Jesus rebukes them for setting a trap and asks to see a Roman coin. Jesus is handed a coin and asks whose head is on the coin. When they reply that Caeser's head is on the coin Jesus instructs them to to give to Caeser what is Caeser's and give to God what is God's.

You have to be a bit of an Old Testament nerd to get this, but there is high comedy in the first reading. Characters and names come and go in the Old Testament at sometimes dizzying speed and it's easy to gloss over the names. But Cyrus is not one of those names. He's different.

If you've been reading my stuff for a long time you may already know about this, but several books of the Old Testament speak of the horror of the Babylonian exile. The Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzer, conquered the Israelites in 597 BCE and sent them into exile. The Israeiltes feared that they would disappear as a people but they were restored in 539 BCE when Babylon was itself conquered by the Persians, led by Cyrus. Cyrus was not exactly a hero, but didn't care what happened to those the Babylonians conquered, and allowed them to return to their home.

There are several ways to look at this from a theological perspective. Maybe the Israelites were just plain lucky. That happens in history. Maybe this is proof of the theory of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Maybe it's an example of an opportunistic God who finds an advantage in events that just plain happen (this may be just a little cynical, but let's give it its due).

Or maybe it's an important lesson God wants to teach us. Most of the civilizations of that time believed that there were several gods who competed with each other. Seeing this from a 21st Century perspective it's hard to imagine such a thing, but the ancients looked at gods in much different ways. Some felt that all the gods were competitors and saw us as pawns in their games. Others held that the weren't in relationship with each other but were instead rivals where we are players competing against each other to make the them more successful, like a sports coach.

We don't believe that. We think that there is only one God who controls the entire universe. Given that, what is God's relationship with those outside of "our group" or the "chosen people"? This reading may be an important clue.

The Israelites must have looked on Cyrus with fear and suspicion: he defeated the ruler who defeated them. Would he be just the same, or even worse? Instead he's better, and I don't think that was an accident. I think Isaiah referred to Cyrus as the "anointed" because God chose him, even if nobody else did. I think God decided to use Cyrus to restore Israel because it would show that this blessing came from God.

This tends to run counter to our belief of "us vs. them" or the "good guys vs. the bad guys" but let's face it: God enjoys messing up the rules we make to govern ourselves. We see that again in the Gospel.

Dozens of passages in the New Testament confront the religious leaders against Jesus. In fairness to them they must have been befuddled by Jesus. After all, who is this guy? This, this carpenter's son (if he really is Joseph's son). This backwater hick from Galilee. Who is he to challenge us? We need to teach him some respect. We need to make him understand that we have studied and debated; we need to make him understand that we are the smart ones. We need to teach him his place.

The beginning of the Gospel show their strategy: they went away to work out for themselves how to trap Jesus. I've seen this happen. The group gets together to plot the final humiliation of one person to make sure that person doesn't get in their way ever again. And to their credit they come up with a brilliant trap.

I've spoken about this before, but Jews in the time of Jesus were caught in a difficult place. The Romans were the conquerers and had no interest in the rules that God mandated for the Jews. And one of those rules concerned the money they carried. Jews were forbidden from anything with "graven images" but the Romans insisted that they pay taxes with coins that bore the head of Caeser. And so they asked Jesus if it was permissible to pay taxes with these coins.

It was a masterpiece of a question. If Jesus said it was permissible he would lose the support of those who hated Roman rule and wanted to overthrow Rome. If he said it wasn't permissible he would be fomenting revolution and leave himself open to the charge of treason. What would he do?

He did what Jesus always did: he ignored the question and taught a larger lesson. Much like God in the first reading, Jesus looks beyond their immediate group and speakes expansively. By telling them that there is a place for Caeser just as there was a place for Cyrus, he speaks to a greater truth: we are a part of a larger whole, and even when they don't appear to be our allies, they are a part of God's plan. We need to look beyond us vs. them and see those around us as part of who we all are.

Just as the Israelites were liberated by an outside turn of events that none of us saw, just as God's kingdom is advanced even through the existence of Caesers' coin, so too are we called to move beyond "us and those like us." Frankly I find that lesson that is too often ignored from where I look.

If we look around us we find the "us vs. them" transposed to "good vs. evil" all around us. Are there those who are suffering from a deadly virus in Africa? Don't look at providing healing for them, just make sure they don't come here. Are there people on the other end of the planet trying to hurt us? We need to make sure nobody that looks like them gets near anyone who looks like us.

I know I'm straying into contraversial territory here, but I can't help but think about the issue in our own nation surrounding gay marriage (or marriage inclusion). In the last few years more and more states have held that marriage ought should consist of two adults, regardless of orientation. The issue has been wending its way through the courts and recently the Supreme Court has elected not to examine rulings that find in terms of marriage equality. I'm not exaggerating when I say it's been a hot button issue.

What's more, the lines of "us vs. them" are not drawn on geographical lines. When I hear from someone that he's never met anyone who is gay I remind him that he hasn't recognized that anyone he knows is gay. This fear has strained relationships among church groups, social groups, friends, and families. But it has called all of us to explore our beliefs that we are all included in God's plan.

Much like Isaiah was called to look at Cyrus and say "part of God's plan;" much like the disciples of Jesus were called to look at Caeser and say "part of God's plan," we too are called to look at everyone around us and say "part of God's plan." God never promised that discipleship would be easy, and He never said that He would respect our prejudices. But if we believe what we say we believe about inclusion and love, we need to take seriously the need to reexamine our beliefs, particularly about those around us.

If Isaiah could call Cyrus the anointed one, and if Jesus could call his diciples to give to Caeser what is Caeser's, can we call ourselves to include those we once excluded?

October 12, 2014: The Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is again from the prophet Isaiah. But this time it's a much more joyful reading. He speaks of a feast of rich foods and choice wines, of destroying the veil of death for all people. The people will recognize the work of the Lord and the Lord will rest on his mountaintop. The Gospel is a bit more confusing. A king is hosting a wedding feast for his son and sends out invitations. But those he invites decline the invitation for various reasons and they kill the messenger who delivers the invitations. The king grows enraged and orders the guests to be killed and their cities burned. He then orders that his messengers go out and invite whoever they find. They go out and invite everyone they see, "the good and bad alike." The king is pleased, but finds one who is not dressed for a wedding and questions him. When the guest does not respond, the king orders him bound and cast into the darkness where he will find wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Can I begin by saying this: the Gospel is way confusing. Who knew there was so much riding on a response to a wedding invitation? The next time I'm invited to a wedding I'm going to take it more seriously.

Well, maybe not. We live in different circumstances and I can't imagine killing the person who is trying to invite me to a wedding, no matter how important the groom's father is.

You see, Jesus often uses a wedding feast as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. There are a few reasons for this. A wedding feast is often considered an event where everyone comes away with good feelings. Brides find it the fulfillment of their dreams since they were children, grooms find it a time when all his buddies are rooting for him. Parents find weddings an affirmation that all their sacrafices in raising this child have proven successful. Younger siblings look with hope for their own future and older siblings look with fond memories. It is one of a few events in our lives when nearly everyone we love is gathered in one place to celebrate love, covenant, and forever. Weddings are events brimming with hope, joy, and optimism.

If we think about it, that's not a bad image of the Kingdom: it's like a wedding that never ends. We get to spend all eternity with all the ones we love in a place of celebration. Life is hard and God knows marriage brings its own challenges, but for this one day all that difficulty is put aside and we celebrate with each other.

But what if you are the host of the wedding and your plans go awry? What if your generous offer to attend this feast is met with "I have other plans" or "Yeah I know I said I would go, but I got a better offer" or "I'll catch your next wedding but I have something else to do now"? I"d be pretty angry if my offer of generosity is met with this level of ingratitude. Now let's bump it up a level: not only do they ignore your generosity but they ratchet it up a level and kill the messenger.

You can certainly make it a smaller wedding but the point isn't only the wedding of your son to his fiance, but a celebration that will be a joyful event to everyone you know. The king must be thinking that there must be a way to still make this a joyful event.

And so the king goes to Plan B: let's just fill the chairs with anyone who will come. Go out and find anyone who has a heart for celebration and bring them in. Don't worry about who they are, what they've done, or who they are with. Cast the net wide and long. Fill the chairs with (sorry I have to do this) the "coalition of the willing."

Frankly I like this image of the Kingdom of God. Too often in our history we've decided that we know who will be included. To quote the 1987 movie Gardens of Stone: "To Us and Those Like Us: Damned Few Left!"

Alas, the Kingdom likely won't be filled with only "us and those like us." We struggle in this life to be comfortable, friendly, and even loving with those who aren't like us. We find this a struggle, much like the struggle of working for a living, and we look forward to a place where our struggles are complete. But while the Kingdom is a place where we no longer need to work for a living, it is a place where we will be with those who are not like us.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the determination of who is invited to the wedding (or the Kingdom). If we demand that it be those we choose to be with, it's not going to work. On the other hand, if we choose to be in a place of celebration and understand that we celebrate with whoever else is with us, we are invited. But that means we have to give up control over who else is invited. We have to celebrate with those the king determines.

But what about the person the king challenges because he is not dressed in the wedding garmet? I have to confess that this has always bothered me. I've always assumed that those who attended the wedding were the poor who could not afford a wedding garmet. But why was this person singled out? Why was he punished when likely nobody else could likely dress well?

I may be making excuses, but I think this person was lacking something other than good clothing. Maybe it was something more than being someone who was "on the road" and "the good and bad alike" who was poorly dressed.

Maybe he was someone who came to the wedding but did not respect the king, the couple, or the others who were invited. Maybe he was one of the people who were at first invited, declined, and then snuck in. Maybe he was someone who sat in judgement of those who were there. That was always Jesus' complaint with the Pharisees and elders. I've always loved the verse from Matthew 23:4 They [Scribes and Phariseees] tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

I know it's a stretch, but if you're the king this would be a perfect reason to toss him. Jesus hated few things more than hypocrisy. The idea of someone approaching the Kingdom while still trying to be different from (and above) those invited would have enraged him, and I can easily understand his anger. I have to confess that I find few sins less forgiveable than hypocrisy: trying to portray yourself as Ghandi while truely being Donald Trump. We are who we are and do no good by trying to portray ourselves as better than we are instead of working on become better.

And so when we read this Gospel, where do we find ourselves? I like thinking of ourselves as the king who searches to find those who are worthy of attending the wedding. But more than that, I like the idea of being those who are invited to the wedding after the "good people" disrespect the king. We're all broken and redeemed people. To quote William Sloan Coffin: "It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it's a crutch. What makes you think you don't limp?"

We are, indeed, the bad and good alike. I don't think it means that some of us are good and some are bad, but we are all bad and good: good sometimes and bad sometimes. We don't come to the feast because we are good enough; we come because we were invited by the One who knows us best of all.

October 5, 2014: The Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from the fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. He speaks of a friend who owns a vineyard. His friend works hard to produce the best grapes but finds instead that it produces "wild (sour) grapes." Isaiah then proclaims that he (God) will undo all his work and allow that field to be taken over by weeds and give up on ever thinking that land will produce anything. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus is speaking (again) to the chief priests and elders. He tells them a parable about a man who plants a vineyard and leased it to some tenants. When he sent his employees to collect his rent, they were beaten or killed. After this happened a few times he sent his son thinking that they would respect the owner's son. Instead they saw this as an opportunity to kill the person who will inherit the vineyard and they killed him. Jesus asked what should be done to the tenants. They all suggested that those tenants should be put to death and the land leased to other workers. Jesus agrees and tells them that they are the ones who should be put to death.

If we can put these readings into a modern context, it would be "Jesus Throwdown 2.0" There are many lessons to be learned from this, but perhaps one we should not overlook is that Jesus didn't come to teach what everone wanted to learn. I've been working and living in the spirituality/faith world for almost my entire adult life and I've spoken with countless people who do not share my Christian beliefs. Maybe it's because I've always lived in areas where Christianity has been the dominate religion, but I can't tell you how many times people of other faiths have told me that they respect what Jesus taught. I know they mean well and are saying it because they want me to think well of them, but I want to tell them that Jesus' teachings aren't meant to be comforting. They are meant to mess up your universe. Peter Kreeft, one of my teachers at Boston College, used to say this: "Jesus wasn't a nice guy or a wise teacher. He claimed to be the Messiah and Savior of the World. So either he was what he said he was, or he was a liar. There is no in between."

This is one of those times where we see that claim clearly. It's almost as if he was asking for trouble, and maybe he was. When I was in seminary I read some of Plato's dialogues of Socrates. For those not familiar, Socrates is often portrayed as the father of modern philosophy. He asked uncomfortable questions to those in power and they did not react well. They put him on trial for trumped up charges and gave him the opportunity to defend himself. Instead of defending himself he continued to challenge the powerful and they put him to death. Because he didn't defend himself or explain what he was doing, many believed he committed suicide (as a matter of fact if you Google "Socrates suicide" you'll get 883,000 hits). Nothing was further from the truth. He simply believed that his values were more important than his life.

But he spoke his truth anyway, with no concern for his safety.

So did Jesus. On some level he must have known that his conversation with the chief priests and elders would not go well for him. He must have known that these were not people to be messed with. Maybe he didn't know that this would take him on the road to crucifixion but he had to know that it wouldn't take him on the road to adulation.

And yet he called them out anyway. The religious leaders of his day were often a target in his sights, and it's easy for us 2,000 years later to kind of enjoy it. Admit it, we love to see powerful people put in their place (if you don't believe me, turn on one of the 24 hour news channels). But if we look at these readings with even a trace of smugness, we miss the point.

Anytime we identify with the righteous, we run the risk of being one of the chief priests and elders. Let's face it: we live in a time and place where the label "Christian" is more of a compliment than an insult. Whatever guilt we may carry over what we said to our sibling when we were 8 or what we did with our boyfriend/girlfriend when we were 17 is shouted down by the reality that nobody is going to question how we treat the homeless, the mentally ill, or the resident alien. We have it pretty good.

So are we ever, as Isaiah calls, us "sour grapes"? The first reading from Isaiah talks of grapes who are not worth the investment. The owner of the vineyard does everthing right. He is an excellent farmer who knows how to grow grapes. And yet the grapes betray him. For whatever reason they don't take advantage of the nutrients in the soil or the abundant water and sunlight. For whatever reason they squander what they are given and become lazy, unsuccessful, sour grapes. The chief priests and elders are the same. They are given tremendous opportunity. They are seen as the scholars: they are given the tools to read, pray, and learn. In return for their study they are seen as the smartest and most learned. They are the ones that the rest of us go to for counsel and wisdom.

But they aren't the most wise. Having enjoyed the power and respect they've been given they have become the most rigid. They have shifted their eyes from the people who come to them and instead they focus on the rules. And that is why Jesus calls them out. He gives them a parable where they assume Jesus wants an answer; after all, that is what they do all day. But Jesus does something nobody does to them: he tells them that their answer provides the seeds of their own demise. They have become so accustomed to giving answers that nobody questions, they have no idea that they have become the people Jesus calls out.

Much to their outrage they are not the landowner: they are the workers who beat the messangers and kill the landowner's son. In the first reading they are not the vineyard owner who plants the grapes: they are the sour grapes who squander the nutrients, water, and sunlight.

These readings were much easier to understand when Christianity was a renegade and illegal religion. Now that we are in charge it's too easy to read this in the context of imaginary foes. There is a certain comfort in being the victim. But we need to be extra vigilant when we recognize that our lives, our values, and our choices are driven by the fact that we are not the victims, but the chief priests and elders. I think of this often when I'm stopped at a red light and there is someone on the traffic island with a sign that says "God Bless You." I know he (or she) wants money from me and there's a part of me that says he (or she) is a bad investment because my money will be spent on alcohol or drugs.

But there is a part of me that thinks that the request for help shouldn't come with conditions. If this person needs my help, should I help him (or her) or should I decide whether my help is a good investment? Cynicism is an easy shelter and we can all hide behind our belief that we are doing them a favor by not giving them what they ask. We can be safe in the belief that we know what they need more than they do. But are we missing something in this encounter?

When the landowner sent his son he thought the tenants would see his son and treat him with respect. Instead they didn't see his son, they saw the impediment to their wealth and they killed the impediment. The tenants were guilty of seeing the wrong thing.

If these readings tell us anything, they should tell us not to see the wrong thing. It's easy, and maybe too easy, to think that the readings at mass confirm what we want to believe, but if we are truely honest they call us to constantly move beyond our comfort zone. They call us to see ourselves in different categories. They call us not to be the audience that cheers Jesus when he creates a throwdown with the chief priests and elders. They call us to recognize the voice of Jesus when he calls us down, when we decide that we are called to be judged by those we barely recognize because we made them invisible.

I hope this homily doesn't make your feel uncomfortable. I hope it encourages you to look at the poor and needy in a new light.

September 28, 2014: The Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel warns against proclaiming that God's ways are unjust. He then states that when a good person falls into sin he will die because of that sin, but when a sinner renounces his sin he will live and not die. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus is speaking to the chief priests and elders and tells them this parable: a man has two sons and he tells them to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later changes his mind; the second says he will but doesn't. Jesus asks which son did the father's will. When they respond that it was the first son, Jesus then tells them that prostitutes and tax collectors will make their way into the kingdom before they (the chief priests and elders) will because only the prostitutes and tax collectors obeyed John the Baptist's words.

Let's start by saying this: neither of the man's two sons would have done well with my father. It would not have been acceptable to either refuse to go into the vineyard or promise and not do it. I've often wondered what the father thought or said when the first son blew him off. Maybe the father "persuaded" him or maybe he felt guilty about it; we're not sure.

Or maybe the first son was looking our first reading and thinking that the father's ways were unjust. It's helpful to look at the entire chapter of Ezekiel because he is introducing a new concept: God is proclaiming that he will reward or punish individuals for personal conduct. This is a tension throughout much of Scripture and there's no "bright line" of demarcation, but earlier in the Old Testament there were proclamations from God that the entire people of Israel would be rewarded or punished based on the conduct of all (for example, all suffered exile to Babylon, even those who acted justly).

Any change like this is bound to create some conflict; if you are one of the few wicked people you could hide behind the goodness of others. It makes sense that you would be troubled by this. On the other hand if you're a good person this is nothing but good news: you will never be punished for others' bad acts, even your own family members.

The rub here is that everyone sometimes falls into a place where they don't think of their bad acts (or sins, or whatever you choose to call them) as bad. We all think we can justify what we did as "not so bad" or a way to correct others' injustice (I cheated on the test because everyone else did).

And I think that is what Jesus is doing in this Gospel. It's easy to overlook how radical and dangerous Jesus is acting here. He really is playing with fire. Whenever I hear someone claim that Jesus was a simply a good teacher and wasn't who he said he was, I want to point out this passage. He is hardly being a "good guy" or a "helpful guide here." This is a full on no hold back throw down. He is talking to the chief priests and elders, the proverbial "smartest guys in the room."

And not just the room: these men were seen as the smartest guys in the land. When we think about someone being smart, or even brilliant, we tend to see their intelligence in the context of their field. A brilliant scientist probably isn't an excellent poet; the world's best airplane mechanic is likely not the person you'll go to for advice about love. But the chief priests and elders were smart in the only place it really mattered: what God expects of and how we are to live our lives. And it is to these men that Jesus sets his trap.

Back to the two sons, neither was completely right: neither agreed to go into the vineyards and then went. When Jesus asks which did the father's will he's really asking about results. And I think most of us would agree with the chief priests and elders. While the older son was rude, he did eventually do what he was supposed to do.

And the chief priests and elders honestly thought they were doing what they were supposed to do. The read, studied, prayed, discussed, and gave advice based on all of this. They must have been enraged when this know nothing nobody of questionable birth told them that prostitutes and tax collectors were better off than them. "All this work only to have this, this wannabe telling us it's worthless? That we are behind those who violate commandments about coveting and stealing?" A few chapters later when Jesus is turned over to the Roman authorities to be crucified I imagine there were some of these same men who took some pleasure in what happened to Jesus.

Jesus was doing a few things in this encounter. He was certainly stirring the pot: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. He was articulating God's justice as opposed to our own. And he was speaking truth to power and I think that deserves special consideration because too often I find it lacking with us today.

There are always risks when we say something unpleasant to someone who has power or authority over us but sometimes it needs to be done. We have several cliches for this: Nobody ever said this would be easy. I never promised you a rose garden. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the right thing.

The problem lies in the fact that in many cases we want it to be easy. After all, if we're doing what God wants us to do, you'd think God would make the path straight and without obstacles. This would have an added benefit: we would know we were doing the right thing because it was easy. Alas, that's often not how it happens. Perhaps it's a mark of how much God believes in us that the true path is difficult. But if so it calls us to courage and to speak our truth, even if voice quivers.

Several years ago I worked for a hospice that was generally well run and I was happy there. As a hospice chaplain I visit people with terminal illness in their homes. No day is predictable and the number of visits I made varies a great deal. One day we got a memo from senior management telling us that we had a quota, a minimum number of visit we needed to make each week. Fortunately my manager told me not to worry too much about it, but my colleagues on other teams weren't so fortunate. When I talked with one of them about this quota he responded that his manager had "completely drunk the Kool Aid."

This was a reference to the 1979 massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, South America. He led a group of believers (or, more accurately, a cult). As he began to descend into paranoia and drug abuse he became more and more irrational, until he finally gave the order that all his followers drink Kool Aid laced with cyanid and most of them did. They were so afraid of him that even then they wouldn't disobey him.

This is an extreme example, but the phrase "drinking the Kool Aid" has become a metaphor for not speaking the truth to power, for lacking the courage to say what needs to be said. My colleague was not able to convince his manager that fulfilling this visit quota ultimately hurt patient care as we would need to rush out of visits to hit our numbers. He was not able to convince her that numbers that look good on paper don't always translate into the truth of what needs to be done.

I'm not sure if the chief priests and elders understood why Jesus said what he did (it's normally not easy to understand what is being said when we know how much we are being insulted), but I hope at least a little of what he said got through. I think he was telling them that for all of their book learning, they were missing the ultimate need for humility and everyone's need to ask forgiveness. Much like the visit quota, they were looking at their scrolls instead of the eyes of the person in front of them.

September 21, 2014: The Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the prophet Isaiah (near the end of the book). Isaiah counsels us to "seek the Lord where he may be found" and reminds us that God's ways are not our ways, or are his thoughts our thoughts. Matthew's Gospel gives us the parable of the landowner. During the course of the day he hires several workers to labor in his vineyard. Some work the entire day, some half the day, and some just a few hours. At the end of the day he pays them. First he pays those who worked just a few hours, but gave them a full day's wages. When he does this the other workers (who worked more hours) expected that the landowner's generosity would include them adn they would be paid more than they expected. Instead the landowner paid everyone the same amount, regardless of how long they worked. When they complained that they should get more since those who worked just a few hours were paid so generously, the landowner told them that nobody got cheated. Everyone got at least what they expected, but some got more. He finishes by telling them that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

You know, somedays it just doesn't pay to be a good guy. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for this parable and I think it's probably a good rorschach test: do you identify with the landowner, the full day workers, the half day workers, or the laggers who only worked a few hours?

The Gospel troubles many of us because it violates our ideas of fairness. I know I find myself in the place of those who worked the entire day for a wage that is fair, if not generous. I don't think I'm alone in this; imagine yourself in this postion. We all knew that a day's work will provide us enough to live on, but we'll never become a landowner. We know that our tomorrows will be much like our yesterdays. And we hold a secret hope in the possibilty that some tomorrow will provide us with an opportunity to leap to a new level. A part of us hopes that one day we'll be able to grab a ladder rung that will elevate us to a place where we won't have to worry each day about our wages. And when we saw the last workers being paid what we thought we would get, maybe we thought that day was today.

When the landowner hired people later in the day than us and then paid them the wage we had expected, we thought this was our opportunity. If he's this generous with them, won't he be as generous with us? Maybe this is the day we make that long hoped for leap up.

But he doesn't and perhaps we need to look at the first reading from Isaiah for some context. I think the seeds of the Gospel can be found there. "Seek the Lord while he may be found." Maybe we find the Gospel troubling because we seek the Lord while we may be found. And did you notice the word "while"? This reading is often read as if it tells us to seek the Lord where he may be found. But while isn't about location, it's about timing. Additionally, Isaiah reminds us that God's thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are God's ways our ways.

OK, then if we are to look for the Lord while he may be found we need to understand what that means. I don't think it's about our time, as if it were a a promotion that will expire. Instead "while the Lord may be found" is the nexus of when the Lord comes into our lives.

The conflict in the Gospel centers on the time the landowner comes into the lives of the workers: some workers are with the landowner for the entire day and some for only part of the day. And yet all get the same reward. If we have been doing the right thing all day, we can see some resentment toward those who didn't. But this assumes that those who came to the landowner late were off relaxing and having a good time (that we, ultimately, are paying for). But I don't think that's a good assumption.

When I drive by hardware stores or other places where day laborers congregate I often wonder about their lives. When it's the middle of the day and there are still people there I don't normally assume they just arrived a few minutes ago. I hope they've already had a job that finished early and are hoping for more. Sadly I think many of them have been there for hours and are wondering if they will make any money today. For them to get a few hours work and get paid for an entire day is probably beyond their best hopes. I like to think the full day workers wouldn't begrudge them the landowner's generosity because they all have been in the same situation.

Or let's look at this another way. What if they did sleep in (or even sleep off a hangover). I still think we are called to rejoice in their benefits, but often we don't. Several years ago I gave a talk at the church where I grew up. One of the women who heard me speak misunderstood something I said about the Catholic teaching on artificial birth control. She dressed me down for what she thought I said and it led to an unhelpful discussion. I knew her and her family and knew that she was public in her belief that using artificial birth control was a mortal sin and would deny the sinner entrance into heaven. At one point I posed this question to her: "I know you think God is going to reward you and your husband for not using artificial birth control. What if, at the end of your life, you are given salvation and entrance to heaven, but when you get there you find that everyone gets in, even those who used artificial birth control?" She got engraged and assured me that this would not happen. "But," I reminded her, "you're in. You got what you wanted. Why are you angry that others got in also?" It was clear to me that for her heaven wasn't just eternity with God, it was also about exclusion, almost as if part of the joy of salvation was knowing that those who didn't listen to here were denied that salvation.

I dont' know if that was true but I think that happens more than we want to admit. We look at those who don't work as hard as us, or who aren't as successful as us, or don't do what we want them to do with a certain amount of smugness. I don't think this calls us to work less or be less successful, but to be generous with all those around us who are less successful.

Our desire for fairness and justice is a good thing and I don't want to diminish that. But fairness doens't mean that everyone gets treated the same. I remember hearing a parent of several children being asked if he treated them all the same. "Of course not" he said. He explained that his children were all different and just as there was not a "one size fits all" clothing for them, neither was his treatement of them. Some needed more encouragement to study, others needed more attention paid to their accomplishments. Some did better with close supervision, others needed to try something on his own. Sometimes his children felt he was being unfair and he knew that, but he felt that was how he was the best father he could be. His ways are different.

It's the same way with justice. We are always looking for how to be just with others, and we often fall short. Too often our idea of justice is based in measured punishment or reward. If someone robs us, he goes to jail. If a friend betrays our trust, he loses our friendship.

But God's ways are not our ways. His justice is not limited to this measured response or (dare we say) controlled revenge. The laborers who trouble us the most are the ones we feel benefit from our labor, who we feel are taking advantage of us. If God doesn't punish them (or reward us to compensate), we dont' find justice even if we are provided fairly.

But if we are working for finite resources, God is not. The landowner, we assume, has limited resources to pay his workers and he appears to be distributing them unfairly. But if the landowner is God and the paycheck is salvation, we can be happy that everyone benefits, even those who we feel shouldn't be there.

God's ways are not our ways, and we are the better for it.

September 14, 2014: The Triumph of the Cross

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Today, in the Catholic Calendar (and only in the Catholic Calendar) is a feast called the Triumph of the Cross, or sometimes the Exaltation of the Cross. This is rare in the Catholic calendar in that it replaces the ordinary Sunday readings: we're not doing the readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The first reading is from the Old Testament book of Numbers and takes place after the Israelites have left Egypt and before they arrive at the promised land. Here the complained that God abandoned them to die in the wilderness. God then sent poisenous serpents who bit several of the Israelites who died. The rest repent and God orders Moses to make a bronze serpent and told Moses that whoever looks at the bronze serpent will live. John's Gospel quotes Jesus' words to Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up like the serpent in the desert so that everyone who believes will have eternal life. A passage from this reading "Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life." If you've seen "John 3:16" banners unfurled at football games, this is the passage. Finally Jesus proclaims that the Son of Man into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.

Let's start by stating the obvious: the cross is not triumphant. The cross was the tool used in ancient times to crucify someone. To die by crucifixion was to endure a long, painful, and humiliating death. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst of the worst: the slave who murders his master, or in the case of Jesus, a person that Rome feared was trying to overthrow the government. There were other methods of execution; crucifixion was reserved as a way not only of execution, but also a warning to others that they will suffer the same fate if they commit the same crime.

Today we see a cross or a crucifix as the universal sign of Christianity: many of us wear crucifixes, hang crosses in our homes, and make the sign of the cross when we begin or end prayer. But it wasn't always like this. The first generations of Jesus' followers used a fish as their symbol because the memory of the cross was too horrible. Only after it was banned in the year 337 did the cross begin to be used as a symbol of Christianity.

In the years since "carrying your cross" has become a metaphor for enduring suffering while remaining faithful. We recognize that discipleship in Jesus does not inoculate us from suffering, and in some cases may well be the cause of our suffering (think about our Christian brothers and sisters currently living in Iraq or Egypt). We speak about the cross because we know that the cross is not the end of the line.

We know that because of the day Jesus carried his cross. In conquering death he endured the worst that this world could inflict on him. His death was not clean, or humane, or dignified. And yet he plumbed this depth and even then rose from the dead.

So in a sense the triumph, the exaltation, isn't the cross but the empty tomb. The problem is that when we are "carrying our cross" we can't always see the empty tomb or even be certain it's there. And our crosses come to us with wildly varying degrees of pain and suffering.

