I've often wondered what the Israelite slaves thought as they finished their first passover. They knew that by that same time the next night the firstborn of the Egyptians would be dead and they would be on their way to freedom.
Were they elated? Were they already making plans for the rest of their lives in the Promised Land? Or did they look at their own firstborn and feel some survivor's guilt?
There is a legend that as the Angel of Death passed over the slaves' homes he whispered "Someday I will be back." I find that legend compelling because while we don't think about it, it's true. Someday the Angel will come for all of us.
OK, I promise this won't be one of those "fire and brimstone" homilies we all heard as children. Those sermons did nothing but create fear. They told us that God would judge our entire life based the one last (unconfessed) stupid thing we did.
And most people reacted in one of two ways: the first group became overly scrupulous, living in a perpetual state of fear. They are so afraid of doing something wrong that they do nothing at all. I once read about a rabbi who encouraged the members of his synagogue enjoy the sabbath, to spend time with family and neighbors. But he found that some members were so concerned about inadvertently breaking a rule that they spent the entire day on edge and fearful. That fear ran their lives.
But I think most of us go the other way and "play the odds," and I think that was the point of Jesus' parable. As is often the case we know nothing of the master or the servant. But we do know that when the master leaves he left one of his servants in charge, and it goes badly from there. We don't know why this servant decided to abuse his master's trust: perhaps his master was an evil man and thought it was "his turn." Perhaps he used this opportunity to settle old scores. Or maybe he thought this would be his only chance at being master and he was going to get everything he could out of it. He certainly didn't subscribe to the idea of "servant leadership."
But his decision to "play the odds" also likely gave him a small, constant sense of fear, even if it was the low hum in the background. And this against the backdrop of Jesus saying (once again: "Fear not"). Because while he could wake each morning with a strong belief that his master won't return that day, he could never be completely certain. And he was probably more fearful at night (the 2nd and 3rd watch). That fear, however low, was always with him.
And that's too bad, and it's a feeling many of us know well. We live in a world that finds safety and even profit in creating fear. Particularly those of us who live in the 1st world; we are bombarded by messages that we won't have enough and that "those people" are taking what we deserve. In 2001 we moved into our present home. I don't know how many previous occupants lived here but I saw yard signs from four different alarm companies. Fast food commercials rain down on us with the message that hunger is to be avoided at all cost (even though most of us will never experience true hunger).
I like to think that the servant in the parable did see this as his only chance at power and it caused him to misuse it. Ironically if he had used his authority responsibly, he likely would have been given more responsibility.
We all have things we fear we won't have enough. Sometimes it's resources, but oftentimes it's experiences. There's even an acronym for this: FOMO (fear of missing out). We won't be able to eat at the cool kids' table, we'll miss a trip that everyone else will talk about for a long time. Or we won't get that promotion unless we cut a few corners and make ourselves look more deserving than we are.
These are all fool's pursuits. We live our best selves when we honestly believe that whatever we have will be enough. We won't always get everything we want, and the liberated slaves in our first reading endured 40 years in the desert before they entered the promised land.
Jesus tells us again and again not to fear, and it's always followed by a promise ("for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom"). During the course of the 40 years in the desert, many fearful things happened. During our lifetime many fearful things have happened and will happen. But when we drive the fear out with faith, we live better. We live as disciples.
July 31, 2016: The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading, from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, takes a different tone than much of Scripture. Its author tells us that "all is vanity." A man who spends his life in wise labor, skill, and success, must leave all he has done to someone else. What does he gain from all this? In Luke's Gospel Jesus is asked to settle a dispute between two brothers. Jesus refuses, and warns them against greed "for a man's life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs." Jesus then tells them a parable about a wealthy man who harvested more food than he could store. To fix this dilemma he orders the building of larger storage buildings: then he will be satisfied. But seeing this, God calls him a fool, for his soul will be in demand (ie, he will die). All his riches will not help him as he stored up treasure for himself instead of making himself rich in the sight of God.
There is much to these readings, but unfortunately most of the sermons I've heard over the years have reduced Luke to "don't get greedy or you'll be sent to hell." Truthfully, I think most preachers ignore Ecclesiastes because they don't fully understand it.
And I get that. Most of us know about this book only from the song Turn, Turn, Turn written by Pete Seger in the 1950s and recorded by The Byrds in 1965 (you can look it up). But much of the book reads, frankly, like someone who is done with life and doesn't fully understand its purpose.
Many of us know about the rabbi and author Harold Kushner for his landmark book When Bad Things Happen to Good People he based it on the Old Testament Book of Job. He's written several books since (and I enthusiastically recommend them all), but I wish to concentrate on his book When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough which he based on Ecclesiastes.
Rabbi Kushner speaks of a belief among some that Old Testament King Solomon (son of King David) wrote three books in the Old Testament: Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Song of Songs speaks of the love between a husband and wife and Soloman wrote that as love poetry when he was a young man. In middle age Solomon wrote Proverbs to impart wisdom to young people on how to negotiate the world. And as an old man he wrote Ecclesiastes when he fell into cynicism and despair over the fact that his life was coming to an end.
Most scholars don't think this is true, but there something to the cynicism and despair of the writer. Because on some level it's true: what good does it do to spend your life making good choices and doing the right thing when, at the end of you life, you face the same fate as the wicked? Both of you are going to die. When we were in college my friend Jim wrote to me during exam week and quoted Ecclesiastes: "As to more than these, my son, beware. Of the making of many books there is no end, and in much study there is weariness for the flesh." It spoke to me.
And I think that many of us find consolation and even wisdom here. From our earliest memories we try to do the right thing, to make good choices, to be men and women worthy of respect. But we also recognize that again and again we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Several years ago I met a man, who I'll call Ken, near the end of his life. He was a good man who loved God, his family, and his country. He worked hard to make good choices in his personal and professional career. But he worked here in the United States for a Savings and Loan. In the 1980s he found himself in the middle of a scandal where some S&L's were found to be cheating people to pad the bank accounts of a few executives. He wasn't one of those people but he was painted by the same brush and he lost nearly all of his retirement. He spent several days being grilled and accused by government regulators who wer convinced he was just another crook. He was devastated and hearing his story 20 years later I could hear his pain and it brought me to tears.
As he told me this story he recognized that much of the social status he had taken for granted was gone. No longer could he count on the adulation of his peers or the respect of his neighbors. Automatic upgrades from coach to first class became a blessed memory and countless people he counted as friends abandoned him. The things he valued for much of his life were gone.
But, to his credit, he adapted. He began to value the respect of those who knew he did nothing wrong. He stopped caring about those who liked him for his status and kept caring about those who liked him for his moral compass. For those (like me) who didn't meet him until decades after the crisis, his choices spoke to how little he cared about the S&L crisis and how much he cared about those who chose the right path.
And that has informed our understanding of Luke's Gospel. The man who approached Jesus clearly was a man of some wealth because he spoke of his inheritance: we know nothing about him except that his father had enough wealth to pass to his sons. They were both blessed.
But while they don't recognize their blessing, Jesus does. First Jesus refuses to get caught up in their dispute, and then tells them a parable that I can only hope embarrassed them.
If you are blessed, if you are given more than you need, what should you do with the surplus?
If the author of Ecclesiastes wonders why he should work hard to provide assets for others, the two brothers in Luke fight over how to divide the assets given them by someone else. It's not hard to imagine that the author of Ecclesiastes gave birth to these brothers in Luke. The father of these two men must have despaired of how they honored him (or didn't) by their behavior.
As often happens Jesus refuses to get ensnared in the dispute at hand, but Jesus' concern was not how the father's wealth would be divided between the brothers, but how it would be divided between everyone.
I hope these readings don't shame modern day accountants or those who are saving for retirement. It doesn't. The parable assumes the wealthy man has more than he will ever need. Why did he amass wealth beyond what he would ever need? We don't know.
But we can look to today for some clues. Here in the United States we are engaged in a spirited debate about wealth inequality (or "class warfare," depending on your perspective). But nobody doubts there are a few who now possess much more than they will ever be able to consume. They love to look at numbers that make them "the wealthiest" only for bragging rights. Perhaps the wealthy man belonged to that group.
Or perhaps not. Maybe he was simply a man who had been blessed and feared that if he gave too much of it away, something would happen down the road that would cause him to regret his generosity.
And frankly that fear feeds a cottage industry for many of us. We need to grab as much as we can as fast as we can in case something happens. Because life expectancy has dramatically increased in the last 100 years we now face the fear that we will "outlive our money" and die poor.
I don't wish to ignore this fear, but I want to put it in its place. The fear that we might not have enough should inform but not overwhelm our actions. Years ago I heard something that sticks with me. Someone, in a committee meeting, asked where they should store their surplus food. Another in the same meeting responded by suggesting they store the surplus in the stomachs of the hungry.
In our lives we will all face the dilemma of the author of Ecclesiastes. And in honesty we will all ask Jesus to settle a dispute in our favor. But I hope we will face inevitable suffering with the courage and imagination I found in Ken.
Because years after his death I, along with all those who knew him, continue to honor him not for his wealth here in earth, but for his wealth in the eyes of God.
July 24, 2016: The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We read from Genesis about the destruction of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah (though the actual destruction happened in the next chapter and is not included in this reading). God and Abraham dialogue about an outcry for their destruction. God appears determined to destroy them for their wickedness but Abraham begins to question God. First he asks God if he will spare the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah if there are 50 righteous people (among all the wicked) and God agrees to spare them for the sake of the 50. Abraham then asks if God will spare these cities if there are 45, and then 40, and then 30, and then 20, and then 10. The reading ends there. God promises to spare the cities if there are only 10 who are righteous. Luke's Gospel begins with Jesus' disciples asking him how to pray. Jesus answers them by reciting the prayer was all know as the "Our Father" or the "Lord's Prayer." Then he told them a parable: imagine yourself going to a friend's house in the middle of the night asking to borrow some food for guests who have arrived. The friend at first refuses, but relents only because you are so persistent. Jesus then expands this parable to tell his disciples that God will always give them what they need and finishes with this quotation: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"
What do you think about when you hear the phrase "Sodom and Gomorrah?" I think most of us can identify these two cities in the Book of Genesis that God destroyed for their wickedness. Additionally many view their destruction as punishment for homosexual behavior (gay men and women have often been labeled "sodomites" and sodomy laws in our history have normally criminalized homosexuality). As a matter of fact, in 1965, the Christian evangelist Billy Graham's wife Ruth commented: "If God doesn't soon bring judgment upon America, he'll have to go back and apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah."
This won't surprise anyone who knows me, but I'm going to take this in the opposite direction. Sodom and Gomorrah may popularly occupy a place that speaks of God's anger and justice, but I believe these readings speak to us of God's mercy.
The relationship between God and Abraham continues to fascinate me only because it must have taken Abraham most of his life to figure it out. Abraham (called "Abram" when he was first called) lived a life that he expected to be predictable. But he and his wife (who were not able to have children) were called to leave their home and travel to a new land and parent a new nation. We have it easy because we can draw a line between Abraham (and Sarah) and ourselves, regardless if we are Jews, or Christians, or Muslims.
As God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, we can easily (and perhaps too easily) view it through the lens of wickedness and sin, but I don't think Abraham did. I think Abraham, who was still struggling to understand the concept of one God rather than several gods, worked hard to understand God's mind and God's will.
Because Abraham's world did not turn on individual judgement but on corporate judgement. Five hundred years after Martin Luther's claim about a "personal relationship with the Lord" we have often forgotten that the people of Genesis accepted the fact that judgement was not individual but corporate.
Many of you know that I'm a history buff and I read a scary number of books, particularly about the Middle Ages. Back then, if you were an ordinary farmer who was ruled by a local king, you would likely be pressed into military services for part of your life. If, during the course of battle, you were captured you may have been claimed as a slave. It didn't matter what you thought about your king, or whether or not you were a good person. You could easily be sold as a slave and spend the rest of your life living where you don't want, doing what you don't want, with no hope for a better future. You're a slave even though you did nothing to deserve it.
But Abraham, for reasons we can't fully understand, chose a different path. He looked at Sodom and Gomorrah not as "wicked cities" that God should judge, but as cities populated by people. Some of them were wicked, and some of them were not. And so he asks the question: how wicked does a city have to be to deserve destruction?
How wicked does a city have to be for everyone to be destroyed? Of course, the great unanswered question is why God didn't only take the wicked among them, and that question is left unanswered.
Abraham doesn't ask about God's justice, but instead asks about God's mercy. It's assumed that not everyone in the city is wicked and I think most contemporaries thought nothing of God destroying both cities and everyone in them. I love Abraham because he had the courage to ask God about the limits of God's mercy and keeps asking. Only because he keeps "pushing the envelope" do we begin to understand the how much God loves us.
God's love only continues in Luke's Gospel. For many of us the Lord's Prayer is as familiar to us as any prayer: we learned this prayer first. Unfortunately it makes it too easy to pray it without really listening to it, but it follows a pattern. It begins with an acknowledgement of God's power and our need to trust in that power. We then ask for what we need (including forgiveness) and promise to try to live in a way that honors God.
And while we pray this prayer often we always fall short. We promise to love God, recognize our dependance, forgive others, and ask that we be protected.
But Jesus doesn't stop there. He goes on to speak about how God's mercy can dwarf ours. We try, with our friends, our spouses, and (especially) our children, to be our best. And we fail. Sometimes our actions are driven by our impatience, our prejudices, or our weariness and we hurt those we love. And (let's face it) sometimes we feel guilt that causes us to give our children what they want instead of what they need.
But God, who knows us best, will always give us what we need, even when it's not what we want.But we can't forget that God's love is embedded in mercy, and we are called to do the same.
And hopefully we can look at Sodom and Gomorrah with more mercy and less judgement.
July 17, 2016: The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Abraham and Sarah occupy center stage in the first reading. Here the Lord appeared to Abraham as three men. Following the custom of the time, Abraham offered them hospitality and they accepted. Abraham offered them food and water (and relief for their feet) and then directed Sarah to bake bread for them and when she presented herself they told her that by the time they returned she would have a son. Luke's Gospel recounts the encounter between Jesus and Martha and Mary (who were sisters). While Mary listened to Jesus' words Martha was distracted by serving the guests. Martha complained to Jesus that she was stuck with all the work while her sister Mary was listening to Jesus. Jesus answered her by saying: "Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part."
The Catholic Lectionary connects the first reading and the Gospel and most of the time the connection is clear. I have to confess that I read these readings several times in search of the connection between the three men who spoke to Abraham (who promised Sarah and him a child) and the dialogue in Luke's Gospel between Jesus and Martha.
Normally I see these readings through the eyes of my own experience. At a point in my reflection I recognized that these readings make sense not through my lens as a man, but through the lens of a woman.
I'm embarrassed to say how long this took me. I doubt that the (celibate male) priests had this in mind when they chose these readings, but they make sense through a feminine lens. When I changed my focus, the readings fell into place in a way I wouldn't have guessed.
The reading from Genesis calls us to explore the agonizing and lingering pain of infertility. When God called Abram from Ur to travel to a new land Abram was promised he and his wife Sarai (who would change their names to Abraham and Sarah) would have children. Three chapters earlier God promised them they would have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. But by the time of this reading they had given up on children and their grief can only call us to imagine how betrayed they must have felt. If the God who promised them children betrayed them here, what other promises would be broken?
And we know that the pain of infertility creates spiritual pain that spans years, decades, centuries, and millennia. From our very beginning as people we've seen our roles in terms of producing the next generation. Time and again when I've spoken with people at the end of their lives and asked about what gives them the most pride, nearly all speak of their children. And while infertility devastates both member of the couple, it's not seen as equal. Before we could perform tests that tells us "which one can't" (and, honestly, oftentimes since) most of us assumed it was the woman. Nobody describes a man as being barren, only women.
The reading from Genesis begins with Abraham sitting in the shade, the only reasonable respite from the pounding sun. It's an odd beginning of the reading as it describes God appearing to Abraham when he (Abraham) looked up and saw three men standing before him. My best guess is this: the author of this story wanted us to understand that Abraham viewed these men as being sent by God. In any case Abraham ran toward them and said: "Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree.
Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way."
This requires a little context. At that time, in that place, hospitality was a requirement. It was a hard land and travelers depended on strangers for their survival. The three men were likely not surprised by Abraham's offer.
But Abraham must have been astonished when they asked about his wife. They not only knew he had a wife, but they knew her name, and they asked to see her. I find it crucial that when they promised a child to them, they insisted that both husband and wife be present. At that time, in that place, these three nameless men could have easily seen Abraham as the only person important enough to receive this good news but they didn't. It was important that both Abraham and Sarah receive their good news.
And since we know the "rest of the story" we know that Sarah will indeed bear a child, Isaac, and he will marry and father children, and ... every Jew, Christian, and Muslim born since then will claim Abraham and Sarah as common ancestors.
But given this, how do we view today's Gospel? Well, we can look at the three men, chosen by God to speak to Abraham, who insisted that Sarah be part of the conversation and see how the voice of women are included. They knew that the birth of Isaac was not the result of Abraham or Sarah, but the union of both of them.
I believe that just as these three men gave Sarah a voice, so does Jesus allow Martha' voice in this Gospel (despite her own objections). Many of us look at this Gospel and wonder if the dishes ever got done, but the relationship between Martha and Mary informs our understanding of women even to this day.
I really don't think this Gospel is about chores, or even about the balance between "work and contemplation" as I was told as a child. I believe this is about the role of women in Christianity. Just as women have been valued in their ability to bear children, they've also been valued in their ability to "keep house." As a married man, I have to (painfully) ask this: how many times have we attended a dinner party where the men finished the meal and repaired to the living room while the women did the dishes? How many times have we assumed that "the women" were fine not being part of our conversations, and that God blesses our prejudices?
Maybe Martha doesn't think Mary "knows her place" because she (Martha) is stuck with the dishes. Perhaps she doesn't "know her place" because Mary has the audacity to listen to what Jesus has to teach. The dishes will wait, but Jesus' message is time sensitive.
Regardless, Jesus tells Mary that she has "chosen the better part" not because she has left the dishes for tomorrow but because she has claimed her place as a disciple of Jesus.
As I write this we are 2,100 years removed from this reading. We've made incredible progress: women now have rights that would have been unimaginable then. But when it comes to the mutual role we have with each other in creating the next generation of disciples, I pray we listen to the lessons of these readings.
We are all Abraham. We are all Sarah. We are all Martha. We are all Mary. And (most importantly) we are all the three men sent by God to change how we view our roles. And we are all Jesus showing how Mary chose the better part.
July 10, 2016: The Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Book of Deuteronomy (the last of the first five books of the Bible, often called the Torah or the Pentateuch). Moses, speaking before the Israelites will cross into the Promised Land without him, proclaims that God's commandments are accessible because they are not far away, but is "in your mouth and in your heart for your observance." Luke's Gospel begins with a lawyer asking Jesus what it takes to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." The man then asks: "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers him with the now famous parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable a man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jerico but was beaten and robbed. Lying half dead, a priest and a Levite passed him by. But a Samaritan found him, bandaged his wounds, and carried him to an inn. This Samaritan gave the innkeeper money to care for this man and left. He told the innkeeper he would return, and if the man needed additional funds, he would pay for that also. Jesus then asked the lawyer who was truly the man's neighbor to which the lawyer answered: "The one who took pity on him." Jesus approved of this answer and told him: "Go and do the same."
Today's homily marks a few anniversaries, and I hope you'll be patient with my gratitude. It was this reading, in 1992, that began my career as a homilist. I was then a seminarian and was asked to preach for the first time at Sunday mass at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska. It went well, and as I sat down after preaching the pastor, Fr. Michael Martin, leaned over and said: "That was really good." Some of you may know this, but as of this weekend I've been writing and publishing my homilies since 2013. Because the Catholic lectionary runs on a 3 year cycle, everything from this day forward can be accessed previously. That said, I promise not to rerun old homilies just for convenience (with the exception of Ash Wednesday, which I think is timeless).
