December 27, 2015: The Feast of the Holy Family Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: This reading comes from the Old Testament book of First Samuel. Here Hannah and her husband Elkanah bore a son they named Samuel. This was good news as they had spent many years unable to conceive a child. In her grief Hannah begged God for a child. When she conceived and bore a son (Samuel) she thanked the priest (Eli) and dedicated her son to the Lord. [Samuel went on to become the last of the Judges, and shepherded Israel into the time of Kings Saul and David]. Today's Gospel continues from Luke. Here a twelve year old Jesus travels with his parents to Jerusalem for Passover. After the feast Mary and Joseph began their journey back to Nazareth and thought Jesus was part of the crowd. He wasn't. When they couldn't find him they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. They found him on the third day, answering the questions posed by the teachers and learned men. Jesus answered his parents' concerns by asking: "Why did you search for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father's house?"
The feast of the Holy Family is, can I say this, a minefield. From our earliest days we are told two things: the family is the best and safest place to be. And we recognize that our family is far from ideal.
The terms "dysfunctional family" took on great popularity a generation ago (and a Google search of the phrase brings 3.8 million hits). Alas, most of us compare our families to a sanitized version the Holy Family and find ours lacking. We shouldn't.
Let's begin with Samuel. We know Samuel as an important prophet, one who took Israel from the time of Judges to the time of Kings. But this first reading speaks to us of the chaos over Samuel's birth. Samuel's mother, Hannah, was married to Elkanah but they couldn't conceive a child. Couples who have a hard time conceiving believe that one of them "is the problem" but here they knew: Elkanah was also married to Peninnah who bore him children.
Hannah prayed for a child and eventually God blessed them with a baby. It wasn't just any baby, but a baby who would lead Israel to a better future. The children of Peninnah are lost to history and we can express some sympathy to her who thought herself blessed because she gave her husband children while Hannah couldn't. She probably thought herself superior over her "sister wife." The reading shows how she taunted Hannah and we can only imagine the pain Hannah felt.
But, and this lesson runs through almost the entire Bible, God's ways are not ours. We don't know why Elkanah and Hannah were infertile, and we dont' know if Hannah's prayers were the key. But after years of infertility they conceived a son that changed history.
Fast forward to the Gospel. On Christmas I spoke of how the most important event of human history happened in a whisper; today's Gospel speaks of an event every parent can imagine.
Almost without exception every parent views the birth of his/her child with emotions of love and panic. They recognize that while they will easily give their lives for their bundle of joy they are also panicked that something bad will happen to them.
And the fear that their child will wander away into danger takes center stage. No parent, however devoted, can keep their children in view. When I was 5 years old my cousin John took me to play putt putt golf. I got bored and decided to walk home, crossing a four lane undivided highway. When the adults panicked and asked me what I was thinking, I gave the same answer that Jesus gave his parents: "What's the big deal? I knew I was fine."
We know the members of our family better than anyone, but not better than God. And while we are called to love our family members, we need to understand that can't fully understand them. I'm fairly certain that Peninnah looked on Samuel as a "consolation prize" but we see him as a critical leader. The residents of Nazareth, who accompanied Mary and Joseph, probably thought of Jesus as a "problem child" but we see him as our redeemer.
If the feast of the Holy Family teaches us anything, it should teach us this: the family unit defines us but doesn't limit us. It should make us more inclusive and less defining. We are all born into a community that we didn't choose to people who didn't choose us. Too often we seek to limit those we love because of our own limitations and fears.
We know that Joseph and Mary knew that Jesus was destined for great things but that almost certainly didn't prevent them from panicking when he wasn't with the group. I think we sometimes idealize the Holy Family but even a cursory reading shows this wasn't the case. About the only time we even see Jesus, Mary, and Joseph together are here and the birth narratives. After this scene Joseph virtually disappears and we see just a few scenes with Jesus and Mary.
And frankly they don't always show Jesus at his best. We are all familiar with Jesus turning water in wine at the wedding feast at Cana. You can read it for yourself in John, chapter 2, but when Mary tells Jesus they have run out of wine Jesus tells her this: "Woman, how does this concern of yours involve me?" He eventually produces wine, but he sounds downright rude to me.
Our families see us at our best, certainly, but they also see us at our worst. We can, and should, be each other's cheerleaders but we can also bring each other down. Parents can (with the best of intentions) tell their children that some goal is beyond their abilities. Siblings can remind us of our most embarrassing memories. And children can lord their success as a way of showing up their parents.
While we can't always be at our best, we give honor to the Holy Family when we try. When we encourage each other to dream big, when we remind each other of our best memories, and we see our successes with appropriate gratitude.
In the course of our lives we will be members of a few families. Let's make them all better.
December 25, 2015: Christmas (Mass at Midnight)
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The Catholic lectionary provides readings for 4
different masses: Vigil (Christmas Eve), Midnight Mass, Mass at Dawn, and Mass During the
Day. For the past few years I have used the readings from Midnight Mass and I do this for
a few reasons. I like the symbolism of celebrating Christmas in the middle of the night a
few days from the shortest day of the year: the idea of light breaking through the "heart
of darkness" appeals to me. As a child and teenager I was an altar boy and serving
Midnight Mass was a high point of the year. Also, the Gospel is Luke's account which many
of us can nearly read from memory. It is both evocative and comforting. I make no
promises for next year but am choosing Midnight Mass this year.
Our first reading comes from Isaiah and speaks of the "people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light." Isaiah tells us that all burdens are finished "for a child is
born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They shall name him
Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace." Luke's Gospel described the
birth of Jesus. He explained that Joseph and Mary needed to journey from Nazareth to
Bethlehem because the Romans demanded a census and expected everyone to return to his
ancestral home. While there the couple were denied lodging and found their place in a
barn. While there Mary delivered her baby boy. Shepherds, who were normally seen as
sinners, were told of this birth. While there is no proof that these shepherds actually
travelled to see this new baby, it's clear that they were blessed by Jesus'
The event was, let us say this, fairly simple. Nobody outside of the Mary and Joseph
knew what was happening. The important people of the day, the Pharisees, the Sadducees,
the Roman Soldiers, knew nothing about this. Neither did most of the Jews, even the
owners of the home who directed Mary and Joseph to their barn. This birth would have been
easy to ignore.
It shouldn't surprise any of us. Our history speaks of many events that became
important only in hindsight. Many of us "learned" as students that King George III wrote
"nothing of importance happened today" in his diary on July 4, 1776 [full disclosure:
George III never kept a diary and this didn't really happen. Still, it's a great
Some events, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, happen in small rooms
and gain importance over time. This declaration meant virtually nothing until the British
surrendered in 1783 and "July 4th" as a recognizable date has grown only because of
But Christmas didn't gain importance over time. This event began as not only important
but critical in our history. What we've gained in the last 2,000 years isn't a rise in
the importance of this event but a rise in our understanding of this event.
Simply put, this remote event didn't become a forgotten event because our salvation
depends on it. Without Bethlehem we wouldn't be "people who walked in darkness [who] have
seen a great light." Our charge going forward is clear: we are to proclaim this event and
fashion our lives around it.
I've spoken about this before but we tend to look on this scene from Luke with some
nostalgia. Last year I spoke about how the "manger scene" evokes strong images in our
imagination. In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi constructed the first manger scene and I think
we'd be hard pressed to imagine Christmas without it. For many of us in our 40s and 50s
we wouldn't think of celebrating Christmas without viewing "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
that debuted 50 years ago.
And while I'm the first to agree with the importance of looking back to that night in
Bethlehem, perhaps we should look forward. Looking back calls us to remember, but looking forward calls us to act. We need to do both, and oftentimes remembering (falsely) gives us permission to ignore the call to act.
We know how Christmas was celebrated 100 years ago (encouraging everyone to search for the poem "Christmas in the Trenches" about Christmas 1914) I ask that we look to Christmas
100 years from now.
Christmas 2115 will almost certainly not include any of us, but it will include our
descendants (literally and figuratively). One hundred years ago all of Europe and parts
of Asia and America were embroiled in what we now call World War I. Today the world is
not at war but we recognize that global terrorism continues to strike fear in us.
Perhaps our celebration of Christmas 2015 calls us to think ahead to 2115 and work for
that. If so, what do we want for those yet to be born?
In 1992 the Christian singer Amy Grant released an album that included the song
Grown Up Christmas List. It's a beautiful song where she asks Santa for what she wants as an adult. I believe she provides us a path for Christmas of the future with these lyrics:
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
Everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end
This is my grown-up Christmas list
As children we asked Santa for our desires and expected to sit down and wait. We wake up on Christmas Day and unwrapped our gifts. But as adults we recognize that our desires don't end our role, but begin it. I believe that we all desire Amy's list but as we are no longer passive children but active adults, we need to get to work.
Maybe we long for the passive days of childhood, but I pray we transcend those days, claim our roles as adults, and recognize that our dreams of Christmas 2115 begin today with our determination to look back to Bethlehem not with feelings of nostalgia but with feelings of determination.
Here is my prayer for Christmas 2015: That those who celebrate Christmas 2115 look back at us with gratitude. That they remember us as the generation who took seriously the call of Jesus to ensure that no lives are torn apart, that wars don't start, that everyone has friends, that right wins, and love never ends.
OK, nobody thinks this will be done by Christmas 2016, but that's OK. By 2016 I pray we will recognize a path that will lead to a 2115 that our descendants will see with gratitude.
December 20, 2015: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Micah isn't well known among most
readers but his words are powerful. Christians who know the birth narrative of Jesus from
Luke recognize the place of Bethlehem in the narrative and Micah foretells it:
[Bethlehem], "too small to be among the class of Judah, from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel." Luke's Gospel speaks of the pregnant Mary visiting her
kinswoman Elizabeth. Both are pregnant (Elizabeth with John the Baptist and Mary with
Jesus) and when when Mary greets Elizabeth, her womb lept. Elated, Elizabeth blesses "the
fruit of her womb."
The word "Bethlehem" conjures up strong emotions for most Christians. It is a small
town, really a suburb of Jerusalem. But it takes on great importance because that's where
our Savior was born. Think about songs like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and the like.
The prophecy that from "you shall come forth for me one who is to be the ruler in Israel;
whose origin is from of old, from ancient times" points directly to Jesus. Luke's Gospel
places Bethlehem in the center of the birth narrative of Jesus.
But why Bethlehem? Jerusalem was the clear capital of Jewish life. The Temple, the
Holy of Holies, was in Jerusalem. All the important people lived there, the priests, the
pharisees, the sadducees. Why Bethlehem? It's like choosing Ft. Lee over New York City.
Why would you do it?
I like to think that God was telling us something important here. Fair enough, Jesus
was born in the same village as King David, but I think it goes deeper than that. The
Israelites of that time were looking for someone strong, someone who could defeat the
occupying Romans. They wanted someone who was bigger than life, and I imagine many looked
for the Messiah among the rich and powerful. They were looking at the wealthiest
neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
And they were looking in the wrong place. The Messiah, the Jesus that we know, will
not come as a bigger than life conquerer from the strongest of the strongest. Instead he
will come to us from a small place, from a single mother, and he will achieve greatness
not from human strength, but from God alone.
I don't need to say too much about this, but here in the first few decades of the 21st
Century we still look in the same place for our leaders: who is the biggest, the boldest,
the most outrageous. Too often we value hubris over humility, boldness over wisdom.
Bethlehem should signal for us just the opposite. Just as King David was God's choice and
not his father's, just as Jesus was God's choice and not ours, we must see our call to
look in unusual places for truth.
And we see these "unusual places" in Luke's Gospel. Both Elizabeth and Mary are
clearly "unusual places." Elizabeth and Zechariah were not able to conceive a child for
many years. Today we understand infertility as complex and basically about biology. But
during Biblical times it was seen as a curse: either God was punishing you or didn't
believe you deserved to be parents. And yet, after years of infertility, Zechariah and
Elizabeth were selected to give birth to John the Baptist. Mary, a poor young pregnant
woman without a husband, would have been an outcast and humiliation to her family.
And yet these two pregnant women, on the fringes of their society, command center stage
in the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Mary travels to Elizabeth and when they
greet each other, John leaps in Elizabeth's womb. And (and this is perhaps the most
important part) "Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." As Christians we take
seriously the idea that the Holy Spirit occupies the space between us when God is present.
Generations of Catholic school children remember being reminded at school dances (called
"mixers") to "leave room for the Holy Spirit" between them.
Laughter aside I like the idea that the Holy Spirit occupies the space between the
relationships that build us up. If we think about the people who we love it's easy and
comforting to imagine there is holiness in these relationships. Married couples recognize
the holiness between them, and it goes without saying that parents find their identities
in the holiness between them and their children. This presence calls us to loyalty and
deeper love, and it calls us to a willingness to sacrifice for each other. This presence
moves us away from selfishness and toward the love that God calls us to.
As many of you know I make my living as a hospice chaplain. I can't imagine doing
anything else, but the best part of my job is this: I spend my days driving to peoples'
homes and hearing about their lives.
Spending my days in the homes of other people grants me the opportunity to see the role
of the Holy Spirit in their lives. This is my experience: all families love each other as
best they can and struggle to find their best way to live together. They pray that the
Holy Spirit will bless their home in the same way she blessed the meeting between
Elizabeth and Mary.
These families succede in varying ways. Let's face it: all families are dysfunctional
(whatever that means) but some do better than others. I've seen my share of toxic
families and most of the rest do fairly well. But sometimes I am blessed to see a family
that functions incredibly well in excruciatingly painful times.
I met one of these families a few months ago. The matriarch of the family had a recent
diagnosis of a terminal illness and was coming home to die. For as long as anyone could
remember she was the hub of everyone's universe. Her home was the place everyone knew to
gather for holidays, but it was also the place anyone could come for a meal, a shelter, or
a place to recover. Her home was the safe haven no matter what. While many of the family
grew up in her home, everyone saw it as home.
My team worried about family coping. We feared that the impending death of the
matriarch would cause chaos, that they wouldn't function well without her.
We were wrong. The family gathered and immediately got to work. They set up the home
to ensure the last few days of their mother/grandmother/aunt/cousin/friend would continue
the love that had always been present. Nobody assumed the role of matriarch: they all
did. Some ensured that her deathbed was in a room big enough for all to gather. Some
ensured that there was enough food to feed everyone. Some ensured that the home was
clean. And some, amazingly, ensured that we on the hospice team felt welcome.
The last few days of her life were holy, and it must have felt like the meeting of
Elizabeth and Mary. The presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable in the home. And it was
apparent that She was present only on the invitation of the family. It was their love,
devotion, and faith that created the presence that called for the Holy Spirit.
It wasn't an easy time. In fact, it was a terrible time. They gathered to say goodbye
to someone they loved and grief also held a strong presence. But the Spirit gave them the
courage to be who they needed to be. She gave them the path the family needed to continue
to be a loving family, the kind of family the matriarch built. The Spirit gave them the
ability to provide the love they had been given.
The Gospel tells the same story. Both John and Jesus lived hard lives and died
terrible deaths. And it is through these lives and deaths (and the resurrection of Jesus)
that we claim eternal life.
Elizabeth and Mary were not Jerusalem: they were Bethlehem.
Let's look to Bethlehem. Let's be Bethlehem.
December 13, 2015: The Third Sunday of Advent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Zephaniah speaks in the first reading.
He proclaims that the "Lord has removed the judgment against you" and "you have no further
misfortune to fear." Furthermore God "will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you
in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals." Our Gospel
comes from Luke and describes John the Baptist teaching the crowds. When asked what is
expected of them, John commands them to share their surplus with those who do now have
enough. Tax collectors were told to "[s]top collecting more than what is prescribed" and
soldiers were ordered not to "practice extortion," and not to falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages." The crowd was pleased with this and asked if John
might be the Messiah. John quickly denied this. "[O]ne mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals."
We are well into the season of Advent and we continue our tour of Old Testament
prophets who proclaim the end of their exile. The return from exile appears to have
caused a near blizzard of writing to celebrate this and much of it appears to have found
its way into our Scripture. This makes sense on a few levels: times of great suffering
and times of great joy tend to create literature. Suffering causes a society to reflect
on its core values and future with an eye to survival. Celebration causes a society to
revel in feelings of security and love. Both are worthy of a documented record.
But let's move to Luke, and I promise to return to Zephaniah.
I've said this before but we find in John a character that fascinates us much beyond
the words he is given in Scripture. Perhaps only the mother of Jesus provides us with
more fascination with fewer words.
Today's scene can only be described as astounding. Jesus spends much of his ministry
teaching social justice and is roundly criticized or ignored. Here John tells tax
collectors and soldiers to stop abusing their offices and they actually listen to him.
And while it's easy to pile on these two groups, they really weren't bad as they look
Tax collectors were tasked with collecting taxes, but often had to make their living on
collecting more than they were required to turn in. Their profit was often seen as
extortion and tax collectors were often paired with sinners. Certainly some were greedier
than others but none of them were well thought of. Soldiers were seen as foreign invaders
who relished in bullying the locals and stealing what they could. But they were often
conscripts from other parts of the Roman Empire who really didn't relish being there at
all. Some of them bided their time and others took advantage of their power but none of
them were there voluntarily.
And yet (according to this reading) they liked what they heard. Perhaps John spoke to
the better angels of their nature. Perhaps he spoke words that made their time among the
Jews more palatable. Regardless, John spoke compelling words.
Given that, we can see how the listeners looked to John as the "Christ," the "anointed
one." And we can imagine how tempting it must have been for John to get caught up in
their enthusiasm. Most of us will never experience great crowds proclaiming us "the one
who is to come" but I think we can agree it would be hard to have the wisdom to dissuade
them. Our history explodes with those who got caught up in the swell of pledges of
support and love and see these swells as affirmation of ourselves as the Messiah.
My respect for John lies in the reality that he was not swept away by the enthusiasm of
his followers. At the point where he could have easily built a cult of personality, at
the point where he could have advanced his own brand, he took a step back.
Against much of human nature and natural ambition, he reminded his followers of who he
was. He told his gatherers that he was not "the one." He explained that his role was
simply this: to proclaim the entrance of one who is greater.
John knew who he was. He knew he was not the Messiah, not the Christ. But he knew
that he had an important role to play in our salvation history. We revere John because he
didn't elevate his role but he also didn't diminish it. He knew that his role was to
raise awareness and focus the light elsewhere. He knew that his place in history was best
done by letting Jesus take the main role because only Jesus could redeem us. If John had
proclaimed himself the Christ (as those around him encouraged him to do), none of us would
recognize the names of either John or Jesus. And in much the same way we wouldn't be the
people we are had John not done his job.
And, ironically, this loops back to Zephaniah. He and, the other post exile prophets,
proclaim a message that we find hard to hear.
The idea of guilt/punishment/redemption confounds us even to this day. For all that is
good about us we still have the capacity for sin, and we still struggle with the place it
has in our life. Are we judged by the best of our actions, the worst of our actions, or
the average of the two?
When the Israelites were liberated from slavery in Egypt in the Book of Exodus, God
clearly demanded that they live in a way that was worthy of their exodus. Clearly they
didn't. Much of the Old Testament tells the story of how they did well and how they did
poorly. When they were conquered by the Babylonians they saw this as punishment from God.
When Babylon was conquered by Persia they saw this as redemption from God.
But what now? Zephaniah clearly tells us that their punishment was over but I think
this reading speaks to us today because we have a hard time truly believing this. God
speaks through Zephaniah and tells us that we are forgiven. His words can't be clearer:
"The Lord has removed the judgment against you." But we still find it hard to accept this
The community that Zephaniah wrote to may have had difficulty accepting that their
exile was at an end, but God knew they would live their best lives if they knew who they
were. They were, first and foremost, a people chosen by God with no explanation why it
was them and not someone else. They were a people who had, at best, a mixed history of
faithfulness to the God who had chosen them. And they were a people with a future in
And so are we. We get ourselves into trouble when we don't know who we are.
We get ourselves into trouble when we think our success was self made and believe only the
best things we hear about ourselves. But we also get ourselves into trouble when we
believe only the worst things about ourselves and think God choose poorly when we were
I spoke about this last week but it bears repeating: God doesn't hold grudges and
doesn't keep a tally of forgiven sins in case we keep committing the same sins.
Advent is soon coming to an end but let us spend these last few weeks recognizing that
we are who we are because of (and only because of) God's love and that this love allows us
to be who we are called to be, even on our worst days.
December 6, 2015: The Second Sunday of Advent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Once again we take our first reading from the
series of books that Catholics accept and Protestants don't (I promise it's not personal).
Baruch writes from exile (perhaps in Egypt, perhaps in Babylon) to those who were left in
Israel during the darkest time in their history. He proclaims a message of hope, that the
readers' suffering is soon to be at an end. They are instructed to " take off [their]
robe of mourning and misery [and] put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God." Furthermore " Israel may advance secure in the
glory of God." Luke's Gospel speaks of John the Baptist. He proclaimed "a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Drawing a line from Isaiah (Chapter 40) to John
the Baptist, Luke writes this: "A voice of one crying out in the desert: Prepare the way
of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and
hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made
smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
The Season of Advent gives us our best understanding of John the Baptist. We know
precious little of John. Scripture is not entirely clear, but we believe that Jesus'
mother (Mary) is a "kinswoman" to the mother of John the Baptist (Elizabeth). The terms
"cousin" is both close enough and vague enough to fit Jesus and John.
OK, I do genealogy as a hobby and I know way too much about this, but we are
cousins to more people than we think. First cousins share grandparents, second cousins
share great grandparents, etc. Most of us know our first cousins and most of our second
cousins. Our third cousins (sharing great great grandparents) are mostly strangers to us.
But this really misses the point.
We see from the beginning of Luke's Gospel that Mary and Elizabeth had a close enough
relationship to be involved in each other's lives. We also know that John and Jesus are
close enough in age that both of their mothers were pregnant at the same time.
We know nothing of the relationship between Jesus and John when they were growing up,
but I hope they were friends. When I was growing up I had limited encounters with my
cousins, but I valued them and enjoyed our time together. My older cousins gave me
information on relatives they remembered that I didn't. My younger cousins were much
fewer but they appreciated the information I gave them about relatives I knew that they
didn't. We had common relationships and gave each other common memories.
And now, as adults, at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, John takes on a crucial
role. He is the trumpet that announces the arrival of the king, the town crier with the
latest news. He calls for repentance through an interesting two step process: repentance
summons the person to baptism and baptism forgives sins. This seed begins the (mercifully
now abandoned) belief that baptism erases "original sin" and provides the only opportunity
for salvation. That false belief led many to conclude that babies who die before baptism
will not go to Heaven but will instead go to Limbo. It was a terrible misinterpretation
of this reading.
But the fear new parents felt as they rushed their newborns to church for baptism
speaks to us today. As I spoke about last week, fear is a powerful motivator. And
unfortunately the word "repent" too often calls fear to the head of our thoughts. Instead
of seeing John's words inviting us to walk a path of forgiveness we focus on the reason we
need to repent. Let's not do that.
Let us look, instead, to the first reading from Baruch. The most hopeful passages from
Scripture inevitably come from our darkest chapters. Baruch writes from the Babylonian
exile, the darkest chapters of the Old Testament. Baruch himself is in exile. When the
Babylonians conquered Jerusalem they didn't exile everyone, just the leaders. Many were
allowed to stay in Jerusalem but it was a painful existence: their Temple had been
destroyed and their rulers were strangers with different values and beliefs. For someone
like Baruch, writing from exile, a message of hope must have astounded his
audience. He didn't predict the future (that the Babylonians would themselves be
conquered) but instead he told them that God will "[lead] Israel in joy by the light of
his glory, with his mercy and justice for company."
So which is it? Rejoice or repent? Well, as my seminary professor Fr. Jerry Austin
would say, it's not either/or, it's both/and.
I think most of us fear repentance because we fear it won't work, or at least it won't
be enough. I remember from my childhood listening to two people on the radio joking about
something they observed. One person hurts or offends a second person who yells: "You can
at least say you're sorry." But when the first person apologizes, the second person
yells: "That's not enough!" Perhaps we undervalue our ability to repent, or (more to the
point) God's patience in accepting our repentance. I think we all remember from our
childhood someone, whether a parent, teacher, or coach, who told us to stop apologizing
and finally get it right. For all its good intent, we took from those encounters the
belief that patience was a bank and every time we repented we withdrew from a finite
amount. At some point we will repent and find ourselves overdrawn and forgiveness will
not be granted.
OK, let's admit this is true in human to human relationships. There are only so many
times we can ask our spouse for forgiveness, over whatever transgression, before the
relationship begins to unravel. Our boss is going to look for other alternatives after a
finite number of times we lose an account. Our children will begin to decrease their
respect for us when we become too eager to admit that we were wrong without decreasing
But we sell God short when we believe that God looks on us the same way. God knows us
better than we know ourselves, let alone better than those who know us.
But if we believe, truly believe, that repentance leads directly to forgiveness (no
matter how many times we repent) and that forgiveness leads directly to salvation, would
we be more willing to see repentance not through the lens of shame, but through the lens
of joy? I hope so.
In this season of Advent we prepare ourselves for something astounding in human
history: God has chosen to crash into our world and become, in human form, part of our
story. For poker fans, God is choosing to "go all in." With all humility, knowing that I
cannot know the mind of God, would God really do this for the salvation of only a
few? Or would God decide that generosity has no limits that repentance should be a sign
I like to think God looks to repentance with great joy and hopes we do the same.
November 29, 2015: The First Sunday of Advent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Jeremiah authors our first reading and it's a
comforting reading. He tell us that he will "raise up for David a just shoot;
he shall do what is right and just in the land." He concludes by stating that "The Lord
is our justice." But in Luke's Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples to be on guard. He
warns them to watch "the sun and the moon and the stars" This is clearly a passage where
Jesus warns his disciples to be aware of the end of the world and they should watch the
night sky to predict that would happen.
I think many of us look on the season of Advent with a certain amount of weariness.
Advent begins four weeks before Christmas and ends with Christmas. It's not designed this
way, but it often seems that it falls on the Sunday after Thanksgiving (and more
poignantly, Black Friday). And so, after all the family drama and pressure for the
perfect Thanksgiving, retailers everywhere drop the hammer on the gas pedal that rockets
us toward the family drama and pressure for the perfect Christmas. The malls appear to
get ever more crowded, the parking lots smaller, and the desire to give everyone the
perfect gift crowds a disproportionate share of our stress.
And then we go to church and are told that Advent means we should carve out time to
await the birth of our savior. Really? Carve time out of where?
When I was a child I always thought Lent went on far too long, particularly when I gave
up eating candy or whatever. Advent, I fear, is too short. I'm guessing I'm not the only
one who gets to the days before Christmas and wonder what happened to Advent. This may
well be deep-seated Catholic guilt but I sometimes wonder what Jesus thinks of my time
spent at the post office or the hunched over catalogues.
But perhaps that misses the point. Maybe Advent isn't another activity that competes
for our time or one more box to check on our "to do" list.
Our readings for this Sunday are puzzling at best, and perhaps we need to rebalance
them a little. The first reading is from Jeremiah, and while he often speaks harsh words
of repentance we see the kinder, gentler side of him here. Here he speaks of a God who
will restore Israel. But not only that, God will "raise up for David a just shoot; he
shall do what is right and just in the land." Clearly the "just shoot" foreshadows Jesus
but I find it interesting that all this activity is God's and the people need do nothing
other than accept the gift of salvation.
I don't think we read this enough, Alas, I think we put too much emphasis on Luke's
Gospel. Here Jesus is speaking to his disciples in the immediate days before his entrance
into Jerusalem where he will arrested and crucified. He warns his disciples to be aware
of "signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars" even though other parts of Scripture
condemn astrology. "Men will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the
earth. The powers in the heavens will be shaken." Now that gets our
I generally don't watch the news on TV because they often run stories that devolve into
"here's something to be afraid of (that you previously didn't know about) that you cannot
control." The new flesh eating bacteria that was found 2,000 miles away from you. Do you
really know what's in your water? Your neighbor's car may need to be recalled because of
defective brakes, but how do you know he's taken it in?
Here Jesus speaks of looking for "signs of the end of the world" without telling us
what to look for. What if we miss a sign because we were in line at Toys R Us getting
that "must have" toy? Will I be left out? Excluded?
Fear is a powerful motivator, perhaps too powerful. In these readings fear causes us
to focus on the "signs of the end of the world" and ignore most of the rest of the
readings, including this: "After that, men will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with
great power and glory." Our only instruction is this: "When these things begin to happen,
stand erect and hold you heads high, for your deliverance is near at hand."
So here's my suggestion for this Advent: give yourself a break. The stress we place on
ourselves is inevitable but let's try to change our focus. We shop for the "perfect gift"
because we are shopping for someone we love and want that person to know that. We send
out cards because we want people in our lives to know that we're still around, still doing
what we're doing and still think about them. Many of the people on my Christmas card list
are people I only communicate with at Christmas. I enjoy hearing from them, and even if I
don't, I still pray they are well.
Advent may also give us an opportunity to expand those we care about, those who can
benefit from our generosity. A few years before my father retired, he told me about a
coworker who was new to the job. He hadn't built up enough vacation time to travel to his
family's home for Christmas and would be alone on Christmas morning. My father invited
him to join us on Christmas morning and he readily accepted. I've long since forgotten
his name and wouldn't recognized him if I bumped into him, but I like the fact that we
were able to open our home to him and give him a place to be on Christmas.
And finally, when we do these things we are reflecting God's love for us. Yes, it's a
hectic time, and yes many of us get only Christmas Day from our work. But circling the
parking lot countless times looking for a place to park is really an act of love if it
allows us to be generous with somebody in our life.
Advent isn't doing what it's supposed to do if it makes us more anxious, stressed, or
fearful. Advent is doing what it's supposed to do if it reminds us that God loves us so
much that he crashed into our world and resides with us still. If it encourages us to
think about those we love and how we wish to express that love. And if it encourages us
to expand our circle of those we love, so much the better.
November 22, 2015: The Solemnity Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we celebrate the last day of the liturgical
year: the feast of Christ the King. Our first reading continues a passage from the Old
Testament book of Daniel. It actually predates last week's reading and proclaims a happy
ending: "one like a Son of man" will come and receive "dominion, glory, and kingship."
The reading continues to describe a kingship that will never be destroyed. John's Gospel
gives an account of the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Pilate asks Jesus if
he is a Jew. This dialogue moves beyond "who are you" and "are you a king" to a
proclamation from Jesus that "[e]veryone who belongs to the truth listens to my
We have a month until the end of the calendar year is over a month away, but today
marks the end of the liturgical year. Next week begins the season of Advent as we prepare
So why do we celebrate our final Sunday as "Christ the King?" As Americans we look
suspiciously on the word "king." Our independence in 1776 grew out of contempt of the
earthly King George III. We felt that his corruption gave us no choice but to sever our
relationship with him.
Suspicion of an earthly king, though, goes back much earlier in history. In the Old
Testament First Book of Samuel (chapters 8 and 9) the people ask for a king. This
disturbs Samuel who prayed to God, but God answered and told him this: "Grant the people's
every request. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king. As they
have treated me constantly from the day I brought them up from Egypt to this day,
deserting me and worshipping strange gods, so do they treat you too."
God's and Samuel's exasperation are understandible when seen through the lens of the
people's desire for a king "as other nations have." When God delivered the Israelites
from slavery in Egypt, God made endless attempts to tell them that they entered into a
covenant that called them to choose a different path from the pagans, the people on their
God knew what we are still struggling to understand: placing absolute power in one
person, no matter how good, will not end well. No matter how virtuous or chosen or wise
we find someone, absolute power will corrupt.
Only Christ can be our king. But since his ascension after his resurrection he's not
here to rule. What do we do when none of us can rule in his place?
We've tried any number of solutions. Three hundred years after Jesus' resurrection we
had our first Christian Roman Emperor: Constantine. Five hundred years later Charlemagne
was crowned king of the Holy Roman Empire. And while we look on these men with mixed
feelings these kings certainly did not rule as Christ the King would have.
So what do we do? As we swoop over the last 2000 years we can see that we have
celebrated good kings and endured bad ones. The same with Popes. And ultimately I think
we've missed the point. We've been looking for one person when we would have been better
off looking to all of us.
A king, an absolute ruler, needs to possess numerous gifts. He must be bold, wise,
kind, understanding. He must be a visionary but practical. He must know when to charge
in and when to hold back. He must be able to both encourage and reprimand. In short, he
must be all things to all people.
Has there ever been one person who embodies all this? Of course not. God blesses
nobody with all these gifts, and yet we continue to search for this person. In the late
1800s a German philosopher named Frederich Nietzsche wrote that we need a type of
"superman" to rule us. Someone who would rise head and shoulders above the rest of us and
know what needed to be done. Unfortunately he set the stage for Adolf Hitler to claim
But if we believe what Paul tells us in the 12th chapter of his first letter to the
Corinthians, the Holy Spirit gives us different gifts, different parts of the whole we
We are, all of us, the Body of Christ. We are all parts of the whole, and while we are
all necessary, none of us is complete. In the final word, I think this feast of Christ
the King demands not that we look for one person who embodies Christ, but that we joint
together and use our gifts to form Christ the King.
I say this aware that I am being phenomenally counter cultural. We, in the 2nd decade
of the 21st Century after Christ, are much too individualistic. Despite tremendous
evidence and revelation to the contrary we continue to look for that one person, that easy
answer, who will solve all of our problems and fulfill all of our needs. And we continue
to be disappointed with those leaders we choose.
I'm an American and by this time next year we will have chosen our next President.
Choosing our leader is an awesome responsibility and I'm grateful to have a vote, but I'm
struck by how poorly served we are by most of the candidates. Those who feel called to
leadership (I think) should be humbled by that call but that's not what I see. Again and
again I see ambitious and greedy people who will tell me anything to get my vote. I see
people who insist that they are exactly what we need and our vote for them ensures a
future of bliss and comfort.
But this method has never worked. We live in an era where collegiality and cooperation
are viewed as signs of weakness and lack of leadership. Where compromise is defeatism and
pragmatism is a sin. We live in an era where the best tool of leadership is a bulldozer,
where might makes right and losers should be shunned and ignored.
We are called to better than that. If we are, as Scripture tells us, the Body of
Christ, we need to take more seriously what Paul is telling the community of Corinth: we
are all members of a single body. We are all given different gifts to serve the same
whole. These gifts serve the same whole and none of them are better than the others.
As many of you know, I am a hospice chaplain. Pain at the end of life encompasses many
dimensions. As a chaplain I am not well suited to palliate physical pain and the nurse
next to me is not well suited to palliate spiritual pain. Our patient is only fully
palliated when all the members of the team work together.
And our world demands that we look at each other not as rivals, but as teammates. It
demands that we see our world as not something to conquer but something to celebrate. And
it calls us to look on our faith not as something that celebrates my gifts but instead
celebrates our gifts.
Postscript: I'm aware that calling this feast "Christ the King" is patriarchal. I'm
also aware that my use of masculine terms may marginalize and anger some of you. I
apologize. Our faith calls us to recognize the role of both men and women but
our language has not yet caught up. I celebrate that the role of women in leadership
continues to grow. And, to be frank, I work in healthcare where women have taken the lead
for all of our history.
I know the end of the liturgical year is coming to an end when two things happen:
Halloween is over and the readings frighten most Christians. Yes, they begin with these
The world has existed for all of our lives, and the lives of everyone we know. But
when did the world begin? As a young child I was given a set of encyclopedias that
charted the history of the United States: I knew that President Washington was born in
1732 and that world history predated him but a few years but I had no concept of a world
before the 1600s. Eventually I was able to put together the stories I heard from CCD
(Sunday School) about Jesus to figure out that Jesus predated President Washington by 1700
years. By Junior High School I learned that the world was several billion years old but
was still fuzzy over how long we had been here. It was only as an adult that I
learned that there were those who read the Bible literally and insisted that the world was
created 6,000 years ago.
I found their belief fascinating and somehow naive. I never thought of Genesis as a
science book and felt vindicated by Pope John Paul II's statement that Genesis answers the
"why" of creation but not the "how."
Given that belief I also found the belief that apocalyptic literature predicts the
world's end equally curious. Daniel's reading gives us the image of the angel we know as
"Michael the Archangel," the angel who drove Satan out of Heaven into Hell. OK, so does
this popular image really drive this reading? I don't think so.
Daniel writes at a painful time in our salvation history. This passage was written
when the Israelites were persecuted by the Greeks. As happened several times in their
history, they feared their story was coming to an end. They feared they would be
assimilated by their conquerers and their identity as Jews would become either forgotten
or little more than a footnote in history.
They feared they would cease to exist even though God promised them they would live
forever as a people. The fear of being forgotten in history is powerful.
But a people whose beginning roots itself in an eternal God can feel confident that
their story will never end. They can know that no matter what happens, they will exist
forever, just as their Creator does.