It's a concern of mine that we think of crucifixion we think only of the physical pain that Jesus suffered. Catholics of my age and older have clear memories of seeing crucifixes that made a point of the agony of crucifixion. Churches, cemeteries, and sometimes even funeral homes displayed nearly life sized statues and stained glass that graphically showed the crown on thorns, the wounds, and the agony. While a popular image (and one that has been particularly profitable for Mel Gibson), I've always been drawn to another scene in Jesus' passion: the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. Taking place after the Last Supper and shortly before Jesus is arrested, he goes off by himself to pray and pleads: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will." When he returned to his friends they had all fallen asleep. After his arrest, during his trial, and even when he was crucified, his friends abandoned him.

I hope nobody has ever suffered the physical pain of crucifixion or anything approaching that level of suffering. But I think we can all point to times in our life when we have felt abandoned and alone. We've all experienced times where we've felt devalued and marginalized. I think these are the experiences that call us to these readings.

We see the true suffering of this when we fear that there won't be a redemption, an empty tomb. And it's an easy fear to embrace. Despite all that we profess as disciples of Jesus we can fall into despair.

So how do we get out of it? I've come to believe that an intellectual awareness of our faith simply won't be enough. This is the hardest part, but I believe the Triumph of the Cross demands that our faith goes beyond an intellectual or reasonable profession. Times of great suffering and passion call us to live in a way that leaves no room for despair. They call us to recognize that Jesus' death and resurrection mean nothing if they don't pull us back to time of joy, community, and love.

I can't help but think of this against the backdrop of September 14, 2001. The morning of September 11th was clear and bright before the ugly and demonic hand of terrorism caused it to be one of the darkest days in our history. Those first few days found us bewildered, enraged, fearful, and bereft. As a nation we wondered if we were still under attack, we wondered if we could ever enjoy ourselves again, and we wondered if we'd ever be a truly free nation again.

During these dark days I had a conversation with a priest friend of mine. His sister in law's uncle was on American Airlines flight 11 that crashed into the North Tower in New York. We grappled with the need to see the Triumph of the Cross in the midst of all the darkness we observed. At that point the grief was so raw that it was hard to see even a small shaft of light but we both knew that was our call. And though we all wearied of the phrase: "If you [fill in blank here] you let the terrorists win" we knew that they would win if we didn't stretch our gaze beyond the cross.

Now, with the benefit of 13 years, we can see some progress. We still mourn the searing loss of so many people, the damage to families, office, neighborhoods and bowling leagues. We still experience prejudice against people who "look like terrorists" (even though the hijackers wore western clothing and were clean shaven). And we still fear another attack.

But in the last 13 years we've seen 3 presidential elections and the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. We still respect the Constitution and enjoy the freedoms it grants. And while many of us have hung in with loved ones during hard conversations, we've remained committed to each other and are determined to love our neighbor. The healing is far from over but as a nation we have been resolute in our determination not to take our eyes off the empty tomb.

It's good to remember this when we are in the midst of our own suffering. We'll never go back to the way we were on September 10th but that doesn't mean the world need stay as dark as it was on that awful morning. Some of the healing has happened because others have done good work, and some has happened because we have done good work. But over all is the hand of God, who promised that the end of the story is not the cross but the empty tomb.

September 7, 2014: The Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. Here God commands that Ezekiel warn the wicked to renounce their ways. If Ezekiel does and the person doesn't repent, the wicked man shall die and Ezekiel will not be punished. But if Ezekiel does not warn this wicket man, the man will still die, but Ezekiel will be responsible for his death. Matthew's Gospel shows Jesus talking about how to correct someone in error. He tells his disciples that if they have the chance, they should correct that person privately. If he does not change, then bring one or two others to encourage him to change. If he still doesn't, then treat him like a pagan or a tax collector. Then Jesus tells them that whatever they hold bound on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. He finishes by stating that when two or more are gathered in his name he shall be there with him.

On their face, these readings appear a little chilling to me. Ezekiel is one of the Old Testament prophets and while the idea of being a prophet may sound appealing to us from this distance, it was actually a fairly miserable existence. Prophets were chosen by God to send a message to the people, who were often not interested in hearing what the prophet had to say; recall last week how our friend Jeremiah suffers under the persection of others. Here is seems that Ezekiel most needs to fear not earthly leaders, but God.

It appears God is telling Ezekiel that if he doesn't warn someone to change his wicked ways, God will kill that person and hold Ezekiel responsible. That sounds pretty harsh. It reminds me of the pledge I took at George Mason University: "A student will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do." We were told that if you see somone cheating and don't turn him in, you are as guilty as he is. Unfortunately this didn't entirely have the desired effect. What most of us did was not let our eyes leave the paper when we were taking tests.

But here it's a little different. It's as if God says "you will not lie, cheat, or steal, and if you see someone doing this, you have to tell him to stop." What if you're intimidated by the other person? Or what if you don't know him and don't want to get involved? Can't you just disappear into the crowd and pretend you didn't see it?

That seems to be a hallmark of our modern society: the protection of the crowd. There is safety and perhaps even deliverance in being able to disappear into a crowd. We've all had the experience of wanting to disappear or being slightly uncomfortable by what we've seen. What if you're in a store and see someone slip something into his pocket? Are you bound to say something to him or the store manager? Does it matter that the store owner is being robbed and that everyone will have to pay a little more for their purchases because of this? Isn't it easier to say nothing and pretend we didn't see it? Or is God calling us to move out of our comfort zone, just a little (or maybe just a lot)?

The context of the gospel appears different. Here Jesus is talking about resolving a conflict with a "brother." That connotes a relationship so at least here we are talking about someone we know. In some ways that makes things easier, but maybe in some ways it makes it harder. Our closest relationships make communication easier but sometimes it makes confrontation harder. I can have an argument with someone in the grocery store and I don't care what that person thinks of me. But when I see a loved one do something wrong I can easily be afraid to say anything for fear that our relationship will suffer. If you don't believe me, just look at any advice column.

The words of Jesus at first blush appear to be a step by step process: first you do this, then you do that. But be careful not to take this too literally. There was a religious community (not, I'm at pains to state, Catholic) where it was found out that some of the children had been sexually abused by the adult leaders. When questioned why the rest of the congregation didn't report the abuse to the police, they pointed to this reading and said that Jesus told them to keep it in the community. When told they were breaking the law, as some were mandated reporters, their response was that they were following the Bible. I don't think that's what Jesus had in mind.

But I do believe he had the Kingdom in mind. You see, every time we disappear into the crowd, everytime we pretend we didn't see something, every time we tolerate wrongdoing, we move a small distance away from the Kingdom. But everytime we do the hard work of expecting the best in ourselves and others, we more a small distance toward the Kingdom.

If we look at these readings only the surface it appears to be commands that God and Jesus have given us. But maybe there's another way. I may be dancing on the edge of what these passages mean, but what if we turned them on their head? What if we use these readings not to command us, but instead to empower us?

The Hebrew word "mitzvah" may hold the key here. The simplist translation for this word is "commandment." It's said that in the Old Testament there are 613 commandments (not just 10). There are 248 positive commands ("You must") and 365 negative commands ("You must not"). When a young man celebrates his bar Mitzvah he acknowledges that he is now "under the law." In some Jewish communities young women celebrate the same thing but it's called a "bat Mitzvah."

But a mitzvah is not simply a command, like a chore. It's much more than that. A mitzvah can also be seen as a good deed, and I think this is where these readings call us. If we see virtue as a chore, then it only does the job, like dusting the furniture. We don't revere those who dust well and we don't really expect kudos for doing it right. It's just what you have to do to keep the house from getting dusty.

But if we see a mitzvah as a good deed, it changes everything. If you shovel the walkway for the widow next door who is too frail to do it herself, isn't that a mitzvah? If you hold open a door for someone pushing a stroller, isn't that a mitzvah?

And given this, can we extend this to how we confront a child of God who isn't acting as one? I remember talking once to a graduate of the Naval Academy. He was telling me that there was a general understanding that they were all working hard to make the entire Navy better and sometimes that meant confronting others. He told me that it didn't do much good to say to someone: "You messed that up" because all it did was shame the midshipman. Instead he would say: "You didn't perform to your abilities." That acknowledged that the midshipman was capable, but came up short this time. Instead of shaming the person to admitting he messed up, this allowed the midshipman to try harder and live up to his own abilities.

And what are our abilities? I think we are capable (with God's grace) to build the Kingdom of God. I think that whenever we do something wrong it's not because we're screw ups, but because we're not living up to our best selves. I can point to several times in my life when I've been grateful (though not necessarily in the moment) that someone has pointed out an action or a statement that missed the mark. I'm a better person for their courage.

But that lure to disappear into the crowd is always there, and I think it has invaded some of us who follow Jesus. I'm always a little troubled by those who believe in the rapture. It's a belief that at a point in time of God's choosing He will take all the good people on earth into heaven. They won't have to suffer death but will, in the blink of an eye, be in heaven. There are several reasons I don't believe in that, but I'm also concerned that this can lead to a sense of complacency. I've found in many (though, honestly, not all) of these believers the sense that "I know where I'm going and you're on your own." In their view of the book of Revelation (the last book of the Bible), the end of the story is the Kingdom of God. That being the case, why worry about what we are commanded (or invited) to do? We know we're going to be saved. I once had a coworker whose car had a bumper sticker that said: "At the Rapture this car will be unoccupied."

I'm troubled by the passivity of this. Instead of waiting for the Kingdom, I think we are better served by rolling up our sleeves and helping to build it. If we think of ourselves as being involved in this Kingdom, this changes our relationship with God and others. Pointing out the wrongdoing of others is hard but if it brings the Kingdom of God closer, if it strengthens us and our relationships, the Kingdom will be all the sweeter.

Every difficult conversation carries some risk. The person (whether loved one or stranger) may not be open to our words, but if we hide behind this fear we allow that passivity to drive us away from the Kingdom.

And in the final analysis I'm heartened by the last line of the Gospel. Here Jesus pledges that he will be with us whenever two or more of us are gathered in his name. We think of this primarily when we gather for worship and prayer, but maybe he means it in a broader sense. I like to see the hand of Jesus anytime a conversation leads to reconciliation or deeper faith. I also see Jesus' presence in conversations that don't go well. Maybe the initial result of the conversation isn't good but it will become good over time.

At least we can walk away knowing we performed to our abilities.

August 31, 2014: The Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading Jeremiah, an Old Testament prophet, is railing against Pashhur, a priest in charge of the temple police, for his wicked ways. He warns the Pashhur that unless he changes his lifestyle, God will remove him from office and allow the Babylonians to conquer the land (which actually happened). Pashhur then punishes Jeremiah; in this reading Jeremiah is complaining to God that he has been "seduced" into being a prophet and is now paying the price for proclaiming God's word. By the end of the reading he states that while he would like to stop his prophecy, he can't and there is a "fire burning in [his] heart that will not allow him to stop." In Matthew's Gospel Jesus is warning his disciples that he will be put to death and raised up on the third day. When Peter protests that this cannot happen Jesus rebukes Peter. He then goes on to tell the disciples that they also must take up their cross and that anyone who wishes to save his life will lose it and anyone who loses his life for Jesus' sake will find it.

Let's face it: there is a downside to being a follower of Jesus. The word "gospel" means "good news" but the news doesn't always seem good, at least in the short run.

After Isaiah, Jeremiah is my favorite prophet. Unlike Isaiah he did not ask to be a prophet. As a matter of fact, when God chose him, Jeremiah tried to get out of it by claiming to be too young but God would hear none of it. Jeremiah was exactly who God had in mind, and God would tell him what to say.

Unfortunately God's message here was not good. It's often said that the role of the prophet is the comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and God's wrath (and Jeremiah's words) were aimed straight at the comfortable leaders of his time. You see, the once great nation of Israel was crumbling. Much of the kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians many years before and what was left was threatened by the Babylonians.

In light of this, the Jewish leaders were increasingly corrupt and were wandering far from God's expectations of them. In the face of this Jeremiah called them out (to use a modern phrase) and warned them of God's anger. Their response? Punish Jeremiah for not having proper respect for his leaders.

I feel for Jeremiah because it took great courage for him to do this. Then, like today, there were no doubt countless people who saw their leaders' selfishness and greed but did nothing. But Jeremiah could not remain silent in the face of injustice. He had to speak out, even knowing the price he would pay.

But his courage cost him, and we see it spilling out here. He lashes out at God for putting him in this position. He uses the word "seduced" here; other translations of the Bible use the word "enticed" but both words have the same meaning: "You were supposed to protect me. I proclaim Your Word and You make sure I'm listened to." This reading shows us the rage Jeremiah feels at his persecution and his rage that he can't shut up. He can't be silent no matter how much he wants to. No matter how much his life would improve. No matter how much he's being told he has to.

I think this is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel. His earliest followers were attracted by his words, but let's acknowledge something: they also thought that by being part of his "inner circle" they would have prime places in his Kingdom. At least part of their discipleship was wrapped in ambition.

But discipleship, like prophecy, may be the right path but not always the easiest. And I don't think we always recognize this. Peter certainly didn't. His words sounded like protection (we'll make sure nothing bad happens to you) but also belay some level of self preservation (we want to make sure nothing bad happens to us). Jesus' rebuke to him is pretty strong but I suspect that taking the easy road instead of the right one was tempting for Jesus too. I don't think he is addressing Peter when he says "Get behind me, Satan" but instead he wavered in his temptation to take the easy road.

Does this happen to us? I think it does. I think we all face times in our jobs, our neighborhoods, and even our families when we see injustice and are called to speak the truth. It's not easy and we often have to face down peer pressure and our image of ourselves as "nice persons." Sometimes, like Jeremiah and Jesus, we need to move beyond our comfort.

Several years ago I had a friend who worked as a youth minister at a Catholic church in a wealthy area. The church enjoyed great success (at least financially) but there was dry rot under the surface. The pastor was a nasty alcoholic and the staff learned to steer away from him from late afternoon on. Any attempts at conversation with him about his drinking were met with threat of retaliation and they were honestly fearful for their jobs. One night there was a dinner for the parents of the children who went to the Catholic school; he showed up drunk and when asked to speak he joked about how he wears a bathing suit in the shower because he didn't want to look down on the unemployed. Everyone was horrified and embarrassed but didn't know what to do. A few days later the staff got together and elected the Catholic school principal to speak the bishop. He told the bishop that unless this pastor was removed and treated for his alcoholism they would all resign.

That took courage. Nobody wanted to deliver this message and nobody wanted to lose his job, but like Jeremiah, they couldn't not speak up. Ironically they were motivated not only for the health of the parish, but also for the pastor who had treated them so badly. They recognized that the path to health for both the parish and the pastor led them to a road that was fraught with risks. The bishop could have betrayed them to the pastor. The bishop could have done nothing. The parish could have been closed. But they did it anyway.

I think both Jeremiah and Jesus are proud of what they did. But I also think they would find too few of these courageous acts today. I'm reminded of an event from the 2012 Presidential election. On February 16, 2012 a law student from Georgetown University name Sandra Fluke testified before Congress on the Affordable Care Act and the contentious issue of whether birth control should be covered by health insurance. She testified that for some women oral contraceptives are not used only for birth control, but also for specific health issues such as polycystic ovary syndrome. A week later, on February 29th, Rush Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute. While she said nothing about her use of contraceptives Rush claimed that Sandra was demanding that American taxpayers pay for her to have sex. He also claimed that if she wanted him to pay for her to have sex he wanted a tape of her doing it. There was outrage in many sectors, but not in those men who were running for the Republican nomination for President in 2012. Mitt Romney (a committed Christian and Mormon) responded that these were not "words I would have used."

Mitt and I have never met (though he owns a home about 4 miles from the only home I own) but I have to believe that he was horrified by Rush's characterization of Ms. Fluke. If that's true I think it makes Jeremiah and Jesus weep. He was running for President and yet lacked the courage to stand up to a radio personality. He was so afraid of losing what he had that he refused to come to the assistance of someone who needed support.

These readings speak to me because I think the call to discipleship and faith commands us to show the courage of that Catholic school principal. We move a few inches away from the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims every time we succumb to peer pressure or the need to be liked. We move a few inches away from the Kingdom when we allow our fear or need for security to cause us to ignore the call of the poor or the needs of the victims of injustice.

But we move a few inches closer to the Kingdom of God when we choose courage over fear, when we recognize peer pressure but decide not to let it make our decisions. We move closer to the Kingdom of God when we speak up even if our voice quivers. And we recognize that all of us move closer to the Kingdom of God whenever anyone makes a courageous decision.

Let us pray to live in a place where the choice of the right path over the easy path becomes something we don't question.

August 24, 2014: The Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is (again) from the prophet Isaiah. Here God demands the removal of Shebna, who is master of the palace of King Hezekiah. Shebna is accused of overreaching his authority and God calls him to be removed and replaced. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus poses this question to his disciples: Who do you think I am? They give various answers, but then Peter proclaims that Jesus is the "Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Jesus is pleased with this answer and Jesus proclaims that Peter is leader of the disciples. He is the rock on which the Church will be built and he will be given the power to declare what will be bound or loosed, both on earth and in heaven.

Both of these readings call us to talk about leadership, in all forms, not just in who leads our churches. It's a little funny to see this in the Gospel reading because most of Jesus' early disciples never expected they would be around long enough to have to construct a church. They thought Jesus' return would happen so fast that they wouldn't have to make long range plans.

Now, more than two thousand years later, we recognize that Jesus' return wasn't just around the corner. And we've spent countless hours struggling with his commands to us while trying to figure out how to structure an organization that will best make this happen. It is no understatement to acknowledge that we've had good days and bad days.

And in 2014 we are still looking for the formula: how do we choose our leaders? Are they chosen by force? Or by intelligence? Or by genes? Clearly there is no "one size fits all" method. If we look at our history as Americans we can clearly see that we aren't a country that has our leaders forced on us against our will, and we don't crown the children of the last leader. And while we think intelligence is a good attribute, we often haven't chosen the smartest person in the room (as a matter of fact, only Woodrow Wilson earned a Ph.D.).

If we look at the sweep of world history we can see countless leaders who have claimed the mantle of "God chose me." But did He? And if so, on what basis? Our first reading from Isaiah clearly shows someone God didn't choose. Shebna, a character most of us don't recognize, was the manager of the king's home. There is probably no good parallel to our experience, but we can call him the head butler. He probably didn't have much to do with the running of Israel, but he certainly had a great deal of power over the rest of the household staff. Commentaries I read on this passage agree that he was removed because he overreached his authority. In other words he was supposed to serve and he decided to rule. He was supposed to act on behalf of the house and acted on behalf of himself.

It's easy to think that in ancient times this was just what a leader does. Once in power you use your power to make your life better, even at the expense of others. But a careful look at history shows this hasn't always been the case. Those in power who live only for themselves at the expense of those they rule have, from time to time, been overthrown. Film buffs can point to the famous Mutiny of the Bounty where Fletcher Christianson overthrew and cast our Captain Bly over cruel treatment of the sailors. My favorite example from history is recounted in the historical novel When Christ and His Saints Slept. In 1135 King Henry I died without a surviving son. His daughter Matilda claimed to succeed him but his nephew Stephen battled for the throne. The next 18 years brought about a bloody civil war so severe that the people of England (who both Matilda and Stephen claimed to want to serve) thought that God had abandoned them. Only when Stephen agreed to have Matilda's son Henry II succeed him did the warring stop.

Fletcher Christianson, Stephen, and Matilda all claimed that they sought to rule only to serve their followers. They were all sincere, but all flawed on some level. And to the extent that they were all followers of Jesus, all called on his approval of their reign. But for those of us who clearly believe we are not called to rule HMS Bounty or England, how do we choose? How do we know who gets our vote or our support?

The Gospel shows Jesus clearly choosing Peter, but what can we glean from that? We run the risk of reading too much into this since nobody expected us to be reading this 2,000 years later, but our belief in the inspired infallibility of the bible calls us look at this reading for guidance. I've said this before, but the earliest followers of Jesus expected his return to be within their lifetimes. We know that wasn't true, and on some level we have to read this passage with the belief that God is trying to tell us something.

I believe that Jesus chose Peter not because he was the most forceful, and certainly not the most intelligent. And he was not related to Jesus and had no family connection. I like to think Peter was chosen because he was the most in tune with the idea that a leader should serve the others. Perhaps this was something Peter was born with, perhaps it was a gift given to him by God. In some sense it doesn't matter: the fact that he exercised this gift is all that we need.

I read this against the backdrop of a great deal of sadness when I look at our country. We are blessed in that we can choose our leaders, but as I spoke of earlier, we don't always make good choices. In the 200 plus years of our nation we've never had a president who claimed the right to rule for life or pass his office automatically to his child. We've never had a member of the legislature who claimed not to be subject to the voters. And all of them run for office claiming to represent his or her constituents, but sometimes it's hard to believe them.

When I look at our nation's leadership I don't see leaders who want to make themselves wealthy or have unlimited power, but I do see leaders who are so afraid of losing their positions that they do anything to stay where they are. They vote in ways that violate their (and our) best interests to build up "war chests" to fend off opponents for their reelections. They auction off time and access to interest groups who don't need to tell them how to vote but make it clear that the flow of money is conditional.

In short, they have traded integrity for security. They have allowed fear of losing their job to change their votes. They claim to work without influence but nobody believes them. Their moral compass comes with several influences.

Maybe this brings us back to our friend Shebna. Maybe he wasn't abusing his power to make himself more powerful or wealthy. Maybe he was serving his master badly to make himself irreplaceable. But in the world of servant leadership, in the world that Scripture calls us to, we need to look more to service and less to security.

Maybe we need to understand that if all we do is in service to others we don't need to worry about security.

August 17, 2014: The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading Isaiah speaks of the treatment of foreigners. Those who attach themselves to the Lord and obey the covenant will be rewarded. They will be welcomed into the Lord's house (called a house of prayer). Finally, this house of prayer will be for all peoples. In Matthew's Gospel a non Jew asks Jesus for healing for her daughter. At first Jesus ignores her, and even when his disciples implore him to do as she asks, Jesus claims only to come for the House of Israel. At this point the woman is kneeling in front of Jesus begging for his help. He tells her: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the house dogs." The woman responds: "Ah yes, sir; but even the house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master's table." Jesus is pleased with this response and tells her that her daughter has been healed because of her faith.

In 1955 the Quaker Oats Company was looking for a gimmick to sell their cereal in what was becoming an increasingly competitive market for breakfast. In what became a wildly successful campaign they gave away land. If you bought a box of cereal, filled out a form, and included that with the cereal box top, you received in the mail an actually deed for one square inch of land in Yukon Territory in Canada. They ended up sending tens of thousands of these deeds and as a collector's item you can still buy these deeds on eBay.

I tell this story because I think it illustrates our devotion to owning land. There is something that owning a piece of earth that makes us feel more secure and safe, and this is true not only for ourselves as individuals and families, but also by nations.

As I look at the first reading from Isaiah, this is what I see: the Israelites have returned from exile and have begun to rebuild. We can hardly blame them for wanting to build higher walls and stronger reinforcements to prevent their defeat at the hands of other nations, for wanting to keep foreigners far away. We can well understand that while staying together during their exile saved them as a people, they would want to continue to draw a bright line between "us" and "them."

But as often happens, God calls them to another direction. God commands that anyone who wishes to join them (as long as they obey the law) should be allowed in. In other words, belonging to the community of God depends not on heredity (your parents belong) or experience (you suffered through the exile) but on desire (you wish to be part). God is calling them to move beyond their fear into faith in God. To move into a new reality where foreigners are not automatically to be seen as enemies or competitors. To welcome those who approach with a sincere heart.

Given that, I've always been a little perplexed by the treatment the Caananite woman receives from Jesus in the Gospel. Jesus lived in a complex society and there were many types of people that intermingled. But this woman was from the farthest end of the society: she is identified as a Caananite. The Caananites were the people that were displaced by the Israelites after their liberation from Egypt, some 1300 years before Jesus.

And so when this woman asks Jesus for a healing, something he had done freely in other circumstances, he insults her. Even the disciples are at a loss and suggest that he does what she asks, if only to get rid of her. By this time she is on her knees, clearly in supplication, begging Jesus for help. We can certainly identify with her, for who wouldn't do anything to help his own child?

But here Jesus makes it even worse. When he says "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the house dogs," he is drawing a distinction between children (the People of Israel) and house dogs (foreigners). It's almost as if Jesus has a limited number of healings he can perform and has to ration them.

Given all this, the desperate woman's answer appears to come out of nowhere. She tells Jesus that even house dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table. There are probably dozens of interpretations for this, but it seems to me that she is looking at scraps as excess food; more than the master needs, but food that is just as good as any of the other food. Only then does Jesus compliment her on her faith and heals her daughter.

I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering how Jesus draws a line from her answer to her faith. I have a picture in my head of Jesus' followers listening to a theological debate where she is declared the winner and they have no idea what happened. If I'm right, that she is telling Jesus that while he may have only a limited number of healings, he has enough to cure his daughter, I think it's an important point.

I spoke once with someone who does mediation (she settles conflicts between people). She told me that virtually all human conflicts come down to three things: resources, feelings, and values. She told me that people get frightened when they perceive scarce resources and begin to hoard them for fear there won't be enough for them. I spoke about this two weeks ago when reflecting on the Gospel about the loaves and fishes and I think there's an aspect of it on our front pages today.

I know I'm treading into political territory and I'm trying to be as fair and evenhanded as I can. That said, I've been watching recent activity on our border with Mexico with a sense of horror. In the last few months our nation has witnessed an increase in children from Central America crossing Mexico and entering the United States. The families tell us that parents are spending large amounts of money to near strangers in the hope that their children will escape gangs and drug violence and build a better life in the United States.

The reaction among many in our nation has been fierce: they do not belong, they want our stuff, and they have to go back. In fairness this has been a part of our history for most of our history. In the 1800s there was a political party known as the "Know Nothing" Party (they were fairly secretive and were instructed to answer "I know nothing" when asked about their views). They feared that Catholic immigrants from Europe would overwhelm the United States and their influence would pave the way for the Pope in Rome to run the country.

And while we can easily dismiss their fear a absurd, is the current fear any less so? How can these children hurt us? Will they become drug dealers? Unlikely since they are risking their lives to flee drug violence. Will we run out of food? Given the 35% obesity rate among adults in this country, that seems unlikely. Are they bringing diseases with them? We're pretty good at vaccinations and curing communicable diseases in this country; this won't hurt us and will help them. If our history shows us anything, these children will benefit from our superior educational opportunities and make up part of the intellectual labor force that will advance the world in the 21st Century. Or they will be forced back into poverty and danger.

Nobody is denying there are limited resources in our world. But like the scraps from the master's table, we need to see that there is enough. If we take the words of the Bible seriously we need to apply them not just to their time but also ours. The woman who is begging for her child in Jesus' time is now begging us for healing today.

August 10, 2014: The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading from the Old Testament book of Kings, Elijah spent the night in a cave on Mount Horeb. There he experienced a strong wind, an earthquake, and a fire but God was not present in those events. After the fire Elijah heard the sound of a gentle breeze at which time he covered his face and stood at the entrace of the cave. Matthew's Gospel continues last week's events after the loaves and fishes. He sends his disciples into a boat while he went up into the hills to pray. During the night the disciples began to battle rough seas; Jesus came down and walked on the water toward the boat. This frightened the disciples (who thought he was a ghost); Jesus then announced himself and told them not to be afraid. At Jesus' invitation Peter stepped out of the boat and began to walk toward Jesus. But Peter grew afraid of the wind and began to sink in the water. Jesus reached out and took Peter's hand and admonished him for having little faith.

Countless books have been written on how to find God. They tell us that God is found in silence, in community, by the beach, in the mountains, in the eyes of the people we love, in the poor, and (my personal favorite) in Hawaii. But what do we do when God seeks us? How do we reach out when God reaches out to us? How do we know it's God and how do we interpret what we see?

There are, in the Bible, many names for God, but I'm only going to talk about two: El Shaddai and Abba. El Shaddai means "God of the mountain top" and it evokes a large and overwhelming God; it's often translated "God Almighty" and it's a powerful image. This God is the God who created the universe and all that populates it; this God has the power to make life and destroy it. This is the God of the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah. You don't mess with this God. I thought of this God when I read of the wind (strong enough to tear mountains and shatter rocks), the earthquake (we here in California hardly need to be reminded of its power), and the fire (again, we hardly need imagine the power of fire).

The image of El Shaddai focuses our attention because it fills our senses and overwhelms our experience, and frankly frightens us. On the other hand, this reading shows us that God is not only in the powerful events, but also in the gentle breeze. Because the name Abba is the Hebrew word for "Daddy." It is a term of tenderness and intimacy. When Jesus uses this term for God in the New Testament, it's shocking because it belies an intimacy that his disciples aren't familiar with. When Jesus refers to his Father as "Abba" he is telling us not only about God, but about God's relationship with us. It is the relationship that we see when a man holds his firstborn and says that he will love unconditionally, protect at the risk of his own life, and teach about the stunning beauty of creation. It is the realtionship of a father who tells his child that the world is dramatically richer because of what he holds in his arms.

But here's the thing: we often have a hard time seeing "Abba" because we are afraid of "El Shaddai." This is, I believe, at the heart of the Gospel. After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, he tells his disciples to get in a boat and go on the water while he went to the hills to pray. Anyone who has spent time on the water can tell you that there is no serenity greater than being on a still lake, and no terror greater than being in rough seas.

For those of us unfamiliar with nautical terms the "fourth watch" is 3:00 AM to 6:00 AM. It is the time when we all understand the proverb "it's always darkest before the dawn." I can only imagine how frightened the disciples were, even given their experience as fishermen, when the winds came up. There was a significant chance that the boat would capsize and they would be lost. And where was Jesus, who told them to go out on the water and then headed to the hills?

The short answer is that Jesus was just where he was supposed to be. He came down from the hills and walked toward the boat, walking on the water (the rough, wind blown waters). When we think about Jesus walking on water I think most of us think of the water as being calm; but here it was dark and the water was choppy. It's little wonder they thought it was a ghost.

But it wasn't a ghost. Jesus was coming toward them. There is a passage in Mark's Gospel (Mark 4:35-41) where Jesus calms the waters, but this doesn't happen here; there is no mention that the water became any less choppy when Jesus walked on it.

And Jesus tells them not to be afraid. I don't know about you, but when someone tells me not to be afraid, it almost never works (it's like when my dentist tells me to relax as he fires up the drill). But to his credit, Peter accepts Jesus' challenge to step out of the boat into the water. At first it works, but then Peter is distracted by the forces of nature and begins to sink. He must have felt that he was just seconds away from drowning.