As I said, our first reading comes from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. Much of this book consists of speeches from Moses as he bids farewell to his community. He knows their future will not include him and he prays that they will continue to be worthy of God's promises for them. He tells them here to listen only to the voice of God and nothing else. We will do better to listen to that message.
By the time of Jesus, Moses' words were in peril. The community that Moses blessed did not take long to split. They fell into two communities, the North and the South, Samaritans and Israelites. The Jews that we now recognize centered their faith on Jerusalem but those in the North did not. Many were conquered by the Babylonians and are lost to history, but some did not and their temple was in Mount Gerazim, not Mount Zion.
Competing descendants to Moses had, by the time of Jesus, formed into rival camps who hated each other. Both claimed to be the "chosen people" and the fact that Jesus chose our camp should not give us bragging rights.
In reality God calls us to love everyone and it's a call we continue to ignore. While I love this reading I'm aware that the term "Samaritan" has been sanitized. We live in the 21st Century after these events and when we think of "Samaritan" we assume the word "good" proceeds it. Laws that protect us from liability when we assist strangers are called "Good Samaritan Laws." Those who drive recreational vehicles are invited to join the "Good Sam's Club." But it wasn't always that way. Jesus' listeners heard the word "Samaritan" like many today hear the word "Muslim."
When we hear "Muslim" many of us think "someone who we don't know who wants to kill us." For many of us, their skin is darker than ours. In other words we've become conditioned to see the world through lenses of "people who look like us" and "people who can't be trusted." And, without seeing this too much through the lens of current political races, we are often encouraged to retreat into exactly those fears.
And if last week's readings call us to see what strangers offer us, today's call us to explore how we treat them. I'm reminded of an elderly priest I met many years ago. Fr. Ed Peters attended college at the University of Texas in Austin and joined the Paulist Fathers in 1918 (he was ordained in 1924). When he travelled by train to Washington D.C. he and a friend encountered someone we would now call African American. They asked him for directions and this man pointed them in the right direction. Ed's friend commented to him: "Did you hear that fellow? He talked just like a white man!" Ed and his friend likely had no idea that Washington D.C. at the time was essentially a segregated city and this man who helped them probably led a life marked by discrimination where he was denied the ability to vote or live where he chose. They only knew that someone who didn't look like them spoke like them and I hope it changed how they viewed him.
Fr. Ed and his friend looked at this man and didn't know what to think of him. But the man in the Gospel who was beaten had the opposite experience: he and the listeners of this parable looked at someone and thought they knew exactly what to think of him. The priest and the Levite were supposed to see this man as one of their own and help him. We don't know why they didn't, and that's probably grist for another homily.
But the Samaritan didn't do what was expected of him. Jesus' parables often turn things upside down, and this is one of them. When the man was beaten and left at the side of the road he was supposed to be ignored by his enemies and helped by his friends.
But if we see this reading through the eyes of the man who was beaten and robbed, none of this matters. However he thought of priests, Levites, or Samaritans, he had to know that the hero of his story was the one who was supposed to hate him. We can only hope that this robbery victim spent the rest of his life telling his friends and family that they should love Samaritans for what this one person did. Additionally, I like to think the innkeeper also told this story.
Most of us don't have the opportunity to reach out to and welcome Samaritans (though there remains a small group in Israel), but that misses the point. All of us know that we live alongside people who we are supposed to hate and/or distrust because they make us uncomfortable. And we do. Sometimes we distrust others because their skin looks different from ours. Sometimes they profess a faith that doesn't agree with ours. Sometimes they love someone we don't accept because our belief tells us that God doesn't pair people of different races or the same sex.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a dear friend of my father in law's. He told me about a recent trip to another town. He had a rental car but lacked a good map or functional GPS. Hot and frustrated, he went into a convenience store to get something to drink. The man behind the counter not only gave him directions, but also helped him with his cell phone. He downloaded a program for him that would make it much easier for him to navigate the city. At the end of the story, this friend told me: "And I have to tell you, he was Muslim. I've had a hard time with Muslims, but this man was so kind to me. I just don't know."
Yes, he does know. He knows that he can no longer safely hid behind an easy prejudice because his experience has informed him of the message of this Gospel. His world has become more complicated, but also more authentic.
At the end of the day, if Jesus tells us anything, he tells us that God does not respect our prejudices. We live in a world of Jews and Samaritans. Africans, Europeans, Asians, Americans. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists.
But all of us, all of us, are called to see each other as children of God, as those we are called to love, and those we are called to reach out to. We may never be called to come to the rescue of someone who was beaten and left at the side of the road: parables like this often point to extreme examples.
But we can start where we are. Maybe we can hold open a door for someone or call out someone who tells an off color joke.
But we are all called to do something.
July 3, 2016: The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We read from the last chapter of the book of Isaiah about the "vindication of Zion." The reader is instructed to "[R]ejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her." God then promises to "send flowing peace, like a river." Luke's Gospel continues last week's reading: Jesus appointed seventy two disciples to travel in advance of him. He gave them strict instructions that they were not to carry provisions, that they were to ask for lodging, and accept whatever hospitality is offered. In the longer version of the Gospel the disciples returned rejoicing that they were successful beyond their hopes. Jesus then admonished them not to rejoice in their power but instead rejoice that their names are written in heaven.
For our entire history as disciples of Jesus we have been a faith that yearns for the horizon. From Jesus' call after his resurrection to "go to all nations" to missionary work in our own day, we have answered the call to carry the good news of salvation everywhere we go.
As I spoke about last week, Jesus and his disciples are journeying toward Jerusalem for the last time and it appeared that the disciples still weren't getting it. And yet here everything falls into place, with seemingly little preparation.
I find it significant that Jesus starts them off with a warning that he is sending them out "like lambs among wolves" and virtually without provisions. No purse, no haversack, no sandals (!).
And 2,000 years later I don't think we're called to the same thing, but I have to admit to some amusement at seeing how we provision our trips. Modern safaris normally include so much gear that we are forced to hire people to carry our stuff (Americans of my generation remember the late comedian George Carlin doing an entire routine called "a place for my stuff"). And here in the United States the RV (recreational vehicle) industry convinces us we need a camper big enough to block out the sun.
And in fairness the idea of travel back then was different, and certainly more frightening (as we will see next week with the parable of the Good Samaritan). But here we see the upside of travel: meeting new people, learning new traditions, and having new experiences. The jubilation the disciples reported was not only that they found people who were open to their evangelization but that they broadened and enriched their lives through those meetings.
I know I'm stretching things a little, and that the Gospel doesn't explicitly state that the disciples deepened their lives, but it's an inevitable part of travel.
Truthfully I spent the week looking at this reading and recognizing that I cannot read this apart from the global immigration situation where we find ourselves.
Because while we have always been a people fascinated with the horizon, this hasn't been a universal experience. We've always had among us those who fear those we don't know, and it even has a name: xenophobia (fear of the stranger).
I write this in the shadow of "Brexit," the decision by 52% of the voters in Great Britain to leave the European Union. Immigration and the fear that they would be overrun by refugees informed much of the vote. Here in the United States a major candidate for President promises to build a wall between us and Mexico.
So who's right here? I've spoken countless times that our choices need to be informed by our moral compass and not by our own selfish benefit. In the days leading up to the vote in Great Britain I heard an interview with a man who lived in England for most of his life. He retired to Spain where his pension could give him a higher standard of living, and because both England and Spain were members of the European Union, he would receive additional benefits (candidly my memory fails me on the details). He explained that he was planning to vote for Britain to remain in the EU because it works out better for him. But, he admitted, if he still lived in Britain he would vote to leave because he thinks it's too easy for foreigners to come to Britain and threaten his way of life.
Now please understand, I'm not saying how Christians should vote on this issue and his faith was not discussed in the story. But I am deeply troubled that his vote on this issue would change depending on where he lived. A true moral compass certainly has room for "how this affects me" but it cannot ignore how it affects others, particularly the poor and marginalized. In 1968 Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) coined the phrase "preferential option for the poor." He wrote that when called to make a choice, we need to explore how it will affect the poor. I define it this way: having the ability to choose means that we have a certain amount of power, and it calls us to advocate on behalf of those who don't.
Preferential option for the poor speaks to the simple truth that all of us should have enough of the things we need, but I think it also speaks to something deeper. Those who we advocate for have something to teach us and we live our best lives when we reach beyond our comfort zone and interact with strangers.
Many years ago I met a man who worshipped at a wealthy Catholic church outside Boston. He told me that years before Mother Theresa (1910-1997) spoke at his parish. He was so moved by her words that he came up and attempted to give her $100 to help the poor. She refused and told him that he should find someone who was in need. We both got a chuckle at the image of him with a $100 bill in his hand and command from Mother Theresa. But her genius was this: the poor person would benefit from the $100 that he would never miss, but both of them would benefit from the encounter.
It's becoming fashionable these days to see strangers as "someone who will take something from me," whether it's money or opportunity or "our way of life." But today's Gospel tells us that the jubilation experienced by the 72 resulted directly from their encounter.
I hope I'm not walking too far into the weeds of the theology of the Trinity, but generations of Christians wrestled with the role of the Holy Spirit. Our ancestors spent centuries arguing the finer points but in 1274 the Catholic Church declared that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son: The Spirit comes to us from between the Father and Son, and continues to occupy the space between us today.
But if we take this to heart, the Holy Spirit exists only when we encounter each other and never when we isolate ourselves out of fear or prejudice.
The returning 72 celebrated their experience only because they moved outside their comfort zones, encountered people they didn't know, and allowed room for the Holy Spirit.
June 26, 2016: The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading, from the first book of Kings, the Lord instructed Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elijah found Elisha plowing a field but when Elisha learned of his future he asked this: "Let me kiss my father and mother, then I will follow you." Elijah then answered: "Go, go back; for have I done anything to you?" Elisha then slaughtered two oxen, cooked them, and gave them to his men to eat. He then rose and followed Elijah. Our Gospel from Luke also concerns parents. As Jesus continued to approach Jerusalem he and the disciples passed a Samaritan village. Because Jesus and his disciples were heading to Jerusalem, the Samaritans refused to greet them. James and John then asked Jesus if they should seek revenge but Jesus rebuked them and they continued their journey. He approached someone with the offer to become a disciple but this person responded: "I will follow you sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my family at home [other versions translate this to "my father and mother']." Jesus responded: "Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
I have to confess that I'm always a little worried when I read about how some people are "not fit for the kingdom of God," and this is one of those times. On it's face this unnamed potential disciple asked for something simple: let me say goodbye to my family and then I will join you.
And I worry not because of what the text says but the reaction we take from it: what if I'm not fit for the Kingdom of God? What if I've laid my hand on the plough and was caught looking back? Does it really mean that this one act will deny me the Kingdom?
And does it mean that once I decide to follow Jesus, I can't even tell my family that I'm going? Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Several commentaries I researched hold that "saying goodbye" meant waiting until the person's parents had died. This was not a delay of an hour, but perhaps a delay of years.
I don't think I'm reading too much into this but I sense a certain level of urgency in Jesus' words. His journey to Jerusalem ends with his death and resurrection, and also his ascension into Heaven. And while we rightly focus on the salvation this brings us, there is also an element of Jesus' "passing the torch" to his disciples.
That may inform Jesus' rebuke of his disciples when they sought revenge against the Samaritans. The Samaritans and the Jews never liked each other (for several reasons) and their rebuke of the disciples should have come as no surprise. And so when the disciples offered to "put the hurt on them" Jesus may well have recognized how far he still had to go with them. They still hadn't gotten the word that the Kingdom of God was about mercy and inclusion, not revenge and power.
Today we also live with urgency, but I maintain it's a different urgency. From nearly the time of Jesus the belief that "the world is going to end in your lifetime and perhaps by the end of this day" called centuries of disciples to both hope and anxiety. The promise of Jesus' return, over time, morphed into the belief that random events took on grave importance because "you never know when it's going to happen." One of my seminary classmates owned a shirt that proclaimed: "Jesus is Coming: Look Busy."
But we live in the 21st Century after the promise of our salvation. The idea of holding our breath because the world might end today is both silly and counterproductive. Instead let us look at urgency through different eyes.
In the ordinary course of our day most of us encounter dozens, or even hundreds, of people. Most encounters are simple and don't demand much of us: the checker at the grocery store asks "how are you" and we answer "fine." The pedestrian at a stop sign waves to thank us for letting him or her cross and we wave back. We greet the receptionist at our office with "good morning" and it is returned.
But today's urgency comes to us when we are faced with an encounter that calls us to more. Maybe it's something simple when we open a door for a young mother or father who is pushing a stroller through a door. Maybe it's when we're on a plane next to a single parent whose child won't stop crying and we provide comfort and support to the parent.
This urgency is not informed by "things are going to end soon and this is my last chance to show my worthiness" but instead by "this may be my only chance to impact the life of this random person and make his or her life better."
The call to discipleship, the call to understand that we don't control the circumstances of our ability to serve God, should humble us. We best serve God by seeing urgency as a response to humility, to knowing that we serve a God who calls us to serve without explaining God's reasoning. We don't set our schedule or determine our agenda with the understanding that we are the final word.
Truthfully, as disciples, God call us to see every encounter as something holy. I'm certain I'm not alone when I say that I've been reminded of conversations or encounters that I barely remember but are seared into the memories of someone else. I'm grateful when those encounters were good, and embarrassed when they weren't.
Many years ago I was blessed by an encounter from my time as a seminarian. I spent time with the youth group of a Catholic parish and befriended a 10th grader I'm going to call Brian. We were both bicyclists (though he was much stronger than me). We spent hours riding together and talking about bicycles and life in general. We didn't talk much about faith or religion only because it didn't come up. At the end of my year there he pulled me aside and told me this: "I attended the youth group only because my parents made me. Truthfully I was an atheist when I met you. But spending this year with you has convinced me that God exists. If you are going to devote your life to faith, I believe I can too."
I tell this story not to brag. I spent most of that year embarrassed by how much he smoked me on hills but I enjoyed his company. I had no idea he didn't belive in God and still can't imagine the impact I had as we rode together. But I look back on this with a sense of urgency.
I was blessed by my encounter with Brian because he was able to communicate his gratitude from his experience with me. Because of his confession I carry with me a profound encounter of him. But as a disciple of Jesus I'm also aware of all those we encountered without that experience.
Urgency, in the final analysis, isn't about predicting the future. Urgency demands that we be ready at all times for what comes. And as disciples of Jesus Christ it calls us to be ready to respond to what faces us.
Maybe it calls us to respond in ways that we understand and easily respond to. But maybe it calls us to respond in ways that bewilder or confuse us. Elisha (in the first reading) is minding his own business, plowing the fields, when he is called to follow Elijah. The unnamed disciple in Luke's Gospel wants to follow Jesus, but only on his timeline.
The popular bumper stickers "Practice Random Acts of Kindness" informs these readings. I'm not normally a fan of bumper stickers, but I find great wisdom in this one. Random acts are not random to God, only to us.
Discipleship does not call us to abandon our families but it does call us to reorder our priorities. We rightly make and keep schedules because it's our starting point but discipleship calls us to understand that God does not respect our schedules. We will, in our ordinary lives, find ourselves in situations that demand we understand that the Kingdom of God may go in a direction we did not choose.
We may be called to love a Samaritan. We may be called to love a Muslim. We may be called to support a coworker or neighbor who "everyone knows" is against us.
Regardless these readings demand that we understand that discipleship and our role as disciples differently. The "call and response" of discipleship ends, not with us, but with God. God calls and we respond.
Even if it's a response we didn't plan.
June 19, 2016: The Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading (from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah) speaks from a time when they have returned from their exile in Babylon. God promises to "pour out a spirit of kindness and prayer." The people will mourn for the one they have pierced. "When that day comes, a fountain will be opened for the House of David and the citizens of Jerusalem, for sin and impurity." Luke's Gospel describes a scene where Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say he is. They respond by stating that some say he is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the ancient prophets. Jesus then asks them who they say he is. Peter responds by calling him "The Christ of God." Instead of being pleased with this, Jesus gave strict orders that they tell no one of this. He then told them that the Son of Man was "destined to to suffer grievously to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day."
There are times when I read Bible passages through the eyes of the 21st Century and think that while these readings make perfect sense to me, they must have puzzled or confounded those who heard these words in the First Century. And to be fair, scripture is replete with instances where ancient customs or practices confound us (I'm thinking about references to sheep herding and travelling great distances while wearing sandals).
Today's Gospel speaks to my point. Jesus begins by asking his disciples a simple question: Who do the crowds think I am? Honestly, I look at this question and think it's a trap: Jesus wants them to answer the question incorrectly so that he can tell them who he is.
This may not be true now, but I was in high school in the 1970s and we were well conditioned to this type of "set up" question. You may have memories of your own but they were well used devices: you were asked a seemingly simple question but when giving the simple answer you were told (in front of everyone else) that you were wrong. I remember well a scene when I was in 10th grade and went to a meeting of the debate team. The coach asked me why I thought I should be on the debate team; foolishly I thought she would be pleased by my interest. I stumbled through several answers that she ignored and finally I said that I liked to argue. She jumped on my answer to announce to me (and the rest of the group) that debate wasn't about arguing at all and I gave the wrong answer. As you can imagine I left the meeting and never returned.
Given this I feel some empathy for Jesus' disciples. I'm not certain they felt as set up as I did but they did stumble through a few answers. Clearly they didn't give Jesus the answer he wanted and so he changed the question: Who do you think that I am?
And then Peter gives the answer that we all hope we would have given in that situation: You are the Christ of God. Most of us know that "christ" means "the anointed one" and Peter gives a clear indication of what we know to be true: Jesus is the Son of God.
But instead of praising Peter for giving the right answer, Jesus scolded them. He then told them not to tell this to anyone.
Reading this 2,000 years later it's easy to think ourselves better than Peter and the rest of the disciples but perhaps that misses the point. It's taken several years (and a fair amount of counseling) to understand that the debate coach didn't answer my question with an eye toward humiliating me but rather to make a point: she wanted us to come to a different understanding and I happened to be the convenient target.
We can see the arc of Jesus' ministry through easy eyes: he was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, gathered a group of disciples, taught and preached, and was killed only to rise from the dead and redeem us. And since the Gospels were written 40 years after these events, Luke had much the same advantage.
But his disciples didn't have the luxury of hindsight. No matter how much they loved Jesus, no matter how much they believed his message, and no matter how much we revere them, they didn't know how their story was going to end.
So what did they think? We have no way to know the answer to that question, but it's worth knowing that Jesus felt the need to tell them that it wouldn't always go well. I believe that Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit to tell Jesus that he viewed Jesus as the "Christ of God."
I've spoken about this several times before but if you're attached to someone on the way up, your stock is going up too. A disciple of the Christ of God virtually guarantees a good future.
Here in the United States we're in the middle of a Presidential campaign that confounds nearly all expectations. Without wishing to wade into the weeds of this campaign, I'm interested to note that several "second tier" politicians have needed to chose their path forward. And I think it's fair to say that some of them have taken their eyes off their moral compass hoping for a path to greater things.
Much like the disciples they find themselves attempting not only to understand what they've heard but to predict their future based on confusing information.
Unlike the disciples they base their decisions on their ambitions instead of a a respect for their moral compass. They are choosing their career over their legacy.
I know how cynical this will sound, but we are replete with politicians who base their decisions, ambitions, and futures on their predictions of the future success of their mentors. Will he (or she) survive this challenge and will I benefit from my support? Or will he (or she) go down and I'll benefit from jumping ship?
But the confusing response of Jesus' scolding of Peter didn't cause them to see Jesus in a different light, and more to the point they didn't abandon Jesus. Whatever feelings they may have experienced and however hurt Peter may have felt, they continued to follow Jesus.
I'm pretty certain they had no idea what Jesus meant when he told them that the "Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised." Further they must have been completely bewildered when he spoke about how they must "pick up their cross" and follow him.
You see, nothing in their lives as Jews spoke to a need to be killed and the idea of picking up a cross was anathema. They had no context to understand how someone could die and come back to life simply because it had never happened.