So here's the problem: those who point to a specific beginning of our story also point
to a specific end. Any story that has a beginning also need to have an end. But how can
we end? For much of our history there have those who believed that at some set point in
time God will "declare it over." They claim that God will end the world.
This view of our story has a long history. In the 1500s the Anglican Archbishop James
Ussher used several sources to determine that the world began on Sunday, October 23, 4004
BCE and even today many hold to that. Here lies the heart of the "creationism vs.
evolution" debate. Those who hold to the belief that our world and salvation history
began in 4004 BCE also believe in something called the "rapture." That at some point in
time God will decide it's over and take the "worthy" into Heaven. I spoke about this a
few weeks ago in regard to the 144,000 in Revelation. But is it true?
I don't think so. If we believe in the first chapter of John's Gospel, that the Word
is eternal, we can believe we are eternal. Unfortunately today's Gospel reading makes the
rapture belief easy. Jesus, in the last days of his public ministry, warns his disciples
to be watchful. Perhaps he was speaking of the next few days where he will be arrested,
tried, and crucified.
In any case this reading and a few others have created a cottage industry in looking at
the "signs of the times" to predict the end of the world even though the final verse warns
that no one knows the time or the hour.
So if these readings don't predict the end of the world, what do they do? Perhaps our
story has no end, but our lives do. We all know when our lives began, the day we were
born. And as much as we don't like to think about it, there will be a day when our lives
The idea that our lives are finite can both scare us and embolden us. If we look at
our lives through the lens of fear it can paralyze us, and in many ways it does. Think
about how often we hear stories about people who "want it all." Think about people who
want the perfect education, the perfect career, and (in their 40s) the perfect family.
Think about how unfair it seems that fertility decreases at some point. Think about
couples in their 50s and 60s who still want to have children and go to expensive and
incredible lengths to achieve it.
Perhaps Jesus was looking at the end of his earthly life and called his disciples to do
the same. In his time the interval between "you're fine" and "you're dying" was pretty
quick. People died in accidents or fast acting infections. Today it's different. While
accidents still exist, most infections are curable. People now live long enough suffer
from long standing heart disease or cancer. We can now make decisions on whether or not
to treat illnesses knowing that we can predict our mortality.
Given that I believe we need to read these readings through modern eyes. We read this
in the second decade of the twenty first century. In Mark's Gospel Jesus tells his
disciples "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place."
Clearly this isn't factually true as everyone of that generation has passed and
none of those things have taken place.
So at the end of the day I think that these readings call us to think of our lives as
finite. We are placed here and most of us will be here for several decades, a select few
for an entire century. So what do we do? Most of us will grow up, marry, have children,
meet our grandchildren (and perhaps great grandchildren), work, retire, get sick, and
So what do we do with the time we have? I believe that these readings call us to live
well with each other. We are called to live well and to use this time to make our lives
and others better. We are called to make this world a better place, not because it's
brief, but because it matters. Those who focus too heavily on the next world often care
too little on this one.
And so as we approach the end of this liturgical year let us look for the signs. Not
the signs that this world is coming to an end, but the signs that we have an opportunity
to use our time here to make our lives, others' lives, and the world a better place.
November 8, 2015: The Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary
You can find the readings
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the First Book of
Kings in the Old Testament. As the prophet Elijah is traveling he comes across a poor
widow as she gathered sticks. Elijah asks her first for water and then for some of the
bread in her hand. The widow explains that it isn't bread but a handful of meal and a
little oil. She is preparing the meal and oil for some bread for her and her son; after
that they will die. Elijah then promises her that when she makes the bread her jar will
not be emptied and it happened as Elijah promised. Mark's Gospel continues to speak about
widows. Jesus begins by warning his disciples of those who take places of honor: "these
are men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers." He
observed in the treasury and watched the wealthy contribute large sums. Then a poor widow
came in and put in two small coins "the equivalent of a penny." Jesus then tells his
disciples: "I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put more in than all who have
contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but from the
little she has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.
The word "widow" evokes dozens of images. We might think of an elderly woman who has
simply outlived her husband, or a grieving young woman at a funeral in a military
cemetery. Sometimes widows rise from the ashes: in 1963 Phillip Graham, the publisher of
the Washington Post and ownership passed to his wife Katherine. In the 28 years
before her retirement she led the Post through a period of phenomenal growth.
But stories like Mrs. Graham's shouldn't frame our views of widows, particularly during
biblical times. Simply put, the widows we read about had no such ability. With the death
of their husbands, their lives almost certainly went into a nosedive. The did not have
some of the things we take for granted: life insurance, disability, wrongful death suits,
food stamps, social security, etc. Unless they found another patron they were almost
certainly reduced to begging.
Simply put, they were pushed aside because they were no longer productive. If their
role was to provide a husband with housekeeping and children, the death of their husbands
removed their role and their productivity.
The heart of these readings revolve around this question: What role, what place to we
give to those who can't produce or contribute to our society? The widows here are merely
easily understandable symbols of the placeless.
My best modern day example comes from politics. I normally attempt to avoid this
world, but I think I can wend my way through. In the 2012 Presidential campaign one of
the candidates was speaking at an event he thought was private (though it was secretly
being filmed). He was making the point that there is a percentage of the population who
didn't work and he accused his opponent of taking advantage of this by promising them that
they would be given whatever they needed and didn't need to contribute. This is what he
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter
what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government,
who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care
for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to
you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And
they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income
tax. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should
take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
The response, in many ways, divided our country in just the ways Jesus is talking
about. The candidate, and many of his supporters, felt that those who don't contribute,
do so out of laziness. Any help we give them only makes it easier to stay lazy. Given
that, those who do contribute shouldn't have to support them. It costs us and and doesn't
But if we place value on each other based solely on their ability to contribute we
dramatically shortchange them. If we tie value to wealth, we cast our lot with the rich
men in the Gospel. In today's parlance, we value stockbrokers and hedge fund managers
ahead of teachers and police officers. And we especially value them over the unemployed,
the mentally ill, the handicapped, and the retired.
And if we insist that the wealthy are more valuable, we need to understand that Jesus
didn't. And he didn't even value the wealthy men and the widow the same: the widow, while
she gave a smaller amount, is valued more because she gave all she had, not a safe
That's pretty harsh. Does Jesus mean we should put all our money in the
weekly collection plate? I don't think it does (or at least I hope it doesn't). I think
instead we are called to look at the widow and the rich man not as being the same, but as
being equal in how we treat them.
Too often I think we can look at others and calculate how kind, or welcoming we should
be, and too often I see that happen at church. Part of the reason we gather for worship
each week is to gather with people who we know and care about. We like being around
people we are comfortable with. But what do we do when someone we've never met chooses to
join us? What if they don't look like us, or act like us? What if they make us
Just as the widow wasn't able to sit in a place of honor in the synagogue and Jesus
called out the community, shouldn't we do the same? Some churches ask people who are
there for the first time to identify themselves at the beginning of worship (mine does).
But what do we do after that? After the service is over if nobody welcomes them, what
message does that send? I'd love for someone to make a point of approaching them
after mass and thank them for coming. It doesn't have to be a long conversation but it
seems to me that it would make the community more welcoming, and more valuable.
In the final analysis, when we hear the word "widow" in these readings we should think
of all those who can't contribute and love them as much as Jesus does.
November 1, 2015: The Feast of All Saints
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the last book of the
Bible: Revelation. This book tends to scare people because of its coded language, and
this passage tends to scare and confuse most Christians. It appears to tell the faithful
that only 144,000 people will be saved because only they are found worthy. Matthew's
Gospel describes a speech by Jesus that we all call "the Beatitudes." Jesus tells those
gathered that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, and many
others, are blessed by God. Furthermore, the reward is great for those who are persecuted
for being followers of Jesus.
Because this Sunday falls on November 1st, we aren't talking about the readings from
the Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time. Every year on November 1st we celebrate the
Solemnity of All Saints, regardless of what day of the week. It's a little unusual
because while most feasts are "outranked" by the Sunday celebration, All Saints is one of
those that doesn't.
So exactly what is this feast, and how do we tie in today's readings? Good question.
Many of us cower from the first reading from Revelation, and it bears some explanation.
The book of Revelation belongs in a family of literature called "apocalyptic literature"
and it talks about the end of things. But it's supposed to be literature that makes the
readers hopeful. The end of any apocalyptic work should make the reader feel better,
including this book and this reading, but these days it's been transformed into the stuff
of fear. The book of Revelation, from the 1960s publication of The Late Great Planet
Earth to the 1990s fiction series Left Behind, has falsely caused large
swathes of the Christian population to believe that only a few of us will be saved.
Today's reading from Revelation only makes it worse by declaring "how many were sealed:
a hundred and forty four thousand, out of all the tribes of Israel."
We read this today, 2000 years later, with a dramatically different understanding of
the number 144,000. We don't know how many Jews lived in Jerusalem during the time of
Jesus, but it's fair to believe that it was less than 144,000. That must have been an
immense number to them. It isn't to us. I live in the city of San Diego, California and
our population right now hovers around 1,300,000 or 9 times larger than 144,000.
I'm doing the math because we look at these numbers much differently. You see, 144,000
is the product of 12 X 12 X 1000. Twelve meant a great deal to the original numbers of
this first reading. Twelve signified the number of tribes of Israel, and the number of
the original followers of Jesus. The writer of Revelation thought of this as he
multiplied it with itself and then 1000 (12 X 12 X 1000) to mean "everyone in the world."
He didn't mean to say that only 144,000 would be saved, but instead meant that
everyone would be saved.
But today, 2,000 years later, the number 144,000 looks a great deal different. We look
at this as if the number of places in Heaven is limited. We think about seats in a
popular restaurant, places in a hot new seminar, or slots for a killer condo. Today
144,000 doesn't mean abundance: it means shortage. If only 144,000 get into Heaven we're
in serious trouble. I mean, we're clearly in line behind Jesus' apostle, and while we're
on the subject, there are probably close to 10,000 recognized saints. No way we can
complete there, even though we are celebrating all of them today. And then (!) start
adding up all those good, honest, holy people in the last 2000 years that nobody knew
about. The seats are filling up fast and they're not passing out wrist bands.
So let's take a breath and look at this number as it was intended. I spoke earlier
about apocalyptic literature. This type of literature is normally written during times of
oppression and is meant to give hope. It's not a roadmap toward predicting the end of the
world or an "inside track" to salvation.
If it's a roadmap to anything it's a roadmap to the Kingdom. We celebrate All Saints
today not just to revere those who have gone before us who lived exemplary lives, but to
live that way ourselves. If salvation is freely given to us it shouldn't lead us to
complacency but instead to determination that we have the means to be saints to those
Those who misuse the first reading trouble me for several reasons, but complacency
leads the pack. I'm certain I'm not the only person who grimaces when I see the bumper
sticker "At the Rapture This Car Will Be Unoccupied." Whatever the driver's motivation it
appears smug to me, as if they are telling me: "I have my seat in the Kingdom.
You're on your own."
We need to be better than that. We celebrate All Saints best by standing on the
shoulders of those who have gone before us. By continuing their work. By being the
people Jesus speaks about in the Gospel. The beginning of the 5th chapter of Matthew is
often called the Beatitudes and if sainthood is the goal, the Beatitudes are the
directions. I've often thought of this passage as Jesus' Inaugural Address, the outline
for his ministry.
But Jesus, being Jesus, gives us strange directions. Choosing to be poor in spirit, to
be gentle, etc. are not values that we find revered in much of the world. Many years ago
I heard a motivations speaker say this: "The meek shall inherit the earth? Yes, and
that's all they'll get: dirt!"
But if we look at our most famous saints this is what we see. Let me choose of a few
of my favorite saints: Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). His poverty of spirit, his desire
not to build up his importance, is legendary. He was gentle. He hungered and thirsted
for justice. Pope St. John XXIII (1881-1963): He was merciful. He was a peacemaker.
But think also about the saints in your own life: think about your favorite
grandparent, or your favorite teacher. Think about the example they set for you in making
you who you are. Think about those qualities that drew you to follow. How many of them
taught you how to exercise power or take advantage of the weak? How many taught you to
"look out for number one" by doing that themselves?
The Kingdom of God call us to see the 144,000 as all of us without exception. It calls
us to revere the holiness of those who have gone before us, but also to be the people
others revere. If we take All Saints to be all it's supposed to be, we need to claim our
place in it.
October 25, 2015: The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Jeremiah wrote our first reading and it's a joyful
one. He describes the end of the Jewish Diaspora, the defeat and exile into Babylonia.
Here the Israelites are allowed to return to their home. God will gather the exiles from
the far ends of the earth: "the blind and the lame". Mark's Gospel describes the story of
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. He sat at the side of the road and begged for a living.
Bartimeaus received word that Jesus was passing by and attempted to get Jesus' attention.
Many of those who waited for Jesus told Bartimeus to be quiet but it only called
Bartimeaus to shout all the louder to get Jesus' attention. Hearing the shouts Jesus
stopped and asked that Bartimeaus be brought to him. Jesus asked Bartimaeus what he
wanted, and he asked for sight. Jesus complimented Bartimeaus on his faith and granted
him sight and Bartimeaus began to follow him.
The first reading from Jeremiah looks fairly simple: both Isaiah and Jeremiah devote
several chapters to the celebration of the return from exile. Many of you already know
this story, but the Israelites were defeated and exiled by the Babylonians; their Temple
was destroyed and most of them believed their story was over. A small group believed that
God did not abandon them and they had a future. They were right. After several years
their conquerers were themselves by conquered by rulers who allowed the Israelites to
return home and rebuild their Temple.
They did. But this reading from Jeremiah contains an astounding verse:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from
the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame
Why did this matter? It matters because Jeremiah included the "blind and the
Today we look at people with disabilities with compassion. We respect handicap parking
spaces and don't park there. We see Braille characters and make a prayer of gratitude
that we don't need to memorize them.
But it wasn't always that way. Previous generations, previous civilizations, looked on
the blind and the lame as being punished. Maybe they were punished for some sin by God,
maybe they were punished because of the sin of a parent. Their handicap pointed to their
sin. As a matter of fact, earlier in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 5:8) King David
commands: "The lame and the blind shall be the personal enemies of [me]... The blind and
the lame shall not enter the [Temple]."
And while there's little evidence that the blind and the lame were indeed excluded from
the Temple, their lives were far from easy. Most of them could not make a living,
couldn't provide for a family, and at some point would not be able to count on the support
of their own family. The passage from Jeremiah stands out because it includes people who
were otherwise not valuable. And yet they were included. And they were included at a
time when every able bodied person was needed: they needed to rebuild the Temple as well
as their homes, their economies, and they lives. The blind and the lame couldn't be part
And in addition to not being able to pull their own weight, let's face, they make us
uncomfortable. They are evidence right in front of that whatever happened to them could
happen to us (or our children). Maybe we shy away because they remind us of the frailty
of all of our lives. We all live with the reality that we are all an infection away from
blindness, an accident away from paraplegia.
And so enter Jesus and Bartimaeus. Today's Gospel comes to us just before Jesus enters
Jerusalem and begins Holy Week. Outside Jerusalem lives a blind man who hears that Jesus
is nearby. We don't know how much Bartimaeus knew of Jesus' healing ministry, but whether
he was propelled by knowledge, hope, or desperation, he begged for mercy.
It couldn't have been easy for him. Since he couldn't work all he could do was beg.
His existence depended on the generosity of those around him and he broke one of the
rules: he forgot his place. He caused a scene and embarrassed the people he needed. He
ran the risk that those around Jesus, the important ones, would stop supporting him.
Did he really "forget his place?" I think he did. We like to think of ourselves as
important and generous: let's face it, when we are getting our taxes done, don't we rise
up a little when the tax preparer adds up our charitable donations? But there is implied
hierarchy: we important people are willing to give to Bartimeaus but he should not bypass
us and ask Jesus for healing. That would mess up everything.
Whatever the reason Jesus acted on an entirely different agenda, which is, let's face
it, most of what he did. Instead of going along with the crowd Jesus asks that Bartimaeus
be brought to him. OK, can I say this? I'm sure I'm not the only one who draws a line
between this scene and countless scenes where Pope Francis stops to speak to, encourage,
or kiss someone who waited for him to come by.
Jesus heals him and makes it clear that Barimaeus is not healed because his blindness
has been forgiven. He is not healed because of his courage, even if we can respect that.
He is healed because of his faith. He is healed because his belief in Jesus
propelled him to break the rules of polite society and show the humility to say to Jesus:
"I believe you can heal me, and I beg that you do.
I said it wasn't because of his courage but we shouldn't discount his courage. Not
only did it take courage to "break the rules," it took courage to ask for healing. His
life as a blind beggar wasn't good, but it was a life. Once healed he can no longer beg.
We don't hear from him again and we don't know what happened to him, but after his healing
he needed to find a job. We don't know if he was born blind or if he had a skill that
became impossible after he became blind, but he can no longer hide behind a disability
that Jesus healed.
I like to think that there was someone, or perhaps a few people, who admired Bartimeaus
for his faith and his courage and took him under his wing. I like to think that some of
what Jesus taught called that person to reach out and break a few rules of his own.
October 18, 2015: The Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes to us from the Old
Testament prophet Isaiah and it's a puzzling reading: "The Lord has been pleased to crush
his servant with suffering. If he offers his life in atonement, he shall see his heirs,
he shall have a long life and through him what the Lord wishes will be done." Mark's
Gospel doesn't make it any easier. James and John approach Jesus with a request: they
wish to sit on Jesus' right and left hand in his glory. Jesus tells them that they have
no idea what they are asking. He tells them that this is not his to give, but it is
reserved for the Father. He then tells them that the pagan rulers exercise their power
while his followers who seeks greatness must serve their followers.
Let's face it: if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Jesus, you're going
to need to deny some of your basic ambitions. Our history as humans shows us that several
ambitions rule: we seek power over others to either be or choose our leaders. If you're
smarter than someone else you have the ability (and the right) to cheat him. Might makes
right. There is no value in being right if someone else ends up with the treasure. The
golden rule means that whoever has the gold makes the rules.
But the reading from the prophet Isaiah runs in opposition to this. Here God crushes
his servant. It's a harsh reading but it makes an important point. Our greatest
victories, our proudest accomplishments, our best wins, may work here among our peers but
they don't get us closer to the Kingdom of God if they don't serve others.
This reading comes to us near the end of the book of Isaiah. The Israelites fell into
sin, were defeated and exiled by the Babylonians, and were eventually restored to their
home when the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians.
I'm uncomfortable with the first reading in the sense that God caused suffering to his
servant. Many will look at the phrase "By his sufferings shall my servant justify many"
and assume this is a foreshadowing of Jesus. Maybe, but maybe not. It's too easy to
assume that every Old Testament reference to a servant who suffers is really Jesus.
Did Isaiah believe that God caused the suffering? Clearly Isaiah did, and
that's how this reading has been taught through much of our history. If you mess with
God, if you disobey God's commands, watch out. But it's equally possible that the cause
of the suffering isn't God, but that God chooses to use that suffering to teach an
important lesson. Before they were conquered and exiled there is a great deal of evidence
that they had become complacent in obeying God's laws, but they were also complacent in
their own defense. Simply put, they were defeated by a nation that was stronger than they
Given that, I like to believe that while God may not have chosen to use the Babylonians
to "teach a lesson," God did give the Israelites the opportunity to look on their exile as
an opportunity to soul search, to see what went wrong and to make necessary
That said the servant does well. He chooses to "see the light and be content." He
recognizes that his suffering will benefit others, perhaps even others he won't know.
This servant knows that his sufferings will serve not only as a lesson of what can go
wrong, but also how to do what is right.
This may well be the hardest lesson we need to understand as Christians. Those who
surround Jesus in Marks' Gospel are obsessed with ambition and the desire for power. They
seemingly did not learn from the suffering servant in the first reading. Jesus, who may
have been full of indignation or amusement, tells them that they have no idea what they
are asking for.
Regardless of James' and John's motivations in asking to sit next to Jesus, it was a
pretty dumb thing to do. They may have felt that once in power they were best placed to
do the most good.
Many years ago I was reading about the administration of President Richard Nixon (he
was US President from 1968 to 1974). There was a feeling among many of his supporters
that Nixon was the best person to be president, and therefore anything that was done to
ensure his election was justified. Of course we know in hindsight that it wasn't true.
That dangerous belief caused some members of his campaign to break into the offices of his
opponent and plant listening devices. They were caught, the whole scheme unravelled, and
two years later it led to Nixon's resignation. As a nation we learned two lessons: nobody
is the only person who can lead, and using unscrupulous means leads to a bad end,
however noble the intent may have been.
My point is this: striving for power in the belief that we will use that power only for
the good does not work. When Jesus tells James and John that those seats of power are not
for Jesus to give, but instead they belong to those to whom they have been allotted he is
telling them that positions of power are the reward for goodness, not the starting
In other words, do not seek power in the belief that you will do good, but seek instead
to do good in the belief that you will be given the power and authority to do what you
seek. The seats on the right and left hand of Jesus belong not to those who ask, but to
those who best serve the people Jesus calls us to serve.
And finally, to bring this back to the servant in Isaiah, If we don't see him as a
foreshadowing of Jesus, we can still see him as a good person. He is, we can see, a
servant of God. In light of the Gospel, perhaps he is someone who wishes to serve God,
but does it by acquiring power. His suffering then tells him he is on the wrong track,
and when he chooses service over power, he "shall see the light and be content. By his
sufferings shall my servant justify many."
I write this here in California against the backdrop of a presidential campaign.
Thirteen months from now I, along with millions of others, will enter a polling place and
cast my vote. I'm certain I'm not the only one who looks with disillusionment. So many
of those running tell us that they should win because they are the most powerful, the ones
with the greatest number of victories in their win columns. Candidates who seek to serve
and wish for the power to do so appear much less common.
Let us seek them
October 11, 2015: The Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin by reading from the Old Testament Book of
Wisdom (yes, again, a book that Catholics recognize but Jews and Protestants don't). The
writer speaks in the first person and asks for the spirit of Wisdom and finds Wisdom more
precious than health or wealth, beauty or popularity. The writer insists that Wisdom
possesses a radiance that never sleeps. Mark's Gospel recounts the story of a man who
asked Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to follow the 10 Commandments
and the man insisted that he has done that all his life. Jesus then told him to sell
everything he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The man, crestfallen,
walked away because he was wealthy. Jesus then announces that it is hard to enter the
Kingdom of God. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a
rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Astonished, his disciples asked how anyone
could be saved. Jesus tells them that, left to their own devices, nobody can be saved.
Only God, for whom all things are possible, can save.
We Christians have spent the last 2,000 years asking the same question: if there is a
moment of judgment at the end of my life how will it go for me? Will I be rewarded and
spend the rest of eternity in unimaginable joy or will I be condemned to unimaginable
suffering? How can I make sure God will approve of me and invite me to Heaven? How can I
make sure God won't condemn me to an eternity of suffering and pain at the hands of
Scripture gives us several, sometimes mutually exclusive answers. Some feel a belief
in Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior is enough. Others point to the twenty
fifth chapter of Matthew where we have to feed the poor, welcome the stranger, etc. Here
Jesus tells the wealthy young man to do something none of us have done: sell everything,
give the money away, and follow Jesus. For all of you (us) who are building up money for
retirement, I'm point my admittedly hypocritical finger.
When I was in college my friend Jim Laney (who isn't Catholic) recommended the book
The Last Catholic in America by John Powers. The book is hilarious, but you'd
probably have to have been raised Catholic before 1970 to fully appreciate it. Eddie Ryan
narrates this tale of growing up in Catholic Chicago in the 1950s. The genius of the book
lies in the insane reality many of us grew up with: even as children we were going to be
judged on our actions, no matter how juvenile or silly. Even as children we could commit
a mortal sin if we died right after committing it were toast. My favorite passage comes
from Chapter 4 where the pastor, Fr. O'Reilly speaks:
Saw Ed Connery at this mass last Sunday morning. He was sitting in the third
pew right over there. He was on time for mass, paid attention. Went to Holy Communion.
Then he went home and had breakfast with his wife and six kids. Decided to go into the
living room and watch a little television. Ed Connery turned the set on and went to sit
in his easy chair. He was dead before he got there. We buried Ed on Tuesday morning. Ed
was sitting here with us last Sunday morning, a healthy man, younger than most of you.
Had a beautiful family, except for the second youngest, who did poorly in school, had a
good job, nice home, yet God decided that Ed Connery's time had come. Maybe we'll be
burying You next Tuesday. Are you ready to die this very instant? Were you on time for
mass this morning? Have you been paying attention every moment to what has been going on
up at this altar? Have you been keeping God's laws? Have you been saying your morning
and evening prayers? Have you been taking care of you family? Have you been going to
Confession every week? Have you have you have you? Sometimes you just can't get a man to
come to church and when you finally do, it takes six men to get him through the door.
We're all going to die, you know. And in a very short time. We live sixty, seventy,
eighty years at the most. It's not a very long time. Ask someone who's old. He'll tell
you. It just didn't seem to take him that long to get old. This life is just a testing
period. A time for God to see if we deserve to spend eternity with Him, to be forever in
the presence His beatific vision, to be with Him forever in the happiness of Heaven or to
be damned for eternity in the everlasting fires of Hell.
I have to confess I believed in the doctrine of an all loving God, but I can't tell you
how many of my Catholic peers honestly heard this kind of sermon and believed this. For
them, this passage from Mark leaves them in stark terror. For them the call to
discipleship and salvation is just too high.
I was recently reminded of this through one of my hospice patients, who'll I'll call
Helen. Helen was raised Catholic in the 1940s and stopped going to church in the 1960s.
When I met her a few months ago she wanted to talk about St. Maria Goretti and I honestly
didn't fully understand why.
St. Maria Goretti (1890-1902) was born to a poor family in Italy. When she was eleven
a young man attempted to rape her: she fought him off to the point where he stabbed her to
death. Her decision to choose death over losing her virginity caused her to be revered
and she was made a saint of the Catholic Church in 1950.
Nearly all Catholics read this story and saw Maria as a martyr, someone who died for
her faith. But Helen saw it differently. Anyone, but particularly women and children,
recognize the horrifying possibility of sexual assault. Nobody wants to think about what
he or she would do in this situation, but Helen gleened only one thing from Maria
Goretti's story: if you are being raped, you are expected to sacrifice your life to
preserve your virginity.
Simply put, Helen felt that if she were in Maria Goretti's situation she would not have
the strength to resist to the point of death. She, in the last chapter of her life,
feared that her life would not be "good enough" to be saved. She approached her own death
with fear and panic because too much was asked of her.
When she told me her story I was filled with compassion and empathy. I was grateful
that she never faced the horrific choice that faced the eleven year old Maria Goretti.
And I explained that God's love encompasses a judgment that eludes us. I told her that
the totality of Christian theology sees God as bursting with love for us, who would never
condemn us for fearing we don't stack up. I recounted Fr. O'Reilly's sermon and asked if
she truly believed any of us would be condemned to eternal suffering for missing mass or
omitting morning prayers.
I recounted a quotation that may or may not have come from Mother Theresa but is
wonderful regardless of its origin: Not all of us can do great things. But we can do
small things with great love.
In the course of our lives none of us will likely be called to public heroism. We
won't storm the beaches of Normandy or disarm a mass murderer. We won't run into a
building on fire to rescue a senior citizen and we won't save a child in a plane
But all of us will have the ability to do small things with great love and I believe
this is where these readings call us. When we choose Wisdom we don't choose fame
or adulation. We don't choose to be the person on the evening news who professes
false modesty by claiming we aren't really a hero. I take nothing away from them, but
public adulation is not what Jesus calls us to.
I think Jesus calls us to advance karma. I know, I know, karma is not a word that most
Christians identify with. We think of karma as some Buddhist or Hindu term that means we
might return in the next life as a cockroach or mosquito (or a Nobel Peace Prize winner).
We see it as some form of divine justice for sins we commit here.
But I think karma can expand our view of Jesus' message. If karma determines our
eternal future, why can't it determine our future here? What if karma means this: Every
act of kindness or generosity or love allows us to live in a world that is just a little
bit kinder or generous or loving? Let's face it: we have all had experiences where
someone has been unduly kind or generous or loving. And when we've had that experience
it's made our next action to be kind or generous or loving a little bit easier.
Conversely, every act of selfishness or anger or hate condemns us to a world that is a
little bit worse. Conversely those actions have made our next actions to be selfish or
angry or hateful easier to justify.
I remember a friend who caught a taxi at the airport to return home. In the course of
his ride he asked the cabbie where he was from. The cabbie replied that he was from
Ethiopia and was grateful to have found his way to the United States where he could make a
better life for himself and his family. My friend was moved by his story and gave a
generous tip with these words: "You came here to make a better life for you and your
children. My grandfather did the same thing. I'm investing in you because I think my
grandfather in Heaven is looking down on both of us and smiling." My friend told me that
his greatest hope is that the cabbie's grandchild, in his wealth, will do the same thing
to someone who is making a better life for someone else. I couldn't agree more.
So what are we called to do? Maybe these readings call us to generosity. Maybe they
call us to tip generously to the service staff we meet on a regular basis. Maybe they
call us to be generous in other ways.
Many of us are not allowed to give blood, but not all of us. I recognize the aversion
to needles and anemia, but a blood donation requires most of us no more than 30 minutes
and a band aid (and donuts). Can we do that?
Maybe it's something even simpler. The next time we're in a grocery store or other
public place and see a toddler having a meltdown, can we sidle up to the parent and give
him or her a word of encouragement? "Isn't it amazing how fast the wheels can come off?"
"How do they know when we don't have time for this?"
When we think about issues as large as salvation it's easy to "think big" and expect
that much is asked of us. In reality, much is asked of us. But if we pray for
wisdom instead of fame, if we look at the individual moments where we can make a small
difference, perhaps they add up. God asks a great deal of us, but if we do some small
thing each day to make the world a little kinder, and we do it over the course of our
entire life, does that add up to greatness? I think it does.
October 4, 2015: The Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is probably familiar to most
Christians and Jews. God created the whole world and as his crowning achievement created
Adam. But God recognizes that "it is not good that the man should be alone. I will make
him a helpmate." God then creates Eve and determines that "a man leaves his father and
mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body." Mark's Gospel recounts a
passage that troubles many modern Christians. Some Pharisees ask Jesus if it is
permissible for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus criticizes them and tells them that once
a couple marries under God, they may not be divided. Jesus tells his disciples that any
man who divorces his wife (and remarries) is guilty of adultery; any woman who divorces
her husband and marries another is also guilty of adultery. Later, people brought their
children to Jesus for a blessing. Jesus encouraged this because "it is to such as these
that the kingdom of God belongs. I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the
kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."
Can I be the one who says this? All over the Catholic world this weekend millions of
married couples will hear a celibate, male, (often elderly) priest extoll the joys of
marriage. That's ironic enough but a certain percentage of these priests will claim the
moral authority to determine who can be married and who cannot.
I'll encourage you to sit with this irony for a few minutes before we continue.
I have to confess a certain unfair advantage here and I do it with appropriate
humility. For those of you who don't know, I was a Catholic priest from 1994 to 1997. I
met someone who fulfilled me, and after an exhausting year of prayer, discernment, and
gratitude I left the priesthood and got married. When I'm on my deathbed I will still
look on this decision as the smartest thing I've ever done.
That said I must confess a wry amusement when I see these readings. I well remember
all the free advice I gave to engaged and married couples about marriage. The universe is
still laughing about the fact that when I got married I had to suddenly follow all the
advice I slung around for free.
I learned that my advice was good, but I had no idea what I was talking about. I don't
know if I stumbled into this wisdom by accident or through the hasty guidance of the Holy
Spirit but I'm grateful for it.
Both readings speak to the partnership between couples who have found each other and
choose to bond themselves. This has become a political issue for our nation. Most of us
read the passage from Genesis with an eye toward the fact that as humans we aren't
complete when we're alone. Earlier passages speak of God creating all sorts of things and
saying "and it was good." The first thing he states is not good is loneliness:
It is not good that man should be alone.
This is important. If we read this passage as its written, it shows that God came to
an understanding that we need each other only after creating Adam. We can make an
argument that Adam realized that he was incomplete only after he was created and put on
this earth. His loneliness surprised God.
However it happened, God and Adam recognized that Adam needed companionship, and Adam
needed Eve. The creation of Eve has been both the best and the worst thing that we read
in the Bible.
It's the best thing in terms that it recognized that we are paired and partnered by
design. It's the best thing that it recognized we aren't solitary creations who come
together only for procreation.
But it's the worst thing in the way we have interpreted the Gospel reading. Here Jesus
appears to say that marriage is permanent, no matter what. Because of this the church
does not recognize divorce (no matter the circumstances) and anyone who divorces and
remarries must do so outside of the church, which excludes them from receiving Communion.
Is this what Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words?
I don't think so. Catholics of the last century were often told to stay together even
if their marriages devolved into facades or battlefields. They were erroneously told that
the mere act of divorce (even without remarriage) caused them to be excommunicated.
Annulments were possible, though out of the reach of most of the faithful.
Catholics of my generation often made the painful, if necessary, decision to leave
theses marriages and went on with their lives. Some felt it was their lot to live the
rest of their lives alone (in clear opposition to the passage from Genesis), trading
happiness and joy for Communion. Others continued to receive Communion and lived in fear
that their soul was in peril.
And so I'll ask it again: is this what Jesus had in mind?
What if it's not? There was raging debate among Pharisees of the time about whether or
not a man could divorce his wife. Some felt that divorce was reasonable only if a man's
wife was unfaithful. Others believed a man could divorce his wife for any reason. The
Pharisees were attempting to trap Jesus, making him choose one side or the other, and
hoping he would get sucked into the controversy.
Whenever the pharisees try this, Jesus refuses to take the bait. Given this, Jesus
changed the discussion from "which side are you on" to a discussion of justice and
righteousness. In the time of Jesus, women had a hard time being on their own. For most
of their lives they were dependent, first on their fathers, then their husband, and if
they were widowed, their sons.
Jesus was making the point that if a man divorces his wife (for whatever reason) he was
leaving her with few options. The imagination does not stretch to believe that a woman
who has been abandoned marries someone else not for love or companionship but for
survival. I think Jesus was saying to the pharisees that if the man has the power he has
the responsibility to fulfill his obligations.
I think Jesus was angry that the pharisees were politicizing a relationship that went
back to the very heart of who we are as children of God. If we are called to be with each
other in intimate, permanent, and exclusive relationships, the pharisees are cheapening it
by attempting to back Jesus into a corner.
And so how do we, over 2,000 years after Jesus, find the sacred in marriage? I think
we do that by continuing to value marriage. The idea of being "happily married" is
universally seen as a good thing. I know it is for Nancy and me.
But we do nothing to value marriage by coercing or bullying people to stay in violent,
abusive, or destructive marriages. We need to recognize that a marriage isn't sacramental
because it was in a church. A marriage is sacramental when it leads both partners
(whatever their faith, race, or orientation) to be better persons, to reflect in each
other the love God has for us.
We honor the readings from Genesis and Mark when we honor the fact that marriage gives
us our best opportunity to find the infinite love that God has for all of us.
September 27, 2015: The Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the book of Numbers,
the 4th book of the Old Testament. During their journey from slavery to the Promised
Land (the time they are wandering in the wilderness) God instructs Moses to choose seventy
to be elders, leaders of the community. Moses does this and God intends to take some of
the spirit from Moses and transfer it to the seventy (ie, give some of the responsibility
for leading the community). Moses did as he was told, gathering the seventy in a tent.
The spirit rested upon them and the prophesied. But there were two not included in the
tent: Eldad and Medad. They were back in camp but they also began to prophecy. Alarmed,
Joshua (a disciple of Moses) told Moses about this and demanded that Moses stop them.
Moses replied: "Are you jealous on my account? If only the whole people of the Lord were
prophets, and the Lord gave his Spirit to them all!" Mark's Gospel continues this theme.
It begins when John tells Jesus that there are those who cast out devils in Jesus' name
without being "one of us." John is appalled and expects Jesus to tell them to stop.
Instead Jesus tells John that anyone who performs a miracle in his (Jesus') name is "one
of us." Jesus then tells John that anyone who has something that causes him to sin should
get rid of that thing. "If your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out: it is better
for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be
thrown into hell where their worm does not die nor their fire go out."
These aren't the easiest readings to hear but I have to confess I have an excellent
memory of at least the first reading.
When I was a seminarian at Catholic University I elected to take a class in preaching
from the Methodist seminary. I felt they gave more importance to preaching than a
Catholic seminary. I was right.
It was my turn to preach in September of that semester. I was given the opportunity to
preach on anything in the Bible that interested me, but as a Catholic I wasn't used to
this. Our lectionary proscribed readings for each Sunday and I elected to preach on the
first reading of the Sunday before my assignment.