But once again Jesus admonishes him to look away from the fear and toward himself. He is asking him to choose faith over fear. And when he does, when he reaches out and grasps Jesus' hand, he is no longer sinking. Peter has defeated the fear.

Of all the things I battle in my life, I think fear is my greatest foe. I'm almost always smart enough to know what will go wrong, how my life can take a bad turn, and just what catastrophe awaits me just around the corner. I'm not as good at realizing that the final chapter of my story is salvation.

I think this is what the readings tell us. We're skilled at seeing the winds that can shatter rocks, earthquakes that can topple buildings, and fire that can destory all that we love. But we're not as good at hearing the gentle breeze from our Father that tells us how beloved we are.

We're good at recognizing that we are small in a large world, but we are not as good at recognizing that we are beloved in an infinite Kingdom. It was only when Peter stopped looking at the storm and focused his attention on Jesus that his faith raised him out of the lake. It was only when his faith grew stronger than his fear that he truly recognized that Jesus is the Son of God.

I stand here today with little in the way of knowing about your fears. I don't know about upside down mortgages or children who cause sleepless nights. I don't know about your dead end jobs or the fear that your life will outlast your savings.

But I do know that my biggest fears of 20 years ago cause me to chuckle now. The storms of 1994 are now little more than gentle breezes in my memory. It is partly because I made good decisions and avoided more than a few catastrophes, but it is mostly because I was focusing on my fear more than my faith. I was, like Peter, reaching out to Jesus, but not completely believing he wouldn't go down with me. Now I know better.

My prayer for myself (and for you) is that in 2034 we look on our fears and chuckle. But maybe these readings call us to look on our 2014 fears and have the same reaction. Jesus wouldn't have come down from the hills and walked on the water unless he knew he could save us and he knows that he can save us today. Let us live with the courage it takes to step out of the boat into uncertain waters and reach out to Jesus. Let us reach back when God reaches out to us.

August 3, 2014: The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Here God promises everyone will have all that he needs, and without having to do anything. God advises his people not to worry about money, but instead have faith in God. The Gospel from Matthew recounts the miracle of the loaves and fishes. After teaching his followers, it was evening and Jesus' disciples suggested Jesus wrap things up so the listerners could go into the village to buy some food. Jesus instructs the disciples to feed the crowd, but the disciples only had five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus blesses the food, and it feeds the entire crowd (over 5,000 people). After they ate, there was still enough food to fill twelve baskets.

What would you do and how would you act if you knew you had enough? Now don't call me a Commmunist: I'm not talking about everyone making the same wage. What if you you woke up every morning knowing you have enough. Not too much or too little, but just enough.

But here's the problem: we can't see into the future. When we wake up every morning we don't know how much we'll need for the day. How much food. How much gas for the car. How much support. How much love.

This makes perfect sense: at least with the "stuff" in our life we take more than we need. We don't go to the grocery store first thing and get the food we need for the day (that would actually be prohibitively expensive to say nothing about a waste of time). We don't go to the gas station and put in enough gas for the day (imagine getting a last minute invitation to something we enjoy but don't have enough gas to go). We even have a name for this: we have a cushion in case something comes up.

And we have a word for people who have too much of a cushion: hoarders. This is certainly a disability and we can all agree that nobody needs every issue of the newspaper for the last 5 years or piles of empty TV dinners that fill an entire room. But how much is enough? Yes, most of us are pretty good at recycling newspapers and not keeping empty containers around the house, but are there "money hoarders?"

This past year Kobe Bryant, who plays shooting guard on the Los Angeles Lakers Basketball Team, was paid $23.5 million. If this was all he was paid in his entire life and he lived to be 80 years old, he would still make $293,750 per year for his entire life, from cradle to grave. Does this make him a money hoarder?

I know there are complicated reasons for somone to sign a contract like that. An economist would argue (correctly) that he made that money because the Lakers believe he brings that much value to the team and the team will make it up by fans who pay to watch him play and buy his merchandise. Competition also plays a role. Kobe has bragging rights to being the highest player in the National Basketball Association. And in fairness he plays every game knowing that he could suffer a career ending injury that will make him worthless to the Lakers.

But on the other hand, really? He's just shy of his 36th birthday and there is no way he'll even be able to spend all the money he has, let alone need all the money he has. I don't mean to pick on him because God knows he's far from the only person who makes an obscene amount of money. But how much of a cushion does he need? What is he afraid of?

It's unlikely I'll ever meet Kobe, but if I did I'd like to show him today's first reading from Isaiah. Isaiah writes this to a community that has returned from exile and is allowed back into their promised land. As joyful as they were they feared it would all be taken away from them. They recognized that prosperity is not guaranteed and this leads easily to fear that it could all be taken away again. This fear, while understandable, can lead to hoarding.

I think the point of the first reading is to lead us away from hoarding and leading us toward faith. God is clear here that God will take care of us. All who are thirsty can come to the water, not just the rich. All can eat grain, even those with no money. God has promised us this. I think God would tell Kobe that he will be cared for, even without his millions.

But how will God care for him (and us)? Will water and grain fall from God out of the sky? Or will our needs be cared for by other people who recognize our need and their surplus?

I'm certain I'm not the only person whose parents are part of the Greatest Generation, who not only lived through but thrived through the Great Depression. There's a danger in overly romanticizing the depression but there was a sense of "we're all in this together." Those who had a little more than they needed shared with those who had a little less than they needed. In my own family there was a story of a family of two parents, two sons, and two daughters in a small house with three bedrooms. The two boys shared a room that we would think of as little more than a broom closet, but when a friend of theirs needed to move away from his alcoholic father, they put a bed in their room and invited him to move in. I'm not sure if they saw themselves as having a little more room than they needed, but they certainly saw their friend as someone who had a little less than he needed.

But maybe the key word here is "little." We can easily help someone who has a little less than us, but can we just as easily help someone who has a great deal less than us? Can Kobe easily help someone with nothing? More to the point can he give someone else so much as to make them equal? I seriously doubt this.

And that is my primary concern these days. We've been hearing much about something called the "inequality gap." It's a sufficiently complicated term that there is no standard way to measure it, but I think that the greater the gap, the harder it is to bridge the gap.

And I don't think the Gospel can be fully understood without the first reading. For many years I've read the famous "loaves and fishes" reading as the miracle of the empty basket. The disciples reached into a basket of five loaves and two fish and pulled out a loaf or a fish, and their hands were magically filled with a loaf or a fish. No matter how many times they reached in.

But what if it wasn't like that? What if the basket really did start and end with five loaves and two fish? What if the crowds were fed with food that they all brought? What if the wealthy brought more than they needed and the poor brought less? What if the message Jesus proclaimed made them look at each other with new eyes? What if no new loaves and fishes were created out of nothing, but instead they reached out to each other and shared so that everyone had just enough? Wouldn't that be a miracle? Wouldn't that be something worth noting?

We don't know what Jesus taught that day but I like to think that he told them that while they all belong to God, they also belong to each other. I like to think that Jesus spoke of the duty we all have to each other. And I like to think he reminded them that as a crowd, as a nation, as a world, and as a Kingdom, we are all at our best when we have exactly what we need. No more and no less.

July 27, 2014: The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the First Book of Kings. Here Solomon has inherited the throne from his father David. He will now rule over all Israel and fill the large shoes of his father. God promises to give Solomon whatever he wants. Solomon, recognizing the responsibilites he now faces, asks God for "an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong." God delights in his answer and promises to give Solomon "a heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you." In Matthew's Gospel Jesus speaks in metaphors about the kingdom of heaven. He compares it to buried treasure, or a pearl of great price. He also speaks of a net full of fish which is then sorted into good fish and bad fish; he compares this to angels who will separate the wicked from the righteous and throw the wicked into a furnace.

OK, can I say this? This Gospel reading has always made me uncomfortable. I love the idea that Jesus tells us what the Kingdom of God is like, but but I'm troubled by what he says. So this guy finds buried treasure on someone else's land and buys the land. Does anyone else think this is insider trading? Am I the only one who feels for the poor guy who sells the land only to find later that he has been had? Is the guy who took advantage of him really being held up as someone we should attain to? Or the guy who sells all he has to buy a pearl; does the seller really know how much the pearl is worth? If so, what has the buyer has gained?

I have to confess a certain interest in the science of economics. This has probably ruined my understanding of this Gospel, but I can't help myself. Economics is basically the science of how scarce resources are distributed. We deal with this all the time. Is there a water shortage? Water is going to be more expensive. Did the patent on my heart medication expire? Cool, all the generics now on the market will drive the price down and I'll pay less for it. And often, at least in the short run, winners and losers are being determined. In this scene the landowner becomes the loser because he didn't know he had the proverbial buried treasure. We can extend this to the dragnet the fishermen cast; he catches a bunch of fish, keeps the good fish and throws away the bad fish. Of course, if you're one of the fish you pretty much lose out. If you're dead it doesn't matter of you're eaten or thrown away.

I think too often we look at this gospel through those eyes. How do I make sure I'm one of the winners? At the end of the day how do I know I'll be one of the "good fish?" It's almost as if there is a quota system and we need to rank high enough to get it. And in our competitive world we see it all around us. When I was in seminary at Catholic University one of my professors grumbled to me that the theology library was often empty while the neighboring law school library had its lights on most of the night. He complained that we should have the same work ethic as the law students. I reminded him that the law students weren't working that hard to make the world better or more holy. They worked that hard because they were ranked according to grades and after graduation would get a better, more lucrative job with a high rank. Suffice it to say he did not apprciate my insight.

But if we use these same ideas of competition and scarce resources when we think of the Kingdom of Heaven, what are we doing? We increase our rank by either our success or another's failure. I'm ahead of you if either I'm better or you're worse and it doesn't matter which is which. The guy who discovers the hidden treasure ends up on the better end of the deal regardless of whether he is smarter or the landowner is careless.

But let's look elsewhere: let's look at our friend Solomon from the first reading. When I was in CCD (Catholic Sunday School) as a child I think this was the reading my teachers liked the best. They even liked this better than the parable of the talents. They would wax eloquent about how Solomon could have asked for anything but chose wisdom. He could have asked for a new bike or 4 more weeks of summer vacation, or a color TV set. Remember, this was the 1960s.

But instead he asked for wisdom. He asked for something that would make him a better king. He asked for "an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong." I don't say this often, but I think my teachers back then were spot on. There was certainly an element of them wanting us students to feel guilty over wanting a new bike or color TV, but Solomon's request was profound on a few levels.

The first aspect that impresses me is that he asked for something for himself. He didn't ask that God smite everyone who disagrees with him. He didn't ask that God form the minds of all the people so they will agree with him. I think we'd all like it if everyone agreed with us but what is gained if that agreement comes only because disagreement is not allowed? Are you really a leader if your people are commanded to follow? Instead he asks something for himself: help me be a wise leader. Help me know what to do in difficult situations. And by helping me be a better leader everyone wins. The people are served by a leader who is wise and good, and I win by leading a good nation.

The other aspect that impresses is that his gift of wisdom doesn't take away from anyone else, and in fact helps everyone else. Back to economics and scarce resources: if he had asked for wealth, that meant someone else would have less wealth. If I got a new bike or a color TV it meant someone else went to the store and found it was sold out. Solomon's gift of wisdom does not remove part of the "wisdom of the world," it's infinite.

I like to think of the Kingdom of God that way: it's infinite. We compete with so many things in our world, but does that mean we have to be so competitive? In our relationships with each other perhaps we can spend less time waiting for the other person to "get it" and see that we've been right all the time and more time thinking how we can be more inclusive.

And I think this applies to how we see our faith. I'm struck these days by how fellow Christians look at each other and believe that God cannot save everyone. I'm not calling anyone out, but is it possible that there is a place in salvation for Catholcis and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews and Muslims and atheists? Asking for wisdom, like asking for kindness and generosity does not decrease a scarce resource, it increases it.

And so my thanks to Solomon for asking for wisdom, and my teachers for pointing that out, and the law students at Catholic University to gave me the insight into competition that looks more noble than it is.

July 20, 2014: The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Old Testament book of Wisdom (it's one of the books that Catholics recognize but Protestants and Jews do not). The writer is glorifying God and speaks of His justice coming not from a place of strength but instead a place of mercy. By using his power this way we are all taught we are to exerise our justice with mercy. Matthew's Gospel continues with last week's theme of wheat. Here the just farmer plants his good seed, but in the middle of the night his enemy came and planted weeds. When both wheat and weeds begin to grow, the farmer's servents ask what to do. He told them not to pick the weeds now for fear of pulling out the wheat with it. Instead wait until the harvest when the wheat and weeds can be more easily separated. The wheat will become part of the harvest while the weeds will be burned.

Sometimes I think Jesus uses subtle humor to make his point. In the 18th Chapter of Matthew's Gospel he speaks of the good shepherd who abandons his flock to find one who has gone astray; I think it makes his point that God cares about all of us, even the most foolish. But any shepherd to leaves his flock to find one who wandered off is not long for his profession. Sheep, being sheep, will all wander off while he is looking for the one. In the same way we have a farmer who has weeds growing among his crop. Granted I'm not a farmer, but how can he have a successful harvest if his wheat is competing with weeds for water and nutrients? And how competent are his workers if they can't tell the difference between wheat and weeds until they are harvested? It seems to me that nearly everyone I know who likes to garden talks about weeding to make the garden prettier and more successful.

In any case, what do we make of these readings? If the first reading and the Gospel are paired, what is the intersection of these readings? I have to tell you that I stared at the readings for a few days scratching my head over this. I've ended up going down a particular road here that I've frankly never heard before. Then again, that's what you sign on for when you read my writings.

I've always had a soft place in my heart for the Book of Wisdom and it saddens me that it is not universally accepted among Jews and Christians. It's often called "The Wisdom of Solomon" even though it was certainly written several hundred years after the death of King Solomon. It talks about Wisdom in words that are far different from the realities of that time (or ours).

In our relationships with each other God has chosen a different playbook from the very beginning. Left to our own devices, power is to be exercised, justice is to be meted out impersonally, and mercy is often seen as somehow a little wimpy. And if not wimpy, at least ineffective: if we show mercy in justice that will only encourage others to be disobedient in the future.

But in this first reading that while "justice has its source in strength, your sovereignty over all makes you lenient to all." This is stating the obvious, but God is the final word on power and justice and mercy (and love and joy and countless other things). Because God has no equal, he need not fear any threats to His power. I know this is a stretch, but the powerful people I respect are the ones who also do not fear threats to their power. They exercise their power with a quiet confidence that does not call attention to themselves.

I see the farmer in the Gospel in that light. I'm not sure why he has an enemy. Maybe it's someone who wants his land and hopes will be foreclosed. Maybe he's an enemy because of some conflict between the two. In any case he does something that's just plain destructive and mean: he poisons the man's fields. But faced with this, he does not do what is expected. He does not instruct his servants to aggressively pull out the weeds, even if it means some of the wheat will be sacrificed. Instead he takes the long view and allows the weeds to germinate and grow, knowing that as the wheat and weeds grow they will be easier to differentiate. He takes the calm, not the knee jerk, response.

This is the part that may be a stretch but I call them as I see them. When I look at our lives today, is there a way we can see this parable in a modern light? What are the wheat and weeds in our lives today?

In many ways we are in a much better place today than ancient times. When we think about who has power over us, we've often had some input into who these people are. We have choices (limited perhaps, but choices) in where we work and live. We are not told what we have to do for work, nor are we commanded to live in a particular village for the rest of our life. In the political arena we choose out leaders (or at least vote for them).

But with these freedoms comes the need to have information, and correct information and the more I read this parable, the more I see our "information age" through the lens of this Gospel. If we see truthful information as the wheat and false information as the weeds I think we can see how hard it is to find the wheat for the weeds sometimes. In the quest for power we find those who tell us the truth and those who don't. What do we do with the ones who don't?

Alas, we have found through endless examples that sometimes people seek power to serve while others seek power for their own gain. I don't wish to make this a political screed, though I can't imagine anyone doesn't know my political leanings from my writings. But I kept coming back to one example that I think illustrates this well: the now famous "Death Panels." When the Affordable Care Act was debated and passed in 2009 there was a provision where you could meet with your doctor once per year to discuss decisions that you may need to make if you get sick. Do you want to be placed on a ventilator (respirator) if you can't breathe on your own? If your heart stops as the result of a disease or chronic condition do you want CPR? It was an attempt for all of us to get correct information before it becomes an emergency and while we are still able to make our own decisions. Shortly after this, opponents of the ACA latched onto something called "death panels." They argued that this provision was instead something more sinister: all of us, like it or not, would be forced to appear before panels of bureaucrats who would decide if we lived or died. Unfortunately this took on some traction because it was successful in creating fear. It was an excellent weed.

I use this example because I think almost all of us are familiar with it. Many people opposed the ACA, and while I support it, I understand that there are good reasons others don't. But I find it frustrating that instead of having a rational discussion and choosing leaders based on who articulates the better plan, we have those who crave power and are happy to choke off the wheat to get it. We have a local author in San Diego, Chris Witt, who wrote an excellent book titled Real Leaders Don't Use Powerpoint. He is a speech consultant and coach and describes an encounter with a politician. This politician asked for help in answering a difficult question he was expecting. Chris told him to articulate what he believes and Chris would help him craft an answer. The politician then turned to his staff and asked "Where do I stand on this?"

We can all wring our hands on this issue, but the challenge of this Gospel is in how we react. There are two ways we shouldn't react, and one way we should.

The first way we shouldn't react is pure revenge. The farmer in this parable had no desire to poison his enemy's fields. All that will do is hurt both of them, but I think for most of us that is our first knee jerk reaction. "Pain? I'll show you pain. I'll make sure you'll never mess with me again." The answer to the charge of death panels is not make up lies in response.

The second way is perhaps more appealing, and it's the way the farmer elected not to do. He didn't wade out into the field and start pulling little regard for the damage he could be doing to his own crops. The answer to the death panels charge is not to get into a shouting match that devolves into an exchange of insults (though this is the preferred option of the 24 hour news cycle).

The answer is to take the long view, to speak the truth in a quiet, confident way. It's the recognition that all truth comes from and leads back to God, and that as wheat and weeds grow, the difference will grow more obvious. It's the recognition that those who lie and cheat to get ahead will ultimately fall victim to their own lies.

Granted I chose a hot political topic to illustrate the point but I think we see it all around us all the time. Is a coworker undercutting us to get our job? Speak your truth calmly. Don't put your boss in the position of having to choose between two squabbling kindergartners. Is someone gossiping to increase his/her own popularity? Don't gossip back, but be instead the person who rises above it. Are you running for office against someone who needs to ask his aids what he believes in? Then be the politician where nobody has to ask about your beliefs.

It's a hard road, and often a long road, but it's the road we are called to.

July 13, 2014: The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings at here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the later part of the book of Isaiah. Here God declares that just as rain falls on the earth and does not return without providing growth to the crops, so God's Word goes out and does not return without doing what it was meant to do. The Gospel from Matthew comprises the first part of the 13th chapter. Jesus uses parables to discuss how a farmer dows seeds on the ground but only the seeds that fall on fertile ground produce crops. When his disciples ask why he uses parables, Jesus explains that he uses parables so that only those that can hear will understand. He then explains the parable in terms of who can hear. Some seeds fall on the edge of the path where birds eat them. Others fall on rocks where they sprout but cannot grow roots; they wither. The ones who fall in thorns try to grow but then are choked off by the thorns. Finally, the seeds that fall on fertile ground grow and produce rich crops.

Anyone who has seen the play Godspell should remember this scene. Jesus plays the sower and the disciples play the seeds. Jesus casts the seeds in all directions and the fate of the disciples depends on where they land. Not to quibble with the genius of the writers of the play, I've always been a little troubled by this interpretation. If Jesus is the sower and we are the seeds, it appears to be the luck of the draw where we land. If you have the misfortune to land on a rock and I have the good fortune to land in fertile soil, do we both get what we deserve? Did Jesus know each of us well enough to know who should bear fruit and who shouldn't? Did Jesus really throw the seeds of bad people on rocks so that they wouldn't grow? That almost sounds like predestination to me.

It also doesn't sound like much else that Jesus talks about. Maybe the error here isn't that the disciples are the seeds, but the soil. Maybe Jesus is scattering his word (the seeds) everywhere and we can be hard (rocks) or contaminated (thorns) or welcoming (fertile). That seems to make more sense to me. If we are the ground we can decide how we (or weather) want to accept the seeds and allow them to grow.

I've said this before but I'm always a little leery about readings that assume basic understandings of farming or raising sheep. My concern rests in the awareness that the men and women of Jesus' time probably had this understanding, but we do not. Given this concern, let me weigh in on this question: if Jesus is spreading the seed, why does he waste seed on rocky or thorny ground? Wouldn't any farmer clear the rocks and weeds, or at least use only the areas with good soil? Even if he has only a finite amount of land, doesn't he also have a finite number of seeds?

I was reminded of this a few nights ago when I was watching TV and saw one of those "as seen on TV" commercials. They were advertising something called "Hydro Mousse Liquid Lawn" that promised to grow your lawn even in areas where grass didn't normally grow. They were a little fuzzy on the details of exactly how it worked (and if you go to their web page it gets miserable reviews) but wouldn't it make more sense for Jesus to use this?

Ok, all kidding aside, if we think of Jesus as the sower and ourselves as the ground (and the seeds as the word) we need to understand two things: Jesus has a limitless amount of seed, and he does not write off any of the soil. Did Jesus know ahead of time which seeds would bear fruit? I don't think anyone knows, but I like to think he didn't: it makes him seem more human to me, and more able to relate to our struggles.

In any case, if discipleship means that we are to do what Jesus did, I think we need to look at this parable more in terms of what we shouldn't pay attention to as to what we should. In other words we shouldn't do what any farmer would do and spread seeds only where we believe it will bear fruit. And we should do this because, let's face it, we're not all that good at deciding which soil is good.

I don't want to carry this seed/soil imagery too far and at the same time I don't want to define "spreading the word" too narrowly. Let me clarify this. When it comes to spreading the word, I don't mean that we all have to become preachers. We don't need to knock on doors or talk about Jesus to everyone we meet; certainly there are those who are called to do that, but I don't believe that describes most of us. But I do think we spread the word every time we do the right thing or show kindness and compassion. Whenever we hold a door open for someone trying to enter with a baby stroller or saying a kind word to a grocery store clerk who seems overwhelmed. Whenever we speak up for someone who is being marginalized or ignored. Whenever we make a point of thanking someone in uniform for his or her service.

But perhaps more important that this is our call to spread the seed regardless of the soil, or at least our interpretation of the soil. When I was a Paulist Priest we had a saying: "Never close the book on another Paulist." In other words don't decide you already know all about him. People change, they mature, and they become more willing to hear the word. And sometimes we're dead wrong about someone. Many years ago I was working with a parish youth group and became friends with one of the teens. He was incredibly smart and funny and we used to bike around the area. We never really talked about religion and I thought I knew about his spirituality because he was part of the youth group. At the end of my year there he confessed that he thought of himself as an atheist, but after seeing how I lived my life he understood the purpose of having a life of faith. I had been spreading seed without even knowing it, and had I known I likely would have written off his soil as too hard. I lost touch with him many years ago but I pray that my few kernels of seed still bloom.

As I was told never to close the book on another Paulist, I think that's a universal truth. Too often we "write someone off" because we assume we know what they will say or do. We use the phrase "blah, blah, blah" to cut them off from telling us what they want us to know. We talk past, around, or over them. I think that's wrong. I understand that oftentimes we're ignoring what they say because they are ignoring what we say, but not always. Sometimes the soil has become fertile when we weren't looking. And sometimes the newly fertile soil is ours.

July 6, 2014: The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings at here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament prophet Zecharaiah. Through Zecharaiah, God proclaims wonderful news. About 20 years before this reading the Israelites were freed from their exile in Babylon. They were able to return home but their temple had been destroyed and they hadn't rebuilt it yet. God speaks of a new king that will come on a donkey and will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem. He will ban war and proclaim peace for their entire empire. The Gospel comes from Matthew where Jesus speaks of gratitude to God for revealing truth to the children while hiding them from the learned. Jesus then invites all who labor and are burdened. God's yoke will find rest for the souls for this yoke is easy and the burden is light.

So what happens when our suffering ends? We've all been through times in our life when it seemed like everything was not going our way and we wondered if life would ever be good again. All we pray for in those times is a turnaround, something that happens that tells us that life is going to start getting better. When that happens what do we do?

Obviously we celebrate and rejoice for our good fortune. The after chemotherapy biopsy comes back clean. We get the job we have to get to make our finances stable again. Against all odds we get the prom date we didn't dare dreaming about. But what then? After we celebrate, after we exhale in relief, after we pass out the hugs we've been waiting for, how do we react to our good fortune?

In some ways this is the crux of the first reading. Zechariah is speaking to a community that is finally home after a long and horrible exile. Sixty five years earlier they saw their worst nightmare: they were conquered by the Babylonians, they were sent into exile, and (worst of all) their temple was destroyed. They lost their history and were not at all certain they would have a future. But then twenty years earlier the impossible happened: their conquerers were themselves conquered and the Israelites were allowed to return home.

But what then? They could hardly erase the forty five years they spent in Babylon but how do they look forward? It would make sense that the first thing they should do is rebuild the temple. But while they started to do that almost immediately, they appear to have stopped. Why? We are not sure, but in another book of the Old Testament (Haggai), God tells them that things cannot go back to normal until they do rebuild the temple. And eventually they do, but some are disappointed that it is not as grand as the first temple.

But maybe that's not such a bad thing. God spends part of the beginning of Zechariah telling his people that they were exiled in Babylon for their wickedness. They now have their freedom but God warns them not to return to their wickedness. Life must not return to the pre exile days because those days caused their exile. Going forward they need to be a little more humble, a little more concerned with the widow and orphan.

This is where we pick up this reading. God speaks of their king coming on a colt, the foal of a donkey. The king is not coming with a team of show horses, not coming with a show of force. And yet this king will not be lacking for strength and power: he will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem. I've spoken of this before, but this is one of those details that can easily elude us. When we think of chariots we tend to think of the book and movie Ben Hur; they are large and intimidating things and they convey strength and domination.

And yet they are less powerful than a king on a colt. The image looks almost comical and yet, that is what we are told. Why? Part of it is the ongoing theme that all the powerful trappings a weaponry means nothing when facing God.

But maybe it's also a call to us to live with more humility and be less concerned with gaining the trappings of power. If there's one theme that weaves its way through Scripture it's that God is concerned with all of us, even the least of us. I once heard Jesus' line "the last shall be first" was essentially his mission statement. The image of the king coming on a colt, the foal of a donkey, calls us to look at Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on just such a donkey.

Clearly we are not being called to trade in our chariot for a donkey, but are there ways to live that humility today? I suggest there are ways, but oftentimes our biggest obstacles are the very ways we practice our faith today. In the Gospel Jesus speaks of "hiding" his truth from the clever and revealing it to children. What is he talking about? Is he predicting the high pitch ringtones that high school students can hear but older teachers can't? Perhaps, but I don't think so.

Instead, I suspect, both the learned and the children get the same message, but only the children are listening. The people in Zechariah's audience, and followers of Jesus, were not the rich and beautiful. As a matter of fact, the followers of Jesus spent 300 years under various degrees of persecution, until the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian.

And since then, by and large, we have not suffered for our faith. There are obvious exceptions to this, but at least in this country, being Christian does not cost us, and in some way it helps us (as a Muslim what it's like to not be a Christian in the US). One of the more insidious realities we've seen is the pass wealthy people get, against mountains of evidence in Scripture. Wealth isn't just money: sometimes it's influence or social standing, or access to resources. And unfortunately it's become acceptable to see those who lack this wealth as being what they deserve.

There was a 1986 movie about deaf children called Children of a Lesser God and I've always found that title compelling. The idea that deaf children are followers of a "lesser God" can only be termed "creative cruelty." Yes, I made that up. I don't think anyone seriously believes that deaf children are followers of a lesser God, but look around at how many of our fellow Christians follow a belief in something called the "gospel of wealth." The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie coined this term in 1889; he spoke of the responsibility of the wealthy to give to the poor. But I'm not the only one who has witnessed in the last 40 years the belief that wealth is a God given reward for faithfulness. Several years ago I worked for a church in a poor part of town. There was another Christian church adjacent to us where the pastor drove an expensive car. I was surprised and asked someone about it. His response surprised me: he said that this congregation expected their pastor to drive an expensive car and to be explicit about his wealth. They believed that God had blessed the congregation with wealth and the way to show God's love was to shower their pastor with material goods. To see the pastor buying his clothes at Costco or driving a used car is to announce that God was not blessing them.

I was aghast at this and I hope you are too. I thought about the parishioners who donated money they could hardly afford so that their pastor could drive a car they couldn't imagine ever owning. Every time I saw the car I thought about it as a chariot. I thought about the pastor as being one of the learned who didn't get the message.

I write this not out of a false sense of pride that God loved my broken down Toyota Carrolla more than his BMW. But I prayed then (and continue to pray now) that the poorest do not donate so that the wealth will look better, but that the wealthy will donate so the poor have enough. That the "gospel of wealth" returns to the idea that we all have enough.

June 29, 2014: The Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We return to the Acts of the Apostles for the first reading. King Herod has the apostle James killed and arrests Peter on the feast of Unleavened Bread (the feast that became Easter) with the intent to put him on trial. During the night, even under heavy guard, an angel comes and releases Peter. Only when he recognizes his freedom does Peter understand this wasn't a dream and praises God. Matthew's Gospel recounts Jesus speaking with his disciples. When he asks them who others think he is, they give various answers. Jesus then asks them who they think he is. Peter answers that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus affirms this answer and proclaims that Peter will be the rock on which the Church is built. Additionally Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom and whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven.

I've spoken about this before, but I sometimes wonder what they were thinking when they chose readings for particular solemnities. I have some empathy for them as solemnities often celebrate beliefs or understandings we've come to after Scripture has been written.

In some ways we see this here. When we think about the first generation after Jesus' resurrection we can never move far from the twin pillars of Peter and Paul. Though they came from vastly different backgrounds and had a complicated relationship with each other we can hardly imagine what we would look like without them. Though they didn't always lead (or push) in the same direction, the Church moved in the direction it needed to.