And while "the cross" today signifies sacrifice and redemption, back then it was awful: "the cross" was a method of execution the Romans devised to make death painful, humiliating, and agonizingly long. And while Jesus died on the cross in a speedy three hours, some who were crucified took several days to die.
And so hearing this, why on earth did the disciples continue to follow him? Nobody in his right mind would go all in with someone who would be crucified by the Romans. Were the disciples out of their mind?
Yes. Yes they were. On a basic level the best part of Jesus' merry band of disciples have their best moments here. They likely had no idea what Jesus was talking about and part of their decision consisted of ignoring what they didn't understand.
But I like to think that part of their decision to continue to follow Jesus had nothing to do with ambition or the desire to gain adulation and respect. I like to think that their decision to continue to follow Jesus spoke loudly about their moral compass. Even hearing about having to carry their crosses did not dissuade them, and while they didn't always live their best lives, they are who they are to us because of their willingness to trade ambition for discipleship.
Does that ever happen with us? Of course it does. As I spoke about in the context of politics, we are constantly seduced to make decisions in terms of ambition. Will this coworker benefit me? Will this politician get me what I want? Will my nasty and immoral neighbor introduce me to people who can make me richer?
Or do we, instead, trade understanding and ambition for loyalty and love? I'm writing this in the hours after the horrific murders at the gay bar in Orlando and I can't keep my mind off the reaction we see. Do we morph this into anti Muslim hate speech for our own benefit or do we weep for the LGBT community that has been decimated?
I pray that when we encounter experiences that confuse, bewilder, and frighten us, we don't answer with our fear or ask how we can profit from it. I pray that we can live with our confusion and answer with compassion, and look to our moral compass for direction.
June 12, 2016: The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: The relationship between King David and Nathan the prophet informs our first reading. Nathan scolds David because, after all God has given him, David sins gravely. Nathan tells him: "You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, taken his wife for your own, and killed him with the sword of the Ammonites." Chastened, David replies: "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan then tells David that God forgives him and will not take his life. Luke's Gospel describes a scene where a Pharisee invites Jesus to a meal. Once taking his place, a woman (who had a bad name) entered. She brought an alabaster jar of ointment with which she anointed his feet. Weeping, she kissed his feet and dried her tears with her hair. The Pharisee, recognizing the woman, called out Jesus and proclaimed that if Jesus were truly a prophet he would know this woman's reputation. Jesus then told a parable about a man who was owed debts by two people. One owed him 500 denari and the other owed him 50. When he forgave both debts, which debtor will love him more? Simon (Peter) suggested the one with the greater debt would love him more. Jesus agreed and told the woman her sins were forgiven and proof of this was shown in her desire to serve Jesus. This caused some consternation as some at the table asked: "Who is this man, that he even forgives sins?" Jesus concludes this reading by telling the woman that her faith has saved her.
Sometimes when I read the readings from the Catholic lectionary I have to scratch my head over how they chose which stories (and which versus) to tell. Our first reading from the Second Book of Samuel makes almost no sense without some context. It begins with the 7th verse of the 12th chapter but we need to read from the beginning of the 11th chapter to fully understand the depths of David's sin.
Here David is the King of Israel. His reign over Israel is generally considered the apex, the high point, of Jewish history. Years ago I watched a movie about Jews in the famous Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943: prisoners with smuggled guns fought back against their oppressors and one of them (knowing the uprising was ultimately doomed) proclaimed: "I feel the blood of King David in my veins!"
But David, along with all of us before and after, was a flawed character. This reading describes perhaps his lowest point. Israel was fighting against the Ammonites, and one of his soldiers was a man named Uriah. While Uriah was in battle, David saw Uriah's wife Bathsheba and was attracted to her. David called for her and demanded intercourse with her.
Today if we are horrified by this demand that's a good thing. We put great stock in the phrase "consentual sex" but frankly that's a fairly modern term. Today we believe that either partner in an intimate relationship can decline intimacy and the other partner commits a crime by ignoring that refusal.
But that hasn't been true for much our history. Thomas Jefferson, the third American President, had a long term relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemming. He kept it secret at the time because of criticism because it was an interracial relationship, but today we see it at forcible rape because a slave could not refuse her master. Sex is consensual only if both parties have the power to say no.
Bathsheba was in the same situation. King David did not need to ask for Bathsheba's consent: as king his power over her was absolute. He didn't need to ask her consent anymore than he needed to ask the consent of the knife he used to cut his food.
I know this shocks us today, and that's a good thing, because our understanding of the relationship of the equality between men and women takes center stage in this reading.
You see, David found himself trapped by his own actions. His desire for a one night stand with Bathsheba resulted in her pregnancy. Even the mighty King David recognized that this sin would not play well with his people. Unfortunately he doubled down on his desperate situation. First he called her husband Uriah home in the hopes that he would have sex with her and everyone would assume this child would be seen as Uriah's.
It didn't work. Uriah, feeling guilty that he was called home from the front lines, slept outside his home and everyone knew that he did not sleep with Bathsheba. David grew more desperate: he recognized that the clock was ticking and abandoned the plan to claim that Uriah fathered the (soon to be born) child.
Instead he made a desperate and awful decision. He ordered that once back in battle, Uriah's troops would pull back, expose Uriah to enemy fire and ensure his death. Alas, that plan worked.
Except that it didn't. God saw what happened and took the side of the powerless. We call Nathan a prophet because he spoke for God, and Nathan was not diplomatic. His call to proclaim God's truth was not supposed to be diplomatic. God recognized that David sinned both in his decision to impregnate Bathsheba and his decision to cause the death of Uriah to cover up his first sin.
Finally we find ourselves at the beginning of our first reading. Nathan confronted David in his sin, and to his credit, David admitted his guilt.
As Christians we often speak of God's ability to forgive even our worst sin. It's hard to imagine a sin greater than David's. As a matter of fact, the United States Code of Military Conduct specifically prohibits any sexual conduct between members of the military and the spouses of other members.
And yet God forgives David. God's forgiveness does not come without a price (and the child born of this affair died at seven days old). And while we rightly mourn for the child who died prematurely, we need to put him or her in God's care and recognize that David is not evaluated only on his worst decision.
This message continues to the Gospel. We know nothing about the woman in this story except she was seen badly by those gathered. Perhaps her desire to find a husband called her to make bad decisions. Perhaps today we would see her as a victim of human trafficking. In any case her desperation called her to see Jesus as her best hope for a fulfilled life. There is much we don't know.
What we do know is this: she knew that Jesus was dining with a Pharisee. And having little to lose she entered the Pharisee's home without an invitation and approached Jesus.
And she was all in. She broke the rules and and once there she broke open a container of oil, rubbed it on Jesus' feet, mixed with her tears. She then dried his feet with her hair.
And here we see the divergence: the Pharisee looked at the woman's sins and Jesus looked at her love. He stated clearly that she could only have done this out of love. She wasn't even looking for forgiveness.
But forgiven she was. And that commands the heart of these readings.
I'm hoping many of you remember this, but in late 1998 President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about a legal but inappropriate relationship with an intern, Monica Lewinski. There was a great deal of conversation in this country about how we had "lost a sense of sin" and that anything was permissible. At the time I disagreed. I felt (and still feel) that we have never lost a sense of sin, but instead we have lost a sense of forgiveness of our sins. Caught in his indiscretion, he feared that the word "adulterer" and "sex maniac" would completely describe him, pushing out President, father, husband, and friend. Because he didn't think there was a path back to wholeness he lied and hoped he would get away with it. But like David, he didn't.
For if humility reminds us that we cannot be seen exclusively by our best moments, forgiveness demands that we not be judged by our worst moments. The ability, indeed the command, to forgive ourselves and others provides us with the only path to wholeness and true discipleship.
As with so many of Jesus' encounters we are called not to see as the Pharisee saw but as Jesus saw. While the Pharisee looked back on the nameless woman's life with an inventory of her sins, Jesus looked forward to her life of love.
As a postscript I hope she was able to forgive herself. Forgiving ourselves is often the hardest job we face.
June 5, 2016: The Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading (from the first book of Kings) describes a scene where the prophet Elijah is staying with a widow. The widow's son fell sick and died. Desperate with grief she said to Elijah: "What quarrel have you with me, man of God? Have you come here to bring my sins home to me and to kill my son?" Elijah then took the boy's body and prayed to God to return the boy's soul to him. God heard Elijah's prayer and returned the boy to life. Overjoyed the woman said to Elijah: "Now I know you are a man of God and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth itself." Luke's Gospel tells the story of Jesus journeying to the town of Nain. As he approached the town, the body of a man was being carried out; he was the only son of a widow. Moved by the situation Jesus commanded the man to get up. The man came back to life and joined his mother. Everyone who saw this "was filled with awe and praised God."
I know this will sound crazy, but I think many of us focus on the wrong part of these readings and that fact marks much of the progress we have made since these readings were written.
Both readings focus on the mercy of God, the important places of Elijah and Jesus in our salvation history and I think we see that correctly. But when we hear of the death of these sons of widows we immediately imagine the grief of losing a child.
And let's face it: the death of a child (of any age) constitutes a parent's worst nightmare. We find death painful but most of us expect that we will bury our parents and know that we may or may not survive our spouse. But there is no understanding the death of a child. Ten years ago I presided at the funeral of a 15 day old infant and to this day it was the saddest experience of my eighteen years as a hospice chaplain.
But these readings are not about grief, or at least not as the primary focus. The widows here, on top of the grief, faced the distinct possibility of starvation.
Women, in those days, were not easily able to make a living; they experienced what we today call "food insecurity. They were dependent first on their fathers, then their husbands, and finally their sons for even their basic needs. These two women lost their lifelines when their sons died, and while there was always the possibility of charity (or perhaps remarriage), they could no longer be confident in their ability to live. They had virtually no ability to earn their own living and nobody was obligated to support them.
I don't wish to dispel the power of charity and the demand that we care for "the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien" (ie, those who can't support themselves) goes back to Moses. But they were always dependent not only on the generosity of those who could help, they soon learned that they couldn't depend on those who couldn't help. I'm certain I'm not the only one who receives large and unwieldy piles of mail asking for my help with various causes. And it's not that (most of them) aren't worthy charities, it's just too much. If I gave to everyone who asked, I'd need to start my own charity to pay my own bills. The play "Fiddler on the Roof" gives us a funny scene where a beggar asked someone for some help. The man gave him some money but the beggar complained that this amount was half of last week's amount. The man explained that he had a bad week to which the beggar replied: "So you had a bad week. Why should I suffer?
But slowly, and primarily in the last century, we've recognized that individual acts of charity, noble as they may be, don't go far enough. We began to recognize that our shared values called us to action. At least in the developed world we recognized that those who had nobody to care for them needed to be cared for by all of us.
Here in the United States, as late as the 1930s, those too old to work depended on savings or their children. But as we began to live longer and the the elderly population without resources grew, we developed two programs: pensions and Social Security. They were both collective funds that relied on a combination of saving and taxing those who still work. Social Security is a government program, but large companies also recognized that setting up pensions would provide a healthy retirement for those whose loyalty they wished to reward.
Now I don't think those behind Social Security and pensions (and similar programs in other nations) happened at meetings where someone looked directly at these readings. But I do believe that these and other like readings call us to collective responsibility. Democracies, in the final word, operate on the collective beliefs and values of all its citizens. There is no way around this eternal truth: nations who answer to one dictator, or a small circle of rulers, invariably serve the needs and desires of the powerful at the expense of the population
But nations where the leaders serve the entire population recognize their responsibility to serve everyone, and particularly those in the most need.
Today, as a citizen of the United States, I celebrate not only Social Security and pensions: I also celebrate other programs. We have Medicare (health care for the elderly), Medicaid (health care for the poor), food stamps (coupons that allow the poor to purchase food), WIC (nutrition for infants and their mothers), free school lunches in schools, and dozens of other programs.
But I celebrate with a few caveats: first, I recognize that these programs, these shared values, are often under fire. Many who claim our same values and religious beliefs see those in need as suffering from self inflicted wounds or are just plain lazy. These folk argue that our charity only makes it easier for people to stay lazy. It's an unfortunate truth and I pray they never find out firsthand how wrong they are.
And second while I gratefully pay taxes for these programs (and say a silent prayer whenever I see the difference in my paycheck) I also recognize that these programs don't complete my responsibility. The widow, orphan, and resident alien may receive adequate nutrition through my taxes, but I'm still called to provide love and a commitment to help them. No program is 100% efficient and neither is any program 100% effective. These readings call us to vigilance in ensuring nobody faces true food insecurity.
But I'm cheered to know that while nobody who collects a pension or Social Security will grow rich, neither will they likely starve. And this reality that our actions will prevent their starvation makes us the Elijah and Jesus of our readings.
May 29, 2016: The Body and Blood of Christ
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We can tell that we're out of Easter season because the first reading comes not from the Acts of the Apostles but from Genesis. Here Melchizedek (the King of Salem) brought out and blessed bread and wine. Luke's Gospel recounts the miracle where Jesus fed the crowd with two loaves of bread and five fish.
The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (known in Latin as "Corpus Christi") commands an important place in the lives of Catholics, and varying degrees of importance in other Christian religions. I pray my words will find value for Catholics and non Catholics alike.
The first thing I notice about this is the name of the feast: the Catholic calendar is replete with feast days. In addition to feasts that celebrate saints (St. Patrick on March 17th, St. Francis on October 4th, etc), there are other feasts. On February 22nd we commemorate the "Chair of Peter," known in Latin as "Cathedra Petri." Trust me, there are several others.
My point is this: Most Catholic feasts were translated from Latin to English in the 1960s. Nobody celebrates "Cathedra Petri" anymore. But the translation of "Corpus Christi" is "The Body and Blood of Christ" while most of us still call it Corpus Christi.
Why is this? Perhaps it's because "Corpus Christi" is shorter than "The Body and Blood of Christ" but perhaps it's more. There is something mystical about Latin, almost as if it is a "secret language." Fifty years past the Second Vatican Council there are still Catholics who miss hearing the mass in Latin. For many, Latin is "God's language."
And there's something mystical about food. With the exception of air nothing is more pressing on our existence than food and water. From the time of Moses we've always recognized that God not only created us, but sustains us, whether it be manna from Heaven in Exodus or Jesus' own body and blood in the Gospels.
But curiously today's Gospel doesn't depict the scene of the Last Supper where Jesus takes the unleavened bread and pronounces the words: "This is my body." Instead we read in Luke's Gospel how Jesus and his disciples fed a crowd of thousands.
I don't think this is an accident. Corpus Christi can easily be seen as only a "Catholic feast" as Catholics have a different understanding of Eucharist from most other Christians. But Corpus Christi is a feast not only about receiving Communion at Catholic Mass, it's about food and how it sustains us.
I spoke about our need for air, and it's real. Most of us will start dying if we go without air (oxygen) for more than 5 or 10 minutes. We can go longer without food (despite what the advertising world tells us) but not forever. This isn't an exact science but most of us won't survive more than a week without water; our survivability without food depends on how much we have stored in our body but even today we won't survive more than a few weeks without food.
I say "how much we have stored in our body" because the last few hundred years have allowed us a luxury that was almost unheard of for most of human history. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing that nobody who reads this lives with a reasonable fear of starvation. As a matter of fact many of us struggle not with consuming enough calories but with decreasing or burning off enough calories to remain healthy. Our disease is not poverty but obesity.
I do genealogy as a hobby and that means I spend an embarrassing amount of time poring over public records. About six years ago I came across the death certificate of Joseph Arthur Calixte Lizotte, my 7th cousin twice removed. He was born in Greenville, New Hampshire on May 16, 1914 and died on September 23, 1915. According to his death certificate his causes of death was cholera (which he suffered for 3 days) and malnutrition (which he suffered from birth).
My distant cousin lived only four months and seven days but I wonder what he would think about the feast of Corpus Christi. He was the eighth of fourteen children and twelve of the fourteen lived into adulthood. Given all that faced them, his parents and siblings were lucky.
But his death points to an uncomfortable reality. Air (oxygen) commands our most basic need for life but, let's face it, it's everywhere. We measure air pressure as a way to predict the weather but unless we choose to climb Mt. Everest we're not likely to be in a place where we have to be deliberate about how we consume air.
But while God has chosen to spread air evenly, food and water are uneven. Some parts of our world provide generous amounts of fresh water while we classify others as deserts. Growing crops comes easy to some parts of our world and not in others.
What do we do with that? We've spent most of our history as humans seeing the uneven distribution as a given. From the beginning of our time on earth we have sought out food and water and directed our lives in that direction. But we now live in the second decade of the twenty first Century since the birth of Jesus and we've learned enough about our planet to drive the consumption of calories instead of being subject to the variables of weather, disease, or luck.
And I think this new reality calls us to rethink how we commemorate the feast of Corpus Christi. Previous generations looked on this feast as "food for Heaven" and it was certainly true those who didn't have enough to eat were comforted by the belief that Eucharist, this "food from Heaven," would make their earthly sufferings acceptable because it would lead them to eternal paradise.
That image worked well when we all spent our lives in search of enough food, but now we need to look at the reality that some of us have too much while many have too little and we have the power to change that.
If you've been reading/hearing me for any length of time you know I'm not a fundamentalist. The Scripture we read today was written thousands of years ago and I believe Scripture speaks to us not only in the historical record but also to our experience today. And while our circumstances differ from Luke's audience, our values persevere. And the value of shared resources calls us to look at food, at the Body of Christ, as Corpus Christi, with modern eyes.
Simply put, uneven distribution of food and water is no longer a given. The loaves and fishes in Luke that were distributed to a crowd of thousands in Jesus' time can now be distributed worldwide if we choose to do so.
I write/speak often of how God loves us enough to write us into the plan of salvation and make us not only recipients but also participants. Just as God distributed air (oxygen) evenly throughout the world so we all can breathe and have enough, we are now given the ability to distribute food and water evenly so that all may eat and drink and have enough.
I'm not naive enough to believe that accepting this responsibility will be easy or popular. The fear of not having enough food, no matter how remote, calls the "lesser angels of our nature" to hoard the calories that cause us type two diabetes when those same calories could end the malnutrition of another who may live not far from us.
Corpus Christi begins with a miracle where Jesus promises us his own body and blood. But if we continue to think of Eucharist as simply "magic bread" we miss the dreams he has for us. We have been given a gift that we are called to spread. Maybe it calls us to give our "doggie bag" to a homeless person we meet on our way home. Maybe it calls us to volunteer at a food bank. Maybe it calls us to vote for a candidate who shares our values that poverty and hunger are not self inflicted wounds or the logical result of laziness.
No matter what, we have to believe that we live Corpus Christi when we imagine a world where food and water are as evenly distributed as air and oxygen.
May 22, 2016: The Most Holy Trinity
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: As of last Monday we are officially out of the season of Easter and back into Ordinary Time. And our first reading returns to the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). We read in the book of Proverbs that its author was created "when [God's] purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works." This author explains that he (and we) were in God's mind before the world where we live was even created. In John's Gospel Jesus tells his apostles that he has much more to tell them, but it's too much for them now. Instead he will send them the "Spirit of truth" who will tell them of the things to come. Finally he says: "Everything the Father has in mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine."
The Feast of the Holy Trinity doesn't often concern most of us, but let me ask a provocative question: if polled, would the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all vote for the same candidate for President of the United States?
Provocative yes, but also fascinating. Most, but not all Christians grew up with a belief that God exists in three persons and they are somehow in relationship with each other, but the Trinity is a mystery that doesn't often occupy our mind.
But it wasn't always that way. We Christians were born out of Judaism and they taught explicitly that God was one person with one will and one plan. This came in response to the previous belief that there were several gods in competition or cooperation with each other. Jews worked hard to understand that the buck stops in one place with one God.
Given that, what do we do with the passage in Matthew where Jesus' disciples were called to baptize all peoples in "the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"? And further, what do we do with the beginning of John's Gospel where we are told that the "Word" was with God, and was God from the beginning? These debates formed much of the growth of the first few centuries of the Christian church.