The first reading was today's first reading from Numbers and I was horrified. I saw
this as an obscure passage that would offer me nothing in a class where everyone was
better than me.
But the more I read, studied, and prayed on this reading, the more it spoke to me.
Eldad and Medad appear only here and nowhere else in Scripture and we know nothing about
them except what we read here. So who were they?
Well they weren't the seventy elders that Moses chose. The seventy were in the tent,
awaiting God's blessing. Why weren't Eldad and Medad chosen? We don't know. But we do
know that when God instructed Moses to choose the seventy, most of us assume that God will
give his spirit only to the ones Moses chooses.
Yeah, not so much. By spreading the spirit on the seventy that Moses chose
and the two that God chose, God tells us that God has little respect for the
limits we draw.
My favorite character in this story is Joshua, only because I have met dozens of
Joshuas in my life. He's not a bad guy but he keeps a scorecard on who he thinks God
favors and assumes that God keeps the same scorecard.
When God tasks Moses with choosing seventy elders, Joshua (and let's face it, many of
us) assumed that was it. He fully believed that God's will limited itself to the seventy.
Except God chooses others, more than the seventy. None of the seventy are excluded or
penalized by God's choice but Joshua is roiled by the idea that the authority of the
seventy is decreased by the fact that there are now seventy two instead of seventy.
Scripture brims with lessons we don't like but, perversely, this is my favorite: God
does not respect our exclusions. God doesn't ignore the people we ignore, God doesn't
marginalize the people we marginalize, and God doesn't hate the people we hate.
Now to be fair Joshua and Moses didn't hate the people Moses didn't choose, but I think
there's a point to be made here. Joshua was a close ally to Moses and expected his stock
to rise as Moses' stock rose. His horror at finding Eldad's and Medad's inclusion meant
as their stock rose, his stock was diluted. His exclusivity declined.
Joshua's anger was self centered. And to be fair we all understand this. What if you
paid extra for access to meet a favorite candidate (or politician or artist or movie star)
only to find that others who didn't pay extra had the same access? Is it anger or
jealousy? Does your access decrease because others' increase? Frankly it does.
There's a point where this matters in relationships between us. If I want to meet my
idol, and I'm willing to pay extra for better access, I don't want to compete with others
who didn't. I don't want someone to wink at me because I did more for the access he got
But if I want to be included in the Kingdom of God, there is no limited access. It's
not a zero sum game. God's love is infinite and my access does not decrease because
someone else's increases. Whatever sacrifices I made to get there are not diminished
because someone else is there without making similiar sacrifices.
Ambition has no place in the Kingdom of God. If I can understand the motives of Joshua
in Numbers, I have to confess that I can't understand the anger in the Gospel. Last week
I spoke about the difference between Discipleship 1.0 and Discipleship 2.0 and how that
relates to direct access to Jesus.
John, one of Jesus' disciples, expresses anger that others are doing good things in
Jesus' name without John's permission. It's almost as if John expects that Jesus has
copyrighted healing. He didn't. We all know that healing the sick, expelling demons, and
driving out evil spirits is something that benefits everyone.
The followers of Jesus arrive on different paths. Some of them hear Jesus and decide
to follow him. But perhaps others arrive as disciples by understanding that they have the
power to heal illness and palliate suffering. Through this experience they (and those
they heal) come to believe that their power comes to them through someone greater than
them, someone who has come to redeem the world.
As disciples that's hard to hear. We all want to think of ourselves as the inner
circle, the "best of the best." No matter what we believe about the infinity of God's
Kingdom we hope for exclusionary status. It's hard for us to fully believe that there is
no hierarchy to salvation.
As Catholics we have come to this the hard way. Before the 1960s we believed that we
held all of God's power to redeem. We believed that the only path to salvation was
through the sacramental power of the Catholic Church. Protestants, lovely as they were,
had a much harder path to Heaven and most of them wouldn't make it. There's an old joke
that someone dies and goes to Heaven. As Peter gives this person a tour he explains that
"the Lutherans are here, the Jews are over there, and the Baptists are just around this
corner. There is another group way over there, but when we get near them keep your voice
down. That's the Catholics and they think they are the only ones here."
Fortunately most of us knew wonderful, kind, and generous non Catholics and didn't
really believe they were condemned. But others did and much of the "evangelization
strategy" demanded that "we" tell "them" that ours was the only path.
But here's where the Gospel takes a troubling turn. Jesus speaks in incredibly harsh
terms about those who lead others into sin. Using the metaphor of the human body Jesus
talks about those who lead others ("these little ones"). Jesus tells his audience that
any part of you that leads you into sin should be cut off and discarded. Even casual
Christians with little Scriptural literacy know about these versus: And if your eye
causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one
eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna [Hell].
But what does this passage mean and how does it fit into the Gospel? I have to confess
a certain puzzlement myself. Unfortunately these passages have been taken out of context
and interpreted literally. For many of us our eyes cause us great conflict: our love and
devotion to our spouses do not deliver us from a "wandering eye." Will this "wandering
eye" cost us? I certainly hope not.
But even more than that, the phrase Whoever causes one of these little ones who
believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his
neck and he were thrown into the sea is even more troubling. Is Jesus hearkening
back to last week's reading where he embraces children? Virtually all of us remember
times we've told things to children (in good faith) that turned out to be false. Are
these moments going to come back to haunt us?
I hope not.
I hope Jesus gives us the benefit of looking into our hearts. I pray Jesus encourages
us to empower the "better angels of our nature" and he wants us to pay more attention to
those actions that include others rather than exclude.
It's in our nature to pay more attention to those things that scare us than those
things that affirm us. I wish it were different, but that's what we have.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus speaks of "these little ones" in terms of the ones we
influence. In our lives most of us have people we teach, encourage, or influence. They
are our children, our spouses, our coworkers, and our friends. They are anyone who takes
seriously what we tell them. Do we speak to them in terms of inclusion or exclusion? Do
we give them hope or fear? Do we make their lives more hopeful or more fearful?
I like to think that Jesus is speaking to us about the message we share with them. I
think we lead others into sin not so much when we encourage them to sin as when we
encourage them to be exclusionary or amplify their fear. When we tell them that they
should exclude those people or situations we don't understand because it will mean less
for the rest of us.
I like to think that Jesus is telling us to listen not only to Moses but also to Eldad
September 20, 2015: The Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We read the first reading from the Old Testament
Book of Wisdom (yes again, a book that figures heavily in a book that Catholics include in
the Bible but Jews and Protestants don't). The author speaks in the voice of the wicked
who complain against the one who opposes him. The wicked one plans violence against the
just one, reasoning that if God really backs the just one, the wicked will be punished.
But if the wicked are not punished, it means that God does not back the just ones, and the
wicked are free to do whatever they want. In Mark's Gospel, Jesus speaks of his own death
and resurrection. Instead of understanding what they are saying the disciples instead
argue over who will be greatest in Jesus' eyes. Jesus then tells them that the last shall
be first and the first shall be last. He then embraces a child and tells them that anyone
who accepts this child will accept him, and will therefore accept the one who accepts
If you took physics in high school you know that there are several forces that rule the
universe. We all learned that protons have a positive charge, electrons have a negative
charge, and neutrons don't have any charge at all. We also learned that magnets have both
positive and negative charges that make it inevitable or impossible to connect them.
And in other classes we learned that there were forces in human relationships.
Affection and love bring us together while comparison and competition drive us apart. And
we learned that jealousy drives us apart even more than either comparison or
So what's the problem with comparison or competition? Fair enough. They make us
better, they make us strive for more than we thought we could do. We all have stories of
how we did things we didn't think we could do because someone else believed in us.
But that only works if we are competing for a worthy goal. Competition to be the
captain of the soccer team calls us to leadership but competition to be homecoming queen
calls us to denigrate our competitors.
Bad competition inevitably leads to jealousy and that's the word I think of when I read
The first reading from Wisdom speaks in the voice of the wicked. They plot the demise
of a virtuous person and justify their evil intent by claiming that God will protect him.
So why do they wish violence against this just man?
Well, in my reading of the verses before this reading it became clear to me that they
were jealous of the virtuous man. In the first 11 verses of this book the author speaks
glowingly of the ability to take advantage of the weak, of grabbing at what they can with
no regard to the effects of their actions.
But at some point he recognizes the happiness of the virtuous one and doesn't
understand why virtue works for him. And instead of imitating his virtue, the writer
plots this man's demise. Rather than choosing to imitate virtue he grows jealous and his
jealousy calls him to violence. The other man's virtue has become "inconvenient" or
"annoying" (depending on your translation) to wickedness and this cannot be allowed to
And, incredibly, the voice of the wicked person then chooses arrogance in
justifying his actions. He basically states that his evil intent will have no bad effect
as God will protect the virtuous man. It will be a "victimless crime."
But we all know there will be a payback. Evil always comes at a price and even it it's
only the missed opportunity of living a virtuous life, that's a price. This wicked
writer may learn that his path leads only to destruction and suffering, or perhaps he will
learn that his plans are ultimately futile. But no matter what happens he will learn that
his path will never lead to virtue. Under no circumstances will he get to the end of his
life and be proud of his plan to do violence to the virtuous.
And it's easy, perhaps too easy, to divide the world into the virtuous and the evil.
Jealousy isn't only a tool for the wicked: it's also an easy haven for the good. That's
why the Gospel is so important.
When Jesus began his public ministry he gathered a group of disciples. We know less
about them than we think but it's clear that they were attracted by his message. And if
Discipleship 1.0 shows us a "community of equals," Discipleship 2.0 demands a pecking
order, or at least concentric circles. Given human ambition and the desire for status,
the idea of "I'm a better or more beloved disciple because I decided to follow Jesus
before you did" is nearly inevitable. We see this in this country with political
campaigns: the first volunteers on the campaign of the eventual President become the
Secretary of State or Chief of Staff. The latecomers are relegated to FEMA or the
Department of Commerce.
Except that when it comes to discipleship the hierarchy shouldn't matter. Those
disciples were right to be embarrassed when Jesus found out they were arguing over who was
the greatest. If we believe nothing else about Jesus we should believe this: there
is no hierarchy in faith. The disciple who slips underneath the slamming door of
the Kingdom is as valued as the one who enters to fanfare and adulation as the first one
through the gate.
When Jesus answers them by embracing a child he made a startling proclamation that we
should all pay attention to. In Jesus' time children weren't thought of as "our future"
or "precious." They were seen as property and enjoyed no legal protection. When Jesus
embraced this child he said something radical: "If you embrace this child, [whose very
existence depends on his father, who can be killed with no consequences,] you embrace me.
In other words when you value those who have no rights or status, you value me.
And if you do this you have no capacity for jealousy. Jealousy holds meaning only if
you believe you were unfairly ignored or pushed aside. It's a powerful force in this
world but it claims no power in the Kingdom of God. If you aren't jealous of anyone, it
means you are close to the Kingdom of God.
The promises of the Kingdom of God are this: all you need will be provided. Whether
it's nutrition, or love, or security, or whatever, you will have what you need. Jealousy
is simply the false belief that at the end of the day you will be left out.
I may be wandering into dangerous territory, but think of all the people you encounter
who tell you that you will be left out unless you support or pay them. "Vote for me and
I'll protect what others want to take from you." "If you hire me I'll make sure you'll be
able to keep what you earned and get more." "I know they don't want you to know this, but
I have the secret nobody wants you to know."
But what if they're wrong? What if the best road to success is virtue? What if the
wicked man in the first reading says: "Let us follow and support the just one?"
That is the road to God.
September 13, 2015: The Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading Isaiah speaks of how the Lord
opened his ear. In response to violence Isaiah offered no resistance to his enemies. He
withstands beatings, insults, and spitting; he can do this because he will not be shamed
or convicted. His strength is in God. Mark's Gospel speaks of a scene known to most
Christians: Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. They offer different answers
but Peter tells him: "You are the Christ [the Anointed One]." Jesus didn't answer Peter
directly but told all of them not to speak of this to anyone. He then told his disciples
that the Son of Man was destined to suffer, be rejected by religious leaders, and be put
to death. But after three days he would rise again. Peter was much disturbed by this; he
took Jesus aside and promised this wouldn't happen. Jesus rebuked Peter him and said:
"Get behind me, Satan! Because the way you think is not God's, but man's." Jesus then
tells the disciples that anyone who wants to save his life will lose it but whoever loses
his life for Jesus' sake will save it.
Maybe I'm revealing my age, but how many of us have been asked: "Who do you think you
are?" I smile when I think about this question because I have a favorite memory from the
summer when I was a camp counselor at a day camp around 1984. One of my fellow colleagues
had an epically hard day and by the time the day was over she had her fill of one of the
campers. I don't remember what the camper did, but it was past her last nerve and she
screamed at him (at a decibel level that everyone heard): "Who do you think you are?"
As counselors we all experienced at least one encounter with a camper who danced on our
last nerve and I understood exactly what she was going through. But I also remember
thinking: "That's a pretty philosophical question for a 10 year old boy." In fairness she
wasn't interested in the answer: she felt he pushed the limits further than he should have
and her question was more along the lines of: "You're being too big for your britches and
I'm calling on it." His misbehavior led to her frustration and she yelled at him to
recognize that he needed to back off. In the 31 years since then I've often wondered how
each of them are telling the story.
But the question of who we think we are presupposes the question Jesus asks his
disciples. He's really not asking about his place in the celestial hierarchy, but instead
he's asking how he fits into the relationship between his disciples and himself.
To their credit Jesus' disciples make an honest effort to give him the answer they
thought he was looking for. They reached high and named John the Baptist (who he couldn't
have been since several people saw Jesus and John together at the same time), Elijah, or
another prophet. But when Jesus dismisses those answers, we find Peter giving the correct
answer: "You are the Christ." This takes some unpacking. "Christ" means "the anointed
one" and everyone there recognized that Peter meant that Jesus was the Messiah.
For the rest of the disciples this must have astounded them. As Jews under Roman
occupation, the idea that they were with the Messiah must have been too much to dream
about. For hundreds of years they faced adversity and oppression and believed with
confidence that the Messiah would come and end their suffering. They knew that when the
Messiah showed up the Romans would either be defeated or disappear. When the Messiah
arrived they would no longer need to fear that someone else will conquer them. When the
Messiah came they would get to live "forever after ever." If we're having a conversation
with the Messiah, woo hoo! It's here!
Except it wasn't. If their idea of the Messiah meant military victory, they were
wrong. If their idea of Messiah meant an end to suffering, they were wrong. If their
idea of Messiah meant they would never die, they were wrong.
But if their idea of Messiah meant that death would not be the final word, they were
right. Jesus, to the puzzlement of his disciples, outed himself as a Messiah they didn't
recognize. Perhaps they should have looked back at the first reading, the 50th chapter of
Isaiah, to understand.
When we think of leaders we think of strength. Most secular leaders claim leadership
by proclaiming that he (or she) is stronger than any opponents (think about the candidates
for President in 2016). They tell us that they are strong enough to defeat any
competitors and we do well by following them without question.
But Isaiah gives us a different playbook: here "The Lord has opened my ear." This
leader makes "no resistance." He offers his "back to those who struck me, [his] cheeks to
those who tore at [his] beard." This leader is different. This leader will not defeat
his enemies through force, he will outlast their evil intent.
I've said this before but I'll say it again: When we decide to chose Jesus, when we
chose to live as a disciple, we choose a different path. We don't join the path of
greatest strength, odds on favorite to defeat any opponent. We choose to join the path of
the One who strengthens the weak, who heals the brokenhearted, who loves the ones nobody
else loves. The passage from Isaiah reminds many of us of the command from Matthew's
Gospel where he (in Chapter 5) commands us to "turn the other cheek" when spit upon.
Maybe only those of us who were assigned the book To Kill a Mockingbird will
remember this, but the hero of the story (Atticus Finch) was confronted by the villan (Bob
Ewell). Bob spit on Atticus' cheek. Atticus, clearly claiming his truth from Matthew,
makes a point of turning his head to offer Bob is other cheek. I'm not alone in thinking
that I admired Atticus and hoped that if I was faced in the same situation I'd do the same
To be fair, I haven't been spit on. But maybe that's not my call. As with most of
you, I grew up hearing these Bible stories and it's easy to believe that these stories and
parables describe events we'll never have to encounter. But the challenges given in these
readings continue to matter to us today.
The call to understand who Jesus is calls us to continue to define who we are.
Generations before me were called to be "alter Christus," another Christ. This title was
assigned to priests, but by extension to all Christian disciples. But it was never
intended as a call to be king in the sense of the one who was treated the best.
The call to be "alter Christus" call us to live our lives in radical ways. We aren't
called to "glide through this life to enjoy the next." We aren't called to make the best
of a greedy world by not engaging it. And we aren't called to pretend this world doesn't
exist so we can have a better seat in the next.
We are called to be fully present in this world. We are called to recognize that God
calls us to justice and mercy both in the next world and in ours. We are called to show
no patience for injustice here even if we know that we are guaranteed justice in the
Finally we are called to understand and respect God's call to justice and it means
justice matters not only in Heaven but also here in earth.
I was an altar boy and master of ceremonies during all of my adolescence. The priest
in charge Fr. Peter. I can't describe how important Fr. Peter was in my life, not only as
an altar boy, a master of ceremonies, but also a member of the liturgical committee, and a
seminarian. Oh yes, and eventually a priest.
Fr. Peter held us to high standards and he gave us no slack. He saw in me something I
didn't: that I was capable of excellence. He saw who I was before I knew who I thought I
He knew that the question to who I think I am was this: "I am a disciple of Christ who
will follow, even with quaking knees. I profess willingness to follow you to places that
scare me because there are others who have more confidence in my gifts than I do."
He also knew my path would fascinate and interest me for the rest of my life. He knew
curiosity for my path marked not only the start of my search, but the fuel. He knew that
in the course of my ministry I would find hard questions again and again, and that I
wasn't called to answer them but instead to dig deeper. He knew I would do more to
advance the Kingdom of God by walking with other searchers than I would by having an
And decades later I recognize Fr. Peter's wisdom. Countless others have invited me on
their journey to the question "Who do you think I am" and not one of those have faulted me
for not having the answer. But countless have expressed gratitude for my willingness to
journey with them on their quest. They have recognized, as have I, that Jesus' question
isn't about the answer so much as the journey.
That journey has been fascinating, joyful, maddening, frustrating, and ultimately
necessary. As disciples we are not called to easy answers but hard paths. The question
"who do you say that I am" calls us not to Peter's answer but to Peter's starting line.
If Jesus is the Messiah we aren't called to wait for him to expel the Romans and cure
disease, but to empower us to do justice by allowing evil to beat us, pluck our beards,
and allow God to keep us as God's own.
Let us continue that blessed and maddening journey.
September 6, 2015: The Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah gives us the first reading. He speaks to a
people who are confined in exile. He writes to give them courage and tells them that God
has not forgotten them and will open the eyes of the blind, open the ears of the deaf,
heal the lame, and release the tongues of the mute. Mark's Gospel continues this theme
where Jesus heals a deaf and dumb man of his disability. But Jesus tells all those
gathered not to tell anyone what he has done. They didn't. Instead the witnesses tell
everyone what Jesus did.
So what do you do if you find an injustice that others find acceptable? You find
yourself at an intersection where a man on the island holds a sign that says: "I'm a drunk
who needs a drink" do you give him a dollar? Or do you decide that his alcoholism is a
self inflicted wound and you have the moral authority to deny him his most basic
I honestly don't know what to do in that situation. Part of me believes that I do him
more good by not giving him money in the hope that he will choose to be healed of his
addiction and do something else (though I'm not sure what it is). But the other part of
me thinks that I don't have the privilege to decide what he will choose and my generosity
is good whether he makes a good decision or a bad one. My decision that I should decide
to give or not give him something only shows that he is closer to Jesus than I am. We are
closer to the Kingdom when we recognize that our call to love is more important than our
call to decide.
This puts me in the place of those gathered around the man born deaf. We don't know
why he was deaf but the Gospel implies his ears were closed. Perhaps they were closed
because of something he did or perhaps he was born that way. We live in 21st Century and
we can usually determine that someone is deaf for a reason. Some are born deaf, and some
are rendered deaf because of some reason we understand (Helen Keller was rendered blind
and deaf at 18 months because of scarlet fever). But the Gospels were written when we
didn't know any of this.
In the years since this was written we have often looked at deafness as the
unwillingness to hear what is said. Jesus' healing isn't so much a cure for deafness as a
healing to understand what we hear. We are all victims of the phrase that we "just don't
want to hear it." I remember vividly my first assignment as a priest; I was speaking with
a parishioner who expressed frustration that the pastor didn't agree with him on some
issue. He told me: "The pastor just doesn't want to hear it." Amusedly I told him that I
looked forward to the day when anyone cared about what I didn't want to hear.
Deafness may be the inability to hear but it may also be the unwillingness to hear. We
all have an idea in our head of how the world is supposed to work and we all believe that
it works best when everyone agrees with us. I'm as big a fan of humility as the next guy
but most of us live with the belief that the universe, the Kingdom of God, works best when
everyone agrees that God and I are on the same page.
Except we aren't. The miracle stories of the Gospels aren't intended to affirm that
we've been right all along. They exist to mess up our reality and challenge us to look at
our world in a different way.
And here's where I part company with most of the priests or deacons who are preaching
on this Gospel this weekend. When addressing the subject of "opening ears" we often think
of those who are stubborn and refuse to hear. We call them to open their ears and "hear
what they don't want to hear" much as we tell small children to eat their vegetables.
It's almost as if the message of Jesus, the "Way, the Truth, and the Light" is a truth we
need to swallow with all the disgust of okra or liver (feel free to put in your own hated
foods) because it's good for us.
When Jesus calls the man who was deaf and dumb away from the crowd, I don't think he
thought the man wanted to remain deaf. I think Jesus recognized that this man was scared
and marginalized. I think the people around him refused to hear from or talk to him. I
think his fear and the hostility of the crowds made him deaf.
And I think Jesus saw through all of this. Jesus took him away from the crowd and spit
on the ground. Maybe the combination of saliva and privacy gave Jesus the time to tell
him how he should live his truth. This time gave this man the encouragement and courage
to speak. In fairness we don't know what Jesus told him. But perhaps Jesus told him to
speak his own voice. Perhaps Jesus told him to not be afraid to speak his truth. Perhaps
Jesus healed him by liberating him from his fear of speaking out loud.
A few years ago many of us (myself included) were mesmerized by the movie The
King's Speech. It's the story of a man who was the younger brother of the heir to
the British throne. His life wasn't easy because he grew up with a stammer, but at least
he wasn't going to be the king. Until his older brother (who was, by that time, the king)
abdicated the throne to marry a woman that England would not have accepted as the queen.
Suddenly this shy, scared, blessed man was vaulted into his worst nightmare. Suddenly his
voice mattered on the world stage and speaking his truth was his worst nightmare. He was
a man in great need of healing.
His healing, though imperfect at best, came through a man nobody would have recognized.
King George VI met Lionel Logue, a speech coach who found success in working with World
War I veterans whose speech was impaired by shell shock. Lionel's techniques never
included spitting on the ground but he did take the king away from the crowds and tell him
that he had a voice. If you haven't seen the movie I encourage you to do so. For me the
iconic scene took place shortly before King George's coronation when Lionel sat on the
throne. The "king elect" became furious and ordered Lionel to get out of the seat because
he had no right to sit there. Lionel agreed and successfully told him that as king,
George VI belonged in the seat and and his voice belonged in the world.
I've been playing with metaphors of deafness and the inability to speak and I hope it
doesn't sound like I'm mixing the metaphors. In truth the two are tied together. If we
don't hear what he need to hear we can't speak what needs to be said. Conversely if we
are afraid to speak, we see no point in hearing.
In a final and fitting tribute in the movie, Lionel never wished to gain from his work.
His only wish was this: that his student, King George VI, do well. At the end of the
Gospel, Jesus tells everyone that they must not speak of this healing. We don't know why,
and it's been cause for great speculation, but I think Jesus didn't want the spotlight on
himself, but the person he healed. Of course it didn't work in either case. In the
Gospel we know it was Jesus who healed the deaf man, and in The King's Speech we
know that Lionel helped King George VI become the voice of the British Monarchy during
World War II.
But if we look at this story in terms of who deserves credit we miss the point. Yes,
Jesus had the power to heal, and yes, the deaf man had the willingness to be healed. But
the real winner here was the world. Because of this encounter another voice joins the
Kingdom of God.
This new voice that finally has the ability to speak its truth is all around us. Most
of us don't have the ability to cure deafness but all of us have the ability to give
permission to the voice that doesn't feel it has the right to speak. Perhaps it's a
coworker with self esteem issues. Or a neighbor who doesn't look like the rest of the
neighborhood. Or someone who wishes to tells us that he is offended by being called an
"anchor baby." In any case we continue the value of this Gospel, not by spitting on the
ground, but by telling someone that his voice has a place.
August 30, 2015: The Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Much of the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy
consisted of a series of speeches that Moses delivered. He knew he would not reach the
Promised Land and wished to convey his wisdom to them as they journeyed without him. This
reading comes to us early in the book. Moses instructed them to follow all the rules and
commandments they have learned: "You must add nothing to what I command you, and take
nothing from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God just as I lay them down
for you." He promised that if they do that, all would know that they lived with the
wisdom of God. Today's Gospel parts from the 6th Chapter of John and moves instead to the
Gospel of Mark. Here the Pharisees were in crisis because the disciples of Jesus
didn't doing what they were supposed to do. They didn't follow the rules of
ritual hand washing before meals, as all Jews were commanded to do. The Pharisees turned
to Jesus expecting him to support them against the disciples, but instead Jesus turned on
them. To their surprise Jesus accused the Pharisees of being hypocrites. In an
incredible break from the rituals of the Old Testament, Jesus proclaims that uncleanliness
doesn't come from what we eat or drink, but instead from what we do to others. We are not
unclean because we don't wash our hands: we are unclean because of our desire to think
ourselves better than our peers. Our mouth does not make us unclean, our heart
I don't know about you but I have to say this: my life would be much easier if I could
pay attention to Deuteronomy and ignore Mark. Much of the Pentateuch (the first 5 books
of the Old Testament) describes what we can and can't do, and what we can and can't eat.
Much as I love a ham and cheese sandwich, if my eternal soul depended on abstaining from
that, I could. I'd be happy to not work on the Sabbath (apologies to those who make out
my on call schedule), wash my hands up to the elbows before eating and, let's face it,
have the moral compass to live within the rules about sex.
But we are called to do more than just follow the rules that have been given to us. A
child can follow the rules. As followers of Christ we are called not just to obedience
but to faithfulness. We are called to a faith that calls us to more than an obedience we
could have followed as children. We are called to much more.
I believe that's the crux of the Gospel readings. The Pharisees did what they were
told to do. They observed the ritual washing before eating a meal and they were horrified
and offended when Jesus' disciples didn't. OK, we live in the 2nd decade of the 21st
Century where we are concerned with infectious diseases. We know about MRSA, CDiff, and a
host of other diseases that we transmit through casual contact. We know that washing our
hands is a good thing that will prevent us from getting sick ourselves. But these
readings aren't about immunology: the folk in these readings had no idea of the concept of
diseases being spread by bacteria, germs, and viruses. To them the idea of cleansing was
a ritual of separation and not of health.
The earliest days of the Christian church the believers never understood that they were
founding a new religion. They expected that they, along with the rest of the Jews, would
see that Jesus of Nazareth would be recognized as the Messiah that all the Jews had been
waiting for. The earliest disciples honestly believed that all the Jews (Israelites)
would recognize Jesus for who he was and there would not be a separation between Jews that
followed Jesus and those who didn't
Except that many of them didn't. This reality surprised many of Jesus' early
followers, but not everybody signed on to the whole Messiah thing. They thought that
Jesus of Nazareth was just another pretender to the throne. This speaks to a conflict
that becomes much more important in the first few generations after Jesus' resurrection
but I think we see some foreshadowing here.
But back to the Gospel, what's a believer to do? If any of us were there, would we
side with the Pharisees or with Jesus and his disciples? That's a hard question, but a
question of faith that all of us adults need to grapple with. Are we obedient or are we
faithful? Or can we be both?
I believe we can, but I also believe that obedience exists to serve faithfulness.
Several years ago I had the privilege to speak to a room full of religious educators on
this topic. Because they taught children most of them were women and I asked them this
question: Are you obedient to your spouse? The temperature of the room dropped several
degrees and I could feel the room bristle. I then asked: Are you faithful to your
spouses? They all agreed that they were (as I hoped they would). I then explained that
we demand obedience from children and expect faithfulness from adults; when I asked them
if they were faithful I didn't just mean that they were sexually exclusive.
I spoke about how we are faithful to our spouses when we live in a manner that gives
honor to the vows we exchanged, and how we live within those values. I said that even
though most of us spend several hours each day apart from each other, neither of us would
do anything that would cause our spouse pain even if we were sure we wouldn't get caught.
I suggested that while obedience relies on a fear that we won't be caught, faithfulness
relies on a conviction that we live our best selves when we are the same person even when
we know we can get away with something and choose not to.
Or put another way. I recently had a joyful conversation with one of my patients who
is coming to the end of her life (hang on, this will make sense). She was raised Catholic
but left her practice. She found as an adult that her spirituality required more than
simple obedience to the rules. She told me that as a teenager she stopped believing that
God will judge her solely on whether she followed the rules. She explained that she grew
up, met a wonderful man, married him, had children, and lived her life in service to those
who needed her gifts. By any metric she was a faithful wife, good mother, hard worker,
and joyful Christian. Now, in the last chapter of her life she worried that God would
judge her harshly because she didn't spend more of her day reading the Bible.
I hope I helped her but I told her that the desire to be a kind, generous, loving
person is what God is looking for. The rules she was given as a child were meant to lead
her into a direction to become exactly who she became: a woman of deep faith and
spirituality. She worried about whether or not she was "spiritual enough" and I told her
that I believe she is exactly what God wanted her to do.
And so back to the readings. We don't know exactly why Jewish purity laws were put
into place. As I spoke of earlier they had no understanding of immunology or how diseases
are spread; we think they had a good understanding that water was a good way to preserve
cleanliness. And so water became a metaphor for making us pure.
But by the time of Jesus this metaphor had been corrupted. I don't wish to bash the
Pharisees because they were honest men who found value in radical obedience. But they
strayed from the meaning of obedience when they ignored Jesus' message because they were
offended by his disciples' decision to choose adult faithfulness over childlike
Instead of seeing these rituals as a way of making their hearts pure they concentrated
instead on making their hands pure and stopped there. They believed God cared only about
The radical message of Jesus was this: it's not about your hands, it's about your
heart. Ritual handwashing should make you aware of who you are as a Jew but it should
also call you to look at the person next to you in a new light.
And yet we continue to struggle with these issues. We certainly need rules for the
good order of society and nobody argues this. But I think we're sometimes too eager to
take the role of the Pharisees in the Gospel. A young woman becomes pregnant and chooses
to undergo an abortion because she feels abandoned, trapped, and hopeless and feels she
has no good option. Do we embrace her in love or accuse her of murder? Do we help her
begin the process of being whole again or do we label her?
We are in an election season: do we support politicians who unite us or those who speak
to our fears of being victimized and who promise to defeat our "enemies?"
And finally, do we want those who we love to obey us or be faithful to us? Do we want
friends, spouses, or children who follow the rules or love boldly?
Let's choose Jesus over the Pharisees and choose love.
August 23, 2015: The Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from the book of Joshua, comes
from an important place in the Old Testament. Moses held a central place in the previous
books (Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) but he died at the end of Deuteronomy. Having
delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and shepherded them through the desert,
Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. After Moses died, God tasked Joshua to
lead this community into the land we now call Israel. Under Joshua's leadership they
crossed the Jordan River and claimed the land of Canaan, the land promised to them. They
then defeated the Canaanites and occupied the land they were promised. By the time of
this reading Joshua was "old and advanced in years" and was happy to pass authority to
someone else. In his final address he challenged them to decide who to follow. God
liberated them from slavery and guided them through the wilderness. Now, having delivered
them to the Promised Land, they needed to decide if they will follow this God or another.
Joshua finishes by stating: "As for me and my house, we will follow the Lord." John's
Gospel (finally) finishes the 6th chapter and describes the disciples telling Jesus that
his teachings are hard to follow. Jesus challenges them to go away if they find his
teachings too hard. Instead they affirm belief in him by telling him that his way is the
only way to everlasting life.
In my synopsis of the readings I went into a great deal of detail about the first
reading from Joshua. I did that on purpose. The phrase "as for me and my house, we will
serve the Lord" has become a marketing bonanza for door knockers all over the world (full
disclosure: we have this on the door leading into our garage).
I'm always a little nervous about any Bible verse that makes it into the public domain.
Versus like this (as well as John 3:16 that we see at all football games) originate from
places of truth, but nearly inevitably become cliches that marginalize their meaning. The
phrase "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord," for all its truth, has devolved
into a choice akin to "do you root for the Yankees or the Mets?"
The choice to become a disciple, the choice to follow God, isn't a coin flip. It isn't
a decision on what is behind "Curtain Number 1 or Number 2 or Number 3." As disciples of
Jesus and God we choose between a life that gives live or a life that doesn't.
And that's what we're reading. In a weird sort of way, both readings answer the same
question: What do you do when who have finally gotten the one thing you've wanted? Do you
remain faithful to the God who granted you your wish or do you take what you have an move
Nearly everyone knows the story of Moses. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, Moses
breaks free, becomes God's chosen one to liberate his people. He defeats Pharaoh, splits
the sea, and delivers the people from slavery into freedom. They wander in the desert
where they receive the covenant and travel to the promised land.
Except that Moses dies before their entry. His chosen successor, Joshua, is called to
lead this group and he does. Most of the chapters before this reading describe how they
displaced (defeated) the Canaanites and occupied the promised land.
Now what do they do? Let's face it: it's a good time to be Chosen. Not only have you
escaped slavery and oppression, you're now master of your own future in a land promised to
you by God.
In this reading Joshua recognizes that he is at the end of his life and this comprises
his last speech, his last opportunity to communicate his message to the people he loves.
He wants them to prosper, to live well in the love of the Lord. And he wants them to be
faithful to God.
And so he gives them a choice: Follow God or not. One path leads to life and the other
path leads to death. If you wanted to choose God while you were slaves or wanderers in
the desert you can do this. But now in the land where you can prosper you need to decide
if you will follow that same God or decide that you are "self made" and can go off on you
So why would anyone choose death? Well our history tells us that many did, and
continue to do so. The period after Joshua's death is called the time of Judges. These
leaders were not "rulers of a courtroom" that we think of when we think of judges.
Instead they were a series of leaders, some of whom ruled wisely, and others who didn't.
But more to the point it didn't take long for this group of ex slaves to decide that they
were responsible for their own deliverance. Again and again we see the phrase "The
Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord." Scripture leaves to our
imagination what evil they did but the point is clear: they forgot how they got where they
were and who got them there.
Though I don't know, I imagine they were suffering from some level of hubris. Maybe
they told themselves that they orchestrated their own escape from Egypt. Or maybe they
told themselves that God found themselves so worthy that they could do anything the liked.
In any case they were wrong. Joshua must have known this would happen and declared for
all that no matter what, his house would not forget.
I find this theme continuing in John's Gospel. The last five weeks we've been reading
the 6th chapter of John and it's been all about Eucharist: from the "magic bread" that
keeps appearing to feed us, to the Sacrament that binds us to each other and to God.
Finally, it appears the disciples have had enough. On one hand they simply don't
understand what all of the means (and no pun intended, they are still digesting it), but
on the other hand they find themselves overwhelmed. And the fact that they are
overwhelmed is a good sign.
Last week Jesus told them that if anyone eats of his flesh and drinks his blood, they
will have eternal life. A cynic can look on this teaching and decide that he can eat and
drink, and not have to worry about being a disciple, not have to worry about Jesus'
message to love one another. They can be as selfish as they want, as cruel as they want,
and not have to worry. They're in.
I was recently speaking with one of my hospice patients who was struggling with whether
or not she was faithful enough. She was aware of what was expected of her, but she was
much more aware of those times when she fell short. She worried that her attempts at
faithfulness were enough. I attempted several ways of explaining that her desire to be
faithful was sufficient but she just wasn't sure. Thinking about this reading I asked her
this question: "If Jesus came to you today and assured you that there was a place for you
in Heaven, no matter what you did, how would you react?" She told me that she would find
it an immense relief and that she would continue to remain faithful. I pointed out that
someone could easily have said: "I'm a slam dunk? Look out world! This is my chance to
live the good life. I can lie, cheat, steal, and take advantage of people with abandon
and know that it doesn't matter. I'm in!" She expressed shock that anyone would do this
and I theorized that her surprise said more about her spirituality than she knew.