But this has always raised a question for me: why don't each of them get his own day? Matthew has May 14th all by himself. So do the rest of the Gospel writers: April 25th is Mark, Luke owns October 18th, and John rocks December 27th. All by themselves. You'd think Peter and Paul would get just a little jealous.

OK so I can't give you any insight on what Peter and Paul think of sharing a day, but hopefully I can speak to why we celebrate them on the same day. It wasn't because they were the best of friends (they weren't) or came from the same place (they didn't) or had they same vision for this newly formed community (they really didn't).

Perhaps this is a good time to give a little background. The books of the Bible weren't necessarily written to give the answers we want, and there is a great deal we don't know about these men. We know Peter was married (Jesus healed his mother in law in the 8th chapter of Matthew's Gospel) and was a fisherman. He was one of the first disciples who followed Jesus, and almost from the start he was seen as the leader of Jesus' followers. He was a man of great passion, often making grand promises that he was not able to keep (he promised that he would never leave Jesus' side but later that night denied he even knew Jesus). Beginning with this Gospel we see Peter not only being named the leader of Jesus' followers but also Peter rising to the role. Because of this we now think of Peter as the first pope, though that would have been news to him.

Paul is a great deal more of an enigma. It's ironic as we have a pile of his writings, but he wrote very little about himself. We do know that he was a pharisee; by virtue of that he was a learned man and commanded a great deal of respect in his circles. He also came into the picture as one who persecuted the followers of Jesus. We see in Acts how he witnessed and approved the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But we also read that while journeying to Damascus he had an encounter with Christ that transformed him from persecuter to an enthusiastic evangelist. Overnight he became an apostle. He claimed the title "apostle" even though he (as far as we know) never met Jesus while in human form. Paul made a point of stating that his encounter with Jesus was so powerful that he saw the resurrected Jesus and this allowed him to claim the title.

The meeting of the two should have happened almost immediately, but there was a complication. Paul wished to go to Jerusalem and join his new team, but they knew who he was and were justifiably afraid of him. Frankly I would be too and I can't imagine that Paul didn't know this.

I also wonder what Peter was thinking about all this. He was clearly the leader of this small group. Did he see Paul as an infiltrator? Probably not: the leader of a group makes a lousy spy. Or did he see Paul as a possible rival? That makes more sense. Paul was an influential and powerful man and though we don't normally see Peter as power hungry, it had to be part of the equation. After all, hadn't Jesus told Peter he was the rock on which the foundation would be built? Who is this guy anyway?

The real conflict between them comes in the next few chapters. One of the first questions Jesus' followers encountered was they very nature of their community. Like many new movements they were willing to welcome anyone who would listen and were loathe to turn away anyone (even Paul who approved Stephen's death). But if someone wants to become a follower of Jesus, must he first become a Jew? Or to make it more stark, must the Gentile (non Jewish) men be circumsized? James clearly said yes, Paul clearly said no, and Peter was in the middle. You can read about this in Galatians chapter 2 and Acts chapter 15, but Paul really dresses down Peter for trying to straddle the middle. It worked because Peter ended up agreeing with Paul. I've often wondered how often in the last 2000 years we've had someone who had the courage to approach the Pope and speak truth to power (though I suspect it's easier with our current Pope than his immediate predecessors.

I read this incident not as something bad, a conflict that needed resolution, but something good and necessary for the growth of the church. The tension between Peter and Paul allowed all to see that the Holy Spirit works not just through individuals, but in the encounters between believers, even believers who disagree. The idea that someone can reprove the Pope tells me that the Spirit uses whoever the Spirit chooses. If Peter had rebuked Paul, or threatened to dismiss him, then maybe our church would look different. If all power and authority came from just one person, we might have seen Peter and the office of the Pope differently. This may be a stretch, but instead of Popes being successors to Peter, Peter could have been seen as the successor of Jesus. Think about all the tyrants in our history who have claimed to be raised to the level of deity. If nobody rebuked Peter, that could have happened to us.

Peter and Paul built the foundation not because they liked each other or had the same vision of the church. They succeeded because they both sought the same thing: the church we have now. Not vilifying each other, but working in complement. We speak of collegiality, of all having access to the Holy Spirit, because Peter listened to the Holy Spirit when the Spirit told him to listen to Paul. I suspect they share the same feast day because the needed each other, even if they didn't recognize it.

I'm guessing I'm not alone in drawing a line between these encounters and what we see with out secular leaders today. I feel that too often we are led by men and women who do not see their role to serve but to gain power. In that paradigm, those who disagree are enemies. If they win, we lose. How often have we been told that members of Congress are specifically told not to be seen with members of another party? Or told that compromise or creative solutions are signs of weakness? I could run down this road for a long, long time, but I don't think I need to. I'd like our leaders to see how Peter and Paul made us who we are by listening instead of shouting. Feel free to forward this to anyone you think might benefit.

June 22, 2014: The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. It begins by recounting that after the Exodus, God guided the Israelites for 40 years through the desert, and how God afflicted them with hunger and gave them manna. They had never seen mannah, and God did this so they would understand that nobody lives by bread alone, but also by God's word. In John's Gospel Jesus speaks of his flesh as the living bread from heaven. Further, only by eating this bread and drinking Jesus' blood can anyone have eternal life. Like mannah, it has come from heaven, but all those who ate mannah eventually died. Anyone who eats Jesus flesh will not die.

All this talk about bread? First mannah in the desert and then Jesus body in unleavened bread? Doesn't anyone care about carbs anymore? And don't even get me started on gluten. Does God even care about our health? Isn't God aware of gluten insensitivity or celiac disease?

OK, maybe this just a bit of hyperbole but I think it raises a good point. We live in a place and a time where bread is all around us, where we can take it for granted. Think about the bread aisle in the grocery store. We can find bread of different shapes, flavors, and sizes. We can even get Biblical bread: Ezekiel Bread that claims a biblical recipe (full disclosure: I've never tried the stuff).

But if we are to understand today's readings, and today's solemnity, we need to understand that this begins in starvation. God is speaking to the Israelites to remind them that when they were liberated out of Egypt, they were going into an austere and severe land. We think of it as a desert, and older translations called it the wilderness. In any case they left Egypt under dire circumstances with only a promise that God will lead them into the "promised land." They didn't know anything about it and certainly did not work out the details of how to get there. Hungry and desperate they must have wondered what to do next.

And in their wonder God gave them mannah. Some biblical scholars have long sought to find an answer, a way this mannah could have appeared naturally, enraging other biblical scholars who insist that it came from God and God alone. I'm not going to enter into this debate because I don't think it matters. What matters is that the Israelites didn't starve, and they made it to the promised land because God gave them what they needed.

It was important back then (and today) that we understand that they got what they needed and that it came from God. They didn't stumble upon it or invent it themselves. I find this important as a counterpoint to the too often belief that we can be self sufficient. Nothing can be further from the truth. We live in a time where we revere the "self made man or woman." Someone who can provide whatever is needed in any situation and sees charity as weakness. Ultimately they are fooling themselves. None of us is self made and at some point in our lives we will need to depend on the generosity of others who are not offended by our selfishness.

For all of human history there have been fluctuations in food sources: a bumper crop here, a famine there. But at the same time we live in a global economy that has tremendous ability to move food around. It should be easy and based on need, but it's not. Too often it's based on the matching of who has the food with who has the wealth to purchase it. Though it does't say so explicitly, I have to believe that when they were dividing up the mannah, Moses did not get a larger share. All had what they need. I wish that were so today. I recognize the irony in saying this (please look at a recent picture of me), but we live in a country with an obesity crisis and a world with a nutritional crisis. Even in our own nation we have to constantly fight to preseve subsidized school lunchs, food stamps, and hundreds of other programs that hope to end hunger. For many of us (and, I suspect, anyone who is reading this), hunger is not a fear; not because there is enough food for all, but that we have gotten a place in line that ensures it won't run out until we are fed.

So what do we do about this? I suggest that the answer is found in the Gospel. There are more than enough references to Jesus' body being a continuation of mannah that I don't need to recount it. This "body of Christ" is now more commonly known as Communion or Eucharist.

I'm going to tread lightly here because this solemnity means different things to different Christians. For many, weekly worship does not include passing blessed bread; it might be monthly or even annually. To Catholics it means a great deal more: the celebration of the Eucharist is the center of all worship. Only a priest can consecrate the bread, and until I was a teenager, only a priest could touch it (he would put the bread directly on our tongues and we were instructed to swallow it whole).

As a lifelong Catholic I've always revered the Eucharist, but there is a sense where our desire to take this seriously has led us in strange directions. One of these is a particular concern of mine: the use of the Eucharist as a tool to keep people in line, sometimes in inconsistent ways. We all have stories of people who left unhealthy marriages and entered into life giving ones who were blocked from receiving Communion. It was said to prevent scandal, but I find that wanting. I find it more palatable that it was used as a way of preventing divorce, or at least remarriage. I was heartened last year with Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. In a section entitled "A Mother with an Open Heart" he says this: "The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak." It is when we are most in need that we should find ourselves first in line for the Eucharist.

Because that is what Jesus had in mind. In his own words in this Gospel he talked about how mannah saved the starving in the desert, but did not give them eternal life. In other words Eucharist in a continuation and expansion of mannah: as God gave the Israelites what they needed to survive the desert, Jesus gives us what we need to survive not just this crisis, but all crises.

But Eucharist means nothing if it doesn't mean that we are all in this together. Until recently many Catholics have read this gospel too narrowly and advanced the belief that since only Catholic can receive the Eucharist, and only individuals who receive Eucharist can be saved, only Catholic are in heaven. That simply cannot be. Just as the mannah was evenly divided, Eucharist in the early church was evenly divided, open to all who sought it. Eucharist also isn't a "passport to heaven," something you need to get through the pearly gates. If that were true, we'd only need to receive once in our lifetime. Instead, it is the cure to starvation that allows us to see beyond ourselves to others who are starving.

And finally, Eucharist isn't "super mannah" but it does reach out and nourish a starving people. As we look around us at a world that too often rewards greed, turns a blind eye to violence, and allows for starvation, we can see our need. Reception of the Eucharist, however we believe it, opens our eyes. We share Eucharist because it allows ourselves to look into the eyes of others and see what we are starving for.

June 15, 2014: The Solemnity of Most Holy Trinity

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading returns to the Old Testament. It's from Exodus and requires a little background. Shortly before this reading Moses had gone up to Mt. Sinai where God gave hime the tablets with the 10 Commandments. On returning to the Israelites, Moses found that they had created the image of a golden calf, in clear violation of God's command to not worship graven images. In his rage Moses destroyed the tablets. The people repent and God instructs Moses to cut two new stone tablets. Our reading begins with this as Moses is speaking with God and asks God to forgive the people. John's Gospel shows Jesus speaking with Nichodemus. He begins with the well known phrase "God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in hiim may not be lost but may have eternal life." Jesus goes to say that nobody who believes in Jesus will be condemned but anyone who refuses to believe is already condemned.

I've always been a little amused when I get the question "What do you do?" The reality is that I do any number of things. I work, I play, I watch baseball games, and I try to find the holiness in all I see (that's still a work in progress).

In reality this question, at least in social situations, means "what is your job?" Truthfully, when I do get that question I answer that I'm a hospice chaplain because I don't want to be known as "the weird guy" the next morning.

But it does raise an interesting point. So often we define ourselves not even in what we do but what we produce, what we tangibly contribute. There's an old adage "a man is what a man does" and it's not limited to just men.

When I think of the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity I like to think of it as a counterpoint to that. Now I'll be the first to admit that talking about the Trinity should cause anyone pause. Most (but not all) Christians confess a belief in "Three Persons and One God" but get tied up in the details. St. Patrick famously used the three leaf clover to explain the Trinity and I have to confess that if I had been one of the people he tried to bring to Christianity I'd have found this confusing. I do remember as a child finding great glee in watching adults try to explain this to me.

And candidly, I find no help in the readings. There is almost nothing in Scripture to guide us in this belief but today's passages from Exodus and John provide no help. When I was in seminary the rector told us that if we choose not to preach on the solemnity we can always choose to preach on the readings instead. Yeah, I guess I wouldn't be me if I didn't take the harder path just to see where it leads.

I'm also aware that while many Christian denominations profess a belief in this Trinity, few of them have devoted much thought to it, primarily the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. I think it's probably because all the really good fights on the meaning of the Trinity were well completed by the Protestant Reformation and the reformers had much more current battles to fight.

And without giving a blow by blow description of how this was such a hot issue while the Roman Empire was crumbling and the Dark Ages were marching in, let me say this: the hot button issues back then were the relationships between the three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit; unfortunately I think much of the debate was over rankings and didn't speak to the love they all have for each other.

But it is that love for each other that I find compelling in the Trinity. The love they have for each other informs and directs the love that we are called to show each other. It's a love that does not go only from giver to acceptor, but exists in the space between and feeds both.

I began this by talking about the question "What do you do." Sometimes we hear the question "Who are you with?" Sometimes it's a generous question: perhaps we're at a social gathering where someone who cares about us sees us with someone new and wants to meet this new person. That's wonderful when it happens but sometimes it can take on a harder edge. Sometimes it can point to a sense of exclusion; it can mean "Do you belong here?" When that happens and we feel excluded I think it casts a shadow on what we are called to do.

I said earlier that I don't find much connection between the readings and our topic today, but I feel that I can't look at John's Gospel without saying something about that exclusion. The first line of the Gospel is the famous "John 3:16" and if you've ever watched a football game on TV you're familiar with it. It's a wonderful passage about God's love for us embodied in the person of Jesus and how this is the path to salvation. But I think we sometimes twist the next part about those who refuse to believe. Without wandering too far off the path I find that sometimes we use this to divide up the world between "who is in" and "who is out" (and of course setting it up to make sure we are in). Belief in Jesus is not about the bumper stickers on our cars or what uniform we wear. We don't get to say that someone is beyond our care because they disagree with us. I fear sometimes that this passage is used to allow us to see others and "them" and not part of "us."

And alas, I see that happening more and more. An army psychiatrist opens fire and kills several of his fellow service members. We find out that he is Muslim and then argue that we shouldn't allow any Muslim to serve in uniform. Two people of the same sex wish to find the joy and permanence of marriage that heterosexual couples have been able to take for granted, and suddenly we think they are after our children.

This all happens because we don't look to the Trinity. It happens because we choose fear over love and believe we need to protect "us" from "them" when we don't even know them. Last week humanity lost a wonderful soul in Maya Angelou. In many ways she personified what I'm talking about. Her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is evocative in its very title. She was often seen as them: Woman. Black. Several Times Married. Friends with Malcolm X. But she never saw herself as them, nor anyone else. In her writing and speaking she strived always to love and to use that love as a bond between us. May we continue to learn what she taught, and may we continue to see the Trinity as love.

June 8, 2014: The Solemnity of Pentaecost

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke speaks of the apostles being gathered in one room when wind and fire came in, and a tongue of fire appeared over each of the apostles. When this happened, everyone could understand everyone, even when they spoke in different languages. They were amazed by this. The Gospel begins with Jesus' followers being locked in a room "for fear of the Jews" when the resurrected Jesus appears and breathes on them. Jesus tells them that they have the power to forgive sins, or refuse to forgive sins.

The Solemnity of Pentecost holds a special place in my heart: 20 years ago I was preaching on this solemnity at Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. A week earlier I had been ordained a priest and according to custom I went back to the church where I grew up to celebrate my "first mass."

In talking about this first reading from the Acts of the Apostles I imagined that the Apostles must have felt overwhelmed by this experience. A powerful wind from heaven, tongues of fire over their heads, and the ability to understand all the languages of the world. It must have been ecstatic, otherworldly. And then they slowly, slowly came to the realization that there was a great deal of work to do. As a newly ordained priest I spoke of having a new understanding of that feeling.

If the first reading was the ecstasy, then at least the beginning of the Gospel was the agony. It's a completely different scene: inside, behind locked doors, in fear. I'm focusing on the first line of the Gospel at least in part because it's been one of the most misused lines in all of Scripture and some explanation is in order.

The Gospel of John was the last of the four Gospels to be written, probably around the year 90. It was also written in the middle of a painful period in history. From the time of Jesus' resurrection around the year 33, his disciples proclaimed that he was the messiah they had all been waiting for. As you can imagine some believed Jesus was the messiah and some didn't. So now, nearly 60 years into this, the communities are splitting apart. More to the point the followers of Jesus were expelled from the Temple. They felt persecuted by those who did not follow Jesus and did not want to leave the Temple; they felt that they were cast adrift.

Unfortunately this and other passages have been used to justify anti-Semitism ever since. The phrase "for fear of the Jews" has been taken horribly out of context and has been used to justify everything from the Crusades to the Holocaust. I'm writing this in hopes that writings like this will eventually overcome the sinister view that we still need to fear the Jews.

And so let us take the anti-Semitism out of this Gospel reading and talk about the agony. Twenty years ago, at my ordination, I felt tremendous joy. Since then I've had a few experiences that were just the opposite. Times when I've wondered if anything I did made a difference, if what I did had any value, or there was any reason to go on. Fortunately those experiences have been fleeting and rare, but no less real.

But most of these last twenty years have been neither. They've been "ordinary time." Ordinary time sounds a little boring, but I suggest it's not. It's the time when we recognize that we do have value, but we're not the messiah. It's the time when we see that life is good but not perfect. It's the time . . .that sometimes we long for the ecstasy and fear the agony.

I know this may be a unique and unfamiliar look at Pentecost, but it's also the traditional move in the Christian calendar from Easter to Ordinary time. And so, every year we must even if there is a part of us that doesn't want to.

If we think about this on a less religious plane maybe it makes more sense. Think about the last day of vacation. It's been a wonderful time and much as we love our ordinary life, we board the plane with just a little sadness. Though we know it's impossible, we'd like to think of being able to have a permanent vacation. Intellectually we know that we'd eventually tire of the endless ocean breezes, never ending Mai Tai's, and no alarm clock, we'd like to try it. Much as we would like to try, we really can't live ecstasy all the time.

We also see this, and perhaps to a greater degree, in our children. We laugh about this, but do we give out trophies to everyone because we don't want anyone to miss out? When we abandon the idea of rewarding outstanding performance for the sake of making everyone feel good, I think we've lost something. I think we've lost the idea that playing on a team (be it the chess club or the baseball team) is ordinary time and ecstasy is a wonderful, fleeting experience. And those agony moments, sacrificing your queen to get his pawn or striking out with the bases loaded, are all part of the experience, and are (hopefully) rare.

But perhaps more insidious than that is the steps we take to avoid the agony. We all can think of times in our lives where we've huddled in fear, times when we didn't think we had the strength to keep going, times when the future looked bleak. And while we can look back on bad times and see the good that came out of them, we almost never look ahead to see what we can learn from current bad times. We try, as much as we can, to avoid these experiences.

I think about how many people I know who stay in jobs they don't like because they are afraid that the next job will be worse. I also think we know people who stay in unhealthy relationships out of fear that this is the best they will ever have? Do we dare not try something we want out of fear that it will not turn out?

And if we put too much effort into giving ecstasy experiences to our children, I think we're even worse in trying to stave off agony experiences. We even have a name for ourselves: helicopter parents. For the unaware, the term "helicopter parents" is a term for parents who try to shield their (often adult) children from bad experiences. They write essays for their teenage children and hire people to help them complete college applications. Some have even been known to accompany their adult children on job interviews.

There is certainly nothing wrong with protecting our children, and I'm sure the parents of Jesus' first disciples worried about them following this man who claimed to be God. But we need to understand that our life is all three: fleeting experiences of ecstasy and agony, and long stretches of ordinary time.

And so let us return to ordinary time. I think we need to rehabilitate the word "ordinary." Years ago I remember commenting that a woman I had met was attractive. I was with a woman friend who was surprised and thought the woman looked ordinary ("plain Jane" was the phrase she used). I suggested to her that there is beauty in the ordinary, at least beauty I could see. I see ordinary as the balance, the place between the poles. Perhaps it's not a place of great excitement but it is (hopefully) a place of contentment. It's a place where we can our lives for what they are: far from perfect, but doing OK.

In that heady experience in the first reading the apostles weren't given the Holy Spirit so that the rest of their lives would be ecstatic, nor that the bad times would disappear. They were given the Holy Spirit to make ordinary time good.

June 1, 2014: The Seventh Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading from Acts takes place directly after Jesus rises from their eyes into the clouds (this is called the Ascension). They go back to Jerusalem (a "sabbbath walk," about half of a mile). There they joined the others (including Jesus' mother Mary) and joined in continuous prayer. John's Gospel takes place shortly before Jesus is arrested. The entire reading is a prayer from Jesus to God where Jesus raises his eyes to heaven. He speaks of knowing that the hour has come for his glorification and that he (Jesus) has fulfilled his role of revealing himself to his followers and they have accepted his teaching.

On January 20, 1961 a 43 year old man named John Kennedy took the oath of office and became our country's 36th President. He was the youngest man to be elected President and in his inaugural address he announced that "the torch has been passed to a new generation."

It had indeed been passed. President Kennedy was 27 years younger than his predecessor, and as a matter of fact Eisenhower had a child born the same year as Kennedy. To the old establishment it must have seemed that this young wealthy upstart had no business holding that office.

Nikita Khrushchev, the ruler of the Soviet Union, was one such person. He was four years younger than Eisenhower and he thought the United States was crazy and even a little weak in selecting Kennedy. But a year and half later, Khrushchev was outmaneuvered when Kennedy was successful in forcing the Soviet Union to remove nuclear weapons from Cuba. People of a certain age, and students of history, will remember that this was the time when the US and USSR came closest to destroying the world with nuclear weapons. You have to think Khrushchev thought that he didn't think Kennedy had it in him.

I think of that as I read today's readings. This past Thursday we celebrated the Ascension where Jesus, after several appearances to his apostles, rose from their midst into a cloud and disappeared. Today's Gospel shows how the apostles then returned to Jerusalem and began the life that we all live today: in the resurrection but before the return of Jesus (sometimes referred to as the "already/not yet").

I've spoken of this before but I'm amazed at how well this rag tag group embraced the mantle of this new era so well. It's ridiculously easy to read much of the Gospels through the eyes of "can't these guys get anything right? They don't understand what Jesus is saying, or they compete for a higher place in Jesus entourage, or they run away when Jesus is arrested.

So how did this happen? How did these men and women almost overnight turn into the group that began to preach and teach, performed miracles, and laid the foundation to the faith that we have all inherited?

Part of that is seen in today's Gospel. I have to confess a little amusement when I read of Jesus praying to God aloud, in front of his followers. Why is he doing that? Is it to impress his followers with his mastery of the craft of prayer? Is it to impress God? In this case I think he is praying aloud because he wants his followers to know what he thinks of them. He says this: "I have made your [God's] name known to those you took from the world to give me. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now at last they know that all you have given me comes indeed from you; for I have given them the teaching you gave me, and they have truly accepted this, that I came from you, and have believed that it was you who sent me.

While I've often thought John could have used an editor, I believe the message here is clear: Jesus, under the vehicle of prayer, is telling his followers that they have succeeded in becoming who they were supposed to be. Jesus is telling them that they will lead.

But there's another part that I think is more important: In events like the Road to Emmaus and Pentecost we see Jesus' followers infused with power and authority that comes not from themselves but from God. They are chosen not (we think) because God is impressed with their work. God chooses what God chooses and it often does not make sense to the rest of us. But that does not make it less God chosen. In the absence of understanding we are called to have faith.

Put another way we should look at these first apostles through the eyes of ordinary people of their time. "Really? Peter? They guy who keeps getting things wrong? Mary Magdalene? Don't even get me started." But for reasons that likely make sense only to God, these are the people God chose. And we are called to listen and follow, not because of their worthiness, but because God chose them.

I have a real world example in my own life. When I was 25 (yes, this was last century) I was looking for a job as a church youth minister, working with high school students. Frankly my job search was a disaster. I was living in Virginia and had dreams to moving to the San Jose area, but I interviewed in three parishes and none of them wanted me. I wasn't sure how I was going to support myself and I wondered if God had a place for me. Through a coincidence that defies logic I learned of a parish in Virginia that was looking for someone to run their CCD (Catholic for Sunday School) program. They had a high school youth group that had died a few years before. They were looking for someone to run the CCD program because their current person wasn't working out. His alcoholism had gotten so bad that he could no longer hide the fact that he was having an affair with a divorced woman in the parish. The teachers were frustrated over broken promises, the parents were angry that their children weren't being taught well, and the children weren't getting the religious education they deserved. When I was called for an interview I went along only because I had nothing better to do and wanted to say that I had at least tried.

They interviewed me and offered me the job. So here I am, 25 years old, wanting to be a youth minister, and they ask me to run a 1,000 student, 100 teacher CCD program. Oh, and I can start a youth group if I wanted to. You'd have to be an idiot to take that job, right?

I did. I thought they were off their rockers to offer me the job and I thought there was no way I could do it. I needed a job and I figured I'd take it (and take the paycheck) until they came to their senses and got rid of me. After three years I found that I was able to restore the trust that my predecessor damaged and I created a youth group that was averaging 40 to 50 high school students per week.

I say this not to blow my own horn but to say that I was blessed with something even I did not fully understand. I learned to trust my instincts, believe in myself, and do what I thought best. It wasn't an easy job by any measure and I'm certain I was not the only one who doubted my qualifications but it worked out in the end.

I would not have chosen me for this position, and in the same way the early apostles probably believed they shouldn't have been chosen. But they were. I admire the fact that they said yes to this calling, knowing that they took the chance of ridicule if this "new way" ended up going nowhere.

They accepted the torch that was passed to them having no idea why, or where they were going. Or where they would end up.

I think this situation is far from unique. Every new parent can talk about their bewilderment over the responsibility they've been given and how humble they feel over what is ahead of them. My prayer for them is to understand that they were chosen for this. I pray that they come to the understanding I did when I accepted a job I didn't think I was qualified for.

I also hope that we understand that these events happen to all of us in our lives. We are called to say yes sometimes to something that scares us. Not all of these offers work out well, and maybe that calls us to accept the gift of humility. But sometimes they call us to the better angels of our nature. They call us to courage we didn't know we had or faith that came to us at the last minute. They call us to accept the torch when passed to us, even if we don't think we're the best person to accept it.

May 25, 2014: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings at here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is (again) from the Acts of the Apostles and continues to tell the story of the earliest days of the Christian church. Here we see Phillip travelling to Samaria and proclaiming Christ to the Jews there (the Samaritans were Jews but were often the enemies of the Jews of Jerusalem). While he was preaching many people were cured of their illnesses. Back in Jerusalem, the other apostles heard about this and dispatched Peter and John to Samaria. The Samaritans had been baptized and Peter and John travelled there to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. John's Gospel describes Jesus telling his disciples that he will ask the Father to send an Advocate, the Spirit of truth. This Advocate will allow Jesus to live in the hearts of all of them and the Father will love them.

It's been my custom to link the first reading and the Gospel to a common theme, and the lectionary is set up that way. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes not. This is a different case altogether. On one hand it's easy: Peter and John go down to Samaria and lay hands on the new followers of Jesus. They receive the Holy Spirit and live happily ever after. This was foreshadowed in John's Gospel when Jesus tells his disciples he will do exactly that to them. This is how confirmation, one of the sacraments in many Christian churches, was imagined.

On the other hand this seems too simple to me. It has spawned a whole cottage industry of "born again" churches who teach that baptism is not enough: in order to be saved the believer needs to repent and receive the Holy Spirit. The phrase "born again" comes from a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the 3rd chapter of John's Gospel where Jesus speaks of the need to be born of water and the Spirit and only by being "born again" can one be saved. But to leap from these readings to a belief that discipleship and even salvation is a two step method is looking in the wrong direction. As with many beliefs I worry that the whole "born again" movement is a mishmash of several unrelated passages from Scripture. We take a little of John 3, a little of Acts 8, and mix in some John 14 and blend to uniform consistency.

On the other hand there is no ignoring the fact that we do find ourselves with a sacrmental system that sees baptism by water and confirmation by the Spirit as two separate sacraments. Baptism normally happens during infancy and confirmation during adolescence. For example I was baptized at 19 days and confirmed when I was nearly 13. But this raises the obvious question of what to think of honest and sincere believers who have not completed both steps. Are they lacking something they need? Are they incomlete?

Many years ago I was asked to be the Confirmation sponsor for a young man whose family I knew. In one of our meetings before his Confirmation I spoke with him about the Catholic teaching on this. I explained that there are three "sacraments of initiation" (and seven total). The sacraments of initiation correspond with the Trinity: Baptism is the sacrament of the Father (inclusion into the Church), Eucharist is the sacrament of the Son (the Body and Blood of Christ), and Confirmation is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit (full acceptance as a Catholic). To his credit he got angry to hear that at 15 years old he wasn't "fully a Catholic." Out of this experience I wrote a paper in seminary arguing that all three sacraments should be combined together and conferred during infancy. Like many of my ideas this absolutely did not catch fire and my work has had no effect on Catholic practice. As with many of my ideas I'm OK with being the only one on my side.

To be fair I understand this. The reading from Acts appears to show that becoming a follower of Jesus is a two step method. Phillip sets out for Samaria, a place most Jews saw with contempt, to preach Jesus to them; perhaps the rest of the apostles chuckled and sent him with wishes of good luck. But when he is wildly successful the rest realized that they needed to pay attention, and Peter and John were dispatched. I can well imagine that they recognized that they needed to finish, and finish quickly, what Phillip started. It's easy to read this through the lens of the Samaritans not being fully followers of Jesus until Peter and John laid hands on them.

Or maybe not. As I've spoken about in other homilies, these early days of the Church called the apostles to figure out things as they happened and (to use a football metaphor) call audibles at the line. If everyone was as successful as Phillip, they would need way more evangelists, and maybe the laying on of hands constituted the authority to not only follow Jesus, but bring nonbelievers to Jesus. Maybe Peter and John were commissioning new evangelists. There is reason to give this serious consideration. Our modern day Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate bar Mitzvahs (for boys) and bat Mitzvahs (for girls) at around age 13. This is clearly seen as admission into adulthood: after this celebration the young man or woman is expected to be able to lead worship in the absence of a rabbi. As a matter of fact the ceremony centers on the young man or woman leading worship. In a Christian context, is this a passage from someone who hears the Word into someone who can teach the Word?