In fairness, some Christian churches walked away from the whole thing and declared that there really is only one God and God is not part of the Trinity (the most notable are the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Christian Scientists). But when asked, most of us have struggled with what the Trinity means, and more to the point, what it means in our lives.
Clearly this isn't simply an intellectual doctrine. If it were, we wouldn't spend any time with it. The history of the first 4 Centuries of the Christian Church boiled over with debates over this doctrine, and St. Patrick (in the 5th Century) is revered for using the three leaf clover to explain this to the people of Ireland (ie, it is the existence of these leaves that makes the clover).
And I have to confess that most of us don't think of the three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as equals. Instead I think we normally think of the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit as being "less than" the Father. And there were certainly those in the early Church who argued that. Most Christians feel this was settled in the Council of Nicea in 325 when the Trinity was declared homoousios (of one substance). Many of us recite the Nicean Creed every week where the Son and Holy Spirit are "consubstantial" (one in being) with the Father.
Fair enough, but what does that mean for us? I go back to my original question: if the Father, Son, and Spirit were registered voters in the United States, would they all vote for the same Presidentail candidate?
Other than being a provokative question, it also appears silly to many people. Of course they would and furthermore they would vote for the candidate I plan to vote for.
You see, too often when we think about the relationships in our lives we tend to think of them as sharing much with us, and most of them do. Most married couples share beliefs and values, and tend to enjoy the same activities. It's no coincidence that most of us met our spouses participating in some activity, whether it's jogging, golf, or giving blood. Our courtship often centered around these activities and allowed us to grow into a marriage. Children of that marriage often continue those same activities.
But our understanding of each other as being different persons in committed relationships by design much go much deeper. No couple I know introduce their spouses as a golf parter or a member of their bowling team. At some point we move beyond what we do and see each other in terms of who we are.
But too often we look at all of our relationships not simply in terms of who we are to each other, but who the person is in terms of what I expect. A couple who disagrees over who to vote for in an election doesn't concern me nearly as much as a couple who can't find a measure of mutual respect and love because they disagree.
Many years ago I had an experience in my first year of seminary. There were six of us who all felt called to religious life and living in the same community. Alas, there was one person who I clashed with. Both of us shared the same belief that the formation team had gravely erred in allowing the other to even enter the seminary. I experienced a particularly difficult meeting with one of the directors. I told him that perhaps the best this other man and I could do was "peaceful coexistence." I referred to a belief of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) who led the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964. Speaking in the context of the Cold War with the United States he described a situation where two parties may not enjoy living together but have no choice. Khrushchev used the analogy of the farmer who depends on his cow for his livelihood but has no money for a barn. Therefore he and the cow have to live in the sam home. He does not like this because the cow is dirty and smells bad but he has no choice.
As you might imagine, this did not go well for me. My director, patiently and through grit teeth, explained that the two of us cannot live in community without a healthy and mature respect for each other's gifts and talents. We were not called to be best friends, but we were called to live together in a way that brings out the best in each other.
It is certainly true that our opinions often originate in our values but that's not always true. I'm dismayed by much of the discourse I hear these days, and much of it comes from the belief that if two people disagree they come from different values, and it means that one person is right (moral) and the other is wrong (immoral).
In other words, in any disagreement I can't be right unless you are wrong. Our discussion then devolves not into "tell me more about what you think" but "how can I convince you that you're wrong."
Last week I spoke about how different languages open us to more nuance and better understanding. This week I hold that we can learn our best lessons from those who come at an issue from a different origin.
The call of the Holy Trinity asks us to come together over love more than agreement. It calls us not simply to acknowledge differences or even be comfortable with them, but to celebrate them. If one parent values hard work and the other values family, can they raise children? Of course they can both value work and family, and both are good, but between them they can both support and raise their children. Their children lose out if the breadwinner and the nurturer both argue that the other isn't "pulling his weight." The children win if each recognizes, reveres, and loves the values of the other.
We don't think much of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, but I think we should. The love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit calls us all to love one another in a way that allows us to be who we are and allows us to love those who share different values.
Oh yes, and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would all vote the same way as me.
May 15, 2016: Pentecost Sunday
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we return to nearly the beginning of Acts: the second chapter begins with the apostles gathered in one room when a strong wind filled the house. Tongues of fire appeared and settled on their heads and they began to speak in foreign languages. Others, known for their devotion, assembled, and were astonished to find that not only were several languages being spoken, but that everyone heard them in his own tongue. John's Gospel gives us Jesus meeting with his disciples after his resurrection. He breathes on them and told them that they had the power to forgive sins.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. The word "pentecost" comes from the Greek word for "fiftieth" and it's been 50 days since Easter. But it means a great deal more than that and to fully understand, we need to go back a week.
Our first reading comes to us from the 2nd chapter of Acts of the Apostles and we've been reading from Acts since Easter. Though last week I preached on the sixth week of Easter, it was also the commemoration of the Ascension of Jesus (where he left us to ascend into Heaven).
When Jesus left his disciples, two men in white robes told them this: "Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven." For many believers this means that Jesus will return to earth and judge who is worthy of salvation.
But what if it's not? Perhaps this means that Jesus won't return in human form but instead will return in the power and authority given to all of us. Certainly that appears to be true in Jesus' last words in John's Gospel. Previous to this, only God could forgive sins, and Jesus created a scandal when he claimed for himself the power to forgive sins in the 9th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. But here he claims authority to forgive sins is not reserved for himself, but to all those who believe in him (ok, I recognize that many of us were taught that this gave only priests the power to forgive sins in confession, but I'm speaking more broadly here).
I've spoken about this before but I think we can't emphasize this enough: Jesus came not simply to proclaim a new religion or a new god, but to proclaim an epic shift in how we believe.
The epic shift in Judaism, the change given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, centered on the place of God. Previously people worshipped a number of gods who competed for power and our job was to worship the right god. God tells Moses that there are no other gods and worshipping other gods was meaningless and unfaithful. It was a tough pill to swallow but by the time of Jesus they were comfortable with that reality.
The epic shift in Christianity centers on a God that is not only singular but global. The fact is that different languages constitute the heart of our first reading and we need to see it as more than a miracle (though it was).
Many of us, throughout history, have looked at language in political terms, going back to the Tower of Babel in the 11th chapter of Genesis. By the time of Jesus, several languages were spoken and/or written. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, though the books of Ezra and Daniel were written in Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples. The New Testament was written in Greek and the Romans spoke Latin.
But the writer of Acts goes well beyond this: while all who spoke were Galileans (who presumably spoke Aramaic), the listeners heard and understood them in the languages of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cretans, and Arabs. And they were all understood.
I believe that this was intentional: the disciples were being told that their role was not to proclaim salvation only to those nearby who spoke languages they understood. Instead they were told to go everywhere and preach to everyone.
Since that time missionaries have gone to "the ends of the earth" and today there is virtually nowhere in the world where the message of Jesus has not been proclaimed.
And so do we say "Mission Accomplished?" Alas, no.
To this day language has become a political tool, and different languages often divide us in direct contrast to what we're told in Acts.
I live in San Diego, California, United States. While most of us speak English, we can also hear Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, Laotian, and several others. This doesn't include dialogues of these languages.
And my corner of the world was indigenous until Spanish conquest in the 1500s and became part of Mexico in 1821. We became part of the United States in 1846. At no time in the last 500 years have we spoken one language but there is great political pressure for everyone to "speak American." Multi lingual signs anger many people and give them the belief that "they" are not part of "us."
But we become Catholic (universal) when we reach out beyond our comfort zone (or language). In 1887 a Polish ophthalmologist advanced a language he called Esperanto to (in a sense) reverse the Tower of Babel. It didn't work.
I've spoken about this before but it bears repeating: each language enriches our understanding. Every language provides us words that don't translate well because they encapsulate nuances that other languages miss. For example the Hebrew word "shalom" means welcome but it also speaks to right relationship with God. Shalom is both a greeting and a hope. Saying "shalom" to another means not only "welcome" but "I hope that you are in good standing with God." Hawai'ians use the word "aloha" as a greeting, a blessing, and an expression of love. The Greek words for love encompass "eros" (the love between intimate partners), philia (also called "loyalty," the love between best friends), and agape (unconditional love, the love that cannot be broken).
Our languages should celebrate not only our diversity but our celebration of each other. Pentecost demands that as we reach out to each other we are called to build bridges and not walls. It demands that we move from "just us" to "justice."
The call of Pentecost challenged the first disciples to move into areas beyond their comfort zone. It called them to be "strangers in a strange land" and they did. Because of their courage and because they took this call seriously, we who did not descend from the Middle East now celebrate our discipleship in Jesus.
But the call of Pentecost did not expire. We live with the same call. We are challenged to continue to proclaim the love/shalom/aloha/agape to all that we meet. Even to those who share our belief in Jesus.
And especially to those who we don't understand.
May 8, 2016: The Seventh Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We read first from the end of the 7th Chapter of Acts. Here Stephen, one of the apostles, proclaims to the Jews gathered that he has seen the "Son of Man." Enraged, the Jews gathered stoned him to death; all the while Stephen proclaimed God's glory. John's Gospel continues Jesus' words at the Last Supper. Though addressing God, Jesus is also speaking to those gathered. He is laying out a plan for his disciples, and their disciples, and their to proclaim salvation to the entire world.
I know the story of Stephen, the first martyr, is a compelling story and I'll get there but I want to begin with John's Gospel.
The Last Supper is a long scene. Chapter 13 details Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples; chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17 (of which we've been reading) constitute his instructions to his disciples. Some of is consists of dialogue, and much of it (including today's Gospel) take the form of a prayer to God.
And while prayer always addresses God, it also addresses those gathered. As many of you know I make my living as a hospice chaplain and I have the enviable position of getting paid to pray. I find that a prayer that articulates the joys, fears and desires of my patients and loved ones give great comfort. And here Jesus' prayers certainly speak to the hopes of his disciples, but I think it goes beyond that.
For if the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus' inaugural address for his earthly ministry, this speech is his inaugural address for eternity. I believe Jesus here is outlining a two step plan for the salvation of the world: First, God is in you and will give you the strength, courage, and wisdom to proclaim the salvation of the world. And second, your job for the rest of your lives is to travel the world, proclaiming a message that will transform human history from simply being of this world to an eternal world to come.
I may be wrong about this (and I'm open to feedback, as long as it's kind), but I don't see this happening before in human history. During pagan times people were often forced to worship the particular god of the their earthly ruler but were free to worship whatever other gods they chose. Judaism moved beyond this to proclaim that there is only one God who must be worshipped exclusively. But, as we've talked about before, there was no idea of expanding beyond those God chose to be Jews.
But Jesus' message was revolutionary and it's little wonder not everyone signed on. As a matter of fact it's surprising that Jesus' message caught fire so deeply and quickly. His message of "you life matters in this life, but also in the next one" resonated but it also entered something new into human history: martyrdom.
Before Stephen there were a few examples of someone dying for their faith and we Christians can't claim exclusive ownership of martyrdom. In the 2 Books of Maccabees (books that Catholics see as Scriptural but Jews and Protestants do no) we find Jews who were murdered for refusing to eat food they considered unclean. Also, there is reason to believe some prophets from earlier days were killed for what they said.
But that's really it. Those who showed exceptional bravery and were killed in battle may have been revered, but they really didn't die for their faith. They were fighting for their own gain or in the service of a king, but they certainly did not choose death.
The martyrdom of Stephan advances the idea that someone can die in a way that brings others to faithfulness. Our reading comprises only the last 5 versus of a long chapter and a long speech by Stephen. Simply put, he was asking for it. He began by reciting Jewish history (a history that his listeners knew well) but gives it a fatal twist at the end. He essentially told them that their history from Abraham to the present must include Jesus and tells them by not believing in Jesus they are not staying true to God. He calls them "uncircumcised in heart and ears." This is really a throw down: I spoke about this last week, but circumcision really speaks to the core of what it means to be a Jew. He is calling them heretics. It's little wonder they rose up against him and killed him.
So what of us today? Clearly there is almost no chance we will be called to martyrdom (and truth be told I have no desire for that). But it does call us to live differently just as it did the first disciples, even for those of us who live in predominately Christian areas.
Last month a candidate for President was asked for his favorite verse from the Bible and he answered: "An eye for an eye." He's correct that the verse is found in the Bible (Exodus 21:23) but as Christians we are called to better. We are called to Jesus words: "You have heard 'an eye for an eye' but I tell you not to resist an evil person." He goes on to talk about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.
It's easy to dismiss this candiate with the idea that he simply doesn't know what he's saying. But while true, it's more than that. We all live in conversations where nasty gossip is traded like currency and suffering that we can alleviate is seen as self inflicted. Every day we see instances where faith is used as a club instead of an invitation and the Kingdom that Jesus set in motion will happen without us.
But it won't. If that were true Jesus would have told the disciples to hang out and wait. He told us to love our enemies not so that we may be judged worthy but so they would be transformed into disciples.
Stephen, and countless martyrs after him, knew that if they lived their best life and died faithfully, others would be attracted. Sadly as Christians, this group also includes Jews who refused to trade their beliefs for their lives during inquisitions. Regardless we are called to faith. And so while we almost certainly will not pay with our lives, let us pay with our prayers and actions.
April 24, 2016: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Last week we saw the Acts of the Apostles move from Peter and the original followers of Jesus to Paul and Barnabas. This week we continue to witness the travels of Paul and Barnabas. They travelled through several areas (Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia, and Antoich). At the end of the reading they proclaimed that they "opened the door of faith to the pagans." John's Gospel describes the scene at the Last Supper directly after Jesus called out Judas. Jesus knew who was going to betray him and dismissed him (knowing Judas would come back with those who would arrest Jesus). Jesus then told those gathered that God will be glorified, and that God will glorify him. But he also tells them that he will not be with them much longer. He then commands them to love one another and that by loving one another, others will recognize them as Jesus' disciples.
These readings are what I often call the "and then..." readings. These are readings where something happens to cause their characters to come to a different understanding of themselves by the end of the reading. These readings change their lives in ways that none of them expected.
OK, you have to know I'm going to do this: Most of the year I begin with the first reading and move into the Gospel, but since the Gospel/Acts chronology is reversed (that is, the events in the Gospel happen before the events in the first reading), I'm going to begin with the Gospel.
All four Gospels describe the Last Supper, but John's Gospel describes the same events through a different lens. In the other Gospels, the interaction between Jesus and Judas is really run by Judas. Here Jesus calls Judas out by name and Judas storms out. We can only imagine the reactions of the other apostles but the word "bewilderment" must take an important place.
And Jesus' words after this must have compounded their bewilderment. This is where the "and then..." begins. We honestly don't know what the remaining apostles were expecting, but it's fair to say that nobody expected Judas' expulsion. We know that they recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Did they expect that he would raise an army to defeat the Romans and return them to the days of King David? Did they expect that God would intervene and lead them into a new promised land?
We don't know but it's a fair bet that they never expected that Judas would return with Roman soldiers who would arrest and kill Jesus.
And yet, we know this will happen. And we know that it had to happen. Only by Jesus dying and rising from the dead do we all have a path to eternal life. Only by descending to the lowest can we rise to the highest.
And so when Judas stormed off Jesus did not attempt to comfort the remaining apostles. Instead he gave them a command: love one another as I have loved you. If we can see the betrayal of Jesus by Judas as the ultimate act of hate and fear, Jesus leads in the other direction. He commands them to love, and he goes further.
He tells them that only by loving one another will they be successful. Only by loving one another will they be recognized by those who never knew Jesus. Only by loving one another will they be able to reach the whole world by communicating a message that attracts others. And only by loving one another can we recognize the song made famous by Vacation Bible School: They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.
And this is where we bring in the first reading. Last week I spoke about how the earliest followers of Jesus limited their ministry to other Jews, and how that didn't work. I also spoke about how Paul and Barnabas then decided that if they weren't successful with the Jews they would move to the rest of the world and carry their message to the Gentiles. This wasn't just an easy or practical decision. Paul and those who travelled with him were conditioned to look on the Gentiles with derision. They were not supposed to eat with them or even have much contact. They were not the chosen ones. For Paul and Barnabas to see them as part of the salvation plan of Jesus called them to move beyond the world they expected.
And yet today we see a continuation of their journey: Paul and Barnabas moved onto "Plan B," and they found success. Because of this large numbers of Gentiles found themselves attracted by Jesus' message and became followers and this morphed into the worldwide Christianity that we recognize today.
And so what of us? We all dream of "Plan A." If we are truly honest, we often believe that we can convince God to follow our Plan A. But if Jesus didn't call out Judas, if Jesus hadn't been betrayed, executed, and resurrected, we wouldn't be who we are. Instead we would be a subset of Judaism, a small group who looked on Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, a man who lived a full life and died of natural causes in old age. We would have lasted a few decades after Jesus and just disappeared.
More to the point, that Jesus would not have appeared to Paul. We would not know about the "road to Damascus" and Paul would have spent his life as a Pharisee, persecuting the followers of Jesus.
I write this because all of us (all of us) recognize times when we've had the "and then..." moments. We've decided that we know what God wants us to do and what will happen. We bask in the certainty that the world will follow our directions and all will be well.
Except that it doesn't. We've seen how our lives to veer into "and so..." moments that make our lives complicated and oftentimes painful. That perfect job goes away, that perfect person refuses our proposal, that best friend betrays us.
And only in the years or decades in hindsight do we understand that our nightmare becomes the ground that spouts our greatest joy.
These readings call us not only to recognize this with past tragedies, but with current ones. So many of us live and die on the last thing that did or didn't go our way, but we shouldn't. If these readings teach us anything it should teach us this: While God doesn't show us why things happen to us, God's love does show us that at the end of the day we will end up as Jesus did. We will end up with an empty tomb. Those who survive us should not look for the dead among the living because we will all live forever.
And our eternal life has several "and then..." moments.
April 17, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: We continue to soldier our way through Acts. Here Paul and Barnabas travel to the city of Antioch to proclaim Jesus' resurrection. After Sabbath worship Paul and Barnabas encouraged those gathered to "remain faithful to the grace of God." The next Sabbath they gathered again, only this time they were met with Jews who contradicted their message. In response Paul and Barnabas told them that since they rejected the Word of God, they (Paul and Barnabas) had no choice but to bring their message to the pagans. Paul and Barnabas were then expelled from the city; they shook the dust from their feet and left the city. John's Gospel gives us Jesus using the imagery of himself as shepherd. Jesus tells those gathered that his sheep follow him. They will never be lost and none will be stolen. "The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father."
I've spoken about this before, but it's clear to me that when John wrote his Gospel he didn't have a 21st Century audience in mind. In his day (and in his place) people knew a great deal about sheep. Most of us, not so much. And while we don't need to know everything about herding sheep, we do need to know a few things.
First, and I say this with all due respect, sheep are not the brightest of God's creations. Their wool gives us excellent sweaters and slacks and they taste delicious, but herding them is hard work. They have a tendency to wander off which is good news for wolves but bad news for the sheep. It's also bad news for the shepherd who spends all day every day keeping them from wandering off.
That's what makes John's Gospel so astounding. Jesus is portrayed as the shepherd, and yes, it means we are the sheep. But Jesus doesn't lose anyone. Not one. Even the best earthly shepherd loses a few, whether it be to predators, disease, or other shepherds. He is one good shepherd.
I'm puzzled, though, in the first reading from Acts, where Jesus appears to be losing all sorts of people. There is an undercurrent in Acts where the apostles, successful as they were, weren't as successful as they expected. Coming off the unimaginable high of seeing the resurrected Jesus they were given marching orders: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).
But not everybody got the memo, and it became clear that certain of the Jews refused to believe in Jesus. The earliest apostles expected a clear path forward: We've all been waiting our lives for the Messiah. Well, the Messiah was Jesus. As a matter of fact, Matthew wrote his entire Gospel with an eye toward Jews who didn't believe Jesus was the Messiah. We can even read the frustration in Paul and Barnabas: "We had to proclaim the word of God to you first, but since you have rejected it, since you do not think yourselves worthy of eternal life, we must turn to the pagans." This was good news for the pagans, and all of us who did not descend from that community in Israel is grateful for their refusal.