Because in the Gospel many disciples left Jesus. Why did they do that? We don't know.
Perhaps some just refused to wrap their minds around the idea that by eating and drinking
the flesh and blood of Jesus they could be saved. But maybe some of them were the cynics
who said that this promise of salvation absolved them of needing to continue to follow
In any case we need to realize that for all the ups and downs in our lives, we have
chosen to continue our journey with Joshua and with Jesus. This choice calls us to
recognize that we are who we are and we are where we are because we have been chosen and
saved. This choice calls us to be aware that we are all in this together and that the
promise of salvation gives us the freedom to live in love with ourselves, each other, and
And so as we close out the sixth chapter of John let us rejoice that this "magic
bread," which has given us salvation, also gives us our path as disciples.
August 16, 2015: The Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament from Proverbs gives us the first
reading. Proverb's writer tells us that Wisdom built her house and set a table for
"whoever is simple." Those who lack understanding should come, "eat of my food, and drink
of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of
understanding." John's Gospel continues to speak of the Eucharist. Here Jesus addresses
the crowds and tells them that "my flesh is flesh for the light of the world." Anyone who
"eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him." Unlike those who ate and
still died, anyone "who eats this bread will live forever."
If you ask a Christian (regardless of the level of education) about "loaves and fishes"
he or she will be able to tell you about the parable we read a few weeks ago. It's an
important one: it's in all four Gospels and the phrase "loaves and fishes" evokes images
almost all of us recognize. In some ways it's the perfect parable: we know nothing of the
5,000 (men, not including women and children) but we learn a great deal about God and
generosity. Simply put this parable that not only shows the power of Jesus, it also
comforts us to know that we will always be provided for.
And while we recognize that critical place of safety and community in our lives, we
continue to worry about education and intellect. Early in my career in ministry I was
tasked to replace someone whose addictions caused the parish where he worked to believe he
could no longer could serve in his job. Faced with this reality he complained loudly that
he was crucial to his position because he "knew more than anyone else."
He was right. He had several degrees from a renowned universities and most of the
people who wanted me to replace him didn't. He certainly had more education that I did at
But he confused his intelligence with wisdom. His job was to oversee the religious
education of the children of the parish (the CCD program, Catholic for "Sunday School")
and to be frank, his addiction prevented him from exercising the wisdom to know what he
couldn't do. He believed his intellect, his knowledge of "the faith" was all that was
demanded of him. I don't mean to be overly critical of him (and some who read this will
know who I'm talking about). He later surrendered to this addiction and lived the rest of
his life with great integrity and healing.
When I replaced him I made no claim to be smarter than my predecessor because I wasn't.
I didn't pray for intelligence but instead I prayed for enough wisdom to do the job. I
recognized that the religious education of the children of the parish didn't require me to
be the best educated, the smartest, or the one with the most degrees. I recognized early
on that my role as a religious educator called me to teach these children about
relationships (with God and each other), about the call to community, and the call to love
one another as God loves us.
Some of you will recognize this and I pray that you will be kind. I didn't try to
"know more than anyone" but I did try to forsake foolishness and devote myself to allow
this generation of young Catholics to understand how faith will guide their lives and make
sense to them as they choose their spouses and raise their children. I prayed that they
could "advance in the way of understanding."
I tell this story not to build myself up but instead to talk about how we sometimes
confuse intelligence with wisdom. Both are good, but they speak to different values, and
neither is more important.
Intelligence speaks to the ability to master skills. Intelligence allows us to
understand calculus, do well on standardized tests, and (partly) advance our careers.
Throughout our lives we develop skills, learn new things, and increase proficiency. We
can't live successfully without doing this.
But when it comes to living our faith, intellect isn't enough: our faith lives also
demand wisdom. We need to understand that we are called to learn how to be in
relationship with each other and with God.
And now, finally, we start to talk about the readings. In the Old Testament we look at
the book of Proverbs for understanding on how to live. These verses encourage us to learn
how to be wise and uses imagery of eating and drinking. This fits into the images of
eating and drinking that we've been reading for the past few weeks: in other words wisdom
can nourish us just as food and drink can.
Again, as a Christian we can easily draw a strong line between eating and drinking,
Eucharist, and wisdom. Consuming the body and blood of Christ gives us greater intellect,
greater mastery of skills, but it also gives us greater wisdom and greater understanding
of how we should treat each other.
The Gospel gives us this message. The hearers of Jesus' message argue over the
intellectual meaning of bread and wine but they miss the point. They were trying to
understand the intellectual meaning of Eucharist while Jesus was trying to explain how it
changed the relationship between God and us.
These reading hinge on this message: Communion, Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ
change all of us, but only in how we relate to each other. Regardless of our Christian
denomination, regardless of how we interpret the Last Supper, we are all called see each
other in a new light because of these readings.
We are all called to wisdom in how we relate to each other and we are called to see
Christ's Body and Blood and the means to achieve that. Many of us were taught that
Communion brought us closer to God with little emphasis on how we grow closer together.
I've spoken about this before, but I think that's wrong, or at least short sighted.
Loving God without loving each other makes no sense; two weeks ago I spoke of enjoying the
time after receiving Communion to watch others walking back to their pews.
The last few years in the Catholic Church have shown us something profound in this.
Previous to the election of Pope Francis much of the Church concerned herself with issues
of intellect and obedience, knowing the rules and following them. Can I sight an example?
There are legions of Catholics who divorced and remarried. Intellectually they (while not
excommunicated) are set apart. Because of their status they are not allowed to receive
Communion and should be treated as such. But in the last few weeks Pope Francis declared
that they should not be treated as outcasts. They should instead be embraced and
Francis' statements don't change any intellectual teachings but they do call us to
rethink how we treat one another. This isn't a change in doctrine but in behavior.
Conservative Catholics are understandably upset over this, but most of us cheer it.
Intelligence calls us to look at the rules, but wisdom calls us to look at each other.
None of us live perfect lives and wisdom acknowledges that.
Perhaps these readings call us to love each other more than we love the rules.
August 9, 2015: The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Elijah, in our first reading, journeyed into the
desert for a day. He then sat under a broom tree and stated: "This is enough, O Lord!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers." After he fell asleep and angel woke
him and ordered him to eat and drink. Finding a hearth cake and jug of water he ate and
drank and fell back to sleep. But the angel returned and again told him to eat and drink.
Strengthened by the food he walked 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God. John's
Gospel continues from last week. The Jews murmured against Jesus for referring to himself
as the "bread that came down from heaven." How can he claim to be the bread that came
down from heaven when we know he is the son of Joseph? Jesus then ordered them to stop
murmuring and explained that no one comes him (Jesus) without the Father's selection.
"Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me." Further, "whoever
believes has eternal life." Jesus then affirms that he is the bread of life, unlike manna
that nourished but did not grant eternal life. Finally, "whoever eats this bread [Jesus]
will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the
My first thought in the first reading is this: "Wow this must be great bread!" After
walking one day in the desert and being ready to die, Elijah eats the hearth cake, drinks
some water, and walks for 40 days and 40 nights. Talk about an energy bar!
Elijah holds an interesting place in the Old Testament. He is fleeing from East to
West and telling God that he is not up for the job; this mirrors Moses who fled from West
to East and also felt he wasn't up for the job. At the same time he is foreshadowing
Jesus who speaks the truth and brings the life giving bread. You see, here Elijah was
running for his life. He had just called out King Ahab for worshipping the pagan god of
his wife Jezebel. Ahab promised to return to worshipping God but Jezebel swore to kill
It's no exaggeration to say that this bread, this hearth cake, saved his life. Ahead
of him lies a hostile desert, behind him lies a hostile queen. Only this bread allows him
to live. The "mountain of God" that ends this reading is Mt. Sinai where Moses first
received the covenant. It becomes not only a reminder that Moses successfully led the
newly freed slaves, but also showed that Mt. Sinai (the covenant) is a safe haven.
And so when we move to the Gospel we see the progression of bread. Two weeks ago we
saw the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the "magic bread" that keeps reproducing until
everyone is fed. Last week Jesus spoke of how the bread itself wasn't magic apart from
the fact that Jesus is the bread of life. Here he continues the metaphor by explaining
that this bread isn't just bread that we bake, but is instead "bread that came down from
As Christians we hold a spectrum of views about what we now call Eucharist or
Communion. Some communities find the idea of communion simply a metaphor for belief in
Jesus and see no reason to break and share bread. Others believe that communion is a
reminder and break bread annually or monthly, and some break break weekly but see this
bread as reverting to regular bread at the end of the worship service. Catholics are
nearly unique in the believe that once the bread is blessed (consecrated) by a priest it
irreversibly becomes the "body of Christ" and needs to be treated differently.
I don't wish to enter into a debate about who is right and who is wrong, but I do wish
to spotlight this reality: when the authors of 1st Kings and John wrote, nutrition was a
critical issue. Famine was a reality everyone lived with and the idea of always having
enough (and never fearing starvation) must have seemed heavenly to any audience. I
believe I'm safe in saying that nobody who is reading this worries about starvation.
But that doesn't mean we don't face challenges when we think about our relationship
with God and with salvation. Even if we don't face the challenges of starvation we do
face other challenges. Several years ago a friend of mine heard Mother Theresa speak here
in the United States. He expected her to speak about how easy we have things while she
has it hard. Instead she talked about how much she worried about wealthy countries like
the United States. She explained that in Calcutta the needs were simple: for those who
were hungry she could easily give them food and meet their needs.
Here in the United States most of the people she met weren't hungry for food (though
God knows we have our share), but instead they were hungry for loneliness. She talked
about speaking at a parish in a wealthy suburb of Boston: at the end of her talk a wealthy
man shook her hand and gave her a $100 bill with the instruction to give it to someone who
needed it. She refused. She gave it back to him with this instruction: You find a poor
person and give it to him (or her) yourself. She explained that while a poor person
certainly needs money to meet his (or her needs) they also need the connection that only
he could give. She wanted him to find someone in need not only because that person would
benefit from the money, but also because both of them would benefit from the
Thirty two years ago I was a seminarian assigned to a wealthy parish in Los Altos,
California. Greg, the youth minister for the parish, told me about one night that he and
a few of his friends decided to spend the night with the homeless in the tenderloin
neighborhood in San Francisco. At the time it was a rough area and several people thought
it was a bad idea, fearing for their safety. They never felt in danger, but instead spoke
about how alive, and yet how isolating that area is after dark. During the night they
encountered a homeless man who asked them for a bottle of booze; they weren't sure whether
or not what to do but they got him a bottle of schnapps. He shotgunned it, expressed
surprise over how sweet it was, and said to them: "Please don't leave me. I'm so lonely."
They spent the next few hours with him and I like to think that this is exactly what Jesus
had in mind.
They didn't give him Communion. They didn't confer any of the 7 Catholic sacraments,
but they made a connection with him that meant more to him (and me) that was as
sacramental as they get. Perhaps they could have had a conversation without the alcohol
but maybe not. Maybe this was a peace offering to allow the man to open. I'm aware that
if his homeless man (who, almost 32 years later, probably is no longer alive) struggled
with alcoholism, Greg and friends contributed to it. But on the other hand, it created a
We are two thousand years removed from John's Gospel and I believe that our obsession
with magic bread takes us away from Jesus' message. If our Eucharist is just bread we do
injustice to Jesus. It's not about gluten and water, but about connection. I mean no
disrespect to Eucharist but we need to understand that Eucharist isn't just about "eternal
bread" but about bringing us together as disciples. When 5000 of us connect through
bread, when Elijah walks 40 days and 40 nights because of hearth cake and water, it isn't
because of what we do. It's because God has called us beyond what we can do. It's
because God has called us to see each other not as competitors for scarce resources but as
fellow victors of the Kingdom of God. No bread, in and of itself, lasts forever. But the
relationships that God calls us to are eternal.
The Gospels over the last few weeks have centered on bread, feeding the hungry, and
Eucharist. All during this time I've been ruminating on a movie I saw in the 1980s called
Babette's Feast. It's a pretty obscure movie and I'm guessing most of you have
never seen it; if not, you should. The movie takes place in the 1800s in Denmark.
Babette was a young French woman who came to Denmark and was employed as the cook and
housekeeper by two adult sisters. They were the daughters of a harsh Christian minister
who had died a while earlier; he was a strict man who discouraged them from marrying and
professed a belief that was strong on the rules and weak on joy. His spirituality spread
through the village and the whole place was, let's say it, dour and depressed.
On the 100th anniversary of the minister's birth his daughters wanted to hold a feast
in his honor. Babette had recently come into some money and decided to put on a feast
much more generous than his daughters imagined. She purchased an incredible amount of
food and spent days preparing the feast. On the night of the celebration the citizens of
the village feasted on a meal beyond their greatest expectations. Much to their surprise
they found joy not only in the food but also in each other. Babette's generosity provided
them the fuel that allowed them to look beyond their expectations of each other and see
them in a whole new light. The last scene of the movie left many of us with an image we
will never forget. Neighbors who saw each other every day suddenly saw them in a new
light: strangers became neighbors, neighbors became friends, friends became ... well,
sharers in the feast. No Christian I've ever met sees this movie without describing it as
And yet, under the strictest Catholic understanding of Eucharist, it wasn't. There was
no priest, no mass, no consecration. Again, meaning no disrespect, I'm not claiming this
scene was a Catholic mass. But I can't pull myself away from the belief that Babette did
essentially the same thing Jesus did at the Last Supper. She took a community of
disparate people and brought them together celebrating a feast. She prayed that this
feast was the first step in committing them to go forward as a community that recognized
each other and committed to enlarging this community to the next generation and the next
generation and...well, to this day.
In the final analysis Eucharist is only truly Eucharist if it brings us together. It
needs not only to deepen our faith in God, but in ourselves and each other. Just as the
participants in Babette's Feast look on themselves with a new joy, so should we.
Let us feast together under God's love.
August 2, 2015: The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Exodus brings us the first reading. Shortly after
their escape from Egypt the community began to grumble and complain. "Why did we not die
at the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, when we were able to sit down to pans of meat and
could eat bread to our heart's content! As it is, you have brought us to this wilderness
to starve this whole company to death!" God instructed Moses to tell them that each night
God will rain down bread from the heavens. They are to gather the day's portion: this is
a test to see if they will follow the law. Each morning there will be something delicate,
powdery, as fine as hoarfrost on the ground. When they asked Moses what it was, Moses
answered that it "is the bread the Lord gives you to eat." John's Gospel speaks of the
crowds seeking Jesus. When they found Jesus they asked why he came to Capernaum. Jesus
told them that they weren't looking for him, but for food. He tells them not to look for
food that cannot last but instead look for food that endures to everlasting life. When
they ask what they have to do for this, Jesus tells them to look for this sign: "my Father
... gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is that which
comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Jesus then tells them that he is the
bread of life. "He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never
We're among friends. Can I make a confession? Even when I was in high school (and an
altar boy) I laughed at the first reading. Even by that time I had seen the MGM move
The Ten Commandments and had a visceral reaction to the plight of the Israelites
who were enslaved by Pharaoh. On the night of Passover the fled for their lives with
nothing more than the clothes on their back and God's promise to deliver them out of their
bondage. And now, a few chapters later, they are complaining about the "good old days."
Really? Are they suddenly thinking they didn't have it so bad as slaves? Did they really
believe that they would get credit for the pyramids? Were they so blind as to think that
their exodus would make their lives worse?
I'm not a parent and I'm therefore not well versed in the world of ingratitude. I've
never had the experience of scraping and saving, working overtime and clipping coupons for
a family vacation to Disney or Europe (or Wally World) only to have one of my children
ask: "Why can't we go anywhere fun?" Simply put I've had far fewer opportunities to
experience my hard work reduced to "What have you done for me lately?"
Those of us who don't fully understand the concept of children, who take us and our
generosity for granted, never fully understand this first reading. We think that both God
and Moses should have left them in the wilderness and found another "Chosen People." We
think God and Moses should have left them to die of their own hubris.
Gratefully, those like me aren't in charge. God and Moses looked on them and decided
that these "lost sheep" needed a different understanding of themselves. They needed to
know that they were founders of a new Kingdom of God that we still revere.
God and Moses recognized that there was something beyond the complaining and grumbling,
something worse. When a group comes together for no other purpose than to complain they
don't really come together. Had God and Moses left them to their own devices there's no
way they would have survived. They needed something to bring them together.
And so God decided to rain down bread, that we call "Manna from Heaven" even to this
day. But if we see this as nothing more than nutrition to allow them to survive in the
desert we miss the point. God gave them strict instructions to gather only the day's
portion and proposed "to test them in this way to see whether they will follow my law or
I find that line crucial. I spoke last week about distribution of scarce resources and
for this group it's not hard to imagine the strongest among them would have grabbed the
lion's share. They would then have power over the rest and could create a hierarchy where
they were in charge.
But God had a different playbook, a different dream for them. God wanted the people to
look not to the most powerful for what they needed but to God. God sent a clear message
that they didn't need to worry about scarcity. Each day they would be given all that
would nourish them but they needed to trust in God that it would continue, that the next
day it would appear again, and they didn't need to hoard this manna and save it up. They
needed to know that they weren't competing for scarce resources. Only if they passed that
test, only if the truly trusted, would God know they would follow God's law.
It doesn't take much imagination to see that this manna foreshadowed the Eucharist.
John's Gospel today continues after last week's reading where Jesus and his disciples fed
the 5000 with five loaves and two fish. Their bellies full, the 5000 followed Jesus
looking for more of the "magic bread." Jesus tells them that the bread he gives is the
bread of life. This bread isn't just nourishment for the body. This bread is Eucharist,
the Body of Christ, the key to eternal life.
But, again, if we see this as nothing more than nourishment we miss the point.
Eucharist doesn't just bind us to God, it binds us to each other. Just as the supply of
manna was infinite so is Eucharist.
When I was a child I went to CCD (it's basically the Catholic version of Sunday
School). To this day I feel badly for those dedicated men and women who attempted to
teach me about my faith. I asked impertinent questions and made connections that I wasn't
supposed to make. But I also ignored instructions that made no sense to me. We were told
that after we received Communion we were supposed to go back to our seats, kneel, bow our
heads, close our eyes, and ignore anything we heard. Having just received the Body of
Christ we were supposed to spend that time alone with God and pretend that nobody else
even existed. I didn't. Even at a young age I kept my head up and watched the people who
passed by me on their way back to their seats, and I do that to this day.
I mean no disrespect to those brave souls who signed up to teach me but I think they
were wrong. Even today as I sit in the front row I look up. I'm among the first to
receive and when I return to my seat I have the joy of watching many of my fellow
parishioners return to their seats. Because of our shared experience of Eucharist I feel
connected in a way that connects me with that band of newly freed slaves from Exodus. I
also feel connected with all my ancestors who shared the same Eucharist and shared that
faith with the next generation. As I watch my today's disciples I recognize many of them.
There's Bill who has been praying for a promotion at work; I'll have to ask him how it
went. Behind him is Mary who has been grieving the death of her sister; I pray her path
of healing is getting easier. Later I see Eric and Beth who are desperate for a child to
adopt and I say a short prayer for them. Finally there's Aiden who's 6 years old and
walks up with his parents to get a blessing while they receive Communion. He is excited
that next year he can make his First Communion and always fist bumps me on his way back to
his seat. I wouldn't trade this time for anything.
I began this homily talking about the ungrateful newly freed slaves. God and Moses did
not focus on their ingratitude but instead recognized what they could become if they loved
one another and loved God. By binding love of God with love for one another through manna
and Eucharist we have seen over the years just how we can be like Christ. And we
recognize that love of God and love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin.
July 26, 2015: The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes to us from the Second Book
of Kings, a book in the Old Testament. It describes a man coming to Elisha and bringing
twenty barley loaves. Elisha told him to give it to the people to eat. The man protested
that there wasn't enough for a hundred people. Elisha promised that all will eat and
there will be leftovers. John's Gospel describes an event that is written of in all four
Gospels. Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee and a large crowd followed him (it was
almost Passover). Jesus looked at the crowd and told his disciple Phillip to buy enough
food for the crowd. Phillip protests that even 200 days' wages wouldn't buy enough food
for everyone. Andrew, another disciple, found a boy who had five barley loaves and two
fish. Jesus instructed his disciples to have the crowd recline. Then he blessed the food
and distributed them to the crowd. When everyone had their fill there were enough
leftovers to fill 12 wicker baskets.
A colleague of my wife once told me that conflict occurs for only three reasons:
resources, values, and feelings. These readings speak to conflicts over resources.
Throughout our history with each other, conflicts over food and nutrition have held a
critical place. Ironically it was much more of an issue when these readings were written
while today it's become much more of a political issue.
The fear of starvation strikes us to the core. From our first experiences as humans,
we spent virtually all of our energy seeking enough food to live. We learned to hunt, to
forage, eventually to farm, and eventually to herd. And we've been successful. Today
most of us never eat anything that hasn't been packaged, processed, or travelled thousands
of miles. We can easily think that these readings have no relevance to today.
And we'd be wrong. Most of our history with each other centered around finding the
technologies that would provide enough food to feed us. By and large we've won that
fight. Today we need to center on the reality that we are responsible to ensure that the
food we provide is evenly divided, or at least divided where everyone has enough to
But we're still a long way from that. I do genealogy as a hobby and a few years ago I
obtained the death certificate for Joseph Arthur Calixte Lizotte. He was my 7th cousin
twice removed (that means that his 6th great grandparents are my 8th great grandparents)
and he died in 1915 when he was sixteen months old. The doctor who signed his death
certificate listed two causes of death: cholera (that he suffered for three days) and
malnutrition (that he suffered his entire life). He didn't die in some far corner of the
earth or in the middle of a famine: he died in Greenville, New Hampshire. There was
enough food in Greenville then for everyone who lived there but not everyone had access to
it. He spent his entire life hungry in a place where others had more than they needed.
Granted he died of cholera, a disease that now has an 80% cure rate and is nearly
nonexistent in developed countries. But the fact that he was malnourished his entire life
certainly contributed to his death.
Fast forward 75 years to my seminary days in Washington D.C. Through the generosity of
countless people we lived well. Well enough to need an exercise room in the basement. We
had the usual equipment: a treadmill, a rowing machine, free weights, etc. Some of my
classmates wanted us to add a stairmaster to which the rector replied: "We live in a four
story building. Why do we need a stairmaster?" We ended up getting the stairmaster but
his point was well taken: why did we need to spend money to burn off calories when there
are others (in the same city) who spend inordinate amounts of time working to get
You see, while circumstances change in our world, we often don't. The fear of food
scarcity still holds a place in our minds even though likely everyone who hears this has
no reasonable fear of this.
I don't wish to shame us, and God knows I struggle with this myself. The world of
advertising spends a scary amount of money telling us that we should eat as much as we
can, that hunger is an awful thing we need to fight off, and that hunger is just around
the corner. They've been incredibly successful. Fun fact: nearly everyone on planet
earth knows about McDonald's. In the 1960s they advertised their hamburgers and one
hamburger has 240 calories; in 1968 they introduced the Big Mac that weighs in at 530
calories. Today you can buy a "Big Breakfast with Hotcakes and a Large Biscuit" for 1150
calories (with 540 calories from fat). If we're supposed to consume 2000 calories per
day, that breakfast gets you 57% there. OK, so let's not pick on just McDonalds. Here in
the Western United States we have another burger place called Carl's Jr. Carl will serve
you a "1/2 Pound Mile High Bacon Thickburger" that weighs in at 1230 calories.
And so while the reality of starvation is unlikely to visit us, our fear continues.
And I think that's why we can look at these readings. Both passages show us a seemingly
miraculous creation of food out of nothing.
The 2nd Book of Kings narrates the history of Israel shortly after the time of King
David. Not everything then was good and the passage just before this speaks of a famine.
This man (who is not identified and comes from a place we know next to nothing about)
speaks to Elisha. Elisha is the successor to Elijah and both are clearly foreshadowing
Jesus; in chapter 4 alone he has saved children from slavery, raised another child from
the dead, and here feeds 100 people with only a small portion of food. Readers of this
passage obviously looked on this passage feeling very good about their choice to follow
God. No matter how desperate you situation, God will provide for you.
Likewise in John's Gospel Jesus feeds 5000 men (Matthew's Gospel describes the crowd as
"5000, not including women and children") with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Clearly that amount
of food cannot be divided 5000 ways, and yet everyone had their fill. How did this
happen? Did the disciples pull out a loaf or a fish and find another still in the basket?
Was there a secret stash that didn't make it into the story? Or did the 5000 begin to
share with one another?
Perhaps that's it: Some came to listen to Jesus and brought more food than they needed,
some enough, and some not enough. After hearing Jesus' message they saw each other in a
new light, overcame their fears, and shared with each other. Clearly nobody went home
hungry as the leftovers filled twelve baskets.
If so, the true message of these readings isn't about food, it's about fear. Scripture
is laden with the phrase "fear not" and it's always followed by a promise that God will
care for us. These readings show that we are not alone and ultimately our fears, whatever
they may be, do not rule us. The generosity that calls us as disciples demands that our
resources, no matter how scarce or abundant, must be shared with all. Those with more
than they need can share with those who don't have enough, assured that our surplus better
serves them than it serves our fears of the future need.
A hundred years later I wish these readings had reached the wealthy neighbors in
Greenville, New Hampshire who could have saved my distant cousin. Let us commit to make
sure it doesn't happen now.
July 19, 2015: The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah warns about
shepherds who mislead and scatter their flock. He promises punishment for those who drive
the sheep away and will instead gather the flock and will appoint a shepherd who will
gather them. This shepherd will be raised up from the shoot of David and will reign and
govern wisely. This is the name he will be given: "The Lord our justice." Mark's Gospel
describes Jesus and his disciples gathering what the disciples have done. Jesus tells
them to come to a deserted place. When they do, crowds of people followed them. Jesus
had pity for them and began to teach.
As I read these readings during the week the word "leadership" kept coming into my
mind. I think we are constantly asking the questions of what we look for in choosing our
leaders and how we evaluate (and ultimately decide to follow) those we chose. I'm
reminded of one of those mass emails I received a few years ago that listed funny job
evaluations; one of them evaluated a junior army officer and said this: "His men will
follow him but mostly out of morbid curiosity."
Most of the people who read this, I assume, live in a country where we choose our
leaders through the democratic process and the question of leadership comes into closest
focus at the ballot box. We directly choose those who lead in our political world. But
those among us who are Catholic may incorrectly assume that questions of leadership do not
We have heard for years that "the Church is not a democracy" and that the Holy Spirit
chooses those who lead us, from the Pope down to our parish priests and deacons. With all
due respect, I'd like to challenge that view. Even if we don't choose our faith leaders,
we are evaluating them all the time. Even though the Catholic Church still forbids
artificial birth control, American Catholic couples use birth control in numbers that
mimic the population as a whole. The Church currently believes the priesthood is reserved
only for celibate men while a scary majority of Catholics disagree.
In the last few years Pope Francis has spoken directly and forcefully on climate change
and the moral imperative to address this. Many conservative Catholics, including a few
presidential candidates, have vocally disagreed with him.
This raises a point that I believe goes to the heart of the reading in Jeremiah: How
does a leader lead? Anyone in a leadership role, not matter how small, knows that a good
leader does not dictate and expect others to follow, if only because it won't work.
There's an old adage that a leader with no following is merely taking a walk. In my brief
time as a Catholic priest I recognized that tension. By virtue of my ordination and
position as a priest I knew that people took my words seriously. I knew that if I asked
someone to do something, most of the time they would. I knew that I had a great deal of
power over couples who were planning their marriage or coming to baptize their child.
But I also knew that my power was not absolute. If I came across as heavy handed or
power hungry they would leave and never come back. There were times when I needed to
navigate the churning waters between what my Church valued and the needs of the person or
people I met with. One couple came to me for marriage. In that area there was a rule
that they needed nine months of preparation before I could marry them, but they asked to
be married in five months. The groom owned his own home and the bride lived in an
apartment whose lease was up in five months. They didn't want to move in together before
they were married but they couldn't afford for her to sign another year's lease.
I had two choices: I could have held strong to the nine month policy, or I could
determine that they made a cogent argument to marry in five months. I decided to make an
exception with the understanding that they made all of their appointments on time. They
did and have been married for nearly 20 years now.
I tell this story against the backdrop of the reading from Jeremiah. The mark of a
leader is one who gathers and protects, one who carries a vision for the community and
translates it into action. The phrase "servant leader" can become a cliche but there is
truth to it.
A true leader is one who commands respect instead of demanding obedience. The mark of
a true leader comes down to this: does the flock follow and are they better off for doing
so? Even a cursory look at history will show examples of poor leaders. Some were never
able to attract a following and they are easy to overlook. More dangerous are those
leaders who were able to attract a following and led them into destruction.
Perhaps the best example of this from the last century was Adolph Hitler. He came to
power in a country that was suffering from a horrific depression while forced to pay
unfair reparations for their role in World War I. Hitler was able to play to the German
population's well placed fear for their future and their ill placed desire to blame the
Jews. He found an easy scapegoat that initially gathered people, but ultimately led to
their defeat. The Germany of 1933 would never have chosen the Germany of 1945 but that's
what happened when they chose to follow an evil leader.
Jeremiah lived during a time when not everyone who felt called to leadership was indeed
called to lead. The promise of Jeremiah wasn't that poor leaders would never attempt to
lead, but that God will choose a "righteous shoot to David." Jeremiah was harkening back
to the "golden age" of Jewish history: when David was King of Israel.
As Christians we all look at Jesus as that righteous shoot and the Gospel bears that
out. Last week we saw the disciples going out on Jesus' command to evangelize. Here they
are reunited with Jesus and Jesus calls them to "come away by yourselves to a deserted
place and rest a while." Alas it doesn't work as the crowds found them and Jesus began to
teach them. He recognized that they were "like sheep without a shepherd."
I think we need to look at these readings from both sides: as a follower and as a
As I spoke about earlier, we have the ability in this country to choose our leaders and
the campaign for our next president is in full swing. What should we look for? Clearly
we should focus on those who recognize the role of servant leader, who envisions a
community where all benefit. We should not focus on those who use their power for their
own gain or their own agenda; on those who use power to divide and ensure their group
benefits at the expense of others.
And we need to look at this from those times when we are called to lead. This happens
to all of us at some point. We are the leaders of our families, our neighborhoods, our
coworkers, and others. These readings call us to lead in such a way that our followers
find our leadership compelling. Where our appeal to the better angels of our nature
causes others to stretch and reach beyond what they thought they could do. Where our
appeal empowers everyone, not just us. We are called to lead as if we were a "righteous
shoot to David." Because we are.
July 12, 2015: The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading consists of a dialogue between
Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, and Amos. Amaziah commands Amos to leave Bethel and return
to his home in Judah and orders him to never prophecy again in Bethel. Amos protests that
he is not a prophet or a prophet's son but a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees and
that the Lord commanded him to prophesy to the people of Israel. Mark's Gospel follows
directly the Gospel from last week. Here Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs. He gave
them authority over unclean spirits. He ordered them to take no food or money but only a
walking staff, sandals, and one tunic. When they enter a place, stay until leaving. If a
place does not welcome them, they are to shake the dust from their feet as testimony
against them. They cast out demons and cured many who were sick.
In many ways these readings continue the discussion from last week. In the Old
Testament a prophet is sent by God with a difficult message and in the Gospel, Jesus and
his disciples proclaim the Kingdom of God.
But there are significant differences: Amos brings a different message than Ezekiel and
Jesus' disciples were much more successful than was Jesus.
Amos brings a different flavor to his writings. All prophets comfort the afflicted and
afflict the comfortable, but Amos is full throated in telling the leaders in Israel that
unless they start treating the poor better, they will be destroyed. In Chapter 5 God
proclaims hatred of religious festivals and assemblies. Because of their unacceptable
treatment of poor God will refuse burnt offerings and not listen to the music of their
harps. Finally, Amos writes the phrase that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up: "Rather
let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream."
God's anger flows from how the wealthy oppress the poor; they tax from the poor's need
and use the money to make their lives more luxurious. They keep the poor in debt and use
that as a way to enslave them.
In this reading the priest of Bethel (a religious figure of great importance) tries to
smack down Amos. He doesn't challenge Amos' status as a prophet but claims that Amos has
conspired against Israel by his words. In other words, Amos is committing treason.
But here's where it gets interesting to me: while Amaziah doesn't dispute Amos' role as
a prophet, Amos does. He tells Amaziah that he was no prophet. In other words "I didn't
ask for this job." He goes on to say he never laid claim to be an intellectual or a
leader. His jobs (herder and sycamore dresser) were the jobs of the common laborer.
This is a point that cannot be emphasized enough: the choice of who becomes a prophet
is God's alone. If you were blessed with a good intellect and came from a wealthy family,
you had several advantages, and becoming a "learned man" (apologies to the intelligent,
wealthy women at the time, but there was no way you were going to be listened to) was one
of the fruits of those blessings. Amaziah was likely one of those men: born with all the
advantages. I read a funny commentary that said Amaziah had blue blood and Amos had a
But prophets are not chosen by resume or experience, or by family connections or
intellectual prowess. Prophets are chosen by God and God alone, and we ignore their words
at our own peril. Why did God chose people like Amos? We can speculate all we want, but
in the final word, it's none of our business. God has never found a need to explain.
It's easy, perhaps too easy, to discount someone because they aren't someone
we would have chosen. We saw this last week when Jesus was ridiculed because he
was one of the neighborhood kids and we see this with Amos who (ironically enough) was
someone they didn't know. Clearly God chooses by strengths we cannot see instead of
resumes we can see.
But I find it fascinating that the Twelve in Mark's Gospel were so successful. Any
reading of the Gospels will tell you that Jesus' first followers were not the apostles any
of us would have chosen. They were stubborn, selfish, ambitious, and missed the mark more
often than they hit it. And yet, for reasons I can't figure out, they were the ones Jesus
chose. He gave them the power to exorcise demons, a staff, a tunic, and each other. And
it worked. They were successful beyond any predictable measure. This Gospel clearly
foreshadows the success of the early church they would build after Jesus'
And so what do we learn from this today? Clearly we should pay attention to the those
who preach the truth, even if they aren't the ones we expect. As a matter of fact, if we
can learn anything from these readings it's this: Don't listen to those who have money or
power or influence and want you to believe that the future is best lived when they stay
OK, I'll admit that much as I've tried, I cannot preach about these readings apart from
the 2016 Presidential elections. As we begin the process of choosing our next leaders we
aren't necessarily looking at the most experienced or who "deserves" to be elected, and
that's a good thing. But I fear we are giving unnecessary weight to those who are the
wealthiest or those who attract the attention of the wealthiest.
Wealth is always going to be concerned with preserving those institutions that made or
kept their wealth. And while the ability to acquire and preserve wealth does demand a
skill set, it doesn't necessarily translate into the role of servant leadership that our
faith calls us to.
We are blessed to live in a democracy where our voice is heard. That gives us an
advantage of large swaths of the world population and large eras of our history. We have
a choice of who to listen to, and I hope we listen to the voices of the Amos' and the
apostles in these readings, and not to those who wish to preserve their wealth and
July 5, 2015: The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The prophet Ezekiel authors our first reading. God
speaks to Ezekiel and commands him to go to the rebellious Israelites and proclaim God's
word. God warns him that these people are hard of face and obstinate of heart and tells
him that whether or not they listen, they will know that a prophet is among them. Mark's
Gospel depicts Jesus returning to his "native place" and teaching in the synagogue. The
listeners were astonished and remarked that they were surprised at this. After all, don't
we know his family? Don't we know who he is? They were offended that Jesus would dare to
try to teach them. Jesus stated: "A prophet is not without honor except in his native
place and among his own kin and in his own house."
The idea of becoming a prophet appeals to many people, and I've honestly never
understood why. The prophet is someone called by God to deliver a specific message. I
understand that being chosen by God is a good thing and, in a real sense, we are all
called by God to something, but prophet is not one I relish.
You see, God doesn't call someone to be a prophet to tell him (or her) that everything
is fine. Sometimes God calls someone to prophecy a message of hope in the midst of
suffering. But more often God calls someone to deliver a message of warning. God
instructs the prophet to tell the people that they have wandered away from God and God's
path and are in danger of destruction.
There are several books in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) named for prophets.
Many of them, Ezekiel included, focus on one specific part of history: when the Kingdom of
Israel was defeated by and sent into exile by the Babylonians. The beginning of the
reading here is clear: "I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled
Unfortunately his message wasn't successful. Ezekiel was one of those exiled. You
have to wonder what he was thinking as he and everyone else lost all they had because they
didn't listen to him. Why didn't they? Perhaps they thought themselves invincible. Or
perhaps they were comfortable where they were and didn't want to change. Or maybe they
looked at Ezekiel and didn't think he had anything useful to say.