And where do we find the Gospel? Here Jesus says nothing about the role or responsibility of the disciple, but instead clearly tells his followers that the reception of the Holy Spirit (or Advocate) is the result and reward of faith. If you love Jesus and follow the commandments you will be rewarded with the Spirit of truth that will give you the strength to recognize the Father.

But what if we're looking at this wrong? What if these events, these sacraments, are not signposts, but instead a recognition of a process? What if Peter and John rushed to Samaria not because they had something the Samaritans needed but because Peter and John wanted these new followers of Jesus to see that the rivalry between different Jews would no longer apply? What if Jesus spoke with his disciples not out of a reward for their faith but out of a recognition that in the course of their lives they would always and continually need the interventions of the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit?

Would that change our understanding? I think so. Because so many of us Christians think of sacraments (no matter how many of them we believe or how we believe in them) as signposts, we see them through the eyes of "now that I've achieved this, I've gone this far. My next achievement requires me to do something else. I have to prepare for the next sacrament." What if our journey isn't from rest stop to rest stop but from step to step? On any long journey (say, a lifetime) we need to stop from time to time to recognize how far we've come or how far we need to go, but what if we recognize the holiness in every step, not just the ones that end in a sacrament? What if we read the Gospel's words that our love for God will give us strength in small, daily doses instead of huge sacramental gifts?

I have many friends who find life saving wisdom in 12 step (Alcoholics Anonymous) spirituality. They tell me that their lives are about progress and not perfection. I like that. It tells me that while a belief in seven (or fewer) sacraments provides great wisdom and truth, the idea that "following the commandments of Jesus" and being a disciple is not about two or seven sacraments but about starting each day as a sacrament. It's about going to bed each night with the realization that the universe is just a little bit better for my actions. It's about being the Phillip or Peter or John for the Samaritans I've met.

May 18, 2014: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue the first reading in the Acts of the Apostles. The community of believers is getting more diverse and there is a dispute between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. The Hellenists are complaining that their widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food. The leadership determined that they cannot divert their work to give out food. Instead they ask the Hellenists to appoint seven men to ensure a fair distribution. These seven are appointed, and the entire community laid hands on them. In John's Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that they should not be troubled as there are many rooms in the Father's house and he (Jesus) will go ahead and prepare a place. Thomas asks how we can know the way to this place and Jesus assures him that he himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and only by knowing him can one find his way to the Father. Phillip then asks to see the Father. Jesus again assures them that "I am in the Father and the Father is in me."

Until a few years ago I read these passages from the Acts of the Apostles with more than a little weariness. As I looked around the church that I knew, I saw a great deal of controversy. Conservatives arguing with liberals, disagreements about birth control, ordained women, and the like. And I read about incidents like these where they all cooperated with each other and all the readings had happy endings. And I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout from the rooftops that they had it much easier: they were a small group, nearly all of them had known Jesus, and the lines were just clearer. I felt vaguely accused by these earliest followers.

And there were reasons for this. Countless times in our Christian history there have been self proclaimed prophets who have decided to take like minded people and recreate these scenes. They decided that all the Christian churches are wrong, or have strayed off the path, or lost the message, and God has chosen them to start anew and get it right this time.

Of course, they've all failed. I believe they failed because they never looked more critically at readings like this one from Acts. Perhaps they believed that all they needed was a fresh "do over" or they thought Jesus' return was at hand and Jesus would look favorably on their community. As I spoke about last week, most of the followers of Jesus expected his return very soon. Because of this they saw no need to make future plans. Even today we see people who expect Jesus' return to absolve us of the need to plan; I got a driver's license in 1994 that was set to expire in 2000. The woman at the DMV (who was wearing a large pin on her blouse that said "Jesus" in cubic zirconium) told me this would be the last time I'd have to come to DMV because Jesus was coming back in 2000. I wonder where she is now.

The early followers, however, did begin to see things that needed attention. This first reading shows one of those needs, but it also shows us that the community of followers was already becoming more complex. The reading begins with the Hellenists complaining to the Hebrews about the treatment of their widows; this takes some teasing out and explanation.

Both groups were Jews who were followers of Jesus. The Hebrews were the main group and they were the ones we read most about in the Gospels. They spoke Aramaic (as did Jesus); the Hellenists, though Jews, spoke Greek. Both groups had a wide range of rich and poor; among the poor were widows. A woman of that time was cared for by her father until she married and was then cared for by her husband. If her husband died, she could come under the care of another husband, or her father (if he were still alive), or another family member. Outside of that she really depended on the generosity of those around her. She had almost no opportunity to create wealth or make a living on her own. Jews of the time (not just the followers of Jesus) we told explicitly that they needed to care for those who could not care for themselves, but this help was spotty and unreliable. The Hellenists in this scene complained because they felt their widows were not being treated fairly.

Clearly the easiest thing they could do was to tell the Hellenists that it didn't matter: very soon they would be enjoying eternity and have all their needs fulfilled. They didn't. They also could have talked with them about "personal responsibility" and how it wasn't their job to take care of these widows, hinting darkly that if they worked harder and made better decisions they wouldn't be in need. They didn't.

Interestingly enough they did say they didn't want this to take them from their role in evangelists. And so as they looked over the community they realized that as they grew, so did their gifts. And they appointed seven members among the Hellenists (we know this because they all had Greek names) and laid hands on them. We see this in our own eyes as ordination, and some of us will see this as perhaps the first deacons. Throughout our history we've seen deacons being ordained primarily to take care of the poorest. There are hints that go both ways, but I think we can see this as an important step in the leadership of what we now recognize as the Christian church.

Important? I think so. The leaders recognized that if they appointed Hellenists they would choose those most able to recognize who was in need. The Hellenists would know better than the Hebrews how to provide their needs. But also by having the Apostles (those who had experienced the resurrected Jesus) lay hands on these seven, they would carry the authority of the entire community. It was, I suspect, the best way to ensure the Hellenist widows would be cared for in the way Jesus intended. It was the best way to make sure everyone was included in the fruits of the community.

It is this inclusion that I maintain frames the Gospel. The image Jesus gives of the house with many rooms continues to be an evocative image for many of us. Several years ago I heard a joke about a priest and a cab driver who both died the same day and were greeted by St. Peter at Heaven's Gate. Peter took the priest to a modest home while the cab driver was given a palace. When the priest questioned this, St. Peter told him that they were graded on results. "When you preached, people slept, but when he drove, people prayed."

We find this funny on a few levels, but at least on one level we find it funny because we think of everyone going to the same place, or at least that Heaven will be so good that it won't matter if we're in a modest home or a palace. Jesus talks not only about how he is the path to salvation, but that everyone is included. Everyone. No exceptions.

This Gospel makes me nervous at times because it is an easy, and perhaps seductive step to read this Gospel through the eyes of "only Christians will be saved." I have to say that I don't see this in this reading. When Jesus proclaims that he is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" does this include all the people in human history who have sought "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" who never heard about Jesus? I hope so. Does this include those who have sought "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" but found themselves immersed in faith traditions that didn't name Jesus as the Son of God? I hope so. Does it include the Hellenist widows who could have been seen as inconvenient to the Apostles, but weren't? I hope so. Does it include the people we find inconvenient? I hope so.

I read today's readings with a fair amount of discomfort because I see such a disconnect with what I see around me. With income inequality reaching scary levels, with our great wealth concentrated in smaller and smaller groups, I can't help but think that the Hellenist widows who are now working in service industries. I think about the Hellenist widows who are dying on the front steps of our VA hospitals after serving our country so faithfully. I think about the Hellenist widows when I hear politicians who claim that we can't help them with even basic services out of misguided claims that this will "kill jobs."

Our earliest Christian ancestors recognized that no matter Jesus' timetable, hunger is unacceptable. Turning a deaf ear to need is unacceptable. We need to see these readings through the eyes of the Apostles and not through the eyes of those looking for a way out of inconvenient truths.

May 11, 2014: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading continues the early days of the church as told in the Acts of the Apostles. Here Peter stood up and proclaimed that Jesus, who was crucified, has been made Lord and Christ. When the crowd asked Peter what they should do, Peter responded that they should all repent and be baptized. Then they will be forgiven of their sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. About 3,000 people were added that day. John's Gospel goes back to a conversation Jesus had before his crucifixion. He is using imagry of a shepherd and his sheep. He warns them that the shepherd is the one who comes through the gate; those who climb over the fence are theives and robbers. But the sheep will know these theives are not the shepherds and will run away. When the Pharisees don't understand what Jesus is saying, Jesus tells them that he is the gate. All those before were theives and robbers and that is why the sheep did not listen. They only wanted to steal the sheep while he (Jesus) has come to save the sheep. "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantlly."

I have to make a confession here: I always groan a little when Jesus speaks of sheep and shepherds. I am a born and bred city boy and my only experience with sheep comes at the meat counter at the grocery store. They are delicious but I have no idea what they are like away from my plate. Clearly Jesus and the people around him had more familiarity. In Luke's Gospel he was an infant when local shepherds came to pay homage to him. Given that, when the Pharisees don't understand what Jesus is talking about, I doubt we have much of a chance.

And frankly I've often heard people read this with very different eyes from mine. And if I may be so bold, I think many of those interpretations are wrong. You see, from my perspective I don't believe the common interpretation that Jesus is speaking to us as sheep who must choose the correct shepherd. Countless times I've heard from preachers that we are sheep who must choose between several shepherds. We're told to choose Jesus because he is the "good shepherd" and the others, the pretenders, will only lead us to slaughter.

Understanding that I know little about sheep, don't all of them end up in the slaughterhouse? In my understanding the way the shepherds made their living was to feed and water the sheep, and them sell them for slaughter. From the sheep's perspective it really doesn't make a lot of difference if they go to the slaughterhouse with the shepherd or the thief.

Maybe we need to stop looking at the sheep, and start looking at the shepherds. The sheepfold (as I found in my research) is a walled enclosure that the shepherds used at night to protect their sheep from predators. Several shepherds used the same sheepfold; the sheep could mingle amongst themselves because the sheep really did recognize the voice of their shepherds, and in an odd sort of way, the sheep themselves kept to their proper groups. Even if the shepherds couldn't tell which sheep were theirs, the sheep did. They kept everything straight.

So what is the role of the shepherd? That's clear. They are the ones who keep the sheep safe. They protect against predators and herd them into safe places at night. They are the ones who commit their lives to keeping the sheep safe. The origin of the word "pastor," that we use for the leader of a church, is closely tied with the word "pasture" where the sheep feed. Perhaps this is where the role of pastor begins. Even if we don't know much about sheep, when we use the word pastor to describe a faith leader we are thinking of pastors as shepherds.

I see this clearly in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. I think I can say this here: the early followers of Jesus had no idea they were starting a new religion. They all thought that Jesus' return was going to be very, very soon and there was no point in making long range plans. There are passages in Paul's letters that seem to indicate that he didn't expect Jesus to be long in returning. This brings a great deal of controversy, but there are those who think that even Jesus expected his return to be quick.

We have the perspective of over 2,000 years to know that Jesus' return wasn't going to happen soon. We have no insight into Jesus' understanding of his return, but I think we can look at the reading from Acts from our perspective. Since we know that Jesus' return is at least 2,000 years off, we can look at the events of the earliest days of the Christian church and see the first halting steps of its formation. We look at Peter and the others as our "founding mothers and fathers" and the decisions they made as crucial to who we are now. And since we believe that the Bible is infallible in matters of faith and morals, the decisions they made were ones that God wanted them to make.

The core of the readings today tell me that we shouldn't look at the sheep to decide who we should choose because that's obvious. Our message today is that we should continue the role of Peter and the others in the first reading. They spoke about salvation that comes from choosing life. We ask for forgiveness from our sins because we know that we can. We wash ourselves in baptism because we believe that we are worthy of it, even if we don't remember our baptism.

And what of the thieves who jump over the walls? The first reading essentially makes us all pastors by our baptism and we are called to keep the thieves from the ones we love.

But who are today's thieves? Jesus told his disciples that the thieves of his time were those who claimed to be the messiah. They lied to make themselves look important, gain followers, and enrich their own purses. Do we have those people today?

Of course we do. I've often joked that the mistake of the early followers of Jesus was that they didn't copyright the word "Christian" and anyone can use it. Today's thieves are those who make scandalous wealth by convincing the poor that their donations will make them more favored in the eyes of God. Today's thieves are those who convince good people that God will punish them for voting their conscience. Today's thieves work hard to erect barriers between us that God ignores. Today's thieves baptize hate instead of those who seek God.

OK, maybe I know more about sheep and shepherds than I let on. I still don't know as much as Jesus but I do know something about shepherds. We are all, in sense, shepherds of those who love us. We are called to protect our loved ones and we hope they recognize our voice.

And we are all called to be Peter and the other disciples. We are called to live our lives in a way that attracts others. Because they were bold in living their lives, we have become followers of Jesus (no matter how many generations ago that happened).

Let us be Good Shepherds. Let our voice be recognizable.

May 4, 2014: The Third Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: the first reading continues from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter addresses a group of Jews; he tells them that Jesus was killed and rose from the dead. He invokes King David (one of the most revered characters of Jewish history) and tells the audience that Jesus is not only descended from David, but is more important. David, for all that he did, died. Only Jesus has eternal life. The Gospel is from Luke and recounts events shortly after Jesus' resurrection. Two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus when Jesus (who they did not recognize) joined them. Jesus asked what they were talking about and they recounted how Jesus was crucified but that they heard that Jesus rose from the dead and they didn't know what to do with that news. Jesus then began to talk with them about Scripture and how this was exactly what Jesus had told them about. When they reached Emmaus the disciples invited Jesus to join them for dinner. At dinner, Jesus blessed and broke the bread, much like he did at the Last Supper. When he did this the disciples recognized that this was the resurrected Jesus, and then Jesus disappeared. It became clear to them that they had been speaking with Jesus all along ("Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?"). They returned to Jerusalem and proclaimed that they had seen Jesus in the flesh.

Like the reading a few weeks ago about Lazarus, today's Gospel is one of those iconic readings where there is material for several homilies. I've often thought that if I was asked to give a weekend retreat there would be enough material in this reading alone to cover the entire weekend. That said, I'll avoid the temptation to jumble all the scenes together, thereby providing several appetizers and no main meal.

We're continuing the juxtaposition of readings where the first reading both occurred and was written after the Gospel. I know it's not done, but I think there is a case to be made that we should read the Gospel first and then the reading from Acts.

And so let us begin with the Gospel. It begins with two disciples (only one is named, Cleopas, and we have no other mention of him in Scripture) walking from one village to another. We see that they've learned of the empty tomb earlier in that same day and they must have been frightened, bewildered, and astounded. Speaking for myself, I would still be thinking someone stole Jesus' body, not being willing to believe what really happened, or even what "resurrection" would mean.

And then Jesus appears to them. Really? Talk about having a hard time wrapping your mind around this. Now think about this: if someone you loved died and was buried, wouldn't you recognize that person? How many times have we gotten tragic news that a loved one has died, and we keep thinking that a door will open, they'll greet us, and we'll see that this was all just a bad dream. If it really happened, wouldn't we recognize our loved one? But here they don't. The passage from Scripture says "something prevented them from recognizing him." We don't know what this is, but I think we can assume this was part of the plan. This passage has caused many of us to think that Jesus simply didn't look like himself, and that when we are resurrected we'll look different (as for me, I don't care how I look as long as I have a full head of hair). But that's probably just a distraction.

For me the meat of this reading isn't really about the journey, but about the destination. Over the course of the seven mile walk Jesus spoke with them about many things, and to be honest, was a little harsh with them. But even after he rebuked them and called them "foolish men" they invited Jesus to join them for dinner. Was it out of a sense of practicality, that you just don't abandon someone at the end of the day? Was it that there was something compelling about this man that they wanted to hear more? Or was it that they were finally coming to the most basic of understandings that the their world was beginning to change in ways that they would only understand in hindsight? Perhaps it was a combination of all these things.

Whatever the reason, they did something that would resonate over the centuries and over the miles. Whatever the reason, they invited Jesus to join them, and nothing would ever be the same.

Because when he was at dinner with them he replayed a scene from the Last Supper. We have no way of knowing if either if these disciples were at the Last Supper (and if you believe the depiction in Leonardo DaVinci's painting they weren't) but it all came together when Jesus broke and blessed the bread. "And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; but he had vanished from their sight." On some level that strikes me as just a little cruel. The price for recognizing Jesus is that he disappears from their sight. Just when they had the opportunity to ask the thousand questions they must have had, they couldn't. All the time they spent with him on that journey, they didn't know it was him, and the moment they did he was gone.

Or was he? Maybe he didn't just disappear to transport to Heaven and leave them alone. Maybe, and maybe this is the point of the breaking of the bread, he became a part of all of them. I'm Catholic, and as most people know, we put great meaning in the phrase "blessing and breaking the bread." Catholics believe that this bread is transformed (or "transubstantiated" if you want to get technical) into the very Body of Christ. Catholics throughout the centuries have done amazing things to preserve what we call "Communion" or the "Eucharist" or the "Blessed Sacrament." In the 1989 movie Romero, a biopic about the Archbishop of San Salvadore, we see a scene where Archbishop Romero is picking up Communion wafers off the floor as terrorists are shooting automatic weapons over his head [full disclosure: this scene never happened in Archbishop Romero's life, but many still consider it the most riveting scene in the movie].

And while I revere the Eucharist as much as any Catholic, I wonder if sometimes we don't head in the wrong direction with it. We have a tendency to treat it like "magic food." Many of us have sat through endless masses where 7 years old children receive their First Communion and are told that this is "food for the soul."

It is food for the soul but I don't think it's magic. Let me suggest that this breaking of the bread, this Eucharist, is intended not only to give nourishment to our soul, but to bring us together and transform us. It certainly appeared to do that with the early disciples, as we see from the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

If you don't know the name Dr. Paul Farmer, you should. He is a medical doctor who has spent his brilliant career finding ways of accessing medical care to parts of the world devastated by poverty. There is a book about his work in Haiti called Mountains Upon Mountains. In 2005 he gave the graduation address at my alma mater, Boston College. He spoke of the process of epiphany/metanoia/praxis in the context of outreach to the poor, and I hear his voice when I read these readings. You can find his address in his newest book To Repair the World

Epiphany is what happens when our eyes are opened to a new reality. The reality doesn't change, but our eyes do. It may be when we recognize that the person in front of us is the one we want to spend our lives with. It may be when we see that something that has caused us great suffering is a great teacher. And it may be when we see the person who has broken the bread in front of us is Jesus. I think we see that clearly in today's Gospel.

Metanoia is what happens when our minds are opened to a new reality. Now that our eyes are open we can no longer pretend they aren't. This is when we act on our epiphany because we can do no other. We can't go back to not seeing, and even if our path takes great courage on our part, we know we have to do it. I think that is what is happening when these two disciples returned to Jerusalem and told everyone about what they had seen. They couldn't just "keep it in their hearts" or hold it as a good memory. Their hearts burned and they needed to burn the hearts of others.

Praxis, the final of these changes, comes in the first reading from Acts. If epiphany is the opening of our eyes, and metanoia is the opening of our minds, then praxis is the opening of our determination. It's what happens when we know we need to act. We need to become different, better people. We need to not only have, but summon the courage to act. For Peter and the other of the first followers of Jesus it meant that they needed to proclaim the resurrection to people who didn't want to hear it.

And we, 2000 years later, still need to muster that courage. For Paul Farmer it has meant challenging the world to see the poor and destitute as being every bit as deserving of clean water and anti retroviral medications. For me as a hospice chaplain it has meant treating the sick and dying as people who are still very much alive and advocating on behalf of people who often don't look or smell good.

I believe this is all very much tied up in the breaking of the bread. We certainly revere the bread itself, but can we also revere the people who are gathered to share it? When Jesus broke the bread and disappeared, I don't think it changed him, or perhaps whether it did doesn't matter. What mattered is that it changed those who shared the bread with him. However we feel about Communion, transubstantiation, or what happened in this scene, can we at least commit to letting it change who we are with each other?

I think we can. Blessed Easter Season to all.

April 27, 2014: The Second Sunday of Easter

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles, near the beginning of the book. The followers of Jesus began forming into a community. They lived together and owned everything in common, having sold all they have and shared the proceeds. Because of this, and because of the miracles and signs they performed, their numbers began to grow. The Gospel from John takes place shortly after Jesus' resurrection. Jesus appeared in a locked room to the Twelve, breathed on them and told them that they had received the Holy Spirit. This allowed them the power to forgive sins. One of the Twelve (Thomas) was not present; when told of this he refused to believe until he felt the wounds from Jesus' cruxifixion. The next week the Twelve were again gathered, and Thomas was present. Again Jesus appeared and invited Thomas to inspect His wounds. Thomas then proclaimed that Jesus was indeed alive. Jesus then reminded them that because they saw they believed; happy are those who believe without seeing.

I think most of us look at these readings immediately after Easter with equal parts envy and amazement. Like the politician's first campaign supporters who go on to high positions in the administration, we revere these first followers of Jesus. It is in these first readings, from both Acts and John, that we learn of those first, amazing days after Jesus rose from the dead.

A note of explanation here: in my synopsis I spoke of the "Twelve." I'm indebted to Fr. Kenan Osborne OFM and his book Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. Fr. Osborne describes three types of followers of Jesus: First is the "Twelve" and they were the men Jesus chose in the beginning of his public ministry. Next are the apostles, and they are all those men and women who saw the resurrected Jesus (this includes Paul who claims this title because Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus several years after today's events). Finally, the disciples consist of everyone who follows Jesus, and includes all of us. Unfortunately when we use the common phrase "the twelve apostles" we are mixing two overlapping groups.

The Gospel begins with Jesus' followers gathering; we don't know who was there as they were just called disciples. All we know is that the Twelve were down to ten, as Judas was dead and Thomas was missing. Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Jesus and told the rest of his followers, but that's all we really know; we don't even know if Mary was present. But imagine how the scene must have looked to them: days after their worst nightmare they are told what must have been too incredible to be true. Jesus, who suffered the humiliation and death of a traitor and usurper, is alive. And, in a way that has become all too familiar to the disciples, it doesn't happen in grand form. Jesus, who first came to us as a helpless baby, doesn't announce his resurrection in majesty, but in the emptiness of a grave.

Accounts differ but in John's account it is Mary Magdalene, not Peter or one of the other men, who first get the word. Did they believe her? Were they even able to articulate their emotions to understand what the word "believe" even meant? How did they wrap their heads around seeing Jesus in the flesh? Did they know that this meeting was the first halting step toward building a community that would become the Christian community we see today?

And I can't move on without saying something about my namesake, Thomas. Let's face it: he's gotten a bad wrap over the years, being known as "doubting Thomas." The other disciples had an advantage over him in that they had seen Jesus, and given the series of roller coaster emotions they all felt, can we feel for Thomas who was reluctant to allow himself to be devastated again? Finally, when Jesus says "blessed are those who have seen and not believed," he is talking about us and not the disciples. They all believed in Jesus' resurrection only after seeing Him.

The first reading from Acts gives us an interesting juxtaposition. Normally the first reading comes from the Old Testament and obviously takes place before the Gospel. But for Easter we will take much of our first readings from Acts and they take place after the Gospels. I don't want to get too caught up in dates, but if we date Jesus' death and resurrection to about the year 33, this scene from Acts was not long after that. It is important to note that the book of Acts was not itself written for another 30 years or so.

This reading from Acts, and other readings from this book, have always troubled me a little. If we read these passages apart from anything else we know, we can get the sense that what we now call the Christian community "lived happily ever after." Obviously we know we didn't, so where did we go wrong? Is it our fault?

No, it's not. There is virtual unanimity of belief that the disciples had no intention of starting a church. They erroneously believed that Jesus was coming right back, if not this month or this year, certainly in their lifetimes. They were able to sell everything they had and live in complete harmony because they didn't expect to have to make any long range plans. To tell the truth, when I was a child and heard this, it sounded like Communism to me. Fortunately I had enough brains to not tell anyone what I thought.

Because of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union last century I think we can all agree that the idea of a group of people sharing everything is unsustainable. We have found, time and again,that we humans tend to respond to incentives. If we all get the same thing no matter what we do, many will do nothing, or at least less than they could. Eventually the community turns to sloth and entropy, and eventually collapses. There have been countless attempts over the last 2000 years to replicate this scene in Acts and they have all failed.

And so what do we do with this reading? If we're not called to live in a community where everyone works, everyone shares, and everyone takes only what they need, what do we do? Perhaps what we do is….take only what we need. I've been moved by Pope Francis' words about not bowing down to the god of capitalism but I think sometimes we don't take it seriously enough. We have been told, from our earliest days, that the purpose of wealth is consumption. With great wealth comes great consumption; we're even told that increased consumer consumption is good for the economy, as if our latest purchase is somehow an act of patriotism.

I'm in the process of turning in my old cell phone; the contract is up and the phone isn't working well. But I'm happy with the phone and don't want to upgrade. You can imagine the reaction I'm getting. Salespersons are telling me that there is faster, sleeker, and sexier out there and they don't understand why I don't choose it. I think they are whispering about me in the back room.

We see that all the time: we lease a car because in 3 years we won't be able to stand having a 3 year old car. The computer we bought 4 years ago that was supposed to do everything from spreadsheets to a cure for bad breath is mocked as a museum piece. Your flat screen TV is only 48 inches? My God, how can you watch that? You need at least 60 inches, and even 72 if you can afford it.

It's not my desire to make us feel guilty about what we have, but instead suggest this season is a good time to "tread a little more lightly on the earth." It's a good time to be more deliberate about what we possess and to realize that not all wealth enriches us. I know several people who gave up shopping for lent, and I've thought that was a good idea. I hope it breaks us of the belief that "we have to have this" but I also think it puts us (just a little bit) in touch with those who don't have the luxury to give up shopping for extras. And it makes a little more room to invest in providing for those who struggle. I also hope that if enough of us embrace the "do I really need this," or even the "will I find a use for it" ethic it will change how stuff is made. I know I'm swimming against a large tide, but does everything need to be the best to be suitable?

I have great empathy for those who work in sales and I understand that they have to make a living like the rest of us. But how many times have we felt rushed into making purchase out of concern that if we had time to think, we wouldn't do it?

Ultimately Jesus' first disciples were able to live the way they wanted because they thought Jesus' return was in sight. We know now that it wasn't, and we still don't. But the messages are still the same. We don't have to own the best because we have been redeemed by the Best. Just like the computer we bought 10 years ago felt like the best thing ever and now feels like it needs a handcrank, nothing we own or purchase will mean anything to us in light of our salvation.

And so let us tread lightly.

April 20, 2014: Easter Sunday

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles. It is generally believed that Acts was written by the author of the Gospel of Luke; Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are sometimes referred to as two volumes of the same work. In this reading from Acts, Peter addressed a crowd and reminded them that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and Jesus went about doing good. He was put to death but was raised from the dead and everyone who believes in Him will be forgiven of sins. John's Gospel speaks of Mary Magdalene, who finds that Jesus' tomb has had the stone removed and believes that someone has stolen Jesus' body. She finds Peter and another disciple and tells them this. Peter enters the tomb and finds the burial cloths but not the body.

So what happened here? It's not as easy a question as you might think. In one sense, the answer is simple: nothing. That's what they found when they went to pay homage to Jesus. We can sympathize with Mary Magdalene and the other apostles who wanted to do nothing more than visit Jesus' grave. They had listened to him, followed him, believed in him, and devoted their lives to him. When the Romans killed him we can well understand the depths of their feelings for him. In their grief they still loved him.

And so their first reaction to seeing this nothing must have been bewilderment, fear, and grief. It must have felt like this horrible emotional roller coaster would never end. It wasn't enough that that their dreams and hopes for their future were obliterated on the cross: now his body has been stolen. The fact that Jesus was even buried was probably their only consolation. Because crucifixion was intended by the Romans to be a humiliating form of execution it was the custom that the bodies be left on the cross to rot and be picked over by scavengers. We don't know why Pilate allowed Jesus' body to be removed (and there are some who don't believe it ever happened), but even this small act of mercy was denied Jesus' followers in the empty tomb.

That's really how this Gospel story ends. But that's not where our story ends. If you are about 50 or over you remember the phrase "and now you know the rest of the story" from famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey. But what is the rest of this story?

We get a hint of the rest of the story in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles where Peter speaks of Jesus' rising from the dead. We will be reading this in great depth over this coming Easter season, but this we know: the empty tomb is far from empty in our lives. This empty tomb had the power to blow open the very Gates of Heaven, defeat death forever, and grant all of us everlasting, joyous, ebullient life.

This empty tomb is the cornerstone not only for our faith, but for how we are to live our lives. I've said this before and I'll say it now: the hardest thing about being Christian is that we can't dream big enough for what God wants for us.

Jesus' disciples, God bless them, were wonderful men and women, and they had good days and bad days. But reading through the Gospels I always get the sense that they never fully understood what Jesus was talking about or offering them. This is true with any leader: to some extent we project our needs onto them and expect them to be fulfilled. The new boss at work will finally understand my value to the agency. This new politician finally gets what needs to be done. The new pastor who will blow out the cobwebs of this place and get things moving.

In rare instances this new leader will articulate a vision that we hadn't thought of but creates a new reality for us. I think this is what President Lincoln was talking about in the Gettysburg Address when he spoke of "a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men [and women] are created equal.

And the disciples were no different. For all that Jesus proclaimed about His Kingdom they were simply looking for a new Messiah, a new anointed one. They looked back on their history to the time of King David and wanted those days back. They wanted Jesus to be David II.

But God was dreaming bigger. God didn't want just David II, He wanted a place of salvation for all people. And that salvation began as simply as an empty tomb. That new vision for God's Creation began with Mary Magdalene thinking some cruel person stole Jesus' body.

This Salvation, this new vision, this new Heaven: who is it for? If you were Jesus and had the power to save, who would you save? It's kind of an unfair question because it asks us to think as God thinks, but give it a try.

Certainly the people we love. I think most of us think of Heaven as being a place where we have all the good things of this life, and none of the bad. When we think of the good things in our life, the people who we love are central.

What about the good people we don't know? We all know of the famous one: St. Francis, Mother Theresa, Gandhi. Of course they get in too. And the good people who aren't famous: the brave men and women who defend our freedom, those who devote their lives to caring for the poor, the sick, the dying.

But do we draw the line somewhere? Do we tell people that we didn't have them in mind and they aren't included? The unjust, the cruel, the "axis of evil" people? Sadly, when I look around, I think we do draw up our list. Sometimes it's overt: tune into most "religious programming" and we see preacher after preacher claiming a message of self congratulations that we're in while others are out.