And so there were clearly sheep who wandered off. But how do we justify this with John's proclamation that Jesus the Shepherd has a perfect record?
Let's face it: for most of our history as Christians we have gone all in with this reading from Acts and ignored the reading from John. We've scorned the Jews who didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and this has informed 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. As a matter of fact, until 50 years ago the Good Friday liturgy spoke of the "perfidious (faithless) Jews."
So what do we do with this first reading? If we believe what Jesus is telling us, nobody is lost. Nobody has the power to "steal us from God." The imagery of the reading doesn't make the sheep smarter or more faithful: it makes the shepherd more competent and inclusive.
I believe these readings tell us that no matter what we do, God loves us. We can see this statement as a cliche, but I ask that we don't. God's love is greater than the power of evil, and it's also greater than our power to wander. Much like the prodigal son, no matter what we do, God welcomes us. He welcomes us home and welcomes us into his Kingdom.
Does this mean that even Jews, and other non Christians are included? I know I'm going against centuries of belief, but I think it does. I see God not so much as the ultimate source of justice as the ultimate source of mercy (though clearly God is both).
Our limited understanding forces us to see justice and mercy as competitors, but while this may be our lot, it's not God's. And God calls us not to settle for our understanding but to aspire to his. This week we learned that Pope Francis asks us to look on Catholics in "irregular marriages" as deserving of mercy. Previously those Catholics who "married outside the church" (for whatever reason) did not "qualify" to receive Eucharist. Without changing the rules, Pope Francis instead asks us to look on those (us) not as those who "didn't do what they (us) were supposed to do" but instead on those who are included in God's love.
But if this is true, if everyone is included in God's Kingdom, why be Christian? It's not as cynical a question as you might think. If everyone is saved, why choose anything? Ultimately I believe that while God is greater than any one faith, we are not. Some of us choose to be Jews, some Christians, some Hindus, some agnostics. If we follow the "better angels of our nature, we all do pretty much the same things: we feed the hungry, we welcome the stranger, and we try to make our world a little better than we found it. Whether we call it "corporal works or mercy" or "karma" or "mitzvah" we're all doing the same thing.
Does that mean it doesn't matter what we believe? Quite the opposite. It means everything matters in what we believe. It means that we choose a path to the Kingdom, knowing that any path that begins compassion ends in salvation.
It means we need to live compassion with everyone and love them, even if we choose different paths to the Kingdom.
April 10, 2016: The Third Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: You probably know this, but for much of the the Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles, the chronicle of the earliest days of the Christian Church. Here the Sanhedrin (the Jewish government) demanded that the apostles stop teaching about Jesus' resurrection. Peter responded by telling them that he will choose God's demand over the demand of the Sanhedrin. John's Gospel describes several scenes with the resurrected Jesus and his apostles. Several apostles (who made their living catching fish) spent the night catching nothing; at dawn they recognized Jesus onshore and when Jesus told them to cast their nets on the right (starboard) side of the boat they caught their fill. Peter recognized Jesus and brought the boat back to shore. They ate breakfast and Jesus asked Peter this question: "Do you love me?" Three times Jesus asked Peter and three times Peter answered that he did. Each time Jesus demanded: "Feed my lambs." Finally Jesus tells Peter that his life will no longer be his own, but that will follow Jesus.
Much as I love the season of Easter, there are some things that drive me crazy. We Catholics know that the first reading often comes from the Old Testament but not always. During Easter we read from the Acts of the Apostles. The Second Reading (that I don't include in this blog) mostly comes from the letters of Paul. And we read the Gospel from only four sources: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
And so Easter brings us readings out of order. John's Gospel tells us about the interval between Jesus' resurrection and ascension. But the first reading describes Peter and the rest of the apostles standing up to the authorities. How can this happen?
I believe the heart of our understanding comes not from the first reading or the Gospel, but from the scene where Peter denies Jesus. We read this from Holy Week where Jesus told Peter that he would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Offended, Peter swore this would not happen, but it did. After Jesus' arrest, Peter was recognized as one of Jesus' disciples by several people. As the charges grew Peter grew increasingly profane in his denial of his relationship with Jesus.
So where does Peter go from here? Clearly if Jesus was not the Messiah the apostles go on with their lives and regret their support for this fraud. They likely would have drifted away from each other and tried to forget this part of their lives.
But Jesus was not a fraud and Peter needed, on some level, to have a conversation about his triple denial. Peter needed forgiveness and reconciliation. Today's Gospel gives us several scenes but I wish to focus only on the interaction between Jesus and Peter.
Jesus predicted that Peter would deny their relationship three times before dawn and he did. When Peter recognized his sin, he ran. I don't blame him: I would have done the same thing. And when Peter saw that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead he must have experienced a series of emotions.
Perhaps the initial emotion, after disbelief, was joy. His friend and teacher, his mentor and leader, was back from the dead. But I have to believe that his next emotion, milliseconds later, was fear. What if Jesus' response to Peter was anger? What if Jesus' last memory of Peter was Peter's denial of Jesus? What if Jesus' response to Peter was, worse than anger, disappointment?
Instead Jesus asked Peter a question that nobody else would have asked: "Do you love me?" Humiliated and horrified, Peter said this: "Of course I love you." But Jesus demanded that Peter answer him three times the same way. And Peter did.
The crux of these readings depends on Peter's decision to accept the forgiveness given him.
Virtually all of us can easily recall the foolishest/stupidest/meanest thing we've ever done. It may well have ended a job or a friendship or a marriage. Or maybe not: perhaps our gravest sin occupies nothing other than the space in our brain. Likely it didn't but we live with that reget all the same. And, for a variety of reasons, many of us don't have the opportunity to be forgiven.
Here Peter catches a break on many levels, and ultimately so do we. Because, even though Peter had to put in some work answering Jesus' question(s), he gave the right answer.
And more to the point, Peter accepted the forgiveness he was offered. When Jesus asked: "Do you love me," Peter could have given a number of answers. He surely loved Jesus but it would have been easy for Peter to discount the question and instead profess that he was not worthy of Jesus' love.
Now truth be told, none of us are worthy of Jesus' love, but that's not the point. The point is this: Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead so that we can live forever and not be defined by our worst moments.
But while we seemingly have no trouble believing that we are granted eternal life, we have great trouble believing we are forgiven. And there is good reason for that: our ability to forgive each other is limited. If someone wounds us, over and over, our desire (and ability) to forgive eventually runs out. Sometimes it runs out quickly, sometimes it takes us a long time. We even have a name for someone who forgives too much: an enabler.
So we incorrectly decide that God's desire or capacity to forgive is also finite. The hubris in this statement speaks clearly but it causes real damage: we lose out on who we can be by deciding God won't (or shouldn't) forgive us. When we do this we don't limit God's love or forgiveness, but our ability to do great things.
Peter did great things. But he was able to do this only when he truly believed Jesus forgave him. And Jesus clearly forgave him when he said to him (3 times) to "feed my sheep." This told Peter that there was a path forward for him. Because of this he and the rest of the apostles were able to stand up to the Sanhedrin, the smartest and most powerful guys in the room, and refuse to be silent.
They laid the foundation for the church that continues to feed us to this day and they did it only because they honestly, truly, completely believed that they were forgiven for their worst sin.
And what of us? Do we live our best selves or do we continue to live in the shame and regret of our worst sin? As a hospice chaplain I am blessed to walk with people in the last chapter of their lives and that perspective gives me a tremendous opportunity. Most people come to the end of their lives with a reasonable understanding. They know they have had good days and bad days, but on the whole they look back on their lives with the belief that they did the best they could. They look on their future with hope and mercy.
But sometimes I meet someone who is hesitant to share his or her story. Eventually I find out the secret they don't want me to know: their story includes an unmarried pregnancy or a time when they didn't speak up at a meeting that could have avoided great harm. Or it was a horrible moment with their spouse or children. Or they regret how they treated a parent who faced their same last chapter and they took the easy way out.
Whatever the event, they tell me how their regret limited their lives. They tell me that no matter what they did, the memory of their regret makes them feel like they aren't worthy of doing great things. It made them not reach or accept what they could do.
The Peter we read in Acts of the Apostles would never have been the St. Peter we see as the first Pope unless he fully accepted that Jesus forgave him. Only because of this was Peter able to lead the early church.
And it's the same with us. Whether we call it "poor self esteem" or our inability to forgive ourselves, we need to recognize that this limits us to be our best selves. And it limits our ability to best serve each other. Despite our limited ability to love, serve, and forgive, God's ability does not limit. Discipleship calls us to stretch our ability to love, serve, and forgive. By doing this, and only by doing this, we can build the Kingdom of God on earth.
April 3, 2016: The Second Sunday of Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes to us from nearly the beginning of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It was written by the Gospel writer Luke, and is essentially the 2nd volume of a 2 volume set. Here we view the earliest days of the community of those who saw the resurrected Jesus. They met in the Portico of Solomon (in the Temple) and their popularity grew. Even people who didn't live in Jerusalem brought the sick to them for healing. In John's Gospel, Jesus appeared to the apostles and showed him the wounds from his crucifixion. He also gave them the power to forgive sins. But one of their number, Thomas, was not present. Later, when he was told of this he refused to believe them. Thomas told them that he would not believe it until he saw the wounds for himself. The next week they were gathered again (with Thomas present) and Jesus once again appeared. This time he invited Thomas to inspect his wounds and Thomas replied: "My Lord and my God!"
I think we've all experienced the death of a loved one and prayed that it was all a mistake. We've all hoped that our loved one would come through the door and tell us this awful thing didn't happen. And for those who watch soap operas (or daytime dramas), it's a fairly common occurence.
But it doesn't happen and when we lose a loved one we begin the long, hard work of grieving. We move on with our life without this person and adjust our path. And while our beliefs tell us that we will be reunited in Heaven, we will not see our loved one for the rest of our lives here.
Given this, I can only imagine the reaction of the apostles when Jesus suddenly appeared to them, bypassing the locked door. I touched on this last week, but from where we sit it's perhaps a too easy to accept Jesus' resurrection because we've known about it all our lives.
But, and this bears some thought: what if you did see your loved one three days after you watched him die? And more than that, not only is he back alive, but so are all your dreams. These apostles, these merry brand of rag tag men and women, pinned all their hopes on this Jesus of Nazareth. He proclaimed a new Kingdom of God and they were going to be his inner circle. They were salivating at the idea that the rest of their lives they would be known as Jesus' top advisors.
And then he was gone.
And then he was back. I say this not just because he is my namesake, but for Heaven's sake cut a little slack to Thomas. Nearly delirious with grief I can well understand how he dared not hope that what they said was true. I can understand how he didn't want another climb and freefall of that roller coaster.
And Jesus is back from the dead. So now what do the apostles do? So now what do we do? In some ways that's the question we continue to unpack even 2000 years later. But I also think this is where we look in wrong place.
Most, if not all of us, read these readings from Acts of the Apostles with some nostalgia. If only we could live like they lived, if only people looked at us like they looked at Peter and the rest of the gang. In coming weeks we'll see how selfless and successful they were, how bold and brave they were. If only...
And taking nothing away from the fact that they were selfless and successful and bold and brave, we also need to keep them in the context of their time. Because if we don't, if we hold them up as the summit and pinnacle of what our community should look like, we continue to fall short and feel inadequate. And this inadequacy can morph into paralysis or worse.
Countless times in our history individuals or groups large and small have made this announcement: "We have strayed from/drifted from/betrayed the Kingdom Jesus gave us. We will read again the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and do exactly what they did. We (and only we) will be rewarded by God for finally getting it right.
Right. Reformation holds a critical place in our lives as Christians and we look at Lent as a way of "getting back on track." But we have to remember that this community in Acts was far from perfect.
They accepted the institution of slavery. While Jesus' treatment of women pushed the envelope, nobody back then would have thought of women as equal to men. They were all Jews, and the first true conflicts of this community centered on their relationship with non-Jews and other strangers. We can only imagine how they would have reacted to people of different skin color or different sexual orientations.
My point is this: We should look at this community not as the summit, but as the launching pad. Scripture gives us confusing clues over what we need to do to be saved, but it is clear about how we are called to treat each other.
We are called to love one another. We are not called to judge one other. We are not called to decide who is saved and who isn't. We are not called to divide ourselves into groups or hierarchies (inevitably placing ourselves at the top).
And yet we can look on our history and see that progress has happened only in fits and starts. I know many of you read this from countries other than the United States, but please humor me here. My best illustration comes from the history I know best.
Let's begin with slavery: Turning prisoners of war into lifelong slaves goes back as far as we can remember. In the United States people from Africa were kidnapped and transported to the "new world" began in the early 1600s and almost everyone accepted this. But some read Scripture and felt that enslaving people (and their descendents) was morally bankrupt. The abolitionist movement clearly sprouted out of Christian beliefs. It grew slowly but it did grow, and by 1808 it was illegal to import new slaves. In 1865 slavery became illegal. It took a long time, but it was clear that loving one another did not include enslaving them.
As I said, Jesus' treatment of women surprised people of his time. From Mary Magdalene to the woman caught in adultery, to the woman at the well, Jesus reached out to women in ways he wasn't supposed to. That said, our current treatment of women as equals continues to catch up. In the United States womens' right to vote won't celebrate a century until 2020. Women in their 50s and 60s tell stories of job discrimination and objectification. And I don't want to spend much time on this, but we have a Presidential candidate whose treatment of women embarrasses all of us. From the 1960s until today and beyond, many of us (men) read Scripture and recognize that men and women are (equally) halves of the same whole. We stopped talking about Eve "seducing" Adam into sin and read again how Jesus treated women.
Finally this is the part of the homily that may cause the most controversy: how do we love those of other sexual orientations? Over the last 2000 years we have learned much about how we treat people we don't recognize or whose experience we don't share. We have, nearly always, come to this understanding only after being challenged by people who love us.
If we believe in a salvation history that progresses our understanding of what it means to love one another, can we ignore those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender? Can we look on the LGBT community with love even if we are heterosexual? I hope we can.
I have to confess little understanding for the phrase "love the sinner and hate the sin" when I don't believe that they are in sin (anymore than the rest of us). I know a scary number of gay couples whose marriage mirrors my straight marriage. They love one another and work each day to continue their lives together. Some have children and some don't. But at the end of their lives they want only this: that their lives matter and we will all be joined in Paradise after we die.
I call on all of us to look on Acts of the Apostles not as the summit but as the starting line. It calls us to look not on their acts, but ours. It calls us to see Jesus' call to love that concentrates not on our results but on our desire to love.
Most of all it calls us to never be comfortable. Throughout our lives we will be called to interact with those who make us uncomfortable. We can react with fear or we can react with love.
If the resurrection of Jesus calls us to anything, it calls us to choose love over fear. Let us do that.
March 27, 2016: Easter
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the first years after Jesus when the Apostles begin to come together as the Church we now recognize. Here Peter addressed and spoke about the life of Jesus. Peter explained how Jesus came out of Galilee, was baptized by John, cured people in need of healing, and was crucified. But after three days he was raised from the dead and has been appointed by God to judge everyone, alive and dead. John's Gospel describes how Mary Magdala came to Jesus' tomb but found it empty. Thinking the grave had been robbed, she found Simon Peter. Peter, along with the other followers, reached the tomb and finally understood that Jesus had been risen from the dead.
Palm Sunday and the days leading to Easter fill us with action. Jesus entered Jerusalem to great fanfare, celebrated Passover (that we call the Last Supper), was arrested, bounced between Herod and Pilate, and on the day after Passover was crucified.
Well, that's not exactly true: in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover. But in John's Gospel the Last Supper is the night before Passover: here Jesus is portrayed as the lamb sacrificed for Passover (and therefore deliverance and salvation).
In any case today's Gospel strikes us as ... quiet. The focal point in our salvation history, the epicenter of our understanding of who we are, comes to us as an empty tomb. Our salvation begins as emptiness.
There are other clues to this emptiness. The 2nd reading on Palm Sunday describes how Jesus "emptied himself" and took the form of a slave. Also, in Paul's Second Letter to Timothy (sometimes called "Paul's Last Will and Testament") he describes himself as "being poured out like a libation."
This "emptying out" speaks to the heart of Jesus' message: we do not achieve what God wants for us by building ourselves up. Our salvation rests not on the mountaintop or by winning a competition, but by embracing the emptiness of the tomb. Again and again we find ourselves in a world where power and cleverness are adored and humility is derided. Despite everything the world would tell us, the empty tomb leads us to glory.
If there is anything as amazing as that scene, perhaps we find a close second in the first reading. Here Peter speaks eloquently of Jesus' life, death and resurrection and how is marks our salvation. During the season of Easter we'll read a great deal of the Acts of the Apostles and it's easy (perhaps too easy) to think that it was a smooth transition from the Gospel to the first reading.
It wasn't. Mary Magdalene's first reaction was to believe Jesus' body had been stolen: she didn't recognize that this was what Jesus was talking about all along. And while it's easy for us to "connect the dots" we need to understand that news that cataclysmic can't be understood instantly.
And it is, perhaps, part of our story. When we hear something we don't understand, instead of asking for clarification, we assume we're not smart enough to understand. When I was an altar boy our church was led by a pastor with many gifts. Alas, speaking clearly through a microphone was not one of them. Additionally, his theology was deeply steeped in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and when he preached he was hard to follow. I remember hearing several people who commented that he must be really intelligent "because I can't understand what he is saying." Years later, as a seminarian, I lived with this priest. And while I found him to be a good and humble priest I had no trouble understanding his beliefs and preaching.
And that makes me wonder why his disciples didn't ask for clarification when he predicted his death and resurrection. Perhaps, since the Gospels were written decades after the fact, Jesus' words speak louder in the words of the Gospels than they did from the mouth of Jesus. Or perhaps the Passion wouldn't have the impact if his followers had surrounded his tomb with champagne and expectations.
And so, let's get to the heart of this Easter. Last week I asked why Jesus had to die, and this week we ask how his resurrection leads us to salvation and how we claim that. I speak a great deal with my patients about "what awaits them on the other side." Nearly without fail they hope to see those who have died and hope to be joined by those who survive them. Salvation, for them, means that death is not the end of things, but is a transition into something infinitely better and permanent. They believe that Easter gives us the gift of eternal life in a place without the pain or suffering we've all experienced here.
But some struggle with the question of exactly who is saved. Jesus does talk about this several times but give us no clear path. And the worry goes beyond "Am I saved?" to "Are all those I loved saved? And if not, how can Heaven be paradise for me if someone I love is excluded?"
Many Catholics grew up hearing that salvation was difficult: that salvation could be denied if you ate a hamburger on Ash Wednesday or missed mass with no good reason. I don't think many of us still believe that, but that fear still lingers. Am I good enough? Have I done enough? Have I avoided enough? How do I know? And even this aside nearly every Catholic I know is familiar with the last half of the 25th Chapter of Matthew's Gospel ("for I was hungry and you fed me"). Here salvation appears steeped in what we do or don't do.
Beginning 500 years ago Martin Luther began to teach that salvation isn't dependent on our actions. He found that this belief in "salvation through works" led to all sorts of problems. Wealthy people could donate money to build churches, or even leave money to the church after their death so that priests would pray for them.
Luther rebelled against this. Instead of being saved through a "to do" list, salvation finds its place in belief: if we believe that Jesus is our savior, we're in. And for many during that time it was a freeing belief. Christians of his time would likely never meet a non Christian; certainly there were Jews in Europe (and Luther condemned them) but they lived apart and contact with them would be minimal, if at all.
But as we've progressed, the idea that a public confession of belief in Jesus determines our salvation should concern us. Does this mean that Albert Einstein and Mahatma Ghandi are doomed? If someone is faithful to his family but professes faith in someone other than Jesus, is that person denied salvation?
I've found myself struggling with this, but perhaps we need to look at Jesus' promise of salvation for the whole world through new eyes. Perhaps salvation isn't achieved through works, or through faith, but through consent.