That's certainly where Jesus finds himself. Technically Jesus isn't a prophet: a
prophet speaks for God and our faith tells us that Jesus is God. But his
messages are prophetic. Whenever he is teaching, he is speaking for God. Oftentimes
listeners don't pay attention to Jesus because they don't like his message, but here they
don't listen because of who he is.
"Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?" In other words, "isn't this the kid we saw
grow up? Who does he think he is telling us what to do? How dare he?" I can only
imagine how hurt and angry he must have felt. He was tasked to proclaim the salvation of
God, and these were the people he most wanted to reach. His relatives, neighbors, those
who made him who he was. And they don't even reject his message: they discount him. No
wonder he was amazed at their unbelief.
So what do we do with those called to prophecy today? In fairness, we have the same
difficulties we've had in the sweep of history, determining between valid and false
prophets. We recognize that false prophets in our own day have led good people to die in
Jonestown and Waco.
But given that, I'm persuaded that we've learned nothing of prophecies of the past.
Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change gives us a case in point. Laudato Si
warns of the dangers of ongoing climate change and how we need to change how we consume
fossil fuels, and that if we don't, the poor will suffer the most. Francis stands
directly in the line of prophets who comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
And yet those (and only those) who have the power to change this argue that he has no
right to do this. They claim his science is suspect (it isn't) or that he has no voice in
this debate (he does). And much like the exiles in Babylon, we ignore this at our own
But if listening to prophecy is one of our responsibilities, can we also say that
speaking it is also? I said at the beginning that I have no desire to be a prophet (and I
don't) but prophets aren't only the big names of the Old Testament or acknowledged leaders
like Pope Francis. There are times when we are all called to speak up.
My best example of this comes from the movie industry (bet you didn't see that coming).
In 1987 Tom Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities, an excellent book on wealth and
poverty; I read it and thought it was well written and strongly recommend it. In 1990 it
was made into a movie and everyone knew it would be a hit.
It wasn't. There were problems from the first day of shooting and when the movie came
out it bombed in the box office. Simply put, it wasn't a well made movie. It was so bad
that Julie Salamon wrote a book about it called The Devil's Candy. In speaking
with everyone from the actors to the technicians to the studio executives she learned
something fascinating: nearly everyone had a bad feeling about the making of the movie.
But they were afraid to say anything because they thought "everyone else was right." Now
it's a Hollywood movie, not some horrific tragedy, but the point is well taken. Had
someone shown the courage to say something, perhaps some changes could have been made.
But nobody did.
I believe these events, on a smaller scale, happen all the time. We find ourselves in
meetings at work where personnel decisions are being made and we feel it will unjustly
affect a person or group who isn't there. Do we say something? We belong to an apartment
co-op that is going through applications for a vacancy and we notice that a couple is
discounted because they are gay. Do we call it out? We are with a group of friends and
someone tells an offensive joke. Do we challenge it? These are hard calls and it's
always easier to hide. But we can't read these readings without recognizing that if we
have a voice we have a responsibility.
At some point in our lives I think all of us have heard the phrase: "So you're right
and everyone else is wrong." Perhaps sometimes the call of prophecy requires us to say:
June 28, 2015: The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading may be unfamiliar as it comes
from the Old Testament book of Wisdom. Wisdom, along with several other books comprise
something called the "apocryphal" or "deuterocannonical" books; these are books in the Old
Testament that Catholics recognize as part of the Bible while Jews and Protestants do not.
Here the writer of the book states that death is not God's doing. God made us to be
imperishable "it was the devil's envy that brought death into the world, as those who are
his partners will discover." Mark's Gospel recounts a time when Jarius, a temple
official, pleaded with Jesus to heal his daughter who was "desperately sick." While Jesus
was on his way to heal her, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for 12 years
approached him. Futile attempts over the years at finding healing only made things worse
and bankrupted her. Instead of asking for Jesus for healing, she grabbed his cloak in the
hopes that this would suffice for her healing. Jesus felt this and demanded to know
touched him, and the woman (feeling frightened) admitted it was her. She was immediately
healed and Jesus told her that her faith healed her. At this time, others came to tell
Jesus that Jarius' daughter had died. Nevertheless Jesus continued on his journey. On
reaching Jarius' home he commanded the girl to wake up, and she did. Jesus then told her
family to give her something to eat.
Many of us believe that we have created a world that attempts to be immune to pain and
suffering. And while that's true, I also think sometimes we're too willing to be
complacent in the face of suffering. Sometimes we believe that our suffering is temporary
and it's just easier to "wait it out" instead of doing something about it. Sometimes we
feel that suffering is inevitable and there's no point in fighting it. But sometimes we
feel, incorrectly, that suffering is a test from God who judges us, and even bases our
salvation on how we react. Catholics of a certain age will remember the phrase "offer it
up." We were told that when we were suffering (anything from cancer to slamming our
finger in a door) we could ask God to offer up our suffering to the poor souls languishing
in purgatory, and that God would be impressed with our selflessness.
Times in our lives where we've suffered have often led to personal growth and
opportunities for compassion, but I've never been comfortable with the idea that God sends
suffering our way. In my defense I offer this reading from Wisdom.
The author of Wisdom clearly believes that a God of light and truth and immortality
does not cause suffering. Granted it would be wonderful to live in a world devoid of
suffering, but we don't. Instead we live in a world where suffering comes from evil but
one where God has the final say.
That sense of a God who can and does heal must have often occupied the mind of the
woman in the Gospel who suffered from the hemorrhage. This reading requires a note of
explanation. The woman with the hemorrhage was not just someone with a persistent
nosebleed. She was suffering from something called "menorrhagia," a condition where the
loss of blood was acute enough to cause anemia. Instead of having a regular period she
bled nearly constantly. Under Jewish law a woman who is having her period is determined
to be unclean and may not be touched by her husband, or anyone else for that matter. A
woman with normal periods must refrain from any contact with her husband for seven days
after the end of her period. Any spotting resets the clock for another seven days.
Clearly this is a woman who has been unclean for twelve years.
We can only imagine how isolating this must have been; it's not an exaggeration to say
that she was bleeding to death. Not only was she unable to even hold her husband's hand,
she wasn't able to touch anyone. No embraces, no handshakes, no contact at all.
It would have been easy for her to just give up, thinking herself cursed by God.
But this was a woman who was not complacent. Unfortunately she endured "long and
painful treatment under various doctors, she had spent all she had without being any the
better for it, in fact she was getting worse." We don't know if "worse" was heavier
periods, more exhaustion from the anemia, or greater depression from the growing
isolation. In a sense it doesn't matter. This was a woman in great need of the healing
Jesus just promised to Jarius' daughter.
But this unnamed woman did something remarkable. Going against everything she has been
taught she entered the crowd. This unclean woman, this woman who wasn't supposed to have
contact with anyone, does the unthinkable. We can only imagine how the crowd reacted when
they spotted her. Anyone she touched would themselves become unclean and we can imagine
their anger at seeing her dive into the crowd.
And then she does something astounding. Jarius followed the normal protocol
with Jesus: he asks Jesus for healing. He explains that his daughter is gravely ill and
asks Jesus to cure her. This woman didn't follow protocol. She wasn't supposed to touch
anyone and yet she reaches for Jesus. She didn't ask for healing, she grabbed for it.
She didn't ask for permission. She didn't enter into a contract with Jesus ("You have
faith and I will heal you"). And she didn't shrink away when Jesus asked who touched
And she was healed. For the first time in a dozen years she was suddenly free to be
human again, to be something other than an outcast. Her new life can now begin.
Except that Jesus demanded to know who touched him. Should she run away? Will the
healing be reversed? What does she say to Jesus? What if he's angry? What if he wanted
her to ask permission? In the depths of her fear, with her voice shaking and her knees
trembling, she walks out of the shadows (on so many levels) and tells Jesus it was her.
Did Jesus know her ailment? We don't know, but Jesus knew enough to know that her faith
has restored her.
And what of us? Are there parallels for us? Mercifully we no longer consider women
"unclean" for half the month. But I think there's something deeper here. We are all in
need of healing and we all ask to be healed. But sometimes asking for God for healing and
waiting for it to happen doesn't give us enough credit.
Sometimes we need to have the courage to grab healing. There's a very old joke that
There is a man living in his home and his town is being flooded. He is a man
of faith and believes that God will save him from drowning. Soon someone drives up in a
four wheel drive and offers to rescue him but the man says: "That's OK, God will save me."
As the water level continues to rise, another man approaches in a boat with the same offer
of rescue. Again the man dismisses help by saying that God will provide. As the water
level rises the man scrambles to his roof and a helicopter hovers over, again offering to
save him. For the third time the man waves them off, believing that God will save him.
Eventually he drowns and goes to Heaven. When he sees God the man says: "I thought you
were going to save me." God responds: "What do you want from me? I sent you a jeep, a
boat, and a helicopter. You should have gone with one of them."
Our faith tells us that God both saves and heals. But our faith does not tell us that we
are passive observers in this process. We have been given the gift of discernment so that
we can participate and cooperate with God. Maybe grabbing salvation means changing jobs
or leaving a toxic relationship. Maybe it's having the courage to dive into a crowd that
doesn't want us there and claim a voice we're not supposed to have. Maybe it means
interrupting a healing "the normal way" and seeking a whole new healing.
And ultimately it's moving beyond our fear to believe that healing comes from Jesus,
even if we catch him by surprise.
It may almost be easier if you're not familiar with the book of Job. For those of us
who are familiar it's hard to look at an individual passage without thinking of it in the
context of the entire book. This may not be my best move, but I'll give a brief synopsis
of the book. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you already know it.
The book opens with a dialogue between God and "Satan." This "Satan" is not the devil,
the Evil One, that we often think of. This one is more of an agent (my commentary calls
him "something like a CIA agent") who wanders the earth. God asks him if he has seen Job
who is "blameless and upright" who "fears God and turns away from evil"? Satan responds
by telling God that it's easy for Job to be good as he has been blessed with health and
wealth. Satan suggests that if all this were taken away, Job would curse God. And so God
and Satan enter into a wager: Satan can take away all he wants from Job but cannot kill
him. Satan then kills all of Job's cattle, and then his children. After that Job is
afflicted with painful boils all over his body after which his wife orders him to "curse
God and die." If that weren't enough, three of his friends come to him and spend the
lion's share of the book telling Job he must have committed some sin to have caused all
this suffering. All through this Job insists he had done nothing wrong and refuses to
curse God. At the end of the book God addresses Job and his friends. God tells the
friends that they have misrepresented God and God is angry with them. God reminds them
that God alone created the universe and set everything in motion. This is where we find
this first reading. After speaking, God restored Job even more wealth.
Reading that passage from Job it's easy to think that God is angry with Job, as if Job
had questioned God's justice. But while Job complained, at times quite bitterly, about
his condition he never cursed God or God's justice.
This section of Job concerns the sea and how it was God who pent up the sea (ie, made
dry land). Anyone who makes his livelihood on the water can tell you how much power is in
the sea. Anyone who does not respect its power puts his life in grave danger. I believe
that one of the reasons we find the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 such a compelling story
lies in the hubris its builders showed, first in naming it Titanic, and then calling it
I have such a story in my own life. Twenty eight years ago this month I foolishly took
a canoe (alone) out on Lake Ontario. About 30 minutes out I capsized and while I was able
to crawl back into the canoe I couldn't get back to land. Twenty hours (and one long
night) later two fishermen rescued me. When I was recovering in the hospital I commented
to one of the nurses that I was surprised to get so much media coverage. He responded:
"Oh this type of thing happens all the time. We just don't get many who survive." I came
away from that day (and night) with a renewed respect for the power of the sea.
The disciples in the Gospel didn't need to be taught that lesson. They were fishermen
and there were almost certainly times when the sea was rough but they couldn't afford to
take the day off. In this passage Jesus suggests that they cross the Sea of Galilee at
night and then falls asleep. He must have the world's soundest sleeper to not have awoken
when the boat was in danger of sinking: it took the disciples to wake him up.
Once awake I find his reaction puzzling. It's almost as if Jesus is grumpy from being
awoken. He then rebukes the sea and asks his disciples why they lack faith. To their
credit the disciples look on Jesus with renewed awe as he has shown them great power.
When Jesus asks why they are afraid he is really asking them why they are so cowardly.
Again, just like God and Job, we can see this as Jesus expressing anger at his disciples,
but I don't think that's the case here either. I think in both cases God and Jesus wanted
to give their audiences a clear understanding of their power.
But we miss the point if we think of this just in terms of God's and Jesus' power. We
also have to read these in the context of their love for us.
It's become a mind numbing cliche to say "Don't worry, God's in charge" but there is
great truth behind it. Nevertheless I'm always a little annoyed when someone tells me not
to worry because God is in charge. There's a part of me that feels that my legitimate
fear is not being taken seriously.
And on further reflection, perhaps there's something to that. We fear legitimate
things: what if we lose our jobs and are not able to support our families? What if
something tragic happens to someone we love? What if our retirement is suddenly exposed
as a ponzi scheme? What do we do then?
But this healthy awareness that we may lose what we have often blocks our ability to
enjoy what we have. Do you remember what fears kept you awake 20 years ago? Or 10 years
ago? Or last year at this time? If you remember, did any of them happen?
Probably not. It seems the things that really crash into our lives are things we never
saw coming. You've heard this from me before, but choosing to be a disciple of Jesus does
not shelter us from suffering but it does promise another sunrise and another day to live
in God's love.
A few years ago I was in a job I loved. I felt valued and challenged, respected and
liked. I felt I had as much job security as anyone could imagine and I was certain I was
going to spend the rest of my career there. That worked well until the company went
bankrupt and closed its doors. For all of my worrying I never saw this coming.
But just as I never imagined the sunset, I never even thought about a sunrise. Along
with several of my coworkers I was hired by a startup and I've been there ever since. And
while I sometimes think wistfully about my previous situation, I know that I'm in a place
to have experiences I couldn't have had before.
I've also learned that I'm more resilient than I thought. If, three years ago, you
looked into your crystal ball and told me what was going to happen I would have turned
into a blubbering idiot. But I survived because I could, and because I had to. And I
believe much of it was because God was with me. God calmed the storms in my mind and
allowed me to continue on a journey I needed to make.
In my work in hospice I've seen countless family members (including parents of young
children) journey with a loved one to his or her death. Their grief is unimaginable and
many have told me they would not be able to endure it. But they did. It wasn't easy, and
the prospect of facing the sunrise of a new day without their loved one tears at their
But they greet that sunrise every day and move on. In their darkest hour they have
seen God calm the seas just enough for them to make just one more day, or even one more
They've mastered the faith because they've had to. But they've done it.
June 14, 2015: The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading draws from the Old Testament
prophet Ezekiel. The seventeenth chapter uses imagery of an eagle who plants a seed that
grows and bears fruit. This reading completes the chapter where God speaks of breaking a
twig from a great cedar and planting it. Everyone will know that this twig will grow into
a great cedar and that God planted it. He then says: "I bring low the high tree, I make
high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. the Lord have
spoken; I will accomplish it." Mark's Gospel gives us the parable of the mustard seed.
Here Jesus imagines the Kingdom of God as seeds thrown by a farmer. The seed grows into a
crop without the farmer knowing how. He then speaks of a mustard seed, the smallest of
all the seeds of the earth. And yet it grows into the biggest shrub, putting out branches
for birds of the air to find shelter.
I think we can all agree that if Ezekiel were around today, Fox News would denounce him
as a job killer. He proposes something that would be roundly denounced: God will bring
down the tall trees and raise up the small ones. He is basically talking about equality:
the trees do best when there is not a large disparity between the tallest and the
This is a common theme throughout Scripture. How many times does God command the
people not to exercise too much power over their servants because they were once slaves
themselves? Or how often does Jesus speak of how the last shall be first and the first
shall be last?
The problem with the largest trees is that they can easily claim to have become the
largest trees on their own. With ridiculous ease they look down on the smaller trees with
scorn and contempt, thinking that they are larger because they're smarter, or harder
working, or more blessed by God. When challenged they can claim that bringing them down
so others may rise will only encourage the dumber, lazier trees to keep doing what they're
We see that all around us. Raising taxes to pay for services to the poor only
encourages the poor to continue to be lazy. Suggesting that the wealthiest have more than
enough is seen as a way of discouraging innovation. If everyone has the same opportunity
why should we reward failure?
Except that there has never been a time where everyone has had the same opportunity,
and disparities in the height of trees or individual wealth have much as or more to do
with good fortune. Ezekiel writes soon after the Israelites were liberated back to their
home after exile in Babylon. Again and again in our history we have fallen victim to our
own greed and hubris and have lost everything. Again and again God call us home and asks
only that we treat each other with the generosity with which we've been treated.
And we don't. Whether President Hoover calls it "trickle down economics" or President
Reagan calls it "supply side economics" we seem all too eager to embrace beliefs that
allow us to lack gratitude and think ourselves brilliant.
Perhaps the best image of ourselves comes in the Gospel readings as we read about
farmers. Since the time of Jesus we've made dramatic strides in our knowledge of
agriculture but maybe that misses the point. We know much more about what types of soils
grow better crops and we've mastered fertilizers, growing seasons, and mass harvesting.
And yet all this is being dwarfed here in California by a drought nobody can outsmart.
Most of us can take our needs for granted. We plug in our lamps (and iPhones) and the
electricity works. We turn on the faucet and, even in a drought, water comes out. We
pump gas into our cars without ever actually seeing the gas but we can be confident that
our cars will go when we press the gas pedal. We are removed from the chain of people and
events who brought these things to us.
Many years ago I was inspired by someone who offered grace before a meal. He gave
thanks for the food, and he also said: "And we give thanks to all those who brought this
food to our table." I immediately thought not only of the farmer who grew the crops, but
also the farm workers who picked the crops, the truck drivers who drove it to my city, and
the grocery workers who displayed it for me to purchase. From that day on I've thought
about all those people I don't know who made it possible for me to eat that meal and every
I realized at that point that when I purchased the food I wasn't just paying the
grocery store. I was also paying the truck driver, the farm workers, and the farmer. It
helped me recognize I wasn't doing justice by demanding the lowest price for my food. I
recognized that unless I thought about them with every bite, I wasn't being grateful
enough. The farmer plants his seeds and doesn't do the work of the seeds to germinate and
grow. The farm workers harvest the crops and don't do any of the work of planting the
crops. The truck drivers transport the crops without having to plant or harvest them.
The grocery workers display the crops without having to plant, harvest, or transport them.
But most importantly, I eat the food without having to do any of their work. If I look at
that food and think that I'm entitled, I haven't taken seriously either Ezekiel or
I'll be the first to say that I'm blessed. I was born in a country that values
individual rights. I was born into a family that values education and a strong moral
compass. I was raised in a family that loved and valued me, and sacrificed to ensure I
had everything I needed (trust me, I needed glasses, braces, and allergy shots when I was
a child). And I did nothing to deserve any of this. I'm a big tree.
In some ways we are all big trees. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed by what I've been
given, but I hope I'm appropriately grateful. And if I claim to take my faith seriously I
see the need to reach out to those who don't have what I have been given. It takes
nothing from me to reach out to those who want only to give to their children what I have.
I've donated a fair amount of money in my lifetime and I can safely say that it has not
cost me anything I've needed.
And so let us walk away from these readings with a recognition that our blessings are
supposed to be seeds of the crops we provide with our gratitude and generosity.
June 7, 2015: The Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from Exodus. Moses, having
received the commandments from God, reads them to the people who pledge to follow them.
Moses recited the 10 Commandments four chapters earlier. After the 10 Commandments Moses
reads commandments on worship, justice, property, and many other areas. After those
gathered promise to follow all these commandments Moses built and altar and ordered the
sacrifice of oxen. Taking the blood from the oxen he sprinkled it on the people as a way
to seal the covenant. Mark's Gospel recounts the story of the Last Supper where Jesus
celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples. He breaks the unleaven bread and offers
it to them as his body. At the end of the meal he raises the cup of wine and offers it to
them as his blood. He concludes by telling them that he will not drink of the fruit of
the vine until he does it in the Kingdom.
Catholics of a certain age generally have vivid memories of Corpus Christi (Body of
Christ, in Latin). For those who are not Catholic it's hard to imagine how important this
Even today only a priest and those above him can transform bread and wine into the body
and blood of Christ, and until 1977 in the United States, they were the only ones who
could even touch it. When we were given Communion we were only allowed to have the priest
place it on our tongues. As an aside, when I was an altar boy a friend of mine was
serving another mass. The priest tripped on his way down the steps and spilled perhaps 50
of the hosts. My friend felt terrible but there was nothing he could do except stand
there as the 60 year old priest was on his hands picking the Communion wafers up off the
From the earliest days of the church the community gathered when one of the Twelve (and
their successors) consecrated the bread and wine. Early on they realized that some of
their number were sometimes absent due to illness. Not wanting them to feel abandoned,
the community would reserve some hosts to bring to the sick during the week by the deacon.
Soon they found that the place where they were reserved became a place that members wanted
to come and pray. Soon there developed what are now called "Blessed Sacrament Chapels"
where people could come and pray.
This was the good news. This was the time when celebration of the Eucharist (The Body
and Blood of Christ) was integrated so much into the life of the church it was hard to
imagine how it could be any other way.
But there was bad news also: sometime during the Middle Ages people began to decline to
take the Eucharist, feeling unworthy. Somehow the belief in the power of the Eucharist
translated into an erroneous belief that it was reserved only for those of particular
holiness. And it actually led to something called "occular Communion" where believers
felt they could gaze upon the host but not consume it. And this in the face of one of the
prayers at Catholic mass: "Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and
my soul shall be healed."
During the reforms of the Protestant Reformation, these new Christian churches took a
new look at these practices. As a Catholic I'm treading lightly in the hopes of not
stumbling into offense. But as an observer it appears Protestant churches celebrate
Eucharist in many different ways. Some never do, others do it monthly, and others do it
weekly but without the idea that Eucharist is eternal (ie, after the worship service is
over, it can be treated just like any other piece of bread).
But for us Catholics, this medieval teaching became, if anything, more entrenched. And
then, perhaps, it took the turn that I find most troubling. By the 20th Century Eucharist
was almost seen as a "reward for good behavior." In other words you couldn't receive if
you were known to be guilty of certain offenses. It was said to cause scandal.
OK, what's scandal? The accepted definition of scandal is this: By your actions you
are causing others to question their faith or a teaching of the church. In other words,
if you are living a life blatantly contrary to church teaching, but are still receiving
the Eucharist publicly, you may lead others into thinking that your behavior is
And that sounds fine on the face of it, but I'm certain I'm not the only one who
noticed that some behaviors were called out for special attention. If you were a slumlord
who collected money from poor people who lived in your squalor, that really wasn't seen as
scandal. If you ran a business that took advantage of your employees or the environment
so that you could become wealthier, you were in good standing. But if you lived with
someone outside of marriage, if you were divorced and remarried, if you practiced birth
control, or if you advocated a nuanced view of abortion, you caused scandal and were
barred from receiving Eucharist.
This has become a particularly volatile issue in the last 30 or so years when Catholic
politicians came under fire for receiving Eucharist when some in the community felt they
shouldn't have. Some pointed to their devotion to easing the plight of the poor while
others pointed to their views on sexual issues.
And I guess that's what's always troubled me on what I call the "politicization of the
Eucharist." If the sin was greed you were OK, but if it was lust you were in trouble.
Let's face it: We are all in need of healing, and because of that we are in need of the
Eucharist. And perhaps those in the most sin are the ones in the most need. I find it
compelling that during the celebration of mass the priest says these words as he blesses
the chalice filled with wine:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
In other words, it is the Eucharist itself that forgives sins, not just the Catholic
sacrament of reconciliation (formerly known as confession). There's a lot I have to say
about that, but let's leave it for another time.
I'm not unmindful of the reality of scandal but sometimes I think it gets used too
easily by those who are attempting to use someone's faith as a way of manipulating their
behavior or by punishing them for difficult (and sometimes gut wrenching) decisions in
It's almost as if we make Eucharist more valuable if we make it harder to receive. It
sounds funny to say this but it's as if we were using the laws of economics: if something
becomes more scarce, it becomes more valuable. And I hardly have to say this isn't true.
What gives Eucharist its value isn't how much of it we have, but how much Jesus sacrificed
to bring it to us.
Every priest will tell you of a time when someone stood before him and he had to make a
split second decision. For me it came at my ordination mass. My ordination was wonderful
on so many levels, but for me it was particularly moving because important people in my
life who had never seen the inside of a Catholic church chose to celebrate that day with
me. As I was giving out Eucharist, my sister's mother in law came before me and presented
her hands. She is a wonderful woman, but she is absolutely not Catholic. I had a split
second to decide what to do, and I decided to give her Eucharist. In that split second I
decided a few things. I decided that in front of hundreds of people (and dozens of video
cameras) I didn't want to embarrass her; knowing this may have been her first experience
of a Catholic church, and likely the last, I didn't want her to experience exclusion. I
decided that I couldn't read her heart but I was pretty sure she wasn't there for some
hidden agenda. I decided that if I wanted to avoid scandal, publicly refusing to give
someone Eucharist would likely cause more scandal, not less. And finally I decided that
God could take care of Himself and was not diminished because someone who isn't Catholic
was receiving it.
Please understand I'm not saying it's proper for everyone to receive, but I also
believe that if someday I have to defend myself in front of God for what I did, I'd rather
have to defend being too generous rather than being too stingy.
When I think of Eucharist, when I think of Corpus Christi, I think of it as part of all
of our lives as disciples of Jesus. I like to think that when Jesus said: "Do this in
memory of me" he meant it. And so when I celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi I like to
think Jesus wants us to be as generous as he was.
May 31, 2015: The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes near the beginning of the
book of Deuteronomy (the 5th book of the Old Testament). Here Moses is speaking to the
newly liberated Israelites (after their escape from Egypt and before their entry into the
Promised Land). He reminds his people of God's great power and also of God's generosity
in choosing them as God's people. Because of this Moses enjoins them to keep the
commandments so that they and their descendants may prosper in a land that God has given
them. The Gospel comes at the end of the Book of Matthew. The leaders of the new
community (that would become the Christian Church) travel to Galilee at Jesus'
instruction. There Jesus tells them to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in
the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
The Solemnity of the Holy Trinity is a tough one. Most Christian churches (the
Jehovah's Witnesses being an exception) hold a belief that God exists within the Trinity
of Father, Son, and Spirit. The first few centuries of the Church were peppered with
discussions, conflicts, and epic fights over the nature of the Trinity. Is the Son a
creation of the Father, or are they of the same substance? And where does the Spirit fit
in? A good part of the Council of Nicea in the year 325 discussed (and many say settled)
this argument. Many of us can recite this part of the Nicene Creed by heart: "We believe
in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the
So what's the problem? Seventeen hundred years after Nicea most of us still
don't really understand what we profess, and (let's be frank) most of us don't care. We
believe in the Trinity without thinking much of it. I still chuckle when I think about
how one of my seminary professors told us that we needed to understand the difference
between the Immanent vs. Economic Trinity (if you're interested you can Google it). He
told us that we didn't want to be caught when our parishioners asked us about it. I can,
in all honesty, report that nobody has ever asked me about it.
And yet this passage from Matthew points to a critical juncture in our history. To
this day all baptisms follow this formula: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of
the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We even pour the water or dunk the person three times.
We don't baptize in the name of God, or Jesus, or the Church, or anything else. We
baptize not in the name of a person (Person) or an institution: We baptize into a series
And not only that, we seek out those to be baptized. We take it for granted that we
wish to convince non Christians to join the faith, but it was not part of being Jewish.
Jesus and his disciples were born into a faith where they believed they were the "chosen
people" and they never saw themselves as a global religion. Even to this day a person can
seek to convert to Judaism but it has to begin with the convert's desire. And yet this
passage is clear: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations."
In the years since that day we have at least attempted. But is there something unique
about how we evangelize? I believe there is. We Christians are far from the
only faith or movement that seeks new disciples. But virtually all other faiths or
movements evangelize in the name of a God (e.g. Islam) or a person (fill in any cult
leader here) or a movement (e.g. Scientology). These disciples are called to follow
someone or something and at some point are told that someone else will interpret what the
person or movement calls them to do.
But we evangelize, we baptize, in the name of relationships, the space between
persons. This is a great deal more difficult, and calls us to deeper understanding of
ourselves and others. Paying attention to relationships goes to the very core of who we
are as persons. Wolves travel in packs, elephants in herds, but we are unique in the
complex relationships and social structures we create. All of us live in relationships
with each other: our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, our families. The etiquette
of "friending" someone on facebook points to how much importance we put in these
And ultimately these relationships fill the spaces between us. If you dabble in
physics or watch the TV sitcom the Big Bang Theory you're familiar with the term "dark
matter" (though I think we need a better name for it). We know that dark matter makes up
an enormous part of the universe but we don't have the tools to identify it. We know it's
there but we can't see it.
Perhaps our relationships, the energy between us, is that dark matter and it explains
what we can't see. The fact that we can't see it doesn't mean it's not important and it
perhaps means it's critically important. Perhaps dark matter isn't matter at all but a
new type of energy. When we think about the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we
see three persons in relationship, and in fact deeply in love. The love between them
holds the energy that binds them together.
Not all our relationships are based in love, but the most important ones are. And love
is the foundation of how we see ourselves as Christians, the energy that holds us
together. And it's also the foundation of how we seek new disciples. When Jesus
commanded his disciples to baptize all people in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit he gave us the blueprint for evangelization.
We are not called to evangelize out of power (join us because we're the strongest) or
out of fear (if you don't join us bad things will happen to you), but out of love (join us
because we love you and want you to be part of us; we also want to be part of you and
those you love).
And so, perhaps, in the end, we've been living the Trinity even if we haven't given it
May 24, 2015: Pentacost Sunday
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles
describes the Pentecost. This continues directly after last week's reading where Matthias
was chosen to replace Judas. The apostles gathered in one room. At first they felt a
strong wind, then tongues of fire that separated, each tongue coming to rest on each of
their heads. They spoke different languages, but here they were all able to understand
each other, and they were all preaching about the marvels of God. In John's Gospel the
resurrected Jesus came to the apostles, breathed on them, and said: "Receive the Holy
Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you
retain, they are retained."
Certain scenes in the Bible evoke strong images for us. I've spoken about this with
regard to Noah's Ark and the Sacrifice of Isaac. Today we read about the Holy Spirit
descending on the early apostles and imbuing them with the power to understand different
languages and to hear them preaching about the marvels of God.
We seem to focus on the idea that the barriers of different languages will be conquered
and we will all be able to understand each other, no matter where we come from. Several
years ago I worked in a parish in San Francisco where we commemorated Pentecost by reading
the last few versus of this reading in as many languages as we could find among the
lectors and staff of the parish. Those who gathered that weekend heard this in Mandarin,
Cantonese, Tagolag, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. Most of us agreed that we
witnessed something magical.
In fairness we did this in San Francisco, a city known for its diversity on many
levels. But modern day San Francisco can be a model for the early church. The area we
now call the Holy Land was a diverse place. Languages of the time included Hebrew, Latin,
Greek, Aramaic, Egyptian, and others. We can't know who among the apostles knew which
languages but everyone knew that diverse languages were around them. It's commonly
believed that Jesus and his followers spoke Aramaic. Those who could read also understood
Hebrew, and anyone who was involved with trade also spoke and wrote Greek. If you wanted
to speak only Aramaic you could, but it limited your options.
I'm often puzzled that people who read this same reading can celebrate the different
languages in Jesus' time but today use them to divide. As we approach our next election
cycle there is movement to make English the official language of the United States and
every four years they get several Presidential candidates to endorse their position.
They are far from unique. During times of great immigration in this country, those who
spoke other languages were viewed with fear and trepidation. My grandparents' generation
were not eager to pass along their native language because they wanted to be seen as "good
Americans." Even my distant cousins in Quebec demand that French be given priority to
English in their province.
And let's face this: wouldn't it have been better if that burst of understanding
described in Acts had become the norm going forward? Wouldn't it be easier if, as part of
the Kingdom, we all got to speak the same language?
Probably, but let's face it: Jesus never proclaimed the Kingdom for the purpose of
making our lives easier. We participate in the building of the Kingdom not so that our
lives will be easier, but so that our world will be transformed.
And I like to think that diversity of languages will be part of it. For example, in
English we have one word for "love." Love has many meanings and nuances but in English
only one word. Greek, on the other hand, has six words for love. Eros signifies
romantic love. Philia translates to deep friendship while ludus is
playful love (between children or with those who have just started to date.
Agape signifies universal or unconditional love and is considered the ultimate
love. God's love for us is agape. Pragma stands for mature love, for example
the love between a couple who has been married for decades. Finally philautia is
love of self (that is healthy, not narcissistic).
There are other examples. In French the verb savoir means to know facts while
we use the verb connaitre for knowing people. I use these examples to show that
there is richness in learning other languages. The event of Pentecost called the early
apostles to move out from their core to eventually envelope the entire world (and 2000
years later we have largely succeeded). But it did not call them to turn the world into a
carbon copy of their small group. It called them to travel boldly to new lands and not
only carry the good news, but to learn what these strangers have to teach us. It
recognized that the Spirit pours our her love and truth on everyone and that we can learn
from them as much as we can learn from them.
It's true. In my journey I have spoken to missionaries who have gone to places I will
only dream of. They have told me stories not only of the joy of proclaiming the kingdom
to those who did not know Jesus, but they have also (just as enthusiastically) told me
about what they have learned. Perhaps it was the love of the sky and water from Native
Americans or the deep respect of ancestors that they learned in Japan.
And while I speak only English fluently and struggle with even the simplist phrases in
French and Spanish, I like to think that Pentecost birthed a church that calls us out of
the familiar and calls us to embrace the unknown. If we believe (and we do) that the
Spirit has been poured out over the entire world, it's a world that is waiting for us to
Whatever it was, it began with a day long ago described in Acts where, for one brief
experience, everyone understood each other. Perhaps the lesson Pentecost is for us to
listen to and learn from each other and work our way back to that place.
May 17, 2015: The Seventh Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading takes us back to the first
chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Judas had been one of the Twelve, Jesus' closest
disciples; since Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus he needed to be replaced.
Here the community of disciples gathered to find Judas' replacement. They wanted someone
who had been with Jesus for his entire public ministry. They nominated two candidates:
Joseph, known as Barsabbas and Matthias. They drew lots and believing that this would
allow God to choose, and Matthias was chosen. John's Gospel describes Jesus raising his
eyes to Heaven and praying to God. His prayer is clearly meant for the benefit of his
disciples. He speaks of how he (Jesus) has been given care of the disciples and he has
fulfilled that mission. The only who was lost, clearly a reference to Judas, chose to be
lost. Jesus goes on to state that he is not asking that his disciples be removed from
this world, but instead that they be protected from the evil one. Just as Jesus was sent
into the world, so too are his followers so they may be consecrated in truth.
So exactly what do we get for following Jesus? To put it in 21st Century words, what
is our return on investment? At first blush this question may seem cynical but the
question of why follow is one we all must answer.
Our first reading is another account of an event at the very beginning of our church,
at a time where Jesus' followers were taking the first baby steps in setting up their
community. And in setting it up they were faced with a problem: what to do about
Clearly Judas was not someone they wanted to think about and his picture clearly was
not going on the brochure they passed out to early followers. While virtually none of the
disciples could look with pride on their actions when Jesus was arrested and crucified,
Judas was in a place by himself.
For reasons that never get explained, Judas didn't just abandon Jesus, he betrayed
Jesus. When the religious leaders began to form a plot to arrest Jesus, it was Judas who
(in return for 30 pieces of silver), brought the armed guards to Jesus where he was
arrested. In Matthew's account Judas repented of what he did and attempted to return the
silver. Then he killed himself.
For Jesus' early followers this posed a problem: Do we replace him as one of the Twelve
or do we go on and not talk about him. They felt that they did need to replace him, if
for no other reason than to keep the number at Twelve. Numbers back then meant much more
to ancient peoples than they do to us. Just as there were twelve tribes of Israel, so too
are the leaders of this early group a grouping of twelve. As a matter of fact the
Catholic Church holds that the community of bishops are descended (by office) from the
Twelve. And so they drew lots (threw dice basically), believing that God worked through
that to make His choice.
But the question of Judas goes much deeper than finding his replacement. The passage
from John comes directly before Judas betrays Jesus, and while Jesus directs this as a
prayer to his Father, it's obvious that Jesus said these words for his disciples to hear.
Jesus' words here are almost tender as he likely knew what was coming for both him and
those in his care.
The tone in John's Gospel is often different from the other three Gospels. A few weeks
ago we explored the idea of the Good Shepherd, and here Jesus assumes that role as he
speaks of his disciples being under his care. He even makes a passing reference to Judas
(who is not present) when he says: "I have watched over them and not one is lost except
the one who chose to be lost."