But what if nobody is out? One of my seminary professors had a strong belief in Heaven and Hell, but his vision of God's judgment was that He opens the door to both Heaven and Hell and asks us to choose for ourselves. God doesn't ask how many rosaries we recited in our life, or if we were born again. God doesn't demand to know if we've accepted Him because He has accepted us.

So what do we do if we know we're saved? While there may be some who will use this to live a life that takes advantage of others, I don't think that's a large number (and I'm fairly confident it's non existent among those who are reading this). I think it gives us the freedom to live our lives as our best selves and not worry about the details.

Is the world 10 billion years old, or 6,000? Who cares? We're going to live forever. Did Jesus have a girlfriend or get married? It doesn't matter; we can ask him in Heaven.

I think we get ourselves tangled up in these questions because we think of Salvation as more valuable if it's rare, if it's something we need to earn or get right on a test. For ourselves I think sometimes we put great stock in exclusivity. Whether it's a sixth grade lunch table that Mary can join but Sally can't, to the secret list of members of the Augusta National Golf Club, we love the idea of being in when others are out.

But in his public ministry, Jesus didn't. Time after time we see him reaching out to people on the fringes: lepers, the blind, Samaritans, even women (recall the story of the Woman at the Well we read a few weeks ago). If he welcomed everyone who would listen to him in his ministry, why would he exclude people in His Kingdom? What if the "list of those excluded" is only our list and not God's? This may be material for another day, but who do you not want to see in Heaven? I think that when we can honestly answer that question with "nobody," we're finally getting the message of Jesus.

And so what do we do with Easter? I'm heartened to see that this is one holiday that has not been coopted by toy stores or beer companies. For many of us Easter is a time to enjoy watching children hunt for Easter eggs. It's also a time to catch up on what we've given up for lent, and hopefully to gather together. If that is the case with you, take a moment during your gathering to look around and imagine that this is what Heaven is all about. This is what Jesus had in mind when He came back to life.

April 13, 2014: Palm Sunday

You can find the readings here

Please note: Although many people attend services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, I'm not going to have time to write homilies for either of those. Maybe after I retire. In any case, the readings for today encompass the events of Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday. I'll have a homily next week for Easter

"Brief" synopsis of the readings: I have brief in quotation marks because Palm Sunday gives us the longest collection of readings (except Easter Vigil) of the year. We begin with Matthew's Gospel and its account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in the days before Passover. The Old Testament reading is from Isaiah where he speaks of being given a well trained tongue, even in the face of evil. Finally we read the entire passion account from Matthew. It begins with Judas making plans to betray Jesus. The scene then shifts to the preparations for the Last Supper. In Matthew's Gospel this is the Passover meal where all Jews commemorate their liberation from Egypt. During the meal Jesus raises a piece of unleavened bread, blesses it, and gives it to his disciples, proclaiming it His body. At the end of the meal he raises a glass of wine (four glasses of wine are proscribed for the Passover meal). He blesses that also, shares it with his disciples, and proclaims that his wine is his blood and will be shed to forgive sins. After completing the meal they went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus tells them that they will all lose faith in Him but he will gather them back together after His resurrection. Peter protests and tells Jesus he will never lose faith and Jesus tells Peter that before the next sunrise Peter will have disowned Jesus three times. By this time they are at an estate called Gethsemane. Jesus tells them to wait while he goes by himself to pray. While praying Jesus begs God that "if it is possible let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless let it be as You, not I, would have it." On returning he sees that his disciples have fallen asleep. He goes back to pray and again, and a third time asks that the cup pass him by. By this time Judas has arrived with an armed escort who arrest Jesus. Jesus is then taken to Caiaphas (who is the Jewish high priest). Caiaphas, in consult with the other Jewish leaders, discuss what is to be done with Jesus. One man proclaims that Jesus claimed to have the power to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. They proclaim that Jesus has committed the crime of blasphemy. During this time several people see Peter in the courtyard and ask if he is one of Jesus' disciples. Out of fear, he pledges three times, with increasing emotion, that he has never met Jesus. By this time it is dawn and the Jewish leaders have decided that Jesus deserves to die; they turn him over to the Roman governor, Pilate. Pilate has no interest in Jesus but becomes afraid when he is told that Jesus is planning a revolt to defeat the Romans. He orders Jesus' execution which takes place that day. After being beaten and crowned with thorns Jesus is taken to be crucified, and having been so badly beaten, dies within three hours. When Jesus dies, the veil of the Temple tears and they experienced an earthquake. After Jesus dies, a wealthy Jew named Joseph asks for Jesus' body and buries him in a tomb.

I have to confess I had a difficult time parsing down these events to write the "brief" synopsis of the readings. Not only are they long, but they are also rich in detail. Because these are the events that form the heart of our faith as Christians, they evoke strong emotions in us. They are also events that inform our imagination: we can picture in our mind what we read, in no small part due to the scores of movies made that recall the last few days of Jesus' earthly life.

As a matter of fact, the difficult role of the preacher is not to tell the entire story but to find a narrative within these events that speaks to us today. There are countless of these narratives, but I will narrow it down. I think too often mistakes made by preachers during Holy Week come when he (or she) tries to say too much.

A few weeks ago, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, I spoke about how sometimes its better that we don't know the road ahead of us, that if we knew what awaited us we wouldn't have the courage to continue the journey. But what happens when we do know, and still need to keep going? I think of this when I read the beginning of this when Jesus comes triumphantly into Jerusalem. In several places in the Gospels He tells his disciples what will happen, how he will go to Jerusalem and be put to death only to rise again. He had to know that this trip on the donkey would be the last good day he has with his disciples in this life.

What was he thinking? Was he able to live fully in the moment and enjoy the adulation? And frankly, how much adulation was there? As we read the Gospels, Jesus and his disciples spend much of their time in Nazareth, but they also journey to other areas. But virtually all Jews return to Jerusalem each year for Passover. In Luke's Gospel when Jesus was 12 we read that Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem every year for Passover. This was the famous story where Joseph and Mary left Jerusalem, thinking that Jesus was with them, only to find that Jesus stayed behind and was teaching in the Temple. It must have been a huge crowd because Joseph and Mary didn't know Jesus was missing until they were a full day's journey away.

I describe this because the crowds closing in on Jerusalem were immense and the idea of all of Jerusalem coming out to greet Jesus is more a matter of our imagination than a matter of fact. Nevertheless, at least for Jesus' followers it was a time of jubilation. Passover was the high point of the year and even though they were occupied by Rome they could recount the events that led them from slavery to freedom.

But what was Jesus thinking? Dread? Fear? Hope? Despair? Was he looking at his disciples, knowing that they would all abandon him (at least the men)? Did he look at Judas and think "betrayer"? Or at Peter and think "denier"? Given how they acted over the next few days we can only hope Jesus wasn't keeping score.

And so back to my question, what happens when you know the immediate path in front of you is horrible; what do you do? I didn't have to search long to imagine something similar. A few years ago I was talking with the husband of one of my patients; I'll call him George. He told me that he was one of the troops that landed at Normandy on D-Day in 1944. The amphibious invasion began at 6:30am and he was in hour 6, landing around 12:30pm. Everybody knew the stakes. The Germans knew the invasion was coming, but not where or when. Both sides knew that a successful invasion would almost certainly begin the defeat of Germany and an unsuccessful invasion would cripple the Allies. George told of loading onto the transport boats in the middle of the night; they were supposed to have gotten some sleep before that but nobody did. Aboard the ship he said some of the soldiers were talking, some were shooting dice, and many were praying. They all knew that their chances of being alive in 24 hours, or even 12 hours, were far from guaranteed.

Hearing this I asked George how he, or any of them, had the courage to do this. He said that part of it was that nobody asked him to do it, that they were doing what they were ordered to do. But he also said that they all recognized that they were fighting for something much larger than themselves. None of them wanted to die and they often thought about the family left behind. But they knew that they owed it to their families, and to their descendants not yet born. As George spoke to me about it, it almost felt as if they were destined to do this job.

This is not a perfect analogy. George and the other 160,000 men were fighting to end World War II, not redeeming the world. And also, while no death is a pretty sight, Jesus' was particularly horrible. There were several ways to execute someone back in Jesus' time, but crucifixion was hands down the worst. It was hellish. The Romans did not crucify someone unless they wanted to make his death especially painful and humiliating. It could sometimes take days and its purpose was to send a message: if you do what he did, this will happen to you also. The gruesomeness of this was front and center in Mel Gibson's 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ

But taking nothing away from this reality I want to talk about another aspect of this that I think would have also been hellish. I'm struck by the fact that not only does Judas betray Jesus and Peter deny Jesus, all of his followers left. There is little of this in Matthew's account, but in Luke it speaks of only two women present when Jesus was on the cross. I'm sure they did what they did out of a combination of fear and grief and I'm grateful Jesus did not hold it against them (or any of us when our fear crests or our faith wanes), but being alone on the cross must have made his death a relief.

The insight I have in this, and a passage I've come back to many times is when Jesus is in Gethsemane praying. There are many passages in the Gospels where we see Jesus praying but this one is different. As I read it, Jesus is pleading to not have to complete this journey, to be able to slip away and disappear. Go on and have a normal life. Forget what he is destined to do. And three times he comes to see that his friends have fallen asleep, and won't be with him even here. And even with that, Jesus finally says to God: "Your Will Be Done."

I think about this passage when I'm talking with one of my patients who is facing death and is afraid. They often worry that God will interpret their fear as a lack of faith and hold it against them. I remind them that Jesus had the same plea: don't let this happen to me. And then I tell them that Jesus didn't deny his fear or see it as a lack of faith, but was able to set aside his fear and save the world.

Next week we get to celebrate that because Jesus had the courage to die according to plan, He was able to resurrect and live in an eternity without death. And so do we.

April 6, 2014: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. Here God promises that He will raise the dead from their graves and bring them back to Israel. Additionally He will put His spirit in them and they will know it was God who did it. John's gospel tells the story of Jesus, Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Lazarus is gravely ill and they send for Jesus. But Lazarus dies before Jesus arrives. On finding this out Jesus is taken to Lazarus' grave where he commands Lazarus to come out of the grave. Lazarus comes back to life and walks out of the grave.

When is it appropriate to give up hope? This is a far more complicated question than it appears on face value. If we think of hope as wishing for a result we can't control, there are many things we hope for on a daily basis. We hope the light stays green, we hope the next round of layoffs passes over us, we hope the mass we see on the X ray will turn out to be nothing.

The complicated dance of hope is central to my work with hospice. Many people decline hospice on the inaccurate belief that hospice means giving up hope. Others come onto hospice and avoid spiritual care because they believe the only thing a chaplain can do is "last rites."

Most disturbing to me is the belief that God will decide against them because they "gave up hope" as if God's intent balances on their feelings of hope vs. despair. The reality is that, in the context of the readings, it's never time to give up hope. The Israelites in the first reading have reason to give up hope. As they saw the Babylonians, their neighbors to the East, grow stronger they had many hopes. First they hoped they wouldn't invade. Then they hoped they wouldn't win. Then they hoped the Babylonians wouldn't destroy their temple. Then they hoped they wouldn't be sent into exile. All those hopes were dashed. It would have been tempting, and even easy, to give up. To think that either God abandoned them or was defeated by the Babylonian god. To embrace the culture and religion of their conquerors. And yet they didn't; perhaps some did, but not the ones who returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple when the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians. Not the ones who we think of as our spiritual ancestors.

But this reading from Ezekiel goes even beyond what the Israelites hoped. All they hoped for was return to Israel. There was, at the time, no real concept of an afterlife. This is one of the first times in Scripture where we see God speaking of raising from the dead. I imagine the impact of this was lost on many listeners of the time, but it is earth shattering. Not only will God restore what you want (return to your home) but give you what is beyond your imagining. Death is no longer the end of the story. It is no longer the end of our story.

This is the setting we find in John's gospel with Lazarus. His name has become synonymous with the idea of returning from the dead. Many years ago I cared for a patient who would often appear to be on the verge of death; a few times I was called to his bedside because we didn't think he would live more than a few hours. But he always managed to get stronger and wonder what all the fuss was. We eventually nicknamed him "Lazarus" and when he finally did die we joked that we wouldn't believe it until we saw him.

Normally in biblical passages of Jesus' miraces (called "signs" in John's Gospel) I find a lack of detail. This story gives me just the opposite: there is so much here that all the details cannot be covered in one homily, or at least one homily of appropriate length. Suffice it to say that a lot happens here.

I'm normally loathe to set up a dichotomy between Martha and Mary where Mary gets it right and Martha gets it wrong. In the end we're all Martha and we're all Mary. But there is something to see in their reactions here. We're used to seeing signs or miracles of Jesus restoring people to health or removing imperfections like blindness. And at first this appeared to be what was going to happen here. Jesus' friend Lazarus is sick and his sisters Martha and Mary send for him to heal Lazarus. But here Jesus does something puzzling: he delays his trip to Lazarus for two days, and by the time Jesus does arrive, Lazarus has died.

Again, it would be easy to give up hope. Jesus could have healed him, but now it's too late. Neither Martha nor Mary give up hope, but they do it in different ways. Martha runs out to greet Jesus and nearly trips over herself to tell him that Lazarus is dead and would have been alive if Jesus had returned in time. When Jesus tells her that Lazarus will live, she admits she knows that Lazarus will rise when all are resurrected. But Jesus pronounces Himself the Resurrection. Mary's reaction is similar, but somehow calmer.

As I look at this, I see their reaction as the difference between "hope for" and "hope in." When we hope for, we hope for an event or an outcome. We hope for something. When we hope in, we place our trust in someone or The One.

Some of you know this, but 26 years ago I capsized a canoe in Lake Ontario at 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon and was not discovered/rescued until 9:30 the next morning. Suffice it to say that the canoe was too big (18 foot), the lake was too big (it is a Great Lake after all), and my common sense was too small. I was in upstate New York for a wedding and that meant there was a large group of people banded together, not knowing if I was dead or alive.

As they told me later the group split into a few groups. One group was optimistic, thinking I would be found alive. One group was pessimistic, thinking they would never find me. My friend Pete was hopeful. As he told me later, whatever happened they would deal with it. He was hoping in.

I've thought about this countless times in the last 26 years. The optimists turned out to be right but there was no guarantee of that (and yes, after 5 days in the hospital getting intravenous antibiotics, I was fine). But by focusing their hope in my recovery they ran the risk of seeing their hope dashed. It was God's will that two guys in a fishing boat would find me, but it also could well have been His will that I not survive.

I worry when I hear people tell me that an event "has" to be God's will. Throughout our history as God's people we've seen time and again how He will never abandon us but that has never meant that everything will go well. Pain and suffering are not the domain of the evil and good things do not happen only to the virtuous. When we decide to follow Jesus we (hopefully) don't do it out of a belief that bad things will stop happening. I pray we decide to follow Jesus so that when bad things happen, we have a context of understanding our suffering within the belief in eternal salvation.

And so it is also with the Israelites in Ezekiel and Lazarus' family. When these readings began things had already gone wrong. Hoping that they would not be exiled, or hoping that Jesus would arrive before Lazarus' death, did not work out. If their belief in God depended on these events going a different way, their faith just got much more difficult.

But we read about them now because their faith didn't depend on events. It depended on their understanding that they were created by a God who has promised us eternal life.

So must it be with us. It's easy to feel God's love when things are going well, but it doesn't mean we experience the lack of God's love when things go badly. No matter what happens, we know that our connection with God is eternal. We have hope in that.

March 30, 2014: The Fourth Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the 1st book of Samuel and records when God sent Samuel to find the next king of Israel. He goes to Jesse to choose one of his sons, but Jesse shows Samuel seven of his sons and God chooses none of them. Only when pressed does Jesse admit he has another son, David, who is herding the sheep. When Samuel meets David, God chooses him and Samuel anoints him with oil. In John's Gospel Jesus is shown a man who was born blind. Blindness was often thought of as a curse from God and his disciples ask whose sin caused his blindness. Jesus says that "he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him." Jesus then gives him back his sight. When others recognized him as the blind man they ask him how he can see and he answers that Jesus healed him. They then take him to the pharisees who become angry when they find that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath which violates Jewish law. They then ask his parents who, out of fear, admit that this is their son, but don't try to explain how it happened. They then tell the man that Jesus couldn't be from God since he broke the Sabbath. When the man protests that only one whom God sent could have cured his blindness, they drive him away. On hearing this Jesus tells the pharisees: "It is for judgement that I have come into this world, so that those without sight may see and those with sight turn blind." When they ask Jesus if he is accusing them of being blind Jesus tells them that since they claim to see, they must be guilty.

While I was thinking about this Gospel I spoke with a friend of mine about it. She pleaded with me not to write about this in terms of the "spiritual blindness we all have." I laughed when I realized that both of us have listened to countless sermons where this is the theme, if only because the preacher heard only the last few lines of the Gospel and paid attention to nothing else.

These are difficult and complex readings because they challenge us to look not only on our view of God, but also our view of ourselves and those around us. Jesus is often asked difficult questions from the Pharisees as a way of tripping him up, but this time the question comes from his own disciples: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?"

Blindness, or any deformity, was considered punishment at the time. The question they ask, though, has always puzzled me. If he was born blind, when could he have committed any sin that would have caused this? We normally believe that while we will live forever, we did not have an existence before we were conceived. But the Greeks at the time believed that earthly life was itself a type of punishment. We existed as gods, but did something wrong and were punished by being enslaved in a body and in that sense perhaps blindness was just a continuation of this. On the other hand there are also passages in the Old Testament that seem to indicate that children are punished for their parents sins (see Exodus 20:5).

But I find neither of these satisfying. I don't believe we existed before this life (and the man had no opportunity to sin) and I don't think a fair God would punish someone for another's sin. The question of why this man is blind speaks to a larger question of why bad things happen to good people. This question has been a bonanza for the publishing world, but it never seems to resolve.

In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People after his 14 year old son died of a rare and horrible disease (progeria). His answer to his son's death, and to the man born blind was essentially this: God is not all powerful and bad things happen only because bad things happen. As a matter of fact, chapter 7 is titled: God can't do everything, but He can do some important things. This is an excellent book and I've recommended it many times to people who were struggling with bad events but I think most of us are uneasy with the idea of events beyond God's control.

A few years later one of my college professors, Dr. Peter Kreeft, wrote a book in response to this. He was horrified at this image of God and wrote his own book, Making Sense Out Of Suffering. While Rabbi Kushner wrote from a Jewish perspective, Dr. Kreeft wrote from his Christian background. He said that since Jesus offers us an eternal place of salvation, that will make the worst of our sufferings feel like nothing worse than "a sleepless night in a cheap hotel."

And as much respect as I have for both of them, I think most of us still find these answers unsatisfying. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of a God who created the universe but can't rule it, and I'm also uncomfortable being told that human suffering is only bad because we lack perspective. I don't think it helps to diminish suffering by claiming that we'll be embarrassed by our complaining when we get to Heaven.

So what does Jesus say? I think this is the part of the Gospel that most of us gloss over. Jesus states that "he was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him." Most of the times I've read this, I've thought of it in terms of Jesus saying this was a type of setup. This man is blind so that Jesus can heal him, give him back sight, and give another sign that he is the Messiah.

But that hardly seems fair either. We don't know how old this man is, but he is an adult, and he has spent his entire life blind so that one day Jesus could come into his life. A blind person back then had a fairly miserable life. They were thought to be cursed and were left to a life of begging. There was the idea that others should give him alms but it's a life that nobody would choose.

What if the point of this was different? What if the point of this Gospel is not looking at God or the blind man, but ourselves? How are we supposed to look at someone with a disability?

When we look at ourselves or others around us, our best hope is that we (or they) be perfect. When a child is born there is no sweeter words from the doctor than: "Your child is perfect." If we find there is "something wrong" with the child, it's a source of great tragedy. But even a child who is born "perfect" will not be perfect for long. We all live with something, be it a food allergy, a gene that raises our risk of cancer, or nearsightedness. I remember talking with a coworker several years ago who told me that when she was told her 3 year old daughter needed glasses she burst into tears because her child was no longer perfect.

And if our lack of perfection is obvious to others, how are we to deal with this? How do we deal with theirs? People of previous generations remember shying away from people with cancer, not because of a fear of contagion, but because they remind us that we are not safe from cancer ourselves. Did the people of the blind man's time throw a few coins at him and run off because they didn't like to think this could happen to one of them?

This could certainly explain the reaction of the Pharisees. They immediately latched onto the fact that this happened on the Sabbath to criticize Jesus and use this as proof that Jesus cannot be from God. They even drove him away when his answers became inconvenient.

So what should they have done? What should we do? I think the message Jesus tells us is that we are all vulnerable but we all have value. Perhaps the blind man couldn't work at a sheep herder but that doesn't mean he doesn't have value. In our own day we often treat the disabled like problems we have to deal with. If someone is not able to work because of blindness, or depression, or combat related amputation, do we see them as valuable? When Jesus says that the man is blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him, maybe we are the works of God. When faced with someone with a disability, can see look at them with love? Can we see someone not as an expense, but as someone who has just as much a claim of God's love as we do? Can we love them as much as Jesus does?

I can't help but think of this in terms of all the brave men and women who are returning from war with horrific injuries, some we can see and some we can't. While we all agree we have an obligation to care for and value them, we don't have a good track record with fulfilling our obligations. We need to commit ourselves not only to be grateful to them, but to also see them as valuable. We need to understand that value comes not from what we can provide, but from Who created us. Those around us do not take things away from us, but provide us with different facets of God's love.

And so this isn't about spiritual blindness. It's about spiritual healing. We can't heal the blind as Jesus did but we can prevent him from having to beg.

March 23, 2014: The Third Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from Exodus. Here the Israelites have left Egypt and are in the desert. But there is no water and they complained to Moses: "Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst?" Moses then appealed to the Lord who instructed Moses to strike the rock and water poured forth. In John's Gospel Jesus was travelling in Samaria when a Samaritan woman met him at a well. Jesus asked her to get him a drink of water. She expresses surprise because he, as a Jew, isn't even supposed to talk with her, a Samaritan. It would be even more forbidden for them to share a cup of water. Jesus then speaks to her about living water and she expressed an interest in this. When she tells Jesus that if he really knew her, he wouldn't be speaking with her. Jesus replied that he knows she has had 5 husbands and that she is not married to the man she is currently living with; she is surprised and suggests Jesus is a prophet. Jesus then reveals that he is indeed the Messiah they have all been waiting for. She returns to her village and encourages everyone to come see Jesus. Many did and became followers of Jesus.

As I read this readings I'm struck by two themes: water and welcome. In one reading it goes badly, and in one reading it goes well. I don't want to fall back on the tired theme of "they got it wrong in the Old Testament and right in the New Testament" because that oversimplification is normally wrong. It is true, however, that things worked much better for the people in John's Gospel.

The first reading has almost an element of comedy to it. The Israelites had no trouble believing Moses (and God) when they were being liberated from slavery in Egypt. They were more than happy to leave slavery and security behind on the promise that they will rule their own destiny. By the next chapter they were grumbling and implying that things were great for them until Moses ruined a good thing. First they had no food and God provided manna. In this chapter they are thirsty and again blame Moses. In fear for his life, Moses again appeals to God who sends them water from a rock (presumably a spring).

In fairness to our ancestors in the desert, water is no small issue. As humans we need a steady supply of water throughout our lives and we live on a planet where most of the water is found in oceans and is undrinkable. We depend on water being evaporated, gathered into clouds, travelling over land, and raining back to earth. In areas that get little or no rainfall, life is hard. This is the land they find themselves in, and frankly they won't survive unless they cooperate with each other.

But here they don't. They complain to the point where Moses is in fear for his life. You have to wonder if there wasn't a part of Moses who wanted to suggest to God that they leave the people here, go back to Egypt, and get a better class of slave to save. But he doesn't and they do get the water they need. There is reason to think that they learned their lesson because in the chapters after this, they are successful in battle against Amalek and came to Mt. Sinai where Moses received the ten commandments. Maybe, a little at a time, they are getting the message.

Fast forward to John's Gospel and it's at best a mixed bag. We know the Israelites eventually came to the promised land. Many things happened to them, but one difficult branch of their history drove a wedge against the Samaritans. The Samaritans were descended from part of the Exodus group, but settled in the north of present day Israel. They were more accommodating of marrying non-Israelites and they had different interpretations of some of the Jewish law. Because of this they were considered impure by mainstream Israelites and were despised. Travellers of the time would often go around Samaria rather than having to deal with them.

Jesus and his disciples, however, did not. Jesus finds himself resting at a well while his disciples went into town. This sets up the scene, which is often called "the woman at the well." It's no exaggeration to say that Jesus broke all sorts of rules and customs in even speaking with her. We don't know her reaction on first seeing Jesus, but we can assume that she wanted to hurry and get her water and leave as soon as she could. We find later that she has had five husbands and is now living with a man she is not married to.

Normally the women of a town would go in a group to get water, early in the day before it got too hot. But this woman is there at noon, the hottest part of the day. It makes sense to think that she is alone because she has been outcast by the other women. When we hear of a woman with that many husbands, we tend to think of her as someone who doesn't take marriage seriously and burns through husbands at a fast rate. But maybe not. Maybe she is someone who is easily abused and has been passed from husband to husband. Women of her time were not allowed to divorce their husbands, but husbands could divorce their wives. Further, they were dependent on their husbands or fathers for their livelihood. I find it plausible that she found herself dependent on a man who refused to marry her.

That certainly explains her surprise when Jesus asks for a cup of water. He does not have a bucket and no way to get the water: he is not making a demand on her but is asking for help. Incredibly, Jesus then promises her living water. In this context, living water is flowing water (like a stream at the bottom of a well) and was considered much more pure than water that was stagnant (like in a cistern). But Jesus goes even further by saying this living water is not just "better water" but "miraculous water." He tells her that anyone who drinks this water will never be thirsty again.

We can well imagine her excitement at hearing this. Not only will this water end all the fear of thirst that they all lived with, it would end her days of walking alone in the hottest part of the day. She must have been overjoyed at this point. But then Jesus does what she fears most.

He asks her to get her husband. Her joy turned to shame as she realized that this Jew, a Jew who will actually talk civilly with her, knows her shameful truth. To make things worse, Jesus then tells the whole story about all her husbands. I'm a little surprised that she didn't burst into tears and run away. Maybe there was a look of love and acceptance in Jesus' eyes. Maybe even a look of welcome.

I once lived with a priest who reminds me of this: he was a Paulist and his name was Fr. Johnny Carr. I lived with him when I was a deacon. He was in his 80s and had Parkinson's Disease; his hands trembled and he was too embarrassed to celebrate public mass because of this. But his hearing was sharp and he spent many hours hearing confessions. Even if you didn't go to him for confession, you knew one important thing about Johnny: you could tell him your worst secret, confess your gravest sin, or describe the most horrible thing you had ever done, and he would still love you. He wouldn't downplay your sin or excuse what you did, but he would make it clear that you are defined by your best moments, not your worst. It was a combination of kind eyes, a soothing voice, and a calm demeanor. It gave many of us the courage to talk about embarrassing things knowing that we would inevitably walk away feeling unburdened.

I think that's what happened with this woman. There was something in Jesus that told her she had value and worth. And face it, it was just like Jesus to do this. He didn't negotiate with the best Samaritan, he reached out to the one they all thought was the worst. Because what happens next is perhaps even more incredible.

Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah and she leaves her water jar to return to town to tell everyone about Jesus. Remember two things: a water jar is of great value because it was the only way to transport this valuable water, and she was returning to the people who treated her as an outcast.

And it worked. She goes back and tells everyone she has seen the Messiah, they come out to meet Jesus, and he spends two days teaching them. The final line in the Gospel is telling: "Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the savior of the world."

Let us, in our own lives, embrace these encounters. The woman at the well had every reason to fear and avoid Jesus, but something about him made her rise above her fears. It also gave her the courage to speak to people who didn't speak to her.

But let us also be Jesus. Let us reach out to people who fear us, even if we have done nothing to cause that fear. I've always been surprised at how much people fear clergy. Maybe it's because they fear our status as "moral authority" or they've had bad experiences. I'll always be grateful to Johnny Carr for dispelling this fear, one person at a time. And I pray I carry on his tradition. But this isn't reserved for priests: we can carry authority by being wealthy, or white, or well educated. We have the power to make people feel judged just by a look or a word.

But we can also make people feel valued by a different look, or a different word. The next time we find out something bad about someone, let's all agree to say something comforting to them. Let us provide both water and welcome.

March 16, 2014: The Second Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from Genesis and describes God's call to Abram to leave the country of his birth to a land God has chosen. God promises that Abram's name will be so famous it will be a blessing. Matthew's Gospel describes the Transfiguration where Peter, James, and John join Jesus on a high mountain. There Jesus' face shown like the sun and his garmets turned white as light. Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah. Then they hear a voice that says: "This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him." The apostles want to set up booths to commemorate Jesus but he tells them not to tell anyone about this "until the Son of Man has risen from the dead."

If last week's Gospel about Adam and Eve is the story we heard first as children, this reading from Genesis has to be in the top five. The story of Abram (later Abraham) begins here, but has several twists and turns. We meet Abram here in the 12th chapter of Genesis and his death is recorded in the 25th chapter.

I've often wondered how Abram reacted to God's call. It's pretty simple in this reading: God calls, and "Abram went as the Lord told him." It was a serpentine route and it began even earlier, in the 11th chapter. In the chapter before this reading Abram's father Terah took them from the land of Ur to Haran where Terah died. Answering God's call, Abram took his wife Sarai, nephew Lot, and "the persons they acquired" and travelled first to Shechem, then to Bethel, then to Egypt. After Egypt he returned to Bethel, then to Hebron.

Lot and his people then separate and Lot goes to the plains of the Jordan; Abram goes to Canaan. The journey keeps going and I won't bore you with the details (if you're interested, you can search for "Abraham's journey" and get hundreds of websites).

I'm struck by the fact that Abram never seems to stop journeying. Granted, he was a herdsman and your life is a constant one of leading your flocks to food and water, and maybe I'm laying on my 21st Century baggage, but I find answering this call to be exhausting. If I were Abram I would have liked to have know the entire itinerary in advance.