The idea of "standing in judgement" presupposes that the decision about our future does not rest in our hands. But what if it does? What if God invites us into paradise and it's ours to accept or not with no other conditions? What if Jesus tells us that when he died and rose from the dead to save the entire world, he meant it?
If that's true (and I hope it is), it means great things for us. It means we don't have to be "good enough" but means we don't need to hold correct beliefs. It means that a Hindu or a Muslim or an atheist will join us.
Last December Pope Francis announced a "Year of Mercy." It certainly calls us to renewed understanding of how we treat each other, but I like to think it also calls us to see God's mercy in the salvation of all.
And in the final analysis, if we believe in the unconditional love of God, shouldn't we believe that unconditional love is also universal love, and includes all of us? I hope so.
March 20, 2016: Palm Sunday
You can find the readings here.
Brief synopsis of the readings: The Palm Sunday readings are unique in their makeup. Palm Sunday mass begins with the reading from Luke's Gospel where Jesus entered Jerusalem in advance of Passover. Before entering the city Jesus told his disciples to find a colt (donkey) and bring it to him. Jesus then entered Jerusalem on the donkey while his followers laid down their cloaks in front of him. The pharisees demanded that Jesus rebuke them, but Jesus responded by telling them that if he did, the rocks themselves would cry out. The "first" reading them comes from Isaiah and describes a God who gives him "a well trained tongue." This allowed Isaiah to give "his back to those who beat [him]" and give his "back to those who beat [him] and [his] cheeks to those who plucked [his] beard." Finally, today's Gospel continues from Luke and describes the last supper. Jesus broke the bread and blessed the wine and told them that this was his body and blood. Jesus then told them that his betrayer was among them. As they argued about who was the greatest, Jesus called out Peter and told him that he (Peter) would deny him three times. Then Jesus and his disciples went to the Mount of Olives where Jesus went off to pray by himself. He prayed that his cup would be taken from him, but "not my will but yours be done." After praying he returned to find his disciples had fallen asleep. As he was rebuking them a crowd came up led by Judas (one of his followers). Jesus was arrested and brought to the high priest. While there three people recognized Peter as a disciple of Jesus, and he heatedly denied all of them (fulfilling Jesus' prediction). The high priests determined that Jesus should be brought before the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate. Pilate wanted nothing to do with this, but out of fear he condemned Jesus to be crucified for attempting to overthrow Roman rule. On his orders Jesus was executed.
Most people who attend mass on Palm Sunday will hear an abbreviated homily because the readings are so long. Brevity has a point as the readings are long. But these readings are so filled with details, that it's hard to get a handle on what to focus on.
So let's start here: the last two Sundays have spoken about God's mercy. The father in the Prodigal Son story, and Jesus in the woman found in adultery, both opened up and expanded the law to encompass mercy. Both Gospels gave the pharisees (and us) a new understanding of justice that focused on the person instead of the law.
Neither of them condoned the actions of the prodigal son or the woman caught in adultery but neither did they define them entirely by their actions. Their humanity was defined as being greater than their worst actions.
I think there's a part of us who read these Gospels and hoped against hope that the pharisees would see Jesus with new eyes and their hearts would melt. Yeah, not so much.
The Palm Sunday readings ratchet up the story to nearly unimaginable levels. Instead of hearing Jesus' teachings with a new heart, they grew even colder. Instead of reforming their views and seeing the world with new eyes, they grew more afraid. They attempted to trap Jesus in the law, and when that didn't work they grew more determined to enforce the law.
And at some point they decided Jesus needed to die. The harshness of these events should not lead us to believe that execution was common in this era of Judaism: it was not. But Jesus made them so afraid they convinced the Roman Empire to fear him also.
But why did Jesus have to die? What lesson did he wish to teach us that was so important that necessitated Good Friday? Religions throughout history have taught us new understandings, new ways of looking at the world. But these changed and challenged us only to see ourselves through new eyes. None of them changed the world, only ourselves and our understanding. The message of Jesus calls us to much, much more. Had Jesus simply taught new messages and gave us new understandings, had he wished only to open our eyes, his message wouldn't crash into our worlds as it does. Jesus didn't simply change our understanding or our lives, he changed the very relationship between us and God. The death and resurrection of Jesus didn't just change us or even our world, it changed the the course of all that exists.
You see, the death of Jesus, his crucifixion, was not an inevitable result of God's plan. God did not invent crucifixion, we did. The first murder we read about in the Bible, when Cain murdered Able, was a human invention.
The death of Jesus crashes into our world not from God's script but our own. Jesus' death grows out of our ambition, our jealousy, our fear, our need to control. When God's plan for us diverged from ours, we chose ours, and we thought ourselves strong enough to kill God.
But we weren't. God's plan was greater than our plan, but God's plan was also greater than our ability to destroy God's plan. God's love steamrollered over our hate, and it continues to do this today.
Palm Sunday provides us with the story where we hear the hoofbeats of our own destruction. This entry into Jerusalem, this Last Supper, this journey into the Garden of Gethsemane, reminds us of our power to destroy. We know nearly nothing of Jesus' thoughts during this time, only that he anguished and begged God to be freed of it. But we can imagine the thoughts of his disciples. They didn't recognize the gravity enough to even stay awake during Jesus's anguish.
As a disciple from my earliest days I've often wondered if Jesus looked over his disciples and wanted a "do over." We make a big deal of the "call of the disciples" and we tend to think of them as good draft choices. But they weren't. They weren't the wealthiest, or the smartest, or the most popular. Indeed they may have chosen to follow Jesus because they had the least to lose. Perhaps they were the poorest, the least intellectual, and the least popular.
And they certainly didn't rise to the occasion. At the Last Supper, one of them ran off to betray Jesus. Later, when Jesus went off to pray, his disciples fell asleep. After his arrest Peter claims never to have known Jesus. The details go on and on.
But at the end, God gives us so much better than we gave. God didn't give us a new revelation or a new way of seeing the world. God didn't give us new map or a new direction. God gave us Jesus. And when we killed him, God didn't walk away from us. God showed us that the death of Jesus isn't the end of the road.
Far from the end of the road, our worst human event becomes the seeds of our salvation.
So who is saved by Jesus? Was Peter, who denied Jesus three times? We now think of him as holding the "keys to the Kingdom." The disciples who abandoned Jesus? We think of them as saints. How about the pharisees and those who tried to trap Jesus? Nothing in our teaching excludes them.
When Jesus died and rose from the dead, his resurrection shows us that our resurrection reaches beyond our ability to cause havoc. When we killed Jesus we gave him our best shot, we reached the limits of our sin.
But Jesus wasn't overpowered or outsmarted, he was just getting started. He rose from the dead not to settle scores, or get even. He rose from the dead to allow us to move beyond the fear and anger that caused his death. He rose from the dead to bring us to his level, despite our attempts to drag him down to ours.
Next week we will celebrate Easter. Lent will end and we will celebrate the Sonrise that will never end. Many of us will once again be able to enjoy the candy, soda, or alcohol we gave up for Lent. And as we do this, let us continue to celebrate the new life we are given.
March 13, 2016: The Fifth Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading from Isaiah we find the Lord reminding the people of their escape from Egypt ("who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostate together, never to rise, snuffed out and quenched like a wick."). Now the Lord announces this: "Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland." John's Gospel tells the story of the "woman caught in adultery." Jesus came upon a mob who intended to stone a woman to death for the crime of adultery (interesting point: no mention is made of the man caught in adultery). According to the law she was guilty of a capital offense, and the crowd asked Jesus what he thought they should do. After bending down and writing something on the ground he told them: "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." One by one they dropped their stones and left. This left Jesus alone with the woman. He asked her if there was anyone left to condemn her and she responded that there was not. Jesus then told her that he did not condemn her either. He told her to go but not to sin anymore.
Again, like last week, the connection between the first reading and the Gospel is not obvious. Isaiah speaks of the Lord reminding the people (who are returning from exile in Babylon) that they were not abandoned, as they feared. Instead God explicitly reminded them that far from being abandoned, were saved from slavery. And not only were they allowed to escape but when it seemed they were trapped by a body of water, God parted the sea. This allowed them to walk on dry land, but the water would then drown their pursuers.
Ironically we see that water contains the power of both life and death. We see in the "parting of the sea" that too much water can drown us. For the Egyptian army water was lethal. But once the escaped slaves crossed the seabed, their next danger was the lack of water. They spent the next forty years wandering in the desert where the search for water made the difference between life and death but only because they needed water.
But God, who parted the waters to save them, then provided water to sustain them. God ensured that no matter what, they would survive because God protected them.
So what does this have to do with the Gospel reading? Good question.
Today's Gospel is often called "the woman caught in adultery." I have to confess that I read this from the perspective of a joke I heard from one of my seminary professors:
Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees who present a woman who was accused of adultery. He tells the crowd: "Let the one among who is without sin cast the first stone." Suddenly the crowd parts and a short, middle aged woman picks up a rock and nails the adulteress. Jesus then slumps his shoulders and says: "Cut it out mom, I'm trying to make a point."
The joke is funny but it makes a good point: when Jesus asked the crowd his question about who has the right to throw the first stone, Jesus did have the right to throw it (and for Catholics, Mary did also since we believe that Mary was conceived without sin).
But he didn't. The belief that Jesus was "like us in all things but sin" informs this reading. Instead of throwing a stone, he picked up a stick and wrote something in the sand. It was the only thing we know Jesus wrote, but we don't know what it was. But it made the difference in how the Gospel scene played out. Those who held the stones in their hands were the scribes and Pharisees, the best educated men in Jewish society. We can only imagine the zeal they felt in the righteousness of stoning this woman to death, but their zeal compounded when they stumbled upon Jesus and believed they found a way to trap Jesus.
The Pharisees and scribes, from the very beginning, found Jesus an annoyance. He kept messing up their authority by challenging their belief that they owned the understanding of God's Law. No one argued their understanding but they confused understanding with love.
They thought they had him: they challenged him to choose between what they knew (the law of Moses) with what Jesus taught (love). You see, Both Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 demand that both parties in adultery be stoned to death. Nobody denies that adultery is a bad thing, and those who choose to step outside their marriage create havoc for their selves, their spouses, and their families.
But Jesus recognized that this woman, like the rest of us, is not defined by her worst mistake. Jesus recognized that we are not condemned to live our lives in payment for the worst decision we've ever made.
We don't know anything about this woman (or the man caught in the adultery) but we do know that adultery was a much larger sin than we see it today. We live in the the second decade of the twenty first century where sexual relations among consenting adults are seen as mutual. We view any sexual relationship between consentual adults as a "victimless crime."
But this parable takes place in a different place. The marriage between a man and a woman clearly favored the man. If a married woman entered into a sexual relationship with another man, she is considered "damaged goods." We should see this as progress in our understanding of the mutuality between men and women, but this understanding comes to us only with the gift of time.
This parable, difficult as it is to understand, is not about the mutuality of marriage, or the stability of the family, but of mercy. Nobody, including even Jesus, looked on this scene and concluded this woman's choice was good. Instead Jesus looked on this woman with justice imbued with love. He didn't make excuses what she did, but instead recognized that this choice did not inform all, or even the biggest part, of her life.
Perhaps she was coerced, perhaps she was lonely, or perhaps she was depressed with her current marriage. In any case her poor choice was not outside God's mercy. We can only image the terror she felt when she believed that her poor choice brought her to the last few minutes of her life. We can only imagine how she felt when she viewed the crowd with rocks in their hands and anger in their eyes. And we can only imagine how she felt as she knew that the murder in their eyes looked to Moses and God for their justification.
And enter Jesus. Was he going to be on the side of Moses and the law or the side of this sinful woman? That was how the Pharisees and the scribes set it up. But, as many times, they were no match for Jesus. He didn't take sides. He didn't turn this event into winners and losers. He chose a form of mercy that included justice, and a form of justice that included mercy.
We don't know what he wrote in the sand (and here we find the only occasion where Jesus actually wrote something). But whatever he wrote caused the crowd to drop the stones in their hands.
And while we don't know what Jesus wrote, many of us suggest that he wrote down a list of sins. He wrote down "cheat" and the cheaters dropped their stones. He wrote down "liar" and the liars dropped their stones. He wrote down "gossip" and the gossipers dropped their stones. He wrote down "thief" and the thieves dropped their stones. And ironically, he wrote down "adulterer" and the adulterers dropped their stones
Many things unite us as people but sin is one of them. On some level we attempt to rank sins so that ours are at the bottom and others are at the top. This gives us the false belief that we are better because the sins of others are greater than ours.
And let's face it: for much of our history we've pointed to sexual sins as the gravest. On some level it makes some sense: the ability to create life may well be the closest we get to the God's power as the source of life.
When God gave us the ability to create life through sexual contact, God gave us our best gift. If a sacrament crashes the divine and the human into a relationship, nothing comes closer to that than the conception of a new human.
The woman (and her partner) caught in adultery misused love. Like water, we depend on love for life. We create life with people we love. But love, like water, can give us life or take it away. As adults we can look back on our life and see that our best and our worst moments came from our need for love.
The day we married our spouses, the day we first held our children, were the days when we loved at our best. But those days when we tried to use another's love for us to manipulate behavior, those days when we threatened to withhold love from someone to get something we wanted, those were the days we misused love.
Our desire to love and be loved is as essential as our need for water. Again and again God teaches us higher needs by explaining basic needs.
God gives us the power to use water for good, and also to use love for good. But more importantly, God allows us to have a path back to wholeness when we misuse love. Unlike the Egyptians who were drowned, we have a path back when our use of love is mistaken.
Let us use love only in the best way we can, but understand that our failure is not the end of the road.
March 6, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first reading from Joshua we find the Israelites at the end of their journey in the wilderness. At long last they can celebrate Passover by eating "the produce of that country" and no longer needed the manna that God rained down for them. Luke's Gospel tells the now famous parable of the Prodigal Son. Here the younger of two sons cashes out his share of his father's estate and leaves. Believing that his fortune will care for him, he burns through his entire estate. Destitute, he gains employment feeding corn husks to unclean pigs. Recognizing he has made a mess of his life he returns to his father and begs to be employed as one of his servants. Instead his father declares a feast because his son "who was lost is now found." The father's older son is enraged at this and his father attempts to tell him that the prodigal son, who was once dead, is now alive.
Our readings for this week trouble me for two separate and different reasons.
Here is the first: The authors of the lectionary made a point of connecting the first reading and the Gospel. Most of the time the connection is obvious but every now and then the connection is elusive. Today it's elusive.
Here is the second: Both readings are iconic. While many Jews and Christians may not recognize this reading from Joshua, almost everyone knows that the entry into the Promised Land marked a critical point in our history as God's disciples. Luke's parable of the Prodigal Son, possibly the most well known of Jesus' parables, has become almost marginal by its repetition. We can look at it with new eyes only with great difficulty.
But I do think I can find an interesting and original thread here. Joshua speaks of how this band of ex-slaves, this band of Abraham's children, this band of wanderers, are finally gaining some traction. When they were slaves they depended on their masters for food (life). After their Exodus they depended on their daily portion of manna for food (life). Now, as they recognize that their journey is soon to end, they can harvest "on what the land of Canaan yielded."
I like to think that they needed to understand where the harvest originated. They could have recognized that God created the harvest or they could have believed that they grew the harvest themselves and are now independent of God.
This speaks to a critical point in our history: did God liberate the children of Abraham and bring them into the Promised Land and end God's role in our lives, or did God liberate the children of Abraham and bring them into the Promised Land and then promise to be with them until the end of time?
This is not a simple question. Again and again we have learned that we can't understand God's plan for us. To quote St. Anselm, we are not called to understand so we may believe, we are called to believe so that we may understand.
Nearly all of us who read this in the second decade of the twenty first century believe that God crashed into our lives from the beginning and continues to involve himself today. We pray out of a belief that our prayers matter and our prayers affect how God acts. But these ex-slaves could easily have believed that God's job was done once they entered the Promised Land and that they were on their own after that.
With that understanding, we can look at the Gospel with new eyes. Clearly the younger (prodigal) son is not anyone's hero. He knows that once his father dies he will split his father's estate with his older brother. But he doesn't want to wait that long. He told his father he wanted his share now. I can only imagine the pain his father felt in hearing this, and his pain was compounded when his son sold half his (current) estate to the highest bidder. His father was then condemned to watch a stranger till the land he hoped his son would own. Meanwhile his son took the money and ran.
Nearly any of us could have predicted how this story went. The prodigal son took his share of his inheritance and convinced himself that he earned it, even though he didn't. Coming as no surprise, he spent his "inheritance" on poor choices and soon burned through half his father's estate and all he had.
And then he found himself in an untenable position: Knowing he needed to find an income stream he searched for a job. His search did not go well and he was hired to feed the animals on someone's farm. But here was the problem: Jews were prohibited from having any contact with swine (pigs) because they were unclean and yet his employer commanded him to feed them corn husks. And so he found himself at a crossroad: Does he continue to do what he needs to do to survive or does he recognize the mess he's made of his life? Does he stay where he is or does he swallow his pride and ask his father for forgiveness?
This parable commands our attention because the prodigal son chose the path that God and Jesus warned us against. We love this parable because it speaks to our deepest fear, and at the same time our greatest hope. We want to be known for our best choices and not our worst. But even when the prodigal son chooses the worst path, his father chooses a redemptive path. He finds good news even in our worst choices.
According to the norms of the time, the son was supposed to prostate himself in front of his father and beg forgiveness, and his father was under no obligation to forgive. Instead his father, on seeing him in the distance, raced toward him and embraced him.
And he fed him. The father commanded a feast to celebrate the return of his lost son. And his son, finally, recognized that this feast was given, not earned. This reminds me of an anecdote I read years ago in the magazine Readers' Digest: an adult son, who recently graduated from college and moved into his own apartment, visited his mother. He complained about the difficulty of managing a budget and paying the bills. But when his mother commiserated, he replied: "But how do you know? You live at home."
Most of us live in a place where we think we earn enough money to purchase what we need. That's not a bad thing but at the same time we need to understand that, at the end of the day, we depend on God for all that we have. For those of us with jobs, we are employed because of gifts and talents that we were given. We may have worked at what we were given (both in school and in "on the job training"), but that doesn't negate the fact that none of us are "self made."
The reading from Joshua, and the parable of the prodigal son both remind us that our success calls us to gratitude and not pride. These readings remind us we are who we are, and we have who we have because God continues to crash into our lives.
We live in a time and a place where we are coached to brag about our accomplishments. But we also live in a relationship that calls us to recognize God's role in our success. We're nearly halfway through Lent and let's take this time to recognize our gratitude for what we have.
February 28, 2016: The Third Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Moses, the primary person of the book of Exodus, began his public life in this reading. While he shepherded the flock of his father-in-law, an angel comes to him and lighted a bush. But Moses noticed that while the bush burned, the fire did not consume it. Puzzled, he approached the bush. God then commanded him to remove his shoes as he approached "holy ground." Overwhelmed, Moses covered his face out of fear but God gave him an incredible job: he is to liberate slaves held in Egypt. Moses then asked God for his name, knowing that in a world that worships many gods, he will be asked for his name. God then tells him: "I Am Who I Am." God then reminded Moses that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Luke's Gospel we find some who approached Jesus with a story about some Galileans who were sacrificed by Pilate and their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus grew angry and told them that those who were sacrificed were no greater sinners than any other Galileans. Further he tells them that unless they repent all will perish as they did. Jesus then told a parable about a fig tree. This tree produced no fruit and the owner demanded that it be cut down. The man in charge of the vineyard begged the owner to allow him one more year to care for the tree and provide nutrition. After that, if the fig tree continues to provide no fruit, the owner can cut it down.
Last week I spoke about the iconic place Moses holds in our history and also in our imagination. Many of us well remember the movie The Ten Commandments, where Charleton Heston played Moses. Both God and Moses were played as larger than life, and while God is certainly larger than life, I'm not certain Moses is.