But in this passage I find this the most compelling: "I am not asking you to remove
them from the world, but to protect them from the evil one." Every time I read this
passage this is the verse that jumps out at me.
Going back to the beginning of this homily, I asked why we should be followers. If you
asked those in my grandparents' generation their answer was simple: this is the only path
to salvation. Heaven is reserved only for those who follow Christ (and perhaps only for
Catholics). As a matter of fact this was the reason given for most of our history.
I think most people today don't believe this is true. But unfortunately this has led
at times to a belief that is even more troubling: following Jesus will insulate you from
pain and suffering.
Stories of Christian cults pepper our history. False prophets proclaim that the whole
of salvation history points to them and their followers. In our own lifetimes we have
seen Jim Jones in Jonestown, David Koresh in Texas and Heaven's Gate in California. They
have all led to destruction: their followers were promised a life free from pain and
suffering, and all ended with death.
But this isn't simply the domain of cults. I think at times we all think this way.
Many years ago I spent some time as a prison chaplain and met a fascinating swath of
humanity. Many of the inmates recognized that they needed to change something in their
lives and some of them embraced one faith or another. One young man had recently become
Christian; he had begun to pray, read his Bible, and attend church services. He sought me
out when knew I was there and told me he felt terrible. "I won't go into details but I
had a really bad day yesterday. I thought if I became a Christian that would stop
I stifled a chuckle but told him that if becoming a Christian ended suffering it would
be a great deal more popular. I also told him that it would make evangelization in prison
a good deal easier. I told him that while I was happy he wanted to turn his life around,
following Jesus wasn't going to be an easy or smooth path.
But then he asked me what the purpose of following Jesus was, if not to make his life
easier. I have to confess that I didn't have a great answer for him. There we were, both
in our early 20s, but worshipping the same God, and both struggling with how that was
going to play out the rest of our lives.
I don't know where he is now, and I hope somebody (perhaps himself) gave him a better
answer. But here's what I would tell him now:
We don't have a way to prevent suffering in this life. Perhaps it makes us stronger,
kinder, and more willing to see our part in improving the lives of others. We see Jesus
as the perfect person, like us in all things but sin. But we can clearly see how he
suffered. We see him frustrated, misunderstood, and ultimately betrayed and killed.
Rabbi Harold Kushner uses the image of eyeglasses. When we choose to believe we see
the world differently, as if we put on a pair of glasses. The world comes into sharper
relief and we see things more clearly. But understand that this does not change the world
at all. The world remains exactly the same but we see it more clearly.
And perhaps that's what Jesus asked when he asked that his disciples be protected from
the evil one. The world was created by God and His choice to give us free will both
entrusts us and allows us to be evil. But in the end God is in charge and we will all
benefit from God's kingdom.
But I think there's even more to it than that. Knowing that we are protected by God
allows us to give better an we receive. To the young man in prison I would say this:
nobody doubts that you are in a place that is capable to great evil and on some level you
have the world's permission to be as evil as your environment. But the call to follow
Christ calls you to do better than that. You have the power to be a small beacon of hope
here, and this is a place where a small amount of light can shine pretty brightly.
You can reach out your hand in compassion to someone who has been evil to you, but that
may not do much good. You can reach out your hand in compassion to someone who is not
evil, but scared. And while there is evil here there is even more fear. As you mature as
a Christian you may find that some of the frightened ones gravitate to you. And you can
turn on that light in him.
Next week is Pentecost. Perhaps we can spend part of this week thinking about how we
want to celebrate that feast.
May 10, 2015: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue our journey through the Acts of the
Apostles in the first reading. Last week we read about Paul and his first difficult days
with the other apostles. Here Peter is at the home of Cornelius who is not a Jew.
Cornelius was, however, a devout man who had been directed by an angel to see Peter, and
when he does, Cornelius bows down in homage. Peter tells Cornelius to stand for "I am
only a man after all!" Peter then gives a speech where he proclaims that God loves anyone
who fears God and does what is right. As he was speaking the Holy Spirit came down on
everyone, Jews and non Jews alike. The Jews were astonished at this, but Peter directed
that all be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. We also continue John's Gospel where
Jesus teaches his disciples to love one another. Jesus tells them that just as the Father
has loved him (Jesus), so Jesus has loved his people (the disciples) and so they are
called love one another with the same love. Jesus further tells them that the disciples
are his friends, not servants. A servant does not know his master's business, but Jesus
calls them friends because they know everything the Father has taught Jesus. He ends the
reading by stating: "What I command you is to love one another."
I've said this before, but I'll now say it again: these readings from Acts can be
obvious, confounding, deep and confusing. It is, to my thinking, the book that requires
the most understanding of the context. When I'm preaching from Acts I spend more time
than any other book reading the passages directly before and after the reading.
Today's first reading is a case in point. The character of Cornelius provides us a
rich background: he was a Roman centurion (military leader) and while he was not a Jew he
gave alms and prayed to God. They were often called "God fearers" but were not
circumcised and did not follow Jewish dietary restrictions. The idea that a centurion
would bow down in homage to a Jew would have seemed strange. But Peter, given the
opportunity to claim domination over a Roman soldier, called him instead to stand up and
see Peter as a peer.
And then, in a crowd of both Jews and non Jews, Peter tells them something astounding:
God loves all of you. Yes, all of you.
In many ways we can look at this through the lens of Christianity 2.0. The first few
days after Jesus' resurrection most of his followers expected the end was near: the
Messiah had come and the world as we know it was about to end. But days turned into
weeks, and then months, and then years and they realized they needed to have a plan going
forward. To varying degrees Peter and James believed that their role was simple: get all
the Jews to understand that Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for. They
expected that all Jews would come to see this and become followers of Jesus, just as they
all saw themselves as followers of Abraham and Moses.
But it didn't happen that way. Christianity 1.0 clearly was not going to happen. Many
of the Jews looked on Jesus as yet another huckster who proclaimed himself the Messiah and
was killed. They didn't believe he rose from the dead and, if pressed, they would say
that someone stole the body. When asked about accounts of the resurrected Jesus they
would claim that Jesus' disciples dreamed of a resurrection that never was.
OK, so what now? I think Peter and James expected to devote their lives to convincing
the Jews, this island of followers in a hostile world, that Jesus was the real deal.
Large swaths of the Christian population have spent our entire history trying to convert
the Jews. From John's Gospel to the Spanish Inquisition to present day Jews for Jesus,
Christians have attempted any and all means to convince Jews that they have backed the
wrong horse but it's not too late to get it right.
But even back then, even in our earliest days, some of Jesus' disciples understood that
this resurrection, this salvation, was not exclusionary. We'll see this played out but
this is where we see Paul going. Paul and his friends saw that Jesus' resurrection was
not the Good News only for the Jews who understood what happened but for everyone. They
saw that the salvation of the world was not regional, but global. They made the bold,
heroic, visionary, and blessed decision to open Jesus' call to salvation to everyone who
Are you a Jew or not? Doesn't matter. Are you circumcised or not? Doesn't matter.
Do you follow Jewish dietary laws? Doesn't matter. Do you love God and wish to do what
is good? That matters.
But this view wasn't easy and was far from universal among Jesus' followers. we need
to remember that this small band of Jews lived their entire history as outsiders. They
had been persecuted by the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and now the Romans.
Their only hope was the belief that a Messiah would come and make them the conquerers, and
now this Messiah had been executed. The idea that this one was resurrected without
defeating the Romans must have seemed like just another in a long line of
Nothing in this history prompted them to dream big, let alone dream global, but the
seeds of that dream are found in this reading.
The life of an outsider is often difficult but there is also a familiarity to it.
There isn't as much responsibility to rule and to lead. Not having authority over others
means you don't have to decide how to treat them. If you don't grow you don't have to
envision a future or decide your direction. And there were some among Jesus' early
followers that wanted to stay small and pure. Their view was this: If Cornelius wanted to
become a follower of Jesus he would have to become a full Jew first. This would have kept
the purity of the group but it likely would never have grown beyond a faction of
Instead our spiritual ancestors chose to break open Jesus' word and salvation. As long
as you love God, believe in Jesus, and serve one another, you belong.
But in some ways we are still outsiders in a sense and we see that in the Gospel
reading. In growing this movement, this church, this moral compass, we still sometimes
find ourselves outside. Jesus' call to love is much more than a call to "feel good about
each other" or even serve each other. It's a call to erase the lines between one another
and Jesus uses a fascinating image: he uses the image of a master and servant. To be
successful the master has to keep the servant in the dark. During slavery in the United
States it was (in some places) against the law to teach a slave to read, lest he use this
power to escape or overthrow the master. The very system was predicated on holding people
down and making sure they "knew their place." It was predicated on the assumption that
knowledge in the wrong hands was dangerous to the system. And it recognized that the
master's hold on power was so precarious it demanded widespread ignorance.
This call to move beyond master and servant tells us that God not only loves us but
trusts us. We are no longer commanded to be illiterate but are liberated to be
knowledgeable. We Christians sometimes puzzle those of other faiths because we want to
understand the mind of God. They think it's enough to just shut up and do what they're
told. But we want to know God and thereby participate in God's will. God's plan of
salvation calls us not only to obey but to participate. We are co-builders in the Kingdom
This has called us to hard choices and we haven't always gotten it right. But when we
are at our best we can look into the eyes of today's Cornelius and welcome him home.
May 3, 2015: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles
comes to us shortly after the conversion of Saul (Paul) from Pharisee to a follower of
Jesus. Previous to his conversion he persecuted Jesus' followers with great vigor. Here
he comes to Jerusalem with the expectation of joining the disciples but they were fearful
of him. One of them, Barnabas, believes him and introduces him to the community. Saul
(Paul) preached fearlessly but when he spoke with the Hellenists (Greeks) they decided to
kill him. The disciples took him out of Jerusalem for his protection and took him to
Tarsus. John's Gospel has Jesus speaking to his disciples. He describes himself as the
true vine and his disciples the branches. Using this analogy he tells them that branches
that bear no fruit are pruned away and burned. The fact that they are still there is
proof that they have not been pruned. He reminds them that the branch cannot bear fruit
unless it is connected to the vine.
Last week John used images of sheep and shepherds to describe the relationship between
Jesus and his disciples. Today he uses images of vines and branches. To be frank I am
grateful for this because while I know next to nothing about gardening, I at least know
people who do.
Whether you garden for pleasure or for livelihood, you know that gardening combines
equal measures of effort and patience. Much is beyond your control (as we who are living
with the drought here in California are only too aware) but you can't just plant seeds and
wait for fruit to come.
Gardeners prune branches for two reasons. The first is aesthetic: nobody wants a
garden that looks overgrown. If you live in the southern United States you are aware of
kudzu, a plant that will, when planted, take over entire fields, hillsides, fences, and
even houses. Here in California we have the same situation with ice plant. Ice plant
doesn't burn well and is a good barrier to prevent wildfires, but once in place it just
doesn't know when to quit. The second reason, however, is more important. If you are a
branch and your job is to produce fruit, you are limited in the amount of nutrition you
receive from the vine. If the vine has fewer branches it can give more nutrition than if
it has many branches.
This may seem obvious, but the consequences are critically important. As disciples of
Jesus, how do we know which branches are fruitful and which are a waste of nutrition?
In some ways this is the heart of the question in Acts. The early disciples were
grappling with the question of who was on their side and who wasn't. At first blush it
appears that Saul would not be a good candidate under any circumstances.
OK, I need to provide some explanation here. Some characters in the Bible change their
names after life changing events. It's commonly believed that Saul became Paul after his
conversion, but unfortunately it's not true. This reading comes after his conversion but
he's still called Saul. Four chapters after this Saul becomes Paul, with no apparent
reason. We have no idea why his name changed.
In any case Saul/Paul posed a quandary for the disciples: how can they trust him? He
devoted his life to persecuting followers of Jesus when he had an experience that
convinced him that Jesus was the real deal. He came away from this experience with the
same devotion and zeal, but a different direction. He decided to devote the rest of his
life to proclaiming that Jesus was indeed the Redeemer. But his first job was to convince
those he used to persecute that he was now one of them.
For reasons that none of us understand, he had a sponsor. Barnabas, one of the
disciples, heard his story and believed him. Barnabas decided that Saul/Paul was a branch
that was trustworthy, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, and convinced the
other disciples that they should believe him. Barnabas saw something that everyone else
missed: this guy has both the determination and the moral compass to advance our
Barnabas was right and we are all better off for that. It's hard to imagine what we
would be as a Church without Saul/Paul. It took the inspiration of Barnabas to make us
what we are.
And so today we continue the role of Barnabas. As a worldwide Church of a billion
members scattered all over the world we struggle on the continuum of doctrine vs.
hospitality. We need to stay true to our beliefs while being a community that welcomes
those who come from different experiences.
My friend Lynn describes the Church this way: Here Comes Everyone! But if we're in the
business of grafting branches onto existing vines (as evangelization calls us to do), how
do we know which branches will be fruitful? When Saul/Paul wanted to be grafted most
disciples looked on this with fear. Only Barnabas looked on him with hope, and he was
I'm not alone in this belief but I'm a big fan of Pope Francis. His predecessor
operated on the belief that our Church required purity even if that meant a smaller
Church. Our current leader, more like Barnabas, sees something in those who wish to join
us. He understands that when the vine decides which branches to invest in, he chooses
branches that nobody else would choose.
And so who are the branches we see that others don't? As disciples we are often called
to advocate for those nobody else sees. Maybe it's the coworker who is disliked but just
needs some encouragement. Maybe it's the guy in the next pew doesn't smell good but
doesn't have access to a shower. Maybe it's the neighbor who seems angry but is really
frightened and lonely.
Maybe our role as followers of Jesus calls us to welcome all the other branches and
trust that the vine has an unlimited amount of nutrition. When we think of what it means
to belong to a religious tradition we often think about it in terms of who we include and
who we exclude. But should we? Maybe we're called to be follow Pope Francis and
celebrate the opportunity to be Barnabas.
April 26, 2015: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading continues the Acts of the
Apostles where Peter tells the gathered that the miracles the apostles perform are the
result of Jesus, whom they had killed. Peter tells them that the stone the builders
rejected has become the cornerstone. In John's Gospel Jesus proclaims himself the good
shepherd and explains that a good shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep, unlike
one hired to care for the sheep. Jesus continues this imagery by saying that "as the
Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for my sheep." Finally he
talks about sheep of other folds that he will lead, until there will be only one flock and
When Jesus used the imagery of a shepherd and sheep, nearly two thousand years ago, he
spoke to a group that understood sheep and shepherds and much could have been left unsaid.
I wonder what he thinks about how we are reading this now.
Maybe I speak only for myself, but I have never met a shepherd, I don't remember the
last time I saw a live lamb, and when I think of lamb I think of the meat department at
Costco. I know next to nothing about sheep, shepherds, and the relationship between them.
My research made this reading pretty puzzling to me.
Shepherds, in the time of Jesus, lived a difficult life. They were constantly on the
move, finding pastures and water for their flocks. Part of their movement was guided by
the calendar but at least some of it was guided by unpredictable forces like rainfall and
other flocks. Their lives were a far cry from the city dwellers at that time, let alone
us modern city dwellers.
This may be a little unsettling but a good shepherd does not lay down his life for his
flock. Their flocks were certainly their livelihood and they could take difficult and
dangerous chances to preserve their flock. But in the end no shepherd would willingly lay
down his life so that his sheep may live. The best image I could find was this: a
shepherd sees his sheep in much the same way a carpenter sees his tools. His life depends
on them and he takes pride in how they do, but in the end sheep are used for wool,
milk/cheese, and yes, dinner.
The line "my own know me" may well give us the key to this passage. It is true that
the flock, much like our own pets today, recognize us and our voice. I read that while all
the sheep of the flock may recognize the shepherd's voice, they may have had different
reactions. Some of the sheep recognize the shepherd's voice and stay close to the
shepherd for safety. But others, outliers, recognize the shepherd's voice but find the
desire to wander irresistible, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of their wandering.
It's as if they "think" themselves invincible and see no harm in wandering.
Of course the shepherd is shepherd to them all, even the most reckless of the
wanderers. Shepherds tend to spend most of their time and energy on these wanderers, but
what did the shepherds think of them? Most probably spent most of their time grumbling
and wondering if they could trade these sheep to other shepherds in return for more
obedient ones. But perhaps some shepherds looked on these "disobedient" sheep with a wry
affection. The fact that they could keep these sheep in line probably made these
shepherds better at their craft and made them better shepherds.
In my work with hospice my teammates and I often find that the most irascible patients
are the ones who steal our hearts; it's the "grumpy old men" that we talk about long
after they're gone. It's almost as if their very grumpiness brought out the best of our
I like to think these shepherds looked at the obedient and disobedient sheep much like
the father in the Prodigal Son parable in Luke. The father loved both of his sons, for
different reasons, and his family would never be a family without both of them.
And so given this, how does Jesus see the outliers in his flock? We, who strive for
and do not achieve unconditional love, can easily find ourselves so weary of the outliers
in our life that sometimes walk away from the outliers in our lives and write them off as
a loss. No shepherd can keep all of his sheep and some wander off despite the shepherd's
best efforts. But Jesus, the good shepherd, does not cut his losses. His unconditional
love is stronger than our ability to wander off, and stronger than the ability to write
off the people we want him to abandon.
If the Gospel calls us to understand sheep, the first reading calls us to architecture.
A cornerstone is the first stone laid in the construction of a building. The building
will only rise straight and true if the cornerstone is perfect; a stonecutter makes
certain the stone is without blemish or imperfection. I wonder how many stones he rejects
before finding the one he thinks is perfect.
Jesus was the perfect cornerstone but was rejected. How could this happen? Well, if
the stonecutter isn't good at his job he can make a mistake. Or, if he's dishonest he can
take a bribe to use an inferior stone, hoping he'll be far away before anyone notices.
And so he rejects the good stone to use the inferior stone.
OK, so Jesus is the perfect cornerstone. Where does that get us? I hope it gets us to
see that at times we are the cornerstone who has been rejected. How many of us
lost out a job opportunity or a promotion in favor of an inferior candidate who had an
unfair leg up? And while we may find some smug satisfaction in watching this person flame
out, it's hard to get beyond the anger of knowing we could have done it better.
But we are also called to see when those around us are the rejected cornerstone. The
separation between Jesus and others who claimed to be the Messiah is that Jesus was right.
He was, in a sense, the right man for the job. But it took a true heart with no agenda
other than love to see that it was Jesus. It calls us to use that same heart of love when
we see others. This is a lifelong quest, but we find the rejected cornerstone when, and
only when, we eliminate greed, jealousy, and competition from our heart.
It also makes us closer to a good shepherd.
And by the way, my apologies if I got any of the sheep and shepherd stuff wrong. I did
April 19, 2015: The Third Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is
a chapter earlier than last week's reading. Peter, already taking his place as the leader
of Jesus' followers, speaks to his fellow Jews. He tells them that the God they have
worshipped all their lives sent Jesus to be among them. They then turned him over to
Pilate and he was killed while a murderer (Barabas) was set free. Peter then tells them
that they did not know what they were doing and this was how God carried out his plan.
Peter then tells those gathered to repent and turn to God to have their sins forgiven.
Luke's Gospel takes place immediately after two disciples encountered Jesus on the road to
Emmaus. The disciples returned to Jerusalem and began to describe their sighting to the
others. As they were talking Jesus appeared to them. They were at first frightened
because they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus assured them he was real and showed
him his hands and feet and ate a piece of broiled fish to show them he was real. He then
went through Scripture to show that this is what had been foretold all along.
This had to be good for the disciples and everyone gathered: Jesus is not only alive,
he's resurrected. This Jesus, this man who we all felt so compelling, whose
words burned in our ears, is back. So many of his words were puzzling and it was easy to
ignore what we didn't understand. And now we understand them and are learning that so
much of what we didn't understand was the most important part of his message.
But I wonder if this joy wasn't tinged with just a little bit of fear. Peter's words
were pretty frank: You, all you gathered here on Solomon's Portico (where Jesus was
rejected in John's Gospel chapter 10 verse 23), you took the man God sent. You had him
arrested by Pilate who set free a murderer and killed Jesus. And now Jesus is back.
I wonder how many in the crowd feared that Jesus may be back to settle some scores. "I
remember you: you were the one who told everyone that my turning water into wine was a
trick, a sleight of hand. And you, you were the woman who told my mother that she should
be ashamed of me. And you Pharisees: you didn't like it when I accused you of binding up
heavy loads for others to carry but I was right. I see you still use your intelligence to
make others feel foolish and benefit from the work of others for your livelihood. You,
who were supposed to be my followers, rejected me at every turn. Well I'm back. And I'm
your worst nightmare. It's MY turn now."
Of course this is not what happened. As a matter of fact Peter makes excuses for them:
they didn't really know what they were doing and this echoed Jesus on the cross (Luke
23:34): "Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." For most of our
human experience this idea of forgiveness and excusing past behavior has been a sign of
weakness. Strength must be used to enforce power and revenge is a powerful tool to make
sure nobody makes the same mistake again.
We see that even more clearly in Jesus' dealings with his disciples. Let us not forget
that it was not long before that these very disciples abandoned Jesus on the cross. As a
matter of fact Peter, the leader of this ragtag band, denied he even knew Jesus. [As an
aside whenever one of my hospice patients worries that his or her sins will prevent entry
into Heaven I remind them that Peter denied Jesus three times and now has the keys to the
In the writing of this passage from Luke we can see how bewildered and then thrilled
the disciples were from seeing the resurrected Jesus, but we don't have much insight into
how Jesus felt. Perhaps he forgave them through grit teeth but I don't think so. I think
Jesus was able to see into the heart of his disciples and see that their sins were not so
much calculating as they were filled with fear. Peter did not deny he knew Jesus because
he was going on to the next chapter of his life, but because he was afraid he would end up
under the same sentence as Jesus. Those who abandoned Jesus did it out of a well placed
belief that the Romans were not done with his band of followers.
And so Jesus embeds his forgiveness in the quelling of their fears. His first words to
them were "Peace be with you." Peace, and not "teaching a lesson" would be the path of
Jesus. He set us on a course of love and reconciliation, not power and revenge.
This month we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. On April
9, 1865 General Grant of the Union armies accepted the unconditional surrender of Robert
E. Lee of the Confederate army. Many in the north demanded, and many in the south feared,
revenge. Just as George Washington and our founders knew that the gallows would await
their defeat, many thought that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee should face the same
But President Lincoln did not. A man of deep and at times tortured spirituality spoke
these words in 1864:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with
firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the
work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the
battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just
and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Unfortunately, in a cruel irony of history, President Lincoln was assassinated a few
days later and his dream of healing and reconciliation was replaced by a policy of
Reconstruction that scars us to this day. Carpetbaggers, opportunists, and thieves sought
to profit on southerners who were already at the point of starvation.
Nobody wanted a repeat of the Civil War with its over 600,000 dead. But President
Lincoln's vision of peace through healing and reconciliation was replaced by "making the
South pay." Without making too much of this I believe that our history would have taken a
much better path had we (quoting Lincoln again) listened to the "better angels of our
And while we will likely never have as large a part in our history as President
Lincoln, we all live with the choices he made and the path Jesus chose for us. We all
live with individual betrayals, broken promises, and the like. We can all list those
times when someone did not treat us according to the better angels of their nature and we
have to decide how we are going to respond to that hurt.
And honestly there are times when the other person acted with malice and the
relationship needs to end. Also there are times when we are victimized by someone we
aren't (and never will be) in relationship with. But the resurrection of Jesus calls us
toward the path of love because exacting revenge or "teaching a lesson" only raises the
ante and calls the other to do the same.
That said we live in a society where seemingly every day some event "goes viral."
Sometimes they are short videos of kittens being kittens but sometimes they are something
darker. Last month a busload of fraternity brothers in Oklahoma chanted a racist and
deeply offensive song (sung, ironically, to the tune of If You're Happy and You Know
It Clap Your Hands). This was clearly sinful behavior but it was a sin committed by
young men whose judgement was still developing and for whom peer pressure is a strong and
dominating force. The fact that this chant was secretly videotaped and released to the
press did nothing to make the sin more serious but it went viral. Within a few days, two
members of the fraternity were expelled, the campus fraternity was closed, and some
members of the fraternity received death threats.
Nobody excuses what they did but instead of using this as a teachable moment and a
recognition that racism still exists in our nation, it turned into a virtual lynch mob
complete with the internet equivalent of pitchforks and torches. This could and should
have been a recognition that wisdom called them to step back from the need to get along
and realize how hurtful speech is not our call. Instead we have young men who fear that
the stupidest moment of their lives will follow them. Of the two young men who were
expelled, I hope they can quietly enroll somewhere else and live their lives looking
forward. But I fear that they will never be free of the fear of hearing: "Weren't you
that guy who..."
Let us, this Easter season, use our gifts to advance healing and reconciliation. Let
us not settle scores but instead move us forward. Let us recognize that we want to be
seen and remembered by the better angels of our nature and not our worst moments. And let
us live with the awareness our actions can allow others to do the same.
April 12, 2015: The Second Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: We are going to spend a great deal of the Easter
Season reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It was written by the author of Luke's
Gospel and recounts the earliest days of the community that gathered around the
Resurrection of Jesus. Here we read about how the whole group of believers were united in
everything. None claimed authority over anyone else and they all shared what they had.
They sold everything they owned and brought the money to the apostles who gave to anyone
in need. John's Gospel recounts the first time Jesus appears to the disciples. As proof
that he was truly Jesus he showed them the wounds in his hands and side. Thomas, one of
the Twelve, was not present and when he was told that Jesus appeared, he said he would not
believe it was Jesus until he saw the wounds himself. A week later Thomas was present
with the disciples and Jesus appeared again. Jesus invited Thomas to place his fingers in
Jesus' wounds. Instead Thomas answered: "My Lord and my God!" Jesus then told him that
he believed because he saw, but blessed are those who have not seen but believe.
Let us go back to the beginning. If we understand how something started we can
understand what we are to do now. I'm an unquenchable student of history and I can't get
enough of understanding what really happened long, long ago. This thirst brings
with it an almost inevitable belief that the more we understand about then, the more we
will understand now.
It's true, after all. We continue to study the U.S. Constitution as we debate legal
issues today. We read Shakespeare nearly 400 years after his death because of his
insights into human behavior and character. And we read these passages from the Acts of
the Apostles to gain an understanding of how that first generation of disciples saw Jesus
and themselves as they built the first building blocks of what we now understand is the
But there's a problem here: interest in our history can easily morph into a false
nostalgia. We can look at an event in history and believe that this event was the most
pure and we need to ignore everything that has happened since and replicate that time.
But it's not true. Astrophysicists look through elaborate telescopes to "look back in
time" to understand the Big Bang, an event that we think took place 13.8 billion years ago
in hopes of understanding our current universe. Archaeologists spend their lives sifting
through rock and sand to find clues to ancient times to understand why we are who we are.
Genealogists (like me) sift through records to find information on our ancestors in our
quest to understand who we are.
But this knowledge we gain should never to go back in time and ignore all that has
happened since then. Last week I spoke about a progressive understanding of history and
how that runs against a belief that we need to remember for the purpose of redoing.
The history of Christianity is littered with communities who read this passage from
Acts and falsely decided that they needed to go back and recreate this passage. The
opening line, "The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for
his own use anything that he had, as everything they owned was held in common" has become
the mission statement for dozens (perhaps hundreds) of failed communities.
Thomas Merton, in his book The Waters of Siloe describes one such event. In
1848 a Trappist Monastery in France decided to send several members to the United States
to found a monastery in Kentucky in the United States. The journey was not easy and it
involved several legs, including a boat trip across the Atlantic Ocean to New Orleans and
then a trip up the Mississippi River. In France they were joined by a group who called
themselves "Icarians." They were nonreligious and believed that they would join a utopian
community where all were equals and nobody would want for anything and they were headed
for Texas to join an existing community. But when they reached New Orleans the Icarians
learned that the community they were to join had already fallen apart. The Icarians then
fought among themselves for the remaining resources. One attempted to steal the entire
purse and another committed suicide. It became an absolute failure.
We should not see this reading from Acts as a blueprint for our Catholic community
today, 2000 years later. We misread this passage when we look at it and say: "They had it
right and we have strayed. We should go back to our roots and live as they did." In fact
they didn't for very long. As we read the history of the first generations of Jesus'
disciples we read how they struggled to find their path in the community where they lived.
Acts is not an account of how they had it right and then began to drift; it is an account
of how they came together and found their path.
The ideal of a communal treasury where everyone contributes according to his ability
and takes according to his need simply does not work on a large scale. This model works
in families: the adults who are able to work contribute to the whole and the children (or
those unable to work) benefit from that. No family goes out to dinner and expects the
children to contribute to the bill or divides up the admission to Disneyland equally among
all its members. It's understood that some can provide more than they take and others
take more than they can provide.
But as we read in later passages in Acts and in much of Paul's letters the community
recognized that some were wealthy and some were poor. The rise of deacons, as we see in
the 6th chapter of Acts, came out the recognition that some widows were not being
supported. Instead of demanding that everyone contribute to a common pool, deacons were
appointed to ensure the poor were cared for. This allowed the community to experience
generosity and allowed the widows to benefit. The wealthiest among the disciples were
still wealthier than the widows, but at least the widows had enough to live on.
This may seem like a bit of a curveball, but I want to use the same point when I speak
of the Gospel. Many of you have heard me, in years past, grumble about how my namesake
Thomas gets bad press. He is often seen as the "apostle with the asterisk," the one with
just enough faith, but not as much as Jesus wanted.
I don't think that's fair. Jesus' followers were gathered together and saw the risen
Jesus and Jesus showed them the wounds from his crucifixion. Later, when Thomas heard
about this he told them he wouldn't believe until he actually touched the wounds. Was
this because of a deficit of faith? I really don't think so. I think Thomas was so
devastated by the events of Good Friday that he dared not hope because he could not have
lived with those hopes being dashed once again. I simply think he asked for the proof the
other apostles had been given.
And I'd also like to point out that when he encountered the risen Jesus and Jesus
offered Thomas to touch the wounds, Thomas did not. He simply said: "My Lord and my God."
Jesus' phrase after that is what most of us find most interesting: "Have you come to
believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."
Throughout the years we've read this line and assumed it meant that Thomas didn't have
enough faith but I don't think that's true. Again we are in the first few days of our
history as disciples of Jesus. This scene isn't meant to be the ideal we should all
aspire to. I think Jesus was telling the apostles (and us) something different: I think
Jesus was telling them (and us) that those who had the opportunity to see the wounds would
dwindle and eventually die out over the years. Within a few decades there would be nobody
around who had the opportunity to see the wounds. When Jesus speaks of those who have not
seen and have believed, he is talking about all of us. We have not seen, two thousand
years later, and we believe. And we are blessed.
Today we continue our journey with the resurrected Jesus. Let us celebrate not only
those events we read about in these readings, but also the journey that has brought us to
today. As disciples we need to look back to these early days but not do so as a way of
demeaning where we are and who we are today. These events remind us, and in truth keep us
true to our journey, but they are not the "magic time" that we lost. We are not called to
be the first generation that knew Jesus but we called the be those who continue to know
Jesus two millennia later. We are not called to recreate the first few chapters of the
Acts of the Apostles but we are called to act as apostles in our own day.
Let us celebrate the apostles of Jesus' time, the apostles of today, and all the
apostles in the time in between.
April 5, 2015: Easter
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from the 10th chapter of
the Acts of the Apostles (get used to this: we're going to spend the entire Easter season
reading from Acts). Here Peter recounts Jesus' life, how he was baptized by John and
began his public ministry, after which Jesus spent his time doing good and healing those
possessed by the devil. When he was killed, God rose him from the dead and revealed to
his disciples who were charged with proclaiming that he rose from the dead to forgive
sins. John's Gospel depicts Mary Magdalene finding the tomb empty; panicked (for she
feared someone had stolen his body) she races to Peter and John who race to the tomb.
They found the tomb empty and believed that Jesus was raised from the dead.
And they all lived happily ever after. Isn't that how it's supposed to go after Jesus
rises from the dead? This past week we've read (and reread) passages describing the chaos
surrounding Jesus' last week before his crucifixion, how seemingly random events all came
together on the cross at Golgatha.
And then today, we discover...........nothing. In this account Mary of Magdala comes
to grieve at the tomb and finds that it's empty. OK, quick show of hands: how many of us
picture this scene where she, Peter, and all the other disciples immediately understand
that Jesus rose from the dead as he promised? Maybe it's just me but for much of my life
I looked at this scene and assumed everyone saw the empty tomb and said: "Yes, he did it.
Just like he said. Now we are redeemed, saved, destined for Heaven, and (let's face it)
Here in John's account of the resurrection there is a hint of this: "Till this moment
they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead."
Other Gospels paint a similar, though different, picture. In Matthew an earthquake
precedes an angel who tells Mary that Jesus has risen from the dead. Mark describes a
young man dressed in white who tells them that Jesus has been raised. Finally, Luke
describes two men in dazzling garments who announce that Jesus has risen from the
I've said this before: I'm grateful not to be a fundamentalist because I'm not troubled
by these different accounts but whenever I picture them in my mind I'm struck by how
chaotic this event must have seemed to them. While we, two thousand years later, can pick
out passages where Jesus foreshadows his passion, death, and resurrection, I'm fairly
certain that his disciples didn't (and it bears mentioning that the Gospel accounts we
read were written decades after the event).
What did it mean that Jesus was arrested and tried by the Romans? Given their
collective decision to flee I don't imagine they were looking ahead to his resurrection.
The same with his death, abandoned and alone. Given that I'm not convinced that their
first response to the empty tomb was joyful. As a matter of fact perhaps the most honest
response was Mary Magdalene's: someone has stolen his body.
So indeed what did happen that first day, that first Easter? Frankly I think we
continue to unpack that question even to our own day.
For all my criticism, I do give props to those first disciples (and, to give credit
where credit is due, the term "apostle" is given to anyone who saw the resurrected Jesus).
In fits and starts they were able to journey beyond their shock and grief to ultimately
understand the incredible scenes they witnessed and become the saints we honor to this
day. In this season of Easter we will read in the book of Acts how they proclaimed and
ultimately suffered from the message that began this first day of the week.
But we need to understand that they did this against a backdrop that did not give them
much evidence. The resurrection of Jesus was supposed to be a deliverance from a depraved
world to a redeemed world. Non Christians point out that this did not cure us from death
(people still died) or violence (wars continue to this day) or suffering (disease also got
a pass). They ask us how the resurrection of Jesus changed anything and we
Christians struggle to find evidence to challenge them. Nor are they satisfied with the
simplistic answer we were taught as children: "But now when we die we will go to Heaven
and anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus won't."
Is it really just that? Did Jesus rise from the dead so that only those "in the know"
will be saved? What of those who lived and died before these events? What of those who
lived and died after these events but weren't told about it? What of those good, honest,
and life giving people who were told about it but chose another path? Is Heaven really
just for us?
You know me well enough to know that I don't think that's true. I can't believe that
Jesus' resurrection saved Martin Luther King but not Gandhi. This message that is
proclaimed isn't just for those who hear it, but for everyone. I believe that the
resurrection of Jesus is meant for the entire world, not just a select few.
And here's the problem: too often in our history we've treated this event as if it were
proprietary information. As if the secret code for salvation is that Jesus rose from the
dead, and that the Gates of Heaven are some sort of speakeasy.
It's not. The message we proclaim, the true Good News, is that Jesus rose from the
dead not so much that we will do better in the next world, but that we now have the tools
to do better in this world.
In the last several decades it's become fashionable as Christians to believe the world
is getting worse and that we are "going to Hell in a hand basket" but I challenge that.
As a lifelong believer in Jesus Christ I come to these events with the belief that the
world is progressive and not regressive. What does that mean? It means that things are
getting better and when asked for proof I point to the empty tomb. I believe, as a
disciple of Jesus Christ, that his resurrection frees us not only to salvation in the next
world, but to redemption in this world.
You don't have to be a student of history to know that we live with events of the past
that trouble us. Let me begin with an obvious example: crucifixion. I've spoken of this
before, but crucifixion was intended to bring about the most horrible death imaginable. I
don't think I'm stretching things to point out that in the Roman Empire crucifixion was
outlawed 300 years later by the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. Here we
see a disciple of Jesus who outlaws they method of execution that was used on Jesus.
The rest of history is teaming with examples. In the days when Scripture was being
written slavery was a given and nobody questioned it. Now we look at passages of
Scripture where slavery is accepted and it troubles us. This is hard even to stomach, but
Exodus 22:15 and Deuteronomy 22:28 command that if a man rapes a woman (literally seizes
her and lies with her), that man shall compensate her father and marry her. In other
words, if you break it you buy it. The woman is a commodity that no longer has value.