Then again, perhaps if Abram had known in advance all the stuff that was going to happen to him, he might have given serious thought to not answering God's call. We live in a world of full disclosure, advanced planning, and knowing our options. It's a much different world. I remember years ago hearing Baptist Pastor Tony Campolo imagining the dialogue between Abram and Sarai:

Abram: Pack your bags, we're moving.
Sarai: Where?
Abram: I don't know.
Sarai: How will we get there?
Abram: I don't know.
Sarai: What will we do when we get there?
Abram: I don't know
Sarai: Why are we doing this?
Abram: Because God has called us!

In reality, this happens to all of us who have decided to be followers of God. We live in the bewildering uncertainty of a step at a time, a day at a time, a decision at a time. We truly can't see all that far down the road, and even when our path appears certain, detours happen or are thrust upon us. And if we're honest as we look at our life so far, there are almost certainly times when it was a blessing that we didn't see far ahead. Many years ago I was coming to the end of my first attempt at seminary. I realized that I had made a poor choice in Catholic orders to belong to and while I was veering left in my views, they were staying far to the right (in other words, I was becoming more liberal and they were staying true to their conservative beliefs). I was also questioning whether or not I was suitable for a celibate life (yes, that would be the first of many times I would get hammered by that question). I left the seminary and began to search for a job as a youth minister because that appeared to be the role that best suited me. In the 6 months before I finally found a position I substitute taught at the local high schools and waited tables. The youth minister position I eventually found turned into a three year position that allowed me to grow in maturity and joy like none other. Many of the skills I carry with me today were first learned there.

But the road to get there was not easy, or clear, or pleasant. In between dodging spitballs in class and trying to remember the daily specials at the restaurant, I went to several parish interviews that became exercises in frustration. I never doubted that leaving the seminary was the right choice, but I often wondered in hindsight whether I would have had the courage to leave if I had known how hard the immediate road ahead was. Perhaps it was God's blessing that I didn't.

So, too, with Peter, James, and John in the Gospel. I think it's a tendency in these readings to draw the link between Abram and Jesus, but I don't think that's the point. Previous to this reading, Jesus foretells his own death and tells them that they can follow Jesus only by taking up their own cross.

Perhaps this frightened them; it would certainly frighten me. Peter, James, and John were perceived as the leaders of the group and showing Jesus in the company of Moses and Elijah must have seemed like a "lighthouse" to them. I see it as a reaffirmation that they are on the right path in following Jesus.

But remember, following Jesus still required them to take up their cross; as a matter of fact the legend is that Peter himself was crucified. As we see through the rest of the Gospels, the whole crew seems to stumble around, not really knowing what Jesus is talking about, but after Jesus' death and resurrection they really become the founding pillars of a new faith.

So where is our transfiguration? Where is our "lighthouse" to tell us that we are on the right path? Or, where is our "call of Abram"? Well, it's my experience that we don't get these dramatic signs, but maybe we need to look a little harder, or pay attention in different ways.

In the days I was balancing the classroom and restaurant I have to confess I didn't see much sign that I was on a path that was going anywhere. All I really had to go on was the encouragement of those who knew my skills and believed in me. There were times when that was all I had. And frankly, when I got to the parish, I had a large mess to clean up. But eventually I began to see the fruits of what I was doing and could begin to exhale. It's been nearly 30 years since those events and I'm still in touch with several of the people I worked with.

Then again, after three years there it was clear that it was time to move on, and so the discernment, the questioning, all that repeated itself. And so the road to discipleship is a constant one of looking anew, wondering anew, keeping the fear and uncertainty in check, and moving along.

Given all that, is complacency an option? Of course not. It is core to our belief that if we follow, God will lead. Had I stayed in that conservative seminary out fear I wouldn't be the person I am today. And we all that those experiences. We are all on our own journey to Easter, resurrection, and eternal life. Let us enjoy each other as we travel this road.

March 9, 2014: The First Sunday of Lent

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. God created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and placed them in the Garden of Eden. God instructed them that they had free reign over the entire garden but they must not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden (often called the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil"). If they eat of that tree they will die. The serpent is speaking with Eve and convinces her that if she and Adam eat the forbidden fruit they will become like gods. The serpent convinces Eve, and Eve convinces Adam and they eat the fruit. They immediately recognize they are naked and sew loincloths our of fig leaves. In Matthew's Gospel the devil takes Jesus into the wilderness to tempt him. First the devil suggests that Jesus can end his fast by turning stones into food, and then shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The devil promises to give all of these to Jesus if Jesus bows down before him. Jesus dismisses the devil and is then joined by angels.

This passage from Genesis is perhaps the earliest Bible story we were ever told as children; I can think only of Noah's Ark being in competition. It is also the story that has hopefully changed in how we read it as we've grown from children to adults.

The old understanding of this reading is clear, unflinching, and harsh. God gave Adam and Eve each other and a paradise to live in. He gave them only one condition that they almost immediately violated; because of that they were banished from paradise and the rest of us, for all time, are born with original sin that can be removed only through baptism. From that point onward, life was going to be difficult, and anyone who dies with original sin would be denied salvation. Everything would have been just fine if that temptrest Eve hadn't tricked Adam into eating the forbidden fruit.

Before I say anything else I have to say this: I've never understood how Eve got the blame for this. If we look at the dialogue between Eve and the serpent, the serpent lied to Eve to trick her into eating the fruit. God never gave Adam and Eve a reason to avoid the fruit, and the only source of information she had was the serpent's lie. Adam, on the other hand, needed no encouragement at all. I think this is another example of the woman in the story gets blamed unfairly.

Back to the story, I'm left to wonder why God set up this system. Any parent will tell you that if you leave a cookie on the counter with instructions to your child not to eat it is asking for the child to do exactly that. Did God set them up for the failure that would seem almost inevitable? When the serpent is convincing Eve to eat the fruit he tells her that "your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil." If they didn't know good and evil before eating the fruit, how could they be responsible for disobeying God?

I'm also struck at the transformation Adam and Eve undergo after eating the fruit. They didn't die (as God threatened), but their eyes were opened. Interesting that the first thing that happens is that they recognized they were naked and clothed themselves.

This is conjecture on my part, but perhaps there is something to this that we often overlook. The animals that surrounded them (and surround us today) didn't wear clothing and didn't know the difference between good and evil. In that sense, the pre forbidden fruit Adam and Eve were much like the other animals in Eden. But they were more than that, as we know they were created in the image of God. Perhaps, just perhaps, God intended to give Adam and Eve the special status as humans but on a different timetable. The difficulty with the events of this story aren't that Adam and Eve became greater than the animals around them, but instead they did it on their own (or the serpent's) timetable. As I look over this story I find it at least possible that God was going to give them the gift of reason and morality (and clothing) but gradually over time, when they were ready for the responsibilities that go with these gifts.

If that's the case, then they were given this gift before they had the maturity and they weren't ready for it. That's how the human experience seemingly spun so out of control (remember that in a few more chapters, their son Cain murdered his brother Abel). The point of the story isn't that Adam and Eve got when they shouldn't have, but that they rushed things.

I don't normally include the second reading that is read at mass because the reading often has nothing to do with the first reading and the Gospel. But this second reading is from Paul's Letter to the Romans (Romans 5:12-19 if you're interested). Paul draws a bright line between Adam and Jesus, showing how Jesus "cleans up the mess" of Adam.

I don't want to ignore that, but I am struck by how Jesus reacts differently to a temptation that was not all that unlike the temptation of Adam and Eve. The path that Jesus takes, we believe, is one that needed to happen a certain way. He needed to be born just as all of us were, he had to grow up in a time and place. He had to be betrayed and crucified, and he had to resurrect into eternal life.

Given that Jesus came from the Father and returns to the Father (along with the rest of us), how does the devil tempt him? These had to be true temptations or the story would have no meaning. Trying to tempt me with free skydiving isn't much of a temptation because I have no desire to go skydiving. Tempting me with peanut butter and chocolate ice cream on the other hand…

So why does the devil tempt Jesus first with food and then with kingship? The food part appears easy enough. Jesus had been fasting and was hungry, and presumably weakened; the devil doesn't offer food so much as remind him that he could create the food himself. This didn't seem like much of a temptation and Jesus had no trouble fending this off. The same with the second: the devil tells Jesus that if he throws himself the high wall of the Temple he wouldn't die. Jesus isn't tempted because he knows this and doesn't have anything to prove.

But I am interested in the final temptation. The devil tells Jesus that if Jesus bows down to the devil, the devil will give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. But wait, Jesus now has dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. What exactly is the devil tempting him with? With Easter comes all of this, so why bow down?

I think the devil is tempting Jesus into a shortcut, a way of getting what he wants without having to work or wait for it. The devil isn't promising Easter, but a way around Good Friday. If you bow down to me, you'll have dominion now, without having to go through arrest, flogging, and crucifixion. Imagine how tempting this must have been for Jesus. I can see Jesus really giving this some thought, but then recognizing that bypassing Good Friday gives us an Easter much different than the one we have. A shortcut to a good place often doesn't get us to that place.

Think about it today. What if the devil came to Pope Francis with an offer to end hunger and poverty. Wouldn't he be tempted? Or to the warring factions in the Middle East with enough land and resources to provide for everyone's need?

I believe that we are all good people, and we want the right things. But I think we need the season of Lent because we often need to be reminded that shortcuts to our goals are often the sins commit. What if you apply for a job that you need and know you can do, but aren't (on paper) qualified for. All we have to do is exaggerate just a little on the application for us to get the job we know we can do. Otherwise it will go to someone who won't do as well. Aren't we really doing the company a favor?

In our most important relationships, are we often less than honest because our loved one "will just blow it out of proportion"? Are we justified in cheating on an exam when the subject material will never matter to us, but the grade will? Can we take something from someone who "probably won't miss it anyway"?

If we look at the Genesis story through these eyes, we an see that what Adam and Eve wanted wasn't a bad thing to want but in cutting corners they ended up with something far different than they wanted. Had Jesus given into the temptation, we would today be worshipping the devil instead of God.

As we journey through Lent, let us pay attention to the journey. Let us recognize that the road to our desire is as important as the desire and we get what we need only when we work for them honestly.

March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the prophet Joel. We don't know much about the author, but his meaning is clear. He is calling the people to repentence, to return to the Lord, and to listen to his comands. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus pointedly tells his disciples not to do good things (e.g. fasting, giving to the poor) so that other people will think well of you. He suggest that if only God sees your piety or generosity, He will reward you. If you do it only for your glory, God will not be impressed.

I have to confess that Ash Wednesday has always amused me a little. When I was growing up there were feasts during the year, like the Feast of the Assumption that were holy days of obligation. Even though they were weekdays where we all went to school or work, we were expected to go to church. Attendance was always mixed at best, particularly if the holy day was Thursday and we needed to finish mass to make way for the weekly bingo. But Ash Wednesday, which has never been a holy day, was always packed. I used to work at a church that was near several office buildings; we had to have 2 midday masses: 11:15 and 1230 to accommodate all the people who wanted to go to mass for the lunch hour.

It was also the day we could find out who else was Catholic. The ashes that were placed in the sign of the cross on our foreheads were a giveaway, and I've always suspected that was one of the reasons for the large attendance. Once, in college, I went to mass on Ash Wednesday and then to dinner at McDonalds (did I mention I was in college and had no money?). There I ran into someone I knew well but didn't know was Catholic. We shared filet o fish sandwiches and laughed over the fact that McDonalds didn't understand why so many of us with smudges were ordering fish. It was kind of a fun bond. From that day we always knew that if we saw someone else with the "mark of a Catholic" we shared a common belief system.

That public display was nice, but does that negate the Gospel where Jesus says to do these things anonymously? If I'm doing this to show others what I believe in the hope that they will respect me, what does that do for my spiritual health? How does that draw me closer to God?

That, perhaps, is the hardest part of these two readings. Joel tells us to "proclaim a solemn assembly" while Matthew tells us to go quietly to our room and not make much noise. In an ironic twist, it is perhaps a mark of the success of Jesus' teachings that this is even an issue. Jesus' teachings that we should be humble and make sure that God alone knows of our piety is not a universal value. In the pagan world it was (and in some places still is) a value to draw attention to ourselves. They puff themselves up and exaggerate their importance because their reputation among their peers (or underlings) is of grave importance.

This isn't true just among ancient pagans: look at pop culture to see how many hopefuls crave the admiration of others and look to those groups for their own sense of worth. If we take this Gospel seriously we should hope for the respect of our peers over the adulation of strangers. And the fact that we can be concerned over how our humility and desire for repentance appears is a mark that we are on the right path.

Now I'd be remiss if I didn't also speak of Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Season of Lent. Many of us remember being asked as children (and being evaluated on our answer) what we were "giving up for Lent." Invariably we were asked to give up something we liked and this lack would bring us closer to God. Over the years I've done by share of this; giving up everything from candy to soda to alcohol. But I also think we can look beyond giving up something we enjoy. If the purpose of Lent is to help us renew our relationship with God and not be distracted by worldly things, can we do something else? I've heard some suggestions that intrigue me. Years ago I read about someone who was committed to picking up a piece of trash every day. He reasoned that while it wouldn't make much difference in the gross tonnage of trash in the world, it would make him more aware of the world around him. I also spoke with someone who pledged not to look away when he saw people holding signs and asking for money on traffic islands. He told me he wasn't always able to help everyone but the least he could do is acknowledge the holiness of the other person.

But however we commemorate Ash Wednesday and Lent of 2014, let us remind ourselves that we are committed to a sense of constant renewal to ourselves, each other, and God. Hopefully when we celebrate Easter next month we can look back on this time with appropriate humility.

March 2, 2014: The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading Zion (Israel) is complaining that God has abandoned them. God responds by saying that even if a mother forgets her child, God will never forget his people. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus assures his disciples that God will never forget them. He tells them not to worry about having what they need, and that paying too much attention on the things of this world takes our sight away from God. In stark terms he tells them that nobody can be the slave of both God and money.

Several years ago there was a sitcom called Cheers that took place in a bar in Boston. In one scene the characters were talking about the absolute worst way to die. Most of the bar regulars were imagining scenes of being boiled alive in oil or other, painful deaths. Frasier, the psychiatrist, offered that the worst way to die is to be alone, never having been loved. Of course the other characters (Cliff and Norm) say: "C'mon Frasier, if you're not going to be serious, don't play the game."

You know, I think Frasier was right. We are social beings and we need to be with each other. Children who spend their first few years being neglected (intentionally or not) often struggle with attachment disorders; solitary confinement as punishment in prisons is often looked at as torture. The fear of being abandoned never leaves us, from junior high school lunch tables to our deathbeds.

Worse than being abandoned by our peers, we particularly fear being abandoned by those who are supposed to be caring for us. Nearly every parent I know has a story of a child who has a melt down when being left with a babysitter or being dropped off at preschool. Some of us may even remember our own childhood experiences of feeling that fear that our parents won't come back. This didn't happen because we didn't trust our parents: it happened because we didn't have the capacity to understand that we would only be separated for a few hours. We simply had no way of understanding the long view.

That inability to understand is completely reasonable in small children, and also with the Israelites in the first reading. True, God did liberate them from slavery in Egypt and lead them to the promised land, but that was a long time ago. Isaiah wrote this hundreds of years after Exodus/Entry to Jerusalem, and it was easy to forget all that God had done for them. It was particularly easy as this was written during their exile. The kingdom of Israel had been invaded and defeated by the Babylonians. Their leaders were driven away from their home and worst of all, the temple, the center of worship, commerce, and socialization, had been destroyed.

Because the Temple was gone, they could no longer worship as they had. They were being ruled by pagans who had no interest in God. And worst of all, they had no prospects of ever being able to return (spoiler alert: not long after this, the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians who allowed the Israelites to return home and rebuild their Temple).

How did this happen? What about God's promise to always be with them? Had God forgotten them? Had God been defeated by the Babylonian Gods? Or was God punishing them for their unfaithfulness?

It's interesting to me that the general consensus is option 3: God punished them because they had taken their eye off of God and were living just for their own benefit. The idea that it could be something else is too horrifying to think about. We can accept punishment from God because that's something we can control. If this happened because God took His eye off of us, or because the Babylonians' gods were more powerful, then what is the purpose of faith? In that case it would have made more sense for the Israelites to abandon God in favor of the Babylonians. Nobody wants to be under the protection of a God who can't protect them.

But in a perverse sense, maybe we choose option 3 because we need to be in control. If God is truly just then His punishments are truly fair and we can stop them by changing what we do. That's at the very heart of conversion and reconciliation.

I'm certainly not going to argue against conversion and reconciliation, but I'd like to take this in a different direction. Why did the Babylonian exile happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? What if there is no reason for this, and no way to change it? What if we simply lived as if God were in charge and we had a place in his Kingdom? What if we just stopped trying to control the events and results around us and put our faith in God, no matter what happens?

The main problem with control is that it simply doesn't work. Sometimes we do the right thing and get bad results, and (let's face it) sometimes we do the wrong thing and get away with it. If we look at results as a way of deciding if we're living a just life, we're going to spend the rest of our lives being whipsawed by events over which we have little control.

I think we spend way too much time deciding that the bad things that happen to us are our fault. If we were thin enough, pretty enough, strong enough, or (drumroll) faithful enough, bad things wouldn't happen. If that were not enough, this can also be used as a weapon in what is sometimes called "spiritual terrorism." Several years ago I was back in Virginia where I grew up and went to daily mass at the church where I grew up. My family wasn't terribly impressed with the pastor, and I soon understood why. I don't remember the readings, but the core of his homily was this statement: "If your prayers aren't being answered maybe you should look at your life." To be charitable, maybe he was thinking of this in terms of people who are promiscuous and can't figure out why they are lonely, or ruthlessly ambitious and don't understand why they aren't successful. But all I could imagine was someone in the congregation who was praying for health for their children or good news on a cancer test. The pastor was implicitly telling them it was their own fault if things went bad.

The heart of today's Gospel tells us to look in another direction. He tells us that birds don't worry about their next meal and yet they appear to be fine. To be fair, birds do fine until they either run out of food or are eaten themselves by another bird. Do they really do fine? Well, no matter what we do in our life, we too are going to come to the end of our days.

I know, I know, it's not easy to think about these things. But if we truly believe in God and His promises, even death doesn't matter. Because God is greater than death. He has promised us a place in His kingdom no matter what happens to us in this life, and we are invited to live our lives in the light of that truth.

There are two schools of thought that I think speak to this, one ancient and one modern. The ancient one is Stoicism. We think of stoics as people who have no emotion, but that's far from the truth. Stoics hold that we spend too much time worrying about things we can't control and that ultimately makes us unhappy. It is better to live with the understanding that things happen that are beyond our control, but we can control how we react. If we didn't get that promotion, it doesn't necessarily mean we aren't good enough. If we're interested in someone who isn't interested in us, it doesn't mean we aren't good enough. One of the ancient Stoics, Epietctus, said this: "Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope."

The modern school of thought is 12 Step. It was founded in Akron, Ohio in 1935 by two men who were looking for a way to stop drinking. They soon found that it was more complicated that simply not drinking; they needed to change the way they looked at life. Instead of resenting what happens to us, and using that to justify self destruction, they suggested we live our lives honestly and let the results take care of themselves. They plan, hope, and make preparations, but don't personalize bad events.

The two schools are not the same, but I think both dovetail well with these two readings. Our troubles don't mean that God has abandoned us, and good fortune doesn't always mean we deserve it. But at the end of the day we will do best by focusing on the fact that God has a place for us.

February 23, 2014: The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Here God speaks to Moses about how we are to treat each other. If someone commits an offense we are neither to hate him nor exact vengance. Instead we are called to tell him of his offense and not bear a grudge. Matthew's Gospel continues directly after last week's gospel. Jesus tells his disciples that while they have been taught "an eye for an eye," they must now love their enemies. Give more than is asked of you, and if someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn and offer your left. If you only love those who love you, you are no better than the pagans. The reading ends with Jesus saying: "You must therefore be perfect just as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

Oh, no, not again. I'm going through these readings thinking I have a shot at doing OK with these things, then I come to the last line in the Gospel: "You must therefore be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

Really? What shot do I have? Most of my life I've been graded on a curve and have had trouble even with that. If God expect me to be perfect, I hope He's OK with disappointment.

And in reality, God really is OK with disappointment. We were created to be many things: curious, loving, sexual, mindful, needful, and we were created to play well with others. We were not created perfect. This is not a screed on original sin or how we have "fallen from grace." But it is a recognition that we are also called to grow into that same curiosity, love, etc.

And in the beginning we are called to do this by following directions. If we take the Exodus event (where Moses led his people out of slavery into the promised land where they could worship God) as the beginning of the community of faith, we can see the need for rules to get along. The life of a slave is a miserable life, but in many ways it's clear what is expected. Slaves have normally been thought of as unable to care for themselves and are in need of their master's leadership. It's led to unhealthy relationships on both sides, but they did generally know what to expect of each other.

Reading through the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy can seem like a mind numbing exercise in minutiae, but this was a group in great need of rules and regulations. They were in a hostile environment, being chased by their captors (they had no way of knowing the Egyptians gave up), heading into a land they didn't know. Furthermore they had no experience in self government.

And so in long speeches to Moses, God begins to spell out what they are to do. They need to be told what they can and cannot eat, who they can and cannot marry, and how they may or may not worship. It's easy to forget what a radical transformation God intended from the familiar pagan worship to the worship of a jealous God. God is laying out a brand new blueprint of how to live almost every aspect of our lives.

As Christians there are many of these laws that we no longer follow. We no longer divide meat into clean and unclean, a young widow no longer need marry her late husband's brother and we no longer sacrifice animals to God. But there is a great deal that we do still follow. In another verse in that same 19th chapter of Leviticus, God states: "You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great; with justice you shall judge your neighbor." In other words, you can't give someone the benefit just because he is greater or richer. That sounds much like our equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

And perhaps that where we begin our reading of the passage from Leviticus. What should we do if someone does something wrong? What do we do if we've been hurt by another? Well, if we can believe much of daytime TV, we go on a show like Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. There we can call him out, shout him out, and perhaps even throw a chair. But what does that get us? It may feed the smug part of ourselves and give a temporary sedation to our pain, but it won't lead us to reconciliation. As a matter of fact it makes any reconciliation nearly impossible. It turns a friend into an ex friend or perhaps an enemy. It turns a family member into an estranged family member. And it turns anger to hate.

That's hard enough in the societies where we live. It was impossible back then. They didn't have the luxury of grudges and they lived much closer to the edge than we do. God clearly states that while you must tell your neighbor of his offense, you can't use this as a weapon. The prohibition on hate or holding grudges means that you take the power away from the offense and put it back into the relationship. It means that we can continue as a community and not be ruled by the stupidest thing either of us has done.

Obviously, it's not that simple. Sometimes when we've been hurt by another person and we speak up, the other does not respond as we like. I think this reading asks us not to give up when that happens. Most of the time when we hurt someone, we don't intend that pain. We may have acted blindly, or recklessly, or out of our own pain. And maybe our own road to seeing this is a longer one. But if we belong to a community that is meant to be permanent (and we do), we need to hang in there and continue to work for reconciliation. Nothing else will do.

That theme is carried well into Matthew. Remember last week when we were told that to look at another with lust is as bad as committing the act? I drew a distinction there between perfect obedience to the law (which we can do ourselves) and perfect faith (that relies on God). I think we need to look on the call to perfection the same way. In a perfect world we would not need to care about reconciliation because there would be no sin.

But since we're not there yet (either in Jesus' time or our own) we do need to think about this. Here I believe Jesus pays his disciples (and us) a great compliment. The phrase "an eye for an eye" shows up first in Exodus 21:24 and is meant to put limits on revenge. In other words, if you lose an eye to another, you can remove his eye but not kill him. Laws like this are to stem the escalation of violence and revenge, and for that time, it was appropriate. By the time of Jesus, however, he though his disciples had moved beyond that and so Jesus tells them that they are no longer lawfully able to inflict proportionate revenge. Proportionate revenge may make the situation no worse, but it will also make it no better. If we commit ourselves to living in a world that is getting better (and let's face it, this is the message at the heart of Christianity), we need to be willing to take that first step.

If someone injures us, we are called to forgive that injury, regardless of whether the other person recognizes the sin. The call to "turn the other cheek" is lousy advice if you want to win a fight, but it's great advice if you want to live in a world where fewer people strike you on your cheek. In the epic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, attorney Atticus Finch is spat upon by Bob Ewell. Saying nothing, Mr. Finch slowly, deliberately, turns his head so his other cheek is exposed. It's a powerful scene and Mr. Ewell sees at once that the power of love has overcome the desire for revenge. What does Mr. Finch get out of this? Well, he gets to live in a world that just a little better because he reacted as he did. Did this have the wanted effect on Mr. Ewell? Probably not, at least not right away. But I like to think it had a profound impact on those who witnessed the scene.

This is clearly our call, but it's not an easy one, and we won't get it right every time. If we did, we'd be perfect, and we're not. But I like to think that God, too, grades on a curve. I like to think that the pursuit of perfection is what we are called to. I also think that God recognizes that it is only with His grace that we can progress. When I was a priest and sat in the confessional, I was always a little troubled by people who were overly critical or judgmental of themselves because they felt they were having to confess the same sins over and over. They didn't feel like they were making enough progress and that at some point God was going to lose patience with them. I would remind them that God looks at our entire lives, not like a proctor of a test who announces that time is up. I'd speak with them about the gift of wisdom, to act in the moment in the same way we would act if we had time to think.

In the final word, I believe that the call to perfection shouldn't make us feel discouraged. God calls us to perfection knowing that with His grace and mercy, we can achieve it. Perhaps not soon, or even in this lifetime, but if the road to perfection is possible, let's start walking it now.

February 16, 2014: The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the book of Sirach; it's one of the books that Catholics recognize but Jews and Protestants don't. It was written about 200 years before the birth of Jesus and is generally advice given from a mentor to a student. Here the author suggests that the student has the power to follow the commandments and warns that God is watching the choices he makes. God "never commanded anyone to be godless, he has given no one permission to sin." Matthew's Gospel follows last week's reading. Here Jesus states that he has come not to abolish the Law or Prophets but to fulfill them. Anyone who violates even the least of the commandments will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven. Furthermore, your virtue must be deeper than the scribes and Pharisees or you won't get into the kingdom. Finally, Jesus states that it is not enough to do the right thing. Not only are you not to commit adultery, if you look at a woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery in your heart.

I've explained before that there are many reasons I'm not a fundamentalist Christian. Part of it has to do with errors of fact in the Bible, part of it has to do with conflicting demands. Today the Gospel shows how it is impossible to do what is expected of us.

If we read this as an absolute fundamentalist, it's pretty troubling. Jesus claims that he is not here to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. And he says: "I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved." There are a lot of laws in the Old Testament; just look at the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Are we to follow all of them? Numbers 15:37-41 demands that a man who gathered sticks and therefore violated the Sabbath be put to death. Think about that next time you volunteer to work on Sunday.

If that isn't enough, Jesus says we need to be more virtuous than the scribes or the Pharisees. We probably get some wiggle room here as there are no scribes or Pharisees around today. But at the time of Jesus they were everywhere; they were the authorities when it came to what it meant to be a good Jew. If we have to be more virtuous than them, how can we have a chance?

And finally I'm sure I'm not the only one who had a reaction to the part about lust: "Really? If looking at someone with lust is the same as committing adultery, what am I supposed to do? Is simply being attracted to someone now not allowed? And how did Jesus (let alone the rest of us) get through adolescence with this commandment?" In 1976 Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter said this in an interview for Playboy magazine: "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times."

Not to pile on here, but the author of the first reading says pretty explicitly that we have the power to keep the commandments. He even says, pretty graphically, "He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer." If I don't think I the power to avoid sin, does that make me weak? Or condemned? Or hopeless?

I don't think so, or at least I hope not. I believe that the one thing Jesus doesn't explicitly speak of, but hopes we connect, is the role of grace and mercy. Jesus lived in a time that was resplendent with rules, regulations, commandments, and directives. It seemed that between the laws regulating Jewish life and the rules imposed by Rome, everything you did was someone under review of some law. And while this mountain of rules can be suffocating, it can also, oddly, tend toward complacency. If all we do is follow the rules and look nowhere else for how to live our lives, we run the risk of being blind to the world around us.

For many, the core of all these rules are the 10 commandments (if you need a refresher, they are located in the 20th chapter of the book of Exodus). I have to say, if that's the basis for how God looks at us, I'm doing OK these days. So far this week I haven't worshipped graven images, taken God's name in vain, or killed anyone. I spoke with my parents last week and intend to send them an anniversary card this week. I haven't coveted anything of my neighbors' or born false witness about anyone. This isn't bad.

And maybe that's the point. If that's all I've done, have I really done all that much? Is this truly a cause for smugness, or is there more out there for me to do? The law and the Prophets developed out of a new community of people who were devoted to God but still learning how to get along with each other. They wrote these rules to set minimum standards for each other because they depended on each other for their very survival. As they developed and grew they (hopefully) developed more and more into a covenant community, a place where they had expectations of themselves and others not just because they needed each other, but because they were devoted to each other.

It's impossible to know why Jesus chose the time he did to come to earth, but perhaps this was the point where the Israelites were finally making the transition from law to covenant, from obedience to faithfulness.

We do this as people. It's fascinating to watch children grow and develop, to see the world through new eyes, and we celebrate when they mature. We would never say to a 5 year old: "I expect you to do this without being asked," but we can say it to a 15 year old. The difference isn't just 10 years, but 10 years of understanding how he fits into the world and what is expected of him. Ten years of seeing that we can move beyond simple obedience to faithfulness, 10 years of understanding that he can figure out on his own what needs to be done.

The path from obedience to faithfulness is one we must all take. If you think about your relationship with your spouse (or whoever is the most important person in your life), would you say that you are obedient? I hope not. Would you say you are faithful? I hope so. Faithfulness is not simply not cheating on someone; it's knowing how best to be with that person and living that way. To be simply obedient is not something to be proud of; a 5 year old can be obedient.

And I think we are called to move beyond simple obedience with God to that same faithfulness. We live in harmony with God and each other not because we are told to or because something bad will happen to us if we don't. We live this way because we see faithfulness as a virtue and a way to be our best selves.