We know the backstory of Moses: he was born at a time when Pharaoh, fearing being overrun by the descendants of Joseph, demanded that all newborn boys be killed. But Moses avoided this fate (much as Jesus would after his birth) and through a series of events is raised in Pharaoh's court. As an adult he fled Egypt for Midian where he married and tended the flocks of his father in law Jethro.
And then one day God crashed back into his life through the now famous burning bush. God commanded Moses to leave his simple life and enter into a new life, a life like no other. God commanded Moses to return to Egypt and liberate his people from slavery to freedom. The idea of only one god was still fairly new and took some getting used to. We may puzzle over Moses' question of asking God's name but there was some practicality to it. The Egyptians worshipped many gods and they all had names. Moses needed an answer to the question: "What is this god's name?" But God doesn't say "I am God" but instead "I Am Who I Am."
This is a bit of an aside but we normally translate this as "God" or "Lord" and in some Jewish circles they don't write these words. "God" is often written as "G-d." This may strike some of us as strange, but does make some sense. My biological father's name is Donald, but I have never called him Don or Donald. He is dad. In the same way, many Jews feel that calling God by name is disrespectful. Moses may have been called God by name, but he would never address God by that same name.
Hearing Bible stories as children I think many of us looked on Moses' role with some envy: he was kind of a super hero to us and it would have been cool to have been Moses. But now I'm not certain. He certainly lived a storied life: born into slavery, barely escaping death, being raised in the royal court, and escaping. But at the beginning of this reading we see him living a life of comfort if not excitement. I can only imagine the fear of hearing God's call: leave the life you know and return to the placed of slavery. Once there confront Pharaoh and liberate the slaves where you will wander in the wilderness. Oh, and by the way, you will not live to see the Promised Land.
If this sounds like a hard life, it is. This critical chapter in our salvation history could have gone much easier. God could have softened Pharaoh's heart to free the slaves, God could have empowered the slaves to overtake the Egyptians and reverse the balance of power. God could have transported the slaves to the Promised Land without having to escape slavery or created a plague that killed off the Egyptians.
But that wasn't the path God chose. Why not? We don't know, but I have a theory. From the beginning God has chosen to involve and empower us in the salvation history that is our destiny. God chose us not only to be the recipient of the Kingdom but also participants. Genesis tells us that we were created in God's image and I believe that's more important than we think. Being created in God's image is not simply a physical thing (even though I'm an old guy with a white beard): We are created in God's image in that we have the capacity to love, to choose life, to work for the benefit of all. In short God made us in his image so that we would not be simple beneficiaries to our salvation, but also partners.
Please understand that this is not a salvo into the "salvation through works vs. salvation through faith." We all know that no salvation happens without God's intervention. Instead I hold that God gives us the tools to cooperate in our own salvation.
I also believe this carries us to today's Gospel. Luke's Gospel describes two events we see nowhere else in Scripture, and nowhere else in any other source: The Roman Pontius Pilate killed Galileans and desecrated their blood with the blood of pagan sacrifices, and the eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell. Many find this reading troubling because Jesus then warns them that they are no better than those who were killed. It can be read as a warning to "shape up or else."
Or, it's more subtle than that. Jesus' words can also remind us that when bad things happen to other people, it's not an implicit way of saying we are blessed because it didn't happen to us. No matter who we are and no matter what happens to us (good or bad) we are all called to participate in the building of the same Kingdom.
Lent calls us to repentance and perhaps we overthink it. Repentance calls us to remind ourselves on a daily basis that our lives work best when we stay on the path that God calls us to.
Just as God worked the liberation of the Israelits through Moses, God works our salvation through Jesus. God could have declared the "end of time" and saved us all but God didn't. We could have been created in Heaven and ignored the whole "earthly thing." But we read too much into this if we interpret this reading (as many of us were taught) that God places us here and watches us to decide if we are "worthy" of salvation.
Instead, Jesus told those gathered that they could not be completely safe from disaster or massacre (no matter how good we are). But that by continuing repentance, by participating in God's salvation plan, we can become the fig tree that bears fruit.
February 21, 2016: The Second Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from Genesis where Lord takes Abram (later Abraham) outside and tells him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. The Lord reminds Abram that he took him away from the land of Ur and granted him the land that we today call Israel. Abram then sacrificed a cow and a goat to seal the covenant. Luke's Gospel describes a scene that we often call the Transfiguration. Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John up mountain to pray. Once there Jesus' disciples saw Jesus speaking to Moses and Elijah. Peter then suggested that they commemorate this even with tents to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Then a cloud appeared over them and a voice from the cloud announced: "This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him." Moses and Elijah then disappeared. The disciples then fell silent and told no one what they had seen.
If you took a poll of the five religious figures that command the most importance, Abraham would likely win. Christians would put Jesus at the top of the list, Mohammad would command the Muslims, and Moses would win the Jewish vote. But when totaled, Abraham would likely win because he would enjoy votes from all three faiths. Today Jews, Christians, that Jesus and Muslims constitute more than half of the world's population and we all look to this event with great importance.
I think most of us grew up hearing about Abraham and thinking that he was an anomaly. Most people spent their entire lives in one place, doing the same thing. You were born into a family and did what they did, year after year, decade after decade, and generation after generation. But the truth was a bit more complex: they were nomads and were not as tied to the land as we might think.
We know from other passages that Abraham was a shepherd. Shepherds were nomads out of necessity: they were constantly in search of grazing pastures and water for their herds and on some level they were constantly competing with other shepherds for these resources. Sometimes they cooperated and negotiated with others, and sometimes they used force. But it was always between the shepherds.
Things change here. God's relationship with Abraham raised the relationship between divine and human to a new level. The first several chapters of Genesis shows God intervening into our history (the Tower of Babel, Noah's Ark, etc.) but here God not only reaches out to Abraham, but God also promises to be involved in the lives of Abraham and all his descendants. This may have felt like an empty promise as Abraham and his wife Sarah were elderly and didn't have children but it wasn't. This reading begins with God taking Abraham outside and promising his descendants will be as great as the stars in the sky.
Truth be told we now believe our universe contains 10 billion galaxies and each galaxy holds 100 billion stars: either this was hyperbole or we need to get started finding other planets to occupy. In any case Sarah shortly gives birth to Isaac who grows up to father Jacob, etc. Jews and Christians come from that line. Abraham also fathered Ishmael and we generally assume Ishmael's descendants eventually formed Islam.
God's decision to enter more closely into human history continues to evolve in Luke's Gospel. As I was growing up and hearing this reading I confess to a little confusion. I knew that Judaism prohibited graven images and there were not drawings or painting of their leaders; I couldn't figure out how Peter, James, and John recognized Moses or Elijah because they had never seen pictures of them. Perhaps seeing them speaking with Jesus enlivened their hearts if not their eyes. Regardless they recognized that they were in the presence of a landmark in human history.
Clearly God chose this event and these historical figures to impress upon the disciples that Jesus belonged in strong company. But why these figures? There were scores of important people in the Old Testament. Why these two?
Perhaps this speaks to a progression. We can look in what we call "salvation history" and see how each of the three persons, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, played an important and crucial role in making us who we are.
As we read from the first reading Abraham began the first permanent covenant between God and us. We revere Moses because he continued this covenant by liberating our ancestors from slavery and led them into the land we still refer to as the "Holy Land." Elijah isn't as well known but he holds an important place also. He was a prophet, and at the end of his earthly life he is taken (body and soul) into Heaven in the 2nd chapter of 2nd Kings. To this day many Jews keep an open chair at all circumcisions, believing he is present.
And so in today's Gospel we can draw a bright line through all three that ends with Jesus. As Abraham began the covenant with the People of God, Jesus fulfills it. As Moses liberated his people from slavery to the promised land, Jesus liberates us from our sins into forgiveness and salvation. As Elijah was taken from us to Heaven, Jesus' resurrection carries all of us to salvation.
The season of Lent chronicles the journey to Easter. We commemorate Lent each year because we need to remember that we are not defined by what we do or who we are, but instead by who loves us and who crashes into our lives out of profound love of us.
Finally, I confess to some amusement at the disciples' reaction to seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. Their first reaction was something I think many of us would share: let's make a monument. These days we surround ourselves with monuments to commemorate events from the past. But Jesus discouraged them from doing this because he didn't want them to commemorate the event but instead to look forward. Jesus understood something that Peter, James, and John didn't. Jesus understood that the Transfiguration should not be a memory but should instead be a call to continue a relationship. Just as Abraham began the covenant of the chosen, just as Moses liberated those chosen, just as Elijah spoke to the chosen by his elevation to Heaven, we are all chosen, liberated, and saved through Jesus.
Let us continue our Lenten journey with this understanding.
February 14, 2016: The First Sunday of Lent
You can find the readings here
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. It's the 5th book of the Bible and was classically (but not factually) written by Moses. In any case Moses is addressing the community and tells reminds them that they were once slaves in Egypt and delivered them to the land where they now live, "the land of milk and honey." In Luke's Gospel, Jesus travels into the wilderness. He ate nothing during this time and was hungry. The devil tried several times to tempt him but was unsuccessful and left him.
Regardless of who wrote the book of Deuteronomy, it's clear that Moses has a message: don't ever forget where you came from. His audience was well aware of the difficult path they trod but over the arc of time we can read this without fully understanding the context. Moses didn't go into great detail about the pain they experienced in slavery because his audience didn't need to, but we need to be reminded. From the perspective of 2016 we can read this and not fully understand that the passage from slave to "the land of milk and honey" was fraught with pain and sacrifice. Moses, and much of the Old Testament, reminds us that we are who we are only because God has chosen us. Without that, we would not be chosen, be blessed, and be worthy of salvation.
Simply put, the land of milk and honey did not come easy. God could have chosen to transport this band of Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land but he didn't. We don't know why, but I like to think they valued the land in part because they had to work hard to get there.
Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981 and was a beloved journalist for an entire generation of Americans. Long after he retired he wrote his memoire A Reporter's Life. In one chapter he described experiencing the Great Depression and World War II and his determination to raise his children in a world that was better than the one that raised him. By the 1960s he and his wife were raising three teenagers who were vocal in their opposition to the war in Vietnam. One night at dinner it came to a head in a shouting match as his daughters told him that the government was lying about Vietnam and couldn't be trusted. Walter's reaction was more bewilderment than anger. He saw the government in a much more positive light because he saw role the government played in lifting people out of poverty in the 1930s and defeat Hitler in the 1940s. His children were born later and grew up without that experience. He found their distrust of government to be a lack of gratitude. He felt it was easy for them to criticize the government because their life was easier than his and their need for government intervention wasn't as acute. Sacrifices made were made before they were born.
In the same way I think it's easy to overlook the sacrifice of Jesus in today's Gospel. Luke's Gospel is best understood as Jesus' "march toward the cross." Today's reading brings us a critical juncture in this march: at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry he went on what we would today call a retreat. When most of us think about a retreat we think about a weekend, or at most a week, and most of us think about going to a place of more simplicity and less noise. We don't often think about fasting (as a matter of fact most places I've gone to on retreat served excellent food).
But Jesus ate nothing. Speaking only for myself I find that hard to imagine. Without revealing my current BMI (body mass index) I'll say that I live in a place where I'm bombarded by commercials that tell me that it takes a 1500 calorie bacon double cheeseburger to satisfy my hunger for lunch. Eating nothing for 40 days sounds impossible.
And yet Luke is pretty clear about this. It's not hard to imagine that Jesus would have experienced some weakness at the end of this. And that's when temptation enters the room.
I've spoken about this before, but there are times when temptation into bad things doesn't really challenge us. But during times of suffering temptation can take on new power. The idea of ending the suffering can make us do things we wouldn't ordinarily do. That's what the devil was hoping for. The devil or Satan claims some space in Scripture and a much bigger role since then. We don't know much but here the devil's role is clear: make Jesus take the easy way out. He promised Jesus food, and then a Kingdom that required Jesus only one thing: worship the devil instead of God.
I don't need to explain what would have happened had Jesus succumbed. A Kingdom where Jesus worships the devil instead of God is not a Kingdom any of us want. But he didn't. He found a way to persevere through the hunger and the dream of an easy Kingdom and dismiss the devil.
And so we find ourselves at the beginning of Lent. Many of us carry childhood memories of giving up candy, or soda, or whatever under the promise that it will make things better. Denying ourselves something we like will make the joy of Easter better because we can eat candy or drink soda with abandon.
I get that, but perhaps Lent should be a little more complex for us. Lent, I believe, should make us more aware of not only who we are, but where we have come from. For many of us the idea of giving up something makes some sense. But for others Lent may call us in another direction. Maybe it calls us to an increased awareness of our reasons to be grateful, and we can achieve this through increased prayer or reading. Or we can pledge to do something that will make the world a little better: pick up a piece of trash each day, or greet a person each day with kindness. I'll leave this to your imagination.
Regardless of what we do for Lent, I encourage us to pay attention to the call of the Ash Wednesday reading. We should do what we do not so that others will know who we are, but so that we will know who we are.
Regardless of what we do, Easter is six weeks in our future. Let us think of that day when we will celebrate Jesus' resurrection and our salvation and think about where we want to be then. And let us start now.
February 10, 2016: 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
repentance, 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 more than a year you may recognize this homily. The readings every year are the same and last year I decided to rerun my Ash Wednesday homily from 2014. No one objected and I've take then opportunity to do it again. 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 7, 2016: The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we return to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. After the death of King Uzziah, Isaiah is overwhelmed by seeing the Lord of Hosts and proclaims that he is doomed because of his unclean lips. But then an angel removes his sin and Isaiah, when asked "Whom shall I send," replied "Here I am. Send me!"
Luke's Gospel describes Jesus teaching a crowd at the side of a lake. Nearby fishermen, including Simon Peter, came ashore and began washing their nets. Jesus tells them to go back onto the lake and put out their nets; Simon Peter protests by telling Jesus that they have been fishing all night with no results. But he obeys Jesus and they go back out. This time they catch so much fish that there is fear that their nets will tear, and once aboard, the volume of fish may sing the boat. Overwhelmed, Simon Peter tells Jesus: "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Jesus responds by telling him that from now on he will be catching men [and presumably women]. Then the left everything and followed Jesus.
The prophet Isaiah holds an important place in the Old Testament. I've spoken about this before, but this book had at least 2 and possibly 3 authors (known as "1st Isaiah, 2nd Isaiah, and 3rd Isaiah"). Today's reading comes from 1st Isaiah, near the beginning of the book and it's a puzzling reading.
The idea of being a prophet may sound good to us today but it's only good through the comfortable distance of hundreds of years of history. A prophet's role is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That's not my line, I learned it in seminary and have always found it valuable. But the comfortable never want to feel afflicted and the life of a prophet is never easy.
Many of us like the idea of comforting the afflicted but the afflicted have little power to improve our lives. On the other hand the comfortable have nearly limitless abilities to attack us and make our lives miserable. Ask any whistleblower.
And yet after Isaiah encounters an angel who convinces him that his sins do not prevent him from being chosen, he embraces his role as a prophet and asks God to "[s]end me!"
So why did he volunteer? Didn't he know that this would greatly complicate his life? He probably did, but the encounter with the angel also likely gave him focus. I suspect that Isaiah eagerly embraced his role because he understood who he was and what gifts he was given and this gave him direction in his life.
I find this informative for all of us in our lives. We are all given gifts, we all live with things we are good at and things we are not good at. We spent much of our childhood, and let's face it: much of our adulthood, coming to an understanding of who we are and what we are good at. When I was in high school I couldn't get enough of history and I couldn't understand why anyone liked science. My wife is just the opposite: she loved to explore how elements related to each other in chemistry and couldn't understand why anyone was interested in stuff that happened a long time ago. Because of this I chose theology and she chose medicine.
Unfortunately we all have times when we try to be someone we're not, and it rarely goes well. Maybe it's because we want a gift we weren't given. In the 12th Chapter of First Corinthians, Paul clearly states that there are different gifts but the same Spirit. And while God doesn't rank gifts, we clearly do. In our current society we pay scary amounts of money to people who are gifted at picking stocks, and much less to those who are gifted at teaching our children.
When I was a seminarian I met Fr. Alvin Illig who was ordained seven years before I was born. He was both bright and ambitious and he had a clear idea of what he wanted when he was ordained: he wanted to be appointed to the New York City mission team. The order we belonged to (the Paulist Fathers) provided several ministries: parishes, college campus ministries, evangelization, teaching, and many others. But if you were a priest in the 1950s one assignment was reserved for the best. These priests were based in Manhattan and travelled to parishes in New England and the Mid Atlantic States giving parish missions. Their gifts were seen as better than other gifts and Fr. Alvin set his sights there.
Much to his disappointment he did not get that assignment. He eventually made his way to the world of Catholic publishing and he did incredible work. In the 1960s Catholic churches in the United States opened Catholic schools at a phenomenal rate and Fr. Alvin understood that they needed school libraries. He packaged the books a school would need and marketed them to these newly opened Catholic schools. It was genius: hundreds of Catholic schools were able to purchase a viable library and the publishing house found an income stream that allowed them to thrive.
When Fr. Alvin told me that story 30 years later there was still part of him that regretted not being part of the New York City mission team. But he was also aware that his gifts served him, his community, and the Kingdom of God better in the publishing world. While he and his peers valued the mission band better than publishing, he understood that he ended up where he needed to be.
And in discussing these gifts we need to give awareness to the strength of these gifts. In the Gospel we see exhausted and empty handed fishermen: they spent the entire night fishing with nothing to show for it. But when Jesus suggests they go back out, they did so mostly to humor them. The result so overwhelmed them that they grew afraid. Now, I've never heard this from the perspective of the fish, but it really wasn't about the fish at all. These poor fishermen would, in the course of time, grow into the first generation of the teachers of this new church. They were the first to grasp the baton of faith, and had they stumbled, none of us would know the name of Jesus.
Perhaps the message of these readings is twofold: we should not rank gifts according to our desires, and we should stand in awe of what we are capable of doing if we celebrate and use the gifs we are given.
January 31, 2016: The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: The beginning of Jeremiah informs our first reading and it describes God's call to Jeremiah to be a prophet. Not included in this reading is the line where Jeremiah protests that he cannot be a prophet because he is too young. God responds by telling Jeremiah not to worry because he was chosen even before he was born. Jeremiah recognizes that prophets don't normally do well because they preach an unpopular message but God assures him not to worry: "They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am the with you to deliver you, says the Lord." Luke's Gospel describes Jesus speaking in the synagogue, proclaiming much the same message as last week. But here the response is much different: those gathered asked: "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" Jesus responds by telling them that "no prophet is accepted in his own native place." He continued to agitate them until, filled with fury, they drive him out of town.
Thirty six years ago I began discerning whether or not God was calling me to the priesthood. The single question of whether I was called to serve as a priest brought with it other questions, including the question of where I was called to serve. I could have chosen to be a priest who spent his life in a defined geographical area (and become a diocesan priest) or I could have chosen to join an order (like the Jesuits or Franciscans) and served in lands I had never seen before. I chose to join an order and pointed to this passage in Luke. I explained that people who knew me as a child would never accept me as a leader of worship. Full disclosure: my decision had more to do with my desire to see the world. But there was something to my decision and Jesus would have understood this as well as anyone else.
We all read this Gospel with our own eyes and I confess that I read this with great empathy for Jesus. Those of us who feel called respond with great excitement and can't wait to tell the people closest to us, those who made us who we are. In our enthusiasm we completely misunderstand how we are perceived and are often met with (like Jesus) "who are you to tell us anything?" Let's be frank: The phrase "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" means, "why should we listen to you when we knew you as a child and taught you what you know? You don't speak the truth to us, we speak the truth to you."
At the risk of reading too much into this Gospel I confess to thinking that Jesus felt betrayed by this response. And it spiralled out of control from there. Jesus told them that nobody from his own native place would be accepted. And he went further. He told them that while there were people in the Old Testament who benefitted from their prophets, there were many more people who did not benefit. Clearly Jesus, in his frustration, was telling his older relatives, his older neighbors, his teachers, that they were going to regret not listening to him.