In our own history as Americans we flinch when we recognize that our 3rd President,
Thomas Jefferson, had a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, and
she bore him several children. Since she was a slave and did not have the ability to deny
him, he is (according to our definition) a rapist.
I could go on for pages but here's my point: we live in a world where we are learning
how to better treat each other. In the last 50 years racism has gone from a given to a
sin. Sexism is heading in the same direction (just watch an episode of Mad Men to see my
point). Homophobia, while still lagging, is also being called out for this sin it is.
Is this because we are getting smarter? Or is it because we are continuing to learn
the message Jesus gave us in his ministry and emblazoned in our hearts that first day of
Does the resurrection mean that this world doesn't change but means that we get the
sweeter deal in the us vs. them afterlife? Or does it call us to see not only Jesus with
new eyes, but each other?
And finally (and perhaps most cynically), if I'm wrong and this is all about how we get
in and others don't, what do we lose by treating everyone as being saved? Think about
this the next time you see someone who needs encouragement.
March 29, 2015: The Passion of the Lord (Palm Sunday)
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: Today is Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, and
the readings are a little unusual. At the beginning of mass we read from Mark's gospel
that Jesus instructs his disciples to find a colt outside Jerusalem and bring it to Jesus.
Jesus will then ride on the colt (or donkey) into Jerusalem where his followers will lay
their cloaks or palm fronds in the road to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem. The palm fronds
give rise to calling this day "Palm Sunday." The first reading at mass comes from the Old
Testament prophet Isaiah. The prophet speaks of having been given a "well trained tongue"
from the Lord that allows him to speak. For his part, Isaiah proclaims that he offers no
resistance to evil. He will offer his back to those to beat him and his cheeks to those
who pluck his beard. Because the Lord is his help he shall not be shamed. Finally Mark's
Gospel (the entire 14th chapter and almost all the 15th chapter) recounts Jesus' passion,
from two days before the Last Supper to his death. This account begins Bethany where
Jesus is eating with his disciples and a woman comes and anoints him with perfumed oil.
Judas then leaves and goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus. Later, on the first
night of Passover Jesus predicts that he will be betrayed, and his disciples all protest,
but Judas flees. Then Jesus breaks and blesses the bread; at the end of the meal he does
the same with the cup of wine. Jesus then predicts that all of them will lose faith.
When Peter proclaims he will never lose faith, Jesus predicts that before sunrise Peter
will deny Jesus three times. After they finished eating they went to the Garden of
Gethsemane and Jesus went off alone to pray. There Jesus asked God to "take this cup away
from me" but that Jesus will do God's will. After praying Jesus returns to find that his
disciples are all asleep. He wakes them and tells them he will be betrayed. Right then
Judas appears with a number of armed men. They arrest Jesus and take him away. Jesus is
then taken to the chief priests who accuse him of blasphemy. They bring Jesus to the
Roman ruler Pilate. During this time someone approaches Peter and claims to have seen
Peter with Jesus. Three times Peter denies knowing Jesus, after which a rooster crows
(announcing sunrise). Jesus is questioned by Pilate who appears puzzled and does not know
why the crowd wants Jesus crucified. But he is not willing to stand up to the crowd and
orders Jesus' execution. Jesus is then beaten and taken to Golgotha and crucified along
with two criminals. After he dies on the cross he is taken down; a wealthy Jew named
Joseph then asks Pilate for Jesus' body and buries him in a tomb.
This may be hard to imagine but preaching on Palm Sunday is not as easy as it looks.
Whether we were born into a Christian church or converted from another faith, this is the
story we've heard from the very beginning. Countless books have been written about these
events and movies from Ben Hur to The Greatest Story Ever Told continue
to depict what happened over 2000 years ago. Every year on Palm Sunday and Good Friday we
read an account of the passion and death of Jesus and we picture these images. The
Procession into Jerusalem. The Last Supper. The Garden of Gethsemane. The Arrest.
Jesus before Pilate. The Scourging. The Procession to Golgatha. The Crucifixion.
Catholics remember well on Fridays in Lent going to the Stations of the Cross.
So where to begin? It's clear that any sermon that encompasses all these events would
take all of Holy Week. As a matter of fact, most Palm Sunday sermons are fairly short as
the readings are so long.
Last week I spoke about the death of Jesus as a necessary step in his resurrection and
how it has always puzzled me that we have blamed others, particularly Jews, as "Christ
killers." I received a response from a friend that I've been thinking about as I've been
writing this. She wrote to me about recognizing that this new covenant of love goes to
the heart of Jesus' coming but being troubled by the idea that Jesus had to die for this
covenant to be fulfilled.
I confess that I'm also a little troubled. Could it have gone another way? Could
Jesus have brought this covenant, this key to salvation, without the Passion? As a
Christian I know that the answer has to be "no" only because Jesus wouldn't have died if
there had been another way.
But is that true? What if Jesus was born of Mary, proclaimed a new covenant, and lived
his life as just another human? What if he died of natural causes after a long and
fulfilled life? There have certainly been figures in history who have done that. The
Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism), Muhammad, and many others. All were
born normally, taught what they were given, and died natural deaths. Why not Jesus?
I think there is something different and unique about Christianity and the covenant of
Jesus. I've spoken of this before, but we are not a religion that separates us from God.
That's how we started out: God created the universe and watched over it from Heaven. But
at some point that separation troubled God and God decided not to watch us, not to send a
messenger, but to send God's very self. That required an entire new paradigm, one that we
continue to discuss, pray about, and grapple with. Jesus needed to come among us, live
fully our lives, and elevate us. Jesus' coming had to throw out the old playbook and
start something new.
So if Jesus needed to be born among us, did he need to die, and did he need to die in
such a horrible way? When I think about this I think of Lazarus. If you remember, from
the 11th chapter of John, Lazarus is a friend of Jesus who falls ill and eventually dies
while Jesus is nearby. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and they all live happily ever
after. Could Jesus have done the same?
I don't think so. We don't know much about Lazarus' death, only that it was ordinary
enough that we don't have a description. But when Jesus raises him from the dead, he's
pretty much the same guy. It's almost as if his death was an interruption. It's also
true that at some point Lazarus did die and did not come back.
I've spoken of this before, but Jesus' death was horrific beyond words. The Romans
executed people quite liberally during their reign, but crucifixion was reserved for a
select few. It was a painful death that often lasted a few days and was intended not only
to kill the criminal but to warn others. It was reserved for slaves who killed their
masters, for those guilty of high treason against Rome: it was not for the common criminal
and it was prohibited for Roman citizens. It was, simply put, the height of evil.
And maybe that's the point. Jesus came to bring us eternal life, to grant us
redemption and salvation, and to ultimately defeat ultimate evil with ultimate good.
It is as if Jesus announced to the world: "Give my your worst evil. Make my death the
most horrific and painful imaginable. And I will rise up and defeat not only evil, but
I write this with the recognition that the physical pain Jesus suffered was not his
only suffering. Because of films like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and
others, it's easy to focus on physical suffering alone. A few years ago I was talking to
a friend of mine who felt it was her duty as a Christian to see the movie (and truth be
told I never saw it). I observed that when I think about the most hellish moments of my
life, they tend to focus around experiences of humiliation and isolation. That's what
strikes me most about Jesus' death: the ones who were the most vocal fled and left him
alone. They were more concerned with their own safety; they served their own fear instead
And so we find this man nearly alone (props to the women who were at the foot of the
cross) enduring unimaginable suffering. Too often we look at the fact that this suffering
was caused by human evil. I've often joked that we were told as children: "Jesus died for
your sins. Nice going." But instead let us look at this event not in terms of the evil
we are capable of, but of the love that God is capable of. No matter how often we're told
that God's love is infinite there's a part of us that worries that our capacity for evil
will one day cause God to say: "OK, that's it. I'm done with you. I've given you every
opportunity to get it right and still you get it wrong. You are now officially on your
But we know God won't. This Easter let us celebrate the fact that not only was Jesus
capable of defeating evil, he was willing. And we are who we are because of it.
March 22, 2015: 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 Jeremiah. He speaks of a new covenant that God will make with the Houses of
Israel and Judah. This will be a new kind of covenant, not like the one that made after
the escape from Egypt. That covenant was broken by the people. This new covenant will be
written on the hearts of God's followers; this new covenant will not need to be taught.
All will know God and God's forgiveness will be complete. John's Gospel begins with some
Greeks who approach Phillip asking to see Jesus. Jesus replied to this request by
proclaiming that the "hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." He tells them
that just as a grain of wheat must die before it can yield a rich harvest, so anyone who
"hates his life in this world will keep it for the eternal life." Jesus goes on to say
that his soul is troubled. But he will not ask his Father to save him from this hour
because this is why he has come. He ends by stating that when he is lifted up from the
earth he will draw all to himself.
I think that while we all grew up in families that exhibited a certain amount of
dysfunction (let me know if you're an exception), we all grew up with a certain
understanding of rules, limits, boundaries, and fences. From our earliest memories we
were taught what we needed to do, could do, and couldn't do. Some of these centered on
safety and these don't change: no matter how old we are we're not supposed to touch a hot
stove or cross the street against traffic. But other rules concerned how we treat each
other. While we wanted others to share with us, we needed to learn that we have to share
with others. We knew we didn't like it when others were mean but we needed to learn not
to be mean to them. We didn't know it at the time but we were building contracts and
covenants with each other. Some of these covenants were constructed out of our own
relationships with each other but many more were given to us by parents, teacher, and
Hopefully as we grew older and understood the mutual need to get along we moved beyond
these simple contracts. By adolescence we learned that these contracts with each other
didn't need to be spelled out, that belonging to a group meant we needed to enter into
relationship with others with unspoken expectations. And while nearly everyone I knew
experienced some form of isolation and exile as a teenager, these rough edges normally
As adults we learned that breaking these understandings had bad consequences. An
officemate who took credit for the work of another would get a reputation and lose the
trust of everyone else. A bully would learn that he was only hurting himself by demeaning
others. Obviously this isn't universal as we can all look back on experiences where the
"bad guy" appeared to win, but in the long run good behavior is rewarded.
This reading from Jeremiah reminds me of this progression. Two weeks ago we read about
the Ten Commandments; these explicit rules came from God to a people who were just
beginning to learn how to live with each other. As slaves their only responsibility was
to serve the slavemaster but they were entering into new territory and frankly needed some
guidance. These commandments were the bedrock of that guidance.
And while I'd like to say that they "graduated" from this simple list of rules, the
reality is much more complicated. They certainly had their high points, but Jeremiah
writes in one of the lowest. Jeremiah spent a great deal of time warning the people that
they were straying from God and would pay a price. They ignored him. Then they were
conquered by Babylon, the Temple was destroyed, and their leaders were sent into
Jeremiah, however, does not respond by saying "I told you so" but instead preaching a
message of reconciliation and hope. He didn't say: "You are exiled because you broke the
commandments and now you're going to have to do them over." Nor did he say that God has
abandoned them, as many thought. Instead he appears to take the next step and tell them
that they can now enter into a new kind of covenant.
This new kind of covenant appears to take a step forward when the people have taken a
step backward. In the midst of their misery God proclaims a new covenant that will not be
written on tablet, but on hearts. This new covenant will not be taught, but will instead
be hard wired into who we are.
Did God do this because they had been successful? Clearly not. Did God do this as a
way of abandoning the old method of teaching to the tablets? Perhaps, but I don't think
Instead I suspect that seeing them in exile, where everything they had was destroyed,
and everything they believed was gone, broke God's heart. Yes, they were in exile because
of their sinful ways and yes, they had nobody to blame but themselves. But God responds
not with disappointment or anger, but love. God responded as if to say: "When your exile
is over you don't go back to where you started, you go to where I call you."
Given this I've always been a little troubled when we disciples attempt to find newer
and more creative ways to make newer and more creative rules. We certainly need to find
ways of living with each other and living in the world, but unfettered legalism impedes
our ability to embrace this new covenant. This reading doesn't tell us that there are no
consequences to disobeying God, but that God will not abandon us. I'm certain that I
speak for many of us when I say that Pope Francis has blown fresh air into some old, stale
hallways. His joy and determination to love before he judges tells me that God's covenant
is well written in Francis' heart.
As it should be with us. When we read passages from the Old Testament in Advent and
Lent we often find them foreshadowing Jesus, first his birth and then his passion. I
think this is the first faint signal that God sent us Jesus so that God could be closer to
us. This new covenant, written on our hearts, is not the letters and words of the
tablets, but instead this new covenant is God's full presence with us.
This theme of God doing more than we expect continues in John. Jesus has come, as I
spoke of last week, not just to teach us, to tell us what to do. Jesus came to live our
experience, even death, so that his resurrection gives us all eternal life. Here, in
John's Gospel, we have a different type of Jesus than we find in the other Gospels. In
Matthew's Gospel Jesus prays in the Garden and begs God to "let this cup pass him by."
But here Jesus, while admitting that his soul is troubled, refuses to ask to be saved from
this hour. He really commands the scene in a way we don't see elsewhere.
This brings up an interesting question to me: if Jesus needed to die, why have we,
throughout history, been angry with those who caused Jesus' death? I live close to an
orthodox synagogue and many of my neighbors are Jewish (they need to live within walking
distance of the synagogue since they are prohibited from driving on the Sabbath). I'm
aware that many Jews in history have been persecuted for the crime of killing Jesus. As
an aside, this has always been a false charge as it was the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate who
commanded the execution. But if Jesus needed to die to be risen, and he needed to rise
from the death to redeem us, weren't they all doing God's will? Weren't they players in a
play that needed to unfold as it did? Perhaps just as Cyrus last week was an unaware
player in God's unfolding salvation history, so too was Pilate and the Roman soldiers.
If there's anything we can learn about God it's that God makes choices with little
respect for what we would choose. I don't think Jeremiah's listeners expected that God
would make a new covenant that drew God closer to them, and I don't think Jesus' followers
expected that Jesus would be crucified to be glorified.
As a matter of fact, I think God's choice of mercy and redemption in the midst of our
attempting to make new rules is one of the best things about discipleship.
March 15, 2015: The Fourth Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes to us from the Old
Testament, the 2nd Book of Chronicles. The Books of Chronicles are basically history
books that recount the history of the Israelites. This reading recounts the return from
exile. When the Israelites were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians they feared they
were doomed to extinction. They were saved when the Babylonians were themselves conquered
by the Persians, led by Cyrus. Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to their home and
rebuild their Temple. John's Gospel speaks of God's plan to send His Son (Jesus) to
redeem the world. Jesus did not come to condemn the world but instead redeem it for the
salvation of everyone.
As many of you know I'm a history fan. Nothing makes me happier than finding an
account, written centuries or millenia ago, that describes events that happened at the
time I'm interested in. The "first draft" of history is oftentimes the most accurate. No
surprise I'm a fan of the Old Testament books of Chronicles. Chronicles are the precursor
of weblogs and were written before anyone knew how important their accounts would be in
the history of our faith.
This reading from the 2nd Book of Chronicles describes a critical event in our faith
history. The Israelites entered this reading at their lowest point: Their Temple was
reduced to dust, their leaders were forced into exile, and their future was
Until Cyrus entered the picture. In the "history of faith" Cyrus is seen as
unintentional hero. When he defeated the Babylonians he told the Israelites that they
could return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple and their lives.
Why did Cyrus do this? We really don't know. Maybe he was so intoxicated from his
victory over the Babylonians that he felt generous. Maybe he saw this ragtag minority as
too small to present a threat to him. Or maybe there was the hand of God in this.
I find the last possibility the most interesting. While the Israelites sat in exile in
Babylon they must have thought several things: that God had abandoned them, that God was
defeated by the Babylonian god, that they were doomed to assimilate and be lost to
history. To the few who dreamed of a return from exile I'm certain none of them looked to
Persia and their ruler, Cyrus.
But that's how it happened. Thousands of years before the invention of baseball, this
comes completely out of left field. And the reading appears to bear this out as the Lord
"roused the spirit of Cyrus." But Cyrus is not an Israelite, not one chosen by God, nor
does he become one. Clearly God chose an outsider for this role. And Cyrus did more than
just release them from their chains. The book of Ezra speaks of how he helped them by
restoring their treasures and even provided funds to rebuild the Temple. And he and
Persia remained pagan worshippers.
This idea of going outside the lines to fulfill God's will continues in John's Gospel.
If you've ever seen a football game on TV you're familiar with this reading: John 3:16
("Yes, God loved the world so much that gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes
in him may not be lost but may have eternal life"). But why this method of redeeming the
I think most of us were taught that we were in need of redemption to "undo" the sin of
Adam, that Adam caused Original Sin to come into the world and we needed Jesus to save us
all from that. And there are passages in Paul's letters that appear to make this
explicit. In other words, if Adam hadn't messed things up we wouldn't have needed Jesus
Apologies to my long suffering CCD (Sunday School) teachers, but I find that too
simplistic. As a Christian I have a hard time believing that if Adam had gotten it right,
we'd have no idea that Jesus even exists.
But this speaks to a larger question: Why did our finding, and having a relationship
with, Jesus require his death and resurrection? Couldn't Jesus simply come to us and
announce our redemption?
This is another one of those times where I'm going to go out on a limb. I suspect that
redemption lies not in our sins, but in God's desire to be with us. God created us, put
us here and set us loose. As our history unfolded, some things went well (Noah and his
family) and some things went badly (everyone else). And while God continued to be
involved in our lives it was always from a distance. Redemption came to us not because we
were bad, but because God is good.
God created us, set us loose, and loved us too much to watch us from a distance. God
sent his only son so that God and us, Divine and Human, could be intertwined in a way that
could never be separated. We spend the season of Lent in awe of this.
Lent isn't about paying for the things we've done wrong. Lent is about recognizing the
awesomeness of knowing how much God loves us. It's about changing our routine so that
we'll recognize how blessed and redeemed we are. If you've given something up for lent
you're reminded of God's love every time you don't do/eat/drink whatever you've given up.
If you've decided to do something positive for lent you're reminded of God's love every
time you do it.
And maybe the most important part of recognizing our redemption lies in the first
reading. We all want our lives to go well but sometimes we look in the wrong direction.
The Israelites were in a bad place, exiled in Babylon, and deliverance came from a place
nobody expected. Today's Gospel tells us that not only deliverance, but redemption, comes
from a place none of us expected. We were redeemed before we knew we needed to be
redeemed. Only God knew that Jesus existed before we needed Jesus to come to us.
And only God knows what we need. While we spend countless hours deciding what we
should pray for, we should recognize that God knows better than us what we need. Let us
pray for God's wisdom over our needs.
March 8, 2015: The Third Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading from Exodus recounts what we now
call the 10 Commandments. John's Gospel describes what is commonly known as the
"cleansing of the Temple" though it was really not. Jesus turns over the tables outside
the Temple and drives everyone away proclaiming that they had turned his Father's house
into a marketplace.
Can I make a confession here? Whenever I hear the phrase "The 10 Commandments" I head
for cover. Certainly nothing in the Bible, and perhaps nothing in the history of world
literature, has become more politicized. Perhaps it's because it's a short list, but this
list from Exodus has morphed into the alpha and omega of morality. It's almost as if this
is the standardized test to see who gets into Heaven and who doesn't.
So here's the problem: at first glance it appears that the bar is set a little low. If
I look back on the last week of my life, I've done pretty good. I haven't worshipped any
idols, I haven't taken God's name in vain. I went to church and I called my parents. I
didn't kill anyone, cheat on Nancy, or rob anyone. I didn't lie about my neighbors, or
try to steal their houses, wives, or stuff. This week, like many other weeks, has been
pretty good. If I were a Biblical fundamentalist this first reading would be a slam
But if I'm not a fundamentalist this reading gets a great deal more complicated. In
1989 I was a first year seminarian and had the opportunity to teach religious education to
10th graders in a parish in northwestern New Jersey. I know that you're thinking this is
a nightmare but I loved my time with them. They were only there because the promise of
the sacrament of Confirmation awaited them (and it was way easier to go through with this
than tell their parents they didn't care about being confirmed) but it gave me an
One night I was tasked with teaching them about the 10 Commandments. Their pastor
grumbled to me that "those kids" don't know the 10 Commandments and I'm sure he expected
me to teach them how to memorize them.
I didn't. Sorry to disappoint him (and don't worry: he's in Heaven now and is cool
with what I did) but I took another track. I took a piece of chalk (it was the 80s
remember) and drew a line down the middle of the blackboard. I asked this group of 15 and
16 year olds this question: "What could your best friend do to lose your friendship?"
There was a long (long) pause before anyone spoke. Then one of the girls in the
class said that if her best friend stole something of value, that would do it. Then
another said that her best friend would be history if she lied about her to make herself
(the friend) more popular. Then another said if his best friend wrecked his car and
refused to pay for it to get fixed, they would be through with each other.
As they spoke I wrote these things down on the right side of the board. When they were
done I wrote down the 10 Commandments (that I had the foresight to memorize) and started
to draw lines to connect them. Your best friend stole from you? "Thou Shalt Not Steal."
Yours lied about you? "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor."
Obviously there was not a 100% correlation but I explained that they just spoke to me
about their core values. As we all know, friendship and the bonds made with peers are
central to the values of adolescents.
I explained that for the community in Exodus, these were their core values.
They were far from safety, having just escaped slavery in Egypt, and were not yet in the
Promised Land. They needed these laws to protect themselves and ensure their very
survivability. We may not think much about honoring our parents, but in the days before
Social Security and Medicare, the elderly depended on others for their survival. We may
not think much about coveting another's possessions but everyone lived on the edge and
taking something from your neighbor may make it impossible for him to survive.
In the centuries since these were written down I think we've gotten lazy with our
interpretation of them. I spoke earlier of the politicization of the 10 Commandments. I
think we look at them much as we look at statues: uncritically. We fall short of our
responsibilities as disciples when we allow ourselves to get lazy in our interpretations.
Sometimes we need to shake things up.
Enter Jesus in the Gospel reading. Many of us imagine this incorrectly: we think that
the merchants that Jesus drove out were shysters or con men who were there to take
advantage of the poor and that Jesus was there to call them out. They weren't
They were honest merchants outside the Temple, doing honest business. When ordinary
Jews came to the Temple to sacrifice an animal to God they couldn't use Roman coins
because they displayed the image of Caesar and weren't allowed in the Temple. The
moneychangers were simply people who would exchange Roman coins for coins that were
permitted in the Temple. People could sacrifice all sorts of animals depending on what
they could afford. The wealthy would sacrifice cattle or sheep, the poor would sacrifice
doves. If you didn't live in Jerusalem it made more sense to purchase an animal outside
the Temple than bring one in from far away.
So why this throw down? We don't fully know, but it is interesting to note that Jesus
does this early in his public ministry in John's Gospel and at the end in Mark's. There
is good reason to believe that Jesus did this as a way of "getting on the map" of the
wealthy Jews and the Romans. I've spoken of this before but there were all sorts of
people, like Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah. And while we think a great deal about
his teachings and miracles, they were easy for the powers that be to ignore. This was
something nobody could ignore. Not only did he upturn tables and knock over the goods he
proclaimed that he could rebuild the Temple in three days. The idea that he had such
superhuman strength was, simply put, blasphemy. He transformed himself from a wise
teacher to a political rabble rouser here. This explains why most of us think of this
event as being closely followed by his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
So what do we learn from this? What do we gain from the fact that the merchants
followed the law and Jesus disobeyed it? Last week I spoke about how Abraham went beyond
the law to do what was right and I think these readings continue that theme.
Can we look at the 10 Commandments and shake things up a little? Perhaps we haven't
worshipped Baal or Zeus (pagan gods) but how much adoration do we give to our status and
popularity? If our parents are still alive, maybe we've spoken with them, but how have we
treated those on the edges, those in the most need? Maybe we haven't stolen anything, but
what do we think about the increasing injustice of wage inequality? We don't think of
ourselves as people who covet because we can easily purchase what someone else owns, but
where is the place of envy in our lives?
These readings, and this season of Lent, should call us to shake things up a little.
If the 10 Commandments were written to ensure the survivability of the ancient Israelites,
what ensures the survivabilty of us today? The fact that most of us live in a place where
we have enough we can easily find ourselves overly complacent. In a few weeks we will all
gather to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and our collective salvation. Let us work
toward celebrating that in a place where all of us have what we need.
March 1, 2015: The Second Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading continues the book of Genesis and
describes the "sacrifice of Isaac." After years of infertility, Abraham and Sarah have
given birth to a son, Isaac. God then commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. When the come
to the place of sacrifice Abraham ties down Isaac and is about to stab him to death when
God commands him not to kill Isaac and then rewards him for his obedience. The Gospel
from Mark describes what we call the "Transfiguration." Jesus goes with Peter, James, and
John up a mountain where they see visions of Elijah and Moses. They tell Jesus that they
want to build a monument and Jesus tells them not to do that. Jesus tells them not to
tell anyone about this.
If last week's reading on Noah's Ark is the most iconic of the Old Testament, today's
account of the sacrifice of Isaac is perhaps the most troubling. As a matter of fact I
find this reading so troubling that I'm going to write about it alone, and put aside the
Gospel reading of the Transfiguration. My apologies to anyone who was hoping to hear my
thoughts on that Gospel. Maybe next year.
Taking aside the idea that God had promised Abraham and Sarah they would have a child,
just the idea of ordering a man to kill his young child as a sign of faith strikes us as
barbaric and (let's say it) unworthy of God or God's disciples. I worked in a parish
several years ago where one man would look ahead in the readings and not attend mass on
the day this passage was read. He found it painful to worship any God who did this to
Abraham and Issac (to say nothing of Sarah).
So why did God do this, and why was Abraham such a willing party? As children I think
most of us were told that Abraham comes out a hero because he was willing to do anything
God asked. I hope most of us heard it like I did, and never believed we would be asked to
do such a terrible thing.
And in truth I don't know of anyone who is called to make such a sacrifice in Jewish
and Christian history. Much like God's promise to Noah never to flood the world again,
God never again asks a father to murder his child.
But I find that unsatisfying too. The fact is, Abraham was indeed asked, even
commanded, to do this. This scene comes shortly after the destruction of the towns of
Sodom and Gomorrah so Abraham must have known God meant business.
I've enjoyed many of the writings of James Michener. One of his books, Hawaii
has an early scene on one of the Polynesian Islands where the ruler proclaims that a
number of people are to be sacrificed to satisfy the gods (that's what propels several
members to escape by sea and discover Hawaii). It struck me that human sacrifice was all
too common in ancient religions. I thought perhaps this is the message God is sending:
just as I do not demand the sacrifice of Isaac, I will never demand a person be
sacrificed. Human life is too precious to me to ask that anyone end it to satisfy me.
I still find that compelling but I am uncomfortable with the idea that God creates this
entire scene so that Isaac is barely saved at the end. I'm also aware that God does not
spell it out: you will not sacrifice people, only possessions.
I'm still working on this hypothesis so don't hold me to it, but I read something
interesting in a rabbi's obituary earlier this year (I don't remember his name and Google
failed me in my attempt to find him). This rabbi believed that Abraham's moral compass
pointed him to a place where he refused God's demand and God blessed him for it. For him
this is a story of a man whose being would not let him follow a command that was evil.
I find this compelling for a few reasons. I think most of us look to Abraham as almost
a mythic figure, who leaves his land and family and journeys to a new land and begins a
whole new nation (actually three nations because he is seen as the father of Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam). But he had his moments.
This reading comes to us from the 22nd Chapter of Genesis. In 12th Chapter he and his
family have left their home but not yet arrived at their destination. Because of a famine
they flee to Egypt. On arriving in Egypt Abraham (called Abram here) fears that the
Egyptians will find Sarah (Sarai here) so beautiful they will kill Abraham to have her as
their own. Abraham cooks up a story that Sarah is actually his sister and he gives her to
Pharoh. Abraham says this to Sarah:
I know well how beautiful a woman you
are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, "She is his wife;" then they will kill me
but let you live. Please say, therefore, that you are my sister, so that it may go well
with me on your account and my life may be spared for your sake.
Not exactly heroic on his part. Fortunately when Pharoh found out he simply expelled
both of them from Egypt and they continued his journey. It is interesting that Abraham
did this because he feared for himself alone; he even said to Sarah: "so that it will go
well for me." But later, in this reading, we see an Abraham who will even disobey God to
do what is right.
Last week I spoke of God becoming God and learning as He goes (much as all parents do).
This is an uncomfortable idea for many of us, but perhaps Abraham's refusal to carry out
God's wish is another event of that type. Perhaps both God and Abraham are learning on
This learning has some implications for us today. A methodist minister in Atlanta,
James Fowler, wrote a book some time back called Stages of Faith: The Psychology of
Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. Rev Fowler argues that our faith
changes as we mature. As children we are primarily concerned with obedience and rule
following. Later we see great value in finding a community of like minds and morals and
being part of that group. But he also sees a place where we break free of that and have
enough of a sense of right and wrong that we do the right thing only because it's the
right thing. We have left simple obedience and herd mentality behind.
Thomas Jefferson didn't believe in Jesus' miracles. Walking on water, producing loaves
and fishes out of thing air, none of that. He's not the only one, but perhaps he was the
most famous. He lived in a time were we were learning a great deal about the universe
around us. Jefferson found such elegance and beauty in the world around him that he found
in unimaginable that God would break his own rules about the universe so that Jesus could
make a point or clarify a teaching.
Perhaps Abraham was making a similar point not about the physical universe, but the
moral universe. Throughout our history we have suffered great violence by people who are
claiming to be doing God's will, but we are now living in a time where it has become
almost a steady diet on the evening news. The phrase "religious extremists" is almost
cliche. And when we see violence and genocide done in God's name we wonder how someone
could have become so misguided.
Perhaps it would be good to see this reading from Genesis in that light: if you believe
God is calling you to violence or worse, don't do it. Don't think that another person is
less than you by virtue of race, ethnicity, or belief. Don't think that God is somehow
pleased by your actions if those actions lead you to hate or more violence.
It's recently been in the news that President Obama has come under fire for "not loving
America." I don't think it's that: I think if he didn't love America he could easily have
been much more successful as a lawyer in private practice and that he chose public service
exactly because he does love America. I think he's coming under fire in some
circles because he doesn't hate those who hate America. I think he is trying to find
common ground and solutions. And the fact that his strategy isn't simply one of returning
fire, of shock and awe, is causing the criticism.
Hating injustice is good, but hating the unjust does not bring us any closer to peace.
Abraham found that by relying on his own moral compass, Isaac was saved and we all benefit
from his courage.
February 22, 2015: The First Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from Genesis, the first
book of the Bible. It takes place directly after Noah's Ark. Noah and his family have
found land and their ordeal is over. God promises never to flood the earth again and
institutes a rainbow as a sign of this new Covenant. Mark's Gospel begins with Jesus,
still early in his public ministry, being driven to the desert by the Spirit. Jesus was
there for forty days and while he was protected by the angels, he was also tempted by
Satan. On his return to Galilee and proclaimed the Good News that the kingdom has come.
He advised everyone to repent and believe.
Unlike Ash Wednesday the readings of the First Sunday of Lent change from year to year.
The first reading is always from the Old Testament and describes Covenants between God and
Adam, Noah, or the newly freed slaves from Egypt. The Gospel describes (from different
perspectives) Jesus' journey into the desert where he is tempted by Satan.
The "Noah's Ark event" is probably the most iconic in the Bible and certainly the front
runner in Biblical cartoons drawn (my favorite: two dinosaurs in the rain watching the Ark
sail away and saying: "Was that today?"). Interestingly we don't much think about the end
of the story after the flood recedes. But that's the whole point of the event.
I'm sure Noah and his family were asked the same question: What just happened here?
They couldn't have helped but seen the rain killing everyone on earth and they must have
felt some level of what we would today call survivor's guilt. Now they are back on land,
but where? Is it close to where they lived before? What will they eat since one assumes
all the fruits and vegetables also perished in the flood. They really can't eat any of
the animals since it would case their extinction and make their place on the Ark
Ok, this is one of those Old Testament myths we really shouldn't look to for details.
There is good reason to believe that this never really happened, or at least didn't happen
the way it's portrayed. If it was not written to tell us what happened, maybe it was
written to tell us something about God. So instead of looking at the damp and dripping
new land, let us look at God.
Did God do this with determination and forethought, or was this a "temper tantrum?" If
the flood was the result of human wickedness why would God promise never to do this again
unless He regretted it? Is God learning how to be God? Did God look on this with regret
and learn something from it?
This will not receive universal agreement and if you, dear reader, believe in the
fundamental and literal understanding of the Bible you won't agree with what I'm about to
say. I think God did learn from this and came away from the Ark different than when He
I also think we can see the Gospel in much the same way. This year we read Mark, the
shortest of the Gospels, and remarks only that Satan tempted Jesus. In the accounts in
Matthew and Luke we read a dialogue between Jesus and Satan and there is more of an
understanding of exactly how Satan tempted Jesus.
And that's a good question: just how do you tempt the Son of God? What can you promise
that wouldn't be Jesus' for the taking? Wealth? Land? Happiness? It certainly has to
be something Jesus wants or it wouldn't be a true temptation. Maybe it was allegiance:
Maybe Satan was trying to convince Jesus to switch sides. Think about Jesus using his
power to preach, teach, and heal not from a place of weakness but from strength. Not
being a subject of the hated Roman Empire but instead entering as a leader. Not the
powerless carpenter from Galilee who gathered the poor, but rich man who entertained in
the wealthiest circles. If this were the case, perhaps Satan could have promised the most
tempting prize of all: Jesus could skip right to Easter Sunday and avoid Good Friday.
Proclaim the Kingdom without suffering, bloodshed, or death. Imagine that temptation.
And imagine our own temptations. I really believe we think incorrectly about
temptation: It's not the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. It's not a
dialogue between the angel who wants us to choose good and the devil who wants us to
choose evil. Because, let's face it, most of the things we want are good things. We want
to be financially secure, we want the best for our family, we want peace over war.
We don't get ourselves into trouble by the ends, but the means. We fall astray in the
shortcuts we take to the good things we want. We know we can do a job we aren't qualified
for so we withhold information on our qualifications. We dearly want to be with someone
we love and we lie about our age. We want to avoid a conflict and we slant the details in
the hope that the subject will not come up again.
The problem lies in the fact that it ultimately doesn't get us the end we want. The
white lie on our application comes to light, our beloved stumbles on our driver's license,
or different decisions are made based on the false truth we created. And it makes it
worse than if we had been honest.
There are a series of scenes in the Star Wars fable where the young Anakin Skywalker
chooses between the light and dark side of the Force. The fact that he chose the dark
side (and became Darth Vadar) made for compelling movies but it also showed what happens
when we choose a "shortcut." Anakin wasn't a bad person, but he was promised what he
wanted immediately, instead of all the study of becoming a Jedi knight. He didn't choose
to be evil, he chose what he thought was the simpler way to happiness.
A large part of our journey as disciples calls us to have the foresight and wisdom to
live our lives with the honesty and integrity, to be as honest with the means of our
desires as the ends. At the heart of Jesus' time in the desert comes perhaps this
foresight and wisdom. As Satan tries everything to tempt Jesus, perhaps Jesus learns that
the only Easter, the true Kingdom of God, needs to go through Good Friday. He comes out
from the desert and proclaims the Kingdom with the full understanding of his role, and
ours. I think somewhere in that experience he recognized that the shortcut to the Kingdom
of God would have led to a dramatically different Kingdom. His wisdom leads directly to
the Kingdom we have all been promised.
If all this is true, then both God (in the first reading) and Jesus (in the Gospel)
come through their ordeals with newfound understandings. That being the case, let us
enter the season of Lent resolved to come out as different. Let us come out with new
foresight, new wisdom, and as new people. Let us choose not shortcuts but integrity. Let
us choose the hard, honest way and not the shadowy path that we hope nobody sees. Let us
come out of the floods and deserts in our lives as different people. Easter is only 6 and
a half weeks away.
February 18, 2015: 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
Before I begin the homily I have to make a confession: if you've been reading this for
a year you may recognize this homily. The readings every year are the same and I tried to
write a different homily than Ash Wednesday 2014. I couldn't. And so I've recycled last
year's. If you're new to this blog it's new to you and if you're one of the original
readers, you'll read it again. Then again, perhaps there's some value to that. We're all
a year older and have added a year's experience to our lives. So enjoy!