And here is where the need for grace and mercy come it. While we can be simply obedient, mostly by not doing things we shouldn't, on our own, we can't be faithful on our own. We stumble, we sin, we misjudge, and sometimes we make a mess of epic proportions. But we keep coming back. And we do this because God has told us we can. We do this because God has made clear that there are not limits on His mercy or an expiration date on His grace. God has promised us that as long as we have the desire to live in covenant with Him and with each other, He will provide the grace and mercy for us to do that.

And so next time someone tells you that he follows the 10 commandments, maybe you can challenge him to her to do better than that.

February 9, 2014: The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah, in the first reading, commands that we share in our suplus with those who have need. If we do that, our integrity will go before us. God will hear us in our need and our light will rise in the darkness. Matthew, in a section often referred to as the Semon on the Mount, tells us that we are salt of the earth and light of the world. He instructs us to allow our light to shine so others may see and give glory to God.

The first reading is seemingly compelling and hard to argue with. If you have more than you need and someone else has less, share with him or her. That way both of you have enough. What could be simpler?

And yet, we've managed to make it difficult. Much like our world today, Isaiah prophesized in a world with great differences in income and wealth. Throughout history this has created a source of conflict: it's pitted the wealthy (who believe they are wealthy through a combination of hard work and good decisions) against the poor (who insist that they work just as hard for much less). While the wealthy insist that giving to the poor does nothing but encourage the same laziness and bad decision making that made them poor, the poor claim the wealthy often got that way through inheritance and good luck as much as hard work.

And in a faith context there has been a command to even out the wealth gap almost from the beginning. If we trace the birth of the Jewish nation to the Exodus (when they escaped slavery in Egypt) we see that their very survival as a people depended on them banding together. But once they settled in the Promised Land they set up a society where some of them were farmers, some merchants, some scholars, etc. Income inequalities sprang up immediately, and frankly this was not seen as wrong or sinful. The rich were not immediately seen as greedy, and the poor did not think it self inflicted.

But what happens when someone falls into poverty below which he cannot live? Do the rest of us help him out of our surplus, or do we explore why he fell down so far? And if we explore, do we explore to find out how to prevent this from happening again, or do we explore to find an excuse to not help him?

Sadly, I believe we often look for excuses not to help someone. We saw this in the last Presidential campaign when Governor Romney spoke of not needing to care about the 47% of Americans who don't pay taxes (presumably because they don't have a high enough taxable income). He stated pretty clearly that their lack of income is completely voluntary and we have no obligation toward them. Hard to imagine what he would say about this passage from Isaiah.

But I think I do know what Isaiah would say to him: if you're not willing to give to help the poor person, consider giving to help yourself. Because if you think we all do better through the pursuit of self interest and rugged individualism, you live in covenant with a God who doesn't. The Old Testament brims with encounters when God hears the cry of the poor. The good news is that God also hears the cry of the generous.

Let's face it: not all of our needs are financial and even the wealthiest among us have needs. When we pray, we pray for reconciliation in our families, wisdom in our decisions, and safety for those we love. Now being generous doesn't mean that reconciliation, wisdom, and safety will always be ours, but it does mean that God promises to remain with us when we remain with each other. God hears the cry of the poor in the hopes that we will too.

I think this dovetails well with what we read in Matthew's Gospel. This is part of what we call the "Sermon on the Mount" and it's the first real teaching we find in Matthew's Gospel. Because of that we sometimes refer to this as Jesus' first inaugural address and he uses dramatic imagery of salt and light.

A note of explanation is necessary here: salt, in and of itself, does not go bad. It does many things, and preserving other foods is one of them. Think of how long the salt has been there in your cupboard. Salt goes bad only when impurities are introduced and the salt has been contaminated. Perhaps the point Jesus is making here is that if we are salt, we should guard against the contaminations of greed and self interest.

But I have to confess that I'm more interested by the imagery of light. A dark room, no matter how large, notices the flicker of a single candle. At night we can see the light from stars millions of miles away. If we see generosity as light and greed as darkness, a single light of generosity will always shine through. Greed can darken, but not extinguish the light.

But how do we translate that onto ground level? We pay taxes that fund programs for our own people, from food stamps to Headstart to Medicare. Isn't that enough? Well….perhaps not. That type of giving isn't entirely voluntary in the sense that we don't decide where our tax money goes (even if it's decided by people we elect). But more to the point, I think most of us give voluntarily to places we support, and I think that's a good thing.

But I think we need to continually look at other places we can give. None of us, individually, can eliminate all the needs of the world, but we can do a part of that. And I react with the same anger as everyone when I find that I've given to a place that misled me and doesn't do with the money what I had been promised. But I hope that doesn't jade us to be overly careful with our generosity.

Several years ago I was having a discussion with a friend of mine about what to do about panhandlers. I've always felt uncomfortable in my encounters because they do appear down on their luck and I generally assume they are doing this out of desperation and not choice. Part of me recognizes that there have been times in my life where bad choices or bad luck could have put me there. On the other hand I don't want my hard earned money contributing to their addictions and poor choices. When I told him about these concerns, he said this: "All they are doing is asking for help. They make no promises about what they will do with what I give. Will they use it for food or shelter, or for booze or drugs? That's on them. By helping them, I've done my part. I hope they'll use it to get out of panhandling, but once I hand over a few bucks I've done my part. The rest is up to them."

In the years since that conversation I've often thought about the light he gives. I'm aware that there are other places in the Gospels where Jesus suggests we should give anonymously so as not to appear boastful, but I don't think that applies here. Even if we do something generous to make us look good, I think the good energy we get from our generosity eventually outweighs any selfish gain.

Jim is my oldest friend, and shortly after college he spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya in East Africa. One of the people he met there had an interesting story. As a college student whenever he would visit the student union building a cute girl would be in the same chair. He noticed a bulletin board in her sightline and one of the notices on the board was for the Peace Corps. Thinking he would impress her by tearing off one of the return postage cards, he would tear one off and take it (almost on a daily basis). He never got the courage to approach her and start a conversation, but he did have a pile of cards for the Peace Corps. The more he thought about it, the more interested he became. He eventually applied, and served with my friend Jim in Kenya. His generosity may have started selfishly, but it morphed into a generosity that greatly benefitted young Kenyans in a small village.

So it can be with all of us. We become salt and light when we reach out, when we see those around us not as the 47% we don't need to care about, but the 100% we do need to care about. I think God looks at us as a whole community, and we do well when all of us do well. I think we all do well when we don't ask "Why is he poor" but "What can I do?"

So let's continue to do that.

February 2, 2014: The Presentation of the Lord

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament prophet Malachi writes in the first reading of a messenger from God entering the Temple. This messenger will purify the people just as gold and silver are purified. This will bring about the return of previous glory. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is taken to Jerusalem and presented at the Temple. While there a man named Simeon was present. Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before meeting the savior of the world. On seeing Jesus, Simeon proclaimed that he can now die in peace. Also, an elderly widow named Anna, on seeing Jesus, proclaimed that this child would be the deliverance of Jerusalem. After the presentation, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to Galilee in Nazareth.

I'm guessing that I'm not alone in this thought: there may have been a number of downsides to living during the time of Jesus, but there was at least one upside. To have been present during the events of Jesus' life sure would have made it easier to decide whether or not to become a disciple. Think of it: no filter on his words, no interpretations. We could have looked Jesus in the eye instead of just hearing stories about him.

I also have to confess at least a little envy of Simeon in the Gospel story. Promised he would not die before seeing the savoir (here called the "Christ," or anointed one), Simeon knew not only that the end of his life would be happy, he knew the purpose of his life. We don't know anything about him: was he a Pharisee? A Zealot? How old was he? Did he live long after these events? Why did God choose him? We don't know the answers to any of these questions.

The idea of having a purpose to our lives is central to who we are as people, let alone who we are as disciples of Jesus. My experience in hospice has shown me that the people who face their final illness with the least pain are those who have had a strong understanding of the meaning and purpose of their life. Many of them look forward to a better, eternal life, one promised to them because of their faithfulness. But some don't think much about what awaits them. They look back their lives with great joy and satisfaction. They see the children they have raised, the work they have done, the lives they have touched and say: "If this is it, it's enough. If my life leads me to a richer reward somewhere else, I'll take it. But if this is the final act of my life, I move offstage with grace and gratitude."

Part of that grace and gratitude comes from a recognition that what they started will continue to bear fruit after they are gone. They recognize not only that the world is a better place for them, but that the world deserves to be a better place. They see and understand that this world is not a place where we will be judged, or a place that we can use and dispose of on our way to something better. They see their own lives, and the lives of everyone else, as not only worthy, but holy. The Talmud is a collection of ancient Jewish wisdom literature, compiled in the 2 centuries after Jesus. It claims that everyone should have a child, write a book, and plant a tree, presumably because the fruits of all of these will survive our deaths.

It is for me no small irony that this feast of the Presentation of the Lord falls on Groundhog's Day. The 1993 Bill Murray movie of the same name tells the story of a man who lives the same day over and over. He goes to bed every night knowing that tomorrow morning he will wake up to the same events. The clock radio will wake him to "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher. He will run into an old high school classmate "Ned the Head" who tries to sell him life insurance. The groundhog sees his shadow. I was struck when I saw the movie about how hellish his life must have been, and not only because he had to greet the day to "I Got You Babe." It meant that his life had no progress, and therefore no meaning. Nothing he did, no matter how wonderful, would carry over to the next day. Because of this, his life would soon become absurd and pointless. I don't think it's much of a stretch to compare this to a scene in Dante's Inferno where there is no growth, development, or purpose.

Fortunately for Simeon and us, our life is not like that. We can progress, see what we've done and been, and be pleased with what we see. Simeon's line that I find the most compelling is this: "Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised." I see this as Simeon saying: "OK, I've lived for this day and my life is now fulfilled. I have seen my land and my people oppressed, but I have seen the One who will save us and bring us back to the people and the nation God intends for us.

But it is for that very reason I find myself envious of our friend Simeon. We don't have that clear sign that our life has been fulfilled. I am again informed by the patients I see in hospice: virtually all of them are limited by their disease. They are frustrated and often defined by what they can't do, by the control they must give to others, and by the fear that this means their life no longer has meaning. While many of them don't want to leave loved ones behind, they are impatient for "this to be over with." I had a colleague who once posed this question: "What do you think is the number one question I get from my patients?" I was not surprised by the answer. They ask how much longer they will have to live. They ask when they will die, not from a place of fear but from a place of weariness. I've had more than one patient ask why God has not come for them. "This is no life. There is no reason for me to still be here and I don't understand why I am. Has God forgotten about me?"

I don't have a good answer for this but this is what I tell them: "Don't limit God's plan for you to just those things you are aware of. There may well be an encounter, a conversation, a role that you are not aware of. Maybe you won't know why these days go on until you get to Heaven. "

That's the best answer I can give to these hard questions but in the end I find it a little unsatisfying. It relies on a Christian belief in Heaven but it also appears unsatisfying to my patients. In a sense it tells them to not think too much about finding meaning in their lives.

On the other hand, though, I think it does point to something larger than ourselves. While we see the need for meaning and purpose, and feel the responsibility to pursue those things that give meaning, we also do ourselves a great service when we don't saddle ourselves with the responsibility to be the final evaluator of that purpose.

My hope for my patients, and for all of us, is that we never get to the place where we feel our purpose is completed. I look for a time when we can all greet each new day with the understanding that no matter who we are or what we can (or can't) do, we may encounter someone who needs us to be who we are.

In a perverse sort of way, I pray we never say: "Now, Master, let your servant go in peace."

January 26, 2014: The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading continues from the prophet Isaiah where God speaks of how places that had been covered in darkness (oppression) have seen great light (liberation). In Matthew's Gospel we find that John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus then goes to some of the same cities that Isaiah speaks of being liberated. Jesus then begins to preach a message of repentance and begins to call for disciples. Peter and his brother Andrew, and then Zebedee's sons James and John, begin to follow Jesus.

The Gospel reading is one that, I think, evokes strong memories from childhood. I can remember several times in CCD (Catholic Sunday School) when this reading came up, and many of us wondered how we would have reacted had we been there. Would we have the courage to drop our fishing nets and follow Jesus? Of course this was against the backdrop of us being told never to disobey our parents; we have to wonder what Zebedee thought of seeing his sons leaving him with all the work.

I also remember one teacher telling us that there were probably plenty of people who looked at Jesus and said no. Perhaps they were in a position where they couldn't follow, or they just thought he was yet another crazy man who proclaimed he was the Messiah they had all been waiting for. So what happened to them? Did things go badly for them for missing the chance to follow Jesus? Was it like Noah's Ark, where once the door was closed they were doomed? I hope not. I hope these people were treated with compassion, because lets face it: compassion, mercy, and forgiveness were hallmarks of Jesus' ministry.

And what was it that made Jesus' call so compelling? What made Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the rest drop what they were doing and follow? Jesus was far from alone in his time; there were plenty of people claiming to be the One. How did they know that Jesus wasn't just another fraud?

That's something that we've been struggling with ever since. If Jesus was the first coming of the Messiah, we've been waiting ever since for the Second Coming. There is a Christian denomination called the Seventh Day Adventists. They were founded in the 1830s by a man named William Miller; in his reading of the Bible he and his followers proclaimed that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844. Over 100,000 people were convinced of this and stayed up all night in anticipation and nothing happened. Adventists to this day call it "The Great Disappointment."

You may remember a few years ago a man named Harold Camping who (with no formal religious training) claimed that he calculated the Second Coming would begin on May 21, 2011 at 6PM (he wasn't clear about which time zone). Most of us thought he was crazy but a number of people quit their jobs and spent the weeks before this spreading the message. When May 21st came and went, Mr. Camping went into hiding, and who can blame him? After a few days he came out of hiding to announce that a "spiritual rapture" did indeed happen, and the world would end on October 21st. That day came and went. Mr. Camping died recently.

OK, I am poking fun at these people, but it does still leave the question: why did the disciples follow Jesus? What was so compelling about this message? I believe that his message was fundamentally different. Most people who tried to lead appealed to peoples' desires and ambitions. "Follow me and you will end up in a greater place than anyone else." "Follow me and you will be given riches beyond compare." Jesus' message was starkly different. We read in other places in the Gospels that Jesus' message was much more "follow me and take up your cross," and "follow me and everyone will end up in a greater place."

In other words, Jesus' message appealed not to our base instincts of greed and exclusion, but to the "better angels of our nature" (to quote Abraham Lincoln). They followed Jesus, and we follow Jesus, not so much so that it will go well for us in the next world, but so that it will go well for everyone in this world. I'm not denying the reality of salvation, but I'm saying that the message of Jesus is radical in that it calls us to transform ourselves and our world right now.

This is not always a popular message and not everyone agrees with me. But that's OK, I'm fine with that. We follow Jesus not so that we can prepare ourselves for Heaven, but so that we can transform the here and now into a place where everyone has what he needs. Perhaps I'm showing my Catholic (universal) roots here, but I've never been comfortable with the idea of Jesus as a "personal Lord and Savior." I like to think more of Jesus as a "universal Lord and Savoir."

Let me explain: There are many Christians who look at this Gospel and think that this bodes well for the first four disciples. By being the first they will have an even greater place in Heaven. Two thousand years later I have decided to follow Jesus so that I will be saved. What matters above all is that I've said "yes" to Jesus, and everything else falls to second or third place. I am called to be a good person, to feed the poor and all that, but it does no good to feed someone and lose their soul. That hungry person must be led to Jesus and only then should I worry about filling his stomach.

I think the message that Jesus proclaims, and the reason it was so compelling to those four, is that we need to worry first about filling the stomachs of the poor and leaving salvation to God. The Jews in Jesus time were suffering under the crushing oppression of the Roman Empire and Jesus message of liberation was a welcome change to the idea that we should accept present suffering and hope for liberation beyond this life.

We are not living under foreign political occupation today, but there is still crushing oppression. We see all around us the idea that poverty is self inflicted and caring about the stomachs of the poor only encourages laziness on their parts. We see the message of Jesus being turned into a tool that divides instead of unites: "We Christians are under attack and we have to fight back."

The radical message of Jesus, and the reason he still resonates today, is clear and unbending. We are all in this together and how we treat each other matters. False messiahs existed then, and exist today. But the message of love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness is what compelled Jesus' first disciples and needs to compel us now. We need to find anew the counter intuitive and counter cultural message that following Jesus isn't for wimps or part timers. It is, I pray, for all of us.

January 19, 2014: The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the readings here.

Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to read from the prophet Isaiah who speaks of a chosen servant who will be a light to the nations who will provide salvation to the earth. In the Gospel we find the baptism account in John. It is much different from Matthew's Gospel. Here John appears in charge and speaks of "one who sent me to baptize with water." This person will "baptize with the Holy Spirit."

What, are we doing the baptism again? Didn't Jesus get baptized last week? Do they think we didn't get it?

Perhaps this gospel is coming from a reverse angle; the events described are similar but not the same. John the Baptist is here seen in a much more powerful light. It is, I suspect, scenes like this that cause us to revere him so much. To use a modern term, John the Baptist is the perfect wingman for Jesus. He neither diminishes his role nor reaches for something greater. In introducing us to Jesus he gives us a strong taste of who this Fully Divine/Fully Human person really is and why we should follow him.

In this scene we see him taking charge of the situation, calling out to Jesus while Jesus is approaching. He even bestowed the titles "Lamb of God" the one "who takes away the sins of the world." The use of the title "Lamb of God" is noticed here because John does some foreshadowing: only in John's Gospel is Jesus crucified on Passover (the other Gospels show the Last Supper as the Passover meal) and John is playing on Jesus being the lamb that sacrificed for the Passover meal.

John's next line is more telling for me: the one "who takes away the sins of the world." Jesus' power to forgive sins, while a hallmark of our beliefs as Christians, must have been astounding to those nearby. The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur is centered on the forgiveness of sins but an individual can only forgive a sin committed against himself. I can forgive you if you sin against me but I can't forgive any sin you committed against someone else. Only God can forgive all sins, and yet here John claims Jesus has the same power. So if only God can forgive sins, and Jesus can forgive sins, (at least according to my college logic professor Fr. Barrett), Jesus must be God, and therefore eternal.

John's gospel plays heavily on the themes of Jesus having existed before His earthly life (look at the opening of John's Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In the other Gospels it's easy to think that Jesus didn't exist before his conception, but that would make him not eternal and John wants to make the point that there was never a time that Jesus didn't exist.

In the early days of the church there were those who held that Jesus was not eternal, that He was an excellent teacher and prophet, but not divinely born (it's called the heresy of Adoptionism for anyone keeping score). John's Gospel stands directly opposed to that. But if that's true for Jesus, how does that affect us?

Perhaps this Gospel, along with the first reading from Isaiah, want us to look at ourselves in a deeper light. Nothing in the readings suggest that we have been around since the beginning of creation (then again, the readings don't negate it). But I think they call us to look at baptism in a different light.

In the first reading, God proclaims through Isaiah he (Isaiah) was formed in his mother's womb to be God's servant. But there is also a type of duality in that Isaiah begins asks God to choose him to be a prophet (Isaiah 6:8). Last week I suggested that we look at our own baptism as the beginning of our public ministry, or our discipleship. This week I suggest that in addition to that, we recognize that we have been chosen, not only before we knew who we were, but even before our parents laid eyes on us.

It can be a hard duality to hold, but think of it this way: to say that the road to discipleship is entirely our choice is to deny the role of grace. God puts us here and perhaps hopes that we will choose well, but does nothing to encourage it. On the other hand, to say that the road is chosen entirely by God is the worst type of predestination.

Perhaps we have these two baptism accounts on consecutive weekends to allow us to see the duality of God's call to us: he chooses us before we are aware, and we accept that call, and go and do likewise.

January 12, 2014: The Baptism of the Lord

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading the prophet Isaiah speaks of "my servant" as one who has been chosen to bring justice. This servant is not loud or strong, but meek and humble. This servant will also not be pushed aside but will achieve true justice. Isaiah then commands the readers to open the eyes of the blind and free those in prison. Matthew's Gospel shows Jesus approaching John the Baptist with the request to be baptized. John expresses surprise that Jesus is asking him for baptism when it should be the other way around but Jesus insists, and John baptizes him. When this happens the Spirit of God comes down and announces: "This is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him."

The issue of Jesus' baptism has, I think, always puzzled many of us. Until just a few decades ago most of us thought of baptism as a way of removing the stain of original sin. We were taught that as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, we were all born in sin and it took baptism to remove that sin. Without baptism we would not be able to enter Heaven, no matter what. Even innocent babies who died before they could be baptized were sent to "limbo," a place without pain but a place separate from God and salvation. It's no hyperbole to admit that generations of parents breathed a sigh of relief when their infants were baptized, knowing they would be OK "in case something happened." Did Jesus need this? Wasn't his mother, Mary, conceived without original sin? Shouldn't that have been enough? [note to non-Catholics reading this: we really were taught this]

Or do we look at baptism with post Vatican II eyes? These days we see it more as an entrance into the community of the church and the beginning of the sacramental life we are all called to. No other sacrament can be celebrated before baptism and it cannot be undone or repeated. But, let's face, it: when it comes to Christianity, Jesus is kind of the founder. Does he really need to join us?

If these readings cause us to scratch our head about baptism, it should also call us to wonder about the nature of Jesus. While we were all taught that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, and that he was "like us in all things but sin," I don't think most of us ever really believed it. Speaking for myself, I looked at Jesus as God in human clothing. He may have looked like us, but let's face it: He's really God. He didn't stumble or lose his temper (except when necessary). He didn't trip over his tongue when talking with a pretty girl or lose sleep over an upcoming test. If you could transport a piano back in time, Jesus could play Mozart better than Mozart. If this were true, then it makes his baptism a bit of a show. It's almost as if he were saying to John the Baptist (and the rest of us): "Look, I don't really need this, but I want to look like just one of the guys. I want you to think of me as one of you, even though we know it's not true. I'm getting baptized, but not for the reason you are. I don't need it, but maybe you'll think I'm more like you if I go through the motions." I don't know about you, but this view of Jesus' baptism would greatly disturb me.

If these readings challenge us, and I hope they do, I think they challenge us not so much on how we see baptism, but how we see Jesus. I think, perhaps, that Jesus needed baptism just as much as we do. Today we're looking at Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism, but all four gospels have an accounting of it, and in all four Jesus begins his public ministry directly after his baptism. Matthew shows Jesus immediately going into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. We will see that reading on the first Sunday of Lent (March 9th this year); because the temptation in the wilderness is placed in the context of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection we often think of it toward the end of Jesus' ministry, but here it's at the beginning. Perhaps it was the grace of baptism that allowed Jesus to withstand the temptation he faced.

For me, that's the crux of this reading. Most of us don't have any memory of our lives before we were baptized because we were baptized as infants. In the same way, since the Gospels were largely silent about Jesus' life before his public ministry, we don't know much about Jesus' life before his baptism.

But I do believe that he was baptized before his temptation because his entry to the sacramental life that we all share was necessary for him. The contraversial 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ showed a young, self loathing Jesus using his carpentry skills to fashion crosses for the Romans to use to crucify Jews. I don't know if I'd go that far, but it did show Jesus almost becoming a New Testament Jonah, running from God and God's plans for him. I do, however, like to think that Jesus came to understand himself with some of the same chaos and confusion we all experience in our own journies of self discovery.

Only in that way could Jesus become the servant described in Isaiah. That servant is hardly the take charge kind of person we would normally expect. This servant is "not crying out or shouting, not making his voice heard in the street." Instead this servant "establishes justice on the earth." This is a servant who must have a level of maturity and self awareness, a servant who is not serving himself or his own authority, but is truly serving justice for all people. This could only come to a post-baptism Jesus.

And so if baptism marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, so too does it with us.

Really? What was I supposed to start doing when I was 19 days old and newly baptized? There are Christians who purposely delay baptism until at least adolescence, believing that baptism cannot be fully appreciated until it is asked for. But we don't think that way. Why not? OK, maybe we need to rethink how we see our public ministry. If we think of public ministry as teaching, preaching, exhorting, correcting, etc., we think too narrowly. We also exercise public ministry when we share crayons in kindergarden or say a kind word to someone who is having a bad day.

It is telling to me that Jesus' active ministry begins with overcoming temptation, because so much of our early life is about that. From our earliest days we are forming our moral compass, choosing the things that give us life and passing on those things that don't.

I hope this reading calls all of us to rethink not only baptism, but also how we exercise our public ministry. I also hope that when parents bring their infants to be baptized they don't walk away relieved that they have saved their child from limbo but that they've started a new disciple on the road to "establishing justice on the earth."

January 5, 2014: The Epiphany of the Lord

You can find the readings here

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading the prophet Isaiah uses powerful imagry of light coming out of dark as he speaks of the light of Jerusalem calling for all nations to worship. This clearly puts Jerusalem in the center and proclaims that other nations will come, attracted by the light. The last line states that "everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praise of the Lord." In Matthew's Gospel we see "some wise men" who travel from the East to Jerusalem, following a star. They ask Herod about this. Herod, though a Jew, is disturbed and finds the prophecy that a leader will come from Bethlehem. He sends the wise men there and asks them to report back when they have found him. They find Jesus, pay him homage, and give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Warned in a dream, they do not go back to Herod but leave by a different route.

Ok, let me say what we are all thinking: What on earth is Jesus going to do with gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Gold I understand, but the other two are reisns used for their smell. I mean, didn't Mary and Joseph think ahead and register at Babies R Us?

To be fair, the gifts given to Jesus were not ordinary gifts. Today we think of gifts either in terms of toys the baby will enjoy or things that will benefit the parents. But then, it would hardly have fit into the context to present the Holy Family with a changing table. These gifts were given as a way of proclaiming that his helpless infant is really our Savior. As I spoke about previously, we see Jesus as who he is only through the eyes of faith. Otherwise he looks like an ordinary baby.

Given this, it's not hard to understand why the arrival of these men was a problem for Herod. He is a Jew, but one who has thrown his lot in with the Romans and he lives well. And while he may claim to await the Messiah, he has to realize that Jesus' birth is nothing but bad news for him. He recognizes that he will now be pushed aside; it's hard to imagine this, but he is so determined to keep his position that his next move is to have all children under 2 years old who live in or near Bethlehem murdered. These children are often called the "Holy Innocents." Jesus escaped this murder only because Mary and Joseph were told of this and fled to Egypt.

But enough, frankly, about Herod. The gifts given to Jesus is the strongest image to come out of these stories: it's why we give gifts to each other, more than 2,000 years later. The wise men first see the star, and are attracted. Why this star? Well, it was different. These men are also sometimes called astrologers, and the people of that time knew a great deal about the look of the night sky, that they called "the heavens." This star was an anomoly, something that didn't fit. Something like this brings a hush to everyone. Is it good news? Does it portend bad omens? It certainly bears watching. Seeing this through the eyes of faith they saw this as pointing to something incredible. All they saw was the star, and yet when speaking with Herod they asked to see "the infant king of the Jews." When they finally saw Jesus, looking through the eyes of faith, they saw the Savior and paid homage.

I believe the reason we continue to give gifts because we, too, are called to see each other through the eyes of faith. Now, I recognize that many of us find the Christmas season to be one of untold stress. We have to find the best prices, the elusive parking space at the mall, and not miss anyone. But more than anything else, we put pressure on ourselves to find just the right gift.

Looking for the "just right gift" is (I believe) mostly self inflicted pressure, but at its heart is something holy. We want our loved one to open our gift and say: "It's just what I wanted. How did you know?" Well, we knew because we saw our loved ones through the eyes of faith. If you can't think about the best gift you ever received, think about a particularly blessed gift. Was it the gift itself, or the fact that the person who gave it to you knew you so well?

Seeing through the eyes of faith, especially when it comes to the people around us, isn't always easy. The fact that we're willing to put up with this much stress should indicate how important it is to us. We want to look at our loved ones in the same way the wise men looked at Jesus.

We also want to be looked at that way. If salvation through Jesus means anything, it means that we are looked at not by our worst moments, but our best. God's unconditional love allows us to live in the safe recognition that we can always strive to be our best and not be afraid to fail. It allows us to see that our worst sins will be forgiven and we will not spend the rest of our lives living down those moments. It means that the people who love us have committed to love us as best they can, and Christmas is a reminder of that.

When I was 10 my parents gave me a book called The First Fifty Years, a coffee table book on the National Football League. Forty three years later I still have it on the shelf. It's doesn't take much of an imagination to see what I was like as a 10 year old boy. But I was also a kid with asthma who could only watch football from the sidelines. This book gave me tremendous insight into the history of the NFL, merging my love of football with my love of history. The pages are worn and the spine is in tremendous need of chiropractic work but I can still recall all that I drank up leafing through the book. A few months ago I learned that one of my patients was married in Duluth, Minnesota. On my next visit I brought the book and showed him the uniform for the Duluth Eskimos, an NFL team in the 1920s. By the way, don't look for them on your fantasy football team: their last season was 1927.

The point I make by this is that I knew my parents not only loved me, but knew me well enough to know how much I would treasure this gift. Much like Citizen Kane and his sled Rosebud, this memory has stayed with me for many years.

Now please don't come away from this homily putting more pressure on yourself. The next gift you give doesn't need to be the one that will still be talking about 43 years later. But I do think it calls us to constantly look anew at the people around us, and to look with love. I think it calls us to perhaps spend less time looking up and down the aisles of the malls and spend more time looking at the people we love.

Links to the Homilies

Christmas Season

January 5, 2014

January 12, 2014

January 19, 2014

Ordinary Time

January 26, 2014

February 2, 2014

February 9, 2014

February 16, 2014

February 23, 2014

March 2, 2014


March 5, 2014

March 9, 2014

March 16, 2014

March 23, 2014

March 30, 2014

April 6, 2014

April 13, 2014


April 20, 2014

April 27, 2014

May 4, 2014

May 11, 2014

May 18, 2014

May 25, 2014

June 1, 2014


June 8, 2014

Ordinary Time

June 15, 2014

June 22, 2014

June 29, 2014

July 6, 2014

July 13, 2014

July 20, 2014

July 27, 2014

August 3, 2014

August 10, 2014

August 17, 2014

August 24, 2014

August 31, 2014

September 7, 2014

September 14, 2014

September 21, 2014

September 28, 2014

October 5, 2014

October 12, 2014

October 19, 2014

October 26, 2014

November 2, 2014

November 9, 2014

November 16, 2014

November 23, 2014


November 30, 2014

December 7, 2014

December 14, 2014

December 21, 2014

December 25, 2014

December 28, 2014