And while I appreciate his frustration and anger I wish Jesus had spent more time reading the first reading from Jeremiah. We know very little of how Jesus came to an understanding of himself as the Messiah, the Redeemer but we can assume it wasn't as easy and simple as Scripture tells us.
The road for Jeremiah wasn't easy either. When God chose Jeremiah, God told him this: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you." Jeremiah protested that he was too young. God makes it clear that this wasn't a choice made in haste, and while he may find that some may wish to "crush" him, he (Jeremiah) has been made a "pillar of iron, a wall of brass."
The rest of Jeremiah's life shows that God never left Jeremiah and that Jeremiah faced crushing challenges. Likewise, the rest of the New Testament shows that God never left Jesus and that Jesus faced crushing challengers, including his passion, death, and resurrection.
So how do these readings inform us today? I think it informs us two ways.
First, and easiest, it tells us that just as God gave Jeremiah and Jesus a voice, so too have we been given a voice. I have to confess that I'm not a fan of most of the Sunday morning television preachers, but I do respect their message that tough times shouldn't prevent or stop us from being who we know we are called to be. By our baptism we are all called to discipleship but none of us are guaranteed an easy path. As we live our best selves, as we are called to the better angels of our nature, we live with the reality that we encounter those who find us stupid, silly, or as potential targets for abuse. They tempt us to join them in their greed and selfishness and our determination to continue as disciples requires us to sacrifice power, influence, and popularity. And perhaps more seductive, they call us to ignore our call because the message is outdated or just won't work. We are tempted to "be realistic" when we are called to be faithful. We are called to ignore injustice because we are not strong enough to be just in an unjust situation.
But these readings also call us to something else: it calls us not to be Jeremiah or Jesus, but to be the listeners of Jeremiah and Jesus and not go with the crowd. In our lives the people who speak the greatest truth to us are not necessarily the wealthiest, the most powerful, or the most popular. Truth comes from the strangest corners, and I appreciate that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit crash into our lives from places I don't expect.
Perhaps it's a former student and we are humbled to accept what he or she tells us. Perhaps it's someone we've discounted: a homeless person, someone with less education, or a child. Or maybe it's someone we've always seen with suspicion: an immigrant, someone with a different skin color, or a different sexual orientation. But justice does not respect rank or necessarily find its origin in power.
Whatever the case, I hope we can read these readings with an understanding that the original listeners didn't. Jeremiah's listeners didn't like his message and Jesus' listeners didn't like listening to Jesus. But their messages continue to this day because they were both called by God to proclaim.
As disciples we are called to speak our truth, but also listen to to the truth of those who God also calls.
January 24, 2016: The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah. It's often seen as a continuation of the previous Book of Ezra. Nehemiah speaks in Jerusalem to the Israelites who have recently returned from exile. They are tasked to rebuild the Temple, and in this reading all are gathered as Ezra the scribe gathers of "men, women, and children old enough to understand" to read the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The reading ends with this command: "Go, eat the fat, drink the sweet wine, and send a portion to the man who has nothing prepared ready. For this day is sacred our Lord. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold." In Luke's Gospel Jesus entered a synagogue in his hometown, unrolled a scroll from the prophet Isaiah quoted this: "The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me." Jesus then told those gathered that this "is being fulfilled today even as you listen."
I've always been amused and puzzled by the phase "those children old enough to understand." So what about those children were weren't old enough to understand? Clearly they weren't left alone and the reading tells us that everyone else was listening to Ezra.
I'm sure they were present also, but just didn't understand what was going on and so the phrase was more about understanding than geography. I can understand this. When my sister and I were infants and toddlers our parents tried several things that allowed them get to church while not dealing with a fussy or bored child. Sometimes they went to different masses. Sometimes they found someone who would care for us while they were allowed to worship together. Certainly we weren't among "those old enough to understand."
But from my earliest memory they took us to mass with them. Looking back the idea of those not "old enough to understand" engenders memories of my desperately trying to pass the time. None of the words coming through the microphone were meant for me and my wandering eye wasn't nearly sufficient to find anything worth looking at. Eventually, as my understanding grew, church (and especially Scripture) made more sense to me. And that understanding grew and changed as I grew and changed.
I like to think that the phrase "old enough to understand" is a process instead of a dividing line. Our lives continually tell us that our understanding of our role in the Kingdom of God evolves throughout our lives. A ten year old has a different understanding than an infant. A thirty year old has a different understanding than a ten year old. And a sixty year old has a different understanding than a thirty year old.
I say this with the understanding that we continue to attempt to determine a line between children and adults. But that line varies. By age 12 we pay adult prices at the theatre. On our 16th birthday we are old enough to drive, and we cast our first votes after our 18th birthday; we can also serve on juries and sign contracts. Finally, on our 21st birthday we can consume alcohol. This adulthood thing is, at best, a moving target.
This provides the context for our first reading. Ezra recounts what we now call our "salvation history." Our understanding grows as we grow, but something else is also happening. Events that dramatically change our history, that cause us to recognize God's role in our lives, fade over time. Within a few generations we think we are where we are because of our role and discount God's role. We see this in the current election cycle by presidential candidates who regard immigrants as problems while ignoring the fact that our ancestors were themselves immigrants.
Our history as Christians compels us to remember who we are and where we came from. Ezra recounts salvation history because, from time to time, we need to hear (and listen to) the events that made us who we are. We can't think we are "self made" if we know the stories and events that brought us here. That's why I think it was critical that Ezra publicly reread the Torah to all that were gathered (regardless of their level of understanding). Their return from exile may have been luck, but our salvation history tells us that God and not luck brought them back to Jerusalem. And it was especially not from their own deeds. We are who we are because God chose us.
And the Gospel tells us that Jesus is who he is because of the same reason. I can only imagine what it felt to have been in the synagogue. Jesus, a young man who grew up among them, the son of Joseph and Mary, unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and claims to be the one Isaiah is talking about.
Jews of the 19th and 20th century grew up speaking Yiddish and the word "chutzpah" translated into English as "having nerve." Clearly Jesus' words gave him chutzpah when he claimed to be the one Isaiah was speaking about.
But as Christians we believe he is right. Last week I spoke about how Jesus came to an understanding of his role in salvation history after scolding his mother, and this week we can see a view of Jesus where he understands his role. All of us spend our lives learning our role in salvation history. Many of us teach our children, some of us teach our students, and all of us affect the lives of the people we interact with. When Jesus tells us "The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me," he is not speaking only of himself. He is talking about all of us. We have all been anointed to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Each week we come to mass and listen to the readings. Unlike Ezra we don't hear the entire Torah, but we hear pieces of our sacred readings, and we don't read them only to think well of those who have gone before us. We read them because we understand that these readings remind us of our place in salvation history and how we need to read their words and wisdom so that we can make moral and spiritual decisions today built on how God has intervened in our history in the past.
The last book of Scripture was written about 70 years after Jesus' resurrection and we have lived nineteen centuries of salvation history since. Volumes have been written by saints and ordinary Christians and we do read their accounts. But it's always beneficial to go back to our ancients texts to see how we began (like Ezra) and continue to find our place in salvation history (like Jesus).
January 17, 2016: The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Brief synopsis of the readings: The Prophet Isaiah writes our first reading and continues this theme of celebration. Zion (Israel) will be celebrated by other nations and "shall be a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord." Israel will no longer been seen as forsaken or desolate, but instead God's delight and espoused. In John's Gospel we see the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, and his first sign (other Gospels call them miracles but John calls them signs). Jesus and Mary were at a wedding when the host ran out of wine. Mary pointed this out to Jesus who responded: "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" At Mary's instruction the servants bring six stone water jars (each holding 20 to 30 gallons). Jesus told them to fill the jars with water and gave a taste to the headwaiter. The headwaiter tasted the wine and expressed his surprise to the bridegroom: "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now."
Are you getting enough of Isaiah? It seems that between Advent and Christmas we read almost nothing else. To be fair the book of Isaiah was written by at least two and perhaps three different writers. Additionally the imagery in Isaiah enriches this chapter of the Israelites' history. Today's reading begins with the idea that Israel will be seen as a leader by other nations, a far cry from their recent history where they were in disarray and exile, and feared for their very existence. As I spoke about last week, the last will now become first.
Isaiah also turns to imagery of a bride. For those of us in happy marriages we will never forget the joy we found when the person we chose also chose us. Our spouse's choice of us makes us feel blessed, fortunate, and part of a larger plan. It makes us feel that our life is going on as it's supposed to.
Interestingly enough our Gospel takes place at a wedding. Weddings are wonderful experiences but they also cause great anxiety for the planners. Brides, grooms, their parents, wedding planners and officiants worry greatly about things they can't control. Will everyone be able to get there? What if it rains or snows? Is the caterer/photographer/wedding planner trustworthy? Will the guests who need to stay sober really stay sober or will they make an epic scene that everyone will remember?
Or what happens if you run out of wine? These days some weddings are dry (no alcohol), some have a no host bar (you pay for your drinks), or an open bar (the host pays for your drinks) and of the dozens of weddings I've attended this has never happened. But we can imagine the embarrassment of the host if that happened. Unlike today the host can't do a Costco run.
And here we find one of the most troubling passages in the New Testament. Mary recognizes the dilemma and also recognizes Jesus' power. But when she tells him about it, Jesus gives her an answer that nobody I know would have said to his mother: "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" I have a nearly limitless imagination but at no point in my life can I imagine a good outcome had I said this to my mother.
Several human experiences touch most of us, but I think I'm not going on a limb to say that we can all recall times when we've said or done something and immediately recognized the damage we've done. These events tend to be "growth opportunities" for us when we recognize that we can fix the damage we've done.
I think that this happens to Jesus. The two thousand years since the life of Jesus bursts open with debates about when he knew his role as the Messiah. As with all of us disciples we came to our role in God's Kingdom as a process, as our understanding of our place in the universe (and the mind of God).
I like to think that Jesus' rude response to Mary caused him to recognize that his role was greater than he thought. He suddenly understood that he was not at the wedding only as a guest but as the person who had the power to make things right. This first sign was not only a sign to us, his disciples, but also to Jesus.
I'm hoping I'm the only one who has had an experience like this. We are unnecessarily rude or we make a poor decision, and in that moment we recognize not only embarrassment but also a glimpse of exactly who we can be if we move beyond our old view of ourselves.
And Jesus did make things right. As a matter of fact he made things better than right. We don't know how many guests were present at the wedding, but we do know how much wine Jesus made. The servants gathered six jars and each jar held 20 to 30 gallons. When Jesus turned the water into wine he made between 120 to 180 gallons of wine. To translate this to today, a bottle of wine (750 mil) holds 25 ounces of wine. In other words, 120 gallons would fill a little more than 614 bottles of wine. And this is after the wedding guests plowed through all the good stuff.
Clearly Jesus provided more wine than was needed. But this wasn't just about the wedding, it was about the Kingdom of God. Not only was this wine of superior but there was an abundance of it.
The people who ridiculed Jesus during his life looked at his signs or miracles as merely "magician's tricks." But they weren't. Jesus' signs pointed to his Kingdom, whether he healed the sick, raised the dead, or turned water into wine. His signs pointed to a place where even an embarrassed bridegroom has more than he needs.
So where does that leave us? Well, we can't perform these signs or miracles. We can't turn water into wine anymore than we can turn turn five loaves and 2 fishes into an unlimited supply. But that doesn't mean we are entirely powerless.
We can save people from embarrassment. We can intervene in situations; perhaps here we are the person who slips out from the wedding and goes to Costco without any of guests know about it. Jesus' second sign came in the 4th chapter where Jesus healed the ill son of a royal official. Regardless of who this "royal official" was, he clearly was not one of Jesus' disciples. And yet Jesus saves his son. Perhaps this calls us to reach out beyond our inner circle. We know we can, we just have to want to.
As we begin our journey into 2016, let's look at those opportunities where our actions, our signs, can become miracles.
What does it mean for us to be chosen? Let's face it: it's a good feeling. Most of us can canvas our childhood and remember times when someone looked at us and said: "Yes, you're the person I want for this." Conversely we also remember the pain when sides were being chosen and we were "chosen last."
The idea of being left out when others are chosen brings universal feelings of dread and loneliness. None of us likes to feel inadequate or not good enough, but feelings of importance and inclusion can often cause us to be cruel to others. I think these feelings inform these readings.
In our interactions with each other we make choices all the time. We choose one job candidate over several others. We choose one life partner to the exclusion of everyone else. And it's necessary: we can't hire everyone who applies for a job and we can't be exclusive with more than one person. But we also trust that a large pools of employers and large pools of job applicants will sort itself out.
The choices we make in these interactions occur in a finite world and they make sense. But we live in a world of faith that's infinite where everyone can be chosen and we don't fully believe it.
And yet from almost our earliest days we've made choices over who we think are saved. We think we know enough of God's mind to know who God has chosen (and more to the point who God hasn't chosen). It's not that we think Heaven has a limited amount of real estate and only a certain percentage can live there. Instead we think we know God's criterion, God's threshold for who gets in and who doesn't.
Some faiths set the threshold on belief: Christians are in and Jews are out because it turns on an acknowledgement of Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. Catholics of previous generations learned that those who die without a mortal sin on their soul are in while those who died after missing mass are out. We even made a place for babies who died sinless but without baptism: Limbo.
It's actually become kind of a cottage industry. Fifteen years ago two men wrote a book series called Left Behind. It described a series of events where God decides to end the world, but first "raptures" (ie, removes) those deemed worthy and subjects the rest to a time of tribulation. These books made a great deal of money for the authors and fed into a popular belief that we know the limits of God's mercy and desire for the salvation of all.
But to those believers I point to the Gospel reading. Several things happen that appear puzzling. At first blush it's a simple story: Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. But, in a sense, why was Jesus baptized? And why was he baptized last, after "all the people"?
I grew up hearing this reading and thinking that Jesus did this so that we would all see baptism as universal. He was "pretending" to need baptism to tell us that we should all be baptized.
But what if that's wrong? What if the message of this wasn't that we should all be baptized but that all of us are chosen? What if it means that being chosen is about inclusion instead of who's in vs. who's out? What if we're all chosen and we're given different roles, and that all these roles are of equal value?
I like the fact that Jesus was baptized as an adult. Some look at this and decide that baptism should be an adult decision. As for me, I think it means that baptism doesn't remove anything (original sin) but adds something (a responsibility to build the Kingdom of God). But it also gives me an image of the universality of salvation.
The first reading from Isaiah clearly speaks of the servant that God loves. This servant will work for justice and as Christians we see this servant as a foreshadowing of Jesus. Clearly this servant is included, but that's not the important part.
The heart of these readings show Jesus as baptized, as included, and as part of God's plan. All these readings inform me that salvation isn't about those who are chosen and those who aren't. Jesus was baptized last to tell us that there is not "end of the line." We are all chosen. Or put another way, it shows clearly how the last shall be first.
The idea that baptism is necessary for salvation, that faith in Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior is necessary for salvation, that avoidance of mortal sin is necessary for salvation is not found in the Bible. The idea that Jesus' birth, baptism, life, death, and resurrection is necessary for salvation informs today's readings.
I like to think that we're all saved by baptism, and not just those who are baptized. The birth of baptism 2,000 years ago ushered in a new era through the person of Jesus Christ. It points not only to salvation but to our role in that. Baptism began the public ministry of Jesus so that we could begin the process of learning how to build the kingdom.
This Gospel comes to us from the 3rd chapter of Luke. In the 4th chapter Jesus begins to preach and teach. The rest of his public ministry of how, now that salvation is ours, we should love one another.
Next week we find ourselves back in Ordinary Time. Now that our salvation has been assured, let's make it Extra-Ordinary.
I've spoken of this reading in several different places and I've normally preached a sermon of joy. I focused on the astrologers (who we've described as the "Three Wise Men") who presented gifts to the newborn Savior and how we continue in their tradition in the gifts we give each other for Christmas. I described how we give each other gifts because we recognize the Christ in each other.
That's all true, but there is a darker theme in these readings and while we don't like to recognize it, it's true nonetheless.
The darkness centers on King Herod. Herod was a Jew, but we know that his father was a convert to Judaism and Herod's "Jewish cred" was thin. Religions like Christianity and Islam seek to convert others to their religion, but Judaism does not. This may be hard for many of us to understand, but the fact that Herod was a recent convert made him suspicious to most Jews of the time. They weren't entirely convinced of his sincerity and honestly, his actions in this reading make their point.
You see, most Christians think of the Jews/Israelites who lived between the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of Jesus as poor desert dwellers. The truth is much, much more complicated. It's true that they conquered the land we now know as Israel and it's true that they were conquered by the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans, but it doesn't mean they were all marginalized and poor.
In reality some of them were able to do well, and become quite wealthy and influential. The Herod we read in this Gospel was one of them. As a Jew he professed to await the Messiah, but in reality he was doing just fine and the arrival of the Messiah would have messed things up for him. He never would have admitted this but the arrival of the Messiah and promised liberation would have robbed him of his status and place in society.
This explains the attention he gave the astrologers. They were not a cause of joy for him, but instead a cause of fear. Herod feared that these astrologers foretold not the redemption of the Savior but the end of his cushy life. His power over the Jews depended on the continuing domination of the Romans and the absence of the Messiah. Only then was he able to rule.
And Herod was destroyed by a dream. The astrologers were warned not to return to Jerusalem but instead return by another route. Herod was robbed of the opportunity of killing Jesus.
And this informs us of the most horrible part of the story. At some point Herod figures out that he'd been duped by the astrologers and needed to do something to make sure this child didn't fulfill the prophecy that would end his luxury. The passages after this gospel describe how an angel appeared to Joseph and Mary and warn them to flee to Egypt because Jesus' life was in danger. But after they fled Herod demanded that all boys two years old or younger were to be killed.
We don't know how many male infants and toddlers were killed but we commemorate their memory each year on December 28th and call them the "Holy Innocents." And while the experience of the astrologers giving gifts to Jesus shows us how generosity can be contagious, so too can be sin.
Herod's fear of losing his position caused him to plan the death of Jesus, but when that didn't work he grew a great deal more evil. That happens sometimes: an employee steals a small amount of money from his employer and finds it unsatisfying so he steals more and more until he is caught. A politician accepts a bribe thinking "it will just be this one time" but gets addicted and can't explain his way out when the spotlight hits him.
Thinking his plan to kill Jesus just needs to be broader, Herod moves from murder to genocide and untold children are murdered.
And they were murdered for no reason. Herod's plan didn't work because Jesus was in Egypt and beyond Herod's reach. As a matter of fact, according to Matthew's Gospel, the Holy Family stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Full disclosure: Most sources believe that Herod died shortly after these events and there is reason to doubt that any boy was actually murdered but the point remains valid: Herod was an evil man who knew no limits in his ambition.
But here's the takeaway from this reading: even limitless evil does not work. Herod went to horrendous lengths to protect himself and it didn't work. But even a generation later, when Pontius Pilate was successful in killing Jesus, it still didn't work. Jesus' resurrection proves that no matter how powerful evil gets, it's still not powerful enough to defeat good. Herod was defeated by the astrologers' dream (to return by a different route), by Joseph's dream (to flee to Egypt), and finally by his own death.
We are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, not because of luck or power, but because God decided to go "all in" with us. Nobody knows the power of evil better than God because God knows the power of good better than we do.
I have to confess a certain amusement that the Holy Family escaped to Egypt for safety when their ancestor Moses fled Egypt as a place of enslavement. This tells me that there is no place on earth that is outside God's safety.
Thousands of years later we find ourselves in a world that puts great emphasis in limits and borders. None of us find the idea of escaping persecution hard to imagine. But its become a cottage industry here in the United States to believe that those who escape evil have only themselves to blame, as if they are escaping only to create evil in other places.
In reality the 21st Century refugees read today's Gospel with knowing nods. They flee not with an agenda toward their destinations but with grief toward their home. When they arrive they care only for the safety of themselves and their descendants and are willing to sacrifice their own lives to invest in their children.
If Herod horrifies us from 2000 years ago, we should also be horrified when people are forced to flee today and also find no room at the inn.