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
February 15, 2015: The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from the Old Testament Book
of Leviticus. Here God instructs Moses and Aaron on what to do if someone appears to have
leprosy. The person in question is to present himself to Aaron (or one of his
descendants). If the priest determines that it is leprosy, the person is instructed to go
into mourning and avoid contact with anyone. In Mark's Gospel a leper came to Jesus and
asked Jesus to heal him. Moved with pity Jesus touches the leper and heals him and
instructs him to present himself to the priest (and be declared healed). The now clean
man then told everyone about this and more people began to come to Jesus for
Long time readers of this blog know well the frustration I feel when we are called to
understand images that were well known in Jesus' time but are obscure to us. Whether it
be shepherds or crops, I'm a city boy who has to do all sorts of research to understand
those analogies. But today's readings speak to something that we all understand:
As a matter of fact I believe we think more about illness these days than they did
during Jesus'. Back then if someone got sick there really wasn't much anyone could do
except pray and hope. The person either got better or died and there wasn't a good way to
predict ahead of time which way it would go.
Because so much illness back was bewildering it was commonly assumed that illness was
somehow a curse from God that would either be cured by God or not. And into this paradigm
comes leprosy. Now unfortunately it's easy to draw a line from the leprosy spoken in the
Bible with modern day Hansen's Disease and it's not.
Hansen's Disease may or may not have existed back then (there are arguments on both
sides) but what they call leprosy could have been any disfigurement with the skin. There
were strong rules back then on how a person could be declared "unclean" and how a person
could, if the disfigurement clears up, rejoin the community. While there was some fear of
contagion the greater fear was that you could become unclean yourself if you associated
with an unclean person. That's why they were ordered to stay away from the rest of
So of course Jesus, being Jesus, destroys all of this. When the leper approached
Jesus, Jesus was supposed to stay away. There was no tradition of one person healing
another and the leper probably approached Jesus more out of desperation than anything
else. The fact that Jesus was able to heal him gave clear evidence of Jesus' divine power
and it's no surprise that he became so popular.
Over two thousand years later we've made astounding progress with regard to diseases.
We know about bacteria and viruses, how diseases are spread, and most importantly how
diseases are cured. We no longer think that sick people are cursed by God or that healing
is beyond our power. The horrific fear we used to have for polio and smallpox are now
relegated to history books.
And yet... We've developed an entire new fear around disease. While we've made
incredible strides in eradicating diseases like polio and smallpox we're still battling
cancer, ebola, and measles. And we're still battling death. Until about 100 years ago
everyone lived with the reality that diseases as common as pneumonia and appendicitis
could easily kill someone of any age and it was a rare family who did not lose a loved one
in childhood. In the 20th Century a person's life expectancy rose nearly 30 years; that's
wonderful news but it also gave us a certain hubris toward disease and death.
We've come to see disease and death as something we've conquered and when evidence
shows us wrong, we blame the victim or find some conspiracy. This past summer the news
was filled with stories about ebola, a horrific disease that is not easily transmissible.
Many in our country expressed unfounded fears and called for silly restrictions on travel
that ignored simple science. Clearly this spoke more to our fears than our
As I write this I find our country in a heated debate over vaccinations for measles.
All our God given intelligence points to the efficacy of vaccinating ourselves (and
primarily our children) against a disease that can be fatal. And yet there are those who
claim the real enemy is not the disease but the vaccine. Simply put they chose to go back
to a time where preventable disease had the upper hand. Their unplaced fear has called
them to go back in history to a place of ignorance.
Instead we need to take a page from this part of Mark's Gospel. Jesus' healing of the
leper (I believe) foreshadows our current view on disease. The leper was able to rejoin
the community and have a full life, but eventually he died. I hope at the end of his life
he was able to look back on his life with joy.
The mistake we make in the twenty first century is the belief that we can successfully
cure disease to the point where we won't die. That's simply not true. No matter what we
do the death rate is still the same: one per person. We should look at disease not as a
way of avoiding death but as a way of enjoying the life we have. We don't know how many
years the leper had after Jesus' healing but we do know that those years were much better
because he rejoined his community. I pray this former leper approached death with joy and
courage because his life was fulfilling and did not approach death with desperation,
looking for Jesus to "cure" the end of his life.
I'll gladly admit that my 17 years in hospice work has affected my view of approaching
death. There are some diseases that we can cure, and some we can't. No matter who we
are, something is going to cause our death. I believe that we shouldn't spend time or
limited resources chasing cures that just won't happen. We shouldn't use our limited
ability to cure disease in an attempt to live forever and believe that there is always a
cure around the corner.
Instead let us see disease as the leper in Mark's Gospel: being cured allows us to live
well instead of living forever. Let us approach death with the recognition that we have
been able to live all our years well.
February 8, 2015: The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from the Old Testament book
of Job. Here Job complains bitterly about his life being a drudgery. He compares himself
to a slave and talks about troubled nights. He concludes by predicting that he will never
see happiness again. Mark's Gospel changes the mood dramatically. It begins with Jesus
healing Simon's (Peter's) mother in law of a fever. That night the whole town gathered at
the door as Jesus healed many who were ill or possessed by demons. The next morning Jesus
went off to pray; when Simon (Peter) told Jesus that everyone was looking for him, Jesus
responded by telling him that they were going to nearby villages to preach. The reading
concludes by saying that they went throughout Galilee while Jesus preached and drove out
I don't think I'm alone in this, but when I find that the first reading comes from Job
I groan a little inside. Job is a hard book and does not fall easily into a category.
The book begins with a dialogue between God and "Satan." This is where it starts getting
hard and never gets easy. We normally think of "Satan" as the devil, the root of all
evil, the one who tempts us to sin so we will be condemned to Hell and be barred from
This "Satan," however, is different. Here he is portrayed as an agent of God who
"spies" on people. When Satan brings up Job, God recognizes Job as a just and righteous
person, deserving of blessings. Satan counters by telling God that it's easy for Job to
be just and righteous as he is blessed with family and riches. God and Job then enter
into a wager: God tells Satan that he can bring down any suffering on Job (except death).
If Job condems God, Satan wins. If Job does not condemn God, God wins.
As this reading begins Job has lost nearly everything. His wealth is robbed, his
children are killed, and he develops sores all over his body. His wife tells him to curse
God and die (and be done with his suffering). As if this wasn't enough, Job's three
friends show up and tell him his suffering must have been from some sin he has
Given all this it's not hard to see how Job is a little down on life. Since he has no
idea that he is part of a bet, he has no understanding that of why this is happening to
him. All he sees before him is more misery with no way out, and in a cruel twist he is
told by his friends that it's all his fault.
And with seemingly no answer to why Job is treated this way, we move to Mark's Gospel
with a dramatically different tone. Jesus is still in the "rookie season" of his public
ministry and cures Peter's mother in law of a fever. It's worth noting that Catholics
look to Peter as the first Pope and this give evidence that the early clergy were
And after healing this woman Jesus goes off by himself and we don't really know why.
Perhaps he was simply tired after healing her, and many others, and simply needed a rest.
Perhaps he was overwhelmed by the power he was given and needed time to sort out his role
and his understanding of himself as Redeemer. In any case when his disciples found him
Jesus announced they were hitting the road. At first blush it must have seemed easier for
Jesus to stay where he is. He had just healed a number of people and his reputation
couldn't have been better. He's in a small town that would not have attracted unwanted
attention from their Roman occupiers. He could have been the most popular man in
And so what do these readings have in common? When the lectionary was laid out it's
generally assumed that the first reading and gospel are linked. But where is link
Perhaps the link here is perseverance. Both of these readings are a snapshot of longer
documents and we need to understand them in context. Unlike Job we know the rest of the
story. In the end Job does not condemn God and his riches are restored (though it's hard
to imagine how his dead children are restored) and God wins the wager. His friends, who
set up the world as "good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad
people" end up angering God. In the end perhaps the takeaway is that we should do good
regardless of what happens to us.
But perseverance itself isn't enough: these readings also call us to change our
understanding of ourselves. Job found, at great cost, that blessings don't always come
from doing the right thing, and we still need to do the right thing even in the face of
suffering. And Jesus, so young into his role in public ministry, began to understand that
his role and his power will lead him to a much larger role than he thought.
And so with us. I think most of us can look at ourselves from 10 or 20 years ago with
some surprise at where we are now. We've all faced challenges we didn't expect that have
called us to new abilities, but at least some of them have called us to see ourselves
differently. I hope we've found ourselves capable of more compassion, creativity, or love
than we thought. And anyone who has gotten married or had children can easily describe
finding gifts and abilities they didn't know they had.
Sometimes these discoveries come as a result of suffering or situations we didn't
choose, but not all of them. But like Job and Jesus, they come when we respond with love
to these experiences.
February 1, 2015: The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from Deuteronomy (the 5th
book of the Old Testament). Moses is preparing the people for life in the promised land
and tells them that God will choose a prophet to rule. God will instruct that prophet on
what to say; anyone who ignores this prophecy will be punished. But a prophet who speaks
in his own name (instead of God's) will die. Mark's Gospel follows Jesus as he begins his
public ministry. Here Jesus and his followers are in Capernaum (about 30 miles from
Nazareth); it is the Sabbath and Jesus begins to teach in the synagogue. Those in
attendance listen with rapt attention as he speaks with authority. While he was teaching
a man possessed with an evil spirit begins to shout at Jesus and calls him "One of God."
When Jesus orders the unclean spirit to leave the man, it does. This astonishes the
audience who see that even unclean spirits obey Jesus. Jesus' reputation begins to spread
around the area.
At first blush these readings appear pretty straightforward: Moses speaks of God
appointing prophets who will speak in His name. Jesus, in the Gospel, speaks in God's
name and his words carry rich authority with them. Therefore Jesus is a prophet and we
should listen to him.
But if we dig a little deeper I think we can find much more richness in these readings
because under the surface they struggle with some of the very things we struggle with
today. Ever since these readings were first heard we have grappled with questions of who
is a prophet, how can we tell if someone is appointed by God or speaking on his own
behalf, and whether there is a price to pay for being wrong.
But even before this first reading we need to acknowledge something: God is more than
just a liberator. True, he freed us from slavery in Egypt and provided us a passage out.
But, and I don't think we think about this much, God didn't unlock the prison door and
wish us well. God wasn't done with us then, just as God isn't done with us now. However
we discern God's role in our lives and however we live with that reality, we need to
recognize that God chose not only to free us, but also to guide us throughout history and
even to today. When God chose Moses to be the first leader of this nation everyone knew
that Moses wouldn't live forever. The question of succession had to be on the minds of
those who wandered in the wilderness. It was also on God's mind and God promised that
leadership wouldn't be something we would choose, tempting though that may have been. No,
God will continue to be involved in our lives and will appoint those to speak in God's
Our history since then is, at best, checkered. We've seen good prophets, flawed
prophets, and false prophets. We've obeyed, ignored, and persecuted them. In a word they
have been much like us.
And the question of how we tell a valid prophet from a false one continues to
complicate our lives as disciples. God promises death to false prophets, but gives us no
timetable. If someone began to speak in God's name and was struck down we'd know
immediately not to listen. But our history shows that this is not the case.
Charles Manson called himself "Jesus Christ" and ordered his disciples to kill. In
1993 David Koresh and 75 followers died while he claimed to work on unlocking Scripture
that would lead to an understanding of the "last days." In theses days extremists in the
Middle East claim to be doing the will of Allah when they kill unarmed hostages.
I believe that most people who fall under the spell of false prophets are not evil, at
least at the beginning. And I think all of us, if we are honest, have been led by the
words of someone who we later found out didn't have our best interest at heart. And while
none of us have been indoctrinated to commit crimes, many of us have been led into bad
relationships, bad investments, and bad choices in our lives because someone spoke the
words we wanted to hear.
I think we all wonder how to avoid these pitfalls, these false roads. But how? I
believe the answer may well be found in Mark's Gospel. Mark is leading us through the
beginning of Jesus' public ministry and this reading comes directly after the call of the
Jesus is speaking in the synagogue; this is not the Temple in Jerusalem where only the
most learned would speak. Jesus, young and uneducated, may have chosen Capernaum because
he could find his voice there. The striking part of the Gospel for me isn't that the
congregation were in awe of Jesus, but that the unclean spirit recognized him for who he
As good has always searched for good and attempted to avoid evil, evil here recognizes
good with little trouble. The evil spirit calls Jesus the "Holy One of God" and obeys
when Jesus calls on him to leave the man. While the rest of those gathered may have found
Jesus' words compelling, it is evil who first recognizes him.
In our quest to do good and avoid evil, perhaps we have been looking in the wrong
direction. When someone is claiming to speak on behalf of God we often ask: "Is this true
prophecy or not?" Perhaps we should turn it around and ask "If I were evil, how easy
would this message be to believe?" That sounds strange, but let me give an example.
It's been many years since I first read The Hobbit and Lord of the
Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien but I still remember how fascinated I was by the character of
Gollum. When we first meet him he is a slimy creature who lives on an island in a
subterranean lake and is consumed by a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible. We
later find he began life as a Hobbit named Smeagol. He finds the ring and murders his own
brother to own it and this begins his slide to the pathetic creature we meet. I'm just
guessing here but I doubt Smeagol demanded the ring from his brother for the opportunity
to do evil. He just knew he wanted it and convinced himself that he deserved it. Only
when it was too late did he recognize how badly he erred.
But what if he had looked differently at the ring? What if he saw his brother holding
it and said to himself: "If I were evil that ring would solve all my problems. If I were
evil this would be easy."
People make us promises all the time and go to great lengths to show us how our
cooperation will improve our lives. But the next time someone wants to sell us on a get
rich quick scheme, what if we went beyond their words and thought: "Would this person have
an easier time convincing me if I were really, really greedy?" Or, "if I do this will it
make me more loving or more selfish?" I'm always amused at someone who tells me he can
"get me in on the ground floor" because that at least implies that I'll do better by
pushing others aside.
I like to think that's why the evil spirit asked Jesus if Jesus was out to destroy him.
Because he was. Jesus was, if nothing else, on a mission to root out evil. Evil, on the
other hand, was there to spread its unclean spirit to others.
I'm a little uneasy thinking of Jesus as a prophet; after all, he didn't speak in God's
name, he was God. But perhaps that distinction doesn't matter so much here. In
any case, this Gospel shows us that evil can be destroyed, that it can be prevented from
spreading, and that begins when we have the same commitment to the truth that we see in
the members of that synagogue.
January 25, 2015: The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes from the Old Testament Book
of Jonah. The famous story of "Jonah and the Whale" comes from this book (for the
uninitiated, Jonah was swallowed by either a whale or a great fish for three days). This
reading comes after that event: here Jonah is called to convert the city of Ninevah.
Jonah doesn't want to do this and makes a halfhearted attempt in the hopes that they won't
decide to follow God and will be destroyed. Much to his horror, they do convert and God
saves them. Mark's Gospel speaks of a time when John the Baptist has been arrested.
Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee. He sees Simon (Peter), his brother Andrew, and
then James and John and told them to follow Jesus because Jesus will make them "fishers of
men." All of them decided to follow Jesus.
OK, here's the problem with being a disciple of Jesus: you don't get to decide who you
love. We spend our lives making distinctions: these people are right, those are wrong.
These people are worthy of our friendship, those are not. I'm going to spend my time with
this group and not waste my time with that group. None of this is wrong but we are
tempted every day to carry these distinctions, these discriminations, to those we love.
And we can't do that if we claim to follow Jesus.
Jonah struggled with that. When we think about Old Testament prophets we don't
normally include Jonah; as a matter of fact most of us only know about Jonah from the
iconic scene in the movie Moby Dick. Orson Wells plays the preacher who reads
from the first chapter of Jonah. God calls Jonah to proclaim repentence to Ninevah; Jonah
wants no part of this and runs the other way, boarding a ship. He is thrown off the ship
and is swallowed by a "great fish" for three days and nights. Since then the phrase "the
belly of the whale" has come to mean a womb of sorts where the person comes out a
Alas, Jonah comes out a little different but not much. When God called Jonah to call
the Ninevites to repent, Jonah wanted none of it. The Ninevites were not Israelites, they
were the enemy. If God was going to destroy them unless they repented, this was music to
Jonah's ears: he would like nothing better than their destruction. Feeling compelled to
obey God's words (but still wanting the Ninevites destroyed), Jonah gives at best a
halfhearted attempt. He walks the length of Ninevah almost muttering that the people need
to repent. Then, to his horror, they do repent. They came to believe in God and
reform their ways, and God spared them. At the end of the book Jonah despaired of
This aquatic theme carries on to Mark's Gospel. Two weeks ago we read the beginning of
Mark's Gospel where he speaks of Jesus' baptism and last week we switched to John's Gospel
for the call of the first disciples. Now we're back with Mark and his account of the
Jesus' call to discipleship. I have to confess a groan a little inside whenever someone
uses fishing imagry: I have had few experiences fishing, and even fewer satisfying
I lived a short while in New Jersey and was invited by a friend to go fishing and this
required me to get a fishing license. When asked what I was hoping to catch I confessed
that I was hoping to catch whatever bit my hook. You can only imagine the eyeroll I got
when the clerk patiently explained that if I wanted to catch trout I would have to pay
extra for a "trout stamp." After another few back and forths he explained that if I
didn't have a trout stamp and caught a trout I would have to throw him back.
In a funny sort of way I think this "selective fishing" is how we want to live our
lives as Christians. It also goes completely against what Jesus is calling us to.
We are people who like to live in community but we're also people who like to live in
clans. We feel safest in a community small enough that we know (or know something about)
the people around us and we use this community as a buffer against those we don't know.
Think about the groups we belong to: our family, our neighborhood, our company, etc. When
invited to a social event we of wonder if we will know anyone.
And there is nothing wrong with that. The problem comes only when we begin to look at
others as strange, or dangerous, or outside of God's community. When God called Jonah to
prophesy Jonah had no idea he would be called outside his community to reach out to the
strange and dangerous Ninevites. We don't see it in this Gospel but Jesus' disciples have
no idea what they are walking into.
I like Jesus' analogy of being fishers of men (and women and children) and I'm not sure
these disciples fully understood it. As fishermen they knew that they cast out their nets
and brought up anything that got scooped up. They probably threw back anything they
couldn't sell but that will mark a dramatic change now that they are fishers of men (and
women and children). Now they won't be able to throw anything back, even if it's their
enemies: the good samaritan, the the woman at the well, the Roman soldier with the sick
I think we're still sorting this out. While we may have people we hate, God doesn't.
And yet we see Christians who reserve the right to claim that there are people God hates.
I hope we've all been sickened by members of the Westboro Baptist Church who show up at
military funerals with the sign: "God Hates Fags," or members of the Klu Klux Klan who
insist they are Christian ("We even burn a cross: how much more Christian can you get?").
But we also see it in more subtle ways that we can overlook. Too often we seek to
vilify those we don't know or understand and use that as justification to claim God has
condemned them. Various terrorist groups falsely claim to muslim and that allows us to
hate muslims. Refugees from other countries flee their land because of gang violence and
we claim they come here to join gangs.
But my favorite example of this comes from Martin Luther King. In April of 1963 he and
other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Council travelled from Atlana, Georgia
to Birmingham, Alabama. They intended to march for voting rights for all people, not just
whites. While he was in Birmingham he was jailed and was shown a document called "A Call
to Unity." It was an open letter, written by eight clergymen from Birmingham (seven were
Christian and one was Jewish) asking him to refrain from protesting. They told him he was
an outsider (from Atlanta), they disagreed with his use of civil disobedience, and
suggested that integration will happen if he will only be patient.
Dr. King, from his jail cell, was so troubled that he wrote his famous "Letter From
Birmingham Jail" and if you haven't read it, I suggest you do. In one of the most
eloquent writings of the 20th Century he outlined the need for protests like his. But he
also spoke about how the love of God knows no bounds. In this, and other writings, Dr.
King taught that God's love includes people of all colors and that true equality removes
all human distinctions. But he also preached that God's love includes even those who
hate. It includes members of the KKK as well as the strict segregationists who beat
Loving those who wish violence on us does not come easy. But frankly that's become
rare for us. Harder still is loving those that our friends hate. Too often we find
safety in our communities and we mistakenly believe that we have to go along with their
lists of who we must love and who we may hate.
If we believe what we read in these two passages, God has little interest in making us
more comfortable where we are. We are unlikely to be called to preach to modern day
Ninevites or Samaritans but we are called to love even those we could easily learn to
And if we choose to continue to hate, the paradox of God's love is that we will still
be loved. The question comes down to this: do we want to live our lives as a recipient of
God's love or a participant?
January 18, 2015: The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading is from the Old Testament book of
Samuel. Samuel was resting when he heard a voice call out to him: "Samuel! Samuel!" He
thought the voice was of Eli and asked him what he wanted. Eli hadn't called him and told
Samuel to go back and lie down. It happened again with the same result. When it happened
for the third time Eli understood that the voice was God and told Samuel to answer the
next time: "Speak Lord, your servant is listening." When the voice called again, Samuel
answered with Eli's words. The reading ends with the phase: "Samuel grew up and the Lord
was with him and let no word of his fall to the ground." The Gospel reading is from John.
Here John is with two of his disciples when Jesus passed. John told them that "there is
the Lamb of God." John's disciples followed Jesus, and Jesus asked them: "What do you
want?" The disciples answered that they wanted to know where he lived. Jesus told them
to "come and see." One of John's disciples was Andrew, brother of Simon Peter. Andrew
told Peter that he had found the Messiah; when Peter met Jesus, Jesus looked hard at him
and told him that he is "Simon son of John; you are to be called Chephas" which means
Of all the questions we face as Christians, the question of "how do we follow" is the
most difficult. Many years ago I heard a baptist preacher tell us that Jesus said "follow
me" 88 times in the four Gospels. I haven't checked, but it seems likely. Many of us
have the phrase from Joshua 24:15 ("As for me and my family, we will follow the Lord") on
the front door. A Lutheran church near where I live puts the phrase "We follow Jesus" on
And while we Christians proclaim to follow Jesus, many of us have found the question
"how do we do this" to be more complicated than we're willing to admit. It's an
unfortunate truth that many of us grew up with the false idea that "following Jesus" is
clear but difficult.
In reality, following Jesus is hard. It's hard because it calls us to make decisions
that aren't always easy or popular. But it's also hard because it calls us to make
decisions that are not clear. Many years ago I counseled a couple who were struggling
with the suicide of a family member. They feared that their loved one was not saved
because of his decision to take his own life. In my attempt to comfort them I spoke of
his poor choice in the context of trying to do the right thing (he was diagnosed with a
terminal disease and wanted to spare his family the pain and expense of caring for him).
I told them that God would likely judge him in terms of his intent and not his
They were having none of that. They spoke eloquently about decisions they made in good
faith that turned out badly for them. They felt that while they made their best effort in
making the a correct decision, the fact that it turned out badly was proof that God was
interested in result, not motives.
Over the years I've often thought of them with sadness. I pray that they've found
healing through someone who had more success than I had, and I pray that their image of
God has become more compassionate. If so, I suspect the person may have made better
access of our first reading from Samuel.
The books of Samuel provide a transition for Israel. Previous to, and during his life,
Israel's leaders were "judges," and those we would recognize as prophets. But through a
series of events, Samuel finds that God has chosen one man, Saul, as king of Israel.
That's really background, but what I find fascinating in the first reading is Samuel's
response to God's call: he gets it wrong. When God calls out his name he thinks the voice
is human and asks Eli what he wants. Eli tells Samuel he didn't call; this happens two
more times before Eli figures it out and tells Samuel to address God next time this
happens. Only then does Samuel recognize God's call and answers.
I like this image of God and I think this should be the operating system to our
understanding of discipleship and following Jesus. We're not privy to God's reaction to
Samuel (nor do we understand why God didn't tell Samuel: "It's God. Listen to me"), but I
like to think God is at least a little bemused by Samuel's reaction. I like to think that
God is more impressed with Samuel's desire to listen to the voice than whether or not
Samuel got it right the first time.
I also can't help but think about parents. Who among us would expect a toddler to get
this whole walking thing right the first time? We all know that infants learn in jerky
steps and that falling down while trying to master a skill is just part of the process
(and let's face it: pretty cute). Parents applaud progress but don't punish failed
attempts. They want their children to have the courage to fail because only then do they
succeed. No parent wants a child to never walk because he is afraid of falling.
I believe this is also true in our attempts to follow Jesus. We don't know Jesus'
thoughts, but we can imagine what he thought when Peter signed on. Jesus told Peter he
was "rock" and in Matthew's Gospel Jesus tells Peter that he is the foundation on which
will be built the church.
Did Jesus know that Peter would one day deny him? Did he know that much of Peter's
discipleship would show more energy than direction and that on several occasions Jesus
would have to reel him back in? Maybe, maybe not. But in the end, and despite all his
wrong turns, Peter eventually became the leader of Jesus' followers and the person we now
And so too with our journey. We often get things wrong. Sometimes it's because we cut
corners or do the wrong thing in the hopes that it will turn out OK anyway. But sometimes
we make a decision with the best of intentions and later find out that we dropped the
ball. Does God, who knows our heart, judge us on results or intent? Catholics hear this
phrase every week just before Communion: "Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your
Church" and we believe God will. Given that, can we also ask that God not look at our
mistakes? I hope so.
The call imitate Jesus' first disciples is noble. But it's also courageous. We aren't
automatically given the gift of clarity or ease and we've chosen a life that often leads
us confused and bewildered. I close this with a quotation from Thomas Merton, who would
have turned 100 later this month:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of
me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact
that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But
I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that
desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that
desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know
nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in
the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave
me to face my perils alone.
January 11, 2015: The Baptism of the Lord
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading from Isaiah speaks of a servant
who will bring home justice, not by force but by gentleness. He will establish justice
for all and free the prisoner. Mark's Gospel speaks of Jesus being baptized by John in
the Jordan River. When Jesus is baptized there is a voice from the heavens who tells
everyone that Jesus is the "beloved Son" who should be listened too.
I'm going to start with a question I've been asking since I was a child: Did Jesus need
to be baptized, and if so, why? And if he didn't need to be baptized, why was he?
Today's Gospel centers on Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist and I think this speaks
as much to us about baptism and the other sacraments as it does to either Jesus or
I find it interesting that this event is told in three of the four Gospels. John does
not explicitly speak of John baptizing Jesus but clearly baptizes others. In any case,
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have remarkably similar accounts of John baptizing Jesus;
biblical scholars will generally agree that Matthew and Luke took their account from Mark
since Mark was the first Gospel to be written, but in any case all three thought it
important enough to include.
For Catholics of my generation and earlier this presented a problem. We were taught
that the purpose of baptism was the removal of original sin. All of us were born with
this stain on our souls that began when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and it was
passed down "like a recessive gene" to all of us. Only baptism could remove this stain
and no one with this stain could get to heaven. What if you die as an adult and weren't
baptized? Sorry, but you're screwed. What if you die as an infant, or at least young
enough that you couldn't have committed sin? Well....there's a place for you called
"limbo." This may sound silly to those who did not grow up with this, but limbo was seen
as a place on the edge of hell. It was clearly not heaven but those in limbo did not
suffer any punishment. Dante's Inferno, written between 1308 and 1321, describes
limbo as a place for innocent infants and virtuous non Christians. The Baltimore
Catechism (written by American bishops in Baltimore in the late 1800s and used in most
Catholic schools until the 1960s) states this in question 632:
Question: Where will persons go who -- such as infants-- have not committed
actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs, die without baptism? Answer: Persons,
such as infants, who have not committed actual sin and who, through no fault of theirs,
die without baptism, cannot enter heaven; but it is the common belief that they will go to
some place similar to Limbo, where they will be free from suffering, though deprived of
the happiness of heaven.
It's hard to know what the guys in charge intended by this serpentine logic but the
response was clear: generations of parents raced their newborn to the church to be
baptized "in case something horrible happens."
In know about this because of an incident in my own family. My maternal grandmother's
younger sister (my great aunt if you're keeping score) birthed a stillborn child in 1937.
This was only spoken about in whispers and I don't know what caused this baby's demise but
the priest refused to allow the baby to be buried in a Catholic cemetery because he (or
she) was not baptized. To my great aunt's credit the baby was buried somewhere else and
when this pastor was transferred she plead her case to the new pastor who chose compassion
over obedience and this child is now buried in a Catholic cemetery.
I know I've been wandering but if we hold to the belief that baptism removes original
sin, why did Jesus need to be baptized? Catholics believe that Jesus' mother, Mary, was
"immaculately conceived" without original sin; it stands to reason that Jesus was also
conceived without original sin (since the "recessive gene" was eliminated). If the only
purpose of baptism was to remove something that Jesus never had, why do it?
I've spoken of "Catholics of my generation and earlier," but what of Catholics of a
later generation? For them baptism was not about removing, but of adding. We baptize
someone to welcome him or her into the community of faith. A couple belongs to church,
they have a baby, and everyone wants to be there to welcome this baby into the faith. I
have to confess that this belief drove me during my priesthood. I had no belief that an
unbaptized infant wouldn't go to heaven and when the rare couple would come to me to
baptize a child they had no interest in raising in the parish, they didn't like my answer.
I told them that their child was going to heaven no matter what I did but I didn't feel
comfortable welcoming someone into our community who would never return. The next time
you see a TV show about ex-Catholics who left because of an idiot priest, you may find
But I stand by those decisions and I use today's readings for my justification.
Baptism, like all the sacraments, isn't a "get out of limbo free" card, it's a window on
the divine. Sacraments are occasions where we do something, and God does something, to
bring us to a glimpse of each other. We get a sniff of heaven and God gets a sniff of
what He has created. If we believe that Jesus' incarnation crashes light into our
darkness, how much more is his baptism an aftershock?
Mabye the emphasis on this baptism isn't about Jesus or even John, but about the
encounter between the two. As Catholics we've always held that baptism is the first
sacrament. We can't celebrate any other sacrament without this one and this the gateway
to the other six.
But baptism, like the other six, call us to closer relationships with God and with each
other. It grieves me that some sacraments are done privately, in whispers. Some, like
first communions, confirmations, marriages, and ordinations, are public celebrations.
Some, like baptisms, can be private only because time is of the essence ("in case
something horrible happens"). And some, like reconciliaton and anointing of the sick, are
seem to take place under cover of darkness.
Many years ago I ran a CCD (Catholic Sunday School program) in Virginia. At the time
we celebrated first reconciliation (aka first confession) and first communion in the same
year with 2nd graders. First communion was nothing short of a pageant, so large that we
needed to split the 180 children into two groups and have them on consecutive Sundays; the
church held 800 but so many families invited friends and relatives that it was too small
for one Sunday. But when I tried to have some type of celebration for first
reconciliation the priest thought I was crazy. Because part of this sacrament contains a
private conversation between the child and the priest he found no reason to make any of it
public. It took some doing but I was finally able to convince him that making it private
made it look shameful and embarrassing.
It shouldn't be. Whether the sacraments are initiating people into the church
(baptism, communion, confirmation), marking a life change (marriage, ordination), or
celebrating healing (reconciliation, anointing of the sick) they should be celebrated as
our windows into the divine.
So maybe the point of Jesus' baptism isn't that it's giving him something and it
certainly isn't done to pretend that he needs something. But if we look between John and
Jesus, if we look at the interaction between the two, we see that window. We see, if only
for a moment, a harbinger of what awaits us. We see the hand of God in our lives.
And we see this even if we don't hear a voice that proclaims: "This is my Son, the
Beloved; my favor rests on him." Because that voice is there even if we can't hear
January 4, 2015: Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Brief synopsis of the readings: The first reading comes to us from Isaiah and
brings great joy. Light bursts through the clouds and your family will be reunited. Not
only that, but you will benefit from the wealth of all the world. The Gospel comes from
Matthew and recounts the events immediately after Jesus' birth. Magi from the East arrive
in Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews as fortold in the stars. King Herod hears this
and is troubled (as is all of Jerusalem). Herod convenes the chief priests and scribes
and asks them what this means. They recount the prophesy from Isaiah that from Bethlehem
will come a ruler who will shepherd the people of Israel. Herod told the magi to go to
Bethlehem where they will find the child. After giving him homage they are to return and
report to Herod, allowing Herod to give homage to this ruler. The magi found Joseph,
Mary, and Jesus and did him homage. They also gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and
myrrh. In a dream they were warned not to return to Jerusalem and they returned home by a
From as long as I can remember I've heard the phrase "poor stepchild." In every church
I've worked for a long line of people lined up to my office to tell me that their pet
project was the poor stepchild of the parish. It didn't matter what it was: the Catholic
School, the CCD program, the youth group, the parish council, or the liturgy committee.
They all felt that their project was underappreciated through no fault of their own. I
often found these complaints amusing, but there was often a nugget of truth to what they
were saying: the focus of the parish was in the wrong place and I feel we need to
I also think about this term "poor stepchild" when it comes to Epiphany, today's feast.
Epiphany commemorates the night Jesus was visited by the magi and received gifts from
them. Our gift giving today memorializes that, but we exchange gifts at Christmas, not
Epiphany. If we commemorate Epiphany at all, it's when we take down the Christmas tree
If Epiphany is the poor stepchild of the Christmas season, then Jesus is the poor
stepchild of Kings. He will redeem all of humankind and save the world, and yet there he
is, near (but not in) Jerusalem, near (but not in) an inn, near (but not in) the court of
King Herod. He lies in a feeding trough, a child of uncertain parentage, with absolutely
no staff. He doesn't even rate the paparazzi.
But the stars know who he is and align for him. And these magi know who he is. It's
amusing to me that we've filled in so many of the blanks of these magi. The word itself
means "magician" or "astrologer" and as far as we can tell they are foreigners from the
East. Matthew doesn't tell us, but since they brought three gifts (gold, frankincense,
and myrrh) we've always assumed there were three of them. We've even given them names:
Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. They see the alignment of the stars and somehow figure
out that this alignment foretells the "King of the Jews."
I can only imagine how King Herod reacted when these strangers approached his throne
and asked for the "King of the Jews." I spoke about this last week (in 2014); While Herod
was a Jew and as a Jew prayed for the Messiah's coming, he really wanted nothing of the
sort. He knew that this baby in nearby Bethlehem threatened everything he had worked for.
This is a bit oversimplified but Herod saw himself as the King of the Jews. He
was appointed to his position by the Roman conquerers because he made a deal with them:
allow the Jews to continue to practice their religion and Herod would make sure they
didn't cause any trouble for Rome. The idea that there is another "King of the Jews" put
all this in danger, even if this king is an infant.
And so Herod lies to the magi. He points them in the right direction but asks them to
return and tell him where this baby is so he can pay homage. Jesus survived his first few
weeks only because the magi figured this out and took a different direction on their way
out. The verses after this reading show just how evil Herod is: last week I spoke about
the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and the murder of the "holy innocents." Herod had all
the male children under two years old murdered to ensure no threat to his power. And even
with all that blood on his hands, it didn't work.
The dichotomy between the two Kings of the Jews, between Herod and Jesus, marks a
divergence in human history. Herod is old school: he was born to a wealthy family and
gained his throne through a series of brutal and calculating moves. He ruled for his own
comfort and cared for others only to the extent that they could provide for him. He was,
essentially, the model human king.
Jesus shows us a revolutionary new school: he was born to poverty. He led a short life
on earth, gathered around him poor people like himself. He railed not for his own gain,
but against the injustice he saw around him. He did not seek the approval of the powerful
but the discipleship of the humble. His claim to the throne came not from the powerful,
but from the Father. He built a legacy where all would be saved instead, not where the
most would get more. His reign is eternal because of this.
I don't wish to oversimplify this and imply that all human kings are evil. In the
course of human history, earthly kings have run the gamut of good and evil. But it is
worth noting that Jesus' reign is unique. His reign is eternal because it finds its
foundation on God, not on other humans. We find our salvation in Jesus while we barely
remember Herod's name.
I don't want to push this point too far or cause too much controversy but I can't get
the image of Pope Francis out of my mind. For so many years our leadership as Catholics
told us that the summit of discipleship lies in orthodoxy. We were faithful when we were
obedient and tolerance was a sign of weakness.
Nearly two years ago we learned the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who chose the name
Francis. As we were lighting up Google for any information on this Argentine, he was
already setting his agenda. The rest of the College of Cardinals were boarding the bus to
go back to their hotel and a limo pulled up for the new Holy Father. He dismissed the
limo, got on the bus with the rest of the Cardinals, rode back to the hotel, and paid
his bill. Since then he eschewed the luxury of the Papal apartment and moved into a
room in the hotel. He has shown us, in words and deeds, that he is new school.
Discipleship isn't ultimately about obedience but about faithfulness. Discipleship should
be joyful, creative, and open to all. We are called not to judge, but to serve.
If his papacy has told us anything it has told us this: Herod and his minions are not
welcome. He has railed again and again against Vatican clerics who advance their careers
at the expense of the faithful. I find this refreshing. I know I don't stand alone when
I say that whenever the Holy Father reaches out to the poor and afflicted he becomes
closer and closer to the "new school" type that Jesus proclaimed.
And those clerics? Well, they may now think of themselves as the poor stepchildren,
but they're not. I think that the parish of the world has found its focus.